Saigon Sally

Venturing south side for a visit to the Astor brought Jojo and I to the doors of Saigon Sally for a pre-film dinner. You may remember me visiting Sally’s sister restaurant Hanôi Hannah way back around when it first opened and while liking it, I did at the time have some issues with the sameness of the vegetarian options and the fact that it was so popular that it was hard to get a seat in the tiny space. Indeed, so pumping is Hannah that I have a feeling that there weren’t any subsequent visits made by me!

Little sister Sally, however, seems to have taken a look at Hannah and run in almost the complete opposite direction (as younger siblings are often wont to do in the face of elder ones).  For one, you can make bookings at Sally, which means you can avoid queues. Thousands of points from me already. Secondly, there are a number of vegetarian dishes that are all interestingly varied, and actually have a sense of theatre to them, which is rare for a place that isn’t coded as ‘high-dining’. It situates its menu as drawing on Vietnam, but frequently looks across into other Asian cuisines for inspiration, meaning that there’s quite a few intriguing things going on in these dishes.

Sally is much bigger than the slightly-better-than-a-bolthole Hannah. The walls are covered with painted art and vintage Vietnamese posters acting as wallpaper, and the middle of the room is dominated by a square bar which I imagine would be a highly entertaining place to while away a Friday night watching cocktails getting made before your eyes.

But no! No digressions into alcoholic dreamscapes, we had a film to get to and needed full bellies. To start, I went with the bahn khot – rice flour bilini tofu, with smoked coconut milk and crispy shallots. On a stone platter with three depressions was presented three rough rice flour cups filled with soft tofu, sharp rounds of sliced chilli, with an oozing undercurrent of thick coconut milk that’d gone all tart like a creamy, savoury yoghurt. A little eyedropper vial was given alongside so that you can squeeze red vinegar over the cups to your own taste. A cute idea, it’s fun to shoot the vinegar everywhere, though I did end up getting weird flashbacks to being given Dimatapp when sick as a kid. Tangents aside, this was a thoroughly tasty and intriguingly put together dish. And fun! Food should always be more fun.

From the ‘sides’ part of the menu, I also ordered the simply monikered ‘tofu + seaweed’, which was comprised of silken tofu, pickled wakame, thai basil, sesame and kewpie. A big block of soft tofu, which had been lightly brushed with some kind of sesame oil based dressing took up the majority of the dish, was silky in the mouth and had soaked up much sesame goodness. Strewn across and around the tofu was much greenery. The pickled wakame had been dipped in a tempura-ish batter and flash-fried, creating great textural contrast. Charred snow peas brought another taste profile in (and was possibly my favourite component, I can’t go past charred fresh vegies!). It was a big serving for a side dish, and very good value for money considering the flavour excitement that was happening with it.

Jojo had the broken bibimbap: poached egg, broken rice, lemongrass, pulled pork, and what looked like lots of shredded vegies. I am mad for bibimbap and am a little sad that Sally doesn’t appear to do a vegie version, especially as Jojo was very pleased with this pork one.

Also, a note for those for whom gluten is a dreaded dining demon, all bar one of Sally’s menu items are actually gluten-free, including ALL the desserts! Sally’s dessert chef is actually coeliac himself, so you are in safe hands! On a separate dessert-only visit I sampled the bahn bo, little steamed coconut puddings with scads of caramelised banana and a ball of coconut sorbet, which somehow managed to be both light and rich, and all-over delicious.

As I’m sure you’ve twigged to, I am quite keen on Saigon Sally. The food is rather fancy from what you may have been expecting from the look of the venue and the very reasonable prices. It’s certainly a case where taking traditional recipes from a variety of south-east and east-Asian cuisines and playing around with them has resulted in thoughtful, well-rounded dishes that pay respectful homage rather than becoming unsuccessful imitations or, worse, crappy Westernisations that just don’t work. Saigon Sally is doing something very clever with its food, and is well worth exploring.

Saigon Sally

2 Duke Street, Windsor

Ph: 9939 5181

www.saigonsally.com.au

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Haruaki

It’s a strange thing, but I often don’t get around to featuring a lot of my very favourite food places on this blog. You know, the kind of places that I’ve been a regular at for years, where I always end up gravitating towards when I can’t be bothered reaching out and chancing somewhere new. Those good, solid and dependable joints I am always recommending to friends, but that here on the blog end up getting side-lined in favour of brand spanking new places that have got me all excited often out of pure novelty.

And that is just a damn shame, because these are the places I should be sharing with you above all others! So this is how we come to Haruaki, a Japanese/Korean restaurant down the Windsor end of Chapel Street. It’s not an eye-catching space, being very simply decked out with plain wood furniture and the occasional piece of Japanese art hanging on the walls. But don’t let the humble appearance fool you: the food here means business.

Korean cuisine is easily my very favourite type of regional food, and this is because I have been routinely spoiled with it by my friend Jen, who runs her family’s Korean restaurant down on Southbank (perhaps if you are super good I will tell you all about it someday. MAYBE. Because I am greedy and may want to keep the best bibimbap in town my own delicious secret). I was adamant that I wanted Jen to give the a-okay to Haruaki before I blogged about it, and was so excited yet full of trepidations when I finally got her there. Would it pass muster?

To start with we shared a dish that I hadn’t tried before, the vegetarian dumplings. They were in the style of gyoza, and came presented on a sizzling plate, which meant that the dumplings crisped up nicely. The filling was ample and varied in terms of that you could identify several different ingredients, the the light soy dipping sauce provided a tasty compliment to the dumpling.

But Haruaki is always about bibimbap for me. If you are unfamiliar with bibimbap, it is basically the perfect meal. Let me set the scene for you: first you get yourself a heavy stone bowl. The stone bowl is heated over a stove-top flame until it is sizzlingly hot. First you make a layer of cooked white rice at the bottom of the hot bowl. Then you can put in a variety of ingredients; for instance the tofu vegetable bibimbap at Haruaki has carrot shreds, shiitake mushrooms, beanshoots, zucchini and crispy blocks of tofu. Top with some flakes of dried seaweed and, most importantly, a raw egg yolk and a generous squeezing of Korean chilli sauce. Then, you mix that shit up real good. What happens is that the heat from the bowl cooks all the ingredients inside it. If you do it right, the egg yolk and chilli sauce flavours the entire dish, and the rice will crisp up into crunchy little joy nuggets. PERFECT MEAL OR THE MOST PERFECT MEAL, I ASK YOU.

Jen chose the samgyetang, a dish that involves a wee whole chicken that’s been stuffed with rice and boiled up in a soup that includes ginseng, spring onions, and other cleansing ingredients. Basically it’s Korea’s version of chicken soup for when you’re feeling poorly, and is designed to be as comforting as possible. Apart from the fact that the chicken had been frozen before cooking, and as a result had bones that dissolved into shards very easily, Jen was very happy with this version of samgyetang. She was also quite pleased with Haruaki overall, which totally dialed my smug face up to level James Franco. Achievement unlocked: Delicious Korean!

Haruaki

145 Chapel Street, Windsor

Ph: 9530 2828

The Woods of Windsor

There are some days when trying to distill an amazing experience down into words is the hardest thing one can try to do. It’s not the same as detailing a negative experience, that is a practice that is all too easy as there are many, many delicious negative words that are far too fun to fling around in a tornado of pique. It is far, far harder, in my estimation, to really nail a positive, amazing experience down into concrete words that ends up satisfying you as a writer. Which is going to make this following post about The Woods of Windsor a very difficult writing task for me indeed.

I had taken note of the space where The Woods of Windsor was to take up residence as it was being constructed, as someone had told me that it was going to be run by the same outfit as Yellow Bird. That caught my interest, and once this glowing recommendation hit Broadsheet, I was in a tizzy. I messaged my work husband Nik (also known as Doctor Ethnic*) with alarming alacrity. “Faux husband and wife date, here, NOW NOW NOW.”

The space is long and dark, a cosy shadowy cavern, with many cute, slightly hipstery touches in terms of design especially focused on rabbit iconography (although if you have phobias involving taxidermy animals, yeah, you might have an episode). There’s seated dining towards the back of the room, but since we strolled in without a reservation (we are shamelessly lax diners), we were seated at the bar area up the front, at a long bench table abutting the windows which open out onto the street.

We started with cocktails, which is of course the correct way to go about things. Nik had a Dark and Stormy, which was a generous serving of rum with ginger ale and mint, cool, direct and refreshing. I like a cocktail that slaps you hard on the back and makes you gasp, and thus went with the Whisky Bang. It achieved that first essential gasp, and gently mellowed out as time wore on and the ice started melting. Very appreciative of the fact that the cocktails are served in tall glasses, it’s nice to have a sinfully alcoholic beverage that lasts throughout the meal.

Anyway, enough of libations, what of food? I had previously read about the zucchini flowers dish, and was so keen I didn’t even really look at the rest of the menu. This anticipation, however, didn’t quite prepare me for what was on the plate. Three neat zucchini flowers placed next each other alternating top to tail, loosely encrusted in a light, delicately thin coating of batter. Each flower was stuffed with a sweet, creamy goats cheese, and underneath each flower head rested an ever so thin slice of beetroot, about the width of a crisp. Sprinkled atop the flowers were some pan-roasted pine nuts, and little green crescents of what I think were pimento olives, as well as a garnish of sprouts. The presentation was so gorgeous to the eye that I hesitated slightly in starting to eat it, as it seemed such a shame to dismantle a piece of art.

But eat I did, and good golly, it was DIVINE. A perfect balance of all those diverse yet complimentary flavours. I must of had a very interesting expression on my face while eating it, because at one point two middle-aged ladies who were walking past caught sight of me and the zucchini flowers, and actually spoke to me through the open window to ask “Is that as good as it looks?” I garbled back “It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten!” with a mouth full of flowers and then kept hoeing in.

Nik ordered the duck dish that was simply described on the menu as “spiced duck breast: quinoa, seeds.” It was quite a lot more than that simple description belies. About four fat medallions of duck breast had been placed on the plate; little brown piles of quinoa were alternated by pools of a bright yellow sauce, probably a hollondaise. “Now, here’s where it gets theatrical,” said the waitress, as she poured a thin jus out of a tiny jug with a flourish over the duck pieces. In the end Nik felt that perhaps the jus wasn’t quite needed, but was otherwise just as enthusiastic over it as I was about the zucchini flowers.

“If I could have got away with licking the plate, I would have,” I told the waiter ruefully when he came to collect our heartily scraped dishes. “Oh, we TOTALLY encourage plate-licking!” he said cheerfully.

We weren’t quite full, so our gazes collectively turned towards a shared dessert. The summer mille feuille was a sweet tower constructed out of discs of crisp, crunchy almond brittle, held together by white chocolate mousse, and layered with raspberries, halved blueberries and cubes of watermelon and cantaloupe, topped with a few violet pansies for an edible, decorative touch. It’s very right to describe this as a summer dessert, it was so light and fresh and felt really cleansing after the amazing, zinging “Oh my there’s tastes everywhere!” excitement of the zucchini flowers.

With middle to high food prices, it’s certainly not the sort of place that you are going to be able to afford eating at every night of the week (though the pricing of the many beverage selections are more than fair). But for a special occasion evening or for those times when you feel the need to indulgently treat yourself to something more gastronomically elegant that your usual fare, The Woods of Windsor has you sorted. And I am going to be trying to find excuses to be indulgent here as often as I can!

The Woods of Windsor

108 Chapel Street, Windsor

Ph: 9512 1900

*He’s not a real doctor, he just plays one on TV.

Yellow Bird

The first time I visited Yellow Bird was over two years ago, in the company of Bennett and Leah. Bennett had been spruiking the place as one of his favourite venues for breakfast, and I was so excited I was practically pinging off the walls. Unfortunately for Bennett, I was about to experience one of the darkest dining-out moments of my life. After ordering food, none appeared for over an hour, which seemed highly odd mainly due to the fact the place was only half full. When I had the temerity to question the waitress as to whether our order was ready yet (in a wincingly polite fashion, as I’m generally terrified of complaining to waitstaff), she huffed and treated me as if I was the most annoying, unreasonable person on the planet. When the food actually appeared, it was depressingly underwhelming – when I try to recall the pancakes I ordered my memory gets suffused with a rubbery, dry sensation.

“Well, that was some high class bullshit!” I said angrily once we’d left.

“It’s ordinarily never like that…” Bennett started, but I’m pretty sure I probably didn’t let him finish and just kept reiterating “Bullshit!” while flinging my limbs around in agitation. “I’m never going there again!” I finally decreed.

Now, when I say definite statements like that, categorically stating that I’ll never, ever do or like something, it’s pretty much a guarantee that somewhere down the line, I’ll be proven empirically wrong and be forced to eat my words. Luckily in the case of Yellow Bird, they turned out to be delicious words.

It all started when, after a Sunday morning staff meeting, it was collectively decided that we all required breakfast, and the venue floated was Yellow Bird (probably by Bennett. The man is admirably consistent). The decor doesn’t seemed to have changed much since my last visit: it’s still a cross between some kind of Mexican-inspired luau and the furniture section of an outer-eastern Salvos. The staff are markedly more cheery, though some still retain a workman-like efficiency that some may find too distancing (and I personally like how you can identify the waitstaff by their giant, brightly coloured quill pens).

For this possibly redemptive breakfast, I ordered eggs florentine. Now, this was not the absolute best I’ve had – and damn have I had a lot of eggs florentine, this blog belies how much I consume it – but it was highly acceptable, with good creamy hollandaise  and dribbly poached eggs that oozed all over everything just like good poached eggs should. The only thing that could stand improving would be the spinach, which came across as a bit bland. Then again my idea for jazzing it up would include a lot more salt and butter, and maybe Yellow Bird just has a greater regard for my continued good health than I do.

I was happy with my meal, happy with the space, happy with the congenial atmosphere. So much so that in the intervening months I’ve found my way back there multiple times. I had to make sure it wasn’t an outrageous aberration! Consequently, I’ve ploughed my way through a fair chunk of the menu, starting with…

The breakfast burrito (omitting the bacon), which with scrambled eggs, guac, tomato salsa, sour cream and house-made spicy beans makes for a good, solid meal. The beans are a definite highlight, with utterly fab tomatoey sauce floating with fat white beans. A filling breakfast suitable for when you may have hit the tiles a bit too hard the previous evening.

More Mexican came in the form of a lunch of vegetable tortillas: two tortillas filled with spicy beans, jalapenos, cheese, spinach, coriander with sour cream. Even with asking for them to take it easy with the jalapenos, this was still hot hot hot! But otherwise super tasty. But seriously, cool it down, jalapenos, bit too much for this lady.

I’ve also done the ‘build your own’ breakfast, with scrambled eggs, hash browns, spinach and mushrooms on sourdough bread. The hash browns are actually proper grated-up-then-fried -potato, not store-bought blocks of stodge! Do you know how happy that makes me? Soooooo happy. I think this was also the visit where my compatriot Joe ordered a special of macaroni and cheese that was the size of his head. Oh, so much cheese, it was beautiful. And delightfully creamy.

Random potato-based quibble: the fries always seem to be underdone here. I’m not quite sure what’s happening there, but it makes me sad. I love crispyness in my fries! This is only real black mark that I could find against Yellow Bird during this rediscovery period, as I take crimes against the potato very seriously.

My most recent visit saw me finally sample the sweet side of the menu, with a breakfast of  porridge with honey, crushed hazelnuts and fresh strawberries. I would have preferred a bit more honey (it didn’t even hit a third of the way up the milk jug it was served in), but otherwise it was a good, hearty way to kick off a Sunday morning.

“Who orders porridge for breakfast when eating out?” asked Bennett contemptuously from over the giant plate of ‘man-food’ in front of him. “It’s wrong. Your face is wrong.”

“Your mum’s face is wrong,” I countered out of habit (fact: 58% of banter between Bennett and I is based in the noble tradition of mum jokes).

Yellow Bird, I had come to discover, is solidly reliable. You can go there and have an enjoyable meal at a price that is decent against the wallet, fills you up nicely and is low on culinary disappointments (underdone fries withstanding). No, you won’t have any heavenly revelations that will cause you to redefine the meaning of food, but in amongst good company you’ll have a highly enjoyable time. And isn’t that the point, really? That Bennett, he was totally on to something. But don’t tell him that, I’ll never hear the end of it.

Yellow Bird

122 Chapel Street, Windsor

Ph: 9533 8983

www.yellowbird.com.au

Tyranny of Distance

Yet another visit to the Astor required a dining venue beforehand. Food and movies go hand in hand for me, both are such social experiences in my circle, it always seems strange to have one without the other. And the need for more places with yummo food on or adjacent to Chapel Street is always sorely needed, so Muffin and I were keen to explore this new (to us) option.

Tyranny of Distance is just off Chapel in Union Street, and is in a big ramshackle, yet stylish, converted warehouse shed. It seems like the perfect summer drinking venue, what with it’s giant slatted windows that open up to let the sun in. It’s a friendly, cool space that I can see myself spending a lot of time at over the next few hot months, particularly if their food and drinks remain as consistently good as they were during this first visit.

Beverage wise, I can’t go past a cocktail, and I ended up ordering the strongest Manhattan IN THE WORLD! Seriously, I don’t consider myself a lightweight at all, yet this put me into tipsy giggle mode quicker than anything. The barman told me it was made to a traditional recipe, which leads me to the conclusion that early Manhattan drinkers were either tremendously gifted at retaining alcohol or stumbling around paralytic and getting bowled over by horse and carts all the time.

Muffin went with the sake mojito, which the fellow serving us said was a recipe of his own devising. I hope he keeps experimenting with recipes because this mojito was seriously the goods, all sweet yet sharp, with a lovely strong tang of lemongrass to it, who knew sake would work so well in such a context!

On to the food. Firstly we had the saganaki with olive tapanade, flatbread, rocket and lemon. What most impressed me about this was the tapanade, purely because I ordinarily don’t like olives that much. A little to kind of get a vague olive taste is alright, but too much tends to overwhelm all the other flavours and makes me all flaily hands. This was actually quite olivey but at the same time didn’t overwhelm the saganaki, it was all a delicious salty, oh my goodness I must stuff more in my face NOW combination.

Muffin had some of the pork gyoza. They looked nice and crisp on the outside, and they disappeared quite quickly, so I’m sure they must have been good.

A serving of the crisp baby potato halves with spicy aioli (which were not listed as chips and therefore did not incur a serving of my new favourite rant) were crisp while being fluffy on the inside. I’ve probably got to stop ordering potato-y things, I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing about them!

We accompanied everything with the green salad with cucumber, spinach, rocket and dressing. Kind of glad we got this to augment all the frying!

For dessert we shared the chai brulee with cranberry biscotti. Holy craps, this was just… UGGGHHHHHAMAZING! That was the sound of a foodgasm, pure and true. This dish ALONE is worth you schlepping out this side of town for.

The more I keep exploring in the south east, the more I discover great, interesting places that really open my eyes and smack my north-preferring prejudices upside the head. Perhaps the northside ain’t all that and a packet of crisps after all.

Tyranny of Distance

147 Union Street, Windsor

Ph: 9525 1005

http://www.tyrannyofdistance.com.au/

Tusk

Disclaimer: this post totally confirms my status as a inner-north loving, hipster snob. South-siders, you’re probably about to be offended. Sorry. At least you have Balaclava.

Despite having worked on Chapel Street for over two years now, I’ve never been able to bring myself to actually like the place. I’ve tried to develop at least a vague fondness for the sake of my friends from that side of town for whom Chapel Street is a constant in their lives (I tell you, trying to convince a devoted Chapel Street-er to come and socialise in the CBD, let alone anywhere north of there, is an impossible task doomed to failure), but so far it’s been a bust. The place is tawdry, ridiculously expensive for no good reason, and is for the most part a wasteland when it comes to food.

So whenever I come across a Chapel Street venue that not only has a nice enough atmosphere that I’m not wailing inside my head “EURGH, CHAPEL STREET, EUUURGH” every five seconds, but actually has some pretty sweet nibbles to go with it, you bet I’m going to trumpet it!

Tusk is one of The Boy’s favourite places to luncheon, and he and a group of his friends are staunch regulars. So much so that they’ve built up a great rapport with their regular waiters, to the point where during my visit with them one was encouraged to recount the latest installment of the musical he’s been writing (see, if I wasn’t such a cafe flibbertigibbit and went to a place enough times to actually be a regular I could experience things like this all the time. But then again the blog would get very monotonous. And I could also be constantly terrified that all waitstaff were always just about to sing).

I was feeling in the mood for something hearty, with a side side order of something with an obscene number of carbs. The cheese and mushroom arancini with napoli sauce were three big balls of warm, gooey rice goodness sitting on a bed of greenery. Nothing mind-blowingly special, no surprising flavours, but warm and cheesy with a smooth, tasty napoli sauce on top flecked with crumbled slices of parmesan. Sometimes I think there’s nothing more comforting than arancini.

The Boy went with the chicken and scallop skewer, and we both had a bowl of wedges each (I wanted shoestring fries but they were sadly out, and I decided I’d rather have wedges NOW than wait for them to get more fries).

Now I was a little suss about the wedges because they cost $9 (NINE!!!) and I was thinking little sarcastic thoughts to myself like “They better be covered in edible gold dust or something. Who charges nine dollars for wedges?” (Well, my workplace for one charges considerably more than nine dollars, for a piss-weak amount of potato, too). I needn’t have been so untrusting, because a bowl with a MOUNTAIN of potato-y joy came out. They were crispy on the outside, fluffy inside, perfect. And so many that I couldn’t finish them all which, well, I can’t remember the last time that happened in the grand affair between me and the noble pomme de terre.

The Boy enjoyed his skewer greatly, though I questioned only getting one skewer for the price, which from what I recall was similar to the price of the wedges. “But it’s got scallops, they’re expensive,” he said. I haven’t eaten seafood in so long I have no idea the value ratio of a scallop, so let’s believe The Boy.

The menu was full of other interesting, more veg-friendly items: vegetarian dumplings (which some of the other girls had and they looked very fresh, and big!), grilled saganaki (which I was so close to ordering, is there anything so wonderfully decadent as a big slab of grilled cheese?), and old standards like dips, vegie burgers and pizza.

What is most enjoyable about Tusk, however, is the space itself. It’s all big windows trimmed in stained glass panels inside, with an expansive seating area outside under trees. But who wants to sit outside! Especially in this wintery weather, brrr. No, stay inside all cosy underneath the retro green lamps, and as it gets dark watch the stained glass glow in the light of the just-lit candles and cradle a cup of tea and think to yourself, “It’s almost as if I’m not on Chapel Street at all.”

Tusk

133 Chapel Street, Windsor

Ph: 9528 1198