The Very Very Hungry Caterpillar

YES, this is yet another Melbourne food blog!

Review: Pho Dakao Hoang (Melbourne, VIC)

Shop 6/17 Balmoral Avenue
Springvale VIC 3171
+61 3 9558 5996

It’s been a while since I’ve had a good bowl of pho – or even an average one for that matter (August, WTF). Thus, it kind of pains me to write this review of Pho Dakao Hoang, a Vietnamese restaurant in Springvale.

I’m not one to go to Springvale for my Vietnamese fix (why, when Richmond and Footscray offers equally fantastic offerings and are easier to get to) but my sister Janice insisted that we take our visiting cousin Jess and our Singaporean friend Paix to Springvale for lunch on weekend. Given that it’s been a while since I’ve been to Springvale (three years as a matter of fact), I agreed – as long as Janice drove, hah!

We had the option of three different places on Balmoral Avenue but in the fact, Pho Dakao Hoang won out because it looked less crazy inside (but nevertheless, still busy enough). Now Janice warned us that Pho Dakao Hoang doesn’t actually specialise in pho – broken rice dishes are the way to go apparently – but I thought to myself: ‘Surely the pho can’t be that bad here?’

(yes, that was a bit of foreshadowing btw)

Vietnamese iced white coffee ($3)

Vietnamese iced white coffee ($3)

The café sua da was perhaps a bit sweeter than I would have liked, however it was an otherwise solid performer.

Prawn spring rolls ($8)

Prawn spring rolls ($8)

The prawn spring rolls were well-priced given the rather generous serving size. Each beautifully crispy spring roll also held a non-stingy amount of prawn too, another plus in my books.

Pho with fresh sliced beef and brisket ($9.50)

Pho with fresh sliced beef and brisket ($9.50)

We all ordered beef pho with varying topping permutations (sliced beef and brisket, sliced beef and beef balls, sliced beef on its own). There is the option for super hungry diners to go extra large ($13 a bowl), though I reckon the standard-sized bowl is already big enough. I mean, I struggled to finish mine.

To be honest, the main reason why I struggled with mine was not so much because of how massive the bowl was but because the pho wasn’t that good. The broth had a visible bright yellow tinge (which you can kind of see in my photo) that screamed out ‘HEAPS OF MSG! OMG!’ and the beef was not the best quality (sliced beef shouldn’t be THIS tough). In a way, it was kinda funny that this restaurant had the word ‘pho’ in its name when it wasn’t even their best dish. My sister was right so it was our own fault for not listening to her but to be fair, there aren’t many occasions where I’d choose rice over noodles.

If you’re into broken rice dishes, fast service, generously-sized portions and bad pho, then head to Pho Dakao Hoang. If you’re really particular about your pho or can’t stand lots of MSG, then you’re better off ducking into any one of the hundreds of other Vietnamese restaurants in Springvale.

Pho Dakao Hoang on Urbanspoon

Review: Pabu Grill & Sake (Melbourne, VIC)

190 Smith Street
Collingwood VIC 3066
+61 3 9419 6141
http://pabu.com.au/

It’s only been a week and a half since I said ‘sayonara, bitches!’ to Japan but I’m already starting to miss Japan’s many izakayas. There’s just something about walking into a random one off the street, trying your best to communicate to the non-English-speaking waiter before sitting back with a glass of cold beer and several plates of snack-sized food for a quick dinner.

To the Japanese, izakayas are what Surf Life Saving Clubs are to Queenslanders and what laneway bars and cafés are to Melbourne. And while one may never be able to replicate the izakaya culture in Australia, at least we have places like Pabu Grill & Saké in Melbourne to tide us over until our next trip to the land of the rising sun (which, in my case, could possibly be next year *excitement*).

The izakaya may not be authentically Japanese (indeed, the man in charge has a Vietnamese surname) but nonetheless, it does not distract from the fact that it’s one of Melbourne’s best. In addition to the usual skewers, okonomiyaki and takoyaki-type dishes, they offer unusual fusion Japanese dishes which I personally think are worth trying. They also have a wicked saké list, though their beer list isn’t the best for an izakaya.

I first went here on one of my birthday dinners with Linda. It was the first time I’d caught up with Linda since she married the guy who picked her up on a QF flight from Melbourne to Sydney so we had plenty of stories to tell. We also worked up quite an appetite so we went about ordering a decent portion of the extensive menu.

Gyu tataki ($14.50)

Gyu tataki ($14.50)

The first dish to arrive was the beef tataki. The thinly sliced porterhouse pieces were lightly seared and served with roasted sesame, spring onion, red ginger, wasabi mayo and garlic singer citrus soy. It was jam-packed with beautiful flavours and the tangy dressing paired beautifully with the earthiness of the beef.

Yaki buta ($10)

Yaki buta ($10)

Next, we had the pan-fried pork belly slices cooked in a light sweet soy sauce. Accompanying the amazingly buttery pork slices was a mixed salad with a herb soy dressing and fried leeks. Another successful dish.

Small mixed sashimi (10 pieces, $22)

Small mixed sashimi (10 pieces, $22)

In way, it was kinda funny that we started off heavy before venturing light; our next dish was the mixed sashimi platter with the predictable trio of kingfish, salmon and tuna. It was a solid dish but then again, you can’t go wrong with super fresh slices of fish.

Kani sliders ($13 for two)

Kani sliders ($13 for two)

I’m not a fan of soft shell crab but Linda was keen to try the soft shell crab sliders so we ordered a plate. To my surprise, they were actually delicious – I loved the effortlessly perfect combination of buttery toasted brioche bun, crispy deep fried crab and creamy, spicy mayo. Would actually consider a second date.

Pabu sumiyaki set ($16.50)

Pabu sumiyaki set ($16.50)

Of course, one does not go to an izakaya without ordering some chargrilled skewers. We wanted to try a bit of everything so we ordered the sumiyaki set which came with the following: tsukune (chicken meatball), yakitori (chicken thighs), chilli inari (bean curd), beef and pork belly. I couldn’t fault anything on the plate – even the seemingly boring-sounding bean curd one had heaps of flavour.

Crazy bird cocktail ($12)

Crazy bird cocktail ($12)

Even though Pabu has an impressive three-page long sake list, I couldn’t say no to a cocktail – especially since most were $12, cheap for Melbourne. Given that I am one at times, I chose the cocktail called the ‘crazy bird.’ It was a refreshing mix of rich shochu, vodka, fresh lime juice and sugar syrup, finished with ginger beer. It was the perfect summer cocktail – had it been summer at the time. (it wasn’t and still isn’t)

Sake aburi sashimi (8 pieces, $15)

Sake aburi sashimi (8 pieces, $15)

My favourite dish was the seared salmon. The flesh-coloured slices of just cooked salmon were drizzled with hot sesame oil before being topped with ponzu soy, ginger, spring onions and roasted sesame. The combination of nuttiness, tanginess and saltiness was just beautiful.

Corn karargge ($6.50)

Corn karargge ($6.50)

Our last savoury dish was the corn karargge. Now, I’m not sure if they really meant ‘karaage’ or whether ‘karargge’ is a legit word – I’m just going by how they spelt it on the menu – however, these were cooked the same way as chicken karaage pieces so I’m guessing the former. The crispy deep fried crème corn balls were dangerously addictive and even more so with the chilli and wasabi salt.

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This teapot was pretty cool.

Dessert moriawase ($18)

Dessert moriawase ($18)

We finished off with a dessert sampler featuring green tea crème brûlée, black sesame ice cream, citrus sorbet, melon mocha and mixed fruits. Everything was done well here, though my favourite was the green tea crème brûlée because like I can say no to anything green tea-flavoured.

Since then, I’ve been to Pabu several times with various friends and on every occasion, each friend has given the place their thumbs up. It’s a fun and vibrant environment and the food isn’t too expensive for what you get. Plus, service has been efficient on all occasions – the food arrived quickly despite being busy every time we’ve been (and hence, bookings are highly recommended).

I’m sure you can’t go wrong with ordering classics such as okonomiyaki, takoyaki et al here but I highly recommend you try more of the ‘out there’ dishes as they’re done well here. Even if soft shell crab sliders aren’t something you’d normally find on the streets of Dotonburi.

Pabu Grill & Sake on Urbanspoon

Review: Happy Kappa (Melbourne, VIC)

85 Swan Street
Richmond VIC 3121
+61 3 9428 8672

I spent quite some time interning at a national sporting organisation not too long ago. And for the most part, I was happy. Not just because of the fantastic people I got to meet and not just because of the invaluable skills I learnt and networks I developed but because the organisation was only a 5 minute tram ride from Swan Street, a pandora’s box of culinary gems waiting to be discovered.

Five years ago, Swan Street was not considered the culinary heartland of Richmond (why, when you have places like Victoria Street and Bridge Roads with all their vibrant food offerings?). However, things have changed for the better and Swan Street is full of places worth checking out if you ‘forget’ to bring your lunch.

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A place that I visited quite a bit (and have returned to even after I finished my internship) is Happy Kappa. This grungy Japanese café is only open on weekdays but its kooky interior, friendly service and cheap lunches make it the ideal spot for office workers to grab a bite to eat.

Chicken katsu don ($8.80)

Chicken katsu don ($8.80)

In addition to the Japanese curries, my go-to dish at Happy Kappa is the chicken katsu don. At only $8.80 for a generously-sized portion, the dish represents excellent value and is delicious. The crumbed chicken piece is deep fried before being chucked in a bowl with rice, egg, and cooked onions. Highly recommended.

Miso ramen ($8.80)

Miso ramen ($8.80)

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the ramen. In hindsight, ordering ramen was a silly thing to do at Happy Kappa given that it’s obviously not something they specialised in. However, I’m a sucker for ramen so I knew I had to try the miso ramen out, one of two ramen choices they had on offer (the other being miso ramen WITH fried chicken).

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So the chicken broth tasted like it was heavily laced with MSG, yet it was one-dimensional and bland at the same time. There was no egg or meat in it, only corn kernels, a shitload of carrots (what), spring onion, seaweed and sesame for flavouring. Yeah no, sorry.

If you skip the ramen, you can’t go wrong with lunch at Happy Kappa. Obvs, go for their rice dishes as I can vouch for them (sorry, didn’t take a photo of the curries I had but if you like Don Don’s curries, you’ll like these). If you do go and if you try their udon dishes, please let me know what you think.

Happy Kappa on Urbanspoon

Review: Operator25 (Melbourne, VIC)

25 Wills Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9670 3278
http://www.operator25.com.au/

Melbourne city café Operator25 had been on my breakfast and coffee radar for quite some time. And given that I (used to) work around the corner from the café, it seems kind of strange it took me so long to visit – and by that, I meant two months after I resigned from The Company after six long years.

The café’s name is a nod to its roots ; formerly a building where telephone operators would work the switchboard all day, the beautiful heritage building now serves some of Melbourne CBD’s nicest cups of coffees and an interesting breakfast and lunch menu. Great news for legal eagles, AFP officers and Flagstaff Garden loiterers who are always complaining about the lack of good cafés on this side of the city.

My dining companion this afternoon was Paix. I met my friend Paix through my cousin, Jason. He moved from Indonesia to Singapore where he met Paix. As timing would have had it though, she ended up moving to Melbourne to study so I was asked to look after her just in case she needed anything as she was settling in. Strangely enough, we became good friends and we catch up for coffees and dinners whenever we can (which isn’t too far as she lives in Berwick).

Lattes ($3.80)

Lattes ($3.80)

We both ordered lattes; hers was a soy latte and mine was meant to be a full cream milk latte though I suspected they used skinny milk for mine because like I could tell the difference, right? Regardless, Operator25’s milk-based coffees are made using freshly roasted beans from Brunswick’s Code Black Coffee. The seasonal blend changes regularly but today, our coffee was lovely and buttery with a slight fruity finish.

Balinese marinated pulled pork, coleslaw, chilli mayonnaise, coriander and fried shallots on brioche roll with sweet potato wedges ($19)

Balinese marinated pulled pork, coleslaw, chilli mayonnaise, coriander and fried shallots on brioche roll with sweet potato wedges ($19)

I was curious about the Balinese marinated pulled pork bun so I ordered it despite not being hot on the sweet potato wedges (not a sweet potato fan, you see). I’m not exactly sure what made the pork Balinese per se except for perhaps the hints of kecap manis in it; nonetheless, it was a nice and filling dish with plenty of flavours and textures that took me right from lunch to late in the evening – hell, even the sweet potato wedges were nice and crunchy.

Honey baked oats, dried cranberries, sultanas, coconut flakes, pumpkin seeds, almonds, poached fruit and natural yoghurt ($9)

Honey baked oats, dried cranberries, sultanas, coconut flakes, pumpkin seeds, almonds, poached fruit and natural yoghurt ($9)

Paix wasn’t too hungry so she chose what sounded like the lightest meal on the menu. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for her, her dish was larger than she expected and she struggled to finish it all. Everything was mixed up on the bottom before being topped with yoghurt and kiwifruit (presumably the ‘poached fruits’ change according to the season). It was a dish that I would have happily ordered for breakfast if I had been bothered enough to get up extra early for work when I was still an employee of The Company.

Operator25 brings an interesting menu and great coffee to the normally good-food-deprived legal end of Melbourne’s CBD. Our meal was fantastic and my only regret was not visiting this place sooner.

Operator25 on Urbanspoon

Review: Barefoot Barista (Gold Coast, QLD)

10 Palm Beach Avenue
Palm Beach QLD 4221
+61 7 5598 2774
http://www.barefootbarista.com.au/

Sorry for the three weeks of radio silence on this blog – I’ve been gallivanting around Japan and Singapore and only just got back yesterday (#sorrynotsorry). But now that I’m now semi-settled at home (and not to mention, my funds have dried up), it’s back to regular blogging for me.

So let’s start this post with what is probably the world’s worst kept secret: I moved to the Gold Coast. Yup, I’ve traded my Melbourne blacks, excellent coffees, small bars and world class restaurants for vibrant colours, tans, constant sunshine and terrible Tinder talent[sic]. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t terribly keen about starting a new life in Queensland – I don’t like the beach that much (give me big cities and forests any day) and I prefer AFL over rugby league.

Surprisingly though, I’ve come to enjoy the Gold Coast for what it is. I’ve made some wonderful new friends, my home cooking skills have improved significantly and my skin is not ghastly pale anymore. I’ve even started going for the Maroons in State of Origin.

Over the next few months, you’ll see more and more Gold Coast and Brisbane-centric posts. Of course, that’s not to say that I won’t be blogging about Melbourne – after all, I’m there pretty much there every 2-4 weeks and I’ll continue doing the semi-regular weekend dashes to Sydney. With that in mind, here’s a review of Barefoot Barista, a café I hold close to my heart because it was where I went for a quick lunch just before the interview that would ultimately land my current (day) job.

According to those living in the southern states, Queensland isn’t known for its coffee culture. In a state where Merlo and Starbucks reign supreme, it’s often difficult to find a reliably good café. However, they do exist – you just need to do your research.

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Barefoot Barista happens to be one of those places. Its location in the heart of Palm Beach isn’t the best (I used to hold my breath every time my bus drove through it) but if you’re travelling down south in the morning and happen to be going down the highway as opposed to the motorway, then it’s worth a detour.

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The café offers seating inside but I like to sit in the back courtyard to savour the fresh sea breeze wafting in from the east.

Sunday roast salad: chicken breast, sweet roast pumpkin, peas, radicchio, cos and rocket with herb crumbs and mustard dressing ($16)

Sunday roast salad: chicken breast, sweet roast pumpkin, peas, radicchio, cos and rocket with herb crumbs and mustard dressing ($16)

Barefoot Barista do substantial yet healthy breakfasts and lunches, with a focus on quirky salads and burgers. I opted for the Sunday roast salad which was essentially a deconstructed Sunday roast with all the trimmings served cold.

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The chicken was juicy, the roasted pumpkin was beautifully caramelised and the herb crumbs added a lovely crunch. All in all, it was the perfect light lunch that gave me the right amount of energy to get me through an interview but without the heavy and embarrassing bloating spells you (well, I, anyway) get from eating too many carbs at lunchtime.

I also enjoyed a Story Coffee latte ($3.50) on the side; my latte was made with freshly roasted Madman Blend coffee which was chocolaty with the slightest hint of toffee. I’m not sure why they decided to ditch Campos as their original supplier of beans but whatever, they don’t seem to be getting many complaints about the new in-house blends.

Palm Beach isn’t known as the culinary epicentre of the Gold Coast but if you’re passing by on the highway, then Barefoot Barista is highly recommended for a delicious feed and excellent coffee.

Barefoot Barista on Urbanspoon

Review: Makoto (Sydney, NSW)

119 Liverpool Street
Sydney NSW 2000
+61 2 9283 6767
http://citymakoto.com.au/

On the last day of my Sydney Writers’ Festival weekend, I wanted to keep things simple. My plan was to bump up my protein intake and reduce my carb intake so I wanted something light and balanced. Plus, I wasn’t feeling all that hungry even though I did a fairly solid pilates session in Darlinghurst that morning.

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I ended up at Makoto, a sushi train restaurant in the city. I wasn’t planning to have sushi train, tbh, but I happened to come across this place when I was wandering around aimlessly along Liverpool Street. Having heard a few Melbourne friends talk about how good Makoto was, I figured that having lunch here couldn’t hurt.

Here, plates range from $3 to $6.60, pretty standard for a sushi train restaurant. They also have the odd specials in the mix too, which are slightly more expensive. It was 11:30AM when I arrived; the place was packed but because I was rocking up as a solo diner, I was able to squeeze in.

Chawanmushi ($3.60)

Chawanmushi ($3.60)

I love a good savoury egg custard and this one delivered superbly. The custard itself was as delicate as fine silk, while the dashi broth was full of umami goodness.

Seared salmon topped with spring onion, onion and tobiko ($6.60)

Seared salmon topped with spring onion, onion and tobiko ($6.60)

Here, fresh salmon slices were beautifully seared, leaving the inner flesh verging on still raw. The garnishes were also well-balanced and brought out the flavour of the fish.

Lobster sushi ($5.60)

Lobster sushi ($5.60)

The lobster sushi was another standout performance. Here, lobster meat was mixed with a cream-based sauce and topped with tobiko. Probably the heavier dish of the afternoon but dammit, I needed something (slightly) rich and creamy, okay.

Raw prawn nigiri ($4.60)

Raw prawn nigiri ($4.60)

Prior to this meal, I had never tasted raw prawn. And while I appreciated the prawn’s texture and freshness, I think I much prefer these suckers cooked – much tastier.

Salmon sashimi ($6.60)

Salmon sashimi ($6.60)

You really can’t go wrong with super fresh salmon sashimi. God, I love the Sydney Fish Market so much.

Scampi sashimi ($9.80)

Scampi sashimi ($9.80)

The scampi sashimi was one of the specials offered that day. It was beautifully presented as far as crustaceans go. Like the prawn, however, it was something that I would have preferred to eat cooked – the flavours didn’t shine through as much.

The damage came to $36.80, far from a cheap lunch for just one. On paper, it looked like I ordered quite a lot of dishes but while I was satisfied, I wasn’t disgustingly full (a good thing, I guess). As far as sushi trains go, this is one of the good ones – everything was fresh and the service was attentive and polite. I’d be happy to return with a dining companion so I can try more things (and not pay as much per person).

Makoto on Urbanspoon

Review: Paramount Coffee Project (Sydney, NSW)

80 Commonwealth Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
+61 2 9211 1122

Paramount Coffee Project (PCP) has been on my Sydney list for quite some time. Although I’m not a fan of paying $18 for boring brunches (smashed avocados bore me and I don’t believe in paying for bircher muesli), I do like brunch places that push boundaries and come up with all sorts of outrageous dishes.

PCP is one of those places so I made sure that we got a chance to visit during my Sydney weekend trip with fellow Melburnians, Nee and Sam. Sam is also a coffee connoisseur so he, too, was keen to see if PCP’s rotating list of guest coffee roasters were able to pull in the goods. Given that PCP happens to be an alliance between Mark Dundon of Seven Seeds (Melbourne represent!) and Russell Beard of Reuben Hills, we knew we were in capable hands.

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Housed in Surry Hill’s Paramount House, PCP was surprisingly quiet for a 10AM Sunday morning session. I wasn’t sure whether it was because Sydneysiders don’t go crazy over brunch like Melburnians or whether 10 is considered too late for breakfast (I know it is on the Gold Coast where 7AM breakfast dates are the norm). Either way, we were happy to score a table facing the window.

As mentioned, PCP has an ever-changing list of guest coffee roasters so rarely would you expect to see the same beans over and over. That morning, the Shakiso blend by Reuben Hills made an appearance. Unfortunately, the brew’s berry and black tea notes meant that it didn’t mix well with milk so my latte wasn’t the best – my fault though, not theirs.

Elvis in Cuba ($19)

Elvis in Cuba ($19)

Sam was interested to see what PCP’s infamous ‘diabetes’ dish was like. But when the waiter told him exactly what was in it (‘jam cronut with peanut butter ice cream and dulce de leche, all drenched in espresso’), Sam was like, ‘yeah, nah.’ After all, I think he’d rather not shave 10 years off his life.

Instead, he chose the curiously named Elvis in Cuba, an equally heart attack-inducing combination of pork, kimchi, bacon, Kewpie mayo, Swiss cheese and onion rings that was half-Kong BBQ and half-Dan Hong. I’m not exactly sure how the ‘Cuba’ bit came into play but it was certainly an indulgent breakfast.

Smoked trout buckwheat porridge ($15)

Smoked trout buckwheat porridge ($15)

Nee went for a more refined but nevertheless still filling breakfast. The buckwheat was accompanied with a generous handful of smoked trout, kombu and quail egg, all tied neatly together with a lovely court-bouillon and micro herbs for prettiness. It was nourishing and delicious, something I’d happily eat at home during the cooler months – that is, if I knew how to make it.

Coca cola ox cheek waffle ($19)

Coca cola ox cheek waffle ($19)

I don’t drink cola but I do love waffles and ox cheek/tongue/most likely butt so I ordered the waffles topped with ox cheek braised in coca cola. It also came with a lovely horseradish mayo along with corn and tomato salsa and coriander to balance things out.

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I’m not one to normally eat such decadent things for breakfast but this was amazing. The soft drink tenderised the cheeks to the point where they easily fell apart with the slightest prod. I also loved the kick that that the horseradish mayo gave, preventing the dish from being too one-dimensionally sweet.

Caramel popcorn milkshake ($8)

Caramel popcorn milkshake ($8)

I’m a sucker for punishment so there was no way I could leave without trying the caramel popcorn milkshake for dessert – because, you know, short term pleasure for long term pain, right? Regardless, the milkshake was delicious – so thick, so creamy and full of lovely butteriness and nuttiness (yeah okay, I went there). It was beautiful but I was also glad that I had two others to help me finish it off.

PCP is now up there on my list of favourite Sydney cafés. Sure, there are still heaps more for me to try but in terms of great service, excellent coffees (notwithstanding that I was a chump for asking for a latte when I should have just gone short black) and delicious envelope-pushing food, they have it covered.

The Paramount Coffee Project on Urbanspoon

Review: Ichi-ban Boshi (Sydney, NSW)

Level 2, The Galeries
500 George Street
Sydney NSW 2000
+61 6 9262 7677
http://www.ichibanboshi.com.au/

After attempting to be cultured wankers by spending the day at the museum, Sam and I worked up an appetite. Being Melburnians, we are deprived of good ramen (though the Melbourne scene has since started to get a little better) so we decided to tuck into some ramen for a late lunch.

We ended up at Ichi-ban Boshi because it was conveniently on the way back to our hotel. At 2:30PM, it was still pretty busy – so much so that we had to collect a numbered ticket from the lady at the front and wait about 15-20 minutes to be seated. We didn’t mind though – Kinokuniya was just around the corner from the restaurant. (yay books)

Ichi-ban Boshi’s menu is enormous, bigger than the list of places I’m planning to visit while I’m in Japan. In addition to the usual tonkotsu, miso and shio ramen varieties, they also had random toppings such as karaage, wonton and even kim chi. And if you don’t feel like ramen, there’s plenty of udon and rice action to keep you satisfied.

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Sam and I were boring so we ordered ramen.

Tantanmen ($13)

Tantanmen ($13)

Sam decided to go for spicy ramen topped with minced pork, boil egg and choy sum. While it was definitely not authentic, it was certainly very tasty. Sam hungrily wolfed the whole thing down but to be honest, I would have probably struggled with it – it was a bit too rich and full-on for me.

Tokyo ramen ($9.90)

Tokyo ramen ($9.90)

When I’m at a ramen restaurant, I normally go for a tonkotsu broth. However, I knew we were going to have a big dinner so I picked the much lighter soy-based Tokyo ramen. The broth might have been more delicate but that it didn’t mean it didn’t fill me up (it did – too well). It wasn’t the best ramen I’ve ever had – it was salty and full of MSG. It also lacked depth.

Out of all the Sydney ramen restaurants I’ve been to, I’d have to say that Ichi-ban Boshi has been the most disappointing. I’d say it’s better than Ajisen Ramen and your non-descript food court ramen stalls but you’re definitely better off going to Ippudo, Hakata-Maru or even Gumshara. Personally, I think that if Ichi-ban reduced their offerings by at least a half and focused on a few dishes as opposed to trying to be good at everything, their ramen might actually be one that I would happily return to the next time I’m in Sydney.

Ichi-ban Boshi on Urbanspoon

Review: Sagra (Sydney, NSW)

62 Stanley Street
Darlinghurst NSW 2010
+61 2 8307 0430
http://www.sagrasydney.com.au/

It’s so hard to find a good honest Italian restaurant these days – we’re not talking flamboyant $50-per-dish Guy Grossi masterpieces or anglicised Lygon Street ‘Forza Italia, bro’-type dishes. We’re talking about simple and understated dishes made with only the freshest ingredients and a sprinkling of love.

Thankfully, Sagra delivers on all those promises and a lot more in a cosy timber-lined dwelling that looks more like someone’s home in the inner ‘burbs than one of Sydney’s hottest restaurants. Having been completely out of the loop when it came to the Sydney dining scene, I had actually never heard of this place until Raphael (my go-to guide for anything to do with Sydney and food) mentioned it to me. I love a good Italian (lol) so with that in mind, I suggested pretty much forced my fellow Melbourne dining companions Sam and Nee, who were in Sydney with me for the weekend, to come dine with me.

The booking was made for 8:30PM (or was it 9:00PM? I can’t remember – either way, it was definitely a late dinner). We rocked up half an hour early and assumed that there was a bar area but unfortunately, there was one. With clear directions to disappear to a nearby bar (we didn’t, we just ended up walking around aimlessly), we then arrived back in time for our scheduled booking. Our table wasn’t ready so we stood awkwardly outside the restaurant in the cold with one of the waiters greasy-ing us from inside.

Bread and olives

Bread and olives

Finally, our table was ready. We started off with bread and olives – I can’t remember if they were on the house or if we paid for them. I think we might have paid for them though because the menu says that bread is $4.

Salumi misti: San Daniele prosciutto, coppa and farinata ($21)

Salumi misti: San Daniele prosciutto, coppa and farinata ($21)

Splitting a bottle of Friuli Isonzo Pinot Grigio between us, we got to work with the salumi platter. We shared some San Daniele prosciutto and coppa, the dry-cured muscle that runs from the pig’s neck to the shoulder. And what’s a farinata, you ask? It’s a crispy thin, unleavened pancake made with chickpea flour. It made for a nice change from your usual lavosh and breadsticks.

Carb fest: tortellini in brodo ($19); gnocchi with cavolo nero and gorgonzola ($16); pappardelle with pork sausage ragu ($18); rosemary potatoes ($7)

Carb fest: tortellini in brodo ($19); gnocchi with cavolo nero and gorgonzola ($16); pappardelle with pork sausage ragu ($18); rosemary potatoes ($7)

All the homemade pasta! I had the tortellini in brodo; the broth was lovely and delicate while each little parcel held a tasty chicken filling. It was the perfect dish to sooth my tired soul. Meanwhile, Sam’s pappardelle was tasty and rich, but he did say that he would have been happier with a bigger portion. Nee’s gnocchi was another fantastic dish – each little pillow was soft and buttery, soaking up the rich and creamy gorgonzola like a sponge.

Oh yeah, we also had potatoes.

Tiramisu; hazelnut tart

Tiramisu; hazelnut tart

But of course, we couldn’t leave without dessert. Like the rest of Sagra’s menu, the dessert menu changes all the time so you never know what you were going to get. We ended up with two safe options: the tiramisu and the hazelnut tart. I liked that the tiramisu was light and well-balanced. Meanwhile, the hazelnut tart was nice enough but it did skew towards the ‘more sugar, not enough nuts’ side for me.

The service at Sagra might not be warm and caring Sicilian grandmother-like but everything seemed to run like clockwork on a busy Friday night. The food was beautiful and unpretentious – the sort of Italian that I wished we saw more of in Australia. The best bit is that it doesn’t hit the wallet or stomach hard. Sure, it was a carb-heavy meal but the portions were well-controlled so we left without feeling like we needed to doze off – which was just as well because we needed to stay awake for a crazy night out at ivy (groan).

Sagra Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Review: Nomad (Sydney, NSW)

16 Foster Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
+61 2 9280 3395
http://restaurantnomad.com.au/

I always look forward to weekends in Sydney. They’re always filled with great company, lots of laughs and wonderful food – and in most cases, food that you can’t find in Melbourne. Melbourne might do coffee, mid-priced dining and understated steez better (sorry, it’s true) but when it comes to fine dining as well as the weird, the wonderful and the totally out there, Sydney is your go-to city.

Nomad in Surry Hills is one of those places; it has also been on my radar for quite some time. First, you have owners Rebecca Littlemore and Al Yazbek setting up a cellar door right in the middle of Sydney with a collection of good quality and underrepresented Australian wines. You then have Head Chef Nathan Stasi (ex-Rockpool and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal) who pickles, cures, smokes, ferments and dries everything he can get his hands on to whip up a Middle Eastern-influenced by Littlemore’s travels and Yazbek’s Lebanese heritage. Throw in a chic warehouse in a little Surry Hills street and BANG! Nomad is born.

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Julie and I had dinner at Nomad one Friday evening. It’s a beautiful place – thick warehouse chic, sexy mood lighting and timber furniture all over. It’s spacious, yet somewhat intimate at the same time.

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It may have only been 6:30PM when we rocked up but the place was pumping like a 90s rave party; it was packed and noisy. With strict instructions to leave by 8:30PM, we were immediately seated at the bar where we got full view of the open kitchen. (and by that, I really meant the cute guys working in the kitchen)

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I honestly can’t remember what wine I had but let’s face it, it was most likely a Riesling.

Woodfired sourdough with black salt butter ($2.50 per person)

Woodfired sourdough with black salt butter ($2.50 per person)

Having been to Nomad before, Julie knew what to order. Being from Melbourne, I’m not used to going to restaurants and not getting bread free of charge. So when I saw that there was a price tag attached to the sourdough with black salt butter, I immediately thought: ‘Yeah, nah, waste of carbs.’

Julie, however, insisted that the bread was worth ordering. Plus, what’s $2.50 per person? I’m glad I listened to her for the house made bread was lovely with just the slightly hint of smokiness. And who doesn’t like house-churned butter?

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Nomad is big on curing and smoking so it would have been silly not to try their charcuterie board.

Housemade Nomad charcuterie ($26)

Housemade Nomad charcuterie ($26)

The contents change regularly and I’ve been told that horse meat was presented on the board served a few times. Sadly, horse wasn’t on the menu that night (we asked) but we did get mortadella, chorizo, kangaroo salami and several pork bits (neck, belly and shoulder).

BBQ king prawns with pine nuts, brown butter and parmesan ($18)

BBQ king prawns with pine nuts, brown butter and parmesan ($18)

To me, $18 for two bloody prawns seemed as tight as a guy who insists on going halves on an inexpensive first date. (sorry, I’m old fashioned)

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However, they tasted phenomenal – I loved how the prawn’s sweet flesh went well with the nuttiness of the dressing and the sexy smokiness that permutated all the way through.

Wood roasted pork with charred cabbage, served with sweet potato and cheddar gratin ($38)

Wood roasted pork with charred cabbage, served with sweet potato and cheddar gratin ($38)

The wood roasted pork was another standout dish. The pork crackling was beautifully crunchy against the soft fatty meat. And although I’m not a HUGE fan of sweet potato, the gratin was the perfect accompaniment to the pork – strangely enough, the sweetness effortlessly broke through all the richness.

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We really couldn’t finish the gratin.

Pedro Ximenez Magnum with salted peanuts ($7 each)

Pedro Ximenez Magnum with salted peanuts ($7 each)

However, we could still squeeze in a bit of dessert. It was approaching 8PM so we were well within time to finish our meal before they shooed us away. We were eyeing the bunuelos (South American donuts) that were making the rounds throughout the dining room so naturally we asked the waiter for some.

Unfortunately, they ran out (WTF? At 8PM?) so we ended up ordering a Pedro Ximenez Magnum each instead. They were no donuts but they nonetheless made us satisfied. (chocolate, a hint of liqueur and super salty peanuts to top it off – what more could you want?)

We thoroughly enjoyed our meal at Nomad; the food was exciting and delicious without being too complicated and left us wanting to return for seconds (or in Julie’s case, thirds). I also liked that in a city where people like to show off, there was none of that here; everything was refined yet unpretentious. Although we had a time limit, we did not feel rushed for the service was very professional, yet relaxed. It was the perfect meal to what had been a busy week in Melbourne for me.

Next time, there better be horse and donuts though.

Nomad on Urbanspoon