Laksa King (revisited)

12 Pin Oak Crescent
Flemington VIC 3031
+61 3 9372 6383

EVERYONE knows that Laksa King is where you go to get the best laksa IN MELBOURNE. There’s no questions asked, just make a trek to the other side of Melbourne, and into a dingy arcade and if you’re lucky enough to be there early, a rickety table and equally rickety chairs will greet you. If you rock up smack bang during the dinner peak, well, take your number and wait in line – but the wait is never long because they do things really quick here. That was the Laksa King that Melbourne knew for several years.

Fast forward to 2010, however, and Laksa King has a brand, new home just around the corner of its old one. Its smooth, sleek wooden furnishings and bar means that it’s automatically a much nicer venue than the old Laksa King.

It is also bigger. That, however, does not mean that there is more room in the restaurant. No, it was still packed to the rafters when we were there a few weeks ago for a weekday dinner. And although they initially accepted bookings, they ended up ditching it for whatever reason and so, once again, you had to rock up and hope for the best… or take your spot in the queue. Luckily, the turnover here remains high so the Dinner Crew (plus sundries, Adam and Garden Hayden) didn’t have to wait long.

My iced lychee drink, which was essentially those canned lychees and accompanying sickeningly sweet syrup diluted with water.

The six of us shared an entree of roti chicken rolls, conveniently divided up into six equal pieces ($11.90). They looked like a cross between a chicken wrap that you get from sandwich outlets and a souvlaki so I initially eyed them with suspicion. To my surprise, they were really tasty and full of fresh flavours, with a nice layer of slightly spicy peanut sauce covering the filling. Yummy.

Focus fail! Seating plan! (we were right next to the window … and in the path of the sun setting which meant sun effking glare) This is Shirley’s chicken roti channai ($10.50). For some reason, I was expecting a big dish so imagine how perplexed I was when I saw that she got served something that was smaller than the entree above. Despite the roti channai being diminutive in size, however, it was not so in taste and the ability to fill you up. Who knew that something so small could be so filling? And yes, I managed to have a bit and I can see why she and members of her boyfriend’s family love this dish – it’s rich, it’s got just the right amount of spice to keep both spice-and-chilli lovers and spice-and-chilli scaredy cats happy.

Dave’s seafood laksa ($12.20), the dish that I normally order when I’m at Laksa King. It still looked as good as I remembered it.

I decided to be different and went for the combination laksa ($9.20), which had fishcakes, tofu, shrimp and chicken. Okay, so not much different from a seafood laksa but whatever – IT’S ALL IN THE CHICKEN, OKAY?! Although I enjoyed my laksa, I did feel that something was missing. The broth was lovely and all but it did lack the intense richness and complexity of flavours that the laksa from the old joint had. Not saying that this laksa broth was bad – it wasn’t – but I certainly didn’t think it was good enough to slurp until every drop was drained from the bowl (which was the case with the old Laksa King – yes, I did that even when my stomach was about to burst and my jeans button threatening to pop from its hole because it was sooo good). I also thought that they skimped on the ingredients a bit but that’s a minor point because, as you can see, there was still enough items for me not to accuse them of being tight.

Everyone else had different types of laksa but I’m not going to bore you with the details and more laksa photos (they all looked the same anyway). The first-timers really liked their laksa while Adam, the only other other non-first-timer, said that his king prawn laksa ($12.20) was “yeah, pretty good but the old one’s better.” So yes, while the new Laksa King may have upped its game in size and decor, it hasn’t done the same with its laksa. That said, their laksa is still, by far, the best you’ll get in Melbourne.

Laksa King on Urbanspoon

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Campari House (Rooftop bar)

23- 25 Hardware Lane
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9600 1574
www.camparihouse.com.au/

I, like many Melburnians, have warmly embraced rooftop bars. While smokers love them because it means that they are in a bar environment where they are still free to light up their Stuvies, I like them because there’s just something about having a few glasses of wine with a few friends after work while the sun’s still out and the weather still a smidgen above 30 degrees.

One rooftop bar that city workers have been quick to embrace is Campari House, the former site of Campari Bistro which opens its doors in 1968. While Campari House still does the traditional Italian lunch and dinner fare – on the ground floor, its first floor is set aside for private functions while its second floor is a classy lounge. Complete your climb and enter the doorway that leads to the rooftop however, and you will be greeted by a scene that would not be out of place in a program of Video Hits in the 90s. Think choreographed dance parties on the beach. But without the choreography. And the beach. And substitute hot babes and Richie Neville for city workers. It was only 6pm on a Thursday evening and we had practically walked into a party that was in full-swing (that didn’t stop, even after we walked in).

With Adam and Artie Ziff Luke in tow, I tried to make my way to the bar to order our drinks and dinner but it was a task. If that was difficult, you can imagine how hard it was to score a table. After standing around awkwardly with our drinks, Luke spotted a group of girls leave a corner table and before he could finish saying, “I think those girls are about to–” I was at the table as quick as lighting and frantically gesturing for them to come join me.

Oh hi there, Adam! After ordering pizzas and more drinks at the bar, I sat back down with the boys and took in our surroundings. While Campari House may not be as funky as Rooftop Bar or as sophisticated as Siglo, it certainly has a bit of something in it that makes people want to come back again. I doubt it’s the astroturf or the red umbrellas and I doubt it’s the bartenders who, while certainly competent, don’t have the same panache as those who work at Sweatshop and Emerald Peacock. Whatever it is, though, I’ll take it.

I’ll also take the jug of L’Americano Grande ($26), which is said to be enough to keep 2-4 people happy. Although the individual cocktails here are pricey (on average, they are $18), the jugs are a steal given that most places charge between $32-35 for a jug that big. They also do wines and beer too, but the wine that I wanted wasn’t available (and had to make do with an alternative for my first drink) and the beers available on tap would make any beer snob faint, especially since the best beer they had available was a Boags. But anyway, the red stuff in our jug was a twist on the Americano, the bitter cocktail that was made famous by Mr Bond in Casino Royale. In addition to the obligatory vermouth, campari, soda water and orange slices, there was a hint of lemon juice to give it a bit of a tang. Extremely light and refreshing and injected with the right level of bitterness to keep the grown men happy – perfect for a balmy summer night.

I’ll take another Campari soda, thanks.

We decided to share two pizzas between us, both of them 10 inches in diameter and thin-crusted. The first one was a basic margarita ($16), which only consisted of the most simplest of ingredients – tomato, fresh basil and buffalo mozzarella – for a pizza with a whole lot o’ taste. There was something in the pizza, however, that prevented me from fully enjoying it – it had a slightly musky aftertaste that I couldn’t quite put my finger to…

Thankfully, the maialona pizza ($18) fared much better. I normally steer clear of any form of ‘meat lovers’ pizza but I couldn’t help but tuck into this one eagerly. It had a tomato base and a lot of oink in the form of smoked ham hock, hot salami and rustic Italian sausages. Sure, I would have liked the dough to have a bit more life but then again, not everyone can be a Ladro. I’d still give this one a thumbs up.

Okay so the pizzas may not have been THE best pizzas ever, the bar staff made Daria Morgandorfer look like Savannah Monroe and the views aren’t the best in town (who the heck wants to gawk at a carpark and the Commonwealth Bank building?! Not I!) but there’s something in the air (badoom, ching!) at the Campari House rooftop bar that just makes me want to return again and again…

Campari House on Urbanspoon

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Court Jester Cafe

15 Breese Street
Brunswick VIC 3065
+61 3 9383 3904
www.courtjestercafe.com.au

The industrial back streets of Brunswick is the least likely place that one would find some of the finest pierogi in Melbourne, that’s what Caron (my buddies, Aaron and Cathy who are forever joined t0 the hip) and I thought as we veered from Sydney Road and onto the seedy back streets that one wouldn’t want to be walking in after dark. As a modded WRX hooned past with Nick Skitz blaring from its sub-woofers (Nick Skitz!) and as we walked past a brothel and countless vans ferrying crates of unidentifiable matter from warehouse to warehouse, the newest royal darling of Brunswick’s cafe scene appeared in the distance. How did it get its name? Well, there’s a cute but convoluted story on the cafe’s website which I ain’t going to bother summarising here but feel free to read… just as long as you return to this page, stat!

Bizarrely named Court Jester Cafe, the coolest brunch joint on the block makes its home in a old factory. While the bulk of diners will sit on the long communal table inside, there are additional seats scattered around the cafe and a few tables outside. Because it was a miserable October Saturday morning when the three of us visited, there was no way in hell we were going to sit outside.

Unfortunately by 11am, the place was rocking like a Bon Jovi concert. I was slightly perplexed because as far as I knew back then, this cafe had not had much press besides one mention in The Age earlier in 2010. And although blog reviews have been positive, there had only been like, five blog posts in cyberspace about the cafe.

We were told by the friendly lady at the front to take a seat in the suede couch in front of the counter, a couch where customers doing the takeaway thang could sit down with a glass of water (no, not tequila) while they wait for breakfast or brunch to cook.

They even have a random assortment of books for customers to browse while they wait. I love how that macbook is unceremoniously dumped on top of that pile …

Knowing that we were in for a long wait, we decided to order coffees. My skinny latte ($3.20) was good, but not out of this world. As we sipped our coffees, we chatted with the lady. She explained that the owners, an artist and a writer, wanted to retain as much ‘street cred’ as possible by keeping it ‘underground’ and so did not advertise the business. Little did they know that they would, by the end of 2010, have two write-ups in The Age and a handful of blogs and independent online media sites extolling their hearty Polish-influenced meals.

Finally, we managed to score some space on the nine metre-long communal table. Once we ordered our food, we were left on our own to look at all the local art that was adorned on the cafe’s walls. There was lots of art.

Like, LOTS of art.

There was even art on the table (NFI what this is but it looks pretty cool).

I thought the bikes were pretty cool but even cooler were the black letters on the right, obviously taxed from MYER.

The guys at Court Jester obviously like to take their time and while most of their diners are also in the same boat, there are the odd impatient mofos like myself who hate waiting. The guys are well aware of this and so they’ve scattered several v-parting tools around the table for diners to carve their names, cartoons and the odd explicit message on the table.

Work in progress…

Finally, food! We decided to share all the dishes between the three of us and the first thing we got was the Ed’s Breakfast ($16), which was something we only ordered because they didn’t have chicken soup with kreplach available. Boo. While the chicken soup would have gone down so well that morning, none of us regretted selecting the Ed’s Breakfast as an alternative. Two perfectly-poached googs roosted on one of the two wood-fried rye bread slices while crispy-to-the-point-of-burnt bacon pieces sat on another. Trimmings came in the form of a light Russian coleslaw (carrots, onion and cabbage with only the slightest hint of creamy dressing) and a marinated avocado half that was sliced and then arranged back into its original shape. Finally, a well of  delicious beetroot dip injected some colour into the dish. Apart from the burnt bacon, I reckon this dish was successful.

Mmmmmmfffffmmmm egg…

Ah, ‘life could not better be…’

Next up, we have the Jester’s lunch ($12). In one bowl there was a handful of pork kreplach which was covered in a lovely not-too-rich tomato and cabbage stew sauce, and in the other bowl a cold Russian potato salad which is like any other potato salad but less creamy.

The kreplach, dissected. Apparently one of the owners used an old family recipe (both of them have Eastern European blood) which will forever remain a secret. It was lovely, the sweet and tasty pork meat was beautifully completed by the stew sauce which was also sweet with a bit of tang and pepper goodness.

The three of us were full from sharing two dishes (imagine having a dish to ourselves!) but nothing could stop us dumpling affectionados from eating two bowls of pierogi. After all, this place served Polish-influenced food so who in their right mind would leave just without ordering Polish dumplings? Now, the pierogi flavours change every so often and on the day we went, they gave us the choice between the farmers’ cheese with mashed potato or the cabbage and mushroom. We decided to order six of each (six dumplings, $7.50) because we’re greedy that way.

I couldn’t decide which ones I liked better. Upon presentation, both sets looked completely identical. From their perfect size six figures, to their long, silky, blonde hair and eyes the colour of the Pacific Ocean the utilitarian white casings to the sour cream on top, you couldn’t tell which ones were which. Obviously, however, their insides were nothing like the other. The cheese and potato one was like Elizabeth Wakefield, soft and mushy with a subtle tangy edge to it. The more piquant cabbage and mushroom ones, however, were a Jessica – sweet, peppery and full of flavour (Jessica is dissected, and pictured above). More extravagant flavours were available, such as the bacon and asparagus, for an extra cost but I think I’ll save them for another visit (and yes, they would be the Lila).

The three of us left the place with tummies like Henry VIII as such was the amount of food we ate, and for a reasonable price too. Despite the dwaddling pace of the service, we all agreed that this was a place that we’d visit again because it was just so, so cool. Sure, the food may have been a tad unrefined even for Brunswick and hey, it’s homely and tastes fantastic so who cares? I’ll leave you guys with the final product of my hard labour during my wait for the food. Don’t expect yours truly to win any Archies though…

Court Jester Cafe on Urbanspoon

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Flower Drum

17 Market Ln
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9662 3655
http://www.flower-drum.com

Everyone knows the Flower Drum song. No, I’m not referring to the Rodgers and Hammerstein version; I’m talking about the one that stormed up the Melbourne restaurant charts in the 80s to the tune of ‘Greed Is Good’ and ‘Lunch ain’t for wimps.’ Unlike Bananarama and Toni Basil, however, this Flower Drum song was not content to remain a one hit wonder. No way. As Australia battled through shoulder pads, a Keating government and a Kiwi invasion by the name of OMC, Flower Drum continued to churn out good ol’ Chinese favourites such as Peking duck and A Really Good sweet and sour pork. But then it all changed. Like a teenager outgrowing the Hanson boys, so did Melburnians. They were sick of the tired bling bling decor that once upon a time impressed 80s diners, they were sick of unimaginative (albeit good quality) food and finally, they were sick of traveling up an elevator that took a century to take them from the ground floor reception to the dining room on the first floor. Enter Jason Lui, maitre’d extraordinaire who saw that Flower Drum needed to get with the times, and in came the new and improved ‘Drum.

Okay, so we were still stuck with the opulent but cliched decor and the elevator was, unfortunately, not going anywhere (figuratively and literally). But that was okay. When I heard that there was to be a new menu, you can imagine how excited I was. Like a teenager who had just scored tickets to Usher’s concert, I was on the phone making a booking for the Dinner Crew and a few sundry diners. And on the day of our Spring dinner, thoughts went through my head. Will it be better than my last dinner at Flower Drum 2.5 years ago? (my writing certainly is *cough*) Will they still play Richard Clayderman on the restaurant’s speakers? Is Mimi still manning the reception? My answers were finally answered in a boozy dinner that lasted almost four hours.

Pure XO sauce. Lovely.

The first and most important change I noticed was the menu. It was about a third the size of the original one. Gone were the sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken dishes and in came unusual-sounding dishes such as the sauteed sea conch meat with ginger and shallots. After having sat through several six-course Flower Drum banquet dinners, you’d think that I wouldn’t pick the banquet menu this time around but what did I do? Picked the effking Spring banquet menu. This time, though, they had the four-course option available for $99 which came with two entrees, two mains and a choice of dessert (which meant that there is technically five courses, so WTF?!). Given that the six-courses banquets often left me battered and bruised, I and most of my dining companions with the four-course option. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have taken it because it was pretty much the same as the six-course banquets. Yeah, I know, the ‘fck were you thinking?!

I was still kicking myself for being sucked into ordering the banquet as I sipped my glass of O’Leary Walker ‘Polish Hill River’ riesling from Clare Valley ($11). Full of bold citrus flavours with a hint of acid, it was as fresh and vivacious as Dianna Agron’s character in Glee.

I didn’t have to sulk for long because my first entree arrived pretty quickly. We were presented with a plate of assorted steamed dumplings: a har gow, a xiaolongbao, a siu mai and a prawn and spinach dumpling. It goes without saying that although Flower Drum is a two-hatted restaurant, it does not specialise in dumplings and this was evident here. They were fine, but if they were presented to me at a credible yum cha restaurant, I would not have been TOO pleased…

I also ordered an entree of pearl meat in addition to the banquet. $25 for several measly slices of pearl may seem pricey to most but when you bite into the succulent pearl meat, couriered from Broome, which has been thinly sliced and gently stir-fried with ginger and spring onions, you can understand why this dish is such a delicacy. The meat is flavoursome on its own but if required, oyster and shrimp sauces are provided for extra flavour.

Dave, being the wise guy he was (well, is), decided that he wasn’t going to conform so he went the full-on a la carte. His first entree was the duck wontons (three for $13.50) which were described on the menu as “Chinese ravioli.” Even though Dave was unperturbed by them, I thought they were delicious. The duck meat inside was delicate as was the braised duck reduction that provided the dumplings a subtly tangy pool to swim in. A hint of sundried tangerine zest prevented the filling inside from being too mellow. A well-executed dish.

The second entree in the banquet was the SA King George Whiting, a dish that I enjoyed 2.5 years ago. Nothing’s changed – the spice-dusted batter was light and crispy, and the fish beautifully cooked right through. It went perfectly with my riesling as well as the fresh lemon juice and five-spice salt provided.

After an extended intermission, we were treated to the obligatory Peking Duck. Like clockwork, we were presented with a piece of duck neatly wrapped in thin pancake, trimmings, hoisin sauce and all. A dab of plum sauce was on hand for additional flavour … but not that we really needed it. The duck, so seductively juicy and moist like a (insert whatever analogy you may so wish to include here) and everything else from the fresh cucumber and spring onion to the pancake to the hoisin played their part in making this The Best Peking Duck in Melbourne. Disagree as much as you want, I firmly uphold this statement. That is all.

One was obviously not enough so we got two pieces. Mmmmfffffmmmm.

Our final main was the grain-fed Black Angus eye fillet with Szechuan sauce. In hindsight, I should have requested the Cantonese pepper sauce instead. Not that the Szechuan sauce is terrible or anything (it is far from it), but I do prefer the pepper sauce. Not to worry though as this dish was beautifully cooked medium rare, as recommended by Lui and his team, with the light yet spicy pepper and chilli-ridden sauce complimenting the meat well. I did notice that they went easy with the sauce compared to last time and I think it was a good move as I was still able to taste the natural flavours of the beef, which was pre-cut for us to make things just that little bit easier.

Our steaks were accompanied by a bowl of okay-but-not-fantastic fried rice.

For dessert, Dave and I chose the Peking toffee apple with ice cream. I’m not sure what made the toffee apple “Peking” but whatever, to me it was delicious and that’s all that mattered. Each apple segment, was deep-fried in crunchy batter before being dipped in toffee and ice. Served with a creamy scoop of Rickett’s Point organic vanilla ice-cream before being decorated with a spider web of toffee, it was a dessert that was sinfully sweet and sour (but mostly sweet) at the same time… and almost worth getting a tooth decay for.

The other girls on the table had their eyes set on the mango crepes with mango ice-cream as soon as they opened the menu. Although I enjoyed my toffee apple, the girls clearly had the better dessert. Everything about the dessert was perfect, from the chewy and supple crepes to the fresh mango slices to the mango ice-cream. Fresh strawberries and a passionfruit and mango puree completed the package to ensure that this dish, unlike Bananarama, would not become a Flower Drum one hit wonder.

At this stage, always-busy Matt had left so we shared his dessert, a platter of fresh fruit. The ‘Drum normally charges $13.50 for this dessert and although it’s full of good-quality luscious pieces of sliced fruit, it’s hard to believe that the entire plate would be even half of $13.50. Also, is it me or does the fruit platter get smaller and smaller?

Finally, we were given almond cookies to nibble on as we drank the last dregs of wine and organised the bill. I’m a huge fan of Flower Drum’s almond cookies but the others are not so I managed to get more than my fair share of almond cookies to keep me happy.

If you’ve been to Flower Drum in the last 10 years and have just read my post, you’d be somewhat correct to assume that Flower Drum has not really changed its tune. Despite a promise of a “new and improved” menu, the four-course banquet, while fantastic, had not really changed except for slight decreases in quantities of sauces and other elements. Think Finn Hudson’s cover of Rick Springfield’s ‘Jesse’s Girl’ – same ol’, same ol’. In saying that, the a la carte items that I managed to try on the night were nothing short of magnificent. If they totally revamped their banquet menus to include some of those sorts of dishes, instead of churning out the same old stuff, then we’d be talking. Still, they’re obviously trying and I’m glad they are. Flower Dum was the first hatted restaurant I had been to so it does hold a soft spot in my heart and I want it to do very well. Next time though, I will refuse to look at the banquet menus, and just stick with my gut instinct and go fully a la carte. Or dare to ask the kitchen to surprise me.

Oh, and the service is still exemplary. Really, you’ll never find better service elsewhere in Melbourne.

Flower Drum on Urbanspoon

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Piyada Thai

72 Aberdeen Road
Macleod VIC 3085
+61 3 9457 7116

So tell me, guys, what was your last meal for 2010? A full-on banquet at one of Melbourne’s leading restaurants overlooking the Yarra? Fish and chips on the beach? A glass of protein shake after a three-hour workout at your local Fitness First in a desperate attempt to starve away those nasty kilograms that had somehow manifested themselves into your body during December? Whatever it was, I bet it can’t be worse than the meal I had at Piyada Thai, the newest Thai restaurant in the Macleod-Rosanna area. I’ll cut the bullsht now – it was horrible.

Although the restaurant was only a five-minute walk from Mark’s house, the trek felt like a while given that it was still a smothering 40 degrees and given that the back streets of Macleod aren’t exactly smooth and flat. Finally, we arrived at the newest kid on the block and were greeted with a cool blast of air from the air conditioner. It was love at first sight. Unfortunately, just like that hot-after-six-beers chick you met at CQ, everything that was good about her on the outside could not mask the nastiness that was lurking inside. Like Touche Eclat, the Grimace-shade purple paint did little to mask the tired walls. The linen tablecloths, like a sequined-dress and layers of foundation on a cashed-up bogan, gave diners the false impression of sophistication. As for the food? Oh, don’t get my started on the food…

Take Adam’s beef massaman curry, for example ($15.90). A succcessful massaman curry would be one that is rich and creamy whilst retaining its smoothness … and there was none of this. Rather, it was very one dimensional and placid.

Moreover, Adam had specifically requested his curry to be “extra hot” so what did they do? They simply chucked some chopped chilli into it. I dunno about you, but I would have thought that they’d do something with the sauce to make it extra hot whether it’d be to ground some chilli seeds or maybe some sambal into it and mix it all up or something. But nope, they thought that chucking some chillies without bothering to mix it all up will do the trick.

If you thought Adam’s curry was bad, you should have seen my prawn pad thai ($17.90). There’s something not quite right with this photo, folks, can you tell me what it is? (besides my crappy photography, that is)

They put cauliflower in it. CAULIFLOWER! Who the fck puts cauliflower in a PAD THAI? And lettuce! But seriously, CAULIFLOWER? I knew something was not quite right when I could smell something bad emancipating from the plate that the waitress was carrying not even five metres away from the table. But as soon as she plonked it in front of me, I just had to laugh. Cauliflower. That was not yet ‘off’ but about on the verge of being so. And the prawns! It was obvious that they were not fresh ones. You could tell that not only were they those cheapie ones that are imported from South-East Asia by their botox-like artificially-induced plumpness but also by the fact that they just tasted like… water. Horrible stuff. Finally, the whole thing was held together by a feeble lemon-y and greasy sauce. That’s right, folks, no fish sauce was used. The. Worst. Pad. Thai. In. History.

I never got around to trying Tim and Mark’s dishes, but I didn’t think I needed to. Tim ordered a chicken massaman curry that was pretty much the same as Adam’s but with chicken and not beef, and Mark ordered a duck curry. Both of them were more forgiving than Adam and I, but I attributed their not-as-negative review to the fact that none of them are foodies like we are. I mean, we’re talking about guys who think that TGI Friday is “up-market dining”, FFS.

Were there any good points about Pidaya? Okay, so the service wasn’t too bad. While none of the waitresses gave us so much as a smile (then again, working on NYE really does suck), they were nevertheless pretty efficient. And I guess the complimentary chocolates on top of the bill was a nice gesture but still, that does not make up for the fact that their food sucked. Going to Piyada is like picking up a semi-attractive Thai hooker on a Pattaya beach and then discovering that she is, in fact, a man. Do yourself a favour and don’t bother coming here.

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Little Press and Cellar

72 Flinders Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
+61 3 9677 9677
http://www.thepressclub.com.au/menu.html

Ah, George Calombaris. Masterchef judge, restaurant extraordinaire, businessman and cookbook author, it goes without saying that he leads an extremely busy life. And while many top-end restaurants around town closed down for Christmas last week, Little Press and Cellar, the little sister of Calombaris’ Press Club, was happily open on Wednesday afternoon when my ex-colleague, Rob and I stopped by. Hell, I even saw George himself running around and barking orders as I sat on my cushy leather chair towards the back of the linear, elegant dining room while I was waiting for Rob. Does the guy ever sleep? (I know that insomniac Rob doesn’t, but I’m talking about George here)

Little Press, at only six months old, may not have attracted a tremendous amount of press (badoom, ching!) but it has been getting a lot of nods from both food bloggers and non-foodie friends. While the bar space is as elegant as the Press Club next door, you get the sense that things are done slightly more casually here. Wine lists are hung on a little hook underneath each table, the service isn’t as formal as what you’d get next door and one would be able to saunter into the place with linen shorts and a tank top without anyone batting an eyelid (well, I did anyway).

While Little Press’ list of both old and new world, local and imported, wines was out of this world (they even had a French one from 1945!), Rob and I decided to have some ouzo. He ordered a glass of plomari from Mytilene ($7.50) while I opted for a Barbyanni Green, also from Mytilene ($8.50). Our glasses came with a wooden board with a separate glass of water and another glass full of ice cubes. We were told that we could drink it however we wanted: either straight-up or with ice and/or water. We took tentative sips without adding water or ice before plonking several ice cubes in our glass and then drizzling the mixture with water, which I’ve been told is the traditional way of doing it. Dare I say that I do prefer drinking it straight-up though. While my Barbyanni Green had a relatively mellow, grassy taste (which was supposed to represent ‘ocean mist’), Rob’s had a much stronger flavour which consisted of bold and intense herb notes.

Food-wise, Greek-inspired bar snacks are king here with only a limited selection of mains and desserts available for those looking for a proper meal. Because we were meeting our work crew for dinner later that evening, Rob and I decided to share a few nibbles so that we would have room for burgers at Beer Deluxe.

I was delighted to see George’s lovely taramosalata (fish roe dip) make an appearance at Little Press ($13.50). While I was slightly disappointed to see that the trimmings that made it good the first time I had it weren’t there (Yarra Valley salmon roe, sultanas etc), it only took a little bit of olive oil to heighten the deliciousness of this dip which was as thick as (though obviously much nicer than) Rob’s eyebrows. I was especially delighted to see the taramosalata served with chips instead of boring stale pita bread pieces. The chips were particularly good; they were so irresistibly crunchy. Like, really crunchy. Wow. And props for the presentation too.

Rob and I had a sticky pork belly square each ($6 per piece). Each piece was evenly roasted, then plonked on a squirt of ouzo-infused apple jelly before being adorned with a strip of crispy pancetta, sage leaves and ash salt. It was a well-crafted dish, jam-packed with lovely contrasts in both taste and texture. At the risk of sounding like a complete travesty, I’m not a fan of pork belly (the texture of the fat puts me off) but I really loved this dish and the pork fat blissfully melted in my mouth without any involuntary gag reflexes.

Finally, I had a piece of kataifi-wrapped prawn ($5.50 each). No prawn for Rob though – the poor bugger is allergic to seafood (and pretty much everything that tastes good). While everything up to this point had been fantastic, the prawn simply blew me away. The Attikii honey dressing was sinfully sweet and delicious, and slightly infused with a bit of lemon and chilli for a slight edge. A dollop of almond yoghurt (not avocado as per website menu) on top provided a lovely smooth contrast against the crispy kataifi shreds and crunchy chopped nuts while chopped coriander kept things fresh. Just, WOW.

We were pretty much done with our food when a waitress sailed past to plonk some hot white bread on our table. She apologised for not having given us bread earlier on (yeah, a bit late don’t you think?!) but they had only JUST come out of the oven. Only a minor annoyance – and yes, the bread WAS delicious especially with the olive oil from Crete and the ash salt – but still, WTF?!

Despite not having ordered a lot of food, we were both quite full. Heck, even when I sat down to eat my burger at Beer Deluxe almost three hours later, I was still not even sure if I would be able to finish it because my stomach was so, so satisfied (I did, but only just). I guess this means that while Little Press is all about bar snacks and drinks, one should be able to enjoy a very filling lunch (or dinner) there. George, you may be occasionally ignorant (turning your nose up at century-old egg and not knowing what it is, even though you’re supposed to be a CHEF?) and a food blogger-hating douche, but damn, your food is absolutely AMAZING. I wrote positive reviews for not only this place but the Press Club and Hellenic Republic so please don’t do to me what you did to Winsor Dobbin, please?

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Carlton Chinese Noodle Cafe (CLOSED)

154 Rathdowne Street
Carlton VIC 3053
+61 3 9347 1739

The above statement would be accurate if the owners of Carlton Chinese Noodle Cafe proclaimed it 30-odd years ago when they established this dive. Of course, now with the influx of Asian immigrants and students, there are several dozen eateries specialising in noodles that exist in Carlton. Some have been successful while others have quietly faded away like Lance Whitnall’s AFL career. CCNC belongs to the former group. Its longevity surpasses even the heavyweights of the industry such as Supper Inn and its production line of fried siu mai is as strong and efficient as the ones you find at the Ford Motors plant, but still the smiling owners of CCNC desire no award and no hats. Instead, their sole purpose is to satisfy the hungry bellies of local residents who live in the nearby flats, and regulars such as my dad who has been going here since his Swinburne Uni days in the late 70s.

My first memory of this place consisted of wearing my Sunday best at the age of two… and vomiting all over the place. This act of vomiting was not at all reflective of the food that was served, but probably because I was feeling the heat of the 30+ degree day in stockings, laces and wool. Or something like that. But anyway, I shan’t digress no further. Yes, the cafe may have the most original cafe name known to man and okay, fine, the food may not be innovative but it’s good, home-style fare, mmmkay? Just trust me on it. And when you do make a visit, order only the following items:

Popiah (spelt ‘poppia’ at the cafe, $2.40 each), a Fujian-style spring roll. While a popiah is traditionally a fresh spring roll that isn’t fried, CCNC fry theirs to an almost burnt crisp and that’s the way I like it. Unlike Adam, I’m not at all a spring roll person unless they happen to be Vietnamese prawn ones but I do like CCNC’s version of the popiah. Filled with a sweet pork, cabbage and bean shoot filling, they are a must-order entree for everyone in my family. Eaten with chilli sauce and soy, they are filling enough on their own too.

Singapore fried noodles, indisputably the most popular dish on the menu. Okay, so it’s not actually on the menu (at least not when I was there last) but it’s what every second person seems to order when they’re at the cafe. Fresh prawns, chicken pieces and egg mingled with several handfuls of soy and curry-seasoned vermicelli noodles, before being lashed with a gorgeous peanut and chilli dressing. Simply. The. Best.

The nasi goreng special is another family favourite. We normally get the version with the chicken ($7.80, without the chicken is $7.00) which is a lovely, fragrant dish of chicken pieces, pork, egg, bean shoots and vegies all intertwined with deliciously sweet soy-seasoned rice. Those of you who know me will know that I’m not at all a fan of nasi goreng so I’m saying something when I tell you that the nasi goreng at CCNC is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Finally, the Indian mee goreng. Like the Singapore noodles, this dish wasn’t on the menu for whatever reason but it is yet another popular dish so the owners have no issues with making it for people who so wish to eat it. You may have also noticed that I didn’t put the prices for the Singapore and Indian noodles which is very unlike me. Quite simply, I just forgot. Shut up, I’m allowed to have off days, OKAY? Anyway. The Indian mee. The noodles were spicy enough for us chilli fiends to enjoy, yet also mild enough for chilli haters to comfortably eat without frantically reaching for water. An optional squeeze of the lime half heightened the dish’s beautiful flavours that were readily soaked up by the spongy fried tofu squares.

CCNC itself may be smaller than Australia’s first innings in this year’s Boxing Day test (it only had two tables that seat four each, and a squishy bar counter with like, six stools), as famous as Steve Smith prior to this Ashes series (it doesn’t even have an urbanpoon entry) and its location somewhat out of the way (insert appropriate cricket reference here). However, the friendly hospitality, the quality of the food, and the fact that most dishes are less than $10 means that the crew at CCNC are a team that will never let you down. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the Carlton Football Club. Hah.

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Dolls at the Mount (CLOSED)

54 Mount Street
Heidelberg VIC 3084
+61 3 9457 3356
www.dollsteahouse.com.au/about

MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE! I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas, what did you get up to? I am so looking forward to reading all your blogs about the scrumptious Christmas lunches and dinners you’ve all been stuffing yourselves with (plus points for mouth-watering photos and recipes). I for one enjoyed a feast at home, starring a honey-glazed ham courtesy of my sister and a baked tarator-style salmon baked by yours truly. Want recipes? Simply find them on taste.com.au and type in “Greg Malouf salmon” on google respectively. For now, here’s a treat for you: Dolls. And scones. And tea. Where to find them? Dolls at the Mount.

It all started when I was on the computer the other week. Mum barged into my room, telling me that her friend had just visited an antique shop in Heidelberg that had a coffee shop attached to it and that the food there was OMGSOGOOD. The friend had no idea what the place was called nor was she even 100% sure it was in Heidelberg. But anyway, I was told to type in “Heidelberg tea house antiques” on google … and the first three results screamed “Dolls at the Mount,” a tea house just a stone’s throw from Heidelberg station. A click on Lorraine’s review of the place, with lovely photos and all, produced plenty of squeals from the two of us but ‘no’, my mum said, ‘this ain’t the place she’s talking about.’ Nonetheless, we could not find any other antique shop-slash-tea house in the area, leading me to believe that her friend was just talking sht or probably meant a completely different suburb. In any case, that didn’t stop the two of us (plus dad) from driving to Heidelberg last Tuesday to partake in one of their last high tea sessions before they closed for the summer.

Situated on Mount Street (aaah so THAT’S why they named it so!), the place is a little bit hard to find. We were trying to find the place amongst the row of cafes and shops across the road from the station but Dolls is actually an Edwardian-style period house that parades itself as a tea house during the day.

Walking up the creaky steps and onto an old verandah, I pressed the doorbell and stood there awkwardly while waiting for someone to answer the door. After a few minutes, we were still standing there so I pressed it again.

To my relief, a friendly face opened the wooden door and I was greeted with the sights of 10 billion (okay, not quite) dolls in the foyer … and a handful of giggling nine year-old girls milling around in the dining room.

We were seated by Vivienne, the brains behind this operation, and presented with menus. From reading food blogs and glancing at what other diners were eating, it was obvious that the special occasion tea (at $24.95 p/h) was the way to go. ‘But wait!’ my parents cried, ‘$24.95 per head?! WAHHH SO EXPENSIVE!’ Despite my attempts to tell them that $24.95 was, in fact, not expensive for high tea, they were insistent on getting ONE plate of scones to share. My desperation showing, I blurted out ‘If you guys get the special occasion tea, I’ll pay for it!’ and what do you know, that did the trick. Hah.

Because the place was pretty busy (it doesn’t look like it in the photos above but trust me, it was)  and unfortunately short-staffed, we knew we were in for a long wait. Despite the fact that I was never into dolls as a girl (I had a couple of Barbie dolls but I had ripped both their heads off), I was nevertheless keen to suss out the doll museum around the corner from the dining room. Unfortunately, the room was full of nine-year old girls celebrating a birthday party so it was strictly off-limits so I had to busy myself by studying the intricate mismatched floral teacups and cutlery that adorned the table. All made in England, naturally.

I can imagine how hard it was for my mum NOT to casually drop these beauties into her handbag as they were so beautiful. Some of you readers will know that my mum’s got this fascination with antiques and old-fashioned crockery. At the moment, she’s really into teacups and saucers made by the likes of Royal Doulton et al, before they got palmed off to Indonesian manufacturers.

We all shared a teapot of English Breakfast tea (included in the special occasion tea). It was pretty inoffensive stuff, really, but the fact that they were served in cute Queen Anne teacups just made the experience a whole lot more fun.

We were then presented with a plate of half a dozen scones to share. Adorned with nothing but some icing sugar, the scones were amazing. They were soft, spongy balls of fluffy goodness that melted in your mouth when you ate a piece.

For maximum impact, eat with their delicious slightly-tangy-but-awesomely-sweet strawberry jam and whipped cream. OMFGYUM!

We were halfway into our second scones when we were presented with the pièce de résistance, two tiers of yummiliciousness. Despite the fact that we were almost full after eating the scones, we were all like ‘pffft, is THIS all?’ Sure, the tower was impressive but I couldn’t help but think, ‘This tower is as tiny as Nick Riewoldt’s wang; this is going to be EASY.’ I’m sure my parents were thinking the same thing, well, okay, using a much cleaner analogy. But either way, we were all wrong.

We started off with the sandwiches. There were three different varieties altogether: leg ham, tomato and lettuce, cranberry and turkey and egg and cucumber. They were delicious and they were the items that filled us up. Who would have thought that three measly sandwich quarters and two scones would fill us up?! Seriously, we were stuffed. As in, Australia at stumps on day two of this year’s Boxing Day test stuffed.

We did our best with the sweets but in the end, we couldn’t fit everything in and had to ask them to box the cupcakes, the yoyos  and gingerbread shapes to eat at home. What did I think of the other sweets? Although I was disappointed not to see the famous sponge cake in the tier, the delicious Christmas treats made up for it. The fruit mince pies, for starters were arguably better than Dench Baker’s fruit mince pies which always gets a nod from The Age. They were not too sweet and the main reason why they won me over was because they actually put PINEAPPLE in it so it was almost like eating a pie with pineapple jam in it (and goodness knows how much I LOVE pineapple jam). I also thought the fruit cakes were fantastic and ditto the white Christmas slices, not because they were irresistible but because they brought back innocent primary school memories. Ahhh, to be a kid in the 90s again…

An old house near the Austin hospital is the least likely place that one would find simple, delectable yet extremely filling food accompanied by bottomless pots of tea served by the friendliest of ladies. But trust me, folks, go there for one visit and you’ll be vowing to bring your mothers, girl friends and nannas there next time. Heck, even my dad was initially apprehensive when he was faced with mountains of vacant-eyed dolls in frilly dresses and crockery that only a red-blooded male would describe as “gay” but he, too, grudgingly admitted that, food-wise, this place was “alright.” I would have loved to take my girl friends here during the Christmas break but unfortunately, Dolls are closed for the summer and will resume trading in February. What’s Plan B? Why, high tea at The Windsor in a few week’s time, naturally!

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Momotaro Rahmen

392 Bridge Rd
Richmond VIC 3121
+61 3 9421 1661

I can honestly say that I’ve been to quite a fair few ramen eateries around Melbourne. Ramen Ya, Don Too, Ito and Ajisen Ramen to name a few. But my hunt for Melbourne’s Best Ramen was never going to stop until I finally tried Momotaro Rahmen. Named after a demon-slaying boy hero from Japanese folklore that came to earth in a giant peach, the restaurant is supposedly the king of ramen eateries. Well, in Melbourne anyway.

Situated on the quiet end of Bridge Road, Momotaro Rahmen is a tiny cafe that does not accept bookings. Although it’s a virtually spartan place, it is decorated by various Japanese trinkets and tables are adorned with local and Japanese magazines and newspapers for a homely touch.

The first time Adam and I visited this place for lunch on a Tuesday afternoon. He ordered a tonkotsu ramen ($11), which typically consists of a milky white broth, the result of boiling pork bones over high heat for several hours. It was topped with slices of roast pork, bean shoots, half a not-quite-hard-boiled egg and garnished with chopped spring onions and sesame. It looked good. And it looked MASSIVE. Like one of those L-sized pho bowls you get at those pho joints that allow you to choose your bowl sizes. To be honest, I’m not sure if I liked the broth – it was probably a bit too delicate for my liking. Adam’s reaction was more negative. He declared it ‘bland’ and in a desperate attempt to add more flavour to the dish, went on to pour half the contents of the chilli oil bottle sitting on the table which made it inedible in the end anyway. Silly kid.

Other cons? They advertised the tonkotsu as consisting of ‘mixed vegetables’ but there was NOTHING apart from the bean shoots. The pro? The noodles. Oh yeah, they were FANTASTIC. Springier than Springy the  Springfield Spring and deliciously chewy, I can honestly say that these were the best ramen noodles yet.

I ordered the gyoza combination which consisted of a bowl of shoyu (soy) ramen and three pieces of gyoza (Japanese pan-fried dumplings) with salad and rice ($16). Plonked unceremoniously on a Larissa Dubecki review (lol), my bowl was not as big as Adam’s. Thank goodness though because I would not have been able to finish it. After tasting Adam’s rather disappointing (but for the noodles) ramen, I was glad that my shoyu ramen was amazing. The broth was still delicate but more robust and more tasty. A lone, fatty piece of char shu competed with a handful of corn, bean shoots, spring onions and half a not-quite-hard-boiled egg for attention but it was the The Most Amazing Ramen Noodles and the broth that overshadowed them all. Delicious.

Momotaro’s gyoza are pretty good too and they deserve as much praise as their (non tonkotsu) ramen dishes. Presented with crispy bottoms, they were filled with a succulent pork, cabbage, garlic and chive filling. On equal footing was the refreshing cabbage salad that came with a lovely, tangy daikon and ponzu dressing, topped with a sprinkle of black sesame for prettiness. Yum.

The second time we came here was last Friday night, for a farewell dinner for Adam’s sister, Jen, as she was flying back home to the States the very next morning. While I’ve heard that the dinner rush at Momotaro is usually a  St Kilda FC-worthy nightmare, it wasn’t overly busy on the night we went – thank goodness for office Christmas party season, hey!

Our friend gyoza made an appearance along with a plate of takoyaki ($7 for six). It was served on a (rather excessive, I might add) bed of cabbage salad with a dab of wasabi on the side. The takoyaki were really nice – crunchy skins and a creamy filling that had generous bits of octopus. We liked.

Adam decided to play guinea pig for the night and choose a non-ramen dish. Given that not much has been said about the rice dishes at Momotaro, he was taking a big gamble. He ended up choosing a pork katsu curry ($13), a Japanese-style mild curry with crumbed pork cutlets and rice. Although the dish was generous in size (no surprises there) and the pork nicely cooked, I can’t say that I really enjoyed the curry. It was akin to eating a robust version of the sauce that comes in canned of baked beans. Give me Don Don, any day.

For some strange reason, Adam’s dish came with the cabbage salad that I had with my gyoza combination above. Indeed, it was a pretty generous salad too and in fact, I can bet that most people would be more than happy to pay $8 for it if it was actually a separate item on the menu but whatever, everyone on the table eagerly grabbed some salad for themselves while they were waiting for their own dishes. I really need to know how to make this for lunch, stat.

The thought of eating a ‘normal’ (read: MASSIVE) bowl of ramen made me quite queasy so I asked if it was okay to have a childrens-sized ramen ($8) which is available in three flavours: shoyu, shio and miso. For some reason, I expected them to say ‘no’ to me but my eyes lit up when they said that, yes, they were able to do it for me. I guess crouching down on my chair and being all “PAY ATTENTION TO ME, ADAM, DAMMIT!” worked like a charm, heeeh.

I chose the shio ramen, a mild salt-based ramen. It was the same size as the shoyu ramen I enjoyed during lunch and consisted of exactly the same trimmings minus the egg but PLUS the mushrooms (ooh wee!). I did notice that the roast pork slice was not as fatty though which was a shame. And while all the trimmings were fine (and the noodles ZOMG FANTASTIC), I can’t say the same about the broth. I know it is supposed to be a mild broth but it was way too mild for me and frankly, eating it was just as boring as listening to one of Adam’s ASX podcasts. The pro? Despite its smaller size, it still filled me up and for only a fraction of the price of a regular (MASSIVE) ramen.

Given all the glowing reviews about this place, I was expecting mind-blowing awesomeness but I didn’t really get it. Sure, the service was great and the food (when you ordered correctly) was fantastic but it wasn’t miles ahead of Don Too or any of the newer places in the ramen market. That said, we all know that authentic ramen is practically non-existent in Melbourne so if I were to recommend a ‘good’ ramen eatery that doesn’t completely suck, it would be this one and Don Too.  Momotaro’s ramen ain’t gonna shake the world but it’ll do for now. Next time? a children-sized miso ramen and a plate of takoyaki. Or a children-sized shoyu ramen and a plate of gyoza.

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Naked For Satan

285 Brunswick Street
Fitzroy VIC 3065
+61 3 9416 2238
http://www.nakedforsatan.com.au/

Naked For Satan? The latest ‘Stones album? The name of a porno? A Marilyn Manson song? No, no, no. Only the name of a drinking-slash-eating barn that’s risen up the Melbourne foodie charts faster than Ke$ha’s debut single same time last year. It’s mid-December and if you’re a food blogger who has not yet been to Naked, the latest (and well, only) pintxos and vodka bar in town, then you’re pretty much a loser… oh wait… *sigh*

Driving up and down Brunswick St on the last Saturday before Christmas is not an easy feat. Grabbing a sacred German stollen from Dench Bakers halfway through the morning is harder than trying to bowl Jason Gillespie out (we tried, and failed – referring to the stollen, of course). And choosing a lunch spot in Brunswick Street? Talk about impossible! Just as well the closest spot to our parking spot for the afternoon happened to be Naked For Satan. It wasn’t the provocative name that drew us in, nor was it the quirky split-level dining space with more pipes than a plumber’s workshop. No, it was the whole “this is different” thing that drew us in. Here’s what happened:

Basically, you grab yourself a plate from the counter and, working your way from left to right, you grab whatever pintxos takes your fancy. What are pintxos? They’re a simple Basque snack that is not quite a canape, yet not quite a tapas. Basically, you have a slice of home-baked white bread with whatever topping the kitchen decides to adorn it with, and toothpick is speared through the middle to hold everything together.

At $2 a pintxos, you grab a handful to enjoy with your house-infused vodkas (they named the place after Leon Satanovich, a Russian immigrant who apparently distilled vodka in this very building more than 80 years ago, not Lucifer himself) or you can select a few more for a lunch or a dinner that will satisfy. If you happen to come here for lunch on a weekday, the pintxos are 50 cents each which means that you can fill up until your guts explode for less than $10. BARGAIN.

Once you’re done, pop all your toothpicks in the shot glass provided on your table and bring them over to the counter where they’ll charge you on a per-toothpick basis. Yes, I’m sure that some people may be able to get away with popping a couple of toothpicks in their handbags but c’mon, you’d have to be REALLY tight to want to be able to do that. Be cool, folks.

They don’t look particularly filling (photo not to scale, they’re smaller in real life) but trust me, they are. Adam and I shared 14 between us and we were satisfied.

First plate (clockwise from left): Tom Cooper smoked salmon with onion and dill, chilli peppered prawns, scallop and pea puree, seafood with carrot puree and roe, and in the middle, blue vein cheese and crumbed eggplant chip. My favourite from this lot was the ‘seafood’ one which was pretty much a lovely taramasalata smeared on a crunchy bread slice with a smudge of carrot for a flavour contrast and some roe for a textural one. The eggplant chip one wasn’t bad either – the chip may have been cold but whatever, it was perfectly fried – while the sweetness of the scallop and the pea puree on the pintxos on the right complemented each other.

Second plate (differences in photo quality due to experimentation with RAW-ing): Potato tortilla with aioli, scrambled egg with prawn (weird combination but still worked), pork rillette with gherkin and olives and one with a solitary rice ball on it. I thought the latter one was weird – seriously, a rice ball on bread? – but given that it was one of the more popular items that day, I think the dudes who run this place know what they’re doing.

Yes, we got more! The chorizo with goats cheese and green chilli and pumpkin and mushroom ones were also given the thumbs up by the two of us.

Every now and then, a bloke would come around with a tray of fresh, hot pintxos. On offer that day was a lovely, saucy meatball one (which Adam greedily devoured before I even took a photo, that bastard) and a crumbed sardine and tomato one (pictured) which became Adam’s favourite. There was also a lamb meatball one available but the guys on the table next to us (who Adam suspected were mafia dudes) took the last ones.

They even have a baby canoli one! It was crunchy, and filled with chocolate custard. Unfortunately, they were just okay.

What about the drinks? Naked have a few decent beers on tap, lovely coffees (Adam enjoyed a “pretty good” long mac), and even their own ‘twist’ on the Bulmers cider but few people would say ‘no’ to the house-infused vodkas. I, unfortunately, had to say no because 1) it was too early for vodka and 2) I just wanted a beer. Next time.

My drink for the afternoon was the Naked for Satan ale, brewed by the dudes at Matilda Bay. It was a smooth and sweet beer that had refreshing apple and citrus notes. Perfect for Summer.

Naked For Satan. Wow, what a name and what a concept. This good Christian girl has been converted.

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