Town & Country, Balwyn

For the past five years, I’ve had a regular housesitting gig over the Australia Day long weekend, where I decamp from my apartment in the city and take up residence in a somewhat larger dwelling in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It’s my very own version of ‘Escape to the Country’ if you will, where I can get away from the familiar and discover what it is like to live in another part of my city.

So it felt kind of apt to kick-off the long weekend with a leisurely brunch at Town & Country in Balwyn. Sitting in the open front courtyard with the morning light filtering through the canopy overhead, I could have certainly been anywhere else in the world instead of having breakfast alongside a busy metropolitan road.

With a welcome cool breeze on my face, and my coffee order on the way, I got down to the difficult task of deciding what to order for breakfast. The current seasonal menu is heavily geared towards savoury options, but any dish that includes ‘Dr Marty’s crumpets’ usually seals the deal for me.

Albeit a slightly edgier take on Eggs Florentine, two substantial stacks laden with chargrilled asparagus, baby spinach, thick slices of smoked salmon, poached eggs topped with a careful consideration of hollandaise sauce, complimented with a large sprig of fresh and deliciously pungent dill, was a visually spectacular ensemble.

Smoked salmon with Dr Marty's crumpets, grilled asparagus, baby spinach, poached eggs and tarragon hollandaise - Town & Country, Balwyn
Smoked salmon with Dr Marty’s crumpets, grilled asparagus, baby spinach, poached eggs and tarragon hollandaise – Town & Country, Balwyn

And the taste didn’t disappoint either. The asparagus was a notable addition – it was so soft and tasty from the length of time on the grill that it only took a fork to pull it apart.

However the real hero of the dish would be the thick, doughy crumpets that absorbed all the moisture from the spinach, poached eggs and thick sauce and yet still held their shape and bread-like taste. My faith in Dr Marty’s creations continues to be justified.

Town & Country, Balwyn
Town & Country, Balwyn

The coffee is also full-bodied and delicious. Service is friendly and very attentive although it would be fair to say that the staff are quite busy, so patience is required.

Apart from the cafe, Town & Country also includes a nursery and homewares store, fully stocked with designer soft furnishings and unique decorator items, so make sure you exit through the gift shop. And why not? It’s a public holiday afterall.

Town & Country Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Busbys Restaurant, Highett

Japanese Scallops, braised pork belly, pistachio, carrot puree, caviar - Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

There was a time in the not too distant past, when restaurant dining at motels were the order of the day. As a young girl, I remember driving past all the motel restaurants along a particular stretch of the Hume Highway, trying to get a glimpse of all the activity inside and longing to enter through the canopied entrance into the captivating world beyond.

Some may say that that style of dining is of a bygone era. Big named hotels with celebrated chefs have now become the preferred platform for showcasing culinary creations. Yet beneath the glitter and contrived opulence, the art and enjoyment of fine dining can often play second fiddle to the ambivalent mood of wait staff and time-bound sitting arrangements.

Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett
Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

However in the suburb of Highett, Busbys offers a dining experience that could easily rival that of the famous hotel chain bearing the same name, but won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

Go beyond the retro façade and you will find a modern refurbished interior and an inspired interpretation of French bistro dining, but without the high-end price tag.

BCC9D5FE-81BE-426E-B5A0-0137B6690D1B

Executive Chef Jack Chan, who has had considerable experience working in luxury hotels across Asia, is behind this transformation. With an acute awareness of the local dining scene, Jack saw an opportunity to offer a style of dining and cuisine not readily available in the Moorabbin area.

Relaxing into the club-style chairs in the bar area for a pre-dinner drink, Wilson who is our maître d’ for the evening, takes meticulous care to ensure that the wine selected is fresh and up to a particular standard. The wine list is current and reflects a small but excellent selection from both local and international producers. And believe it or not, Busbys is one of those rare establishments where you could actually order a bottle of wine and still have enough change from a $50 note to still buy one more glass.

Old-fashioned name. Old-fashioned service. Old-fashioned prices.

Seated in the dining room, Wilson presented us with the dinner menu which is presented in a style similar to that of a French bistro. Not only is the menu both eclectic and enticing, with each dish in the just the entrée section alone sounded delectable in its own right. I must admit that it’s incredibly hard to choose just one. Just as well my dining companion was in a sharing mood!

Japanese Scallops, braised pork belly, pistachio, carrot puree, caviar - Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett
Japanese Scallops, braised pork belly, pistachio, carrot puree, caviar – Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

It’s not too hard to imagine my expression when the food arrived at our table … Like. OMG. Wow. Each dish resembled a work of art in its own right and certainly worthy of a barrage of photos before even attempting to try and eat each dish.

One of Jack’s signature dishes is undoubtedly the Japanese Scallops, braised pork belly, pistachio, carrot puree and caviar. Jack prides himself on sourcing only the best and freshest produce available and Japanese scallops (which I must admit doesn’t sound particularly French) are noted for their quality and taste. Everything about this dish is a class act. You could also call this meal ‘luxury on a plate’. The texture, the taste and the presentation alone is worth every cent and you would be almost crazy not to order it.

Vodka and Beetroot Cured Kingfish, cucumber, fennel, citrus junos - Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett
Vodka and Beetroot Cured Kingfish, cucumber, fennel, citrus junos – Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

Similarly, the Vodka and Beetroot Cured Kingfish with cucumber, fennel, citrus junos is also stunning in its simplicity and design. Beneath the funnel of thickly-cut kingfish slices, is a hidden treasure of thinly shaved fennel remoulade on a bed of fresh cucumber. The light smattering of dill across the top also adds subtle fresh flavour to a classic dish.

Goat cheese souffle, champagne salad, Grana Padano, raspberry vinaigrette - Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett
Goat cheese soufflé, champagne salad, Grana Padano, raspberry vinaigrette – Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

The Goat cheese soufflé, champagne salad, Grana Padano, raspberry vinaigrette was served in a elegant ceramic bowl and artfully arranged across the plate. After dissecting through the exotic flavours and layers of the salad, the one thing that stood out for me was the extremely light, fluffy and fresh (and tasty) texture of the soufflé, which is everything it should be.

Good hospitality can be really hard to find but when you encounter great service, the kind that is attentive and client-driven, your whole evening is transformed into a magical and memorable experience.

We had a lot of fun chatting with Wilson throughout our evening about the food and potential wine matches. Somehow during the course of our conversation, our smooth-talking maître d’ talked us into ordering main dishes as well. What could possibly be more classique French than bouillabaisse and duck?

I have a particular fondness for duck at the best of times and the presentation of the Duo of duck, breast and confit of leg, orange glaze, julienne vegetables reaffirmed my love for this type of dish. The vibrancy of colour was stunning to behold, let alone its elegant presentation. The duck is deliciously moist, not overwhelmed by its accompaniments, and the fresh segmented orange wedges are a perfect foil for the rich flavour of the jus.

Bouillabaisse, prawns, calamari, fresh fish pieces, mussel, tomato confit - Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett
Bouillabaisse, prawns, calamari, fresh fish pieces, mussel, tomato confit – Busbys Restaurant and Bar, Highett

I’m not usually a victim of food envy yet when the Bouillabaisse, prawns, calamari, fresh fish pieces, mussel, tomato confit dish was placed in front of my friend, it took a lot of restraint for me not to immediately reach across the table and start helping myself to her meal. It was spectacular in every aspect – the seafood is fresh, tender and full of flavour.

Although I was lucky enough to have a taste of the Bouillabaisse, I’ve quietly resolved to go back to Busbys soon and order it on my return visit, which I envisage will happen very soon. The restaurant hosts weekend high-tea events for $39 per head (almost half the price of its contemporary hotel equivalents) and there are also live music and degustation dining events planned within the next few months.

So when you next think of the Hyatt, think Highett instead. Same style of dining experience yet considerably cheaper and infinitely more enjoyable.

Everything old is definitely new again.

http://www.thebusbys.com.au/

Busbys Restaurant & Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Melbourne Food and Wine Festival – Balinese “Market Tour to Plate” Cooking Class

Turmeric galangal spiced king prawns with betel leaves and nasi goreng - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar

I’m probably one of the few remaining Aussies that has yet to visit Bali. It’s a place that I’m hoping I’ll get to experience in the future but in the meantime, the Balinese “Market Tour to Plate” cooking class which was part of the recent Melbourne Food and Wine Festival programme, gave me the opportunity to indulge in Balinese cuisine without physically leaving the city limits.

The event had been originally designed to meet at the Footscray market, to walk through the myriad of stalls and shops to familiarise ourselves with the key ingredients and produce used in Balinese cooking. However as luck would have it, a deluge of torrential rain was forecast during the time we were to walk from the market towards the Spice Bazaar Cooking School in nearby Seddon. So the day started a little later than previously scheduled, in the warmth of the cooking school, where we were greeted with a glass of Wood Park Prosecco upon arrival.

Our hosts, Pat and Jill, introduced the menu and proceedings for the day whilst we enjoyed sampling some traditional Balinese snacks of rice crackers, accompanied with satay sauce, spicy sambal olek and sambal hijau, and delicious, warm corn fritters served straight from the stove top.

Ingeniously, Pat and Jill recreated the semblance of a market by carefully curating the spices, herbs, vegetables and ingredients typically found in the cuisine and in the selected recipes that we would be attempting to recreate during the class.

The first dish to be prepared was the Lamb Rendang (Rendang Daging) which naturally needed the longest time to cook. Cooking in teams of four to five, we set about the task of preparing all the individual ingredients in order to create one of the first spice pastes of the day.

Lamb Rendang spice paste - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar
Lamb Rendang spice paste – Balinese ‘Market Tour to Plate’, Spice Bazaar

Once the paste had been processed with the aid of a blender and quickly heated in a pan, it was time to add the coconut milk and meat and leave the dish to slowly cook for the next few hours.

With the lamb slowly simmering on the stove, the next order of business was to create another type of spice paste for the Balinese spiced pork dish (Be Celeng Base Manis). Creating a simple paste of shallots, garlic, ginger and oil, the colourful paste slowly transformed into a thicker and darker colour once the pork, kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and soy sauce was added to the pot.

This dish also required two to three hours of cooking time on a gentle simmer, allowing us to leave the pork to develop further and turn our hand to another recipe.

Having completed the preparation of the meat dishes in the banquet, it was time to concentrate on cooking the fish and seafood components of our meal. The next recipe also involved creating another spice paste, but as it was intended as a marinade for the prawns, there were four times as many ingredients than the previous dish. With everyone contributing to the blender with the fresh roots and rhizomes typically found in Asian cuisine, we got to work on slicing quantities of turmeric, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and chillies before adding the dry spices.

Once the paste had been processed, it required a longer cooking time than its predecessors in order to thicken and soften before being added to the prawns. While the paste was developing, we had an impromptu lesson in removing the entrails and outer shell of the prawns before threading them onto skewers and immersing them in delicious paste so as to let them marinate before our scheduled lunch.

And so we progressed onto the last but not least main dish of the day, Kaffir Lime Ginger Snapper cooked in banana leaf (Pepes Ikan). In order to prepare the dish, Pat demonstrated how to transform a rigid banana leaf into a flexible sealing agent, simply by placing it over a naked flame to release its fibres. By preparing another paste to act as marinade, each team got to work in preparing their banana leaves and fish fillings, ready to create a series of parcels for cooking. The beauty of these versatile fish parcels is that they could be either steamed, baked or barbecued as desired.

As the saying goes, “many hands make light work” and rather than individually preparing all the accompanying dishes and sauces for our banquet, the tasks of preparing the mango salsa and mango coulis, the fried Tempeh with sweet soy sauce (Tempe Kering Teri) and the green papaya salad were allocated amongst the three teams to prepare in readiness for lunch.

With the heavy rain beating against the windows and the tempting aromas of succulent lamb, pork and prawns filling our nostrils, there was one last dish to prepare before sitting down to a delicious five-course banquet – which was none other than the ubiquitous Indonesian dish of Nasi Goreng. Aside from finely chopping shallots and garlic to mix with the cooked rice, the complicated aspect of this dish was creating a thin omelette in a wok over high heat, and then dice and fold through the rice mixture.

As the time approached 3pm, everyone was well and truly ready to start plating up their dishes, commencing with the Turmeric galangal spiced king prawns served on top of fresh betel leaves and accompanied by the just-prepared Nasi Goreng. Naturally there were a lot of murmurs of appreciation as the beautifully presented prawns and nasi goreng made its way to each guest.

The beauty of this special event was being able to enjoy our prepared dishes with matched wines produced by Wood Park Wines, from the north-east Victorian wine region. The selected wine match for this particular dish was the ‘Monument Lane’ Roussanne (2015) from the King Valley. Roussanne is a French white varietal from the Northern Rhone area that few winemakers in both the Rutherglen and Alpine wine districts have been growing for the past decade. With aromas of green melon and fresh citrus on the nose, the creamy, soft texture of this wine was a welcome reward for our cooking endeavours and an excellent match for the oven baked prawns and crispy elements of the rice.

No sooner had the first glass of wine been depleted, Pat arrived at the table ready to pour the selected wine for the next dish which as ‘The Kilnhouses’ Semillon (2014) from the township of Porepunkah in the Alpine Valley. With a crisp, fruit driven character, the honeyed sweetness and creamy texture complemented the fruity sweetness and thicker texture of the mango coulis and soft fish. This dish was also visually spectacular in its colourful array and the added novelty of eating straight off a banana leaf gave it a sense of Balinese authenticity.

My heart leapt with joy as the selected wine changed from white to red when Pat started to pour the ‘Myrrhee’ Merlot (2013). Carefully matured in French Oak barriques over a twelve month period, this beautifully intense coloured purple-red wine, had rich dark fruit characteristics and a fine, medium-bodied tannic structure. The silky, smooth wine cut nicely through the soft-textured spiced pork and crispy, crunchy tempeh accompaniment. This dish was delightful with its rich, spiced gravy; melt-in-your-mouth pork; and soft bok choy and turmeric rice.

Balinese spiced pork, wilted bok choy and crispy tempeh - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar
Balinese spiced pork, wilted bok choy and crispy tempeh – Balinese ‘Market Tour to Plate’, Spice Bazaar

Believe it or not, there is still another dish to be served as Pat pours a unique offering of ‘Reserve’ Zinfandel (2013) from the King Valley wine region. Zinfandel (or ‘Zin’ as it is more affectionately known) is a red grape varietal that is commonly grown in North America although it is starting to gain some traction in Australia. In warmer climates, this grape exhibits blackberry, star anise and peppery characters although in cooler climates (much like North-East Victoria) the wine displays rich red fruit flavours of cherry and raspberry with hints of spice. What was interesting about this wine was its rich, syrup-like consistency, similar to that of a  fortified wine. The multi-faceted and complex wine was a perfect foil for the spiced and meaty flavours of the slow cooked Lamb Rendang. Accompanied with steamed rice and a flavourful green papaya salad, this dish was my highlight for the afternoon. The flavours and textures in the salad were a total revelation, from the inclusion of roasted peanuts and crispy shallots, to the finely shredded, fresh fruit which instantly became a match made in heaven with the rich lamb and full bodied wine.

After consuming four beautiful dishes over the course of an hour, a few people were starting to flag, unaware that the final dessert dish of Black sticky rice with palm sugar and salted cream (Burbur Injun) was also just about to be served. It makes sense that a fortified dessert wine of “Rutherglen” Muscat should be selected as a match with such an elegant dessert. With luscious aromas of raisins, dried figs and candied peel (think rich Christmas pudding), the syrupy, sweet texture of the wine matched the creaminess of the rice pudding and the thick coconut cream. I’m very much looking forward to attempting to cook this dessert for my next dinner party.

Black sticky rice with palm sugar and salted cream - Balinese 'Market Tour to Plate', Spice Bazaar
Black sticky rice with palm sugar and salted cream – Balinese ‘Market Tour to Plate’, Spice Bazaar

And just like that the party was over, with everyone fully sated from the numerous but delicious Balinese dishes consumed over the course of an afternoon. This class was an excellent way to gain an unique insight into a lesser-known cuisine and to also enjoy a select offering of some excellent wines from a regional boutique wine producer. Truth be told, this event has more than piqued my interest in exploring Bali as a potential culinary destination and I’m looking forward to perhaps discovering more of what this place to offer on one of Pat and Jill’s specialty food tours to the area.

ALDI Degustation Dinner

Most people, like myself, either have a love or hate relationship with the ALDI discount supermarket chain. There was a time when I loathed the place and decreed that my parents were forbidden to buy any Christmas or birthday presents from there, which they took great delight in doing. Yet fast forward five or so years and I’m the one calling them up suggesting that they buy me the $99 sound bar in the weekly special buys catalogue for my birthday gift and eagerly scouring the bins for that matte black imitation Le Creuset cast iron pot I’ve been coveting for my kitchen.

Every Wednesday morning feels like Christmas to me when I click on the website and see what the new “7 Day Deals” are. I can’t exactly pinpoint the moment when I had a complete change of heart, but what I do know about myself is that I hate being ripped off and there is a substantial price differential when I purchase branded groceries from the other supermarkets than when I shop at ALDI. I have friends that are confounded by the store layout, wondering why on earth there are lawnmowers next to the frozen food section and why I can be bothered shopping there, and there are other friends who are also enthusiastic shoppers or cooks and like me, love a good bargain.

Given my love of good food, great wine and ALDI, I decided just for a bit of fun to combine all three passions and invite some friends over to my place to participate in a degustation dinner challenge. The rules were to create a dish where 90% of the ingredients are sourced from ALDI which is then served with a matching wine selection, also purchased from ALDI. Perhaps something similar to the mystery box challenge on Masterchef if you will, but where you have a whole supermarket to inspire your culinary creativity.

I nominated myself for a fish course and a pasta course, Mez and Adrian to prepare the meat courses (one being chicken and the other being a red meat of their choosing) and Alisha responsible for the dessert and cheese course to finish, all served with an appropriate wine match. With each guest having exceptional knowledge, qualifications and experience in wine, I was really looking forward to seeing what we came up with.

My ideas for the fish course changed over the duration of the three or four weeks prior to the actual dinner event. Originally I had been thinking of serving portions of grilled white fish over a bed of black rice with a red curry sauce, or perhaps serving a salmon dish but after flicking through a Dish magazine, I was inspired to incorporate mango into my dish, given that it was in season. After doing a reconnoitre of the ALDI fridges to confirm that I could obtain prawns for my dish, I went with Prawns with Lime and Mango Dipping Sauce as the first course. I had read about the highly-rated Corte Carista Prosecco DOC ($9.99), from Veneto, Italy in a wine trade magazine and knew that it would be a match made in heaven. And the result? Pretty good considering that I had never made the recipe before or tried the wine until that evening. The sparkling wine with fragrant floral notes was lovely to drink and well matched with the seafood. Cutting mango properly is still a skillset that I need to develop but I got there in the end, and the tropical fruit went well with the spiced marinade and wine. The only thing I didn’t source from ALDI was the mint required for the dipping sauce. Unfortunately ALDI didn’t have any on hand and my local market sold a bunch for a $2.00 so I figured I still won out.

Ricotta and spinach cappellaccio, spiced pumpkin purée, crispy sage, burnt butter sauce and walnut crumb - ALDI Degustation Dinner
Ricotta and spinach cappellaccio, spiced pumpkin purée, crispy sage, burnt butter sauce and walnut crumb – ALDI Degustation Dinner

The next course was my own creation, inspired from a Coles food magazine recipe which had roasted pumpkin, sage, wilted spinach, walnuts and a packet of Latina Fresh pasta. Thinking about the ingredients and what I could get from ALDI, I went with Ricotta and spinach cappellaccio, spiced pumpkin purée, crispy sage, burnt butter sauce and walnut crumb. You can source a pack of the ricotta and spinach cappellaccio for $3.99 from the cold storage and the rest of the ingredients are readily available. Similar to the situation with the mint, the sage on hand at ALDI looked a little limp, so again I got something more robust and cheaper from my greengrocer. Thinking I needed a white wine match for this course, I dropped by my local ALDI last week and spied a bottle of the Peter Mertes Gold Edition 2014 Riesling ($9.99) from Mosel Germany on the shelves. This wine is very dry on the palate with nice soft, fruity aromas that pairs well with a variety of food so it again was a great accompaniment.

Pork Fillet with a mustard cider sauce, cauliflower purée and broccolini - ALDI Degustation Dinner
Pork Fillet with a mustard cider sauce, cauliflower purée and broccolini – ALDI Degustation Dinner

The next course was prepared by Meredith who was originally thinking of preparing a braised meat dish so that she didn’t need to prepare too much in my kitchen but when reviewing what was available in the meat department, she was inspired to cook a Jamie Oliver recipe that she had tried before, Pork Fillet with a mustard cider sauce, cauliflower purée and broccolini. Mez came armed with a meat thermometer to ensure that her pork fillet was cooked and served at the optimum temperature, and the mustard cider sauce and purée pre-prepared making the serving process a lot easier. The chosen wine match was a Tudor Pinot Noir 2014 ($12.99) from the Yarra Valley region in Australia. The pinot which had the typical aromas of red fruit, particularly raspberries, was soft on the palate, medium-bodied and a nice, long finish. Even though I’m a Shiraz girl, I was thinking that this wine wasn’t bad at all and while the serving suggestion on the bottle recommends gamey meats, the soft texture of the wine paired well with the soft texture of the pork fillet. I really loved this dish, particularly the slightly-sweet mustard cider sauce and smooth purée.

Chicken à la Adrian with a ‘Stop & Go’ accompaniment - ALDI Degustation Dinner
Chicken à la Adrian with a ‘Stop & Go’ accompaniment – ALDI Degustation Dinner

Three courses down and three more to go. When I asked everyone to send their dish descriptions and wine matches so that I could write up our dinner menu, Adrian sent me something along the lines of Chicken à la Adrian with a ‘Stop and Go’ accompaniment which sent my imagination into overdrive. I confused ‘Up and Go’ with the term ‘Stop and Go’, thinking that I was going to be served chicken breasts poached in a breakfast beverage and naturally I should have known better. Adrian had sourced all his favourite ingredients at ALDI to create chicken thighs fillets parcels stuffed with baby spinach and haloumi, and wrapped in thin slices of prosciutto. The ‘Stop and Go’, or red and green items, were oven-roasted, vine-ripened baby roma tomatoes and asparagus, dressed with a balsamic finish. Adrian chose Baron Amarillo Rioja Reserva 2010 ($9.99) from Rioja, Spain which was a wine I hadn’t tried before, but will probably buy a lot more of in the future. Rich and elegant in taste, with a soft lush texture coming from the length of time the wine was aged in oak, this wine had a boldness to it that cut through the salty flavours of the cured meat but complemented the roasted vegetables and chicken. Very, very nicely done.

Alisha was brave enough to come along to our dinner adventure and immerse herself in the weird, wonderful world of ALDI. Her dessert choice for the evening was a Dark chocolate mousse with fresh strawberries inspired by Jamie Oliver’s 30-minute meal challenges and she was also tasked with preparing a cheese platter to finish the meal, selecting the ‘Emporium Selection Aged Warrnambool Cheddar 20-month’ and ‘Danish Smooth Blue’ cheese with assorted crackers with a Keeper’s Glove Special Reserve Tawny. The dark chocolate mouse was delicious but I probably did Alisha a disservice by putting in the fridge beforehand so it lost its mousse consistency when it was served but chocolate never goes out of style. The cheese selection was delicious as was the tawny port which matched well with both the dessert and the cheese dishes.

Approaching midnight and having successfully indulged in six delicious courses and some beautifully selected wines, I was quite pleased that my quirky idea turned out to be a great success. Who knows what exotic dishes we will conjure up in our next ALDI-inspired culinary adventure?

https://www.aldi.com.au/en/

Foodie Trails – Gourmet Indian Masala Trail, Melbourne CBD

It’s funny how we are prepared to try new experiences on holidays, but rarely undertake similar adventures in the places in which we live. One of the first things that I do when planning a holiday to a foreign destination, is to sign up for a culinary food tour or cooking class in that country once I arrive, so that I can get a greater appreciation of the cuisine and culture. Although I live in a beautiful city with a rich and diverse offering of foods from many different nationalities, I rarely take the time to discover the edible treasures readily available on my own doorstep.

When I saw an advertisement for a walking tour around the Melbourne CBD with Foodie Trails, sampling authentic Indian cuisine combined with the opportunity to discover wonderful new places to source spices and obscure food items, it was a journey of discovery that I didn’t want to miss.

The starting point of the journey was the Visitor Information Centre at Federation Square where we met our guide Himanshi, before setting off on our gourmet adventure. What was exciting was that we only needed to walk a couple of hundred metres down Flinders Street before arriving at our first location on the tour, an Indian restaurant and café called Flora. I actually walk past this restaurant every day on my way to work but never had the courage to actually step inside and discover what lay beyond the glass doors.

Seated at a large table towards the back of the restaurant, Himanshi treated our group to a narrative of her love of food and travel stemming from her childhood upbringing in India. With maps of the states and provinces before us, we learnt about the origins of popular Indian dishes and spices, and how centuries of various rulers and empires from around the world had contributed to and influenced, what we know as Indian cuisine today.

The best part of any food tour is being introduced to new dishes under the guidance of someone who knows how it should best be eaten. Himanshi had arranged for servings of a traditional South Indian breakfast dish called idli, a savoury cake or dumpling, served in a warm red lentil and vegetable soup flavoured with chilli and mustard seeds known as sambar for everyone to try, served with a cold coconut chutney as an accompaniment. After watching Himanshi demonstrate how to eat the dumpling with the soup and coconut sauce, we all reciprocated and tried it for ourselves. Yum! It was absolutely delicious, and I particularly loved the coconut sauce which had fresh coriander through it.

No breakfast is complete without a hot beverage and Himanshi obliged by ordering chai masala tea for us to enjoy with our soup. Vastly different from a chai latte, masala tea is made from loose leaf tea, fresh ginger, various herbs and dry-roasted spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, which has been boiled and strained before served with milk. The warm spiced tea had a lovely taste and was very easy to drink, and although I could have happily indulged in another cup, it was time for us to leave and head towards our next destination.

After a short walk through the Melbourne city centre, we arrived at a small shop located in Russell Street called Ceylon Curry Corner, which is in close proximity to Chinatown. I must admit that one of the main motivators for joining the tour apart from my love of Indian cuisine, was to discover a place in the city that sold spices and traditional Indian foods. Once we walked into the shop, I knew that I had found that place.

With walls laden with packets of dried herbs and spices, and shelves stocked with jars of various foodstuffs, Himanshi took the time to explain the traditional elements and key ingredients found in Indian cuisine by passing them around our group. We then had an opportunity to buy our own spices to bring home and incorporate into our own cooking. I had been searching for a five-seed spice blend called panch phoran to use in a recipe for a Sri Lankan curry for quite some time, and I was excited to finally get my hands on a packet for only a couple of dollars.

Our last destination for the afternoon was a well-known Indian restaurant located at the top of Bourke Street called Red Pepper. Red Pepper has a contemporary, modern interior and our group was looking forward to enjoying what Himanshi had ordered for our lunch. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed an authentic mango lassi and didn’t hesitate to order one to accompany the food, but I found that it was so delicious and refreshing that my glass was empty within only a few minutes.

Soon after, several individual platters of food were served, containing large portions of warm butter naan, and smaller bowls of goat curry, raita, butter chicken, chicken curry, lentil soup , rice and a small salad. Thankfully I had brought my appetite with me on the tour but where to start? Butter chicken is always a favourite and a dish that I have mastered making at home in my own kitchen, so naturally I started there. Everything on the platter was beyond compare – fresh, delicious, full of flavour, the meat dishes were tender and succulent, the sauces were beautifully spiced and not unbearably hot to taste. Naan bread is always wonderful and this was no exception yet somehow I had some left over to mop up the left over remnants of the curries at the end of the meal.

Just when I thought I couldn’t eat another mouthful of food, our gulab juman dessert arrived. These delectable dumplings are made from cottage cheese, immersed in a sweet sugar syrup with a touch of cinnamon and absolutely yummy, even on a full stomach.

This marked the end of a wonderful tour of the Melbourne CBD area, sampling a fantastic selection of culinary delights at popular Indian cafés and restaurants within its locale. Himanshi surprised us all with a little goody bag by way of thank you for participating in the tour which contained a lovely key charm and a packet of spice mix to make our exotic Indian creations at home. What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the city?

http://foodietrails.com.au/

Flora Indian Restaurant & Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ceylon Curry Corner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Red Pepper Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Adeney Milk Bar, Kew

When I first signed up for a brief sojourn to Kew, my friend Alison took me on a quick tour of her neighbourhood and the first place of interest was Adeney Milk Bar Café, just a short walk around the corner. So with the promise of warm weather, blue skies and birds either tweeting or swooping, after many months in seclusion I was so eager to get to Adeney that I almost skipped all the way there.

Naturally with the sun out, all the outdoor seating beneath the front verandah was fully occupied but thankfully there were a few tables near the front window that were still available. The interior of the café is so inviting and homely, making me feel that I was almost indulging in a breakfast in someone’s home.

Perched on the banquette seating along the wall, I had a wonderful view of the street outside and full view of another separate dining space towards the rear of building. It’s quite cosy in the seating department and not long after arriving, a family with very young children sat down at the next table alongside me, which was in such close proximity that I could have helped myself to their breakfast as well. It was no laughing matter when the little girl then proceeded to keep yelling repeatedly in my left ear, “Mummy, what can I have to eat?” for what seemed like an eternity.

The coffee machine was in full throttle with a constant flow of both in-house and take-away orders coming from all directions. Believe it or not, there is a dedicated walk-up sliding window behind the counter, available for those wanting to order take-away coffees without having to step inside. When I had a sip of my large hot skinny latte once it arrived, I immediately knew what all the fuss was about. The Fitzroy Street house blend sourced from Industry Beans was incredibly smooth, creamy and delicious that I found myself just staring absentmindedly into space, nursing the warm glass in my hands and taking lots of long, slow sips.

The Winter menu at Adeney is fairly typical of most other cafés with all the usual suspects present. There are two smashed avocado options available, and after a lot of deliberation, I landed on the Winter Smash with avocado, chilli, coriander and fresh lime on toasted sourdough ($14) and added the poached egg ($3).

Winter Smash: avocado, chilli, coriander and fresh lime on toasted sourdough and poached egg - Adeney Milk Bar, Kew
Winter Smash: avocado, chilli, coriander and fresh lime on toasted sourdough and poached egg – Adeney Milk Bar, Kew

Although it’s called the “Winter Smash”, the bright green colours of the avocado, coriander sprigs and fresh lime were decidedly reminiscent of the approaching Spring season. There was quite a substantial amount of the avocado mixture on the plate to devour and while I thought that the inclusion of the red chilli would be the standout ingredient, after the first mouthful it was apparent that someone had been heavy-handed with the lime which had unfortunately left a slightly sour aftertaste. Although the flavours were a little out of balance, it was still extremely edible and enjoyable when paired with the crusty sourdough toast and soft poached egg. I had once again underestimated how restorative and satisfying a good dose of creamy avocado and bread can be.

Having finished another delicious cup of coffee along with my breakfast, all was good and right in my own little world and even more so when I realised that Adeney was going to be my new “local” for the next few weeks, which might also be just enough time for me to be able to stroll around the corner again and try their new Spring menu.

Adeney Milk Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mastic, Kew

There is something about beautiful sunny Saturday mornings during Spring. I don’t know whether it is the warm sunshine coupled with blue skies that spark feelings of rejuvenation or the fragrant blossoms on trees, but after working long hours during the colder months, under the constant glare of artificial lights and continually having to miss my beloved Body Pump classes, Saturday morning heralded my first non-working weekend for a month and brought with it, a commitment to get back into a healthier lifestyle. In the spirit of new beginnings, having temporarily exchanged my inner city lifestyle and relocated to the leafy surrounds of Kew for the coming month, the opportunity to explore new cafés and food destinations in the area brought an added sense of adventure. What better way to kick-off the weekend than by heading to Mastic, George Colombaris’ café venture dedicated to healthy and nutritious eating.

The café fit-out is quite unique; with plywood cabinetry and structures built overhead but has a rather confused sense of style in that I wasn’t sure if I was having breakfast at a high school cafeteria or the gymnasium. Thick coloured strips of red and clear plastic separate the café space from the neighbouring Hellenic Republic restaurant; green and white plastic-coated wire chairs are used for seating on top of a blue “raised dot” linoleum floor surface; large plywood communal tables with colourful geometric designs, blackboards and table tennis bats adorning the wall space all contributed to a decidedly “institutional” presence in the interior design. I retreated to a marble-topped table in the back corner and patiently waited five minutes or so for someone to acknowledge my arrival.

It’s not easy being green which I discovered when looking through the breakfast menu. As much as I desire to be lean and healthy, the thought of drinking a green whole fruit smoothie with kale, spinach and other leafy ingredients didn’t thrill me at all, nor did the farro salad and buckwheat porridge dishes. But what did catch my eye was the description of the French toast, blueberries, strawberries, crème fraiche and buckinis offering – I guess if George says it’s good for you, then who am I to say otherwise?

I was thoroughly looking forward to my latte which arrived in a beautiful matte black cup, only to be told by the waiter that they had to pop out back and get some more teaspoons. I usually hate having things placed in front of me and told not to touch, but I can only surmise that it was either my extreme tiredness or newly acquired zen-like attitude that enabled me to patiently watch this guy return to the front counter with a handful of clean spoons and commence his duties in the kitchen. I watched him disappear out back and several moments later he returned to the table with my breakfast. Just before he sped off, I politely asked for a teaspoon and he didn’t bat so much as an eyelid at my request.

French toast, blueberries, strawberries, creme fraiche, buckinis - Mastic, Kew
French toast, blueberries, strawberries, creme fraiche, buckinis – Mastic, Kew

Healthy food needn’t be boring or ugly, as evidenced by the colourful array of berries and presentation of the dish. There was a mixture of both fresh and freeze-dried berries scattered over the toast providing lots of added flavour and texture to the palate. I have no idea what type of bread was served (or even if it was bread) but it was soft with a cake-like consistency and quite sweet to taste, as though drizzled in a syrup. It was extremely delicious and not as dense or heavy as a traditional French toast. Buckinis, as advised by Google, are activated grains of buckwheat and added another textural element in addition to the freeze-dried fruit. The crème fraiche broke up the density and sweetness of the cake mixture with just enough served to not overwhelm the other elements on the plate.

Not surprisingly, I polished off my first coffee due to its lukewarm state and was now anxious to order another. I slowly ate my breakfast and tried in vain to catch the attention of my waiter who had set himself the task of walking around the café to monitor empty tables (which were numerous) and not make eye-contact with actual customers. After an agonising five minutes, I suddenly hit upon the novel idea of scoffing down the remainder of my breakfast and placing my empty plate in full view in a desperate bid to lure him over to my table, and guess what … it worked. Incredibly, my second latte was brought over by the barista within a minute of ordering which restored some of my misgivings regarding the level of service at Mastic. Having enjoyed a “healthy” breakfast and a great cup of coffee, I had all the energy needed to venture out and make the most of my weekend.

Mastic Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato