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Archive for March, 2010

River Kwai

There is a terrible man of my acquaintance called Bob the Food Snob. A few years back, I told you about the friendly food rivalry Bob and I enjoyed.  The bad news is, it continues.

Our competition still revolves around a teenage drive to be hipper-than-thou. We maintain a schoolyard race to be first at discovering anything delicious. Like a pair of enemy truffle pigs, our snouts are always down trying to unearth a treasure.   We get extra points for finding truly exotic cuisine. First there was the annoying Armenian Incident, followed by the intense southern African mêlée and the too-close-to-call Afghan dispute. Damn you, Bob, I found that pilaf first. Now, the battle lines have been drawn over Burma.

The race is on to find the best Burmese food in Melbourne, and although I have three more places yet to visit, I’m feeling fairly smug about striking a vein of the good stuff at my first outing.

I approached River Kwai Thai & Burmese restaurant expecting to find a cheap Asian suburban eatery; a busy hive packed with students from neighbouring Monash. Not so. From the plush carpeting, warm red walls and quality fittings to the friendly and gracious welcome, River Kwai makes a great, non-studenty first impression.

River Kwai Tofu

Here, Thai dishes dominate the entrees and soups. Partner and I opted to start with one of the items from the vegetarian section of the menu, River Kwai Tofu. Deep fried and served with tamarind sauce, it points to Burma’s proximity to China. The sour punch of the tamarind relocates the compass to South-east Asia.  It’s this sort of spinning, I will later tell Bob, that we can expect from Burmese cuisine.  Thanks to history and geography, the food of the nation has been heavily influenced by Chinese, Indian and Thai technique.

Nonetheless, the menu delineates clearly between Thai and Burmese curries. We order the Burmese Kyak Thar Arloo Hin, a chicken curry. With a tip of the hat to India, ground coriander and cumin make their way into the mix. The overall flavour is more akin to Malaysian curries and the comparison is buoyed by the inclusion of potato. It has a sweet, slightly sour and persistent full flavour without too much heat. We’re not in Thailand anymore.

Kyak Thar Arloo Hin

I resist a sending a smug SMS to Bob and get stuck into the next dish.

Nir Gratiem takes us back in the direction of the Thai border. But, we travel by way of China. This stir fry is extraordinary.  The beef has the silkiness often found in good Chinese cooking; probably the result of some chemical treatment and definitely a secret no cook will divulge to me no matter how I beg. The meat is dressed with garlic and pickled peppercorns and carries a clinging gravy based on oyster sauce, fish sauce and palm sugar.

Nir Gratiem

Actually, it tastes like a South East Asian peace treaty.  So, I ordered extra and dropped it off to Bob. I think he’s annoyed that I found it first; he’s declared a cease fire in order to regroup.

River Kwai

3/1310 Centre Road, Clayton South P: 9545 5688

Open Monday-Sunday 5.30pm-10pm

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The Bitter End


If there’s a bottle of Angostura Bitters gathering dust in your larder, take it out and cradle it. Then, immediately hide it again. There has been a rash of worldwide burglaries perpetrated by desperate bartenders as supplies of the concoction dry up.

OK, that’s not entirely accurate. But if the stuff doesn’t start shipping again soon, well: just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

There’s an Angostura drought, and no one seems to really know why. Reports about The Great Angostura Crisis of 2010 have appeared in publications from The Guardian to the Washington Post. It seems that the House of Angostura had some sort of dispute with the company that supplies its bottles. Just what stopped the bitter flow is uncertain.  It’s a mystery. Just like the recipe itself.

The exact Angostura formula is reputedly known by only eleven people. It’s made of gentian root, alcohol and goodness’ knows what else. The heady secret has been protected since 1824, when it was developed by Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a doctor in Simon Bolivar’s army in Venezuela. The drink may not have played as key a role as Bolivar in Latin America’s liberation from Spain. But it did have a pivotal impact on cocktail creation. This is the stuff that levels a Pisco Sour, gives a Mai Tai its complexity and makes a Manhattan cocktail sting.

Today, the oversized label on the bottle is packed with information on a variety of applications, from adding zest to soups and salads to plum puddings and stewed prunes. The most civic-minded use for the drink is, of course, in Lemon, Lime and Bitters. The designated driver would be lost without this grown-up soft-cocktail. For, even though Angostura has a 44% concentration of alcohol, it is always used as a condiment and never as a solo drink.

The magic, mysterious liquid still holds the Royal Warrant of Appointment to Queen Elizabeth II.

For the moment, however, it is bartenders who are tackling the crisis head on.

Happily, there is help at hand. To tide us over, or, perhaps, to convert us, a new line of bitters from Germany have landed in Australia. The Bitter Truth line features Old Time Aromatic Bitters, which are the closest match for the Angostura drink.

Launched in 2006 by Munich bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck, the range also includes bitters enhanced by lemon, orange, grapefruit, celery and the truly exotic Bitterman’s Xocolatl Mole. The varieties available will bring a new kick to old favourites. They may well inspire a new generation of pungent, peculiar cocktails.

That’s the wonderful thing about cocktails, of course. They can help you see a silver lining in even the darkest cloud. But, when the mists of alcohol clear, the sad fact remains: Trinidad’s most famous export is currently on hold.

I’ll report back when the shortage is resolved. In the meantime, I think we should all keep an eye on Buckingham Palace. IF ER’s supplies run out, there might be a constitutional crisis.

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MoVida Aqui

Anchoa, Cantabrian anchovy on crouton with smoked tomato sorbet

I do get a little bit twitchy when a great restaurant expands. As a business spills into an adjacent shop front, I bite my nails as an appetizer. Sometimes, I can move happily on to the next course. St Kilda mainstay Ciccolina extended some years ago with great success. We habitués now ride out the no-bookings policy at the bar, noshing on the same glorious antipasto plate served in the restaurant.

Up the food chain a little, there are restaurants that replicate themselves. A visit to Nobu, for example, proves that cloning can be a very risky business.  Recipes can suffer and a TGI Fridays franchise feel is what passes for a “vibe” in some of the high end chains.

It’s impossible to reproduce the chemistry of an original restaurant. The best we can hope for is a really good translation.  When I heard that Frank Comorra had parlayed the back-lane MoVida into a huge Bourke Street locale, I started biting my nails again.

Out of the test-lab come new restaurants, MoVida Aqui and the adjacent outdoor Terraza. The original MoVida appeal is found not only in sensational food and wine, but in its cloak-and-dagger location.  There’s a particular romance to the Hosier Lane joint.  Tiny and tucked away, this place always made me feel very Boho. Seated with my small plates and rioja at the bar, I was a subversive diner.

At Aqui, one feels more upright. The place is large, bright and a million airy miles away from it’s forebear in terms of ambience. Massive windows afford views of the Supreme Court. Here, the legitimate city, and not the back alley, is part of the experience.

Perhaps the shift from cobblestone to avenue is not yet complete.  There are some mild kinks in the service. I was offered a choice between sparkling or “Melbourne” water.  When offered “Melbourne” water, all I could think of was muck from the Yarra. So confused and embarrassed, I asked for tap water specifically. Odd.

For the most part, Comorra sensibly offers a distinct experience. But he has been unable to resist a little decorative tribute to his original. The light fittings housed in milk crates are a design misstep. It’s as though the feel of a laneway has been transposed into an airline club lounge.

There’s no hint of airport in the food, though.  Many old favourites have made the transition intact. The Anchoa, Cantabrian anchovy on crouton with smoked tomato sorbet, has survived the trip up the Bourke Street Hill without melting. The braised beef cheek, however, didn’t seem to like its new surrounds so well.  It was a little dry and unappetizing.

New offerings include Bocadillo de calamares.  It’s a little like a calamari mini-burger, served with Basque guindilla and mayonnaise. It’s super-garlicky, the calamari was perfectly tender, and I could have eaten two. Codorniz, charcoal grilled quail served with housemade morcilla and chickpeas, hits all the right sour BBQ notes. An octopus salad appears that is OK but forgettable.

Paella del Marisco, Bomba rice cooked with seafood and saffron, is generous and flavoursome. I’d like say that it was spiked with a little too much rosemary; but I’ll concede the possibility that my membership in the original MoVida cult is clouding my judgement.

This new MoVida-for-the-masses ticks enough boxes for a return visit and a further education in some of the best Spanish cuisine in the country.

MoVida Aqui & MoVida Terraza, 500 Bourke St. (entry via Little Bourke Street)  Ph: 9663 3038.

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