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Archive for the ‘Chefs’ Category

Kingfish tataki

In our town, we revel in our Food Capital status. And so we should. At any hour, we can partake of the great multi-culti banquet that built our reputation. We can taste the authentic stuff or sup on elite spins of every folk cuisine from Cambodia to Kabul.

But there’s one continent that’s a little under-represented. God, how I miss the Americas on a plate.

My homesick stomach led me to Nacional in Albert Park. Here, Chef Leena Monson is quietly playing with broad American flavours as any hip New York chef from the West Village to Williamsburg might. But the American undercurrents of this menu have been overlooked since a 2009 debut. These undercurrents are easy to miss. On the face of it, Nacional could pass for another chic, inner-suburban joint. The interior and ambience screech Melbourne, from the artfully designed lighting to the impeccable row of tea canisters from T2. At breakfast and lunch, Nacional balances the cafe-restaurant divide with grace. At dinner time, Monson lets loose with the remarkable American flavours about which she is clearly passionate. Meat matched with fruit, like a daily special on the board of pork chops and peach, is a quintessentially American marriage. From there, her unions go South in the best way. From New Orleans, we have BBQ prawns and grilled corn bread. A south-west and Central American influence creates blue corn-crusted soft-shell crab with mashed avocado and lime. Then, we really cross the border with ingredients and condiments like annatto, chipotle and chimichurri.

Prepared for our Tex-Mex, Cajun, mid-west and Central American fusion, we order from a list that comprises 38 beers. The wine list is hardly underdone. But, tonight, it’s time for a Corona.

Eager to sample Monson’s talents broadly, we order from the printed menu. Here the focus is on small plates designed for sharing at around the $18 mark.

Four pieces of complimentary warm grilled flat bread arrive unadorned shortly after our beers. A good start.

Spiced gazpacho with crab salsa, served in an oversized shot glass was a great appetiser. The tomato base was nicely spiced and avoided the chunkiness of clumsier gazpachos. Smoked paprika cured kingfish tataki (pictured), annatto oil and lemon thyme was less successful. The just-cooked thin slices of fish were light on the smoky flavour suggested by the inclusion of the paprika. Likewise, the influence of annatto was negligible. This colour and flavour enhancer derived from the achiote tree is the South American equivalent of turmeric. It was somewhat lost. A squeeze of lime across the plate before it hit the pass would really bring it out and balance a dish that deserves to shine.

The roast pork belly with pickled watermelon rind again suffers from a lack of execution. But, the concept is wonderful. On our visit the pork arrives overcooked and dry, adorned with chunks of superbly flavoured watermelon rind. The chicken escabeche with black garlic had Partner giving me that “Why don’t you cook this?” look. It was near perfect. A real stand out, however, is the beef pincho with chimichurri. It’s not often a girl has something of such quality in her mouth. The chimichurri, a South American salsa verde, is spot on, the perfect counterpoint to nicely cooked skewers of quality beef.

Nacional has all the right ducks in a row, but the pistol’s just not always firing. With a little daring and a touch more care, this new gunslinger could command a fan base of Modern American foodies.

Nacional, 36 Mills Street, Albert Park Ph: (03) 9645 0977

$110 for two, including two beers each.

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DT 1

David Thompson inspects the produce in Springvale

‘Please, please have him back by 2pm.”

Martin Boetz, executive chef at Longrain, sounds exactly like a troubled father. He looks at me like I’m a bikie about to take his wayward 16-year-old out on a date.

Not a problem, I assure him. We’ll be back by two.

“He has a tendency to wander,” says Boetz, unconvinced and with genuine fear in his eyes. I wonder exactly how much wandering havoc a chef with a Michelin star can wreak.

A couple of years back, as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, David Thompson presented a series of dinners at Boetz’s Longrain restaurant. For devotees of Thai cuisine, it was an obligatory event.

Thompson is acclaimed as an authority on Thai culinary technique. His book on the subject, Thai Food, is regarded as a Bible by cooks eager to dish up something more genuine than a tepid green curry.

Since leaving Australia and opening Nahm at London’s Halkin Hotel in July 2001, he has become the world’s sole purveyor of Thai food to win a Michelin star.

I was slavering at the thought of Thompson’s salted chicken wafers with longans and Thai basil, Murray cod with apple eggplants and, most of all, his taste for authenticity.

First, though, I was taking David Thompson shopping.

After an elaborate exchange of emails and promises, I had a tentative “yes”. Chef would join me for an afternoon of shopping and eating in Melbourne’s little Thailand, Springvale.

Thompson darts around Springvale’s produce markets like a fastidious bee. Amid the glorious hodgepodge, he never settles on one ingredient for long and he covers every inch. He’s full of culinary counsel and I’m paying careful attention. “Lemongrass must be thin and young,” Thompson says, hovering near some thick, dried-out stalks. “Galangal must be pink and vibrant.” I’m taking it all down. I nod.

“Fish sauce isn’t simply fish sauce,” he says, before launching into a sermon on the lesser brands.

“Bad fish sauce tastes like a decomposed cat has fallen into a vat,” he says. While my palate has never detected anything cat-like, I have often felt disappointed by the quality of this salty elixir. Thompson recommends Squid brand as a dependable and widely available cat-less stand-by.

I nod. I buy some Squid.

Thompson, as his protege Boetz will affirm, is an eager teacher. Ask a question and he will respond with warm, encyclopedic force. Ask him about fusion cuisine, however, and he turns hotter than a habanero.

“I hate fusion food. Hate it with a passion,” he has been quoted as saying. For Thompson, the marriage of, for example, teriyaki with chilli shows a poverty of skill and imagination.

This chef is not a fusionista. Nor is he inclined to tag along with food trends. The popularity of molecular gastronomy among young chefs has him a little concerned. “It was interesting, and the understanding of chemistry was helpful, but I fear it’s gone too far,” he says of kitchens conjuring airs and foams.

Thompson prefers authenticity to fusion and fashion. This was evident in the presentation and flavours of his astonishing food at Longrain. I’d never devoured his creations before and had, perhaps, expected gravity-defying stacks of Thai by way of France, by way of a science lab.

Instead, each dish was an accomplished but earthy conversation of sweet, salty, hot and sour. Served in communal bowls, harmonising dishes are eaten together for the full score to emerge.

Although critics of Nahm have been aghast at this style, Thompson is resolute in maintaining the presentation. He is also a determined student of traditional Thai techniques.

Trained as a chef in Sydney, Thompson went to Thailand in 1986 and fell immediately in love. “I went for a holiday and was seduced by the place,” he says. Some years later, he emerged from his lemongrass haze, returning to Sydney to open his first restaurant, the acclaimed Darley Street Thai “in the back of a bloodbath of a hotel” in St Peters.

It was in Thailand that he encountered “an old woman who cooked the most delectable of foods. A depth of palate, seasoning, and textures that was just fantastic. Her cooking transformed my understanding of what Thai food was, from being quite pleasant, photographically delightful street food into something else”.

With partner Tanongsak Yordwai, whom he met on that first trip to Thailand, Thompson has collected and translated a substantial assortment of Thai “memorial books”. It is the custom in Thailand to publish a booklet when someone dies. It documents the deceased’s life; their habits, hobbies and often their favourite recipes. Some in Thompson’s collection are more than a century old. He calls this collection of about 600 books “a delicious treasure trove” and uses many of the recipes on his menu at Nahm.

With the spectre of 2pm looming, I whisk Thompson and Yordwai into Pa Wan for lunch. They pore over the menu, which offers arresting departures from the standard Australian neighbourhood Thai joint, and point out that many of the dishes are Cambodian or Laotian.

Thai restaurants in the West are commonly a mishmash, they tell me. Natives of neighbouring countries frequently man the stoves at your local takeaway.

It’s something of a modern miracle that Thailand remains almost singularly unconquered, its cuisine untempered by foreign influence and its citizens blase about defection to the West.

“There are no Thai refugees,” says Yordwai. Consequently, an undiluted version of Thai cuisine can be hard to find.

At Pa Wan, we select sai oung, a northern Thai pork sausage made with curry paste, coriander and lime leaves; nam kra khoa phod, pork ribs deep fried then cured in garlic and sticky rice; yum nhun plar grob, a crisp fish-skin salad; larb gai, the minced chicken salad popular on Australian Thai menus; and gang pa moo, a “jungle-style” curry of pork, baby eggplants, and bamboo.

Each dish inspired a lesson from the master of Thai cuisine. Each market stop was an education.

It was easy to lose my way in this afternoon of higher learning. I may have been a little lost in the extraordinary world of David Thompson but he didn’t go missing for a moment.

In fact, I had him back to Longrain and a grateful Martin Boetz by 10 minutes after two.

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