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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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The Buffet at Melba

Every year at about this time, I exhume an ongoing hope. To wit: the daydream of the perfect all-you-can-eat buffet. In my mind, a dozen Escoffiers stand behind their gleaming stations and serve exquisite tastes to refined patrons. In my experience, three scary mothers from Wantirna claw each other for the last prawn.

It was time to take the buffet crusade up a notch.

The $89 price tag gave me high hopes for Melba. There are few all-you-can-cram establishments that can exact such a fee. Had I found my gourmand’s nirvana?

Well, yes and no.

Dining at Melba involves passage through the brassy lobby of The Langham. Things become more muted once in the restaurant, but the feeling is still more cruise ship than elegant dining space.

The rules of buffet eating are as simple and inflexible as the rules of Fight Club. First rule of buffet: don’t talk about carbohydrates. Avoid bread, noodles, pasta or rice, and just chow down on premium produce. Here, the seafood station is an obvious target. Crabs, Moreton Bay bugs, yabbies and prawns are all in abundance, and crustacean fans could probably just gorge on this and get their money’s worth. I loaded up my plate with half a dozen oysters. I had planned on taking the full dozen, but felt death rays burning my back as others waited for the tongs. I succumbed to the buffet-pressure to move along. Which I did. To the prawns which, happily, had not been entirely annexed by Wantirna. The seafood sauce is nicely tangy with a sharp horseradish bite, and the oysters are superbly fresh.

The second rule of successful buffet navigation is to never approach them hungry. You’ll either be completely sated by one small plate or make straight for filling things that are fatty; it’s a classic newbie mistake.

The third rule is to keep your courses and dishes focused and appealing. Wedding oysters to curry and pork crackling may seem like a good idea. But, it looks like the world’s least attractive three way. Resist the panic-buying mentality that grips you as you approach the islands of food. Do a reconnaissance first, and plan your courses based on their attractiveness.

And the islands of food at Melba look mighty appealing. The Asian stir-fry station is manned by a team of cooks who will throw your choice of ingredients into a hot wok while you wait. It’s certainly more visually appealing than the bain-maries of Indian curries and overcooked veg in the carvery.

Electing to stick to my plan of consuming only premium produce, I bypassed the stir-fry station and made for the counter where excellent sashimi is expertly cut to order.

There is value to be had at Melba, if you choose wisely. There is no lack of premium ingredients; nor is there a lack of supremely average fare.

Nothing here is quite so average as the service. Of course, at a buffet one primarily serves one’s self. However, for eighty-nine bucks, I expect my napkin to be refolded when I return to table. And I gave the young, uninterested staff plenty of long absences to think about replenishing my flatware. They seemed as interested in this as they were in taking my drink order. Which is to say: not at all.

As my dinner companion, Frank from Fairfield, has it, this is the Bunnings of cuisine. Variety, occasional great value, and no one in an apron around when you need ’em.

Melba, The Langham, 1 Southgate Ave, Southbank, 1800 641 107. melbarestaurant.com.au

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Mercifully, in our town, the risk of being dealt poor food is pretty low. In Melbourne, the buzz about a new kitchen is most often generated by fussy bees. Certainly, food is what drives the year-old hot hive, Gigibaba. Chef Ismail Tosun’s food is inspired, singular and exceptional. It’s a resolute heads-up here for Turkish small-plate dining. It’s thumbs down, however, for service.

When I moved as a teenager from the leafy suburbs to the bare inner city, I became familiar with the rudeness endemic to certain of Melbourne’s eateries. I never particularly enjoyed watching a hungover VCA student hurl rigatoni in my approximate direction; but, for the single figure price tag, I tolerated it. It was a fair deal: she was working out her frustrations at not being born in the East Village – I was getting fed for virtually nothing. Moreover, I was confident that one day, I’d afford myself the luxury of dining in places not entirely staffed by a sneering Second Year Drama class.

But then, a funny thing happened. The down-at-heel aesthetic of inner-city life went upscale in the late nineties. Even Starbucks successfully corporatised the dodgy student experience. Communal dining tables, mismatched flatware and other signifiers of “cool” became standard not only at shitty yet dependable St Kilda cafes, but in the high end of the CBD. Nonchalant or just plain terrible service was all part of this let’s-pretend-we’re-poor mini boom.

The bubble has not burst at Gigibaba. It’s not so much that the staff here is rude; they’re just affectedly casual, preferring loud conversation with each-other to interaction with diners. This, I suspect, is not actually a mistake but, rather, part of a pre-GFC master plan.

In true faux-poverty style, the place does not take bookings. Further, as we are proudly told by a waiter who has taken time out from grooming his beard in the bar mirror, the place does not have a sign or a website. Naturally, food is served on floral thrift-store Nanna-ware. Most ascetic of all, wine is served by the millilitre in beakers. This science lab chic might have been cute before the market crashed. Now, as I look at the small volume of decent plonk I can afford, I’m reminded how much money I lost in 2008.

Almost everything at Gigibaba screams “Slumming it!”. Everything, except the food that is. Shopworn irony might abound in this new Smith Street hub but it’s found nowhere on Tosun’s near perfect small plates. The former Perth superstar and Gourmet Traveller’s Best New Talent award winner is not just an extraordinary cook, he’s an innovator. Here is modern Turkish cuisine as you’re unlikely to experience outside Istanbul. There is nothing playful or ironic about the pickled octopus salad; the lamb cutlet; the exquisite quail. There’s no mocking nod evident in the must-order cauliflower or the dessert plate. In his menu, Tosun does not so much defy convention as advance it. Great skill and an abiding respect for Turkish cuisine leads this chef to some stunning conclusions. One of them, surprisingly, being the bill. Two of us drained a 500ml beaker and crammed some of Melbourne’s best food into our pie holes for under a hundred bucks.

There’s no doubt Tosun will shortly rank among the country’s most influential chefs. He belongs in our omnivorous city which will forgive him his fashionable foibles for such wonderful food.

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I didn’t try this. But I do love the almost desperate duck on the packaging. Like he’s really really trying to convince you that duck gizzards are tasty. Photographed in the basement supermarket at Super Brands Mall, Pudong, Shanghai.

Tasty Smoked Gizzards

Tasty Smoked Gizzards

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China 059

I have created a monster.

But, to give credit, a high-end Fat Farm helped. My hair-shirt wearing, recovering Catholic partner had signed up for ‘the program’ at the Elysia Golden Door Health Retreat. I didn’t.
Even with the edgy double-barrelled name and promise of luxe, fluffy robes and massages, I wasn’t fooled. This would be a week of early mornings, pre-breakfast exercise, and self-improvement workshops. Followed by more exercise, a calorie controlled dinner, and in my case, no doubt, tears. The real deal breaker for me was the ‘no booze, no caffeine’ regimen. Thanks, but no thanks.

Partner was, however. Partner spent a vacation in the pursuit of better bowel movements. I jetted off to Beijing to devour Peking duck, dumplings, and buckets of Tsing Tao beer.

China 026

Peking Duck service at the Peninsula Beijing

“I’m going to die,” Partner wailed over the phone on her second day. This non-smoking, moderate-drinking gym member wanted to go to hospital. Her coffee consumption had crept up to six cups a day, and going cold turkey had hit her like a cricket bat to the forehead.

Quite convinced, and secretly delighted, that I’d made the right vacation decision, I cajoled and soothed as best I could from a distance. I suggested tea, but that too was verboten. It was only after Partner’s threats to torch the place that the gentle staff relented with access to small amounts of green tea to help combat her withdrawal symptoms. Meanwhile, in Beijing, I went tea shopping.

Determined to support my newly reformed coffee addict, I sought out the best low-caffeine tea that money could buy, and discovered that I couldn’t afford it. Not in any sort of impressive quantity, anyway. It seems there’s tea, and then there’s tea. Much in the same way that there’s shiraz, and then there’s Grange.

Tea ceremony at Gong Wongfu, the residence of Prince Gong.

Tea ceremony at Gong Wongfu, the residence of Prince Gong, Beijing, China

The most highly regarded green tea in China is called lung ching, or Dragon Well tea, from Hangzhou. Only the finest leaves are hand-picked using gloves to avoid any perspiration from the harvester’s hands from fouling the end product. A tea connoisseur friend describes its buzz as ‘relaxed awareness’. Light on caffeine, it tastes like a spring day; it’s brisk and just a little floral.

Dragon Well Tea

Dragon Well Tea

At the next shop I discover white tea. With even less caffeine than green tea, and purportedly higher health benefits, it’s amongst the most expensive teas in the world. The very best is silver needle. It is at once buttery and nutty, and tastes delicately of autumn fruits. I buy a tin the size of a film canister.

White Tea

White Tea

My gifts of tea from China were well received, and having survived prison, Partner has become quite the aficionado. When I’m sent out to buy tea I now break into a mild sweat, fearful of coming home with an inferior leaf.

Tea Monster swoons over organic silver needle and frowns suspiciously at tea bags bought at the local Asian grocer. I’ve discovered that T2 shops are a reliable source of the good stuff.

I still enjoy my morning coffee, but in the afternoons I’ve switched to tea. I may not have endured the luxury horrors of a health retreat, but by proxy I’ve become a convert to the magical properties of a great cuppa.

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