Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Mexican: dos & don’ts

As my regular readers may have gathered, Mexican cuisine is something I love. This stems from being raised on Mexican and eating as much of it as possible on my infrequent visits back to the USA. So when restaurateurs decide to open a Mexican outpost because it’s 'like so cool right now' without learning how to make the food properly it really makes me angry (think Ari Gold tirade). Luckily my faith has been restored by some first time restaurateurs setting up shop in Richmond.

Paco’s Tacos (don’ts)

When I heard that Paco’s Tacos had replaced the underperforming Movida Terraza (financially underperforming, the food was actually decent) I was really excited to have a more accessible lunch taco option than Mamasita (hopefully without a side of groan inducing hipster attitude).  

Last week I got some of my regular lunch buddies together for a girl’s lunch at Paco’s. Firstly I’ll give them credit for the positives: it’s a great outdoor venue that would be good for after work drinks in summer, they have their kitchen garden spread around the tables, which adds a point of interest. 

We started our lunch with a flustered and slightly rude server when ordering at the counter, which I generally forgive when a restaurant is busy but not when it’s practically empty as it was at 12:05 on a Wednesday.
We began with the Chicharrones (pork crackling $10) with salsa verde and a roasted capsicum salsa. The salsas were flavourful, however, the crackling should be cut smaller and be crispy (ours was hit and miss, which makes it hard to bite through giant chunks). 

H ordered some vegetarian tacos ($6 as are all their tacos), which had black beans, pico de gallo, guacamole and queso fresco. Main Problem: as with all of the tacos we ordered, the corn tortillas were not prepared properly. They hadn’t been toasted on a grill and they were cold, had a bad flaky texture and fell apart. Again I would have let this slide on the basis of it being a one-off, but my reading of other diners reviews suggests that it’s a constant issue (who cares if the tortillas are from Casa Iberica if you don’t know how to serve them).

Y and I shared the ‘pulled’ pork tacos with pineapple. The filling was fine but the tortillas were problematic. 

Next we tried the prawn tacos.

The roast duck with ‘mole’ was pretty bland. Proper mole is one of the more complex sauces in existence often containing more than 20 ingredients, while this one tasted like it was missing about 75 per cent of those. 

We finished on a better note with the grilled corn with chipotle and an interesting mix of cheddar and queso fresco ($6). The corn was deliciously charred and cheesy and was well accompanied with lime. But seriously, it would be pretty hard to ruin grilled corn.   

My tips for Paco’s Tacos:
  1. Do your research properly before opening a restaurant
  2. Learn how to prepare corn tortillas
  3. Fix up your recipes
  4. Try your food before you put it on the menu so that you don’t end up with giant chewy pieces of crackling, crap tortillas and entire stalks of coriander on your tacos
  5. Make sure you’ve got some consistency coming out of your kitchen (i.e. so that Gordon Ramsay wouldn’t have a coronary while shouting the F-word repeatedly at your cooks, not that that would be a bad outcome)

Pacos Tacos on Urbanspoon

Fonda Mexican (dos)

This week I decided to dip my toe back into the Mexican dining scene with a dinner visit to the brand new cantina, Fonda on Swan Street in Richmond with Clare. 

It was buzzing when we arrived with a lot of people waiting for takeaway or tables. I was craning my neck to check out the action in the open kitchen, which included a guy dedicated to pressing and grilling tortillas (awesome). 
Fonda at the end of dinner (note the tortilla press on the left)
We were finally seated in the cute courtyard at the back and proceeded to peruse the soft opening menu (they’ve only been open for a few weeks and are still tweaking things).  I wanted to order everything but had to compromise and pick out a selection to share. 

Our beverage choice was pink grapefruit and guava Jarritos Soda ($4.5). 

We started with the delicious fish taco with chipotle aioli, pickled onion and carrot with cabbage ($6). This was mine and Clare’s favourite for the night with the crispy crumbed fish and creamy aioli (topped with some hot sauce of course).

The braised pork taco with pineapple, onion, coriander and lime ($5) was also good.

Next we had the juicy charred corn with chipotle aioli, salted ricotta (milder than queso fresco) and lime (could’ve been more generous with the lime, it was difficult to squeeze anything out of the lime stubs). 

To finish we shared the chopped beef burrito ($13.50) with black beans, salsa roja and chipotle aioli. The burrito was beefy good (really good flour tortilla) but could be improved with the aioli inside and a bit of salsa fresca to brighten up the flavours. 

I’m really stoked to have a place like Fonda in the neighbourhood. 

Update: Things I’ve tried since that are worth a try:
  • the new beef brisket taco
  • the horchata
  • potent margaritas
Fonda Mexican on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

West Side Story: Duchess of Spotswood

It’s a trial getting me to cross over neutral territory to go back northside after my triumphant return to the south earlier this year, so you can only imagine how rare it is for me to cross the Westgate. However, last Saturday my household was persuaded to make the journey on a grey drizzly morning in search of a different kind of brunch offering and a catch up with our lone westside friend.  I know every man and his dog has blogged about Duchess of Spotswood but I like to give credit where it is due and they are doing something out of the ordinary.

The Duchess is located in a quiet stretch of shops in Spotswood (flashbacks to scienceworks anyone?) and has a gran's dining room stripped bare feel with communal tables, a chandelier and an enticing pastry cabinet. It’s always busy rain or shine but rain reduces its capacity by making the courtyard untenable. Its menu is heavily influenced by English sensibilities and its dishes have a variety of clever names. 

We started with a round of coffees, which were good but  not photographed due to the desperate need for caffeine interfering with cameras. 

I ordered the Duchess of Pork (I do have a slight porcine obsession), which was a very porky combination of crispy fried pork jowl terrine with fried egg (that was a touch of pork floss on the egg with the truffle), rich truffle sauce and sourdough toast for dipping ($18.50).

Y ordered the lighter option of Simple Pleasures, which was a fresh tasting combination of broad beans, asparagus, radish herbs and goats curd with sourdough toast and poached eggs ($17.50)

B had the Breakfast of Champignons: an aptly named combination of potato and barley hash with field mushrooms, Stilton and poached eggs ($17.50). The Stilton did slightly overpower the rest of the flavours as would be expected so I wouldn’t recommend if you aren’t a fan of pungent cheese (which B and I luckily are). 

I’d say it’s worth the trip but be prepared to wait.
Duchess of Spotswood on Urbanspoon

Chicago: Part 2 - Chilam Balam

After a long day swimming and sunbathing with KC, we joined a friend for dinner at Chilam Balam in Lakeview, a cute little area about 10 minutes north of the CBD.

Chilam Balam has a very relaxed vibe with its unassuming basement location, dinner party vibe and eclectic tunes. Something about the place made me feel like the playlist had been tailored for my tastes as well as the menu. Chilam Balam’s talented young chef, Chuy Valencia, has paid his dues at top restaurants including a stint as sous chef at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. He works with seasonal ingredients, changing the menu often and cultivating close relationships with local producers. The attention to detail shows in the expert flavour combinations and execution.

We began our meal with a jug of agua fresca (then a bottle of byo wine) and ahi tuna ceviche with ground cherry pico de gallo, tamarind, sweet corn and crispy plantain chips ($15.95 + tax and tip). The ceviche was and incredible combination of fresh and sour flavours with the crunch of the plantain chips.

Our next dish was lamb shank barbacoa with red chilli sope, with a peanut thickened salsa served with lime and queso fresco ($14.25). The lamb was unctuous and the dish was hearty without being overly stodgy.

This was followed by pan roasted duck breast with adobo sauce, mashed Yukon potato, grilled haricot vert and chorizo ($14.95). The duck was served with tortillas to make tacos with – delicious.

The grilled pork loin with pasilla sauce, grilled summer squash, aged cheese and fried fingerling potatoes ($13.95) was also served with tortillas.

The grilled flank steak, roasted potato, crispy onion, guajillo chilli and coriander ($13.95) was tender and would pair perfectly with some Colorado beer (maybe fat tire).

We were fit to burst by this stage but had to try a dessert. We decided on the chilli chocolate mousse with spiced goats cheese, orange liqueur flambéed marshmallow and fried plantain ($7.50). It was a deliciously adult version of a chocolate cheesecake with intriguing flavours working in synch.

I did do my best for my Melbourne compatriots and beg the owner to set up shop way down south but I’m not sure if it worked…

Chilam Balam on Urbanspoon

Monday, 31 October 2011

Chicago: All that... food 1

On my recent trip to the US I stopped for a few days in Chicago to visit my College roommate and check out what Chicago had to offer. Chicago has an abundance of good restaurants and an innovative dining scene. It’s also home to some of the top restaurants in the USA if not the world (Alinea, Next etc.). Unfortunately my quest to get tickets to Next Restaurant was unsuccessful thanks to a lack of understanding and a billing system that doesn’t accept foreign credit cards (tsk tsk it’s 2011 get with the program). Instead I had to ‘settle’ with going to a few different restaurants to sample the variety available in Chicago.  

The French Market

Before lunching at Blackbird KC and I wondered around admiring the red brick buildings. We wandered into Chicago’s French market to admire the baked goods and see what kind of produce was available...



Blackbird is the flagship of the James Beard Award winning chef, Paul Kahan, a Chicago born and bred culinary master. Its fit out is very modern and light filled with non-offensive white façade and white/grey and dark wood interior. Despite the modern touches, the main dining room is charming, no doubt assisted by the sunshine streaming in from outside (lunch visit) to warm diners accompanied by extremely competent staff that one would expect at a michelin starred restaurant. 

Upon entering the well oiled machine that is blackbird, KC and I were made extremely welcome by our server. We chose the extremely good value $22 (plus tax & gratuity) three course prix fixe.

We began our meal with brilliant cocktails ($12). Blackberry Betty: a sophisticated short cocktail combining Plymouth Gin, crème de violette, basil, blackberry and lime.

Blackbird Orange: a sweet, sour and caramelised concoction of Moon Mountain Coastal Citrus vodka, Punt e Mes vermouth, orange marmalade and ginger beer. 

 Very good sourdough with cultured butter.

An entrée of chilled vichyssoise with parmesan gourgeres (croutons) and ginger cream was poured at the table and deliciously creamy.

The other entrée of charred baby sepia (cuttlefish) with green tomatoes, blueberries, chamomile almonds and cynar was beautifully presented and an interesting combination of flavours and textures.

A main of roasted chicken and sausage with lime onions, tamarind and smoked cucumbers was also impeccably presented. The roast chicken was deliciously succulent and well accompanied by the cubes of tamarind and smoked cucumber; however the sausage was quite dry.

The wood grilled sturgeon with chantarelles, kohlrabi, plums, thai poppy jam and brown butter fish sauce was good, the only discordant note for me was the poppy jam.

For dessert my highlight was the vanilla parfait with blackberries, saffron honey and milk meringue. The milk meringue was extremely light and combined wonderfully with the berries, honey and parfait.

The milk chocolate mousse with grilled corn and silk, frozen peaches (sorbet) and mesquite was also delicious. The slightly off beat flavour combinations corn, chocolate, peach and mesquite worked well for me but scared KC a bit.

Rating: highly recommended 

Blackbird on Urbanspoon
Next Chilam Balam...

Tomato-tastic amateur gardening hour

My addiction to really good tomatoes has become a tad energy consuming over this long weekend. Instead of buying them from markets to eat on their own or paired with basil and top notch mozzarella, I decided to buy some different varieties of plants from Ripponlea and plant my own. This may have been excessive in terms of effort and probably more expensive than just buying them, but now I get to have the satisfaction of watching them grow (hopefully) and raiding them for choice fruit like a naughty child (note: i may have gotten in trouble for doing this in my uncle's and gran's garden as a child).

Future salad ingredients waiting to be planted and super awesome new blue leather gardening gloves (pretty close to 'kingfisher' blue if you ever had a 72 set of derwents).

My new basil plant hanging out with my replaced flat leaf parsley (probably too close together but who cares).

My lone impulse buy strawberry plant waiting to be re-potted when i can be bothered getting it a bigger pot.

A few of the tomato plants, one of them will grow green fruit with tiger stripes, pretty cool.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

All things nice

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, a girlfriend and I cured ourselves from post-museum low blood sugar with an overdose of sugar. 

Our first stop was LuxBite in South Yarra for some deliciously pretty macarons ($22 box of 8). The macarons were fairly good but not as amazing as some (Duncan’s, Josephine’s, La Belle Miette). The highlights for me were the rose & lychee and the heilala crème brullee.

Our next stop was the sugary wonderland of Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio (also in South Yarra). The sweet studio is full of beautiful and imaginative cakes and sweets that make eyes bigger than stomachs and delight the senses. 

The blackcurrant ‘cloud’ ($5) was the most amazingly flavourful meringue I’ve tasted.

The coconut, passionfruit, ginger and mint desert ($9) was a sophisticated and complex combination of flavours presented in layers. 

I’ll definitely be returning to Burch and Purchese to try their other delights.
Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio on Urbanspoon
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