Friday, 1 August 2014

St Michael 6003, Highgate, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

In March this year, Alissa and I attended one of the 'Limited Edition Degos' at Jackson's before eponymous chef Neal Jackson closed his iconic Highgate restaurant after 15 years as a trailblazer in Perth's fine dining scene. Given the huge shadow its cast, I'd wondered what could possibly be bold enough to take its place; would it become another fine diner that would have to forever battle with the reputation of its predecessor, or would the new tenants go in the opposite direction with another casual and hipster-ready restaurant to add to the vibrant Beaufort St dining scene?

The answer ended up splitting the difference between my two guesses; an unexpectedly short 4 months after dining at Jackson's, Alissa and I heard news that Scott and Hazel O'Sullivan of Red Cabbage and Todd Stuart of Petite Mort were opening a new restaurant called St Michael to take its place. With a more casual small plates focus than either of their respected fine dining flagships, I was interested to see what the restaurant's head chef Adam Sayles (formerly of Red Cabbage) would bring to this increasingly popular restaurant model, especially given that the food was touted as being in a 'high end' and 'high tech' modern style.

Initially reserving a table for the second night after their opening, I decided it would probably be better to give the restaurant and the kitchen a few weeks to find their feet before Alissa and I tried them out, so we rescheduled for the last Saturday of July instead. Joining Alissa and I for the meal was my old friend Justin (who previously joined us for dinners at Pleased to Meet You and The Old Crow), as well as Justin's friend Lyndsay.

Having dined in this same space just 4 months earlier, it was interesting to see what they'd done with the place. The elegant if austere fine dining aesthetic and white tablecloths of Jackson's had been replaced by a warmer, welcoming and casual vibe, with the wooden tables left uncovered and the alcove we sat in for our meal in March now being broken down for a more open space.

With a striking painted mural of St Michael on the outside of the building (see first picture), the interior continued the theme with a faux-stain glass mural presumably depicting St Peter passing judgement at the pearly gates.

After settling in with a bottle of Tasmanian Pinot and some sparkling water, the four of us perused the menu. Having seen an earlier version online, I had noticed a distinct similarity between the food on the menu and many of the courses Alissa and I were served at Red Cabbage when we had their degustation in May, with the Scallop dish and Lamb Belly & Yabbies appearing in slightly different configurations, and two of the desserts being identical. My feelings about our meal at Red Cabbage were a bit mixed, as while some of the savoury courses were delicious hits, some were misses and most were very small even for a degustation. On the other hand, I thought their desserts were spectacular, but that they relied too heavily on them with 5 of the 9 courses (including Amuse Bouche and Petit Fours) being sweet. While the menu at St Michael also includes a degustation option - which at $89 is even more of a bargain for a degustation than Red Cabbage's $95 asking price - we decided to go with their 3 Plates of Your Choice for $49, with an additional 4th Plate for $12. At $61 for what is ostensibly 4 courses, this puts St Michael in the same impressive value-for-money casual fine dining price bracket as the excellent Nine Food Food.

Following the fine dining tradition, a plate of Bread, Lavosh + Butter was on the house. The bread was a well made baguette of fine dining standard, with the lavosh being super crispy like a cracker and dusted with salt and cumin. If anything, the lavosh was maybe a bit salty and could have done with an optional dip, as the creamy cumin-flavoured artisinal butter served was very nice with the baguette but didn't do very much for the salty lavosh. Still, its a bit churlish to complain considering this was free, and I imagine that had we gone with some of their Bar Bites we could have done something special with the bread.

With the menu described as Small Plate, I think the casual vibe of the restaurant has had people confused into thinking its necessarily a share plate restaurant. Had it been just Alissa and I, I think we probably would have treated it as such since with 10 dishes on the Plates menu, it would be a good way of sampling the majority of dishes. With 4 of us ordering 9 out of the ten dishes and with service brought out in courses, we decided to treat the savoury courses as an a la carte choose your own three course meal in a manner similar to Nine Fine Food (with a small taste of everyone else's dishes), and to share the four desserts between us.

Still consumed by the seasonal truffle madness, I knew I had to order the Salt Baked Celeriac + Truffle as my first course. The Celeriac was prepared three ways - salt baked, fried as crisps as well as a puree. The salt baked pieces were evenly cooked, with a creamy melt-in-your-mouth texture; no lumpy uncooked bits or areas that were overdone, just perfection from top to bottom. Without an outer blistered layer to give it crunch, the crisps were a more than capable substitute, especially given they were topped with fine shavings of earthy, delicious black truffle that worked its magic on the entire dish. To round it off, the celeriac puree that served as a bed for the dish was a perfect, velvetty smooth texture and very flavoursome without overdoing the root's celery flavour. A very good start to the meal.

Alissa and Lyndsay both ordered the Roast Cauliflower, Capers, Jalapeno + Manchego.  The Cauliflower was roasted perfectly, with some good crunchy bite left in them. A bed of what tasted like a mornay sat beneath, and combined with the cauliflower and the melted manchego on top made the dish seem like a play on the flavours of a Cauliflower Cheese Bake reimagined as something altogether more sophisticated. The breadcrumbs usually scattered on top were instead jalapenos coated and fried in breadcrumbs, with the capers providing a nice salty hit. This was a clever dish that worked very well as a starter, though I personally thought both my Celeriac dish and Justin's first course were even better.

Justin had the Scallops, Corn, Spinach + Shaved Squid, a dish that was a clear evolution of a similar dish Alissa and I ate at Red Cabbage. Having been very impressed by the earlier version, I could see Justin was similarly blown away by the flavours on his plate. When I asked him for any constructive points, his response was, "The dish itself is beyond me in every way... I had extreme difficulty in identifying the finer things on top of it - such as this mysterious orange powder. I was bamboozled by the puree at the bottom. So whatever subtleties there were that made that dish incredible, I have no idea what they were. Basically scallops and squid, me likey!' Having tried his dish as well as the Red Cabbage version, I would hazard a guess that the mysterious orange power was perhaps the Shellfish Vinaigrette from the earlier iteration mixed with maltodextrin into a powder, though it could of course be something altogether more simple than that. The puree was spinach instead of the avocado puree served previously, and its iron-rich, leafy green flavour works well alongside the perfectly seared scallops and the lovely smokiness of the charred corn. Finally, the shaved squid tasted cured and had a delicate soft texture that Justin and I both really appreciated. The more Mexican-by-way-of-Fine-Dining feel of the Red Cabbage version probably has the edge on the St Michael version for me, but it was a dish that very much warranted Justin's raving praise.

For our second course, Lyndsay and I both ordered the Marron, Mushroom Dashi + Turnips. While I didn't quite like the way the Marron was cut up at Red Cabbage, it worked here, looking beautiful on the plate. The Mushroom Dashi was poured over at the table, and the comforting smell of a warm broth permeated the air. Flavour wise, it walked a very Japanese balance of being strong and yet subtle, and tasted a lot like a very good soba broth, with a distinct mushroom flavour complemented by pleasingly umami notes of sesame. With the Marron featuring a nice subtle char, it had a pleasing smokiness that went well with the broth, however Lyndsay was unfortunately served a piece that was a bit undercooked. A shame, as we agreed that this flaw aside, the Marron was very tasty, with the overall dish balanced out by the pickled straw mushrooms providing a nice sour kick, and the turnip giving the otherwise soft texture some much needed crunch.

Alissa went with the beautifully plated Quail, Carrots, Ricotta, Honey + Buckwheat. The Quail was nicely cooked, with a blush of pink in the middle of the Quail, and when eaten had a juiciness that confirmed that it was cooked perfectly. The glazed Carrot was nicely cooked, and Alissa liked the really fine quality of what she thought was Pumpkin Puree, but given that it was not listed in the dish title might have actually been Carrot Puree. Regardless, its smoothness with the crunch of the Buckwheat went really well with the Quail, however the best element on the plate was undoubtedly the Gnocchi. Crusted in parmesan, the Gnocchi was soft and pillowy within, and had Alissa craving for a whole plate of Gnocchi. I don't usually love Gnocchi but between these and the Stinging Nettle Gnocchi we were served at Dear Friends a week earlier, we've been seriously spoiled.

Justin's again made a good choice, with the Lamb Belly, Mandarin + Pickled Yabbies being a marvellous dish - even better to our mind than the very similar dish Alissa and I were served at Red Cabbage. The Belly was nicely cooked, with that trademark crowd pleasing unctuousness. The sweetness of the Mandarin Puree and Mandarin pieces gave the dish a sweet acidic note t0 balance out the fattiness of the Belly, with the Fennel Sprigs providing a complementary aniseed note. The pickled flavour of the Yabbies also provided some acidity to cut the fattiness of the Lamb, and the result was a very balanced dish that had Justin literally licking his plate (you can't take him anywhere!). The fact that this ended up being Justin's fourth best savoury dish of the night is not a reflection on this dish at all, so much as how good the dishes to follow were.

From there we were onto our third and final savoury course. My order -The Roast Lamb Shoulder, Olives, Mint, Walnuts + Goats Curd - was, without hesitation, my favourite dish of the evening, and Justin proclaimed it the best of the savoury courses. The flavours of the dish's title were all tried and true classic flavours, but it was the way it was all put together that made it exceptional - the house made Mint Jelly looked like it was actually clear cells of jelly rather than the the usual viscous gel that comes in a bottle, the Olives were dehydrated and served as a fine crumb instead of the usual tapenade, and the Goat's Curd split the difference between goat's cheese and garlic sauce of a yiros and gave the dish that needed sour kick. As good as the nasturtium and walnuts were in providing additional support, the star of the dish was undoubtedly the Lamb Shoulder, which was cooked so perfectly that only a very meagre coaxing with the fork was required for the meat to fall apart. Absolutely delicious cooking.

Justin and Alissa ordered the Waygu Rump Cap, Cherry, Oats, Seeds + Nuts, and their opinions about the dish were rather divergent...

... perhaps owing to the fact that there was a certain amount of inconsistency between the two dishes. Granted, one of the photos is closer than the other, but there were some distinct differences in appearance between the two, and looking at Justin and Alissa cutting the meat it was obvious one was tougher than the other. Alissa was the more positive of the two diners, and she noted that the cherry and cherry sauce provided a nice sour acidity that work well with the meat, and that the 'white mayonnaise kind of thing' at the bottom of the plate gave the dish some creaminess. Both agreed that the salty muesli on top provided a nice crunchiness, and for Justin was an unexpected combination but was one that reminded me of Restaurant Amusé. Rump Cap is a prized cut in Brazil, and Alissa really enjoyed the medium rare slices. Justin's however seemed tough and chewy for some reason, and while Alissa later said she would definitely order it again, Justin described it as good, but his least favourite dish of the evening.

Lyndsay when with the Blackened Trout, Red Curry + Pineapple as her final savoury course, another evolution of a dish I ordered as my main at Red Cabbage. The Trout had a lovely char on the outside that suggested the same torching method used at Red Cabbage had been used to finish the fish, with the softness of the pink meat within as delicious as the version served at Red Cabbage. Pineapple, a common accompaniment to fish in Asian cooking, was a pleasant surprise for Lyndsay, who also really liked the crunch that the puffed rice provided. Her only constructive criticism was that she was hoping for a bit more kick from the Red Curry sauce, however this was a small enough quibble for her to consider this her favourite dish of the evening, and Justin called it as he second favourite savoury course after my Lamb dish.

Having already tried two of the desserts on the St Michael menu, Alissa and I knew that the desserts were going to be incredible and they did not disappoint. We started with Pumpkin, White Chocolate, Cheddar Crumb, Pear Sorbet + Blue - the first of the two repeated Red Cabbage desserts and an obvious riff on a Christina Tosi dessert served at Momofuku Ssam Bar. A scoop of deliciously fruity Pear Sorbet sat in a bed of sweet  Pumpkin Puree, accompanied by biscuity pieces of white chocolate, cheddar and blue cheese with some radicchio thrown in. The result was as incredible as it was at Red Cabbage, and impressed a skeptical Lyndsay who pointed out that the white chocolate crumb had a pleasing slight bitterness and wasn't overly sweet - unusual for white chocolate. Justin was so impressed that he proclaimed 'I think we crowned the king too early' before declaring his support for this dish. It was my favourite dessert of the night, and is a definite must-order dish for those who are a little more trusting of less conventional flavours.

For those with more conservative tastes, the Peanut Butter, Salted Caramel + Chocolate is almost as good a choice. The least surprising of the four desserts, it nevertheless succeeds as being a sure-fire crowd pleaser. The creamy, semi-solid texture of the frozen peanut parfait combine with the richness of the salted caramel and chocolate for a dish that was as successful here as it was when Alissa and I had it at Red Cabbage, which I referred to at the time as one of the best we've had.

Justin was prepared to skip ordering the Fruit Salad, Yoghurt + Herbs as it sounded the most pedestrian offering on the menu, but I was convinced that the unassuming title would belie something that was a lot more special than they were letting on. Sure enough, this Fruit Salad was not just any ordinary fruit salad, and instead was a particularly Modernist frozen take. Consisting of small pieces of frozen raspberry, apricot and pears and a clumps of basil, parsley and mint frozen in small clumps similar to Dippin' Dots, and a quenelle of sorbet, this was a clever, light and refreshing dessert. While not necessarily the best of the four, it was undoubtedly the most surprising and would be a good choice for a palate cleansing finish if the other desserts seem to rich.

Finally, we dug into the Parnsip, Honey + Cornflake Crunch, another dish that showed the chef was an obvious fan of Christina Tosi; the salty-sweet Cornflake Crunch tasted identical to the recipe in the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook. The innovation here however was Parsnip Ice Cream; I might think about maybe making carrot ice cream, and yet parsnip would seem a root vegetable bridge too far. Not so; the flavour of parsnip here in super creamy ice cream form worked surprisingly well, and was well matched by the aforementioned Cornflake Crunch, and the soft Sponge Cake and the drizzling of quality honey.

The Verdict: Excellent +
When Alissa and I were in Melbourne earlier this year, we were thinking how much the dining scene over there is enriched by a decent upper-middle price bracket of casual fine dining restaurants like Hell of the North or Saint Crispin (or even Cutler and Co's Sunday Lunch menu), where $50-$80 can get you a seriously good multi-course meal without having to go all the way to the $100+ bracket every time you wanted to eat something with a bit more culinary flare than the average. Perth's been getting more interesting restaurants in this price range in the last few years, but mostly its been more casual food that's been cheffed up, rather than fine dining being made affordable.

St. Michael then is something very special, as the food we ate on the night is definitely in the same fine dining tradition of Red Cabbage presented with a more casual vibe and a fantastic price point. $61 for 4 courses is excellent value for cooking of this calibre, and if not for the slight inconsistencies with the Marron and Beef dishes we would probably have given it a rating of Exceptional. As it stands however, Alissa and I enjoyed the meal at St Michael more than we did Red Cabbage, and made me think that we definitely need to give Red Cabbage's a la carte a try next time to see if we have a similar experience - perhaps that's the best way to get the most our of their food. I think Scott and Hazel O'Sullivan, Todd Stuart and Adam Sayles are onto a winner with this place - its a definite contender for best new opening this year.

St Michael 6003 on Urbanspoon
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Sunday, 27 July 2014

Dear Friends (Last Supper Degustation), Caversham, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Earlier this year Alissa and I visited Co-op Dining, the East Perth restaurant owned and operated by chef Kiren Mainwaring and his wife Kelli. Impressed by their sustainable Farm to Table and Foraging-focused philosophy even before visiting the restaurant, the Tuesday special 5 Course Vegetarian Experimental Menu we went for remains one of the best vegetarian meals Alissa and I have eaten, and one that I frequent recommend to vegetarian and vegan friends due to the creativity of the menu; it changes every week (being drastically different when visited by friends a few months later) and the $69 per person asking price is excellent value for food of this calibre. As omnivores, Alissa and I have been meaning to visit Co-op again to experience their full 10 Course Menu, and with regular themed event dinners hosted by the restaurant, Alissa and I would have booked for their recent Canadian Roots dinner if not for a clash with Alissa's schedule and a decision to book 1907's Truffle Degustation meaning our fine dining budget was already allocated for the month.

Being on the Co-op mailing list, I received an email informing of Kiren and Kelli's decision to close Co-op Dining's sister restaurant Dear Friends in Caversham so as to focus their full attention on the East Perth restaurant. With their final service on July 19th themed as a 'greatest hits' Last Supper of their 7 years as a Swan Valley mainstay, this was both our last chance to visit Dear Friends and an opportunity to try Mainwaring's food again. Having already booked 1907 for earlier that same week, two degustations in such a short length of time was the kind of splurge we hadn't quite figured into our monthly budget, however given the limited nature of both menus we decided to make August a more frugal month to make the most of July's opportunities.

Located in what appeared very much like an old cellar door turned into a restaurant, Dear Friends' dining room featured a design aesthetic that was stylish if somewhat less modern than Co-op Dining, with a look that suggested a once dated room had had a modernising facelift over the Mainwaring's tenure.

Having spoken to her when making our reservation, I immediately recognised Kelli Mainwaring from her Canadian accent as she ushered us to our table, which was happily located near the fireplace on what was a cold and wet night. With a warm and personable approach managing front of house and pouring wine from the very respectable yet accessible wine list, Kelli is a wonderful host, and the relaxed and friendly vibe of the restaurant is very much to her credit.

While we would have loved to have tried the wine pairing, two degustations in a week called for a bit more restraint on our part. With a well curated wine list, it was easy to find something good to drink, and we decided on the excellent Spring Vale Pinot Noir from Tasmania. Kelli complimented our selection, and told us a little about the winemakers and the fun they have when they make their yearly visit to the restaurant. This kind of close relationship between restaurant and suppliers is something I appreciated when we had the wine pairing at Attica in Melbourne, and is something I look forward to seeing more of when Alissa and I do get around to doing the full 10-course Co-op Degustation later this year.

While waiting for the first course of the degustation, House Made Sourdough was brought out accompanied by smoked guernsey butter topped with black volcanic salt. During our visit to Co-op, Alissa and I noted Chef Kiren's obvious love for guernsey dairy, and we appreciated the smokiness of the butter and the crystals of black salt in combination with the nice crusty bread. It wasn't exactly surprising, but was certainly of the high standard I expect of bread at a fine diner.

Being a farewell degustation, the Last Supper served as a retrospective of the Mainwaring's 7 year tenure, with each year represented by one of the course. Charcuterie (2010) of House Cured Meats and Jessica's Beer Mustard started the ball rolling, and looked so delicious on the plate that I only took a photo after I was already halfway through the dish (hence the slightly messy photograph above). You can blame my sloppiness on the mention of Truffle Salami, and as a truffle fanatic I found the immense flavour of the fatty, salty cured meat permeated by the flavour of truffle to be seriously delicious. Accompanying the salami, was the equally excellent Ox Tongue Pastrami, and a less flavoursome cured cut of Pork prepared in a style I didn't get the name of. The Pork was my least favourite in and of itself, however Alissa quite rightly pointed out that its more muted flavour allowed the flavour of the fried Caper Berries, Pickled Cabbage and the Beer Mustard to shine in combination. This was a good start to the meal that showed how well an artisan Charcuterie plate can be done.

Marron Bisque (2007) with Pickled Cucumber, Vanilla Foam followed. The Vanilla Foam was missing from the plate, however with foams less trendy than they were 7 years ago this was more forgivable than it would have been in 2007. The Butter Poached Marron was perfectly cooked all the way through, and I particularly liked the strong shellfish intensity of the Bisque. Alissa was not as convinced however, and found their was a certain bitterness to the bisque that she didn't quite like, along with her hope that it was going to be served a little hotter when Chef Kiren poured it over the dish at the table. We agreed that the sour kick of the pickled cucumber was very tasty however, and Alissa conceded that her mixed feelings about the dish probably stemmed from her comparing the Marron dish with the much more Alissa-pleasing mushroom flavours of Vue de Monde's Marron course. While I agree that Vue de Monde's dish remains best in class, I thought Dear Friends' take was nevertheless highly sympathetic to the flavours of this great local crustacean.

I was obviously not on my photography A Game that night, as I forgot to take a photo of the Home Made Goats Cheese (2011) with Tomato, Olive and Sour Grass until I was a few mouthfuls away from finishing. This light and fresh dish was a masterclass in layering sour flavours one on top of the other - Tomato, Sour Grass and (to a lesser extent) the Goat's Cheese - while allowing the saltiness and creaminess of the cheese, the mild wasabi-like bite of the Horseradish Emulsion and the intensity of flavour from the dehydrated Olive crumb to provide balance and contrast. The tastiness of this meatless dish confirmed for us that Chef Kiren has a great understanding of how to maximise flavours without the need for meat, and it was not surprising to us when Kelli revealed Kiren enjoys cooking vegetarian food since his mother is Vegan. Overall, the dish reminded us of something Melbourne Chef Ben Shewry might do - albeit not quite as technically complicated and abstracted as something from the Attica menu.

From the Farm (2012) - a dish of Slow Cooked Eggs and Biodynamic Vegetables followed, and suggested an earlier incarnation of the similar egg course we were served at Co-op. As the dish was placed on the table, the deliciously pungent aroma of the Garlic Emulsion wafted off the plate, and its creaminess went nicely with the 62°c Egg...

...and its characteristically custard-like yolk. Alissa referred to the combination as 'a dream', and the accompaniment of the spinach-like Tuscan Cabbage and the zucchini of varying levels of maturity were welcome and complementary additions. That said however, we felt that the version we were served at Co-op was even better due to the intriguing flavour of the sandalwood nuts served, and shows how the chef continues to experiment with established ideas in his repertoire.

Being obsessed with the deliciousness of Pork Belly did not serve me well, as I nearly dug in again before taking a photo of Open Range Pork (2009), Stinging Nettle and Smoked Tomato as evidenced by the slight damage my fork made to the smear at the front of the plate. Pork Belly is always such a reliable crowd pleaser (especially if, as here, it is combined with crispy Pork Crackling), and the pork went well with the pepperiness of the Nasturtium leaves and flowers as well as the umami smokiness of the Smoked Tomato Puree. My favourite component on the plate however was the Stinging Nettle Gnocchi placed beneath the Pork. I'm not always a huge fan of Gnocchi, but the spinach-like flavour of the Stinging Nettle worked really well, and I was impressed by the smooth creaminess of its interior encased in a lightly crisp exterior.

The final savoury course of Arkady Lamb Belly (2013) Sweetbreads, Pistachio and Balsamic ramped things up to finish the savoury courses on a real high. The Lamb Belly itself was even better and more flavoursome than the Pork Belly it preceded. Also included was a Lamb Tongue, and while it freaked Alissa out a little as it looked very much like a piece of tongue on the plate, it proved to be as flavoursome as the Belly with a delicate melt in your mouth texture. The crumbed and fried Sweetbreads were as delicious as expected; I couldn't decided with of the three cuts of lamb I liked better. Finally, the crushed fresh Pistachio, Balsamic Emulsion and the starch from the two varieties of Sweet Potato helped round it out into a complete dish, preventing the unctuousness of the meat from being one note.

Not a true course per se, the Palate Cleanser of Lemon Sorbet and Pumpkin Crumble was not given a date, however a bit of research on Urbanspoon suggests a form of this dish was served in 2011. The dish differed from the menu as the Lemon Sorbet had been replaced by Passionfruit Sorbet - something I was fine with and wouldn't have dramatically changed the overall idea of the dish. The nice sour hit went well with the sweet and soft cake-like texture of the Pumpkin Crumble that effectively reset our palates for the dessert to come.

To conclude Dear Friends final degustation, we were served Coffee and Doughnuts (2008), consisting of Coffee Gel, Kahlua Cream and topped with mini doughnut balls. The doughnuts were obviously freshly made as they were still warm when we ate them. While I do like the taste of Kahlua, Alissa is not much of a fan, however she felt that the amount of Kahlua used in the cream was spot on - giving the cream a hint of the liqueured coffee flavour without overwhelming the dish. Finally, the Coffee gel was very refreshing, cold and well set, and had an intense coffee flavour that suggested it was made with real espresso - something confirmed by the little bits of coffee grind sediment at the bottom of the glass. While a fairly simple dish with less of the wow factor seen in later desserts, the dish had us craving fresh doughnuts for days after.

With a long drive ahead of us, we decided to finish on some actual coffee. This was not served with Petit Fours, something that is a little disappointing but as something of an added bonus its not something to exactly complain about.

The Verdict: Exceptional
Alissa and I were glad that we made it down to Dear Friends for their Last Supper, and our esteem for Kiren and Kelli Mainwaring has only grown after this visit as the food and service left us very impressed. It was not quite as amazing as Ben Shewry's Attica, but there was a similarly thoughtful approach to quality local and foraged ingredients at Dear Friend food that was very appealing. Though lacking the prestige of truffles in every course, Alissa and I enjoyed Kiren's thoroughly modern food just as much as we enjoyed the Truffle Degustation at 1907 just days before. As a retrospective of a celebrated restaurant, the Last Supper was superior and more successful than the Limited Edition Dego we attended during Jackson's final weeks; I felt the meal gave us a sense of where Kiren has come as a chef, and it makes me excited to think about where he will be going as his food and style continue to grow. Its always a bit sad to a see a restaurant close, but in this case Dear Friends was only the beginning, and Alissa and I look forward to the next chapter (and our next meal) at Co-op Dining later this year.

Dear Friends on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

1907 (Truffle Degustation), Perth, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Winter is one of the best times of the year. Sure, its cold and rainy, but it is also a season overflowing with opportunity. Unlike the oppressive searing summers of Perth, the cooler weather is conducive to dressing up to go out - instead of sweating even in t-shirts and shorts, it's time to step out comfortably in jackets and collared shirts, and to accept the warm embrace of jumpers and knitwear. During the season, I find myself increasingly drawn to the outdoors; rather than worrying about the rain I'm more likely to get excited about being able to push it on a bike without even breaking a sweat, and there is something about the cold air that fills me with nostalgia for childhood holidays in the forests of WA's south west.

For a foodie, wintertime in WA also holds one of the great seasonal gifts - Truffle Season. With the increasing global recognition of the Manjimup truffle industry, the unique flavour of the black truffle (tuber melanosporum) has well and truly cast its spell on Perth restaurants and diners, with truffle being featured on seasonal menus by everyone from Must Wine Bar, Lalla Rookh and even shaved on top of the barbecued meat of Old Faithful Bar! One could not have imagined this prized ingredient being used so liberally even 5 years ago, and as a self-confessed truffle pig its like Christmas in July for us antipodean gourmands.

Knowing that we would be missing out on the Truffle Kerfuffle and the Fremantle Truffle Festival due to clashes with Alissa's studies, I spent the lead up to the season almost daily looking for something particularly special - a Truffle Degustation. In previous years Lamont's have done a truffle degustation, and after a delicious vegetarian meal at Co-op Dining earlier in the year, I was hoping they'd repeat their July truffle special event from last year. It wasn't to be unfortunately, so when I saw 1907 were serving a truffle degustation I jumped at the chance. Having heard wonderful things from friends and fellow bloggers, 1907 had been high on our list of places to check out. With the French Classical backbone of Head Chef Alan Desouza's cooking, truffles felt like a good fit for the cuisine. Coincidentally, my father's name is also Alan de Souza, and I joked that I had to see what my 'father's' restaurant was like; noticing we had the same surname, Alan Desouza in turn joked with his staff that his 'brother' was coming in, and that they should give us the VIP service.

Entering through a side alley, the restaurant's dining room had a definite old world, classical fine dining charm. Its a very different look from the sleek modernism of Co-op Dining or Restaurant Amusé but one that was befitting the style of cuisine and the historic building the restaurant calls home. The moody lighting recalled the wonderful ambiance of dining at the then 3 Michelin Starred Caprice in Hong Kong, however my camera similarly struggled with the low lighting conditions (hence some of the wildly varied brightness levels in the photos to follow and why I didn't get a better usable photo of their famous horse lamp).

Having seen the layout of the restaurant online, I had hoped Alissa and I would be seated at one of the high back booth seats, and I was pleased when the waiter ushered us to one.

Alissa and I decided to beginning with pre-drinks of Clarise Brut Rosé. Thinking that we'd ordered the sparkling wine for celebratory reasons, the waiter asked if we were here for a special occasion.
"No, not really... we're here mainly to celebrate truffle season. That's reason enough to celebrate, right?"
Surprised by our reasoning, he nevertheless agreed.

After a short wait, a waiter brought out a bread basket...

... along with a tray of good quality olive oil, two different kinds of salt, olives and imported French butter. The basket was filled with a good variety of small, very well made bread rolls with the two topped with parmesan and bacon/prosciutto being our favourites. The high quality of the bread was confirmed by their fluffy interior, and spoke of the skill with which they were baked.

A wooden board of Amuse Bouches was served shortly after, and consisted of Bloody Mary Jelly with Celery, Vanilla Baby Turnips and Ginger Spice Carrot alongside a spicy popcorn. The focus on quality vegetables at this early stage of the meal bears out 1907's dedication to a farm to table ethos, as exemplified by the restaurant having its own farm in Toodjay. The Bloody Mary Jelly tasted like a good Bloody Mary, however as someone who does not like the taste of celery very much, I found the cocktail flavour overpowered by the thick chunk of celery. Much better were the Vanilla Baby Turnips with their inherent sweetness and crunch augmented by a lovely vanilla glaze, and the Ginger Spice Carrots with a nice back of the palate spice kick. The spicy popcorn was tasty, though it was not quite as good as the cold caramel popcorn served as a Petit Four at Red Cabbage.

A Warm Medley of Honey Glazed Beetroot, Truffle Parsnip Puree, Poached Rhubarb and Truffle Goat Cheese Air served as the first entree of the Truffle Degustation. The golden beetroot and baby beets were nice and sweet, and were elevated by the distinctive and deliciously earthy truffle flavour of the smooth Truffle Parsnip Puree, and the equally truffled Goat Cheese Air, which also provided a salty note. The earthy umami flavours were expertly contrasted by the inclusion of the poached rhubarb, which provided nice acidity to cut through the sweetness of the beets, and helped prevent the dish from being a little one note. The touille and the toasted pine nuts also served to give the dish definition through some crunch, and resulted in a very tasty start to the meal.

I love a good marron dish, and with our next course being Truffle Poached Manjimup Marron, Textures of Cauliflower, Lightly Smoked Bone Marrow I was very happy indeed. The Marron was cooked perfectly, with its sweet, tender meat showing off why this local crustacean is held in such high culinary regard. While the marron was on the smaller side compared to the huge Marron tail served at Vue de Monde in Melbourne (a restaurant that 1907 recalled on many occasions throughout the meal), Alissa agreed that it was preferable to the small cut up pieces served as part of Red Cabbage's tasting menu. The Cauliflower textures included cauliflower fried in batter, dehydrated cauliflower, pickle cauliflower and cauliflower puree. All provided textural contrasts and tasty variations on the theme, and the meatiness of the cauliflower worked very well with the flavoursome nature of the truffle shaved onto the plate. With some caviar dolloped on for good measure, this was a decadent and delicious highlight of the meal.

The service ramped this up in heavier directions with the Confit Salmon, Buttermilk Mash, Eggplant Puree, Quail Egg, Black Truffle, Watercress, which had a wonderful truffle aroma that just wafted off the plate. The Confit Salmon was the obvious star of the dish, being cooked to the perfectly level -still rare inside, without being so rare as to be a fall apart mess on the plate. The accompaniments of watercress leaves and black truffle shavings provided a nice pepperiness and umami boost respectively to the delicate fish, while the rich bed of Buttermilk Mash and lightly blanched Asparagus served as tried and true accompaniments. Other classic salmon accompaniments were arranged as an interesting sideshow - quail egg soft boiled and filled with salmon roe, a crumb of jamon, and some lines of roasted eggplant. The salty-bitter flavour of the jamon worked nicely with the earthy roasted eggplant flavour and the richness of the egg-in-egg combination. Alissa and I were very impressed and satisfied by this point, and we hadn't even gotten to our main courses yet.

But before the mains, we were presented an Entremet of Scallops, Chanterelles and Tomato Puree with microherbs beautifully plated on a reflective plate that recalled a shell. The Scallops were nicely seared, with a smoky bacon flavour that was a nice surprise, and proved to be real coup of an otherwise simple dish. The Chanterelles had a surprisingly vinegary flavour that by themselves seemed a bit much, however combined with the spiciness of the tomato puree and the scallops everything felt nicely in balance.

A Tasting of Spatchcock was the first of our main courses, and consisted of Sous vide Breast, Glazed Drumettes, Truffle Sausage and a Truffled Steamed Brioche Bun. Being an early adopter of immersion circulator use at home, I decided to start with the Sous Vide Breast. While displaying moistness and texture that are hallmarks of this cooking technique, I felt that without the shavings of black truffle that the flavour was a little bland, and that it could have done with a low level brine. This was especially highlighted by the delicious saltiness of the glazed drumette that was just adjacent to it. Beyond the generous shavings of fresh truffle that topped the dish, the Truffle Sausage served up a heap of truffle flavour, and was well made with a good springy sausage texture. All these components however were trumped by the sheer excellence of the Truffled Steamed Brioche Bun. Even more truffled than the Truffle Sausage, the soft bun was topped with some crispiness on top (breadcrumbs?), and was filled with a smooth, rich liver pâté. The bun just melted in our mouths, with that irony liver flavour and the black truffle lingering on our palate between courses. While the small size was the right size for the kind of food we were eating, Alissa said she would have been happy to have eaten a whole plate of these delicate buns. I couldn't agree more.

Cape Grim Beef Tenderloin, Pancetta, Brown Onion Cream, Baby Vegetables, Sauce Perigueux served as our final main. Beef is not my favourite meat, however with well sourced meat, a good cut and skillful cooking, 1907 were able to win me over. The beef was so tender it required very little chewing effort, and had a spot-on balance of seasoning. The piece of pancetta provided a nice salty, fatty bite, and the Brown onion cream was smooth and rich. Knowing that the black truffle we know and love is the black Périgord truffle, it didn't take long to figure out that the Sauce Perigueux was in fact made from black truffles, and it provided a decadent, deluxe truffle overdose to the dish. While the baby vegetables were all very nice, it was the baby corn that I liked the most, and dipping it into the Sauce Perigueux with some fresh truffle on top took me back to the Corn and Truffle dish at Vue de Monde.

Moving onto sweeter things, Alissa and I were served a Palate Cleanser of Frozen Butter Passion Fruit Bellini. As one would expect from a restaurant that has its own stand-alone bar, the quality of this small frozen cocktail was spectacular, with the passion fruit and the champagne poured over at the end giving the otherwise sweet frozen cocktail an acidic bite, and the butter component giving it a lovely creaminess. It played the role of palate cleanser commendably, while also enticing us to come back to 1907 for a proper sample of cocktails in the near future.

Our dessert for the evening was the 1907 Truffle Chocolate Plate - Chocolate Tart, White Chocolate Custard and Deep Fried Truffle Condensed Milk Ice Cream. My dislike of chocolate desserts is well documented, however this was one of those times when a restaurant succeeded in convincing me that chocolate desserts can be as good as fruit-based ones. The Chocolate Tart was clearly the star, with the milk chocolate topped off with a dark chocolate glaze. The less intense dark chocolate hit and the degustation serving size played to its advantage and it avoided some of the too-rich-for-its-own-good pitfalls of lesser chocolate desserts. Supporting the tart, the white chocolate custard was deliciously sweet, with the white chocolate wafer and the small crunchy piles on the plate providing some additional texture. The only negative of the dish was the Deep Fried Truffle Condensed Ice Cream, which tasted delicious (truffle infused condensed milk - what's not to like?) but had melted completely and just oozed out everywhere onto the plate instead of providing the cold hit. A real shame as I can imagine how excellent that ice cream would be in its semi-solid state, and this dish was otherwise perfect.

To finish, the Chariot de Fromage was wheeled out for our cheese course. While smaller than the similar cart at Vue de Monde and the decadent insanity of our all-time favourite cheese course at Caprice in Hong Kong, Alissa and I were nevertheless very excited to peruse their fine selection.

We decided on Valdeon, Truffle Pecorino, Artisan Rouge and Mountain Man. Being limited by Australian regulations that prevent restaurants from importing and selling cheese made with unpasteurised milk, I'm resigned to the fact no cheese board in this country will ever reach the uniformly heady heights of Caprice, however all cheeses here were excellent considering, with the Truffle Pecorino standing out as a revelation. The flavour and aroma of truffle permeated the entire cheese - even the parts that did not have obvious truffle chunks. Perhaps due to watching too much Masterchef Australia, I declared 'that is cracker!' in a Gary Mehigan fashion much to Alissa's amusement.

To go with our cheese were an assortment of sweet preserves and spreads...

Along with crackers and some fruit bread. Unfortunately, the crackers were a little too salty for the softer cheeses, and the more complementary fruit bread was unfortunately vastly outnumbered in the bowl.

Alissa and I finished on a pot of jasmine tea that was served a little hotter than is optimum for green tea...

...accompanied by Petit Fours of Mint Slice and Lime Panna Cotta. These were simple and straightforward; well made but much as you'd expect them to taste.

Taking a page out of the Eleven Madison Park/Vue de Monde Playbook, a waiter handed us a take home bag of treats - Financiers, Fruit Scone, Chocolate Truffles and Muesli for breakfast. This is not something that they have to do of course, but like the excellent service we experienced its that going the extra mile that leaves a great impression.

Using what we had in the house, I ended up eating the very tasty Muesli two days later with some vanilla yoghurt, raspberries and some cornflake crumb Alissa had leftover from making some cookies from the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook.

The Verdict: Exceptional
Needless to say, Alissa and I thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at 1907. They had us at 'Truffle Degustation', and they certainly delivered on the promise with course after course celebrating this most delicious of culinary delicacies. Each dish showed the culinary skill of Alan Desouza, Sous Chef Brian Grunewald and the kitchen, and they each fit coherently and intelligently into the bigger picture of the degustation. The food reminded us a lot of Vue de Monde, and with its more classical approach was like what I imagine the Melbourne juggernaut was like in its earlier days before Shannon Bennett starting incorporating more Modernist elements into the restaurant's repertoire. It may not be as on the cutting edge as Restaurant Amusé or Co-op Dining, but when a meal is this satisfying, it doesn't much matter - 1907 would be a strong recommendation for classical fine dining in Perth.

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