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.

1907 Restaurant on Urbanspoon
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Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Old Crow, Northbridge, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

The Old Crow has been on our wishlist for, well, almost as long as we've had an actual written wishlist of places to try. In spite of being open for little over a year, this Northbridge restaurant has built up an enviable reputation for delicious, crowd-pleasing American-inspired Soul Food, and has been a consistent fixture on Urbanspoon's 'Talk of the Town' list (sitting at #1 at the time of writing). With glowing reviews from friends, other bloggers and professionals alike, Alissa and I were pleased a catch up with our friends Justin and Sarah (who joined us previously for a meal at Pleased To Meet You) served as a good opportunity to see for ourselves if The Old Crow lived up to all the hype.

Located in a renovated house on Newcastle St, the restaurant has a casual and slightly kooky antique shop vibe, with a stained glass liquor cabinet above the roof tile-lined bar, various kitschy ornaments and high back wooden chairs tucked into stylish wooden tables that look straight out of an old homestead in a frontier town.

Our table in the corner was right near a fireplace that housed a speaker playing a killer soundtrack of old school Americana - classic soul, rockabilly and other styles that skewed towards the old timey. Volume levels were right on the money - loud enough to give the venue vibe, but not so loud as to kill conversation.

While deliberating the dishes to order, we decided to go for a jug of their Ginger Snaps cocktail to share. Consisting of Bourbon, apple schnapps, Absolut Lemon, King’s Ginger liqueur, fresh lemon juice, fresh grated ginger, fresh mint, and topped with lemonade and sparkling water, this tasted like a really delicious ginger beer with a pleasing bourbon kick for good measure. Along with many excellent cocktails to choose from, the wine list was no slouch either. The small list was focused and well considered, and we were able to enjoy The Alchemist's Merlot (one of the finest Merlots produced in Australia) with our meal by the glass. Those not deterred by merlot's uncoolness post-Sideways should savour this stunning wine at The Old Crow while they can.

After placing our order, a plate of bread was brought out. An obligatory extra in fine dining establishments but not always provided in casual diners, The Old Crow's bread was of a surprisingly high standard, with a nice crusty exterior while being pillowy soft in the middle. The butter served with the bread also really impressed, with what tasted like fennel seed mixed in to provide the dish was a pleasing aniseed flavour.

While the dishes could certainly be enjoyed in a three course Entree-Main-Dessert format, the hearty, casual quality of the food makes the menu very conducive to a share plate dining format. Our waiter advised two small plates and four large ones would be about right for the four of us, with the small plates served together as an entree course. We started with the Golden Fried Squid, Porky Black Beans, Lemon Aioli. The squid was perfectly cooked, with the cornmeal crumb having a nice gritty texture to contrast the soft, tenderness of the squid encased within. Black beans are fairly umami as it is, so mixing it with pork (itself a good friend of seafood) only served to heighten its savoury quality. We all agreed the seasoning was a little salty for our palates, but still within the range of acceptable saltiness.

Even better were the Lamb Sweetbreads, Quince and Ginger Jam. Justin was fairly unfamiliar with sweetbreads and was amazed by the deliciousness of this offal cut (or cuts, as there appeared to be both neck and heart sweetbreads). The classic contrast of crispy exterior against the soft chewy nuttiness of sweetbread was executed perfectly, with the quince and ginger chutney providing both sweetness and heat. The Chipotle sauce drizzled on top imparted a smoky creaminess, and the long tendrils of slaw draped over the sweetbreads gave the dish some fresh crunch. Being a firm believer in head to tail eating, I'm always glad to eat dishes that show just how delicious offal cuts can be, and this dish was most definitely a case in point.

After a short break, our four mains arrived which we decided to enjoy in courses to focus on the individual flavours of each dish. First up were the Pepper Glazed Beef Short Ribs, Spicy Roast Onion. This would be the fourth time Alissa and I ate ribs in a 10 day period, and the Old Crow's version was good enough to give our favourite ribs at Varnish on King a run for its money. Although we expected as much, we all marvelled as the meat literally fell of the bone as I tilted it vertically. This characteristic was similar to the ribs at Varnish, but from there on it was definitely its own thing. While the refined style of Varnish's Short Ribs gets its flavour from Jack Daniels reduced to a treacle, the deep smokiness of the Old Crow's Ribs and the variations on an onion theme (roasted onions, fresh spring onions and crispy fried shallots) gave it a gutsiness that was very appealing. This was an exceptional dish in its own way, and would stand out as a personal highlight.

With the ribs a hard act to follow, the Half Smoked Duck, Butter Beans, Apple & Chipotle Chutney didn't quite reach the same heady heights of its predecessor. Again, there was a really obvious smoky flavour, however where the rib meat was juicy and falling apart, the duck had lost some of its juiciness in the hot smoking process; it was still tender and flavoursome, but I wondered if perhaps cooking at a lower temperature might have resulted in a juicier final product. On the other hand, Sarah and I felt that the skin could have done with a higher temperature cook for a crispier exterior - a tough balancing act of lower overall cook and a finish at a higher heat, I know, but one that is definitely achievable. Mind you, this wasn't exactly a bad dish, its was just that of the four this felt like the least realised.

On the other hand, the Winter Barigoule, Slow Egg, Ricotta & Truffle Beignets dish that followed was quite possibly the best realised of the four, as all the elements on the plate integrated perfectly. The Barigoule sauce was rich, intensely flavoursome and creamy, and the slow cooked egg (presumably sous-vide) had a lovely, custard-like consistency that almost melded with the fluffiness of the ricotta. It was so good, that Alissa pointed out that we should have saved the bread to sop up the sauce and egg in this dish. The carrots and the fresh thinly sliced radish were nicely done and the artichokes were fine considering they would have been currently out of season, however as crispy and tasty as the Beignets were I definitely felt there could have been a lot more truffle flavour in the dish to drive the flavour home. Still, if you forget the word 'truffle' was mentioned, this was as an impressive dish; too often vegetarian dishes end up just being a concession to dietary requirements rather than serious engaging with how tasty a dish can be without meat. This was not a concession at all, and was a perfect dish for winter.

Saved for last, the BBQ Pork, Crispy Belly, Kale, Black Eyed Beans proved to be a satisfying end to the meal (or the savoury component at least) . We began by sampling the slow cooked BBQ pork, which had a marvelous fall part texture, and was positively dripping in juices and the thin salty gravy while exhibiting the restaurant's characteristic love of smokiness and spice. The crumb of the pork belly on top was at once crispy and melt in your mouth delicious, and had Justin declaring 'this is what belly's been missing all along - some crumb!'. Even though Butter Beans seemed to have been substituted in instead of the listed Black Eyed Beans, the vegetable accompaniment was liked by everyone - except Justin who said he only had eyes for the pork, and would have been more than fine with this plonked onto a wooden board. This was a great, hearty dish, with my only criticism being that it was again on the saltier side of the acceptable saltiness spectrum.

After taking a breather, we moved onto desserts. A clever twist on a pumpkin pie, the Baked Pumpkin Custard, Spiced Nut Biscuit, Cinnamon Ice Cream was my favourite of the two we ordered. The pumpkin custard was sweet and with a lovely thick consistency. It wasn't Sarah's cup of tea, but as someone who really enjoys pumpkin in dessert form (such as the incredible Pumpkin, White Chocolate, Cashel Blue & Cheddar dessert at Red Cabbage, and the newly opened St. Michael's), I relished every bite. The biscuit that sat on top gifted the dish with a lovely crunchiness and spice, and was of the perfect thickness to break through with a spoon, while the cinnamon ice cream brought it all together with cold creaminess for an à la mode Pumpkin Pie experience. Always the cinnamon fiend, Alissa wanted even more cinnamon flavour, and that would be my only criticism of an otherwise excellent dessert.

I'm not much into rich chocolate desserts, but the rest of the table were unanimous in their enjoyment of the Chocolate & Peanut Butter Pudding, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. The pudding was super rich with a liquid centre - too rich for my blood, but perfect for chocoholics who crave that kind of over the top warm fudginess. The peanut butter was buried deep inside, and I felt that this resulted in a serious compromise - either eat the ice cream and the chocolate with little peanut butter flavour, or dig in for the peanut butter and have the ice cream melt. Neither were an ideal solution, and I couldn't help but compare it against the superior Chocolate Jalapeno Fondant we ate at Indigo in Mumbai where the hot fondant was served next to the ice cream on the plate. Its worth noting that I don't usually love rich chocolate desserts and am very particular about ice cream not melting; if neither of these are as important to you your mileage may vary.

The Verdict: Excellent +
I must admit that I was a little skeptical of The Old Crow; the trendiness of Dude Food sometimes has me wondering whether popularity is based on fashion or actual quality, as not all Dude Food restaurants are created equal. It was a relief then to find that The Old Crow was the real deal, and the quality and culinary skill on display suggests its a strong enough performer to stand on its own feet once the trend crests. It certainly surpassed my expectations, and at times all of us were floored by how excellent the food was. I'd go as far as to compare it very favourably to Varnish on King, and as a repeat customer of the King St favourite that is high praise indeed. Service was attentive and informative, and while the meal was not exactly cheap, with portion sizes larger than the average you're certainly getting your money's worth for the price. Definitely worthy of repeat visits.

The Old Crow on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Public House, East Perth, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Public House was one of those new Perth openings that flew under the radar for Alissa and I. Perhaps it was because they opened in November 2013 while we were in the mad scramble leading up to our wedding, or because its East Perth location is far from being along one of our regular thoroughfares. Whatever the case, we were kicking ourselves when we realised we'd missed out on their Nose to Tail dinners as part of Eat Drink Perth, however we added Public House to our ever-growing list of places to check out. It took us about 2 months, but on a cold and wet Friday night in July, Alissa and I finally made our way to for a 7pm dinner.

Expecting something closer to a very small small bar, Alissa and I were surprised to find the main bar space of Public House to be rather large and expansive, filled with CBD workers chilling out over Friday night drinks under the not so watchful eyes of kitschy taxidermied deer.

Of course, being here for a proper dinner rather than bar snacks, Alissa and I made our way over to our reserved table in the main dining area, framed by this stylish feature wall wine rack.

With some tough decisions to be made selecting dishes from the delicious-sounding menu, Alissa and I decided to make the drinks selection easier by going with their $30 Cocktail Tasting Board. Consisting of 6 of their signature cocktails, at $5 a pop the Tasting Board is a good value way to sample their menu. After trying all 6, Alissa and I picked our favourite three to drink for the rest of the evening. Alissa teased my preference for the two stereotypically 'girly' drinks, as I particularly enjoyed the floral Pink Seniorita (vanilla vodka, passion fruit and grapefruit served with a sugared rim and edible flowers) and the fruit-driven Mula Manga (a twist on a Vodka Mules made with house infused vanilla tequilla, passion fruit, mango and ginger ale), while Alissa preferred the super sourness of the Orange Caipirinha (Cachaça, Cointreau, lime, sugar & orange bitters).

But of course we were here for the food, and Public House impressed us right out of the gate. Chip & Dip of Avocado Salsa and Pink Salted Crisps was the first dish to arrive, and it exceeded any expectations that such a humble and altogether common name would elicit. The salted crisps were perfectly fried, with the result being nice and crispy without being overly greasy. The star of the plate however was the avocado dip, which had a wonderful acidity that was well integrated, and balanced out by the olive oil content. The super smooth avocado tasted really fresh, with supporting tomato and coriander flavours balanced perfectly. The composition balance was not what I would usually expect in a guacamole, but it worked really well while firmly suggesting that this is how it should be done.

After a good start with the Chip and Dip, the remaining dishes arrived as a share plate 'main course'. We began by digging into the Aguilla 18 Hour Pork & Pork Scratchings, and were immediately impressed by the pork's lovely smokiness. Clearly having been barbecued at some point in the process, the meat was tender and fall apart; Alissa and I described it as being like pulled pork that had not been pulled but that simply fell apart in your mouth. This was complemented nicely by the crispiness of the Pork Scratching (always a winner) and the nice surprise of the pork sitting in a bed of really creamy pureed cauliflower, and the robust flavour of a thick, sticky pork jus. The final touch of fresh pink peppercorns topped off what was a hearty and very delicious dish.

We sampled the Corn and Manchego Croquettes with Salted Popcorn next. The corn within had been smoothly pureed, and with the cheese resulted in the trademark creaminess and crunchiness we would expect in a croquette. While tasty enough, it was probably our least favourite dish of the evening; Alissa's feelingt was that the flavour was a bit one note, and I felt that it tasted better with some of the hot sauce from the condiments basket at our table.  Not that these were bad mind you, its just that we could think of many croquettes we've eaten in the last few months that were superior - the Ham, Chicken and Cheese variety at Pinchos in Leederville would be a good local example, with the Smoked Eel Croquettes as Bar Lourinha in Melbourne being one our recent favourites.

The Aguilla Pork was delicious, but the Brazilian Espresso & Honey Lamb Ribs had it beat as our favourite dish of the evening. Being fans of Varnish on King's incredible Beef Short Ribs dish, Alissa and I knew how magical good ribs can be and these did not fail to disappoint. The Lamb Ribs had a wonderful sweet, sticky quality with the meat literally just falling off the bone. The fresh pink peppercorns gave the dish some nice fresh heat, while the roasted fudginess of the coffee rubbed into the ribs worked well with the fatty unctuousness. With a squeeze of lemon on top to provide some acidity, this was definitely a must order dish that we'd be more than happy to come back for.

With our main order complete, Alissa and I decided to finish off the meal with Curds & Whey - the Public House cheese plate. Traditional cheese plates are a bit of an assembly job but this was a well thought out assembly job, with the quince paste at least tasting like it was made in-house. A lot of quince paste seems to be more of a jelly or a jam, but the Public House variety was quite genuinely a paste and was better than most I've tried. The Fig and Almond Slice was also very good, and Alissa particularly enjoyed combining the slice with the manchego while enjoying the metallic flavour of the blue cheese with the quince. For me there was no choice really; I liked the quince paste too much and ended up having it with both.

The Verdict: Excellent
Public House's South American-inspired menu is right on-trend and delicious; hearty, casual and down-to-earth share plate food with a strong enough theme to differentiate itself from the competition, served up in space that, while large, was filled with character. The service was faultless; Dominique who took care of our order for the evening was both friendly and professional, and I appreciated that when we asked for a wine recommendation to go with the cheese she didn't just go straight for the top shelf option - indeed, her excellent (and well matched) suggestion was second from the bottom in price. For us, the obvious comparison would be Varnish on King's similarly hearty food. While I think Varnish's menu has a cheffy modern touch that probably gives it an edge over the competition, Public House is not that far behind. With so many dishes we didn't get to try, Alissa and I would definitely come back for a second round.

Public House Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Galangal, East Victoria Park, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

A few weeks ago, a few friends send me an invite to join their new dining group. Called 'The Occasional Dinner Surprise', the groups mission statement is simple:

The tiny Thai joint at the end of your street that's a bit dingy, but makes a bangin papaya salad. That weird place that serves up delicious plump pierogi, but you think the chef might be on parole. And the crazy Korean cafe round the back of the ugly squash courts, doling out wicked kimchi. That's what this is all about. We want to set ourselves a challenge, and try out the hidden suburban dining gems of Perth. 

1. It has to be on a back street somewhere, away from the main strips of Northbridge, Leederville, Subiaco, Vic Park, Freo etc. 
2. No trendy newcomers. Only hardy perennials that have been doing their thing for years. 
3. Bonus points for ugly exteriors. 
4. Bargain prices = happy.

A noble goal, and one that is close to my heart. As much as Alissa and I do enjoy trying out some of Perth's best and most beloved restaurants, there is something lovely about the Occasional Surprise of discovering one of Perth's best kept secrets buried deep in the suburbs. I mean, within a 10 minute radius of where Alissa and I live in Bateman (hardly the culinary epicentre of Perth), we've discovered one of our favourite ramen joints in Perth, the deliciousness of Hawaiian/Japanese Fusion food in quite possibly the ugliest restaurant in Applecross, a seriously good noodle house in the middle of no where and - before their move to Nedlands - the incredibly difficult to book restaurant Marumo (sadly, pre-blog days). I was immediately excited by the idea of the group, and although Alissa already had plans for the evening, I decided to partake in the group's inaugural dinner at Galangal Thai without her.

Buried deep within the suburbs of East Victoria Park, we arrived to find a restaurant that looked a lot better than the Google Maps image and the remote location suggested, with bright (but not garish) modern-looking signage, a fairly recent paint job, neat garden beds of rosemary, and a stylish interior with white tablecloths, nice cutlery and a good but unobtrusive soundtrack featuring everything from Norah Jones to Guru (and maybe even some Little Dragon if I heard correctly). A lot of effort had obviously gone into turning a bad location and a tired old suburban restaurant space into something altogether more happening. Based on their Facebook page only going back to 2012, I question how much Galangal can be called a 'hardy perennial' as per the group's rules, but with an appearance that suggested we'd stumbled upon a well cut and polished diamond in the rough, we were very interested to see whether the food would match the fit out.

For the meal, my dining companions included Ben and Anita (who previously joined Alissa and I at The Merrywell early last month),...

... as well as our other friends Alex, Greg and James (not pictured). Ben and Greg are the masterminds behind the Occasional Dinner Surprise, and undoubtedly will make return appearances as they organise more dinners at hidden suburban gems.

Anita had to rush off to another engagement so ordered a plate of the Vegetarian Pad Thai, with leftovers sampled by the rest of the table. This was really good Pad Thai - not exactly amazing, but made to the sort of benchmark standard you'd hope every Thai restaurant should accomplish, yet so many often fail. A distinct 'breath of the wok' smokiness permeated the dish, suggesting this was cooked with a proper high heat/heavy wok combination. This also resulted in vegetables that were nice and crisp, and the long unbroken strands of noodles showed the chef's careful hands - a nice contrast to the broken mess of lesser Pad Thai.

Ben had his heart set on two of their salads, with the Green Papaya Salad arriving first. This was Greg's favourite dish of the evening, and we all really enjoyed the fact Galangal did not hold back at all with the really hot chilli kick of this dish. By itself the heat might have been a little over the top, but the chilli was well balanced out by the acidity of the lime and the sweetness of the palm sugar in the dressing. With the nice crunch and juiciness of the grated strands of papaya, this was a refreshing and light dish that I would definitely recommend as a good starter.

The other salad was the Thai Beef Salad, consisting of scotch fillet marinated and served in thin strips and with a similarly well balanced high heat dressing to the Papaya Salad. Ben really liked this dish but the response from the rest of the table was more lukewarm. I'll admit to not being mad about beef since its not particularly tender when cooked well done, and I felt that the beef in this dish would have been more tender had they gone even thinner. When they say thinly spliced I kind of want it to be as thin as the beef used in steamboat, or like the layers used to construct the Joshu Beef dish Alissa and I ate at Iggy's in Singapore. That said, it wasn't a bad dish by any means; we just felt that there was some room for improvement.

Pan-Fried Tiger Prawns with Homemade Thai Chili Paste, Snake Bean and Kaffir Lime was the first of our mains. Greg is not a fan of crustaceans, however the rest of us were unanimous in our praise for this dish. Everything about it was spot on - the prawns were cooked perfectly and the flavours in the Thai Chili Paste were nicely balanced with the flavour of tamarind contrasting nicely against the heat. These accomplished broad strokes were supported by a lot of finer details like the very thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves and the addition of fried shallots on top. The dish was so good that Ben called it as his dish of the night, and Alex half-jokingly quipped; 'I would have smashed the whole plate if you all hadn't been here... I'm actually disappointed that I had you company tonight for that dish!'

Stir Fried Sweet and Sour Sauce with Tofu, Pineapple and Cucumber followed. This dish had mixed responses from the group, and I felt both sides made a good case for its strengths and weaknesses. Greg really liked this dish - so much so that he actually wanted to finish on its sweet and sour flavour and pineapple hit. Greg felt that the intensity of flavours helped elevate the tofu - something he said he often finds to be underwhelming with a bit of a nothing taste. Ben on the other hand found the sauces 'a bit too Chinese restauranty', and this ruined it for him. Alex, James and I were in the middle on this, and we all felt that the tofu and the sauce were quite good, but that the unsubtle chunks of pineapple were probably a bit too much in an otherwise tasty and balanced dish.

Greg and I agreed that the Roast Duck Red Curry with Lychee and Cherry Tomatoes was a must. Considering this is one of my favourite Thai dishes, I was a little disappointed with Galangal's version. Discussing the meal afterwards, the analogy I made was that it was like looking at something without glasses; the form was largely there and 'correct', but it lacked the detail of a dish in full focus. The curry needed just a little bit more acidity to give it some sharpness of flavour and balance out the heavy sweet sauce. Additionally, the duck skin could have been crispier and the lychees tasted like they could have been cooked down or steeped in the curry a bit more, as they had something of a canned flavour about them. For a suburban local this was quite a good effort - but comparing it against something like Red Opium's F-Duck, it was not quite in the same league.

One of Greg's unwritten rules for the Occasional Dinner Surprise was that someone has to order 'The Special'. Galangal did not have a special on hand, however the waitress went to ask the chef if there was something special he could put together. The result was a Sweet and Sour Barramundi and Prawn dish that was one of the highlights of the evening. We felt that the sweet and sour sauce in this dish was more balanced than the Tofu, with a pleasing acidity and mintiness. The Barramundi and Prawns were cooked beautifully, and I could easily have gone for this by myself if I had come by myself. Considering that this was something the chef whipped up at the spur of the moment, it was truly commendable and could easily have been part of their regular menu.

The Verdict: Excellent
Galangal was certainly something of a dinner surprise, with a much nicer fit out than one would expect from a suburban local, and while there were a few dishes that underperformed, there was definitely some culinary skill on show here. Best of all, the restaurant was very much the total package, with friendly and attentive staff, a nice soundtrack and an impressive attention to detail. Alex was particularly impressed by the filtered water served in polished glasses and some nice glassware for the wine; small details, but not unimportant when it comes to leaving a good impression. Galangal may not be my favourite Thai restaurant in Perth, but its certainly well priced and a strong enough performer to have built up a following in spite of its odd location; East Victoria Park residents are lucky to have this hidden gem to call their own.

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