Monday, 18 August 2014

Maya Indian Restaurant, Fremantle, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Revisiting a restaurant after many years can be like catching up with an old friend. With all the incredible openings in Perth over the last few years, dinner in Fremantle is a somewhat uncommon practice for Alissa and I. Combined with my general reluctance to go out and eat Indian food whenever I come back from a trip to India, its been at least 4 or 5 years since I last dined at Maya, a much lauded Indian restaurant and small bar located on Market St, just off the main drag of the Cappuccino Strip. When I dined here last it was between my first and second trips to India, and I recall thinking the food was some of the better Indian I've had in Australia. After a stalled attempt to book the Winter Dego advertised on their website in July (they weren't offering it at the time), I received an email informing me that they would be served their 'Winter Banquet' every Wednesday of August. At an extremely reasonable 10 dishes for $38, this is quite likely one of the cheapest tasting menus in town (albeit seasonal), and after conferring with a few friends eager to get in on the bargain, we made a booking for six for the first Wednesday of the month.

Located in a heritage listed building in, Maya is an expansive affair, boasting three dining rooms and a small bar upstairs, and oozes with a colonial charm that is at once typical of Fremantle, and yet also evokes some of the British architectural grandeur of Mumbai (albeit a Mumbai with better maintained/less dusty buildings).

Joining us for the dinner were our friends Jason and Verity. Jason and I have been friends from almost a decade, and in the typically small world that is Perth, went to university with Alissa. Also along for the meal were regular dining buddies Justin and Sarah, who previously dined with us at Pleased to Meet You, The Old Crow and (sans Sarah) the Red Cabbage spin-off St Michael. Having told my parents about the Winter Banquet, they had also coincidentally booked a table on the same night and were seated a few tables away from us.

Dinner was served in courses, with each entree dish served one after the other is plates for us to share between two or three, depending on the portions on the plate. First to arrive was the Fish Fry, served on a bed of mint and coriander chutney and topped with daikon radish. The fish itself was nicely fried, with the meat not dried out and with an outer coating that was both crisp and spicy. The chutney added some additional slow burning heat, with the daikon providing additional crunch and and a pleasing sweetness. A good start to the meal, the dish remained one of Jason's favourites of the evening.

Beautifully plated Chicken Tikka followed, and featured a similar presentation to the Fish Fry, while being topped with finely diced onion and a liquid cheese sauce that we thought may have been made from paneer. As you'd expect from an Indian restaurant of this calibre, the chicken had the unmistakable flavour of having been cooked properly in a tandoor, with a good outer char and smokiness contrasted against the juicy meat within. The cheesy sauce on top was a lovely surprise, as were fine julienned pieces of ginger that provided a gentle, spicy heat.

As good as the previous dishes were, the Wagyu Beef Samosas with Plum Ketchup stole the show for me. The pastry casing itself was very well made, and so perfectly crispy it cracked in my mouth as I took my first bite. I had been a bit skeptical of what Wagyu could bring to the table considering the meat was minced, but what seemed like overkill ended up being inspired, with the beef inside being super tender and juicy. Beef of course is a seldom eat meat in Hindu India, but any meat of this quality would be rare to find, and as a result this was a dish that was actually better than what you'd get in all but the most expensive restaurants in India. Throw in the Plum Ketchup that tasted like a sweet fruity tomato sauce, and this was a definite meal highlight.

After our three entrees, mains were served in two courses. First to the table was a copper vessel and serving spoon...

... containing our accompanying rice. The rice was a simple, mildly spiced yellow rice which was well cooked with long, individual grains that were not clumped together.

Cauliflower's reputation as one of the meatiest of vegetables was upheld by the Sunehri Ghobi. The cauliflower was cooked wonderfully, with a difficult to describe texture that was at once crunchy and spongy, with some nice golden edges. We couldn't quite tell what sauce it was served with, but there was a real concentration of rich tomato flavour and spices that made for a very delicious dish - so much so that it ended up being the joint favourite dish for my Mum, and one of the best cauliflower dishes I've eaten in a year filled with great cauliflower dishes.

An Indian restaurant staple, Butter Chicken's ubiquity has resulted in a host of some fairly ordinary versions. For me, a good butter chicken must have a few key elements - the chicken must have that barbecued smokiness of having been cooked in a tandoor, there should be a richness of roasted meat and tomato combined for an umami overload that gives the dish a certain 'Vegemitey' quality, and it has to be swimming in ghee (clarified butter). Maya got the first two elements spot on, and it was easily one of the best Butter Chicken dishes I've had outside of India. Where it was let down a bit for me was the lack of the heart attack-inducing oil slick of ghee that usually glides across the curry's surface in India - see for example the Chicken Tikka and the Mutton Kadai we had at Delhi Darbar in Mumbai. This is a totally unhealthy quantity of butter so I can understand Maya holding back a bit, but putting health aside and think purely in terms of overall flavour, I'm yet to have a Butter Chicken that truly lives up its name in Perth.

The second round of mains were brought out once we'd worked our way through the Ghobi and Butter Chicken, and we tried the Palak Paneer first. This is another of our favourite go-to dishes whenever we eat Indian, and Maya's version was very good if not exemplary. The paneer had a soft, fluffy texture very much in the Northern Indian style, with the spinach cooked well enough. While Jason and Alissa really enjoyed the dish, I felt that I've certainly had better, with the Palak Paneer we had at Trishna in Mumbai being one such example.

Perhaps my feelings about the Palak Paneer were a result of it being paired with the incredible Lamb Neck Curry - easily my favourite dish of the night, and a dish I would compare favourably with the best Indian I've eaten in India. The flavoursome meat of the lamb neck was cooked until it was soft but not falling apart; my comment at the time was that it was 'pliable, but yet yo become mush'. The curry itself had a refined richness that felt very northern in its restrained spiciness and yet abundance of flavour. The most prominent spice was a lovely cardamom note that worked as an excellent counter-balance to the dish's dry chilli heat. Nice touches to round off the dish were the fine batons of fresh ginger, and braised turnip that had absorbed the flavour of the curry like a sponge.

This second round of mains was served with Naan. The Naan was really soft and fluffy; I've had Naan cooked to this level that has been a little undercooked inside, but these were made to the optimum thickness for the temperature to cook through without burning the outside. Still, Alissa and I both felt that the garlic and butter slathered Naan of Trishna and the refined quality served at Indian fine diner Dum Pukht remained our favourite versions of this bread.

Finally, we were presented with a trio of desserts to share in couples - Mango Kulfi served with Fresh Fruits, a Chocolate Phrini topped with diced strawberries and a large Gulab Jamun that had been sliced in half. As an ice cream aficionado, the Mango Kulfi was easily my favourite, having a nice sweet acidity and intense mango flavour. As with the beef in the Wagyu Samosas, Australia is lucky to have seriously good mangoes and the flavour of the Mango Kulfi trumped many that we've had in India. Phrini, being a type of rice pudding, was a really interesting dessert. Jason described it as tasting almost like a chocolate mousse, with a slight, fine texture of rice that you might not even notice if you didn't know what it was. I didn't love it to be honest, but Justin thought it was the best of the three so your mileage may vary. Finally, the Gulab Jamun was spot on, being really soft with the sweet sugar and cardamom syrup soaked to the core.

The Verdict: Excellent +
Returning to Maya after many years, I couldn't believe I hadn't come back sooner; this was without a doubt the best Indian meal I've had outside of India, and at $38, one of the best value tasting/banquet menus I've had in Perth. Some dishes may have been less stellar than others, but the Wagyu Samosas, Sunehri Ghobi, Lamb Neck Curry and Mango Kulfi were dishes that were as good or better than what you'd get in India. Being a limited seasonal offering, Maya do offer three year-round tasting menus for groups of 4 or more, and given the quality of the food, the excellent standard of service and the ability to BYO wine, I'd be happy to return and pay $47-$55 for their full menu in the future. Interestingly, the owner was telling my parents that they'll soon be offering dosas for a breakfast menu, and it looks as if he'll be becoming part of the new exciting Northbridge, with a tapas-style Indian restaurant in the works. Until then (and even after its open, Maya is definitely worth the visit to the old Port City.

Maya Indian Restaurant and Lounge Bar on Urbanspoon

Blogger Tricks

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Bateman Eating House, Bateman, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

After a long day's work, there are those nights when you just can't be bothered to cook, and driving into the Perth CBD or one of Perth's major eat streets seems like something that is not worth the time and effort. On these nights you want something a). good, b). quick and c). close, and in desperation a). is almost optional. Every suburb has its local flavour for these kind of nights, and living in Bateman we're gifted with a plethora of excellent Asian restaurants to choose from. Want killer Japanese, especially a steaming hot bowl of tonkotsu ramen? Kai's just 5 minutes from home, and is one of our favourites in Perth. Or how about an excellent bowl of authentic Kolo Mee or Hor Fun? Kitchen Inn has got us covered. Even vegan-friendly faux meat Asian is represented by Formosa Vegetarian Eating House, and it was a result of our meal there that I was given a list of even more places to check out in the Melville area. Trying to decide what to order, a customer at a nearby table recommended that we try the Spicy Hou Tou Mushrooms. Seeing me pull out a camera and take photos of our meal, he assumed that I was a blogger, and waited to see a post for Formosa appear on Urbanspoon. When it was published he got in touch with me, and kindly gave me a list of a few nearby places I hadn't tried yet, including more ramen joints to check out (always a welcome thing).

The first of his recommendations that Alissa and I followed up on was Bateman Eating House, an unassuming restaurant that is literally a 3 minute drive away from our house and in a complex that we've passed many times on our way to Kai but never even knew was home to a Chinese restaurant. We ended up visiting the restaurant twice in July, with our fist visit on a Saturday night that was so busy there were literally crowds of people out the front and milling around the carpark (see first photo), and our second for a quieter, early meal midweek during which I took the above photo of the restaurant's fairly utilitarian interior during a brief lull in service.

For the first meal we ordered the Black Bean & Chilli Pork Ribs, after seeing WenY (friend of the blog and the blogger behind WenY Wonders Why) had enjoyed the dish when he visited the restaurant a while back. The rib meat itself was well cooked - juicy, succulent and flavoursome as you'd hope, however the balance of the Black Bean Sauce seemed off to both Alissa and I, as it was way too salty, even when mixed in with rice. The acidity from the tomatoes helped to lessen the salty impact somewhat, but we still felt that the salt level needed to be lower or for another element to be ramped up for a counterbalance. We both found the dish quite mild on the chilli front, and wondered if they usually put more chilli in the dish but toned it down upon seeing Alissa was an ang mo, thinking (incorrectly) that she/we couldn't take the heat. Perhaps with that extra chilli kick this might have been better balanced, however having eaten this dish within the same two week period we at terrific Lamb Ribs at Public House and equally impressive Beef Short Ribs at both the Old Crow and a repeat dinner at Varnish on King, these Pork Ribs were definitely not in the same class.

Thankfully, the Fish Head Assam Curry we also ordered fared better - a lot better in fact. Bateman Eating House are evidently quite famous locally for their signature Fried Fish Wing dishes, and having tried it I can see why.

The Fish Wings were skilfully fried, with a salty-spicy dusting of flour that made it taste as finger lickin' good as KFC's Original Recipe, with crispy skin and seriously crunchy fins contrasted by the succulent meat within - especially that little oyster of tender fish meat just behind the wing itself. Fish Heads and Fish Frames are of course commonly used in a lot of peasant cuisines or by cooks who recognise their value in making stocks, but considering how tasty this dish was it really goes to show how wasteful most of us are when we just buy the fillets - in essence, Bateman Eating House have made gold out of what is ostensibly our scraps. All the more power to them.

The Assam Curry that the Fish Wings came with was good, having a decent balance of sourness and sweetness that you'd expect from Assam curry. I'm not usually a big fan of fish curries with pineapple as too often all I can taste is an overload of canned pineapple flavour, however the pineapple in this dish was well integrated, working well with the other flavours instead of overriding them. Dipping the fish in briefly to absorb the curry but taking it out before it lost its crispiness made for a very tasty dish - although as with the ribs I thought it could do with more chilli. Also included in the curry were pieces of tofu, tomato, beans and okra. All were cooked well - something I was especially grateful for considering overcooked okra has a snotty texture that can be a little off-putting.

Having tried one of their two Fish Wing signature dishes, Alissa and I decided to make a return visit a little over a week later. For this second visit, we decided to start with their Fried Wantons as an entree. It may seems a strange thing to marvel at, but Alissa and I were very impressed by how skilfully fried they were - like good quality fried Japanese food, these Wantons didn't taste oily at all. The filling was good if not exceptional, and I've had better overall Wantons at other places, but rarely have I eaten a Wanton that tasted as clean and non-greasy as these.

Alissa felt like something gingery, so we ordered the Ginger, Shallots and Onion Chicken. The Chicken had been well marinated, with a strong infusion of ginger flavour and a good level of salt having been absorbed deep within the meat. It was also stir fried perfectly, with the meat in that perfect sweet spot just over the line of being cooked and before it starts to dry out. The vegetables were likewise cooked just to the right level, having a bit of snap to them without being too undercooked. It wasn't exactly an incredible 'must order' dish, but there was little to complain about in its execution (except perhaps for the heavy-handedness of the onion, but given this dish was called Ginger, Shallots and Onion, it was hardly surprising).

But of course, we were here mainly for their other famous fish head dish - the Fish Head Mee Fun. The Mee Fun came in a nice clear Chinese-style broth, and due to the tomato and pickled cabbage had a slight acidity to it; not Tom Yum Soup level of sour, mind you, but enough to give it a bit of additional interest. I'm not a huge fan of thin rice noodles like Mee Fun or Bee Hoon to be honest, but these were nice enough. With some chilli added to the broth I was happy with the simple, honest flavour.

However, it was the Fried Fish Wings that again made the dish, and it was a pleasure to be tasting these again. For my tastes, the Assam Curry probably had the edge on the Mee Fun - if I could order a bowl of egg noodles to go with the Assam Curry and the fish, I'd be in heaven. In fact, considering you can order the Fried Fish Wings separate as an entree, I think I might try making my own combination of Fish and Noodles next time I am in.

The Verdict: Very Good
Bateman Eating House was a nice surprise - its the kind of off the beaten path, totally unhip looking restaurant with impressive food my friends in the dining group the Occasional Dinner Surprise are on the lookout for (see the post for Thai restaurant Galangal for more info). While not every dish was incredible, the delicious, spicy-salty flavour of the Fried Fish Wings is definitely reason enough to visit this restaurant, and for locals such as ourselves to make repeat visits. It won't exactly be replacing Kai as our go-to on a lazy weeknight, but its always nice to find a solid performer to add to our local restaurant rotation.

Bateman Eating House on Urbanspoon

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

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