Monday, 31 March 2014

Run Amuk Hotdogs Unleashed, South Fremantle, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

A free Saturday night with nothing planned called for Adventure Time! Alissa and I decided to make use of my free travel on the buses and head into Fremantle for the first time in what seemed like ages. In spite of living fairly close to the Port City, Alissa and I rarely head into Freo so it was a good opportunity to explore the city and suss out new openings or places we haven't visited before. After checking out the op shops and an having an expensive coffee and cake at The Raw Kitchen earlier in the afternoon, we decided to head down to South Fremantle for dinner at Run Amuk, a popular gourmet hot dog joint and south of the river outpost of the worldwide Dude Food trend. Remember that scene in that Simpsons episode where Leonard Nimoy says 'surprise me' when asked about what he wanted in his hot dog? This a place that does just that. 

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Ilpasto, Inglewood, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Living in Bateman is great for a lot of reasons: long walks along the river, easy access to both Perth and Fremantle, great proximity to public transport options and Spud Shed, and quite a healthy selection of good restaurants nearby. That said, we sadly don't find ourselves in the Mt. Lawley/Maylands area quite as often as we'd like, and our list of restaurants to try there is always growing thanks to so many of our friends being residents.

Ilpasto is one such restaurant. Technically in the suburb of Inglewood near the corner of Beaufort and Ninth, this Italian Trattoria has turned a site that has seen a few restaurants come and go over the years into a thriving and successful business - so much so that a second Ilpasto is opening in Mt. Hawthorne sometime in May.

The restaurant was recommended to us by our friend (and former Ilpasto employee) Kat Osborne, an award winning theatre director who worked with Alissa in the theatre company the Duck House before moving on to co-found the new company The Last Great Hunt. It was fitting then that our meal was in the company of Kat and her husband Jamie Breen (talented designer/photographer and EPW wrestler(!)) fellow Last Great Hunter writer/actor Gita Bezard and her partner Adam Mitchell (also an award-winning director).

We decided to share two entrees, with the first being the fairly exhaustive many-entrees-in-one Antipasto Platter, consisting of Sicilian olives, pork sausages, crumbed artichoke hearts, goats feta, smoked salmon, d’Argental Lingot cheese, roast mushroom, peperonata and baby calamari served with crostini and olive oil. Its hard to tell how much of this would have been a source-and-assembly job and how much of it was made in house, but everything on the plate was uniformly excellent and varied. The cheese, smoked salmon, caperberries, olive and the sausage were about what I would expect for a place of this calibre and reputation, however the elements that were most definitely made in house were probably the best - the baby calamari pieces were lovely and tender, and the crumbed artichoke hearts reminded me of a). how good fried food is and b). how unique and delicious artichokes are.

As a second Entree, we went with one of their specials - a Radicchio and Zucchini Salad. This was a fairly simple salad done well, with the nice soft texture of zucchini combining nicely with the spicy bitterness of the radicchio and the olive oil.

The house bread was nice slices of New Norcia Campaillou loaf. As is to be expected from New Norcia bread, this was quality. This was nice, soft and crusty, though I still contend the best Italian bread selection I've had is at Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong.

For mains, Kat and I both ordered the Spaghetti Pesto and Lobter Tails - spaghetti tossed with basil, garlic and slipper lobster tails. I'm something of a pesto fanatic and have fairly high expectations when it comes to the King of Pasta Sauces. Ilpasto's version followed the classic Genovese style of basil and garlic, though sans parmesan or pecorino. My first mouthful was without parmesan added, and it was well balanced in terms of ratios of pepper, salt, garlic, basil and oil, however it didn't have that umami punch that a generous sprinkling of parmesan brings to the proceedings. I added some parmesan to mine and found that it really gave that missing element to the dish, and I enjoyed it immensely. Kat and Gita pointed out that the lack of parmesan was probably intentional considering the addition of the lobster tails to the dish, as a more delicate flavour allowed the flavour of the lobster tails to 'sing'. I always see meat added to a pesto as a bit unnecessary however the lobster tails were lovely; being perfectly cooked and tasting very fresh.

Alissa and Jamie went with the Risotto of the Day, which was Italian Sausage, Leek and Goats Cheese. Alissa's immediate comment was that it was very delicious, with the creaminess/cheesiness of the goats cheese and the acidity of the leek balancing out nicely - an assessment I would concur with. Alissa went on to add that the Italian sausage was her favourite part. The sausage gave the dish body, textural difference and porky goodness. I'm always a bit iffy about risotto since it can be a gluggy, overly cheesy mess but this was seriously good.

Adam ordered the Paccheri, Zucchini e Frutti di Mare; large tubular pasta tossed through finely chopped slipper lobster tail meat, tiger prawns and crab, zucchini, extra virgin olive oil and cherry tomato topped with fresh herbs. Adam's immediate comment was that when he orders seafood in a dish he wants to be able to see the seafood; 'you don't know if you're getting seafood extender' when its cut up into pieces. This is a fair comment, and I think it actually does wonders for presentation when seafood is served whole - I remember ordering an excellent risotto at Bistro Vue in Melbourne in my pre-blog days that looked absolutely stunning, mainly due to the two Moreton Bay Bugs sitting on top. Presentation aside, the dish was a success tastewise; Adam described the flavours as 'beautiful', with the pasta cooked to a perfect al dente.

Oh dear. Gita's dish arrived last and since we'd already started eating I was too distracted by deliciousness to notice I forgot to photograph her dish - Gnocchi with Italian tomato and basil sauce topped with herbs, and without the Grana Padano given Gita's dietary requirements as a vegan. Gita described the dish as being 'simple but lovely' and 'el rustico'. It was about what she expected for the dish, and having tried it I would concur. 'Nothing to write home about' Gita said, jokingly adding, 'Believe me; I do write home about all my good meals. This one... I'll just email'. I think with the Grana Padano, this dish would have been a lot tastier given Grana Padano is pretty delicious, and the Gnocchi in itself had a lovely, smooth texture. However, I think this goes to the heart of a problem with menus planned by restaurants that are not strictly aimed at a vegan market - the vegan options ended up being a bit, well, boring. Its not Ilpasto's fault of course, but I think there is a challenge here for restaurants across the board to rise to in coming up with inventive dishes for people with dietary restrictions, as it certainly can be done beyond simply taking cheese out of the dish.

After a breather, we decided to share three desserts between four of us, with Gita and Jamie abstaining from this course.

First up, the Vanilla, Orange & Saffron Crème Brûlée. The flavours were well balanced with the orange flavour not overpowering the vanilla, resulting in a dish that was quite light and delicate. The texture was wonderfully smooth, which provided a good contrast to the cookie served on the side. A seeming afterthought, the cookie was almost a show stealer, having a lovely gingery spiciness, and a super crunchy texture that was very appealing. I'm a sucker for a good cookie, and this was seriously impressive.

The Dessert Special was a Coffee, Hazelnut & Chocolate cake with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, though since I forgot to take down the details I can't quite remember what style of cake this was (a torte?). Whatever the style, it was another totally impressive dessert. I'm not usually a big fan of cake because I can't stand it when its dry, but this was baked perfectly - nice and moist in the inside, with a crispy outer crust. This is how cake should be baked, and showed the great skill of their dessert chef. Flavourwise, it was all intense flavours of coffee, hazelnut and chocolate, however these flavours were in such perfect harmony they complemented and elevated each other to be greater than the sum of their parts. This dish was the perfect example of what I love about Italian food - its often presented in a way this is not overly flashy, but it tastes so, so good it really doesn't matter.

Finally, The Sicilian Cassata. Kat was a little hesitant about ordering this dessert as she does not usually like Cassata, but she really liked Ilpasto's version. The ice cream was really well made, with all four of us commenting on how great the airy texture of the vanilla layer contrasted with the fudginess of the dark chocolate in the middle. Commercial supermarket Cassata can be diabetes-inducing sweet; this was thankfully more balanced in its sugar content, allowing the flavours to shine through. Kat and I both don't like glazed cherries for this overly sweet reason, and the fact that they had far less glazed cherry that normal made for a better, more refined balance. In fact, looking at the dessert in hindsight, I'm wondering if they used glace apricots as well as cherries - a variation that I have always found to be superior to the more common cherry version. Whatever the case, it was a wonderful dish. Adam called it as dessert of the night and I would wholeheartedly agree.

The Verdict: Excellent
Alissa and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal at Ilpasto. The pasta serving sizes were enormous and well made, providing ample amounts of authentic flavour, quality and quantity - though Adam and Gita had fair, constructive criticism of their respective dishes. As impressive as the pasta was though, the desserts really knocked it out of the park with the Cassata being quite possibly the best I've had. The desserts we so good, I would go as far as to contend they were better than the desserts we had at the 3-Michelin starred Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong. With the new store opening in a few months at time of writing, it won't be long before our next Ilpasto meal.

ilpasto on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Jun, Perth, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

You've gotta love a serendipitous discovery. Every now and then I do a Google search for 'best ramen perth' to see if there is a place doing ramen I've just never heard of or is newly opened, and jot down the details as a lead to follow up on. Of course, I've been to all the major ramen joints in Perth, however such is my obsession with this dish that I am irrationally afraid that I've yet to try Perth's best bowl of ramen. I will not stop until I've tried them all.

Jun was one such lead. Years ago its location in a dark, dingy, literally home to the homeless alleyway just off Hay Street was indeed a ramen noodle house - there is even a remnant of old signage along the wall of the alley - and this older restaurant came up in a search for Perth's best ramen. I was disappointed to find it no longer existed when I searched for it on Urbanspoon, however when I saw photos of delicious looking Katsu Pork Skewers and Cold Soba Noodles at Jun it quickly jumped up the priority queue of places to visit. 

Located in a basement in an alley, the entrance to Jun is really cooling looking, and exudes a certain Melbournesque bohemian/hipster charm... it was really surprising to find the interior of the restaurant looking a bit staid and dated, with a non-working water feature and a stack of books piled near the entrance. I've seen photos of eateries in Japan that look similar, and there was something charming about its unassuming and decidedly unhip appearance. The slightly ramshackle appearance seemed to have no negative effect on their business, as by 7:30 the place was pretty much packed. Thank goodness we booked.

 We were seated near the rear of the restaurant, giving us a decent view of the the chef at work. While advertising themselves as a Kushi-Yaki Restaurant, Jun has a fairly extensive menu and it took us a moment to decide on what we wanted to eat. As appetising as the yakitori looked, in the end we decided to try three of their fried items and a bowl of noodles each.

First to arrive was a plate of Seafood Croquettes. Being of Dutch descent, Alissa's family have schooled me on the delicious ways of the croquette, so I was most interested to see the differences between Dutch and Japanese versions of this dish. These seafood croquettes were quite different to the gravy-filled versions Alissa's Oma makes, however I did enjoy the meaty chunks of prawn and other seafood inside. What struck me as most impressive however was how well fried it was. Deep frying something may seem like a fairly simple task, but there is a skill to getting fried items to be both nice and crispy, and not greasy. It seems to be a rare skill based on how greasy a lot of lunch bar fried food can be, so its to the chef's credit that these came out as well as they did. Combining this with the tastiness of the tonkatsu sauce which reminded me of a better version of HP Barbecue Sauce, and this was an excellent start to our meal.

It got even better with the Karaage, arguably the best and most refined Karaage either of have had in Perth. As with the croquettes, the frying skill was exemplary. The coating was thinner than most Karaage Alissa and I have had, yet still maintained that deliciously gingery flavour we've come to know and love. Most amazing however was the soft, juicy and tender texture of the meat. I thought Kai's Karaage was very good, but this was even better. Seriously, if all you know of Karaage is the cheap, mass produced pseudo-KFC version common to food court Japanese you owe it yourself to try Jun's version to see how good it can be. Simply phenomenal.

Next came the Pork Belly and Onion skewers. Basically Tonkatsu Pork on a stick with slices of onion between the pork belly pieces, these were piping hot to the point of being a little difficult to eat (admittedly, this was our own greedy fault). Once it cooled a bit, we were greeted by delicious chunks of pork belly's unctuous goodness, and the addition of onion gave it a certain onion ring quality - an inspired twist. That said, as people who are fairly obsessed with pork (and pork belly in particular) this was probably the most anticipated of the three dishes, yet it didn't leaving us gushing as much as the Karaage did. This however was not a reflection on the quality of the Pork Belly and Onion so much as how amazing the Karaage was.

While I consider ramen's alkaline noodles the best of all Japan's noodle styles, a good bowl of fat Udon Noodles remains Alissa's firm favourite. As with the Karaage, this was near best in class - better than Kai, Zensaki and Taka's. Udon's shoyu-based broth has a cleaner flavour than that of ramen's, and Jun's version was totally on point, with a certain marine umami flavour that made it all the more delicious. While both Kai and Zensaki top their Udon off with a more deluxe serves of mixed tempura and soft shell crab respectively, the fact we'd already had some delicious fried goodness before the noodles meant the two pieces of sweet and succulent baby squid were more than sufficient.

I personally feel soba noodles are a dish best served cold, and the Cold Soba with Sweet Potato Paste and Raw Quail Egg sounded so good I had to try it. Wow. This was seriously some next level shit. Firstly, the presentation was beautiful, with the soba framed by thinly sliced spring onion and nori and topped with a raw quail egg. I even liked their choice of plate! Mixing the egg into the noodles and then dipping it into the accompanying bowl of dipping sauce, this was a serious salty-sweet-umami explosion, rich in the flavour of sesame and soy, made all the better by the added kick of the wasabi. This was so good I didn't want it to end, and I continued to pick up every single stray strand of soba until there were none left.

The Verdict: Excellent
In David Chang's Momofuku cookbook, he recounts his tutelage under soba specialist Akio Hosoda and how when realising David was dedicated to a completely different noodle, he gave David the ultimatum; "you're either soba or not". I feel a bit this way about the various Japanese noodle styles - we'll eat them all but I'm a ramen man, while Alissa is all for the Udon. In Alissa's case, the excellence of Jun's Udon noodle served to reinforce her belief in its ascendency while for me, trying a soba this good was enough to almost make me a convert to the ways of the soba noodle. Almost. Ramen still rules supreme in my eyes, but I enjoyed the cold soba at Jun so much I'm gonna have to make some room in my life for this alternative noodle. Combine that with best-in-class Karaage and the need to try their yakitori next time, and this is a restaurant we'll definitely be coming back to. Repeatedly. At $51 for the five items, Jun is a tad bit pricier than places like Kai, Zensaki and Nao but we left feeling seriously full and satisfied with our meal - next time, I think two items to share and then a bowl of noodles each would be more than enough for the two of us. The very next day after eating there, I got an SMS from a friend asking for a restaurant recommendation. With no hesitation and no alternative suggestions, I responded with Jun. I don't think I can recommend them enough.

Jun on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Taka's Kitchen (Shafto Lane), Perth, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Taka Japanese Cuisine (AKA Taka's Kitchen) needs little in the way of an introduction. Its Fremantle branch was the place that introduced me to Japanese food back in the '90s, a time when sushi was still a little alternative and Matsuri was considered one of the best Japanese restaurants in town (oh how times have changed). Given its remains a renowned and popular cheap and cheerful Perth institution in spite of better Japanese restaurants having opened in its wake, blogging about it might seem a little unnecessary. However, with the addition of ramen to their menu sometime in the last 2 years or so, my goal of eating and rating every ramen in Perth would not be complete without giving my thoughts on their version of one of my favourite dishes.

While saving for our honeymoon, Alissa and I often found ourselves at the Barrack St store when our budget couldn't be stretched beyond their super cheap prices. Taka's is like McDonald's as its pretty consistent from store to store, so having parked at the west end of the CBD we decided to visit their branch in Shafto Lane for a change.

The layout is very similar to the Barrack St store - numerous tables lined up to form two rows in a large share table/mess hall configuration, with smaller 4-person tables on the sides. There also is bar seating for periods of extreme capacity, though I can't recall them ever being used when I've been in.

My order of Ramen Noodles came served with chicken, boiled egg and seaweed in broth. The broth seemed to be a kind of Shoyu-based broth with a strong chicken flavour, and was sweeter and milder than the Miso or Tonkotsu styles. It was quite tasty in its own right, reminding me of the Asian-style Maraconi Chicken Soup I often ate as a child, and was more successful than the the tasteless tonkotsu broth at Zensaki. Still, it couldn't compare to the more complex flavours of heartier (though less healthy) broth styles found at Nao, Arigataya and Kai.

The noodles served here were described as 'thin egg noodles', thankfully not the thin egg noodles served with wanton noodles, but something with the expected ramen thickness and appearance. The use of egg in ramen is something I find a little controversial as the yellow colour is traditionally a product of alkaline salts (kansui) rather than egg content. Nao's much lauded ramen is also made with egg content, so its not like Taka's are the only ones doing this. Overall the noodles had a nice toothsome bite that I appreciated. Though they were no where near as as good as Kai or Nao, they were an improvement on the overcooked mee pok-style noodles served at Arigataya. The topping of chicken was the Taka's Teriyaki Chicken Standard Issue they use in many of their dishes. This was decent enough, though far from the best Teriyaki Chicken I've had; Karaage would have been preferable. Finally, the boiled egg was just that - a boiled egg, not the marinated egg with the slightly liquid yolk I've had at other places, but at least lacking the blue ring of overcookedness.

For a point of difference, Alissa went with the Teriyaki Chicken Udon, which contains the same standard Teriyaki Chicken that came with my ramen.. For a mass production no-frills place like Taka's I was expecting that the broth served here would perhaps be identical to the Shoyu broth used in the ramen noodles or the same as the miso soup that comes with all the large serves of rice dishes. So I was quite surprised to find that it was a different, thinner broth in keeping with the udon style. The broth and noodles tasted correct for the style, but it was inferior to versions made by Kai and Zensaki which come with mixed tempura and soft shell crab respectively.

Feeling like sharing a side of something, Alissa and I ordered a plate of the Chicken Karaage, which came with rice and a serve of Miso Soup which we didn't eat. I've ordered this dish many times in the past and its surprisingly good for what it is, having that nice, gingery flavour and crispiness you'd expect from a good Karaage.  It was better than Zensaki's Karaage, though Alissa and I agreed we like our standard order of Karaage at Kai's a lot more.

The Verdict: Good
Taka's are far from my favourite Japanese restaurant in town, however at such a low price point they practically rule the budget Japanese market. And with good reason, as they are great value from a price to quality perspective. Their ramen was not exactly the most exciting ramen I've had, but it was at least tasty and enjoyable; if it didn't reach the level of Nao or Kai, it at least didn't fail at achieving an aspect of the dish as recent bowls at Zensaki and Arigataya did (bad broth and bad noodles respectively). Alissa and I have tried most of Taka's dishes over many years of eating here, and while its never mindblowing its always at least satisfying. On a budget? Want Japanese? Go to Taka's.

Taka Japanese Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Friday, 21 March 2014

Hometown's Kitchen, Parkwood, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

My work colleagues always seem a little bemused when I talk passionately about food, or predictably respond with 'dinner plans' when I'm asked what I'm doing this weekend. For some its the fact that I'm 'mad' enough to pay fine dining prices for a meal, while others think of food in such utilitarian concepts that even just using Urbanspoon to find good places to eat nearby is a strange, alien concept. Still, as much as they think me a little odd, they can be quite supportive. Knowing I'm always on the lookout for new places to try, one colleague handed me a menu to a Malaysian Chinese restaurant called Hometown's Kitchen, located in the middle of suburbia in Parkwood. He hadn't eaten there himself, but  he grabbed a pamphlet as a hot tip for me to follow up on since they claimed to have the best Laksa in Perth according to SBS. I don't go out for Laksa very much as my mother makes a killer version of the dish that is far better than most I've tried, but such a major claim as 'Best Laksa in Perth' had to be investigated.

The restaurant is a fairly large, deep space with the middle and left side of the room filled with large round tables...

...while the right side is populated with two-seater tables. Note the funky green chairs.

We ended up visiting Hometown's Kitchen twice before writing this post, and on both occasions we went with a starter of Chinese-style Salt and Pepper Squid. A dish commonly found  in Chinese 'Combination Plate' eateries either hard and dry from being in a food warmer, or soggy and lacking crispness due to sweating from being covered in a food warmer, Home Town's version was delightfully crunchy and fresh tasting, with a nice saltiness. One thing I find with badly made Salt and Pepper Squid is that it can be outrageously oily, but thankfully this version did not suffer from this problem. The garlic, chilli and spring onions tossed with the squid was addictively tasty, leading Alissa to ask; 'why is it so nice?'

For our first visit, we decided to go with a bowl of the Laksa each. There are a lot of really weak Laksa's in Perth with a feeble yellow colour and watery consistency, so its was heartening to see Hometown Kitchen's version was a fiery orange-red. Tasting the Laksa gravy, I was happy to find that it was indeed a very good, very hot Laksa; having a good balance of coconut and prawniness, and brimming with prawns, chicken and sliced fish cake. Though I consider the thick Laksa mee to be the most authentic noodles, as a fan of yellow mee I was happy with the yellow mee and bee hoon combination served. What I did think was missing from the dish was a decent garnish of daun kesum, something I have fond memories of my father liberally piling onto his bowl. I mean, its use is so synonymous with this dish that its even known simply as laksa leaf, so its omission was a little disappointing. 

We were pretty full by this stage, so we decided to share a Red Bean Pancake with Ice Cream for dessert. This was excellent; better than a similar dish we had eaten when we went for Xiao Long Bao in Singapore. The pancake was nice and crispy on the outside but had that nice chewy texture on the inside, with a lovely red bean filling on the inside. As with the Salt and Pepper Squid, it wasn't super oily tasting either. Served here with a simple but effective scoop of vanilla ice cream, Alissa and I were both very satisfied with our meal.

So much so, we decided to come back for a second visit to try their main dishes. For our entree we again had the Salt and Pepper Squid, with the first main being a sizzling plate of Spicy Pork Belly from their 'Hometown's Special' menu. This was reminiscent of the Pork Spare Ribs in House Black Vinegar Sauce that we had at Monogamous Chinese in Hong Kong, though less vinegary. The pork belly slices were deliciously unctuous as expected, and we both liked the thick, treacly sauce and the abundance of dried whole chillis in the dish. It was a nice enough dish, however it was a little heavy-handed in the onion department; a typical Chinese restaurant bulking technique that I'm not a huge fan of. In the end, Alissa and I agreed that while we liked this dish, the Pork Spare Ribs from Monogamous Chinese was a better variation on this basic idea.

Alissa and I are fanatical about Sizzling Tofu with Chicken and Salted Fish, so we decided to try the Beancurd-Tofu, a dish of Japanese tofu served with spicy chicken mince with homemade sauce. As with everything we've had here, Hometown did not hold back on the chilli content, making for another hot dish. As with the previous dish, there was a lot to recommend it - the tofu had a nice crispy outer coating that gave way as soon as you even moved it, and the chicken mince was tasty - but in comparison to the usual Sizzling Tofu with Chicken and Salted Fish we had to admit it just was not as good.

I was pretty full by this stage, however Alissa was feeling greedy for dessert and wanted to try the cold Bobo Cha Cha as she had not had it before, and has a deep-seated fear of missing out on something that could be amazing. I'm not a fan of Bobo Cha Cha so didn't try any of it, however as much as Alissa liked it she said she would have preferred the Chendol that would have been her second choice.

The Verdict: Very Good
I'm not sure if I would call Hometown's Kitchen's Laksa the best in Perth as I haven't ever had a bowl that I find quite as satisfying as what my mother makes, however it definitely is one of the better Laksas in town - especially when you consider how many place serve up terrible, watery versions of this dish. Their Red Bean Pancake and Salt and Pepper Squid were amongst the best versions of each dish that we've had, however while the main dishes we ordered during our second visit were very good and satisfying in their own right, they were simply outclassed by similar dishes Alissa and I have had elsewhere. Still, in spite of these lesser dishes, there was enough good here for us to come back with a larger group to try something else from the extensive menu, as well as a repeat of our first Salt and Pepper Squid, Curry Laksa and Red Bean Pancake meal.

Hometown Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Gaya, Applecross, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Starting The Ministry of Gluttony, I knew that there are bloggers who get VIP invites to openings and complimentary meals, but I thought any chance that I would enjoy such a perk would only come after years of writing - if it even came at all. So when I received an email from Leo of The Gaya in Applecross inviting me as a 'power blogger' to come in for a complimentary meal and give my honest feedback, I was surprised and flattered to be asked. Given that I was not obligated to give a glowing review if the meal didn't warrant it, I accepted the invite and made plans with Alissa for a Thursday night dinner.

The Gaya is a Modern Korean restaurant located on Kearns Crescent in Applecross, just south of the Riseley St and Canning Hwy intersection and very close to local favourites Pacific Rim Mix Plate and the similarly named Gala Restaurant. Having seen the Koreatown episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, I was aware of Modern Korean's increasingly popularity in the US. However with even the stereotypical Korean Barbecue joint being somewhat alien to most Australians (Alissa included), this is a restaurant operating in largely untested and uncharted Perth waters.

Arriving via their left side entrance, we were invited to sit wherever we liked, and we chose a well lit table towards the right - all the better to take blog photos from!

The restaurant's interior features a fairly standard Modern Asian design aesthetic - bamboo highlights, screens, lantern shade lighting, and calligraphy works on the walls. Stylish but not overly fussy or stuffy.

As we perused their menu, a selection of biscuits were brought out as an Amuse Bouche. These were nice enough (we particularly liked the peanut cookie), but seemed more like the kind of sweet small bite you'd serve at the end of a meal as Petit Fours. A bit of an odd start, but given that we were pretty hungry it at least keep our stomachs happy as we waited for our meal proper.

For drinks we decided to go with their Yuzu Tea. Yuzu is a wonderful ingredient, and it was really nice presented here in drink form - sweet, almost floral and with a tangy, agreeable acidity.

The Gaya offer a set menu of your choice of starter, main and a selection of desserts for a reasonable $45. Though the meal was complimentary, this is how Alissa and I would have ordered had we come here as paying customers and would be the best way for us to get a sense of what The Gaya were about. For my starter I decided to go with the Fish Jijimi - a kind of traditional Korean fish pancake served with soy mayo. This was really delicious - the thinly cut fish fillets were tender and juicy, and with the pancake element were like a very fine battered fish. The pancake batter was not overly thick, leading Alissa to positively exclaim 'I'm not sure where the fish begins and the pancake begins!' when she tasted it. A relatively straightforward dish, but one that was executed commendably.

Alissa went with the Beef Cream Roll, which consisted of thinly sliced beef wrapped around asparagus, cream cheese, enoki mushroom, capsicum and cucumber in a soy-based, teriyaki-like sauce. I've had cheese in Korean food before, but to me this dish more closely echoed the cream cheese filled fresh spring rolls I've had at Japanese restaurant Ha-Lu in Mt Hawthorn combined with the thinly sliced beef we ate at Iggy's in Singapore. The cream cheese, vegetables and beef were a wonderful combination that made this another winning entree, even if the beef was not quite as tender as the incredible melt-in-your-mouth texture of Iggy's dish (though in the higher price bracket of Iggy's, this is to be expected).

While waiting for our mains,  beautifully plated surprise trays of small bites were brought out for us to enjoy. This included spicy daikon radish, a kimchi cabbage ball, small fish cakes and some spicy tuna. These were all fine and well made; about what I would expect for each of them in terms of taste and flavour and a nice complimentary selection for us to nibble on as we waited for our mains.

We didn't have to wait very long, and my main of 36 Pork was easily the dish of the night. The pork belly slices were cooked sous-vide for 36 hours and seasoned perfectly, the result having an amazing melt-in-your-mouth unctuousness. This was up there with some of the best cooked pork belly I've eaten, and made a great argument for why sous-vide is much more than 'just playing with science'. The remaining components were also excellent, with the sweet potato mash so smooth it must have been forced through a sieve and the combination of the very European pork side of apples with the Korean chive salad and spicy soybean paste sauce worked better than I had expected. This was a superb dish, and one that was masterfully executed.

Alissa's choice of mains was the Gaya Combo consisting of pan fried mackerel served with slices of omelette-style eggs, tempura zucchini, macaroni salad and kimchi served with rice and soup. Mackerel is not one of the easiest fish to cook as it can often result in a dry, brittle fish that is not great eating if overdone. This was not the case with the Gaya's mackerel, which was well seasoned and cooked perfectly. The sides were very tasty too, with Alissa and I both really enjoying the tempura zucchini and the sweet, creamy soup. It may not have been quite as exciting or as exceptional as the 36 Pork, but it maintained the consistent standard of cooking we had experienced so far.

From there it was time for dessert, and being an ice cream fanatic I had to go with the Green Tea Ice Cream. Made in house by the chef, this ice cream tasted a lot like a good quality vanilla ice cream with the kick of macha added. When making ice cream, it always critical to get a smooth texture with minimal ice crystal formation, and Gaya's definitely passed the test. The serving size was reasonable, however given the presentation and complexity of Alissa's dessert, it could possibly have been presented with another component to be a more well-rounded dish.

The Red Misu seems to be the Gaya's signature dessert; their version of a tiramisu served in a flower pot -complete with fake garden and rocks. The presentation of this dish was excellent with the illusion being believable right down to the detail on the chocolate stones.

Of course presentation is one thing; its no good having a beautiful dessert that is not very tasty. Thankfully, this was a delicious dessert - a nice, balanced tiramisu that was not overly alcoholic or overly rich as some can be. Most inspired as well was the inclusion of red bean, which brought an unusual texture and additional interest to the dish. I usually would choose ice cream over what is basically a cake (not my favourite), but I'd pick this over the ice cream as the better of the two desserts.

The Verdict: Excellent
Alissa and I left Gaya feeling very satisfied with our meal, and felt that $45 was quite reasonable for the serving size and the quality. The 36 Pork alone would bring us back as paying customers as it was a dish more expensive and established restaurants would be proud to serve. Chef Leo is definitely talented, and Alissa and I felt his cheffy, fusiony twists on Korean food were very tasteful and inspired. If given the opportunity I feel he and the restaurant have the potential to become even greater. The challenge for the Gaya is that Korean food is not one of the more well known and understood cuisines in Western Australia, and even though I've eaten Korean a number of times, its not the first thing I think about when going out for dinner. That they are doing something very different to Korean barbecue would additionally create a bit of a cognitive dissonance for those expecting a Korean restaurant to be one thing and finding it to be something else entirely. They've definitely got their work cut out for them, but with the quality of the food one can only hope word of mouth and the support of so many Perth bloggers leads to some major dividends for Leo and the Gaya. Recommended.

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