Sunday, 6 April 2014

Pleased To Meet You, Northbridge, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Alissa and I have very fond memories of Harvest in North Fremantle. We started dating just before I went away on an eating holiday to Hong Kong, India and Singapore, and upon my return our third date was a lovely dinner at Harvest. When we got married in November last year, our plan had been to book a table at Harvest on our return from our honeymoon, however owner Clinton Nolan had sadly closed this wonderful restaurant a few months earlier to focus on his casual eateries. We've visited Nolan's other establishments, really liking the vibe and extensive selection of alcohol on offer at Who's Your Mumma while both being a bit underwhelmed by the packed like sardines crowd clamouring for the good-but-not-that-good food at La Cholita. So when my quest for the best ramen in Perth revealed Nolan had recently opened Pleased To Meet You - a new ramen-serving,  Asian-inspired joint on Roe St - it quickly moved up the priority queue as a place check out.

The most striking feature of the restaurant's front facade is how utterly non-descript it is. Following a recent, somewhat pretentious trend of including only the most scant information about a place, Pleased To Meet You's main signage simply boasts its address, with a small liquor licensing sign above the door giving the only indication of its name. When the New York Times made seemingly dubious claims of Perth being more of a 'hipster heaven' than Williamsburg, this is the kind of hipster bair practice that gives the writer's assertions some credence; you really have to be in the know to know this place even exists.

Inside is a bar and bar seating along the left wall...

... a feature wall of greenery along the front right next to exposed brick and crates decoratively bolted to the ceiling,...

... and a very on-trend casual communal tables mess hall layout to the whole space.

Being a small/share plates vibe, dining with a larger group is probably the preferred way of experiencing Pleased To Meet You. Joining us for the meal were our good friends Justin and Sarah. Growing up on the same street, Justin and I have been friends for 20 years. He has always been a big foodie, and as a kid my parents used to suspect he'd time his visits to our house so he could have another meal in the day!

Drinks can be ordered as table service, however all food has to be ordered at the bar. One of the strengths of their ordering system is that everything can be put on a tab to be settled at the end of the meal; this really benefits small plate menus as you can order as you go. Less excellent was the restaurant's menu being located at the front of the bar with no printed menus at the table. I get that they are trying to discourage people from expecting table service, but its a bit annoying having to look across the room for items to order, especially when some of the 'Animal' and 'Sweets' sections are low enough to be obscured by the bar and the heads of other customers. 

With quite a few items I really wanted to try, Justin, Sarah and Alissa left it up to me to take my pick of the menu after a few suggestions of their preferences. The menu is an eclectic pan-American/pan-Asian fusion that seemed to be modelled on the similar style of food served at David Chang's Momofuku Ssam in New York. This is unsurprising considering I was served bao bread at Harvest, and Who's Your Mumma's small bar snacks menu includes 'Professor Chang's Steamed Pork Buns'. Nolan is clearly a fellow David Chang fanboy, and a review of Ssam Bar seems like a fitting description of Please To Meet You's menu; 'he pulls off this eclecticism, which could easily lapse into incoherence, by keeping the menu sufficiently succinct and making sure everything on it counts.'

The Duck Tacos were the first dish to arrive, and unfortunately revealed a flaw in their ordering system; I had ordered three of the Beef Tongue Ruben Bao since Sarah was a bit grossed out by the thought of tongue, however all of us wanted to try the tacos. It was a small mistake that is easy to make, and the guy who took my order was probably the friendliest staff member on duty. What was a little disappointing was how the wait staff dealt with the mistake. When we queried the missing taco, the waiter sorted it out for us but not before letting us know that she would not usually take an order from the floor. We of course understood this, however when a restaurant makes a mistake with an order I don't think querying it with staff on the floor is unwarranted.

Thankfully, the tacos were excellent. The soft tacos tasted a bit like non-stuffed papusas, with an interesting texture that suggested they were made with cornmeal dough. The duck was well-spiced and succulent, with the corn salsa providing a lovely sweetness. Justin was the most incensed by the attitude of the staff, but was quick to complement the dish, stating 'this is the best use of chipotle I've encountered'. Definitely a must-try item and a strong start to the meal.

Fries are always an interesting dish to check out, as their execution says a lot about a place, ranging from bland frozen mass productions to labours of love like Heston Blumenthal's triple cooked chips. The Pleased to Meet You Fries were closer to Heston than the mass production line, featuring rustic shapes and crispy edges that suggested at least a double cook. These were nice and crunchy and largely remained so for quite a while into the meal; a hallmark of good fries. The accompanying dipping sauce of what seemed like a spicy aioli was an excellent, tasty addition.

I was eyeing of the Palm Heart Salad however Alissa really wanted to try the Watermelon Salad, here served with a summery and refreshing combination of cucumber and goats curd.  I don't dig thickly cut cucumber so this salad didn't do much for me; it was tasty enough but Alissa astutely pointed out that it probably could have done with a bit more watermelon. In hindsight, Alissa agreed the Fennel, Peach and Palm Heart Salad would probably have been nicer.

On the other end of the health spectrum came the crunchy Pork Crackers and Avocado Dip. These were addictively good; the fatty, crunchiness of the pork crackers cut by the, well, creamy fat of the avocado dip. Not much to say here; a simple snacky dish done well.

The most intriguing dish on the menu was the Beef Tongue Ruben Bao (sic). Though I try to limit my beef intake for environmental reasons, I was pleased to see the embrace of nose to tail eating exemplified by this dish. The combination of a Beef Reuben sandwich with the very trendy steamed bao bread is a super hipster move, but also an utterly inspired one. One of the great things about a cheeseburger is how soft the burger buns are, and the use of bao bread proved to be a very effective replacement. Combined with the swiss cheese, deliciously flavoursome beef tongue and sauerkraut, it ranks right up there with the best bao buns I've had - and I eat a lot of bao (see here, here and here). This was Justin and Alissa's dish of the night.

The dish I was most looking forward to was the Roast Pork Ramen, however I have to admit I sadly didn't rate it amongst the best ramen I've had. There was a lot to like - noodles were nice and toothsome, the slow poached sous-vide egg had a lovely texture and the slice of chashu had an excellent, melt-in-your-mouth consistency - however there was something not right about the broth. It tasted like it was tonkotsu based, however it was overly salty and had a slightly tomatoey quality about it. I'm not sure if the tomato flavour was due to actually putting tomatoes in the broth or if the extreme umami and salt level made me think I was tasting tomatoes but it was far from the best tonkotsu I've had, and a little overpriced considering you can get incredible ramen from Nao, Dosukoi and Kai for less than a tenner.  The good thing though was that Justin really liked it, and if this is the gateway drug to a serious ramen obsession then it has done a great service.

Our final savoury dish was the Roast Suckling Pig, sold by the 100 grams and literally carved off a rotisserie pig in the corner of the bar - if you haven't worked out this is not a place for vegans the spinning pig should serve as a strong enough warning. Alissa commented that this kind of pork always looks really dry on the plate, however as we dug into the delicious swine flesh, it was pleasantly juicy, wonderfully flavoursome pork. Justin's South American heritage served him well, and he correctly identified the Chimichurri sauce before the rest of us, and the fresh herbs worked well with the unctuousness of the pork. To cap off an already successful dish, the the crackling was also noteworthy, being skillfully made and incredibly crispy.

After taking a bit of a break it was time for dessert. When ordering, I expressed to the guy at the counter that we would wished to order desserts, to which his response in a sarcastic tone was, 'you can, if you tell me where you are sitting'. The slight dickishness of the response was something I was not expecting, and again showed that customer service standards here were far lower than the food standards.

And the desserts thankfully maintained the high food standards, with the S'mores proving to be the more popular dessert. Being a delightfully crowd pleasing combination of toasted marshmallows, chocolate mousse, an airy piped-in caramel-flavoured cream of some description and artisanal Graham crackers, it's a dish that works right away on paper and was even better in execution, offering textural and flavour variation. The fact that the marshmallows and the Graham crackers tasted like they were made in house is impressive alone, and the smooth texture and balanced richness of the chocolate mousse will no doubt please many a chocoholic without being overpowering.

The Ice Cream Nachos on the other hand do not sound like they work on paper, however if you take Heston Blumenthal's experiments with savoury ice creams and bacon desserts to its logical, Dude Food conclusion it was only a matter of time before this was gonna happen - I have friends who have been serving the genius snack of Coco Nachos (nachos, Coco Pops and cheese) for many years now and I believe Gelato Messina have already incorporated nachos into one of their flavours. Heston would have been proud of the dish's trompe l'oeil presentation, with strawberries finely diced to mimic tomatoes and slivers of mango made to look like cheese. The corn chips dusted with icing sugar tasted like Italian crostoli, and the sweetness of the flavours worked better with the corn flavour than i would have expected. The cinnamon ice cream was a well considered choice; neutral enough to not be as overpowering as chocolate, but not so insipid as to simply fade into the background as vanilla might. This is a dessert I would easily return for, though I think the rest of the table were more reserved in their praise.

The Verdict: Excellent
With such an interesting and well thought out menu, I really feel that Pleased To Meet You surpasses La Cholita in terms of creativity, bringing the kind of inventive eclecticism of Momofuku Ssam Bar to Perth. This is easily my favourite of Nolan's restaurants after Harvest. The Duck Tacos,  Beef Tongue Ruben and the Ice Cream Nachos are definite must-try items which are such strong performers that they thankfully outweigh the negatives of the overpriced, overly salty Ramen. Food came to about $35 a head with a $28 bottle of wine on top of that, and I could imagine a different combination of dishes could result in a very filling and delicious meal for under $30 a head sans drinks - great value for food of this quality.

The biggest issue we had was the slightly dickish attitude of the staff, a complaint a few people seem to have made on Urbanspoon. I don't expect people to bend over backwards for me, and having worked in cafes I know that customers can be outrageously demanding at times, but sarcasm and snarkiness are not things any of us appreciated. As Alissa quipped, their attitude was more like Not So Pleased To Meet You, and she contrasted them against the friendly and welcoming staff at Pinchos, another newish restaurant we visited recently. If you can overlook the staff there is some seriously good food to be found here, but unless they've improved since this visit, don't say I didn't warn you.

Pleased To Meet You on Urbanspoon

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