Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Mary's, Highgate, Western Australia (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

While Degustations and Noodle Shops are clearly food genres for which we have high levels of enthusiasm, Alissa and I rarely go out for breakfast. Being more a fan of the kinds of food available at lunch and dinner and somewhat bored of the conventions that define breakfast foods, I'm usually a bit utilitarian in my approach to breaking the fast to save more room for the lunch foods I really want to eat. Plus, with long weekend queues at the places that do serve interesting breakfasts, I'm more likely to end up grabbing an early Banh Mi or heading out nice and early for Dim Sum just as they open than stand around for an hour at all the breakfast hot spots.

For this reason, breakfast at Mary St Bakery has long eluded me. Alissa has been and raved about how good the food was, and blogger friends continually spruiked its greatness in conversation. So when I received an invite to attend a blogger's dinner at Mary St Bakery's nighttime alter-ego Mary's, I jumped at the chance - even when it turned out it was a night Alissa was unable to make it to.

The concept of Mary's is really clever and slightly crazy; from 4pm-6pm, Mary St Bakery is transformed from its usual Bakery/Cafe configuration and redressed as a very modern share plate restaurant called Mary's. It's clever because it makes great utilisation of an already established site that would otherwise be closed at night, but also a bit crazy because of the work that needs to be done to convert the space over for a completely different night time service of a thoroughly modern melange of Japanese, Korean and Italian Cuisine. Fusions have of course been around for a long time, however the traditionally conservative boundaries of Italian food have only recently been breaking down. With restaurants like ACME and LuMi in Sydney blazing the trail with this interesting fusion of cuisines, Mary's are definitely on-trend - and possibly ahead of the curve in Perth.

I arrived at the blogger's dinner knowing very little about what to expect. Although I'd read a few other blogger's posts about their meals, I hadn't expected it to be quite as impressive in both concept and execution. With just about every dish the restaurant serves brought out in a well sequenced multi-course fashion and well paired with beverages from the restaurant's idiosyncratic drinks list, I was lucky enough to get a sense of how of a piece the dishes were. Yes, there were the inevitable Momofuku reference points, but the chefs had clearly worked hard to refine the menu down to a style that made Mary's food unique and interesting enough to rise above the Perth restaurant boom noise as somewhere I'd really like to eat.

With the whirlwind of photos, great conversation with bloggers I'd just met and those I've known for some time, an endless stream of dishes and no Alissa to confer with, I felt my memory of many of the 16 dishes I sampled lacked the depth I generally prefer to write with. I recalled deliciously crunchy Chicken Skin served as a snack upon arrival, Oysters that impressed an oyster fence-sitter such as myself and a Rump Tartare that was universally praised even though it didn't do anything for me. However what I remembered the most were a handful of dishes that I enjoyed so much they made me want to come back for another round.

And that's exactly what I did - the very next night, Alissa and I made a booking for a Friday dinner with our friend Ben, with a selection of some of my personal favourites from the meal the night before. We ordered two small plates as an entree, beginning with the Pig's Head Terrine, Pickled Cucumber and Radish. This was the most clearly Momofuku Ssam inspired dish on the menu, and was Ben's favourite of the two entrees. As off-putting as the idea might be, the meat from the face of a pig is really delicious, and the beautifully flavoursome pucks of swine flesh served were deliciously juicy and porky. Combined with the fresh crispness of the Daikon and Lettuce and the spicy creaminess of the Mayo, this dish immediately impressed Alissa and Ben as much as it had impressed me the night before.

The Kewpie, Roe, Chicken Wings were easily my favourite small plate of the night before, and were near the top of the list of things I just had to order again. What looked like a plate of really good Chicken Wings that is missing the sauce is deceptive; buried within each deboned wing is a mix of Kewpie and Roe, giving an explosion of flavour that is totally surprising - both because the idea of mayo stuffed chicken is surprising, but also because the combo of Kewpie and Roe is even better than what already sounds like a winning combination. This was a really clever idea, as it took the stuffed Chicken Wings common to Vietnamese restaurants in an unexpected direction, and I imagine the surprise it gives first time diners must be a real kick for the kitchen. Of course, a surprise like this would only be a gimmick if the chicken itself wasn't well cooked, and the crispy, spicy batter on the outside and the perfectly moist chicken meat within made for very good chicken wings in their own right. This is a definite must order entree.

While the Mary's menu is 'designed to be shared' (as is the fashion these days), their three pasta dishes make very good mains. Ben went with the Squid Ink Tag, Scallop, Fermented Chilli as his mains choice. This dish really grew on Ben, who at first found the dish merely okay, but by the end of the bowl had so thoroughly enjoyed it he wanted to lick the bowl. The Squid Ink Tagliatelle itself was really well made pasta, with a nice silkiness with maintaining good bite. The Scallops too were cooked well with the right level of tenderness, although Ben felt that Scallops always suffer from the conundrum of presenting better whole but having to be cut up by the diner if they want an even spread of Scallop meat flavour in every bite, which looks ugly on the plate. Finally, the Fermented Chilli that binds the dish together reminded me of Sambal Blachan, and with the thin silky pasta made me think of a Kway Teow dish combined with prawny, fermented flavours - very interesting indeed.

As good as the Squid Ink Tag is, I think the Lasagne, Mushroom, Black Garlic, Burnt Butter, Curd is even better. The Lasagna sheets here are rolled out to a very thin setting, and the oily sheen of the Burnt Butter helped to emphasise just how silky the pasta is. Alissa quite rightly pointed out that the rich fattiness of the butter, earthiness of cooked Mushrooms and the intensity of the Black Garlic could have been be a bit over the top if not for the use of raw straw mushrooms, some fresh chive and a good dollop of curd on top to provide some freshness. These elements helped keep the fattiness levels in check, and made for a very satisfying vegetarian option that would probably have been my choice for a main if not for the next dish.

The Maltagliati, Braised Beef, Spiced Black Vinegar is such a superb dish that it would be reason alone to come down to Mary's - and to keep coming back for more. The dish takes recognisable ideas - Braised Beef with Black Vinegar from a Chinese restaurant and an Italian Ragu - and reconfigures them as something that recalls both dishes without you wishing you were eating those other dishes instead. Again, the thin and silky pasta recalled Kway Teow, and the collogen-rich stickiness of the Black Vinegar Braise combined with the melt in your mouth Beef Cheeks made for a dish that is seriously hearty and moreish. And with the slight acidity of the vinegar to balance out the richness, you really can eat more. I rarely say this about a beef dish as its far from my favourite meat, but this is a dish too good to share. Do yourself a favour and get one just for you - and make sure you use the plate of scarpetti to scoop up all that delicious sauce when you're done!

Being a bakery by day, Mary's have a lot of excellent produce to play with, and both of their desserts make good use of the Mary Street Bakery larder. The Doughnut Ice Cream, Peanut Butter Crunch, Kyoho Grape Jelly, Toast immediately appealed to me as someone who is a sucker for desserts with both Ice Cream and Crunch, and for anything grape flavoured. Basically a play on a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich, the Kyoho Jelly is apparently given an extra dose of fake grape flavour from Welshs - one of my childhood favourite drinks. This overly sweet drink is made even sweeter in its reduced, treacly jelly form, but its balanced out by the salty crunch fo the Peanut Butter component. With the cold creaminess of the Doughnut Ice Cream rounding it out, this was a very successful transmogrification of a very familiar dish. The only issue we had is that the dish presented to us on the Friday was a bit cumbersome to eat on the admittedly very good piece of toast, and seemed geared towards being for a single diner to eat by themselves. For the blogger's dinner the bread was omitted as far as I can remember. Neither are perfect solutions, but when everything else about the dish is so good, its more a point for possible refinement rather than a problem per se.

The other dessert on the menu was Dark Chocolate Mousse, Ginger Nut Brownie, Coconut, Passionfruit. This is an awesome dessert. I complain regularly about chocolate desserts being overly rich and unbalanced, but this dish had no such problems. The Dark Chocolate Mousse and the Ginger Nut Brownie had their richness levels right on the money, and they were balanced out by the mild spicy heat of the ginger and the acidity of the Passionfruit. These two elements in particular took this dish to the next level, with the dishes only minor flaw being that the Coconut Granita - theatrically shaved over the dessert at the table - could have been a bit more generous so its coolness could influence the dish a bit more. Still, as with the PB&J dessert that precede it, this was a minor quibble when stacked up against all the things the dish did right.

The Verdict: Excellent +
The highest praise I can pay Mary's is that I didn't just come back for a second round as a paying customer the very next night, but came back for a third visit two weeks later with our regular dining buddies Justin and Sarah. With so many restaurants to try in Perth, its rare for Alissa and I to return to a restaurant so frequently in such a short period of time other than our local regular haunts, and the friends that we have brought along have all been glowing their praise for the inventiveness of cooking on display. The staff on all three visits have been friendly and knowledgeable, and I've witnessed this level of service given to other customers throughout the restaurant other than the bloggers that they knew were in the room. When they accidentally stuffed up Negronis ordered by Alissa and Ben, the floor staff were able to identify a problem straight away, make replacements and even gave Alissa and Ben some soda water to make their respective straight Campari and straight Vermouth into something drinkable.

Seeing that our Friday night booking was made very last minute, and that Mary's sister restaurant El Publico was positively overflowing next door, I really felt like Mary's should have been even busier than it was, as the inventiveness of the food set it apart as even better than El Publico as far as Alissa and I are concerned. The Maltagliati, Braised Beef, Spiced Black Vinegar and the Kewpie, Roe, Chicken Wings are reason alone to try Mary's out, and even after three visits I'd definitely want to come back for more. Extremely highly recommended.

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