Monday, February 24, 2014

Newmarket Hotel | St Kilda

Chips & Guacamole
One of the best things about catching up with friends is that you get - not only to see how they're doing - but to eat! Especially when we get to try new restaurants, it's double fun (like spearmint gum)! So in February, our pastry-chef-extraordinaire friend and his lovely partner picked Newmarket Hotel to meet up. I must admit, I get a little fearful when I see a gastropub claiming Latin American and Mexican food as their fare, but with Alex's good opinion in hand, I thought no more about it and we trekked to St Kilda.

Weathered and beaten in appearance from the front, we got the feel this is going to be a trendy spot. Despite it's downtrodden street appeal, that's sooooo not the impression we were hit with when we stepped through the tall archways into a beer garden-like courtyard. As we progressed into the dining area, we stood under ultrahigh ceilings, and maneuvered through a totally chic interior. Complete refurb was done here folks, and done well!  This place has a mixture of  blasé and class: humorous touches like our water being poured from an old school coffee jug relaxed the atmosphere; the patterned rug reminiscent of something I'd seen in a 70's bowling alley all says to the diner, "We can have a bit of fun here".  In sum, it has a pretty rad feel to it :)

Short-rib Taco
What to eat, what to eat?  We sipped on a wide variety of alcoholic beverages and munched on some chips & guacamole ($13) while we indecisively perused what was on offer. Our table consisted of two carnivores and two herbivores and the menu easily catered for both. We all wanted to try so much that no clear decision was forthcoming; luckily our lovely server picked up on our plight and headed over, "Get the SoCal Spread!"  Stunned at such a simple solution, especially at the bargain price of $55 per person, we quickly acquiesce (but not until after Shawn got the negative answer to 'You don't serve up any offal do you?') and the food barrage began...

Blue Corn Tacos & Fish Tacos
They came out left-right-and center; our server just kept bringing food...and more food...and more food... until our bellies started to jut out passed our shirts. I literally cannot remember every single aspect of the 752 dishes it felt like we ate, so thank goodness our bill was itemized!  And I lost track of photos and eating... oh, no one could possibly expected me to take photos of all that, right!? Ha! But, I can honestly say, every dish that came out, both meat and veg, were delicious. They were sized perfectly to ensure we could continue eating until we nearly burst.

You ready? Okay, our So-Cal Spread consisted of: Fish Tacos, Shortrib Tacos, Blue Corn Tacos (veg), Quesadillas (veg), Corn, Chorizo, Tomato Tlayuda (veg), Veg Gnudi, Pork Ribs, Chook, Bravas, Mex Salad (veg) and then a Blood Orange cakey-thing.  That's a helluvalotta food, folks!! The SoCal is the way to go!!

With the appetizer we ordered pre-SoCal and all our drinks - our bill came to $300 - so $75 per head, which I think is spectacular given the volume of food, drink & fun we had that night!  You know what we hop to it!

Newmarket Hotel on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Farm Vigano | South Morang

Yeah, you right that right. South Morang.

No, I wouldn't have guessed it either. Hidden in the middle of the northern suburban sprawl, among new residential estates, commercial buildings and retail shops is a charming Italian restaurant nestled against a gorgeous natural backdrop.

When I was first directed to go there last year (for a catch-up with a gathering with friends), I thought we were headed to some La Porchetta type place - given its location (no offense, nothing wrong with La Porchetta if you're after basic food at pretty average prices; and no offense to South Morang, you just wouldn't pick this as the type of place to be hidden here).

But when I drove into the parking lot, I was confused. When I walked into the front door, I was stunned. So convinced was I that I had imagined its entire existence, that a few days later, I took Shawn there to prove my sanity (or insanity). Yup! I'm sane, it was still there! Hidden at the back of an actual neighborhood is Farm Vigano, sitting perched against "The Gorge" parkland full of mature trees and bush. It's a truly lovely setting... Okay, so now let's talk food and drink....

We ordered a bottle of Springvale Chardonnay and the Antipasto Misto ($34/serves up to 5 people, or 4 peckish folk, or 2 very hungry bears) which was full of deliciousness: Italian salami & meats for the carnivores, imported & local cheeses, grilled & pickled vegetables, olives and casalinga bread. This platter is a great way to start your evening, so if you have room in the belly - order it!

Antipasto Misto
The next thing to hit the table (aside from a second bottle of wine) were three thin-based-classic-style pizzas and one salad. The Gamberi pizza ($20) was a real hit with my father-in-law. Baby spinach and baby roma tomatoes were a perfect combo with the marinated tiger prawns (which were, by the way, declared as some of the more succulent and delicious of all time!)
Bufala E Prosciutto

Shawn ordered the Bufala E Prosciutto ($20) which oozed with buffalo mozzarella underneath the prosciutto crudo. The thinly sliced meat was simply lying across the top of this pizza, just warm from the heat it emitted - and perfect - according to Shawn.

Quattro Formaggi
Insalata di Ceriali
Being cheese lovers, my mother-in-law and I shared the Quattro Formaggi pizza ($20) - which had a lovely salty flair to it with the gorgonzola and parmesan mixed with  fior di latte and mascarpone.  I think secretly we wished we had ordered on each! ha!  We also shared the Insalata di Ceriali ($14) which, compared with our cheese pizza, paled in flavour. Don't get me wrong, it was a lovely salad - grains of spelt, barley, rice dancing around with pomegranate, almonds & currants ... it just couldn't hold up to the flavour of our pizza.

Gelato Misto
My father-in-law finished his meal with the Tiramisu ($15). I would like to tell you more about how it tasted, but it was nearly gone before I was able to ask...suffice to say, it must have been tasty! Shawn topped his dinner off with Gelato Misto ($7) of chocolate and lemon - happily eaten as well - always a good sign :)

I must say, after 3 visits, Farm Vigano offers consistently tasty and well-priced Italian fare all within a lovely atmosphere.  If you're ever in the area, or live locally and had no idea it existed - you truly need to give this place a try!

Farm Vigano on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Rimthang Thai Cafe | Greensborough

Rimthang Thai Cafe seats maybe 30 people at max. Maybe. So it's no surprise that its two owners (who are usually the chefs there) hit max capacity pretty quickly in this little eatery, especially if the phone is ringing off the hook for takeaway as well.   It's important to note, this has never been the sort of rush in & rush out type of place. If you want home cooked style Thai food from people who care, sometimes you just have to wait that little bit longer for it.

Penang & Massaman ... yummm..... :)
I must grant though, that more recently, the time between ordering and when the food hits your table (or gets handed to you over the counter for takeaway) has been unusually longer than in the past. But since we know a bit more about the reason why the cogs are moving slower for this little gem of a Thai restaurant - we're pretty confident in saying that this slower service is merely temporary and will be rectified in a month or so... And it's definitely not impacting the quality or flavour of their food.

On this visit, Shawn and I ordered the Vegetarian Massaman Curry - which had a gorgeous rich flavour (as usual) and was full of great fresh veggies. We also had the Vegetarian Penang Curry with green beans, baby corn, broccoli, cauliflower and slivers of kaffir lime leaves - truly delicious - and possibly a new favourite!  Of course we had steamed rice and roti which accented our lovely curries perfectly.

Hand over my heart, our food came out in what I'd call a very normal time from when we ordered - maybe 15 minutes max. But the quicker delivery didn't speed up the pace at which we ate it...we wanted to savour each bite =)

From what I understand, Rimthang will be closed for a few weeks in March 2014, so make sure to ring ahead to ensure they're open for your visit. By the latter part of March, they should be back and full steam ahead - so if you haven't given them a shot by then - it'll be high time you do.

Rimthang Thai Cafe & Take Away on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Fonda Mexican | Richmond

Chopped Beef Burrito
"How can you get a burrito this wrong?" were the words that came from Shawn's mouth after he got stuck into Fonda Mexican's Chopped Beef Burrito ($15).  My eyes widen at his statement. Oh no...don't tell me we just ordered $61 worth of ordinary. But the place looks so cute & trendy, there are people scattered about eating away....

Braised Pork Taco
Oh no. As far as Shawn's concerned, we're in foodie purgatory.  Firstly, his burrito had, what seemed to be, minced beef. Okay, maybe it wasn't exactly minced, because after all the burrito was called "chopped beef" - but it was "chopped" to the point where it seemed like mince. Add to that, it apparently had z-e-r-o flavour. None. Nada. Zilch. But that's just one piece of the gripe here. Despite the black beans, salsa, and cabbage all being visibly present....Shawn declared this burrito to "have no flavour whatsoever." It seems none of the ingredients did anything for the other, or alone. They were devoid of flavour. Wow! That's amazing! So, let's put a fun & lighter spin on this: removing all flavour from something with so many components is a skill in and of itself! Whoever made that burrito: Bravo! You succeeded in making the World's First Completely Tasteless Burrito!

Chickpea Ensalata
Shawn also had the Braised Pork Taco ($6) which was "good." He just chewed, blinked, chewed, and looked at me. "Yup, just good. Nothing more."  Sad Bear. Maybe the shock of the burrito stunned him, he just wasn't the same after that....I think he even had nightmares about the burrito later that night.

I had the Chickpea Ensalata ($14) which was a salad full of roasted pumpkin, panela cheese, chickpeas (of course) and pico de gallo (salsa).  I must admit, it was pretty yummy; so I didn't have the same 'I've-been-tazered-speechless' affect as Shawn did.  Yet, despite there being salsa on the top of the salad, I wasn't sure where the Mexican part was. I stared at that salsa. I sniffed it. I tasted it. And although the other components of my salad were just fine, my salsa seemed devoid of that taste of Mexico you look for in dishes served up in a Mexican restaurant.

Eggplant Quesadilla

My second dish was the Eggplant Quesadilla ($14), which was cooked eggplant folded into a tomato sauce and cheese, with a green lime-salsa on the side. It lay somewhere in between Meh and Okay. To be honest, that particular dish wasn't much better than anything I've had at Taco Bill (and you know, that's not saying much).

Pineapple & Mint and Watermelon & Strawberry
The only saving grace for this whole experience was our drinks: Pineapple & Mint ($6) and Watermelon & Strawberry ($6).  Both were outstanding! The former was fresh and punchy with a tickle of fresh ginger. The latter was more subdued, but its hints of basil could be tasted among the watermelon and strawberry. Brilliant, I'd order those again any day!

So, go figure. The only things we really liked from Fonda were the two non-alcoholic drinks.  I know a lot of people love this place, I mean - just look at their Urbanspoon rating, votes and number of reviews. Perhaps we got them at a bad time? Maybe the cook was upset? Maybe Mexico left the building? Who knows...but based on the 4 dishes we tried....we're not headed back any time soon....

Fonda Mexican on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Tantra | Doncaster East

This year, we decided to eat our favourite cuisine - Indian - for Valentine's Day. That's probably not a shock, but I must say, French was a big contender for a bit since they are known for romance! After much debate, discussing food and atmosphere, we eventually settled on Tantra. We booked on the eve of Valentine's Day...

Let me put it out there now: it's not often you get this level of any restaurant. Let alone an Indian one. An owner dressed in a sharp suit, who purposely checks for your name, then calls you by it as he leads you to your table. Clean-pressed shirts and perfectly presented ties adorn staff who smile as they explain things to you - such as the specials - where they detail how the food is cooked, what herbs and spices are used, and what will go well with it if you decide to order that dish.

All this fuss was much appreciated; however, to be honest, we did expect it since we ate at Tantra about 9 months ago with the same level of service back then. The atmosphere was perfect for a romantic dinner for Two Bears to sit stuffing their faces with glutenous curries, rice and bread ≧◉◡◉≦  Dimly lit dining room, candles, music, chattering of other patrons. Ahhh, nice.

Garlic Naan, Veg Biryani, Shahi Paneer
Shawn and I reckon that of all the cuisines we've tried so far, Indian is one of those where you can take home leftovers and they're potentially just as good - if not better - the next day. So, with that logic, we decide to go for gold tonight! Despite the very kind warnings from our servers saying, "You realize, that's a lot of food" and  "you might do with just one instead", we kindly nodded back and persevered in ordering way too much. We did let our server know we're unashamed of taking home glorious food to enjoy as leftovers if need be.

I tried the Amritsari Paneer Tikka ($10.95), which is basically paneer and veg done tandoori style and it was f-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c! It's very rare a vegetarian gets to experience tandoori flavours (unless you like mushrooms), so having this entree really started my meal off right - with something new, and something delicious! Shawn got the Tandoor Champ ($13.95) which were lamb chops cooked in a variety of spices that were, in his words "very good, but not my favourite." We were so excited to eat our entrees that I forgot to take a photo...Oh well, next time! ;)

Beef Rogan Josh, Aloo Gobi, Potato Kulcha
Okay, 3 mains tonight. Yup 3.  Beef Rogan Josh ($15.95) which was dark and rich in flavour with slivers of fresh ginger on top. A definite "must have again" dish for Shawn! We then got the Shahi Paneer ($12.95) which consisted of fat pieces of paneer bobbing around a gorgeous nutty & creamy sauce. An absolute stand out of a dish and one that I will have to order again when we go back!  Our third main was the Aloo Gobi ($11.95), which is cauliflower and potato done in a more dry-ish sauce, a little on the greasy side - but then again, it usually is. Sharp and somewhat tangy, it was good - but completely and utterly overshadowed by the Shahi Paneer.

We added to these lovely dishes a Vegetable Biryani ($9.95), which is sort of the Indian version of fried rice. Tasting it on its own uncovered it was over-seasoned (too salty), but covered up with the sauces from those wonderful curries - you couldn't tell. We've had brilliant Biryani at other places before, so I'm going to chalk this up to an innocent seasoning mishap.

We had a Garlic Naan ($3.95) - light, fluffy and crunchy in all the right spots; but what we believe might have been 1 piece too few from what we're used to getting.  The Potato Kulcha ($3.95) was a yummy little bread stuffed with potato, a little harder to dip into our curries, but delicious nonetheless.  Corkage for our bottle of wine was $3.00 per person.

Overall, a stellar evening - from atmosphere, to service, to food.  Yup, another Holy Trio in my foodie book!  Putting the over-salted Biryana aside, the rest of our meal was delicious, with that Shahi Paneer bordering a Nirvana-exeprience for us both!!  Without a shadow of a doubt, Tantra is going onto our regular circuit of Indian eateries....we'll be back....we'll be back....

Tantra on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Noi Pizzeria | Preston

Noi Pizzeria
There are few places that can successfully combine incredibly tasty food, relaxed yet trendy atmosphere, and a level of service which makes you feel like you've come home. For clarity's sake, let's refer to this combination as: The Holy Trio (of Foodie Heaven).

Yes, Holy Trios are far and few between, but I'm happy to report that newly opened Noi Pizzera is among those rare foodie destinations which triumph in uniting the elusive trio of food, atmosphere and service.

It was about two years ago when Elena and Michele moved on from Amici in Heidelberg, leaving loyal patrons like us with heavy hearts - not just because we would miss the brilliant food, but their infectious company as well.  After a stint at Woodstock Pizzicheria, the power duo decided it was time to make their magic again; the two of them and their band of merry men (and women).  Let's take a moment to bless the day that happened....

Of course, we couldn't resist booking in on their opening night...and a booking was definitely required. Every single friend and follower of the incredible pizza-making Saint, Michele, came out of the woodwork on Thursday, Feb 6th 2014 to experience the legend all over again. If you were there, you would have seen the smiles, laughs, and hugs; and truly felt like you had arrived to a family reunion. Whose? The Noi.

Okay, let's put it out on the table. Yes, there were apparent opening night jitters, a hiccup in our drink order (which was promptly rectified) and repetitive (yet happy) questions from over eager staff.  But it was opening night; we understand it's going to take a few weeks to get the mojo right again, to get their groove back on. Especially now they're hosting a much larger space and more staff than at Amici's.

Food time!  A simple menu ensures what comes out will be good. So, Shawn got a serve of the Arancini ($12.00) to start with, which were tasty and moist inside a crunchy outer shell.  I had the Caprese salad ($16.00) which I must now consider as the second best I've ever had (it's all about that cheese for me folks!).  We sipped on bottles of Coke ($3.50/each), munched on our starters, and soaked in the atmosphere. Exposed brick walls, trendy industrial light fixtures, chunky tables, token Italian paraphernalia here and there .... and the incredible amount of talking and laughing from people who all seemed to have faces expressing, "I'm so lucky to be part of this opening night!"

Eager to see if the magic was still there, we were hanging for our pizzas to make their way to our table. And when they did, I swore angels sang. Or at the very least, I did.  Thankfully, it was so busy and the room overjoyed with boisterous and fun-loving patrons, that no one heard ;)

Shawn had the Noi Pizza ($20.00), with tomato base, mozzarella, onions, shaved ham, roasted peppers, olives, mushrooms and "the most amazing hot salami I've ever eaten". Yup, I quoted that because that's what he said. ;)  When prodded to explain  further, Shawn is at a loss for words and just looks at me. Okay, I'll leave him to enjoy his moment...

I went the 4 Formaggi Pizza ($18.00) which was absolutely delicious, as you realize by now - it's all about the cheese: Mozzarella, Parmigiano, and Gorgonzola. Okay, so that's 3 not 4. Lemme explain, I was warned when I ordered, that the usual Swiss that goes on the pizza - to make up the 4th cheese - wasn't available.  Looking back now, I can presume the more mild flavour of the Swiss would've tamed the saltiness of the Gorgonzola because by the time I ate the last little bit, its saltiness had taken over my mouth. In saying that though, it was still 98% beautiful and completely, totally eaten, gone, bye-bye.

Let's not skim over one of Noi's treasures: the best pizza dough....ever.
New term for this level of good:  Incredi-dough.
Made with Italian flour?
Made with love?
Whatever it is, yes please.

I know there are a lot of amazing pizza places out there, but this dough tastes brilliant on its own. Hmm, getting hungry just thinking about it!  Also, if you haven't tried it before, give their self-made chili oil a go (literally chopped chilies in a cup of oil handed to you with a spoon), it's a perfect way to top off those quality ingredients and tastes sooooo lovely on that amazing pizza crust!

4 Formaggi
We finished our meal with the Strawberry Pizzetta ($15.00), with it's dollops of thick sweet Nutella, fresh strawberries dancing in sweet sauce, and dusted with icing sugar. And yes, that gorgeous pizza dough again.

In all honesty, for a first night - staff still training, things yet to arrive, and people everywhere - we were fully impressed at how well everything was handled. However, I will say, we were both inclined to be impressed because we enjoy Elena's contagious energy and the warm atmosphere it generates.  But don't think we're being blinded by partiality here, we wouldn't steer you wrong my fellow pizza lovers.... if you want the Holy Trio of Food, Atmosphere and Service - go to Noi Pizzeria.

Sweet Pizzetta
And make a booking, otherwise you'll be sad when you get politely turned away for showing up without notice. Then you'll be even more distressed when you find out you can't get takeaway because the restaurant is so busy they can't spare the Incredi-Dough, as the dine-in patrons have ordered it all up.

Even though all her staff are uber-friendly and smile from ear to ear, if you want the paramount of brilliant customer service, go on a Friday or Saturday when Elena's there... she'll take very good care of you.

Buon Appetito!!! (✿◠‿◠)

Noi Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Paladarr Thai | Alphington

The back dining room
Many many years ago, we went to Paladarr Thai and left so disappointed that we had no intention of ever returning. I won't go into great detail as to the failings of that dreaded visit, suffice to say it was clear the owners and/or upper management were totally absent from the premises - the staff failed in every respect, from service to food. It was a sad experience all around.

We sat just on the left there :-)
Then last year, a good friend of ours (and a regular of Paladarr Thai) convinced us to give them another shot. She was shocked at our previous experience and promised - if we went again - an evening of amazing Thai food and great service. And she wasn't wrong! It was like a completely different restaurant...even though it was the same place, I swear! The polar opposite experience was a clear testament that things were back under control....happy days!

Fast forward to January 2014 and there's a Paladarr Entertainment Guide discount voucher burning a hole in our back pocket, so Shawn and I decided to give them yet another shot.  We drove down the quiet and leafy street where the imposing building stands among other residential homes, parked just out front and kept our fingers crossed as we walked in...

We were seated in the back dining room, which further unfolds into an outside eating area. The room was generously decorated; we sat just underneath a large lovely framed mirror.  We brought our own bottle of wine and the Corkage was a decent $9.50 flat rate.
Miang Karm

Miang Karm wrapped up!
During the previous re-discovery dining experience, our friend introduced us to the Miang Karm Appetizer ($6.00/person), where you're given a chance to try all the tastes of Thailand.  When it arrived at our table, we plucked out diced ginger, chilli, toasted coconut, diced lime and dried shrimp (of course, I skipped this bit), then folded them all into a little leaf, topped with a palm sugar sauce! This was an absolutely delightful way to start a meal and for those who've never eaten Thai, it's great introduction to its flavours! If our friend had never ordered this dish for our table, I doubt we would have ever tried it ... so paying it forward to others now!

Pork Sausage
Shawn then had the Pork Sausage entree ($15.00) which consisted of sliced sausage from Northern Thailand, It was lean pork marinated in soy sauce, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, shrimp paste, chilli, garlic and coriander.  Although that all sounds pretty good, Shawn said the actual sausages themselves didn't have much flavour; he was a bit bummed out; until I donated some of the dressing from my dish.Which was the Issan Salad ($15.00), consisting of shredded green papaya and peanuts with a drizzle of a nice spicy dressing. Very refreshing and just enough for me :-)

Issan Salad

It was clear Shawn loved his main of Blue Eye Stir Fry ($29.00) because he nearly danced in his seat when he took the first bite!  All the lackluster experience from the sausage was quickly forgotten.  The fillets of fish had a lovely flavour and were beautifully complimented by prawns, fresh pear and mango (what a great way to inject sweetness here!) and all tied together swimmingly in a light red chilli paste stir-fry sauce.

I did a similar happy dance when I tasted my Yellow Curry ($29.00) which comprised of zuchini, capsicum, sweet potato and tofu. The tangy and spicy sauce wasn't too hot, but had just enough kick to get the back of the throat tingling (perfect!).  Of course, one must have a serve of Rice ($3.00) and Roti ($5.00) to go along with any curry and both were perfectly done (and eaten!).

Blue Eye Stir Fry
We took our time devouring each delicious bite of our meals, so by the time our table was cleared away, we were ready for some deserts!  Shawn gave the Coconut Pudding ($15.00) a try. You could easily taste the strength of the coconut in the cream pudding, and the kaffir lime and lemon grass flavours came through strong, too. It was perfectly accented with a scoop of ginger ice cream, warm seared mango, palm sugar caramel and sugar-dusted taro threads. Two thumbs up here for sure!  I went a little more simple, just 2 Scoops of Ice Cream ($8.00) - ginger and lime flavours - which were just a lovely way to finish off an amazing evening.

Yellow Curry
For any of you out there who might have had horrible beginning to Paladarr like we did many years ago - give them another try. You'll be glad you did!
Coconut Pudding

Paladarr Thai on Urbanspoon