HOT: La Luna Bistro, 320 Rathdowne St, Carlton North

It’s the last week of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and if you haven’t already make sure you make a booking for Restaurant Express, where you can partake in a great value lunch with some of Melbourne’s (and regional Victoria’s) top restaurants.

Gourmet Chick and I whittled down our shortlist to the $35 2 course lunch at La Luna Bistro. It’s an informal neighbourhood restaurant serving modern Australian dishes with a Mediterranean/British bent and at its helm is chef/owner Adrian Richardson (from TV fame) who we found watering the kitchen garden built on the nature strip outside the restaurant.

He was very friendly when we asked about the plants there (herbs, tomatoes, lettuces) and invited us to borrow a pair of scissors to snip from the large bay tree after our meal. In fact, he said that anyone was welcome to harvest from the garden from any time since it’s built on community land – though he’d prefer it if you didn’t rip out a whole plant :–)

Adrian’s food philosophy is very much about local, seasonal ingredients and buying from small producers. It is especially famous for its meat (the pig is the restaurant mascot it seems) so if you’re vegetarian then you will be limited in choice.

The restaurant is smallish on the inside so if the weather’s nice I highly recommend spreading out on one of the half dozen outdoor tables on the pavement. The clean, unflashy decor is extended to the functional napery – tea towels! Great idea.

On the Restaurant Express lunch menu there are three entrees, three mains and three desserts (two sweets and one cheese). Gourmet Chick and I decided to share two entrees and mains as the desserts of creme brulee and chocolate pudding, while delicious-sounding, were fairly commonplace.

To start, house-cured Wessex Saddleback House made pancetta with sweet pickled peppers. These rare breed pigs produce the silkiest perfumed cured meats thanks to a large fat seam in their flesh. La Luna  has a menu section devoted to charcuterie so make sure you try some of their cured meats, great with a small helping of pickles to cut through the fattiness.

Lambs tongue croquettes with a pool of artichoke aioli. The balls were more potato than tongue (probably a good thing, I’m a bit squeamish about offal) and lightly fried for a hint of crunch.

Despite the unseasonably balmy weather we ordered two very wintery dishes. Firstly, a rich melting braised beef rib with a tomato and pepper reduction. My favourite element was the crunchy corn salsa for textural contrast and a bit of freshness instead of the usual expected side dish of mash.

More textural contrast in the second main course from the roasted walnuts garnishing house-made bull boar sausages, atop some silky aioli and with a sprinkling of chives.

All in all I was impressed by the quality of the food and the service at La Luna Bistro and it’s heartening to see a true ‘paddock to plate’ philosophy at work with the kitchen popping out to the street to harvest some of their ingredients. The dishes are not particularly challenging but familiar comfort food done well is the perfect formula for this local bistro.

La Luna Bistro, 320 Rathdowne St, Carlton North +61 3 9349 4888


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HOT: Dan Hunter, Langham Melbourne Chef Masterclass, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Langham Melbourne, 1 Southbank Ave, Southbank

After a full buffet lunch put on by the Langham, it was back to work (well, as much as sitting down and eating and listening was work) with Dan Hunter, the chef at the Royal Mail.

I’ve raved about my dinner at the Royal Mail before and the kitchen presents food that’s all about provenance, seasonality and highlighting the flavours of the ingredients. That’s not to say there’s not a lot of technique involved.

Most of the dishes at the Royal Maill incorporate some ingredient from their kitchen garden. The kitchen garden is partly a passion project for Dan but also a simple case of practicalities – Dunkeld is almost 3 hours away from Melbourne and thus 3 hours away from a really good regular fruit and vegetable market. Harvesting from the garden also helps to keep food costs down!

Dan’s approach to food is about respecting the produce, giving diners a sense of place when they come to the restaurant and highlighting the food’s connection with the environment. In his view great cooking doesn’t begin in the kitchen but starts with forging a relationship with small scale producers such as Diggers Club (heritage seeds), Grampians Pure  Sheep Dairy (sheep’s milk and milk products), Mount Zero (olives) and harvesting local and native ingredients with the help and knowledge of Brambuk Cultural Centre. When the produce gets to the kitchen he creates dishes with the intention of highlighting one or two great products.

We received three tastings during Dan’s demonstration: tomato on toast, handmade sheep’s ricotta; rare breed pancetta, candied radish, rocket; and eel and bone marrow, eggplant, pickled vegetables. You can watch a video on the journey of these dishes from the producers to the plate below.

Royal Mail Hotel: The journey of a dish from Sarah-Jane Woulahan on Vimeo.

All the dishes burst with fresh flavours – a meaty tomato, sharp chive flowers, the different aniseed hints from different basil leaves, sweet grassy ricotta, melt-in-the-mouth Wessex Saddleback pancetta, peppery rocket and the rich umami of eel flavours.

Dan’s food is so good that they are invariably copied or highly influence dishes by other chefs. Dan’s view on ‘imitation being the sincerest form of flattery’ – who cares? Just get on with it. If people are copying dishes then you’ve already gone past that dish if you’re aiming to be in front. Which he is.

 

HOT: Rosio Sanchez, Langham Melbourne Chef Masterclass, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Langham Melbourne, 1 Southbank Ave, Southbank

My second session of my day at the Langham Melbourne Chef Masterclasses was with Chicago-born Rosio Sanchez, pastry chef at the San Pellegrino’s world number 1 restaurant, Noma.

To say that I was excited was an understatement. I don’t foresee any possibility of flying 24+ hours to Copenhagen any time soon so to have Rosio come to my doorstep with some of her desserts was a dream come true.

Rosio’s session was entitled Sweetness & Light and she was very much that – a very nice lady who clearly loved a challenge in the kitchen. She has worked for two of the most spectacular restaurants in the world – New York’s groundbreaking wd-50 with Alex Stupak and now Noma. With the former employer she has honed her technique and at her current restaurant she has gained a respect for local, seasonal produce. Rene Redzepi (a humble Birkenstock-shod helper throughout her demonstration!) describes her palate as one of the best he’s ever encountered.

On the menu with Rosio were two tastings – Potato and Plums and Gammel Dansk Bitters. The first was a potato mash used as an icecream base and sweetened with the plum kernel to a marzipan/almond flavour. It was so sweet it was almost like the fake almond essence you sometimes taste in cakes – amazing! It was paired with a prune compote (a natural jam from rehydrated plums) with plum juice, plum syrup and plum sauce. Together the most unlikely of pairings turned into one delicious dessert.

The second dessert was also an icecream, this time made with a herbal and rather medicinal tasting form of bitters from Denmark. The disc of Gammel Dansk ice cream hid some crispy milk and milk crumbs (neither of which were particular crispy in the tasting) and a dill sauce. It looks like mashed potato and pesto – and it’s not!

Some of the things I learnt about Rosio:

  • She started her cooking career baking at home. She would bake at night so that the family wouldn’t see a mess while she was working and they could wake up with a ‘ta-dah’ look what Rosio made this morning! She still makes her mom’s favourite banana bread for her mom.
  • She adds salt into all her desserts. That includes the banana bread.
  • She’s currently working on a rhubarb dessert for Noma and is likely to pair it with brown cheese. If you’ve never tried brown cheese, it is a particularly funky-smelling Norwegian specialty. Rosio is thinking of turning the brown cheese into a ganache.
  • Potato and plums is her favourite dessert on the menu at the moment because she was initially so resistant to the idea of making a dessert from potato. The meat marrow petit fours is another one of her favourite dessert items.
  • Her philosophy with creating desserts is always to have something familiar on the plate, especially if you’ve just eaten a challenging meal. Either a familiar ingredient used in an unusual way or an unfamiliar ingredient that’s technically interesting.

 

HOT: Corey Lee, Langham Melbourne Chef Masterclass, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, Langham Melbourne, 1 Southbank Ave, Southbank

Someone please buy me an around-the-world airplane ticket!

After day of eating, drinking, talking and listening to some of the world’s most interesting and talked-about chefs from overseas and Australia, all I want to do is jump on a plane and feast.

The 7.5 hour program of the Langham Melbourne Chef Masterclasses is a marathon assault on the senses and I’m still trying to wrap my head around so many ideas and thoughts and philosophies and recipes. But here’s the first of a multi-part post on four amazing chefs.

My day started with Korean-American chef Corey Lee, ex-chef de cuisine of Thomas Keller’s 3 Michelin star The French Laundry and 18 months into owning and cooking at his 2 Michelin star fine-dining establishment Benu. With Benu (which is Egyptian for Phoenix and a name chosen for its not-immediately-apparent ethnic origin) Corey explores and reinterprets Asian techniques, ingredients and histories.

His presentation started with a video giving us a glimpse into the workings of his 64 seater restaurant – lots of chefs, tweezering with surgical precision, a reminder at the pass to ‘SMILE’ –  before getting down to work with his sous chef.

His demonstration menu consisted of two dishes simply listing their main ingredients – anchovy, peanuts, lily bulb, pickles and pine nut glutinous rice cakes with black truffle and pine needle honey. These short descriptions belie the complexity of the recipes and techniques.

This little savoury spoonful contains anchovy gelee, lily bulb puree, pickles of various vegetables and garnished with caramelised anchovies, red chilli curls, coriander and raw lily bulbs.

The second sweeter dish would appear about midway through the tasting menu and was a very glutinous rice cake with a hint of fresh, green honey macerated in pine needles from the forests of the Sierra Nevada.

Some thoughts from Corey:

  • He wanted to serve a dumpling in his menu because stuffing something into dough is something universal in all food cultures. He settled on a xiao long bao as it is extremely technical but at Benu he uses lean pork and foie gras as the filling and a precisely 18g thin yeast dough as the wrapping.
  • Wine pairings were difficult with the menu given the Asian flavour profiles and because his tasting menu can be around 16-18 courses he decided not to match a wine with every course. The menu allows beer, tea and non-alcoholic drink pairings as well.
  • He worked at The French Laundry for 9 years and from that experience gained technical expertise, a way of setting up a back of house system and mostly admired the way Thomas managed to get the best out of people and his generosity.
  • He feels less pressure being the head of Benu than as the head chef at The French Laundry because with his own restaurant he’s not responsible for the reputation and kitchen of another person.
  • From the beginning he wanted to put Shark Fin Soup on his menu because he wanted to tap into its reference point as a dish eaten to mark a celebratory, special occasion. His fake shark fin was the result of working with a science lab in San Diego to replicate the texture and flavour of this now-banned ingredient.
  • Tips for young chef – learn to work cleanly, quietly, quickly and be creative – in that order.

Despite his impressive CV and the hype about his restaurant, Corey seemed to be quite a relaxed and self-effacing (single) guy. The kind of chef that if you asked nicely you might be able to visit his kitchen. Oh – and if you want to book at Benu, they open for bookings 2 months ahead.