5 reviews in 5 paragraphs

sexy dining

As a little window into the length and breadth of my dining experiences, I present a not particularly succinct summation of some of the more memorable meals I’ve had in the past month or so. Please feel free to add your experiences of the same places in the comments, and let me know where I should be trying out next. Please bear in mind that these are all very much my opinion, and should no way be construed as having anything to do with reality or objectivity :)

Star Anise, 225 Onslow Road, Shenton Park
9381 9811

Another dinner with the lovely Clotilde (and the ever lovely Sharon… I am so spoiled). Marron for the ladies entrees, Jamon Iberico and 1 hour poached egg for me… The marron was delicious, the egg interestingly textured, the jamon tasty but overrated given it’s considerable reputation. Mains were a black angus steak with some amazingly meaty oyster mushrooms and a cauliflower puree, an ocean trout with eggplant purée and roasted vegetables, and the ubiquitous duck with gai lan. All very satisfying and worth the price. Washed down the lot with a 2005 Joseph Cabernet Merlot Moda (one of my favourite wines, but not the 2004 listed on the wine list). Service left a little to be desired in an overtly fine dining establishment, but that could be because I ask a lot of annoying questions and point out things like the wine being the wrong year. Worth it if you’re up for an experience you don’t mind paying for, and have great company to share it with like I did.

il lido – 88 Marine Pde, Cottesloe
9286 1111

Love the atmosphere of communal dining. Everyone sitting on long benches next to groups of other people. Sadly the people sitting next to me didn’t feel the love, and just kind of looked at me strangely when I inquired how their dishes were. The food is simple / rustic (for want of a less abused word) Italian food. Nothing regionally specific as far as I can tell, and far from the “peasant food”, they claim to be making, but all our dishes were delicious. The wine list is extensive and interesting, and remarkably well priced. A bottle of Pio Cesare Barbera D’Alba set me back around $32 (if memory serves me). A shared antipasto plate of vegetables and dips with bread was a nice way to start the meal, and my beef shin parpadelle was exactly the fall apart texture and stringy meaty richness I was after. Mains are definitely on the small side, but I had expected not to enjoy myself, so I was pleasantly surprised by the whole place. Again the service left a little to be desired, I think the waiters were getting into the communal side of things as much as we were, and expected us to order our own desserts.

Piccolo – 44 Angove St, North Perth
9227 5250

My second trip back to this little suburban gem was supposed to be much better. The new Scottish chef Graham Stewart definitely has a thing for the number three. There’s pork cooked three ways, beef cooked three ways, and salmon cooked three ways. I guess I’ve discovered that I’m just a monogamous kind of guy… because after the first three way it all got a little too much and the excitement was over far too quickly, and I really just wanted one dish done really well. The dishes at Piccolo also bely the name. The entrees are huge ! An order of squid was enough to feed everyone at the table alone, and the crab tian in gazpacho could have swum back to the ocean on it’s own. Still, the food is generally good, well priced, and with no wine list, it’s a byo paradise. I’m hoping at my next visit it will spring back to it’s best.

Ha-Lu – Unit 4, 401 Oxford St, Mt Hawthorn
9444 0577

Simple and tasty Japanese food. Ha Lu has done a great job at making a relatively soulless / odd shaped little restaurant into a warm, inviting space. The menu is set out like an izakaya in that the dishes are small plates designed to be shared. Unlike most izakaya you will find in Japan however, it isn’t full of salary men getting morbidly drunk after a hard day pretending to work. Rather they focus on the food, and the clean flavours that make Japanese food so good. We started with fresh sashimi of tuna, salmon, and kingfish, moved on to pork belly kakuni, sliced duck and eggplant, agadashi tofu, dorper lamb cutlets with fried camembert, ramen, and rice. “I think you have ordered… a little bit too much”, our waitress politely but insistently suggested… so I cut the ramen to make her feel better. All the dishes were superb…the sashimi fresh and succulent with just a dash of wasabi and soy, the standouts for me being the pork belly (in which I have a vested interest), and the duck. Word of advice though… DO NOT ORDER DESSERT. I was foolish enough to order a chocolate parfait (I know, I know… what is a parfait anyway??). I could see our waitress toiling for a good 10 minutes before presenting me with a monstrous concoction of (I kid you not), ice cream, cream, crushed oreo biscuits, cocoa pops (!), pocky sticks, and ice magic… Such a sad way to finish an otherwise great meal.

Basil Leaves – 82 Royal St, East Perth
9221 8999

Proof that you can not take friends to a restaurant you plan to review. Good friends will improve the experience of any bad restaurant by an amount completely undeserving of certain establishments. Brad and Nat are such friends, and Basil Leaves is well and truly one of these restaurants. The atmosphere was non existent outside of the sparkling repartee of our group of comic geniuses (and Brad). The toilets a near hazardous waste area, the food a clever mixture of every kind of Asian you can think of. At last count there was a total of 6 separate ethnic regions represented in all their generic glory. As Nat so aptly put it… It’s not often you come across a restaurant bold enough to put all their faith in iceberg lettuce. But Basil Leaves perseveres. If you’re feeling like Indian/Thai/Vietnamese/Chinese/Malaysian/Japanese or “other”, it may well be the place for you.


W.A Barista Competition 2008 Wrap up

Jen Murray - W.A Barista Champion 2008 So many cups

So I’ve finally decompressed and mostly decaffeinated myself from a heavy weekend of espresso based activity at the W.A Barista Championships for 2008. And what a weekend it was. A myriad of competitors (well, 18 of them anyway), all of excellent quality, were vying for the title of W.A Barista Champion, and I’m proud to (secondarily) announce the winner was Jen Murray of the W.A Barista Academy.

Jen’s performance was fantastic and polished. Her style relaxed and natural, her technique rock solid, and most importantly, her coffees tasted fantastic. Jen works as trainer for 5 Senses, and you can tell the time spent correcting other peoples mistakes definitely pays off. Perhaps one of the issues many baristas face when coming into these competitions is that it’s not just standing behind a machine and making coffees. It’s communicating and connecting with the audience and judges to convey that you know what you’re doing and why. Jen’s consummate ease in explaining what she’s doing, at the same time as doing it, set her up for a well deserved win.

Runner up this year was Vanessa Moore of Epic Espresso. Vanessa consistently performs well in these competitions and was always going to be at the top of the field. The consummate ease in the way she goes about her work and her dedication to the job will serve her well when she competes in the Open Heats before the Finals in Melbourne later on in May. She also took out the latte art throwdown (!) (or was it a smackdown) with a seriously symmetrical rosetta.

Ness scoops the pool

So then onto the fun end of the day. After the final competitor of the barista competition, and a steady lineup of hopefuls wanting to take out the latte art crown, it was up for the final event of the day. The W.A Cupping Championships. Cupping is of course not what you think it is (if I know my readers), but is the method by which roasters and coffee tasters break down the flavour profile of coffees by grinding them relatively coarsely, adding water, and slurping and smelling the coffee to work it all out.

The idea behind the competition then, is to have 8 sets of 3 cups. Two of the cups have the same kind of coffee in them, the third has a different one. The fastest person to correctly identify the most number of odd cups from each set, wins. Now I’ve cupped coffees before. Not on any great scale or length though. I’ve been to cupping sessions at roasters and cafes, and done a little at home when I was back in my home roasting days. So I figured, what the hell… I’ll give it a shot.

Mc Grendel did an excellent job of building the drama, as he went down the line and announced whether each cup was a “Yes” or a “No”, and despite my attempts to look relaxed, I was getting the shakes (though that might have been to the 20 or so coffees I’d had to judge earlier). So to cut a not very long story even shorter, it came down to a final group of competitors. The score to beat was 4 out of 8 cups correct. I took my time, slurped, swirled, drew in long questioning breaths, and made my choices.

MC Grendel then went down the line and lifted the cups… “No”, “Yes, “Yes”, “Yes”, “Yes”… wait for it… “Yes” !, “No” :(, “Yes” ! 6 out of 8 in total. I was pretty happy with that, mostly because i’d just been judging baristas for the past two days and assessing how their coffees tasted, so if I had no palate of my own to rely on, it’d be only fair to question what the hell I was doing there.

So I thought I had it, but you can never think too soon. Catherine Ferrari of European Foods and Brazilliano was right next to me, and as another barista competition judge, wanted to make sure she did well. Which of course she did. Finishing well before me, and eventually coming through with 7 out of 8 cups correct. It was an excellent performance, and testament to her skills that even after two days of coffee tasting, she could pull up the win.

After all was said and done, and we’d been through the score sheets with the baristas to make sure they each get some good feedback from the event, and hopefully feel encouraged enough to try again next year (which they should ! the standard just keeps on getting better and better), it was off home to relax, rejuvenate, and not drink another coffee for a looong time (well the next morning anyway).

Special thanks for the event must go to Ben Bicknell, whose tireless efforts at pulling the whole thing together almost single handedly do not go unnoticed. Also Rob Forsythe for being a font of knowledge and a great help to all the judges. To Nicki and Azza Kindred for winging their way over from Tassie to help out, and to all the other judges and helpers, and time keepers. It’s people like these that make events like this one happen, and continue to grow the coffee scene in Perth.

Bring on next year :) and go Jen Murray for Australian Barista Champ 2008 !

W.A Barista Competition 2008

Judges rate cappucinnos Espresso tasting

The W.A Barista Competition for 2008 is on again. This year being held in the Perth Town Hall in conjunction with the City of Perth good food month. It’s been an excellent event so far, we’ve just completed the first day of competition with 12 competitors putting their skills on display.

This year is a bit different for me however, because I’ve gotten involved in the judging side of things. A bit daunting personally, but definitely an excellent experience so far. I was a little unsure of how I’d go, but after passing through a full sensory evaluation test quite well, and getting a lot of good practice seeing how the marks are given and the competition run, I’m quite happy with how things have turned out.

There is a lot of responsibility on the judges to be fair and reasoned in their assessment of each of the competitors performances, but the score sheets are fortunately (for us) quite specific on how we need to mark for each component.

From a judging point of view, I obviously can’t give anything away just yet, but I can say that the quality of competition has been great so far. We’ve seen some very polished performances, some excellent espresso, deliciously creamy cappuccinos, and beautiful and inventive signature drinks.

Nic's signature drink ingredients

The competition continues tomorrow (Sunday 16th March) with a final 6 competitors ready to go before the overall barista champion for W.A is crowned, and sent over to represent us in the National competition in Melbourne later in the year (and hopefully the world championship in Copenhagen, Denmark too).

Following the barista competition will be a latte art smackdown (!). Basically a free for all competition where anyone with some latte art skills can pit themselves against all comers for milk based barista street cred.

The final event of the day will be the Australian Coffee Cupping Competition. Basically a fun competition in which a competitor has to pick the odd one out of a 8 sets of 3 coffees. The coffees are prepared in a filter style, and a competitor has to taste them all to determine which one isn’t the same as the others. The winner is whoever finishes first and gets the most right.

I’m going to have a crack at the cupping competition, only because I’m slightly buoyed by my sensory skills test, and although I’d have no chance dealing with the intensity of the barista championship, figure I can at least be coordinated enough to get a spoon full of coffee from the cup to my mouth.

If you’re at all into coffee, and want to check out the great things happening in the Perth coffee scene, I’d definitely encourage you to come down and check out the exciting finale of the competition. Perth Town Hall at the corner of Barrack and Hay St.

Now if I can just stop jittering for a while and get some sleep tonight I might just make it through tomorrow :)

Red Lantern Whispers


Pauline Nguyen is a remarkable woman. A refugee, runaway, restaurateur, and now a writer. If you’ve yet to come across her book “Secrets of the Red Lantern”, then stop reading my drivel now and go find a copy. It’s an inspiring and emotional story of Pauline’s family history and the importance and significance of food to help overcome issues of displacement and as a form of healing to sooth the pain of isolation.

Woven throughout the beautiful fabric of the book, are most wonderful recipes for dishes that should inspire even the most stingy of cooks to embrace the freshness and herb loving decadence that is Vietnamese food.

Pauline of course runs Red Lantern restaurant in Surrey Hills (that’s Sydney sorry folks), with her partner Mark Jensen and brother Luke who look after the kitchen, and introduce and explain the recipes for the book.

Sharon and I were lucky enough to meet Pauline during the Perth Writers Festival, and even luckier to share a meal at a local Vietnamese restaurant with her. Carefully observing and absorbing as much as we could to gain as much valuable insight into what makes great Vietnamese food, or more importantly, what makes bad Vietnamese food.

From what I can gather, it’s all about freshness of ingredients, abundance of flavours, and an intermingling of textures. Many dishes are packed full of fresh herbs, with tangy dipping sauces, and a mixture of textures at all stages of the crunch spectrum.

Prep for vermicelli salad

My first few efforts at making things from the book have been interesting… There were some severely dodgy looking rice paper spring rolls, and my nuoc cham is gradually becoming quite decent. I’m yet to get into vegetable pickling, but that can’t be far off either.

My one of instant favourites however has been the simple yet very satisfying Bun Bo Xao (I looked for the special characters and couldn’t find them).

Bun Bo Xao

It’s a simple dish made by stir frying thinly sliced beef marinated in fish sauce, with some lemon grass and onion, and serving it over the top of a rice vermicelli salad, with lots of fresh mint and perilla (if you can find it). Then a good splashing of nuoc cham over the top, and you’ve got an excellent all purpose dish for a quick lunch or lazy dinner.

Thanks must go to Pauline for her inspiring book, and for just being a genuinely cool person to hang out with :)