Monthly Archives: May 2014

Lee Ho Fook, Melbourne


Chef: Victor Liong   Website:   Cuisine: Modern Chinese

Making your mark in a neighbourhood saturated with great restaurants is no easy feat. What, however, does help is having a solid resume like Head chef Victor Liong who opened up Lee Ho Fook in late 2013 with the support of restaurateurs behind MoVida and Pei Modern. Departing from the euro-centric styled cuisine at Marque where he trained as a chef, Liong has continued to retrace his Chinese root via his short stint at Mr Wong before holding the reins to the latest venture, Lee Ho Fook. Labelled as a neighbourhood eatery, I was curious to see what all the fuss was about when I saw a few articles popping up lately.

P1150849The interior decor was not too dissimilar to what many restaurants have adopted on Smith Street; minimalist with some contemporary lighting design. For a Saturday night we did notice that the place was not at full capacity, but then again that could have been because we were in the first sitting. Yes, the cardinal sin adopted now by many restaurants where you get turfed out before you could finish your after-meal tea despite having forked out over $80 a head!!

P1150857The menu was simple and broken down into small, medium and large plates. For our small bites we started with the Tea egg avruga and dill. The eggs had been boiled and then cured in a mixture of soy sauce, stock and black tea until the yolk became creamy and jammy. It had a nice umami to it contrasted with the salty avruga, and was one of the more interesting dishes of the evening.

P1150862The Milk bun, braised pork belly, salted cucumber, fermented chilli and peanut sugar was strangely not very Chinese looking but certainly tasted so. It was perhaps one notch better than the similar katsu-bun we had at Northern light recently with the difference being the salty cucumber and chilli that gave the dish an interesting flavour.

P1150866One of the specials of the day was the Crispy chicken ribs and spiced red vinegar. We were not sure of what to expect with tiny poultry ribs but there was plenty of meat to this tender and crispy bird. In fairness though, this was essentially a very simple dish and nothing to get overly excited with.

P1150868Our medium plates started with Xinjiang style lamb tartare, roasted capsicum, pickled fennel and potato crisp. I found this dish to be rather bland and disappointing on many front. The lamb had very little flavour and the potato crisp was just a tad too oily, not to mention too delicate to scoop the tartare. The only thing that had any substance was the chilli, which dominated the whole dish. An addition of a seasoning component to bring out the flavours could have made this dish rather more appealing.

P1150870Our disappointment continued with the Tripled cooked duck that was served with…

P1150871Valencia orange, chrysanthemum leaves, Peking pancake. While the duck had a nice crispy skin and was soft and succulent on the inside, it rather lacked in depth of flavour. My wife joked that she could not taste the orange at all from this dish. On the contrary, she had not seen what laid beneath the leaves for all I could taste was orange! Furthermore, when you are given essentially only four pancakes between three of you and have no idea on how much orange paste to apply, it’s pretty disappointing to find out on your first bite that the minimal application had in fact ruined the flavour. It would perhaps rather be more appropriate to call this Orange a la Duck?

P1150873On to our large plate (which were, to be honest, not dramatically different in size than the medium ones) with a slightly better Crispy pork hock, black vinegar, cucumber, baby cos lettuce. Cube of fatty pork with a crispy layer accompanied with black vinegar sauce. I did however find it rather one dimensional and boring after a couple of mouthful. All you could taste was the dominating black vinegar sauce, which was very salty, although the crunch of the pork was very enjoyable against the fresh lettuce.

P1150875We opted for some Lee Ho Fook Fried Rice as a side dish to accompany our mains. Whilst it was light and not too oily, it had virtually zero flavour. I also found the rice rather overcooked and too soft, and the absence of a firm texture was a turn off for me. Good fried rice should be made from rice that has been left to dry for a while to reduce its moisture content, giving it that all important bite. Whilst I wouldn’t call this a mush, it was certainly did not fulfil this important requirement.

P1150877Our favourite course from the medium and large plates was the Steamed Cone Bay barramundi, ginger and shallot sauce. A well balanced sauce and perfectly cooked fish; delicate and the flavour of the fish was very prevalent. We wished there was more.

P1150879Even in during my time in China I found many top restaurants to struggle coming up with a creative Chinese dessert. Dessert here was rather leaning on the Western style, particularly the Warm chocolate and cocoa nib brownie, Banana cream and coffee. Don’t get me wrong, I thought this was the star dish of the evening. Lovely gooey chocolate encrusted in cocoa nibs and a marriage in heaven with the banana cream. A surprisingly rustic dish which I didn’t expect from a Chinese style restaurant.

P1150880My wife opted for Our neighbour’s fig leaf ice cream, custard apple, walnut and winter melon jam. Fresh flavours and it wasn’t overly figgy. I had a bite of it and found my palate to be dominated by a green tea / matcha flavour with a slightly bitter after taste. Suffice to say, my wife had food envy with my chocolate delight.

P1150855As we were just about to pour our mint tea after brewing it for a few minutes, we were encouraged to vacate our table due to the two hour policy. Furthermore, whilst the intention to tip was there as the service was generally good, an assumption was made that the $26 change was in fact a tip (the service was good but not that good!), requiring us to embarrassingly ask for our due change. Cheeky. Leaving aside the administrative faux pas’, I thought the food in general was nothing special and it would have been fine if the price reflected that calibre of cooking. Sure there were a couple of good dishes but they were nothing to shout about. Top that with a bill that came to the same price bracket as Northern Light next door which was in an entirely different calibre, I seriously doubt the longevity of this restaurant.

Frantzén, Stockholm (Previously Frantzén Lindeberg)

P1100610Chef: Björn Frantzén Website: Cuisine: Modern Scandinavian

At a very young age, Björn Frantzén and Daniel Lindeberg caused a massive stir in the Scandinavia when they received their second Michelin stars within two years of opening their restaurant in 2008. Their success followed immediately as they jumped from “One to Watch” to a staggering 12th place in San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurant Award in 2013. Having had some mixed experience in Stockholm between an extremely successful meal at Oaxen Krog the year before, and subsequently a rather disappointing yet expensive dinner only the night before at Matthias Dahlgren’s Matsalen, I wasn’t qute sure what to expect. I was however assured by the local food blogger Enfoodie that I had nothing to worry about, leaving me with his final words – prepare to be amazed.

Update Note: Daniel unfortunately parted a little while ago to pursue other dreams of opening a bakery, hence the name change, but Björn on the other hand has further expanded his portfolio to also include a wine bar (Gaston) and gastropub (Flying Elk).

P1100772In a very bold move, the restaurant had just finished their renovation work in order to expand the kitchen space at the cost of the dining room! Suffice to say, with a capacity for less than 20 diners, getting a table here was no easy feat but not only did we manage to get a reservation, we also got to sit at the kitchen table allowing us to interact with Björn and Daniel, and observe everything that was going in the kitchen. The menu comprised of a prologue, followed by four chapters that ended with an epilogue.

P1100778Following a quick introduction and briefing of our meal, Björn wasted no time in putting the final touches to our Prologue which consisted of six beautiful bite size amuse bouches with sensational flavours and textural contrasts starting with a Carrot macaron with liver and tarragon, followed by Blood pancake with liver and compote of with lingonberry and beetroot, Spelt brioche with roasted garlic, dried butter and crispy chicken skin and a rather delectable airy Beef from the bullock “Chubai” aged 46 months on lichens. The Pig’s head with shellfish emulsion served on pork rind with vendance roe from the Persson Brothers and Vichyssoise with truffle and ash both sounded like bizarre combinations but they worked extremely well. What a phenomenal start.

P1100793Chapter 1 began with an Oyster that had been sealed and poached at 62 degrees, served with some creamy jersey cream, crunchy frozen buckthorn and fragrant dried seaweed. The intense flavour of the oyster was outstanding with a perfect touch of acidity from the juniper berries. A very clean taste of the ocean.

P1100776Björn then brought out a few live langoustines to really show off the quality and freshness of their produce. To his point, they needed to be kept alive until the very last minute to retain the moisture and natural sweetness of the langoustines.

P1100796After taking away of live crustaceans, he wasted no time in plating up the next course incorporating the langoustine… but where was the langoustine?

P1100800The Langoustine had been prepared as a tartare and topped with fennel oil, caviar and diced granny smith apple. Good seasoning and a light fruity acidity to cut through the sweet crustacean. I was particularly impressed by the fact that this dish was even more amazing than the set of amuse bouche.

P1100807Another bold and confident move in serving Bone marrow topped with Osetra caviar and a smoked parsley purée on the side. You could see the rays of confidence shining from Björn when he served this to us, and he was right to be confident. It was bloody good.

P1100805The bone marrow was delicately soft and rich and it’s flavours extracted with the salty black caviar that was the seasoning component on the dish. The parsley purée added that crucial herbaceous freshness to lift the dish from being too oily. This was seductive food and I was in love.

P1100808Our 2nd Chapter commenced with some manual labour. Björn had churned out some butter for our crackers. He added milk fat that had been prepared under vacuum, sucking out the milky water and proceeded by churning it. Very clever!

P1100812He served the creamy butter with Björn‘s take on Knäckebröd which were traditional Swedish crackers that date as far back as the vikings!

P1100821The kitchen continued to produce stunning dishes one after another including the King crab legs  soaked in beer and crab shell broth and small cubes of pike, garnished with some dill. The buttery crab was packed with flavours and handled with respect and care. Could this get any better?

P1100824The Show of the season (Satio Tempestas) was Björn‘s way of showcasing all his seasonal produce and ingredients which changed every day depending on the harvest, but was always on the menu.

P1100829With 45 ingredients being used, it reminded me of Michel Bras’ famous Gargouillou. You could also see some Japanese influence with scales from fried bream being scattered across. This was perhaps also the closest dish to Bras with many incredible flavours exciting my taste buds with every bite.

P1100830Chapter 3 was all about the main dishes and we were beside ourselves with excitement when a grilled monkfish fillet was presented straight off the grill, exerting a waft of inviting smell.

P1100846Björn momentarily took the monkfish away and returned five minutes later with another knock out dish. The moist and juicy Grilled Monkfish melted in my mouth with the sweet caramelised quenelle of roasted onions with a lingering flavour of goats cheese perfumed ever so slightly with liquorice. Every component on this plate had a purpose, and amazingly worked together in achieving the goal of a perfect dish.

P1100842Half way through the dish we were presented with a jar of smoked brown butter and ash flavoured goats butter. We were instructed to spread the two butters on the fish. I thought at the time that this was a bit odd. Contrary to our expectation, they worked really well and in particular the smoked butter. It was so good we ate it with the remaining crackers.

P1100848Björn then cut a couple of slices of the Beef that had been hung for 72 days and dressed it simply with a few shavings of Alba white truffle. The meat was cooked medium in order to render and melt the fat. Silence had befallen on the kitchen table as he glanced at us. The tsunami of flavours swirling around my mouth from this meat was astounding. This was on par with the beef I previously had at Ledoyen. Simply amazing.

P1100851Björn then explained that the next course of the Frozen carrots and grapefruit with pink pepper and olive oil was a palate cleanser for the finale of the savoury course. It certainly cleaned up any lingering flavours with the acidic and tart sorbet followed by the heat from the cracked pink pepper and bitterness from the olive oil.

P1100836Björn then took out a his blow torch and binchotan to smoke the outer layer of this lamb as a final preparation for the Two servings of lamb from our own breed.

P1100855The first of the two servings was a bed of Lamb tartare with salted goast cheese, sheep yogurt with dried lamb brisket shavings. This was another winner. Having never had lamb tartare before I found the meat extremely delicious with a good level of fat, and the dried lamb brisket was packed with concentrated flavours. Simply stunning.

P1100859A shot of Cabbage consommé before the next serving.

P1100864The second serving was Seared lamb served with roasted cabbage and onion, finished with a butter sauce and shavings of white truffle again. Simple, flavoursome and the bonus was of course the truffle. Seldom have I had a flawless meal where everything had been executed perfectly whilst delivering sensational flavours that were truly concocted by a culinary master.

P1100867It was now Daniel’s turn to deliver the final Chapter and Epilogue. 

P1100874The first dessert was a perfect transition from savoury to sweet with the very well balanced Oxidised pear granita, hazelnut emulsion, sea salt, braggot mead and Welsh honey wine.

P1100876Daniel then went on to explain that a coherent menu was cyclical, tying back the flavours to the beginning. Dessert should not be all about sugar and sweetness but rather the ingredients and flavours. Interesting!

P1100879The second dessert was a celebration of Cloudberries. A quenelle of cloudberry and vanilla ice cream was served on a pancake made from cloudberry seeds, served with a compote of cloudberries on the side. The finish was a drizzle of maple syrup and roasted white chocolate. Guess what? Sure enough, you could taste cloudberries and it was surprisingly not too sweet.

P1100885One of my top three favourite dessert ever was the Sea buckthorn sorbet resting on oolong tea mousse with matcha green tea meringues and brittle crystalised sea lettuce. The salty sea lettuce magnified the marriage of flavours between the acidic sea buckthorn and the aromatic mousse. Just when you thought the tartness of the sea buckthorn was too much, the sweetness from the mousse hit your taste buds. The cycle continued with every spoon. It was as if my tastebuds had died and gone to heaven.

P1100888Two types of macaons as petit fours. One was salted caramel with tar and hay ash, and the second one was bitter manjari chocolate with arctic raspberry ganache.

P1100891Fondant of glazed apricot and girolles biscuit garnished with rapeseed oil powder.

P1100895Dried pig’s blood disc with a cream made from pig’s blood, blackberry, and bitter chocolate.

P1100908I have no doubt that the cooking here was on par with some of the best restaurants in the world in the last five years, making Michelin’s two star rating rather a mockery and an insult. Björn and Daniel clearly belonged in the three star rating and could certainly hold their own with other big hitters like El Celler de Can Roca. The bonus here was also that it was affordable when you compared to other places like Matthias Dahlgren (where I dined the night before and left underwhelmed) and Oaxen Krog. After all, who can throw in mushrooms and pig’s blood into their petit four and make them tasty?

Northern Light, Melbourne


Chef: Adam Liston  Website:  Cuisine: Asian Fusion

Smith Street has come such a long way from its shady days, transforming into a well known culinary strip it is today with the likes of Saint Crispin and Huxtaburger to name but a few. With exposed brick walls and a bar counter dominating the dining room, Adam Liston’s Northern Light may appear at first glance to be yet another casual eatery that seems to have dominated the dining scene on the street. Once inside, however, you quickly realise that they mean serious business when it comes to food.

P1150800The food here could perhaps simply be termed fusion, but not of the typical west-meets-east type which has been done to death. Rather, a Sino-Japanese fusion which was riddled with so many familiar favourite flavours: something I’ve never seen all bundled on one menu. Personally, I wanted to eat everything on the menu. It was as if someone had taken all the delicious things from across the region and placed them in front of me. There was an option for a 6 or 8 course banquet menu but given we were three people we thought we’d be better off trying more dishes. A wise choice, although with the beauty of hindsight, we ordered way too much.P1150804For snacks, we started with a typical Japanese Izakaya appetiser of the Charred Shishito peppers and tōgarashi. Shishito essentially is a mild-sweet Japanese capsicum varietal which tastes delicious when charred. It was dusted with tōgarashi, a Japanese seven spice, for an extra kick of heat.P1150806Our second installment was the Sichuan spiced school prawns and curry mayo. The entirely edible juicy prawn, covered in a thin layer of crispy batter, had fortunately a mild heat to suit the local palate. The prawns were good enough on their own but the curry mayo added a new and welcome flavour dimension to the dish.P1150807The Wagyu oyster blade skewers and Bulldog sauce was cooked over binchōtan, a traditional Japanese white charcoal which emits far less smoke than other charcoal cookers, allowing one to appreciate the clean flavours of the skewer of choice. To my surprise, the common Japanese household sauce normally used for tonkatsu went extremely well as a marinade. Most importantly, the meat was moist and tender.P1150820The Chicken skewers, honey and katsuo soy was the unanimous favourite amongst the two types we ordered. The honey glazing added a beautiful sweetness to the moist chicken and was much more meatier of the two.P1150812The Pork tonkatsu roll, cabbage and grilled milk bun was decent but perhaps the least interesting dish of the evening. I could appreciate the crispiness of the deep fried batter and the sweetness of the milk bun but I found the meat rather dry and lacking seasoning.

P1150816On to our first starter of the Pork and prawn wontons, black vinegar and red pepper oil which hit the mark. The boiled wontons had the hallmark of excellence; thin silky skins, stuffed full with a juicy pork and prawn mixture, bursting with flavour and juice as you bit into it. Wow.P1150821One of Liston’s signature dish was the Air dried Blackmore beef, wasabi, yolk and fried potato and I could see why. The crispy potato-chip topping the slightly salty bresaola-like blackmore beef soaked up the runny yolk and the freshly grated wasabi provided a slight kick to cut through the rich flavours.P1150826Our last starter was a rather delicate Eel (unagi), squid sauce, salted grapers and mojama. The eel had been prepared in traditional kabayaki sauce and was served over a bed of squid ink sauce. Being a huge fan of the traditional Japanese unagi which inspired this dish, I must confess I thought they could have been more generous with the application of the kabayaki sauce.P1150829At this point we realised we had ordered far too many. As the waitress came to replace our empty plates with the Korean influenced Bo ssam, our kimchi, lettuce, red pepper jang and duck, she did remark on our amazing appetite. The choice of meat in this case was duck and it went ever so well wrapped in lettuce leaves and home made kimchi with a dab of the spicy-sweet gochujang (red pepper paste sauce).P1150834We were absolutely stuffed to the brim but were gripped with the inviting smell emanating from the Xinjiang style lamb ribs and bbq peppers. The braised and rendered lamb in Xinjiang style (similar to the spicy Sichuan style containing Sichuan peppers) had a decent level of heat but most importantly a balance of spice. The meat fell apart with ease from the bone and it reminded me of the ones I had tried in Beijing back in 2012 over a few glass of baiju, a ridiculously strong Chinese liquor.

P1150838Some Asian greens, vegetarian oyster sauce and toasted garlic to go with our mains.P1150841We were absolutely stuffed but could not turn down the offer of trying at least one dessert so we opted for the Broken ice cream sandwich which had vanilla parfait, mousse and salted caramel lurking sweetly beneath a structure of broken chocolate biscuits. The fine chocolate biscuit with a ridiculously thin layer of wafer was my favourite component, providing a surprising crisp and crunchy texture to go with the gooey salted caramel.P1150844And lastly a Warm yamazaki whiskey custard tart that had been caramelised using the binchōtan. As an enthusiast for top quality single malts, I thought this was a bit sacrilegious but the slight hint of whiskey in the custard tart really worked well.

Northern Light had everything we wanted for a relaxed meal catching up with our friend; a little bit of tongue and cheek and banter from the waitress, delicious food with bold and punchy flavours and all priced extremely well. This was exactly the type of fusion food I welcomed with open arms. It was a collection of great food memories I had over the course of my life across Asia all reliving in one evening, triggering different memories from the flavours. Above all, Liston did justice to all these dishes. They were not bastardised Western takes on Asian flavour. This is the real stuff.

Ten Minutes by Tractor, Mornington Peninsula

P1150681Chef: Stuart Bell   Website:   Cuisine: Modern Australian

Whilst known for its wine, Ten Minutes by Tractor, in the Victorian region of the Mornington Peninsula, is perhaps better associated with its two hatted fine dining restaurant that has attracted many foodies over the years. My wife and I had previously made a few reservations but unfortunately had to cancel due to various reasons so we never thought we would ever make it here. But here we were, finally, and boy was it worth the agonisingly long wait. We also had a special reason to dine here that day as we were celebrating my wife’s recent success in defending her PhD.

P1150687The dining room was adjacent to the cellar door, seating 30 – 40 people very comfortably with ample space. We were sat at the corner of the room with unobstructed views over the vineyard where we could see the resident sheep tucking into the grass around the vines; an absolute treat for our four year old niece. We occasionally could see Head chef Stuart Bell assessing the dishes as they came to the pass for service. The menu here consisted of an à la carte option of two or three courses, or a more elaborate tasting menu with a choice of five or eight courses.

P1150729Many restaurants in Australia could learn a thing or two about high performing front of house service from manager Clayton Hiskins. Nothing was too much trouble for any of our friendly but extremely professional waiters who went as far as accommodating our niece with a specially house made apple juice, not normally available on the menu, as well as rectifying a misunderstanding of another beverage without making you feel apologetic or guilty. I felt like I was back in a Michelin starred establishment in Europe again. It was the perfect framework to an equally memorable meal.

P1150685Being a sucker for sparkling wine, it didn’t take much for the sommelier to sell me a glass of the 2010 Blanc de Blancs, Ten Minutes by Tractor, Mornington Peninsula, Australia. This was their first ever sparkling wine and a bloody great one at that, and which their tasting note was spot on with a ‘a gentle effervescence in the mouth, acid that freshens without aggression and a gorgeous caress at the back of the mouth to bring you back for more.’ It was so good I decided to buy a few bottles after our meal as it was retailing at their cellar door for only $50 a bottle. Bargain!

P1150703The choice of bread was multigrain and olive bread. The olive bread was absolutely delicious and went extremely well with…

P1150704… the house made burnt butter that was more like cream than anything. Some olive oil and pink salt flakes were also provided on the side but we were completely distracted by the butter that we forgot about the olive oil.

P1150706Our first amuse bouche of two was the Yellow fin tuna, tomato, lemon grass and radish, served on a beautiful thin spoon. It was a perfect introduction to Bell’s cooking, showcasing the fresh produce and ingredients that were abundant in all his dishes throughout the meal. It was a simple but beautiful marriage of flavours that did exactly what an amuse bouche needed to do. Entertain my palate and whet my appetite.

P1150707The subsequent Duck rillette with goats cheese on cracker was our least preferred of the two as I found the goats cheese competing against the mallard.

P1150721My starter of the Venison Terrine and Carpaccio, pickled mushrooms, grapes and pistachio was exactly what I wanted; something delicious I could graze on but without it being fussy. The generous servings of the terrine had a surprisingly smooth texture, absent of gamey flavours. There were some clever use of textures including the succulent and juicy grapes, crunchy sliced green beans and moist pickled mushrooms over a bed of delicate venison carpaccio with crumbed pistachios and buttery emulsions.

P1150718As the weather outside was miserable, my wife opted for a comforting wintery dish of the Gnocchi, textures of mushroom, cauliflower and kale for her starter. I had a mouthful of her dish and agreed that it was the best dish from our lunch. The mushroom purée in particular had an amazing concentration of flavours that was complemented by the other preparation of mushroom including the deep fried enoki and fried wild mushrooms. The gnocchi was sublime. It was delicate, soft and silky with a perfect amount of give which was complemented perfectly by the crunch from the cauliflower. I had food envy.

P1150725 Our waiter was extremely confident in recommending the Cape Grim eye fillet, slow cooked rib, cauliflower, baby onions so I gave it a go despite being previously unimpressed with a preparation of the same cut of beef elsewhere. I was glad I took the advice for the flavours oozing out of this fillet was superb, working extremely well with the caramelised onion and purée. The slow cooked rib just fell apart effortlessly and provided another dimension of flavour to appreciate this breed. This certainly was a delicious cut. Stuart Bell is clearly a magician, or alternatively I blame the other chef for not doing it justice.

P1150722My wife’s main of the Pork confit belly & roasted loin, black pudding cromesque, prunes, macadamias was a close contender to the beef with it’s contrastingly moist pork belly and crunchy shard of crackling. The surprise element in the dish was the black pudding jus contained in the cromesque that was rich in spice, in particular cloves. Even my niece who normally avoided red meat was fishing for some of the pork and beef.

P1150732My choice of dessert was the Michael Cluizel chocolate & hazelnut pavé, honey ice cream, poached pears. A very rich chocolate layer resting on a crunchy bed of crushed hazelnuts accompanied by a spiced doughnut, caramelised poached pears and a floral honey ice cream finished with a brittle chocolate tuile. I initially thought this was going to be way too sweet but the portion size was just right. The pear was remarkably juicy and retained its fruitiness despite it having a brittle caramelised coating.

P1150735My wife opted for the Quince, yogurt cake, pecan crémeux, pepperberry ice cream. The yogurt cake had a sharpness which beautifully married with the silken sweetness of the quince. The pepperberry ice cream was an unusual flavour but blended well within the dish. The pecan crémeux provided an elegant texture to complete the dish. Truly an old world flavour with a modern take. We were thoroughly impressed with everything and left with a genuinely big smile.

P1150715I could have stayed here all afternoon. We arrived at Ten Minutes by Tractor not knowing what to expect and we were completely blown away by the trifecta of the beautiful location, faultless service and delicious food. Our experience here highlighted again the inconsistency in the hatted ratings, especially when you compared against weaker restaurants in the same category like Stefano’s. I wished that I had come here much sooner but I was glad we eventually made it. On this occasion we opted for the three course à la carte option but I’d definitely like to try Bell’s tasting menu on my return. Lucky for me it’s less than an hour away from where I live.

Stefano’s, Mildura

P1150435Chef: Jim McDougall  Website: Cuisine: Modern Italian

So my wife and I finally got around to organising our honeymoon a year from our wedding and we opted for a rather unconventional road trip from Melbourne up to Uluru. Whilst the focus of the trip was to explore the red centre of Australia, it would have been very out of character for us to miss out on some culinary indulgence. As our first stop was in Mildura I wasted no time in booking a table at the town’s oldest and most prestigious fine dining institution, Stefano’s. From humble beginnings since his arrival in Australia in 1974, Stefano de Pieri has built an empire in Mildura including a restaurant, cafe, bakery and brewery. He has since handed over the reins of the restaurant to his former apprentice and chef at Vue de Monde, Jim McDougall, propelling the restaurant from rustic Italian cooking to a modern cuisine.

P1150441The dining room of the main restaurant is located in the cellar of the building and as you can see it did make a fantastic venue for a romantic and intimate meal. But beware when making your reservation for there is also a modern room at the end of the long corridor with better lighting which sadly did not retain that rustic cellar atmosphere. If you have a table for two people you’ve probably got a good chance in avoiding the modern room and knocking your head on its low beamed entrance. P1150436We arrived a little early and were escorted to our table ducking our heads under the (fortunately padded and leather clad) beams. It didn’t take long before two selections of butter were brought out with some bread. My wife’s olfactory senses immediately picked up the white truffle that had been infused into one of the butter before it even landed on our table. We hardly touched the other butter that had been whipped with saltbush. It was actually pretty good but it wasn’t truffle after all, and my wife does do a good impression of a truffle pig at the best of times.

P1150444We opted for the white sourdough bread which was decent but nothing extraordinary. The service was friendly and relaxed, although the attention to detail of the front of house had room for improvement. For example, on more than one occasion my matching wine had not been timed well and poured too early or late. I also felt that the front of house were not well rehearsed with the content of the menu, often lacking in descriptions or details of the course.

P1150466As it was a Saturday night, we had the choice of either a six-course or eight-course degustation menu. We didn’t hesitate in splurging out for the latter since this was our honeymoon. As usual we were asked whether we had any allergies or dietary requirements and on this occasion my wife informed them that she was pregnant. Our waitress frowned when we mentioned no raw meat and seafood, and soft cheese. She continued on to tell us that they could not substitute the charcuterie amuse bouche which naturally annoyed us at the price tag we were paying. To further add to our annoyance, she said she would try and get one of the main courses substituted but that never came to fruition. Lucky we didn’t have any allergies. P1150450Our first amuse bouche of the evening was a couple of slices of Cured Kangaroo. They still insisted serving us two portions despite knowing my wife couldn’t have any of it. In all fairness, it was pretty average. It was a bit like a flavourless jerky with a hint of sweetness. Next course please.

P1150452Some Roasted Pumpkin seeds with Paprika which was a nice snack that would have gone better with a beer and not at a fine dining establishment.

P1150453A trio of bite size meaty selections including chicken liver parfait encased in a beetroot gel, duck rillettes and pork wrapped in prosciutto. The parfait was rather too soft and I struggled getting it off the plate with the stick. I did enjoy the progression of flavours with the salty prosciutto being the tastiest item but they were all cold.

P1150456The last instalment of the amuse bouche, Tomato Gazpacho, was exactly what it said on paper. It was a celebration of tomato from the region, served as a sauce, sorbet and raw. This was far more enjoyable and even my wife who is normally not keen about tomatoes enjoyed it. Good acidity and use of textures. A perfectly refreshing dish to cleanse the palate before the first course.

P1150459I could see the influence of Vue de Monde in the first course of the Wild Cowal Lake Yabbie, Cod Liver Parfait, Bulrush and Grapes which was accompanied with a glass of the 2009 Huia Gewurtztraminer, Marlborough. However, I really did not like this dish at all. The parfait had a texture of butter which was quite unpleasant and I couldn’t understand why slices of grapes were on this plate. The worst bit was the yabbie which was cold and flavourless.

P1150462A fairly average salad was presented as part of the second course to go with…

P1150465Kangaroo Carpaccio served on a Murray River Salt Block, another dish my wife could not eat. Lucky she had some salad at least. Unfortunately, I left the carpaccio too long on the salty block making it inedible as I was getting quite upset with the service here. My wife didn’t want to make a fuss so I grinned when the waitress came to pick up the empty plate asking both of us how the dish was. Lovely, just lovely.

P1150467The cooking under McDougall may have departed from being rustic but this restaurant was undeniably Italian. The Agnolotti of Smoked Sheep’s Cheese, Smoked Butter, Sweetbreads and Black Garlic was by far the best dish of the evening. I couldn’t quite pick out the black garlic but I loved how the creamy cheese and butter married with the salty sweetbread. The pasta, to their credit, was cooked perfect – al dente, but then with stefano’s heritage I wouldn’t have expected any less.

P1150472I expected to see a risotto dish next but instead we had Loxton Pork, Celeriac, Fermented Cucumber and Cider with a glass of 2013 Rieslingfreak No. 5. The pork was dry in texture yet had a very oily coating. Maybe it had been left in the frying pan too long? Who knows. The riesling certainly did a good job to wash down that oiliness.

P1150475The waiting time at this point increased two-folds and it took over forty minutes before we had the Ikejime Murray Cod, Quinoa, Bone Marrow and Inland Sea Plants with one of my favourite wine, 2010 Toolangi Estate Pinot Noir. Other than reading out the dish as it was being presented, there was no effort to explaining what “ikijime” meant (fortunately I knew as I am Japanese). I did enjoy the quinoa soaking up the sticky sauce with the cod fillet. A bold move in matching the dish with a pinot noir but it worked well with the bone marrow.

P1150479On to the main course of the evening starting with the Roasted Duck, Roasted Malt, Buckwheat Popcorn and Fig which I opted for after my wife was told it would be a shame if it was cooked well done as she would have to request given the pregancy, as the chef recommended it was only done pink. I felt the sweetness of the delicious fresh fig was lost amongst the heavy malt sauce, adding only a fibrous texture to the dish. However the meat was cooked well and I really enjoyed the buckwheat popcorn. The malt sauce did seem to dominate the palate and overall, I thought, overshadowed the mallard. P1150481My wife had the Dry Aged Mallee Beef with Variations of Onion. The meat was lovely and sweet. She did have to request it well done, which is not her usual preference, but still found it very juicy and flavoursome. The various preparations of onions was lovely but nothing particularly special.P1150485We opted for an extra cheese course which was, for me, the Whipped gorgonzola, honey, pistachio and crushed lavosh with…

P1150483… some brioche to spread the cheese on. Overall, I found this too sweet for my liking. I prefer my cheese to be much more savoury… stinky… cheesy. They kindly substituted some parmesan cheese for my wife, although it didn’t really work. However, kudos was given for the attempt.

P1150488A palate cleanser ensued by the name of Michael Keenan Citrus. Again, no explanation was given as to who Michael Keenan was but at a wild guess I assume he was a citrus grower from the region? It consisted of two types of citrus jubes containing a lemon and mandarin juice. A superb palate cleanser that burst with an intense flavour and left a refreshing note that didn’t distract the palate from the next dish. Wow!

P1150490The first sweet course of the evening was the Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Desert Lime, Basil & Caramel matched with the 2013 Mount Horrocks Cordon-Cut Riesling. A rather odd combination of a buttery panna cotta with an extremely intense citrus flavour that tingled your tongue. I’m still undecided as to whether I liked it or not, and visually you’d agree that it was not very interesting.

P1150492The last course was a celebration of plum with the Plum Dried for 6 Hours, Black Sesame & Green Tea with a glass of… guess what? Japanese Hakutsuru Plum Wine of course! The depth of flavour from the plum purée and jelly was divine and its sharp contrast to the sweet black sesame was spot on. I did however wish that there was a nice big dollop of plum ice cream to hold everything together.

P1150495The meal finished with a beautifully carved wooden tray containing Potato & Nutella, Jubes, Lavendar & Caramel. 

I was generally disappointed with the overall experience here and my wife even more so after some fond memories she had from her last meal here a few years ago. If I put aside some fundamentally flawed service we had here tonight ranging from the restaurants inflexible approach to the inconsistent level of attention, the food here was very mixed. At one end you had some decent dishes like the agnolotti and the palate cleanser, yet on the other hand you had utterly flavourless dishes like the yabbie and the kangaroo carpaccio. Let’s hope our experience that night is a result of some teething issues from the change in style and direction of the restaurant because otherwise I certainly think the $400 bill was absurd for what you got.

Shinji by Kanesaka, Singapore

P1150233Chef: Shinji Kanesaka  Website: www. Cuisine: Edomae Sushi

For those of you who have been to Japan and tried the best sushi joints, you’ll appreciate where I’m coming from when I say that good sushi is a rarity outside Japan. In fact, it’s so rare that I personally have only come across one restaurant in London by the name of Sushi Tetsu that has truly left me speechless… until my recent visit to Singapore that is. Shinji by Kanesaka is an offshoot of the two-michelin starred Ginza establishment that opened in Singapore’s most luxurious and iconic Raffles Hotel in 2010. Anyone who has dined here before will agree that they fully deserved the 32nd position in the 2014 San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best guide. Subsequently, they will also warn you about the eye watering bill that comes at the end of the meal. You have been warned.

P1150238Rather than heading straight to the restaurant, I decided to make a short detour. After all, when you’re within 50 metres of the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel, how could you resist indulging in a glass (or maybe two) of the iconic Singapore Sling? I always make it my mission to come here when stopping by Singapore and this was a superb prelude to a stunning lunch. On to the meal…

P1150244The centre piece of the dining room was undoubtedly the single-piece 220 year old hinoki counter (Japanese Cypress tree), the pride and joy of Oshino Koichiro who oversees the restaurant in Singapore whilst his boss, Kanesaka Shinji, manages everything back in Japan including the selection of the fish that gets flown into Singapore four times a week. Even the fruits used for their dessert are imported from Japan!

P1150247Seaweed, radish and tuna to kick off the meal which had been marinated in soy sauce, and finished off with sesame seeds sprinkled. Beautifully moist fish with a very delicate flavour to ensure it didn’t overwhelm the subsequent sushi course. The texture of the fish was comparable to that of a slow cooked pork.

P1150249The first sushi of the twelve piece Moon course (月 – Tsuki) was Spanish mackerel (鰆 – Sawara). A buttery and fatty cut of fish that had been balanced well with the home concocted soy sauce and a dab of wasabi. The shari or the rice was superb throughout the meal and certainly on par with that of Sushi Tetsu, if not slightly better with the difference being the sushi-zu (vinegar) that was being used.

P1150250Japanese amberjack / yellowtail (鰤 – Buri). Another clean and bold flavoured fish with a good amount of fattiness, finishing with a slight natural sweetness. As with the sawara, the high oil content that repelled soy sauce made this a very delicate dish and all you could taste was the fish. Delicious.

P1150251l was curious to see what else was going to be served for the 12 course meal I opted for… no signs of my favourite sea urchin…

P1150253Cuttlefish (甲イカ – Kou-ika) that had been seasoned with some salt and sudachi, a Japanese green citrus. Perfect texture with a slight stickiness to it that made it blend into the shari really well. The only mistake in the entire meal for me was the unusually large amount of wasabi that had been used which caught me by surprise and ended in tears.

P1150254 Medium Fatty Tuna (中トロ – Chūtoro) from Ōma was sublime with the perfect balance of the flavour from the fish and the oily richness from the fat. The entire piece just dissolved in my mouth with the rice. Tuna from Ōma in the Aomori prefecture are possibly the most sought after in Japan and fished using a traditional method of single rod and line (ippon-zuri). The reward from catching a tuna in one of Japan’s most dangerous straits is astonishing where a 222kg bluefin tuna fetched $1.76 million USD at an auction in Tsukiji market in 2013.P1150256My mouth was watering when I saw the beautifully marbled Fattiest part of the Tuna (大トロ – Otoro), similarly from Ōma, served on my plate. Whilst one serving was sufficient given the oiliness of this cut, it was divine. I could see why the tuna from Ōma had the nickname of the “black diamond of the sea” in Japan.

P1150257Horse mackerel (鯵 – Aji) complemented with shiso (perilla), spring onion and ginger to give it a lovely aroma and counterbalance the strong smell and flavour of the fish. This was one of my favourite dish of the evening and surprisingly it did not have that distinctly strong smell. It was just delicious.

P1150258 Tuna from Kagoshima (鹿児島 鮪 – Kagoshima maguroto end the triple courses of tuna. I was surprised the akami (leanest part of the tuna) was sourced from a different tuna to the previous ones as one technically gets the full appreciation for the flavour and quality of the tuna by tasting all the cuts. Nevertheless, marinated for a few minutes in Kanesaka’s soy sauce concoction, this cut was sensational. It was simple, yet complex with a depth in flavour.

P1150259But just when I thought the tuna courses had finished, I was served with one final sushi of a six month old Baby bluefin (メジ鮪 – Meji maguro). It was far more delicate in flavour and texture over all the other tuna’s I had previously. It was like veal to a fish.

P1150260Just when I thought things couldn’t get better, it did with the Sea urchin (ウニ – Uni) from Hokkaido. Lacking any bitterness from the absence of myoban to preserve it, this was the real deal. Delicate, creamy and rich. This was what I was craving for since my last trip to Japan.

P1150261A lacquered spoon was then oddly placed in front of me…? I was worried I had finished my courses already and I was transitioning to dessert… but that would surely have been too abrupt? What happened to the soup and makimono (rolled sushi)?

P1150263… false alarm! Even better, the spoon was to scoop out my second most favourite seafood ingredient in Japanese cuisine, Salmon roe (イクラ – ikura). The shari was moulded into a tiny ball and placed on a small bowl before being covered with tens of luscious gooey salmon roes packed with the flavour of the ocean. The roes seamlessly melted in the mouth with the rice with little effort and the grated zest of yuzu breathed life into the dish with its aroma and zingy contrast to the sticky juice that oozed out. Outstanding!

P1150264Tuna with spring onion (葱とろ – Negitoro) is usually a sign when the meal is about to come to an end. A gentle way of saying, it’s almost over. It had a good balance of the fatty tuna and sharpness of the spring onion. Nevertheless, it was a sad moment…

P1150267As much as the Prawn (車海老 – Kuruma ebi) was juicy, slightly crunchy and cooked well, it was still my least favourite dish of the meal. I’ve never been a huge fan of prawn sushi, regardless of where I’ve been and that wasn’t going to change on this occasion. I am always happy to give it a try though just in case someone is able to convince me otherwise.

P1150269A bowl of Suimono (clear soup) to wrap things up.

P1150270And just when I truly thought it was over, the itamae served me one last surprise with the Salterwater / Conger eel (穴子 – Anago). The one on the right was simply prepared using salt only, drawing out the rich flavour of the eel. As previously stated in my review of Sushi Tetsu, the skills that go into the preparation of an eel requires years of experience and training, similar to sushi. I progressed on to the next piece on the left which had been baste roasted in their delicious savoury kabayaki sauce. I loved the flavour progression between the two and how they each highlighted the flavour using different techniques.

P1150271To mark truly the end of the meal were a variety of rolled sushi (makimono) Bluefin tuna, shellfish and cucumber, squash. 

P1150275As mentioned at the start, even their dessert of the Jelly with fruits had been imported from Japan! The itamae explained that in order to ensure the same experience as a top sushi-ya in Japan, they wanted to ensure that the dessert was also Japanese, with familiar flavours. Amazing.

P1150273I’m not going to ramble on about the quality of the sushi here. Simply put it, it’s very good. However, it’s not just the food that is amazing here. It’s also the attention to detail that went into everything from directly sourcing the ingredient and fish (neta) in Japan to the finer things like the lacquered toothpick box after the meal and the 220 year old hinoki counter. No expense was spared in recreating an authentic sushi establishment overseas and I personally think that justifies the significant bill that comes at the end of the meal. If you’re a local in Singapore at least you can save the cost of an airfare to sample truly authentic Edomae sushi. I’d happily come back here many times.