New column: Support your local restaurant!

The Prick’s latest column in The Australian is up … the theme? Proper restaurants versus homogenised fast-casual crap that will be the death of us all. The conclusion?

But if the unlevel playing field is driving supply one way, there’s no reason the demand side cannot send some counter­signals to even things up. Hell, elevate it to a social media campaign and give it its own hashtag (#i’lldinewithyou, perhaps?). More effectively, we could all let our dollars do the walking and patronise, if even initially just for a month, the independent and the small making a go of it. To horrify the spirit of Karl Marx by paraphrasing him in this bourgeois campaign, perhaps the slogan can be Diners of Australia, unite! You have nothing to lose but your (restaurant) chains!

Of course  you should read the whole thing. Or better yet, go buy the damn paper!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Prick With a Fork is back…in print!

Been a long time between drinks, but the Prick has found a new home at the national daily, The Australian. First up: What happens when a Prick is forced to maintain a modicum of health and domestic accord and has to go on a “body transformation” diet. You won’t believe what happens next!

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Rights asserted.

In today’s Daily Telegraph, I have some choice words about Mike Baird and Sydney’s lockout laws — and why it is about more than just the right to party into the wee small hours.

FOR the past week Sydney has debated a question that has been burbling under the surface for months if not years: Namely, have officials from the Lord Mayor all the way up to the Premier gone too far in ­protecting us from a good time, all in the name of public safety?

It’s an important discussion. Somehow the line has become widely accepted that there is something in the air in the Sydney Basin that makes people raving, violent two-pot screamers in need of a security regime that in comparison makes boarding an El Al flight with a Yemeni passport seem pleasant.

The fact we are even having this discussion really should raise questions beyond what time bars should close.

Given that the current regime of lockouts — along with rules on what time you are no longer trusted with an actual grown-up glass and need a plastic sippy cup, and restrictions on buying a bottle of wine after 10pm — started under Barry O’Farrell and have been strengthened under Mike Baird, it is fair to ask just how “liberal” is the present NSW Liberal-National government.

Certainly the Baird government is keen to point to its record of fiscal management and is proud of fixing the state’s books, as well as holding on to that shiny AAA ­credit rating.

But most Liberal voters, it can safely be assumed, vote on more than just the state’s pocketbook.

The whole thing is here.

Also, make sure to have your say and put in a submission on the lockout review.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Noma Sydney: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’m Glad I Did But Will Never Do Again

When Noma first announced its “pop-up” in Sydney’s new Barangaroo precinct – a vulgar monstrosity whose fatal flaw, mark my words, will ultimately be an isolation from the city no amount of Packer-financed lockout laws will cure – we were, to be sure, excited. To suggest that when reservations became available we Pricks were hitting the refresh buttons like monkeys in a cocaine addiction lab experiment would be an exaggeration, but only just. Anyway, last night was the night, and to be frank I’m still trying to figure out what I think of the whole thing.

Rene Redzepi came to town with his cast of thousands promising to do something completely different from what he does in Copenhagen, and entirely Australian – thus a heavy focus on native ingredients that we dopey locals “ignore” as well as a series of what are not referred to explicitly (but pretty clearly are) references, call-outs and to use that over-abused word “takes” on Australiana-type food. And in many of the dozen or so dishes that come out of the gleaming, lottery-dreams kitchen (through one which passes to go to the toot, and whose line chefs are more than happy to oblige an exuberant, slightly drunken high-five from across the pass) this works really, really well.

To give some examples: A “porridge” of wattleseeds wrapped in saltbush with a glorious infused oil (seaweed) underneath is a very sly reinterpretation of the Greek dolmade which Anglo-Australian culture has taken as its own. A series of bivalves gently cooked and presented on rocks covered with skins of a gel made from chicken stock and, amazingly, crocodile fat, was glorious, a classic Aussie seafood platter from another planet, next-level shit as the kids say. (Where does one get crocodile fat, anyway?) And for once the soupy “natural” wine that accompanied it really worked.

Marron and magpie goose (is it a magpie? is it a goose? make up your mind, Creator of the Universe!) wrapped in milk skins was stunning, but we realized eating the things with our hands that we were also for a moment having that other Australian multi-culti staple dinner, taco night. An abalone “schnitzel” (schnitty!) divided the table: I can’t abide the stuff since a bad experience in Shanghai, and for my money the whole plate was overtooled, an excuse to artsy-up low tide on a plate. On the other hand, while we couldn’t find the reference point for a simple plate of sea urchin with semi-dehydrated tomatoes, tomato water and pepper berries, this was for me the dish of the night, paroxysmically good in a “sir, you’re making a scene” sort of way. A “baytime” made of peanut milk and “freekah” (hoo-kay) finished the meal, yummy but perhaps too clever by half and frankly didn’t Colin Fassnidge come up with this pun years ago? An earlier pre-dessert (“marinated fresh fruit”, as it is described on the menu) comes sprinkled with honest-to-God ants, a sly reference both to Danish uber-haute cuisine weirdness and every Australian homeowner’s horror of termites.

All in all, clever, creative, challenging and great, great fun, made the more so by the mostly Danish and uniformly excellent staff. But I worry that Redzepi has artificially limited himself with his self-imposed brief to the local, native, and Australian. There is a reason why a lot of native ingredients don’t show up on Australian dinner plates: they may look pretty but they are in fact loud and boorish, like they came from the Lara Bingle aisle of the supermarket. A finger lime G&T may be fun but you can keep your bunya nut, thanks, though we had great fun watching other diners freak out at their first bite of an early plate of “wild seasonal berries flavoured with gubine.” Don’t ask me what gubine is, either, but it tasted like a big mouthful of country acreage on a soggy day and the reactions of some of the prosperous “ribeye for me, tuna steak for the lady” types made for great mirth.

In the same vein, though, carting a hundred staffers around the world and air-freighting crocodile fat from the NT doesn’t scream “locavore”, really, and while one doesn’t expect a plate of moss grown on the lee side of a reindeer turd in Australia we would have appreciated a Danish treat. And when one is spending what is really a morally undefensible amount of money on a meal it is fair to invoke Clara Peller’s damning question, to wit, “Where’s the beef?”: We would have loved to see what Redzepi could do with either a piece of ‘roo or some of our world’s-best beef, paired with a sexy glass of red. As it stands the closest we got was a bit of liquefied Skippy (“kangaroo juice”, as it was described to us, raising many many more questions than it answered) gently embracing a lovely, simple dish of snow crab that could have been, like so many dishes, elevated by a hint more generous seasoning but which one of our table, cracking the code for the evening, identified with Proustian delight as a childhood fish finger sandwich.

So the verdict? A more cynical wag than myself might also be tempted to reference David Foster Wallace’s line about “a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again”, but that would be unfair. It was a helluva good time, the service is among the best and most genuine I’ve ever encountered in Australia (they’ve imported the entire waitstaff from Copenhagen and added a few local ring-ins) and many of the dishes really sang. I just wonder if this is the best way to showcase the obvious talent of Redzepi’s team, and I think we all left wishing there was a bit more “there” there.

Pictures follow.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

One Penny Red: Up on the (Summer) Hill Where they do the Boogie

Yes, yes, yes we all know there is a housing crisis in Sydney, that no one will ever buy a house again, and that the next three generations are destined to spend their lives spack-filling holes every couple of years because one night they got drunk and threw caution to the wind and decided to hang that damned framed reproduction Tattinger print up on the wall of their rented terrace.

But if you think the property market is tough, try booking into any Sydney restaurant worth its hand-harvested truffled black sea salt on a Saturday night. Forget getting Australians into quarter-acre blocks, the Reserve Bank would have a good case to tighten up the money supply just to free up a few second-seating tables.

Take last weekend, when we suddenly found ourselves sans the Little Pricks, with the exception of Nick With a Fork, now quite the young teen and very enthusiastic for an “adult” evening out with all the semi-adult conversation we could muster. Dimmi was hopeless and phone call after phone call left us luckless both at regular favourites and want-to-tries. We may as well have rocked up to an inner-west house auction that morning with a pre-approved mortgage in the amount of exactly what the agent said the property “should go for”. Mercifully a helpful suggestion to try our luck One Penny Red in Summer Hill wound up securing us, barely, an 8:30 booking.

Any port in a storm, right?

Set up in a renovated Queen Anne post office building, a busy night at One Penny Red (it’s named after a stamp, apparently) feels like a party at the house of a prosperous mate who managed not to run out of gas half-way through his renovation. The joint is packed and buzzing with casually but well-turned out 30 and 40-something professionals who once upon a time would have been described as being in fair round belly with good capon lin’d – except this crowd has personal trainers to keep the capon from sticking. Out of an Uber and into an entry hall full of people waiting for their tables, chatting away over G&Ts and sparklings and smartly kept from obstreperousness by passing plates of salt cod croquettes brought (yum).

All a bit Woollahra of the inner-west, if you catch my drift. And that’s not a bad thing, either.

OPR wineOnce seated we are tempted by but ultimately pass on the “trust the chef” option: We love the “just feed me” thing that so many restaurants are doing these days, on a first visit we’d rather wander the back streets and make our own discoveries rather than take the tour bus that will take us all to the same hot spots.

Massive grilled king prawns are nice but don’t hold a candle to a zingy snapper crudo with hints of cucumber, lime and chili. A rabbit, pork and veal terrine knocks it out of the park (“Dad, you think we could make something like this at home?” asks Nick; in my enthusiasm I promise a weekend project involving a pig’s head). The plate, or plank to be more accurate, travels with a gang of crunchy little pickled carrots and radishes and other bits and bobs. Double the portion – or don’t share it with two companions – and add a glass of wine and you’d have a handy weeknight supper.

(While we’re on the subject of wines, there’s a helluva little list going with interesting and esoteric offerings from around the world as well as Australia. We grab a hard-to-find Premier Cru Clos des Loyeres at a reasonably sane mark-up for something of which there are only 130 cases in the world extant; our waiter in a moment of enthusiasm accidentally tops up our neighbour’s glass of shiraz with the stuff bottle but makes good with a couple of generous pours of Riesling to wash down our starter – all is forgiven.)

OPR steakMains – or “larger plates” as they are called, in keeping with current fashion – follow in their turn. A spatchcock carved up all cheffily and arranged on a parsnip puree is raised to some new height by Brussels sprouts done in duck fat which are very much worth fork-fencing over.

Duck two ways goes above and beyond the height of mid-1990s sophistication suggested by the name, even if it is let down by a breast that is just a bit too under for even our comfort, while a 650g ribeye is simple perfection. The “crispy spiced salt potatoes”, meanwhile, are the best damn spud in town this side of the Prick’s pommes puree, crunchy and fluffy Atkins-slayers

OPR duckWe are hit by a pang of menu envy as another group rears back in awe: their 2.5kg glazed beef shin rocks up, looking like the world’s biggest lamb shank with a Flintstone’s bone poking out the top, to many ooh’s and aah’s.

That’s the thing about OPR: the menu at first glance doesn’t sound massively adventurous, reading like the sort of stuff any reasonably serious amateur could do with a free afternoon on his hands. But it’s all done so well you can see they’re on a winner because it’s special enough to make it a night out, but approachable enough to make it a semi-regular destination.

Dessert? Banana fritters, lovely, apparently their signature, but  the house made ice creams – particularly the malt number – are the real winners winners, even for those of us without much of a sweet tooth. A 15-year-old Madeira on the table doesn’t hurt either.

OPR ice creamWe’ll be back. It’s a Prick’s birthday soon; one of those beef shins would look great with a birthday candle sticking out the marrow.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Lamb Shoulder Experiment

That’d be a great name for a band, wouldn’t it? Anyway, been a long time between drinks around here but in the interests of keeping this going, I posted this on my personal Facebook and people seemed to like it so thought I’d share with anyone hanging around this place. The idea was a nice Saturday roast using lamb shoulder – something I’ve not cooked with before, funnily enough – after picking up a couple down at Vic’s at Pyrmont. What follows turned out pretty well, though I wish I’d had some lamb stock handy to make a bit of a winey jus to class things up a bit.

With that I give you … Lamb Shoulder Experiment.

lamb2

1. Get around five or six good-sized waxy potatoes (kestrel, desiree, whatever’s handy), peel and slice reasonably thinly (a mandolin is perfect for this) into a large bowl. Do the same with three or four yellow onions. Toss this together with just some salt and pepper and as much fresh thyme as you can be bothered destemming, and shingle this into the bottom of a big roasting pan. This will be the basis for your pommes boulangere.

2. On top of this, place one or two (depending on how big your crowd, but remember there’s a lot of bone so you’ll need more than you think) lamb shoulders. Spike with the point of a sharp knife and insert garlic cloves into the incisions.

3. Pour about 500ml – 1l chicken stock (you do have some you made yourself in the freezer, yes? No? I won’t tell) into the pan just to around the top of the potatoes, and place the whole thing into a low oven — maybe 130-140c/250-275f. Get a good book and read a hundred or so pages and have a little nap. Wake up in four hours.

4. At this point the lamb should start to get really tender. Check it, say to the family, “I wanna give that lamb another half an hour. Nobody’s starving are they?” When assured that no one is going to gnaw their own or anyone else’s arm off, make a gin and tonic and pick a bottle of wine. CRUCIAL POINT: Don’t do what I did and pick a random NSW shiraz that someone brought to a party and winds up being too fruity for the dish. Open something nice from the Pyrennes region of Victoria, or a grunty Cotes du Rhone, even a humble Villages-level will do the trick, but if you want to pull the cork on a Vieux-Telegraphe that’s a matter for you so long as I’m invited. An earthier Cab Sav (Coonawarra) or a nice GSM blend would also work.

5. At this point you should take the lamb shoulder and depending on how ready they are — ie a knife should just slide in — either (a) move the meat into another roasting pan or (b) take it out to rest. This is to enable the potatoes to crisp up without a big hunk of meat getting in the way. Also, chuck some green beans into a pot of salted boiling water.

6. After letting the meat rest and the beans cook and the potatoes crisp, you’re ready to go. Carve and serve, no fancy presentation required, but make sure everyone gets some of the fatty skin, which is sticky and glorious and like lamb’s answer to pork belly crackling.

lamb1

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Your Results May Vary: Putting Sepia’s and Thomas Keller’s Books to the Test

Hands up everyone here who found a two-foot-tall serious chef’s cookbook under the tree this past Christmas, all filled photos that could hang in MONA and printed on paper as lush as Dean Martin laughing at Frank Sinatra punching somebody?

Wow, all three of you.

Now, just about a month on from the Nativity, how many of you have actually taken the thing into the kitchen?

Yeah, the Prick’s got a big stack on the coffee table too. You know, for inspiration.

But here’s the thing with these gorgeous, expensive cookbooks: If they aren’t cooked from, what are they for?

A cynic would argue these works are nothing more than a marketing ploy where the customer has to pay for the advertising: Buy the cookbook, look at the pictures, come in for a meal, or at least increase the “buzz” around the name. The Prick is no economist but restaurants are notoriously tight-margined and a best-seller surely helps pays the bills or at least drive foot traffic for a lot of chefs in the same way celebrity endorsements are where the gravy is for, say, athletes.

But stepping back from the business side of things these illuminated manuscripts are – or should be – at heart about getting a cook from A to B to finished dish, even if said cook does not have an army of commis chefs tending stocks and chopping onions from first light. This may not be every day food. But if you care about eating and see it as more than just a way of fuelling up, it’s not a bad idea to have a go at this high calibre cooking from time to time (even if one winds up using a few cheats and shortcuts to make up for the aforementioned lack of kitchen hands).

Thus on a recent Sunday afternoon the Prick decided to give recipes from a couple of signature books a go. One from a new acquisition, the Sepia cookbook (thanks Mrs Prick!), which promises that the reader might be able to recreate at least some of the delights of Martin Benn’s much-hatted, much feted Sydney restaurant, the other from Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure, which was the sous-vide book to end all sous-vide books before we all had benchtop immersion circulators and cabinets full of molecular powders.

First up: Chef Benn’s “Spanner crab and buckwheat risotto with grain mustard and tarragon butter, shellfish essence.”

Despite the name this is a simpler dish than it sounds and doesn’t require esoterica like carbonised bamboo powder (found in the carbonised bamboo powder aisle of your local supermarket) or Japanese binchotan charcoal. Though there were a couple of cheats: For one thing, as this was being made for two rather than eight, there was little chance that we were going to make a litre or so of shellfish stock, and instead substituted a really tasty “sustainable” crab stock instead.

It should also be noted that the picked fresh spanner crab meat was deleted in favour of langoustines: There were some gorgeous ones in the markets that morning, and as the Prick generally enjoys his day job he did not need to spend his Sunday denuding crustacea to make Monday’s ordeals seem more pleasant.

Everything else, from the tomato powder (you don’t need a dehydrator, just an oven you can sit on about 70 degrees for the day) to the obscenely great “grain mustard and tarragon butter” (really, really whip the butter, the longer the better, and use what’s leftover on grilled fish and loved ones for the remainder of the week) was done as per Chef’s orders. This is what we were aiming for:

The target, as set by Chef Martin Benn

The target, as set by Chef Martin Benn

The results were … well, really bloody amazing if a Prick does say so himself … at least taste-wise.

The presentation however – and entirely through the Prick’s own maxima culpa – wound up being nothing short of disastrous. In the enthusiasm of the moment, the laws of thermodynamics were forgotten and a quenelle of room-temperature compound butter perched artfully on a tight mound of steaming-hot buckwheat melted and fell away like the French army in 1941.

But if the cooking cops were strictly enforcing the rules of heat transfer in the Stately Prick Manor test kitchens, they were turning a blind eye to the statute books on chemistry. Despite fiercely precise measurements of all ingredients involved, right down to the exactly four damn grams of lecithin, there was no way a stable foam was forming, and even to call what resulted a sauce would be considered charitable.

And the Prick didn’t help matters either, perching a poor langoustine’s head on top of the whole affair as garnish. In hindsight, there are too many other things in this world that are fecklessly parlous in a late-‘70s sort of way that we should be doubly wary of the gastro-decorative traps of the era. Oh, and the tomato powder was made but forgotten in the heat of battle, though a lovely gazpacho which got us through the week was a happy by-product.

Thus what resulted was speaking visually a mess – “yesterday’s sandcastle at today’s low tide” would be a polite, artsy name for the results:

lang

Whoops.

Still, with the lights dimmed (and a 2009 Grace Kayagatake from Japan in the glass), all was not lost. The buckwheat was a revelation and played brightly against the dark, earthy shellfish stock which infused and which barely poached the langoustine tails. The brackish wouldn’t-foam still remained a bracing, salty kiss. And that butter … you get the picture. And in fact with some re-tooling, and better luck with the lecithin, this could evolve into, to use a horrifying phrase, the Prick’s “take” on a Sepia classic.

Thomas Keller’s masterwork Under Pressure also got an airing on the day. A far simpler dish – essentially a somewhat deconstructed take on an octopus, chorizo and potato salad (called-for green almonds were not to be had and thus deleted) with a bright salsa verde with all the herbs in the garden, the results were far happier, visually-speaking:

Eight tentacles up for octopus!

Eight tentacles up for octopus!

The key to this dish is the octopus, which gets five hours in the water bath at 77C (or 170F in the old money) with an herb sachet, as well as using a good chorizo. Oh, and a bright salsa verde with a big handful of basil and smaller doses of fresh tarragon, cilantro and parsley, al quickly blanched and shocked, and whizzed with olive oil, toasted ground cumin and coriander seeds, and finished with a squeeze of lemon and minced capers. And kipfler potatoes, just boiled and then peeled and cut into discs.

Sydneysiders and those with a good fish market nearby can get sashimi-grade tentacles already trimmed and ready to go, saving time if not money and making this a relatively easy dish that can be fancied up on a plate or tossed together in a salad, as indeed were the leftovers which were happily consumed desk-side by Mrs Prick the following day to the furrowed brows of jealous co-workers.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment