Smokey and the Bandito

The Pricks took a little detour to the Southern Highlands on the weekend – more about which later – and chanced upon this bit of fantasticness at a Hume Highway rest stop:

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Would that we also had the Caribinieri’s, shall we say, liberal attitude towards traffic and speed enforcement in Australia… 

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Crossing the Great Side-Order Divide: Puffed Potatoes

Forget Arab versus Israeli or Catholic versus Protestant. Really, is there any more vexed question than whether French fries (or chips) are superior to mashed potatoes (or pommes purees if you want to get really fancy about it)?

On the one hand, adherents of the fried potato, in all its many iterations from the shoestring to the big fat wedge maintain that only a spud that has been par-boiled, fried, and then fried again for extra crispness has the right to sit alongside a burger or, better yet, a big ol’ ribeye.

On the other hand, the mashed potato brigade is convinced that, boiled and sieved and emulsified with the equivalent of Normandy’s weekly production of butter and cream is the most ennobling treatment for the humble pomme de terre.

Friends, this site may not be able to solve the more intractable problems of faith or geopolitics, but as a consolation prize, how about some gastronomic syncretism in the form of puffed potatoes? In one of those great “where have you been all my life?” moments, the Prick first noticed the idea in his Christmas copy of the Gramercy Tavern Cookbook (a wonderful volume worth the price of admission for the smoked tomato soup alone).

Then, a lunch at the Rockpool where a similar little side dish stole the show.

So how’s it done? Easy. First, get some potatoes peeled and chunked and on to boil – desirees, Yukon golds, anything waxy you have to hand, about a half-kilo’s worth (this recipe made more than enough for two, but is pretty infinitely scalable).

While that’s happening, make a simple choux pastry: Boil a big tablespoon of butter and a quarter-cup of water, and then take off the heat, stirring in a quarter-cup’s worth of flour. Return to a lower heat, and stir constantly until it forms a dough and pulls away from the sides. This won’t take long at all.

Throw this dough in a stand mixer and, with the paddle attachment, beat the dough with an egg; in a minute or so it’ll come back together.

When your potatoes are tender, run them through a potato ricer and toss into the mixer, and blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

When ready to cook, form quenelles or balls or any damn shape you like and fry for a few minutes, until golden all over, at around 170 degrees C (or 325 degrees or so F). Remember, your oil temperature will drop when you add the potatoes, so get it up a good five or ten degrees above your target to start with.

Drain, salt, and serve with the best damn steak you can acquire.

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Yeah, I know it’s messy, but I was too damn hungry to wipe the plate.

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Food, Fads and Freedom

In the Telegraph today, the Prick is taking on the latest anti-meat fad diets – and no, a cheeseburger is not as bad for you as a pack of smokes:

Anyone with a degree of skepticism and a memory longer than that of a goldfish will be forgiven for suspecting that this suggested low-protein diet will go the way of the high-protein diet, which not long ago was trumpeted as the sure-fire way to weight loss and a long, happy life.

Because beyond just playing with our protein intakes, we have in previous years and decades seen all manner of food fad, each one touted as the solution to all our woes, filling not just the bellies of their adherents but also a need for some sort of guiding hand as well.

Many diets demand cult-like adherence to a set of dietary rules as complicated as any faith, providing nearly the same assurance of rewards for sticking to it and punishment (including a fair bit of guilt) if one strays from the path.

Yet from fruitarianism to celebrity diets to best-selling diet book authored by “expert” doctors (who have no trouble contradicting one another) the programs keep on selling. One recent fad, the eat-like-a-caveman Paleo diet, has taken off wildly with cafes and cookbooks launching weekly to explain how our Neolithic ancestors had it all over us in the health stakes. Oddly, however, few of the diet’s adherents are willing to live like a caveman, hunt like a caveman, enjoy caveman-style healthcare, or date like a caveman. Wonder why?

The news came in too late for press time, but the science appears to be settling in this direction:

Fatty foods such as butter and bacon may not actually increase the risk of heart attacks, a comprehensive overview of health research has concluded.

NHS guidelines urging people to eat less “unhealthy” fat might have to be reviewed, say scientists who found no link between saturated fat and heart disease. 

 Thank Christ for that. Now, if someone could just tell Michelle Obama:

White House executive pastry chef Bill Yosses is resigning after First Lady Michelle Obama fundamentally changed his job duties to focus on healthier food.

Yosses is leaving the White House in June to work on a new project focusing on “food literacy” and The New York Times says Michelle is “partly to blame.” The openly gay chef was hired by Laura Bush in 2007 to make his trademark cookie plates and sugar sculptures. Mrs. Obama took over in 2009 and ordered Yosses to make healthier plates in smaller portions.

Yosses began replacing butter with fruit puree and sugar with honey and agave. But Yosses was never fully committed to the new policy.

“I don’t want to demonize cream, butter, sugar and eggs,” Yosses said.

Good man. Listen to the chef. The science has spoken.

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Swine & Co: Beer Hall Putsch’s Unsatisfying Result

For as long as the Prick can remember the old former banking chamber at 16 O’Connell Street in Sydney’s CBD was home to an outlet of the Disneyfied Bavarian Bier Café mini-chain which until recently sated local office workers’ demands for a German theme bar where Oktoberfest runs twelve months a year.

Times changed, palates became more sophisticated, and at some point everyone’s obsession with gluten-free this and “paleo” that meant the critical mass of customers whose idea of a good time was deep-fried camembert and Spaten by the litre shrank to the point where covering both the rent and the cleaning bills for the waitress’s little Hans-und-the-lusty-milkmaid dirndl outfits became uneconomic.

Enter Swine & Co, which took over the space a few months ago with a big PR and social media push and the promising brief to “celebrate” the pig.

Alas in practice, this promise seems to be more of a porky.

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Fried things. We like fried things!

In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that the Pricks’ meal here on a recent afternoon did not start off on the best of notes. Rocking up for lunch with another couple we were told we could only sit in the ground floor bar area. No worries; four hungry diners who’d skipped breakfast in full expectation of suckling pig don’t really care where they eat so long as there’s a flat surface and perhaps some cutlery.

You see where this is going, right?

Adamantine refusal to serve downstairs dining room menu items upstairs (despite everything coming from the same damn kitchen, the waitress said she was only following orders); bruised shins from Mrs Prick’s vehement signaling that no, now is not the time to re-enact the diner scene from Five Easy Pieces; and some of the most disappointing sandwiches this side of a poorly-catered “boardroom lunch”.

Of course, we put on a brave face, keeping minds and jaws open for what we were allowed to order. The ghosts of history are hard to exorcise, and we chalk the refusal up to some obsession with rules hanging over from the old regime. Handing back the big kids’ menu we were allowed to peruse from the downstairs ratskeller (which, by the most generous count, only gives about 25 per cent of itself over to the pig, odd for a place that supposedly puts swine centre stage) we start with some nibbles.

First, fries, good, and croquettes of what is claimed to be suckling pig. Tasty and porky, light with a proper ratio of meat, though to be honest not a patch on some ham hock numbers we whipped up out of Colin Fassnidge’s really delightful new Four Kitchens cookbook in the Stately Prick Manor test kitchens last weekend. And while one presumes these are made from trimmings and off-cuts, suckling pig is really too special to just mix with potato and fry. Which means it is very special indeed.

Then, sandwiches, the most substantial thing one is allowed upstairs. Mrs Prick’s pork and veal meatballs baguette features four ping-pong balls of protein on an oversized roll; a toasted “prosciutto and provolone jaffle” does what it says on the tin but looks disconcertingly like an after-school snack. The pork belly baguette is a big winner, though cabbage straight out of the fridge makes for a jarring chaud-froid mouthfeel.

And then, the Reuben.

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Crimes against Reubenity

Short of dislocating one’s jaw like a python it is hard to know what to do when presented with a sandwich that consists of two thick (we are talking a good 1.5 centimetres here) slabs of untoasted brown bread that gets soggier by the second as it attempts to hold together a half-barrel of sauerkraut with a single thin slab of (as opposed to properly sliced and stacked) cured brisket that is supposedly the raison d’etre for the dish. While the kraut is sheathed with a half-melted slice of cheese, there is no Russian dressing, nor any of the glorious fat which makes the Reuben, done right, such a spectacular treat. It is an epic fail of a thing, sad to look at and sorrier to eat, and the proprietors of Swine & Co – as well as anyone else who wants a Reuben done right in this town – should avail themselves of Tony Gibson’s offerings at the Pyrmont farmers’ markets or head over to Momo’s on Elizabeth Street.

Add to this shambolic service – other tables’ orders kept showing up and a second round of drinks never made it to the table, but by the time the bill came no one had even the enthusiasm to check if they’d made it off the tab – and it is hard to imagine that the downstairs experience would be more satisfying. Disappointing in an area of town that is rapidly becoming a dining destination, it will be interesting to see how this little piggy fares in the market.
Swine & Co. on Urbanspoon

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Check Your Privilege Over Lunch at Rockpool

Readers who have had the (mis)fortune to spend any time around a humanities faculty lately may be familiar with the appalling phrase, “check your privilege”.

For the uninitiated – and the Prick is sorry to have to break this to anyone who’s been out of school for a while, this sort of nonsense is still going on – “privilege-checking” is the latest effort by campus Jacobins who would rather shut up their opponents than simply argue their case. The more “privileged” one is deemed to be, the less valid one’s opinion, because after all every time a white male speaks he is just reifying cisgendered phallocentric patriarchy … yada yada yada, you get the idea.  In any case for a bit of fun some wags have come up with a calculator designed to tell you almost instantly how much the victim or oppressor you are, and thus by inverse implication, how much or little free speech to which you are entitled.

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“I’ve checked, your privilege will be right out…”

No one will be surprised to find out that the Prick clocked in at 180 privilege points, and that was without any questions about eating habits. Had the quiz’s authors divined that the Prick had just come from a lunch at Neil Perry’s new, relocated, refurbished, whiz-bang but oh-so-smooth Rockpool, the scale might have been broken permanently and returned a score heavier than all America’s founding fathers, William Shakespeare, the House of Lords, Margaret Thatcher, and Larry Summers combined.

Because lunch at the new Rockpool is indeed a privilege – even if at $79 for three courses, it is not an entirely unswingable one – and a right we Sydneysiders and those who visit Sydney with means and motive must not forget to exercise, or to be grateful for. Especially when it taken in the company of solid fellows like the gent behind Jugernauts, the brains behind Ask Tony Food, and the ubiquitous Simon Leong, all of whom earn a mention for sharing generously and letting the Prick eat off of their plates.

High ceilings, a muted, masculine paint job, a tightly-controlled but entirely non-shouty and very sleek induction-powered kitchen (doesn’t anyone use gas anymore?) behind the cool black-tiled bar, the new Rockpool is an exercise in restraint and rarified calm. It is a big change from both the nearly fluorescent Rockpool of old and the creaky, boozy suburban masculinity of the steakhouse chain the new outlet usurped. Were the Prick more commercial, he’d be doing business lunches here at every opportunity.

There is no view save for Bridge Street, service is friendly but discrete, and well-spaced tables and excellent acoustics mean no other conversations intrude. The diner needs focus on nothing more than the food and his companions, in contrast to some of the city’s high-end harbourside rooms. Local House of Cards devotees might recall Frank Underwood’s observation that “money is a McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart in ten years; power is the stone building that stands for centuries”. What holds in Congress holds in the kitchen, especially in Sydney, where a few long-stayers like Perry survive in a market littered with $2 million fit-outs that soon land in the hands of the receivers. Rockpool is a power place, in every sense.

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The sushi was great, but the avo? Fish out of water.

And Perry is very much there in spirit, even if the kitchen is in the hands of the very capable Phil Wood. Some dishes are starred as “classics”, and of course there is the old Rockpool east-meets-west ethic and love of great product in evidence everywhere. Even the “since 1999” motif on the front window declares continuity: As the man said, if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

Thus a simple plate of chirashi zushi – raw fish with rice – is anything but simple. The rice hides bits of squid and prawn, a little yuzu, and to finish a pinch of kim-chi and just, to borrow from the parlance of over-caffeinated My Kitchen Rules contestants, pops.

Apologies for that, but there really is no other word to describe the sensation: the rice is sweet and briny; the fish melts on the tongue; the Korean pickle at the end, washed down with a glass of gruner veltliner, is bracing and thrilling like the first time you put a 9-volt battery on your tongue as a kid. The only off-note are the slivers of avocado that feel forced, like a too-deliberate reminder of its naughty nineties origins. Slowly but surely abuses like this are forcing the Prick around to Sam de Brito’s position on this over-used ingredient in any location other than guacamole or sandwiches for the Three Little Pricks.  

Other starters are tempting, including a beef tartare tricked up with Chinese black olives, black bean dressing, and really great little prawn toasts almost wins the day but the Prick is a purist on this dish. Stir-fried squid with noodles gets good ratings from down the other end of the table and is, delightfully, served with bibs to protect one’s tailored shirt front a la a New England lobster shack.

Things are not always what they seem on the menu, something that can cause regret as much as reward. The Prick eschewed a main course of suckling pig due to prejudice against the accompanying “shiitake oat porridge” (it’s a texture thing, long story) but the plate is now firmly on the “next time” list.

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Tastes like chicken, but worlds better.

Meanwhile a Burrawong chicken – a bird as different and superior to the nonsense you find in the poultry aisle as the car you reserved for your European holiday is to the one they try and foist on you at the airport – is given the Asian hot pot treatment, including a crock of tea-steamed rice that cooks at table. The produce is stunning, and delicately treated with a fine broth and a little halyard of noodles knotted and stowed underneath, but the presence of the word “Sichuan” on the menu had some of us looking for heat as well as light. Nevermind.

Speaking of menus, don’t go past the sides, particularly the potato “dauphines”: quenelles of potato that have been whipped and worked into a light dough and fried to puffy perfection with a bit of kombu butter for an extra kick. A bowl of these and a beer at the six-seater bar would be a one-man lunch of champions.

For those contemplating dessert, there is really no other choice but the passionfruit soufflé – tell them when you sit down and you can still make your afternoons’ meetings. The entire complement of sweets was consumed by the table, but those who got the little copper pots got the gold. 

Rockpool on Urbanspoon

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Don’t Just Stand There, Do Nothing!

My word I’ve been lousy about posting lately, haven’t I? Sorry folks, there have been a number of other non-culinary projects on the boil including painting half of Stately Prick Manor — an experience the Prick found almost meditative but which anyone else would find as boring as, well, watching paint dry — so there has not been a lot to say over here in the food department.

That said, my latest in the Daily Telegraph may be of interest. The Prick doesn’t like processed food any more than the next inner-west bourgeois bohemian, but expensive government meddling (as in the “star system” to rate products recently axed by the in-strife Fiona Nash) to no result leaves an even worse taste:

Amazingly, however, neither the government nor much of the press is focusing on the most important question in the story. That is, would such a website — or any other star-rating system for food — do any good? …

There’s no question that foods should be labelled so consumers know what they’re getting (and that information is already there).

But nutrition is complex and hardly “settled science”, as anyone who has visited a bookshop and seen titles urging readers to either quit or keep eating sugar side by side can attest. And this is the heart of the matter: just because you offer consumers more information does not necessarily mean you are offering good, or genuinely useful, information.

Reducing the relative healthiness of any particular product to one simple index is near-impossible. An index of nutrition is nothing like a rating to indicate how much power or petrol a new washing machine or automobile might consume. Nor do stars help the millions of Australians who need to avoid particular ingredients such as sugar, salt or allergens.

Under close examination it becomes clear that the axed system had more holes than a block of Swiss cheese. Under the system, it is reported that high-calorie, sugar-laden fruit juices would have received a five-star rating, the best there is.

Would consumers be forgiven for thinking washing down a bowl of poorly rating, highly processed, sugary breakfast cereal with a big glass of the stuff might still average out to a healthy meal?

Read the whole thing, as the saying goes, and have a lovely Friday. The Prick is off to partake in some noms processed by the Big Food empire of Neil Perry. Full report over the weekend.

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Contrabando: It’s Spanish for Speakeasy

Given that the current regime running the show in NSW Parliament House is – with the help of its various aiders and abettors in the press – trying to make having that third glass of wine about as socially acceptable as molesting puppies it is not surprising that those still looking for a good time in Sydney are going underground. Literally.

Which is why it is ultimately not surprising to see the likes of Contrabando enter the game down at an end of town that is slowly but surely becoming an alternative late-ish night precinct for those not wanting to brave the tides of drunken over-titled “managers” on the make at the George Street Hemmes compound. Occupying the old underground Noble House restaurant in Bent Street and run by the same people behind that long-time Prick favourite lunch joint, the street-level Barrafina upstairs, Contrabando carries on the Latin theme but twists it up with a certain slightly seedy (but not at all unpleasant) American Hustle chic. Found via a hard-to-find doorway marked with some very Melbournian graffiti and down a staircase that feels a bit like heading down the back entrance to the Copacabana, Contrabando is a basement bunker that time forgot. In the best of ways.

Food is big and bold and more substantial than all but the biggest bits upstairs, with some real winners: a bright kingfish ceviche and a simple dish of tomatoes let the produce sing, though our table suffered menu envy at our neighbours’ miniature chorizo hot dogs. A prawns and quinoa salad is refreshing and sweet, and is the perfect way for anyone who thinks “ancient grains” are bit … you know … to get over any such complexes.

Skewers of ox heart – shaved thinly so squeamish dates don’t know what they’re getting – taste as all beef should, echoing the great offal chef Fergus Henderson’s near-mysticism about the organ being “the most expressive muscle in any animal”. If there’s any let-down, the accompanying mushroom salad was just screaming to undergo a bit of a quick pickle. Sweets come up trumps, unfussy but cleanly executed without being cloying, and encourage sitting around and extending lunch just that much later.

There’s also plenty of good and interesting booze on tap and, whodathunkit, a really popular El Salvadorian beer (“…you can get it any viejo tiempo…”). And while of course the Prick encourages responsible consumption this really is a place to go for a proper session: Without any giant windows for passing bosses or clients to see through it wasn’t surprising to see a couple of businessmen next door work through some beers, a bottle of wine, and conclude a lunchtime deal on a couple of cognacs. Not sure how much got done back at the office, of course.

Not that Contrabando is just a daytime hideout. Apparently Contrabando has a license to trade until midnight, further solving one of Sydney’s great problems, namely that there is no place to get a decent meal after about 9:30 or so in much of what considers itself to be a “world city”. (One of our great memories of last year’s European bacchanal involves being the only two foreigners at Al Timon on the Cannaregio Canal in Venice and watching locals rock up at nearly midnight – on a Tuesday – for vast platters of bistecca Fiorentina and noting that despite the hour and the booze no one felt the need to drop a “cowie” on anyone else. Politicians never take the right lessons from their European “study tours”.)

Good food, good booze, malas chicas. It’s enough to make a Prick wish he worked in the CBD again.  

Contrabando on Urbanspoon

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