Just to expand my repertoire from writing about food, an article that I wrote back in early June is up at Wall Street Journal on my bike ride across the Mornington Peninsula and the Red Hill Rail Trail, south east of Melbourne. I, of course, ate and drank my fill as I went – beers from Red Hill Brewery, various pinots and shiraz, wild mushrooms from Merrick’s General Store, local bread and cheese. No pics from me, just words.
Yes, I’m going a bit nuts on the Vina diacritics.
The equation that can’t be avoided when you travel for food is the one where you compare Third World prices to First World and try to account for the differences, offseting rent, ingredient quality and labour. It is a fun but fruitless diversion. The above bánh xèo from Quan Đình Sơn, next to Saigon Supermarket in Footscray is $10 for a crepe the size of your forearm. A full cubit of bánh xèo.
$10 would buy 16 plates of bánh xèo from my local market in Cambodia but it wouldn’t buy one this good. Once again, my weekend phở trip gets derailed.
Đình Sơn’s is packed with shelled prawns and slices of fatty pork. The crepe skirts the border of crispy and chewy. It’s rich and coconut-y. The side plate of cos and butter lettuce, used for rolling up chunks of the crepe and dipping in the sweet dipping sauce nước chấm, is generous and refilled as I plough through it. There isn’t much else in the way of distraction in the restaurant: the obligatory TV is on the blink; there’s barely enough mirrored tiles to form an entrancing hall of mirrors; their shrine is perfunctory. Shoppers pass on the way into Saigon Supermarket and pick up meals to go from the bain marie.
The menu boasts about a hundred Chinese and Vietnamese dishes but the key here is to order from the corkboard just below the plastic menu board which contains a few kho dishes, dry fried noodles and the bánh xèo, written up in permanent marker.
Location: Shop 1, 63 Nicholson Street (cnr Byron St), Footscray VIC 3011
It’s probably no great surprise that I’m a sucker for seasonal beers: they’re a key diversion for the neophiliac drinker. They give brewers the chance to bring their wilder experiments to market without the threat of destroying the good name of a brewery. If they’re a disastrous mistake, at least it is fleeting. If the beer is a success, you’ll have an excruciating wait until next year.
Monteith’s Doppelbock Winter Ale is back in season; it is a rich, malty and alcoholic ale that is out of style, if you’re a beer purist. It is not a doppelbock by any stretch of the imagination (a “A very strong and rich lager” according to the BJCP style guidelines), so I’m not sure why the doppelbock deception made its way onto the diminutive 330ml bottle. Frankly, I can’t say the word “doppelbock” often enough, armed with the knowledge that it translates as double-goat from German, so I can understand their conceit.
Monteith’s say: “A profound enveloping winter beer. Monteith’s Doppelbock Winter Ale is a smoothly rich beer with a dense head, a powerful aroma, and chocolatey malt notes ñ the perfect way to cheer yourself up this winter. ”
I say: Is it legal to say that beer cures seasonal affective disorder? In the glass, this faux-doppelbock bears a striking resemblance to Coca-Cola, brownish-black and thin. Dull aroma and a fading head, like an elderly uncle. The flavour is heavy on the malt with a touch of allspice. In previous seasons, Monteith’s was producing a more intriguing and richer brew than this from their New Zealand brewery. They can do better in the coming seasons.
I had grand plans to work my way through the phở of the Melbourne suburb of Footscray, bucket-sized bowls of beef soup every weekend, but never quite got there. There are no less than 20 phở establishments within easy walking distance but every time that I kick things off, I get the nagging feeling that it is just not worth the effort. Phở in Melbourne is above average. Terrible phở is the exception (but not impossible to find). Brilliant phở only exists in people’s homes.
I’d love to be proven wrong.
You’ll never find a rich, herbal phở on the streets of Melbourne. The herbage that accompanies usually will only stretch to basil with the occasional appearance of mint. Sawtooth coriander, ngo om (rice paddy herb), or any other miscellaneous herb that could differentiate an outstanding bowl of phở, while widely available across Melbourne, never make it into a phở restaurant. The broths are beefy but the spice is toned down. The meat in each bowl is great – a big step above the Saigon street corner – but it can’t carry the dish.
Chu The has two outlets: one in Richmond, the other in the dead centre of Footscray, opposite the market. The Footscray joint is packed, all the time. Their phở bo dac biet (beef special), above, is sweet and umami. A few glassy fingers of tendon are glassy and cooked to rubbery perfection but it is otherwise much of the same.
The damage: small bowl of phở bo dac biet: A$7.50
Location: 92 Hopkins St, Footscray
Unless you’ve been bound up in real news in Australia (e.g. remember Iraq? there’s still a war there), you’ve probably heard the words Gordon Ramsay Lesbian Tracy Grimshaw combined in some unholy fashion with great density. Chef Gordon Ramsay has been in town, stirring up the sort of misogyny that could only be surpassed by a visiting rugby team.
The media is loving it and milking it for a full week of coverage. The Prime Minister has weighed in saying Ramsay’s comments’ “as reflecting a new form of low life” which left me wondering what were the older forms of low life that are of concern to an Australian Prime Minister? Libertines? Footpads? Mountebanks?
Generally when you meet chefs or see them interviewed, their obsession with the minutiae of ingredients and the process of transforming those ingredients into food is evident and inescapable. Any attempt to interview them about nigh on any other topic eventually gets steered back to eating. What is most dismaying about Ramsay’s flight through town is his lack of focus on food and the media’s lack of care.
He’s planning to open an outlet of his Maze restaurant in Melbourne in the Crown Casino complex, and it hardly rated a mention by himself or anyone else. Odds on bets are that it will be doing haute tapas as it does in Cape Town and New York which will lead to an inevitable showdown with Movida. Anchovies at high noon. It is opening in the middle of an economic downturn. These are compelling food stories and they’re not being told. Ramsay seems to be too busy telling dick jokes to talk about food.
This is the outcome of food and television. Food plays a backdrop to human drama rather than a central focus because food alone makes for bad television. To be sure, television can mirror the soft-focus porniness of food magazines or blogs – the panning shots of a steaming meal, wide vistas of a cornucopia of ingredients – but to draw and keep an audience it needs narrative drive.
The narrative of food alone is either recipes or the path from living animal or vegetable to the plate. You could tell these stories almost without human intervention. By themselves, neither of these narratives are engaging because for the former, we’ve had almost 70 years of the “stand and cook” model of recipe TV to be oversaturated and for the latter, most of the public still don’t want to know from whence their food came. If you eat food with a head on it, you’re amongst the minority.
This is how we end up in a situation where we have food television without food. Human drama is the driving force behind food television. It seems that (in Australia, at least), we want chefs who say “fuck” to camera (Ramsay) or game shows (Masterchef). Nobody wants to see the prep chef peeling potatoes in the basement. The prep chef is only intriguing when she knifes someone.
Most telling of this whole foofaraw is a comment by Jason Atherton, one of Ramsay’s chefs, who is also in Melbourne at the moment presumably to begin staffing Maze. In Hospitality Magazine, he mentions:
“Atherton said Gordon Ramsay will spend as much time at the Melbourne restaurant “as the concept needs him”.”
It’s similar to McDonald’s: the concept needs the clown Ronald to make the occasional appearance. (At least, it used to). Gordon Ramsay’s primary qualification is no longer chef, it’s television presenter; the provider of drama against a food backdrop. He still needs the pretence that he cares about food lest the whole edifice and concept behind his restaurants crumble. The concept needs celebrity to survive and give it sustenance. It needs celebrity to somehow differentiate itself and draw in the punters who would never otherwise throw down a hundred dollars for a meal.
It no longer needs food.
Sorry I’ve been a bit light on providing content over the past few weeks, I’ve been busy elsewhere, in a frenzy that sounds lke it comes straight from the kitchen of a Wes Anderson film. At SBS, I’ve been writing on those interlinked topics of mince and chicken tikka lasagne from Iceland. I am still flying a mouldering Cambodian flag back at my other Cambodian food blog, a habit that I can’t escape. As a snapshot of my domestic life, I took an annotated photograph of my refrigerator for the world’s greatest food blog, Gut Feelings. It is a sad indictment of my current lack of regular eating habits and a reminder that I should buy a refrigerator less than two decades old.
In the real world, last weekend, I rode a bicycle around the Mornington Peninsula in service of the Wall Street Journal (article forthcoming), just to prove that pinot and physical exercise are not diametrically opposed pastimes.
I’m not sure where or how any of these disparate strands tie together but they certainly don’t make for coherent food blogging.
Having Austin around did act as a handy reminder of the unparalleled diversity of food in Melbourne. For example, I live in a suburb dominated by two of the most disparate of the world’s cuisines: Ethiopian and Vietnamese. As I wander about a market named after an English monarch, I snack on Turkish (or maybe, Balkan(?)) street food because I can’t help myself.
This borek is a spicy lamb-filled pastry, baked in flat rows on a tray, on site at the Queen Victoria Market. Served hot, the oil oozing from the pastry burns through the paper bag. They also do spinach and cheese, which compared to the lamb, is almost superfluous.
A decent length of borek still retails for $2.50; one of the great Melbourne bargain street foods.