Guerrilla Garden Bounty

The best part of growing a garden is harvesting more than you can eat in a single sitting. It’s easy to see how harvest festivals started with a seemingly endless bounty of food in a few scant weeks of ripeness.

Guerilla Garden Tomatoes, Melbourne

The bucket of “Tommy Toe” heirloom tomatoes is hardly endless but the tomatoes have completely subsumed the entire garden. Originally there were four varieties of tomato in there, but I’ve only managed to harvest two.

Guerilla Garden, Melbourne

Somewhere beneath are some suffering cucumbers, an eggplant that has borne a single fruit and a capsicum that has done nothing. I should have planned for this to happen. Just for comparison, below is how the garden looked in winter, detailed in the earlier guerrilla garden post. Neat rows, nothing untoward.

the garden

Gong Xi Fa Cai, Rendang

Dragon dancer

Another year, another chance for lion dancers to molest the unwary.

lion dance

The risk of a lion dancer catching aflame grows each year.

A hanging lettuce

The hanging iceberg lettuce attracts them. Welcome to the Chinese New Year.

I had a vague plan to hit up some dumpling joints but was derailed by a newish Malaysian place: Old Town Kopitiam. It looks much like the gentrified coffee shops in Kuala Lumpur with shiny marble table tops, uncomfortable stools and dark timber aplenty. Maybe they’re not just a clone of the Old Town Coffee but a real franchisee? On the upside, the menu reads like Malaysia’s greatest culinary hits: bah kut teh, , , rendang, cendol. Their char kway teow comes with the option of bonus clams which is always a good sign. And they’re all priced in the pre-millennium sub-$10 a plate range.

Nasi Lemak, Old Town Kopitiam
The nasi lemak ($8!) is a bit short on the coconut but has the crispiest ikan bilis (fried anchovies) possible. The beef rendang was collapsing under its own weight, thick with actual herbs and spices rather than something that had come from a can.

They were fresh out of . All the more reason to go back.

Location: 195 Little Bourke St, ,

Red Emperor, Melbourne

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Har gau from Red Emperor, Melbourne

I always thought that only tourists ate on Southbank.

It’s the wrong side of the river for me; that strange cultural divide that bisects wherein both sides can say that the other is the morally and culturally wrong side. Since the Casino that dominates the south bank of the Yarra is now taking restaurants more seriously than ever, it is time to reevaluate my prejudices. Southgate, the slightly earlier development on the river still looks like a soulless, polished shopping mall but maybe the food within has changed.

Red Emperor, the Cantonese restaurant within the Southgate complex, is showing its age. The mirrored tiles on the roof, cheap vinyl seats and silver spray-painted concrete columns make the restaurant feel more like a suburban reception centre than one of Melbourne’s leading proponents of Cantonese food (and specifically, yum cha). The superlative view of Flinders Street Station and Melbourne’s skyline from across the Yarra remains unchanged; floor to ceiling windows lend ample distraction from the interior.

Yum cha means “drink tea” in Cantonese. Dim sum is what you eat at yum cha. Yum cha is what you do at Red Emperor. I’ve never ordered much more than a plate of stir-fried gai lan or an extra serve of fried squid from their menu. My guess is that if the gai lan is A$22 a plate, then the rest of their à la carte fare will require me to promise them my first-born in exchange for one of the lobsters crowding their tanks at the entrance.

Red Emperor Squid, Melbourne
Salty, fried squid tentacle.

I’ve never set foot in the place after dark. Lobster before noon is morally reprehensible.

As a midday meal, yum cha is more about the company that you keep than the food itself. It is built to be social: the most memorable yum cha meals should have very little to do with the food. Bamboo steamer baskets filled with mystery dumplings waft by on a trolley for your pleasure, you pick whichever takes your fancy, and then get back to the real task of constructing a conversation. Memorable dumplings help but are not essential.

At least since the last time I’d eaten at Red Emperor, the more interesting items that drift by on the trolley have vanished. The pickles, slices of 100-year old egg, and the cartilaginous steamed chicken’s feet have disappeared. I thought that Melbourne was well past gentrifying its , but in this case, I guess not.

The quality of dumplings – while still good – is only marginally better than you’d receive at one of the mid-range yum cha-focused joints around the CBD, like Westlake, Shark Fin House or Shark Fin Inn. Trekking out to the suburb of Box Hill is even better. At $40-ish a head, you’d get better value elsewhere and charging $8 for tea, normally gratis, is a bitter end to the meal.

Anyhow, on with the short depth of field dumpling porn.

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Har gau (North); Random seafood roll (East); “Shark’s Fin” dumpling, not containing actual shark’s fin (South); Siu Mai (West).

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Sin Chet Kuen: Beancurd skin rolls stuffed with prawn and shitake mushrooms.

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Char Siew Sou: Flaky pastry topped with sesame seeds, filled with sweet red roast pork. My friend J uses these salty-sweet pastries as his yardstick for a good dumpling joint, which makes sense. Both an excellent pastry and top roast pork are hard to achieve, not to mention plating them up to the punters steaming hot.

Red Emperor, Melbourne
Tentacle.

Location:
Level 3 Southgate,
Southbank, VIC 3006
Tel: (03) 9699-4170

Lunch: Mon – Sat 12 to 3pm, Sun 11 to 4pm
Dinner: 6pm onwards, daily

Charcuterie fetish object

Diecast Meat Slicer

At the Art Deco exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria I noticed a diecast meat slicer made by Hobart that looked as if it was developed for the charcuterie needs of 1950s astronauts. I immediately wondered if anything of the like was available in my price range. The answer is not even remotely.

But I did find the above on Ebay for $15.

Despite a nice patina of wear, the blade remains sharp. It slices through home-made bacon with ease. It shaves salami in thin, papery slices. It has a degree of difficulty that makes it a danger to use; a little like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time while holding a fistful of razor blades in one hand and a ham in the other. In other words, my idea of a perfect utensil.

Diecast Meat Slicer, clamp detail
Detail of the clamp. I like that the designers added an overhanging lip that secures the meat slicer to the edge of the table.

DSC_0865

I’d love to know any more details out there about this diecast meat slicer. Beneath the slicer the imprint reads:

Automatic Production Limited
Diecasters
Repetition & Manufacturing
Engineers

Brompton
Adelaide
SA

Registered Design No. 42073

There is no date, but I’d take a guess from the fonts used on the side of the slicer that it is from the 50s.

Little Creatures, Fitzroy: Invasion from the West

There is only one thing that can turn me off the citrus-y and floral pale ales of Little Creatures Brewery and that is the music of Collette Roberts. Her ode to campanology was blaring across the industrial Viking beer hall that brewery Little Creatures have infested in Fitzroy in Melbourne as I entered.

When did 1987 become cool? Am I getting that old? Or is this just a musical taste of Perth-ness from across the Nullabor?

I had never wondered what had happened to Collette after her career of impersonating Kylie Minogue came to an abrupt end. If you’re keen to find out, you can hire her from modeling agency Real Faces and ask her in person whether it is in Western Australia alone that her music never died.

Along with poor choices of soundtrack, Little Creatures make sublime American pale ales in their brewery in Western Australia; the sort of beers that feel like the hops monster has burrowed into your sinuses and deposited its fragrant and addictive spawn. Their immaculate waterfront brewery is the only valid reason to go to Fremantle, but now that a piece of that has been transported to inner Melbourne, what’s the point of Fremantle altogether?

Their space in Fitzroy bears a remarkable similarity to their converted boatshed in WA: a cavernous open warehouse serving up good value pub food along with their ales. The only thing missing is their stainless brewing tanks and ready access to the sea. I’d swear that the menu and wine list is the same but with the addition of pies. I might be wrong.

So I had a pie, just in case.

Pie from Little Creatures, Fitzroy

Chunky meat pie, peas, mashed potato glue substitute, super-salty coleslaw. Thin gravy.

Little Creatures, Fitzroy

As for the beer, their pale ale, amber ale, pilsener and bright ale come from the tap as freshly as it does straight from the brewery door. There is no trace of oxidation, the hops are as bright and clean as if the beer was being poured straight from the tank. They come in three sizes: pony ($3), pot ($4) and weirdo-not-quite-a-pint-but-larger-than-schooner ($6.50). There is probably a Western Australian term for this beer size.

I’m going to call it the Collette.

Little Creatures Dining Hall
Address: 222 Brunswick St, Fitzroy, Melbourne.

Cold smoking at home: Convert your Weber for $10

I seem to have infected my friends with the charcuterie virus.

What started with the occasional foray into a simple pork and garlic sausage is now ending in converting garden sheds into full-sized smokehouses to smoke lanjager and prosciutto. I had a recent discussion about the feasibility of airing ham beneath your average Australian home. It’s utter madness. The only thing that keeps my psychosis from blossoming is limited space in my apartment.

A limitation that I’m learning to overcome with ingenuity.

Converting your BBQ into a cold smoker

Cold smoking (smoking foods below 37°C/100°F) can be achieved through a few different methods: lighting a fire in large room to disperse the heat; cooling the smoke on the way into wherever you are hanging the food to be smoked; or generating as little heat as possible to create smoke. Smokehouses are the first tactic some of which include refrigeration to cool the smoke on the way in. Various barbecue forums mention using trays filled with ice to cool your backyard smoker (or smoking outside in the snow, further north), which constitutes the second method. The third method just needs a hot and very concentrated heat source

All you need to provide that heat is a brand new soldering iron ($9.99!). An empty tin can with the lid still partially attached will suffice for a smoke box, along with sawdust and a barbecue with a lid. A Weber-style kettle barbecue is ideal. Don’t use an old soldering iron: lead solder and food do not mix.

Cold smoking with a soldering iron

Punch a hole in the tin can, stick the soldering iron in and fill the can about a third full of clean sawdust. Turn on the soldering iron and smoke away. That’s all. I burnt the can over an open flame just in case it was lined with a lacquer but I doubt that it was.

The smoker maintained temperature in the barbecue at 18 degrees Celcius (64°F), 4 degrees above the ambient temperature. At that temperature, it’s cold enough to smoke butter. After two hours, two thirds of the handful of sawdust had burnt down to charcoal suggesting that for longer smoking, the smoker will need to be refilled with sawdust every three hours or so.

Smoking Coon Cheese: Tasty

My test cheese to cold smoke, alleged to be “Australia’s tastiest cheese”; definitely Australia’s most inadvertently racist cheese. I used hickory sawdust.

Cold smoker

After two hours, the cheese had taken on a heavy hickory smoke flavour but hadn’t developed the reddish color that comes from longer smoking. It is by far the best thing that can happen to Coon cheese.

More testing to come.

Mekong on Swanston St: The meaty taste of disappointment

Mekong on Swanston Street, Melbourne

I’m starting to become accustomed to the sense of betrayal that I feel after eating once again at old favourites in Melbourne. Most continue to please (or at least, meet expectations). But Mekong on Swanston Street in , to use more common language, has gone to shit.

Well before I left Australia for Cambodia, Mekong on Swanston St was my reliable lunch joint. I’d worked my way through every offal-packed variation on their basic beef (bo) and chicken (ga). The stock was shining example of pho in Australia: both meaty (which is the key to Australian-style pho) and evenly spiced with star anise and cinnamon. Week to week, there was no variance. At a rough estimate, I would have spent between one and two thousand dollars at Mekong over the years.

It became my yardstick for a damn good bowl of phở; the sort of joint that you would recommend to newcomers to Melbourne to whet their appetite for the more challenging journey into suburban . Their staff had a vindictive shirtiness that was always refreshing. A friend often described one of their staff members as a “malign dwarf” but it came from a warm place in his heart.

But no more.

Phở from Mekong, Swanston St, Melbourne

These days the pho at Mekong is like your average oil rig worker: big, meaty and covered in grease. The subtlety has disappeared; the serving sizes seem more gargantuan. The restaurant is still as packed as ever.

Bill Clinton had two bowls

Also, the mention that “Bill Clinton had two bowls” is a lie. He ate two bowls at Pho 2000 in Saigon, Vietnam and has never set foot in Mekong in Melbourne. Unless he had two bowls sent up to him on one of speaking engagements in Melbourne, Bill Clinton did not eat two bowls of this particular pho.

Location: Mekong Restaurant, 241 Swanston St, Melbourne, Australia

Vue De Monde, Melbourne

When Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future Yet Come decides to take me out to dinner, he’d probably take me to Vue De Monde to wallow amongst the Baby Boomer dugongs in suits and pearls. That crystalline vision into how my life would transpire if I spent the next twenty odd years focusing upon crapulence would scare me much more than a pauper’s grave.

It did scare me.

This is no fault of Shannon Bennett’s, the oft lauded chef behind the restaurant frequently name-dropped as the best restaurant in Australia.

The only thing that Bennett has left lacking from Vue de Monde is a sense of pomposity. If you were fresh from doing the rounds of France’s most ostentatious eateries I’m not sure whether this would delight or disappoint. The room at Normanby Chambers in Little Collins St, Melbourne is lit with bare strings of oversized, chromed bulbs, the focus of the entire room being upon the open kitchen with mirror above the staff doing the plating. The architectural message is that you’re there for the food and for the front-of-house theatrics that accompany it.

(The Laguiole silverware is a little pompous but much like a Hard Rock Café, it is available for purchase in the gift shop. The fish fork would be a handy piece of equipment for aerating compost.)

It isn’t the level of service that sets apart Vue de Monde but its distinctiveness. It is not a slavish attentiveness that is confused for service at many a fine dining establishment but the ability of staff to have some agency in their roles. If I was making a bad decision in choosing a wine or dish or attempting to customise something to meet my foolish caprices, I get the feeling that Vue De Monde’s crew would tell me that I’m making a grave mistake in no uncertain terms rather than an obsequious “has Sir considered the…”-type suggestion.

The egalitarian service is the most Australian element of the whole experience but does rest upon retaining and training the best of staff, the people that you can rely upon to chat comfortably about how a thermomixer works or the technique used to turn parmesan into a rough sand. Delicious, delicious sand. There is no menu; you submit yourself to the whims of those service staff. They can be steered in a particular direction but the absolute and final control over your food is out of your hands. They chose:

Amuse bouche: A single cos lettuce leaf containing a smear of jamon paste and a sous-vide quail egg balanced atop a wine glass half filled with silky ham consommé and pea foam.

Plate of salmon from Vue De Monde, Melbourne

Salmon attacked from all sides: smoked, sliced, jerked, creamed; some sort of dried fish foam (salted cod, perchance?) and a frankly superfluous layer of gelatinized something. There is caviar and micro-herbage. Cubes of fried sourdough on each end.

Mushrooms: tubes of liquified Swiss Brown (?), slightly gummy and al dente on the outside but squirting silky shroom juice from within; with pan-fried shimeji (?) and slices of eringi(?); tarragon emulsion. My mushroom identification skills would kill me in an unforgiving forest.

Gel canneloni, serrano ham and parmesan sand from Vue De Monde, Melbourne

Gel cannelloni with powdered parmesan cheese and olives; two perfectly ripe cherry tomatoes topped with their own dried skin; some respectable Serrano ham. Where the hell do you get a tomato this impeccable and ripe in winter? I love technique; the mix of industrialisation of food (gel) with small-producer artisanship (ham). It also seems to look like an in-joke about hot dogs, to which I am obviously not averse.

Foie gras, frozen in liquid nitrogen then powdered in a thermomixer, served cold with a dash of “Thai” curry sauce (poured at the table) and three flawless nasturtium leaves. I wish that I could get dispensation for punching people every time that they call a curry “Thai” because it contains coconut milk. But the foie gras, melting on the tongue, is awe-inspiring and smooth like chocolate.

Cold shot of verjus with hibiscus tea, served in a martini glass.

Toro and tuna ceviche from Vue De Monde, Melbourne

A dainty square of toro on a perfect corn puree; tuna ceviche topped with glass noodles soaked in a lightish soy, shredded fennel(?) and something else green. All surrounded by tuna bone stock and butter. A microdot of sesame salt on the side. By this point my palate is pretty much shot from all the permutations of fat.

Hare: two slices of hare loin on pureed, roasted garlic; a gamy hare jelly; yeast foam; a sourdough lattice. More microherbs.

We skipped out on dessert. I would possibly have burst an internal part. My stomach is still not well trained back into ingesting huge quantities of high fat, Western food. I walked out feeling like somebody had inflated a balloon full of rich creamery butter within me. I’m still recovering.

Probably the only complaint that I could muster was the umami-ness of nigh on everything; all playing on the centre and back of the palate rather than forcing anything to the edges of sour, astringent or bitter. I could have probably specified against this in advance. I’m sure that if you’re a much bigger aficionado of French cuisine, you’d pointy out that I’m missing much of the subtlety but the effect of having so much umami does feel like the chefs aren’t painting from the full palette available to them.

Price: we ate and drank at roughly the speed of $1 per minute per person, for three hours. You do the math.

Location: Vue de Monde, 430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, Australia
Phone: +61 3 9691 3888.