Hands up everyone whose mind went straight to the gutter. Right. Off to the naughty corner with you, because you do not deserve to enjoy this flaky, eggy little flavor bomb of goodness. My little friend here, the Portuguese custard tart from the Oxford Street Bakery is one of the reasons I get through so many podcasts and audiobooks. If you're going to cultivate a serious hungry for these things, and it's almost impossible not to, you’ll need to be spending some time on the treadmill too. These tarts are the preferred food of the blubber eel which is forever trying to take up residence around my tummy regions.
But, one caveat. It’s not really a Portuguese custard tart, is it? Not because it was baked about million miles from the monastery at Santa Maria de Belém, the spiritual home of the Pastel de Nata, but because it’s just all wrong. The pastry is wrong. The egg custard; wrong. The slightly burned skin which is the mark of a true nata? Not even there.
And yet… God help me, I have come to prefer these ones. The sweet, soft crust pastry has a much more predictable consistency and although it lacks the crunch of a properly executed Portuguese custard tart, nor does it suffer from the problems of inconsistency, irregularity and simple shoddy fucking pastry skills which so often ruin the experience elsewhere.
I love these things. They are my treat of the week. From Monday to Friday as I grimly mutter “No bakery treats no bakery treats, step away from the sweet treat cabinet you fool”, it is the prospect of inhaling one on the weekend which keeps me honest. I try to get there early enough to score one fresh from the oven, when they are at their best, with a thin skin barely holding in the gooey just set custard. With a strong coffee they are an almost perfect start to the day.
I’ve always been a fiend for custard tarts. My mother tells me I threw one of my greatest tantrums as a child when I was forced to abandon a half eaten tart to run for a bus, or something. The reason for the abandonment hardly matters, does it? It was principle of the thing.
I still love and appreciate a good, traditional stodgy Anglo tart, with the wide, almost biscuity base and a sprinkling of cinnamon, and I’ll always save room at Yum Cha for the Chinese version – of which there are two types, the Chinese of Macau being influenced by their former colonial overlords from… Portugal. But there is nothing to compare to having one small simple serving of custardy awesome in one hand, and a decent cup of java in the other.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a pack of hefty blokes in possession of a good appetite must be in want of a pork fest. Unconscionably protracted in the planning, painfully abridged in the execution, our night of the suckling pig drew together such a team of these greedy yahoos that its like will ne’er be seen again.
The Night of the Pig was a mission from God. A magnificent obsession. Out there with mad Cap’n Ahab’s hunt for the great white whale or the Man of La Mancha’s crazed charges against enemy windmills. And Don Quixote de la Mancha is no gratuitous classical reference cast like a cultured pearl before you beery swine. Well, actually it is. But it segues really nicely into a consideration of Don Quixote’s House of the Suckling Pig, the centre of the pork-loving universe. Familiar to generations of Sydney movie-goers through its cheap, scratchy, Whitlam-era cinema ads.
The Don caught my eye when some pompous twit of a food critic swanned through to nickel and dime the joint to death. As if I give a fuck about the lack of radicchio and tiramisu. For me, the kicker from that review was the clear impression given that these guys could supply you with more pork than you could possibly eat.
Oh baby, I salivated quietly, racking gut cramps here I come.
My original plan called for twelve good men and true to repair to the The Don’s place to stuff themselves insensible on hot, salty pork while drinking so much Mexican beer that someone would accidentally get a tattoo and join the merchant navy And with but one exception every red-blooded son of Anzac I approached felt as I did, to the universal horror of their girlfriends and heart surgeons, whose eyes bulged at the thought of them gorging on pork until they could gorge no more.
Their neediness was even a little scary. One, a lawyer for a multinational arms conglomerate, suggested hiring a private room where we could eat naked whilst dusky serving wenches scurried hither and yon with tape measures to track the expansion of our waistlines: first to enlarge himself by 20 per cent to win.
As word spread through the city hopeful pig brothers appeared from all corners wanting a piece of the action. Captain Barnes, flew up from Melbourne, avowing that he wouldn’t be happy until his fingertips turned grey from restricted blood circulation due to the massive quantities of hog fat congealing in his bloodstream. Sadly we were to be undone by our own appetites.
Meeting in the Century Tavern above Hungry Jack’s in George Street, we discovered that despite brave words to the contrary the women in our lives had not organised some counter pig night (or Teste-Fest ’98 as one dubbed it). A picnic at Shakespeare in the Park had been mooted. Or a Jane Austen video binge. But despite the tantalising prospect of organising five or six bloke-free hours together at that stupid, interminable Cloud Street play, nothing transpired. After copious hits off the Tooheys Old taps we all agreed this had something to do with girls not being good at sums.
While these weighty deliberations took place, yon editor and photographer inspected the facilities. A couple of thin tweedy-looking college boys – looked like a good fuck and some pork crackling might be the end of them–they were escorted through the voluminous kitchens by Manuel, who’s been with the restaurant for about three hundred years. They were introduced to our own specially selected porker, procured from a secret alpine breeding station, the source of The Don’s succulent white meat for three decades.
All around them other little piggies lay happily marinating in their trays or slowly roasting in the ovens, a process which can take up to six hours. Manuel became very excited by the prospect of another magazine review. His only other brush with fame was a cover story in something like Pig Breeders Monthly, a long time ago. The details are a little hazy due to many schooners of Tooheys Qld warring with the San Miguels I switched to on arrival, the chewy over bite of a cold San Mig being the only possible consort to such a repast.
With the team finally in place at the bar, our sixteen big men blocked all access to and from the body of the restaurant, drawing worried glances from the wait staff and other diners. The Don’s place presented a little like the flagship outlet of an upmarket Alamo-themed restaurant chain; lots of weathered oak and brick and, in the bar, what looked like a couple of wooden cannon bookends untainted by the merest hint of irony. It was the perfect site for an all male meat fest, but I gotta say we didn’t understand all the couples who kept arriving for what were obviously to be romantic dinners. The presence of those few Asian tourists still standing after the regional financial meltdown had sent their tinpot economies back to wholesaling sacks of guano and betel nuts was understandable. They were here by mistake. But surely the locals should know better?
Maybe it had something to do with excellent dating facilities; specifically, The Don’s dance floor on which riotously tipsy thick-waisted hipsters punished the macarena while Zorro’s great-grandson tickled the synth with all the dexterity which his famous forebear deployed in carving his mark into the chests of California’s avaricious landowners.
Waiters who hovered with offers of garlic prawns were dismissed to the kitchens with stern orders to start bringing the carcasses and to keep bringing them until our corrupt and bloated bodies lay groaning on the floor, covered in a thick greasy sheen of glistening lard and faintly creaking as the monstrous volume of meat pressed against straining ribs and taut belly skin.
I don’t think they knew what they were dealing with.
Piles of warm crusty bread rolls arrived but any of the eager juveniles who reached for them were quickly smacked back into line. A big trap for young players. Save space for the pig. The first pig which arrived was laid on the table and I do not exaggerate when I say that its bones had been sucked clean before the somewhat superfluous vegetables arrived two minutes later.
It was around about this point that Manuel, who had previously been the very picture of a genial host, became worried.
‘More pig! More pig!’ we cried. More plates arrived and were cleaned off with ferociously efficient despatch. ‘Ha ha,’ laughed Manuel nervously. ‘We normally get romantic couple in here. They don’t eat so much.’
‘More pig! More pig!’ we cried.
The waiters eyed each other anxiously and began to back away from the table. The horrible truth began to dawn on me. A special alpine breeding station. Six-hour cooking time. A restaurant full of diners all tucking into their meals while we denuded the bar.
Oh. My. Fucking. God.
They were short of pig. Or, more likely, they had enough pig for a normal night but this was most assuredly not a normal night.
All joking aside Manuel,’ muttered Robbie, ‘where’s the rest of the pig, man?’
They were sweating by now. We suggested they might care to scrape the plates of the other diners whose eyes had proven too big for their bellies. I don’t know whether they did this but we were about to do it ourselves when a few more plates turned up.
And in defence of The Don let me say that this was magnificent pig. The best any of us had ever tasted. So keen was Adam Spencer for a few more scraps of its golden goodness that he and Barnes picked clean the skull of the first beast Manuel had laid before us. Eyeballs and all.
But… They were short of pig. We had broken them.
As we spilled out onto George Street a raucous argument broke out over whether we should head back to the Century to drown our sorrows and fill the empty spaces in our pig-loving hearts with Tooheys Old, or whether we should go to Hungry Jack’s first.
There are some places you end up eating the same dish over and over again. Might not even be the stand out feed on the menu. Might be that you alone have trouble getting past this one particular item. Used to be a place up on the north coast did an amazing flash fried spanner crab omelet. They could have just called themselves 'That Omelet Place'. A lot of folks never get beyond the ragout at Enoteca, or the ribs at Crosstown. When I still lived in Darlinghurst, my then girlfriend used to ring Kim Le, a Vietnamese restaurant, every night when she got home from work.
"Hi Kim, it's Heather. Can you send us dinner now?"
And a guy would arrive at the front door fifteen to twenty minutes later with the same order, every night. (Ginger chicken, chili fish, steamed rice, and beef with mushrooms, for the dog).
There's a place in West End, called Viet Hoa, where I never seem to get past the spicy beef noodle soup. It's not that the rest of the menu sucks. Viet Hoa is the goods, and whenever you walk in at least half the customers there are ethnic Vietnamese, which is always a good sign. I first went with young Sam Watson, the poet, shortly after he'd won the David Unaipon Award, and I've always been grateful to Sammy for dragging me into a joint I wouldn't otherwise have bothered with.
It's an unremarkable sight from the footpath. A small corner store, some pot plants to protect a clutch of outside tables. Shiny white tiled floor, in that SE Asian style. Waving cat thingy on the counter. A mix of familair Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, and a bunch of mystery picks. Just one of dozens of nosheries in that part of town.
Ah, but the spicy beef noodle soup. 'Tis a wonder. Worth the drive across the southside for me. It's the master stock that powers this dish, a deep, earthy blend that's been closely guarded by the owner's family for many years. Possibly generations. As you can see from the happy snap there is a generous balance of colour and texture, with lashings of greens as an option for those who swing that way. The beef is soft and falls apart on the tongue, a few spiced chicken dumplings surprise when they pop out from under a basil leaf. The noodles are springy and the chili just the right side of ringing the fire alarm.
But it's the stock which carries this dish. If you're in the mood for hot-n-spicy soup and you're over West End way, you know what you have to do.
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Made the mistake of taking a dip in the pool after my morning workout the other day. The first time I'd done so in about a fortnight. Neither I nor the brass monkey will be doing that again until the end of the year. The first chill winds are nipping at the mornings and it won't be long now before I switch from beer and champagne to red wine.
I recall writing something for Blunty at the start of summer, my annual beer blog, about cheapies if I recall. It was a popular post, as those beery ones always are, but I scored more than the usual fee and the social meeja lovin' from it. A day or two after publication a six pack arrived from the venerable gents of the Burleigh Brewing company. Perhaps because I'd mentioned my fondness for one of their headline brews.
I'd been drawn to it by the artwork on the label. Yes, that shallow. But stayed for the no carb promise. To quote Leonardo Di C in Django Unchained, "You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention". One of the reasons I dont drink much beer is the carb content. A couple of stubs can quickly negate all of my gym work for a day.
Anyway, this summer, I downed more than a few Bigheads without noticable waistline issues, and knocked over a couple of their other tipples for variety. I think Hef, an antipodeon wheat bier, was my second fave, with the '70s style' pale ale, '28' coming in a close third.
I'm also still inching through a mixed carton of James Squire's porters and Amber Ales, left behind after an easter weekend family bbq, which I missed through being in Perth. The remaining porters I'll probably keep for winter, because they go so well with roast pork. The Ambers I quite liked, but once they're gone I'll probably revert to Big Heads for my winter beer needs, which are admittedly modest.
All the rain really fucked up the wet season, didn't it? Normally those first couple of months of the year, January especially, are like my annual drinking holiday. (Which is why come February I'm always a couple of kilos heavier, and in March I'm paying for it at the gym).
I scored a great gig this summer just past when a box of premium dry Rosé wines dropped on my front steps with instructions to 'enjoy'.
I've always been a fan of rosé as a summer drink. The heavy reds are impossible to get down your gullet after the mecury tops 30 plus and even some of the bigger fuck off whites, the chardys especially, can be too heavy to contemplate when you're faced with the usual groaning holiday buffet.
So yeah, I enjoyed. I've been meaning to blog about my faves all summer but wanted to wait until I moved into my new digs here. Below are six the best.
Some of them I'm very familiar with. The Rogers and Rufus is a fave and I tend to have a couple of bottles lying around any time after September. R&R are a coupla mad surfers and fishermen in their spare time (reminding me of a great sig file I used to see all the time when I haunted alt.surfing: I've surfed most of my life. The rest of my time I just sort of wasted). This wine's a dusty dry motherfucker, almost peppery to the tongue, but not rowdy with it. If you're the sort of reckless fool who likes his spanner crab flash fried in a wok and burning with chili, these are the boys to put out the fire for you.
The complete unknown for me, and a new best friend, was the Great Southern from Plantagenet Omrah. It's the darker looking one on the far left. It's a blend of temprenillo and shiraz grapes from WA and it is ay-fucking-mazeballz. I loved this fucking wine and sort of wished they'd just sent me half a dozen of it alone. I'd have been happy. Dry like all the others, with none of the sickly sweet fruity bullshit that defines a lot of truck stop rosé. The fruit's not missing in action. It's still there in hints of cherry and strawberry and shit, but even if you necked the whole bottle yourself, it'd never be too sweet. Not that I would. Oh no. Heaven forfend.
The others? All fab. Not a dud amongst them. The La Croix is a fave with the ladies because... well, the bottle, just look at that thing. That's a work of fucking art that is. And the wine is one of the quiet imports that've been turning up since the Aussie dollar decided to go into orbit and make drinking the French gear a lot more affordable for everyone. As you'd expect from an old French vinyard (est 1882) it's all fucking silky and sophisticumated. And it makes a great water bottle when you're done.
It's an awkward moment, innit? When you've waited way too long for a meal that barely passes muster, and the waiter bimbles up and asks, "So how is everyone enjoying their dinner?"
Normally, if I'm working, ie. reviewing, I murmur some noncommittal pleasantries and change the subject. Most people, I've observed, are loathe to speak their true feelings for fear of giving offense.
Sometimes though, when I'm paying for the meal myself, and I'm particularity aggrieved by the experience I will ask the waitron, "Do you really want to know?"
They don't, but I'll tell them anyway. It's a public service.
We had just such a dinner tonight, not too far from home, in a restaurant I'd previously reviewed a couple of times and which I didn't mind, even though I thought it had ideas above its station. There's nothing wrong with reaching just a little too far in the creative arts, and cooking is sure enough one of those arts. But there's overconfidence and there's arrogance, and once or twice I felt this restaurant shaded into the latter.
Still, many of the dishes were interesting, the wine list was exemplary, and the staff could be very friendly and helpful when the moment took them. It has recently changed hands.
We ate there this evening because Anna had had a tough day, Thomas, who's not always restaurant friendly, was at rugby, it was quiet and we thought to get in and out quickly.
Despite there being only two tables occupied for most of the first hour we were there it took, well, an hour, for the meals to arrive. And when they did arrive they were such a train wreck of practical and conceptual failure that I was glad I wasn't reviewing because I couldn't imagine how to write truthfully about the experience without running the risk of a defamation suit. As I may have mentioned before, the food review pages of a newspaper are the most sued section. It's why I can't name the restaurant here. (And no, it's neither Bar Alto nor Enoteca, both of which do awesome ragu).
Yes, my American friends, as much as I curse your IRS, I still envy your First Amendment.
So. What went right? My two glasses of Curlewis pinot noir were beautiful. Smokey and layered with complex notes of chocolate and old leather. But of course all they did was uncork that bad boy and pour it. Jane's wine, a Soave, was nice, but took an age to order and arrive.
My steak was competently cooked. A rib eye, closer to medium than the medium rare as ordered, but still well rested and very well seasoned.
From there it went downhill. The wilted greens were so dense with salt they were inedible, by which I mean the dictionary definition of the word. I could not eat them. They made me gag and made my face go a funny shape. The small, scalding hot bowl of potatoes and cheese, an attempted au gratin, was likewise difficult to get down, but in this case because of the grotesque oiliness. I ate my protein, and nothing else. So it was at least a healthy meal, and appropriate after a morning in the weights gym.
Anna's goat ragu with Pappardelle was a strange, inconsistent mix of weirdly acidic meat sauce and unevenly cooked pasta. It could have been great, but nothing about the disparate elements of the dish came together. It felt like student cooking.
Jane's consomme was a disaster. Consomme is a delicate broth, a rich clear soup clarified with egg whites to remove particulates and fat. Aria does a remarkable duck consomme, as I recall. (It's been a while). This soup was properly clarified but utterly tasteless. And bizarrely it was served with gnocci. Why bizarre? Because there is nothing about potato dumplings which lends themselves to this dish. The soup, being thin, will not adhere to the dumplings, coating them with a thick, tasty sauce. Perhaps if they were cooked in the broth and thus infused with its flavours... but of course this broth had no flavor. So Jane was left with potato balls in brown water. Mmm. Nom nom.
It was bad enough to be amusing. Eating so much for work I have the luxury of being thus amused, where most people would just be pissed off they'd wasted their hard earned money.
I was hoping to finish my steak, sneak way from the accompanying sides, and never return.
But then the waitress asked how we were enjoying the meals. I didn't even ask my usual question, giving her an out. "Do you you really want to know?"
No, for whatever reason, I just launched into a shorthand review, telling her what I've just told you, but in kinder, gentler terms. She looked horrified. Fixing a shit eating grin on her face she asked the others how they 'liked' theirs. Jane was evasive. Anna lied. God bless her. She doesn't like to hurt people's feelings.
We paid and left. I doubt we'll return.
It did make we wonder though, how do people who don't eat for a living handle it when they've been served a plate full of shit. Do you tell the truth? Or do you just mumble something and flee.
45 Responses to ‘So what do you do when the meal is bad?’