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Review - Ribs & Burgers

Remembering my 2013 visit to Ribs & Burgers in Neutral Bay with reasonable fondness, I popped back in earlier this week for a dinner with a South African mate. He likes this spot because it tastes like home, but he was still surprised to find out it’s the entry-level outlet for the South African-run Seagrass Boutique Hospitality Group, who also own Meat & Wine Co. We’re all here for eight-hour slow cooked ribs which we try in two different varieties. The boys go for the Pork Baby Back Ribs ($34.90/large) with chips.

I hit up the Pork St Louis Ribs ($19.90) and received a free upsize to large, opting for the apple cabbage salad. This side salad  combines chunky red cabbage, apple, pine nuts and herbs in a vinaigrette. We also order some Crispy Onion Rings ($5.90) on the side, which arrive with our meals, though the chips and salad are nowhere to be seen. While staff were friendly and rectified the error upon prompting, it would have been nicer to eat our whole meal together.

Overall I detected a big slump in quality – the pork baby back ribs were dry, with an over-sweet marinade. The pork St. Louis ribs fared slightly better because they’re a bit fattier coming from the belly side of the rib cage. The smokier marinade had a bit more vinegar in it, making it less sweet and more pleasant to eat.

The thinly battered onion rings were my meal highlight, and made for a great drinking snack against Young Henrys Newtowner ($9) beer. When the chips finally arrived we accompanied them with dipping sauces, which were almost universally terrible. The creamy Chimichurri ($2) got my worst sauce of the night award. Ranch ($2) wasn’t much better. The Chilli Sauce ($2) was tolerable, but there are plenty of better chilli sauces out there.

Next time I want ribs, I think I’ll skip Ribs & Burgers, which seems to have become the domain of average food and families with lots of young, noisy kids.

Ribs & Burgers
Shop 3, 19-25 Grosvenor Street, Neutral Bay
Ph: (02) 9904 5774

Ribs & Burgers Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Review - Masala Darbar

Masala Darbar make one doozy of a dosa. The Masala Dosa ($12) here is nearly fifty centimeters long. The thin crepe is crisp, with semolina giving it slightly more body than most. There’s a hint of sourness from the batter’s fermentation, and a crushed spicy potato interior that’s both salty and savoury. Against a small pot of dhal for dipping, spicy garlic and onion chutney for smearing, and coconut chutney to give it a coastal, Southern Indian feel, it kicks butt for vegetarian food.

This is hardly surprising though, Head Chef Subramani Kandhasamy has had a small but popular vegetarian restaurant in Liverpool, called Sri Annapoorna, for almost a decade. He has now brought his considerable talent (and 46 years of cooking experience, both here and abroad) to bear in a new entry to Cleveland Street called Masala Darbar.

It goes into a highly competitive strip, with a number of established Indian restaurants including the cafeteria-like Maya Vegetarian, Maya Da Dhaba, Lal Qila and the one with the fancy chairs, Holy Cow. While road dust from the heavy traffic makes the front of the restaurant a bit lacklustre, the interior is clean, modern and monotone; lit by dangling Edison bulbs.

The only colour in the room comes from the occasional colour photo in a tightly packed row of framed photos depicting Indian scenes.

You’ll also find colour on the plates, with bright yellow cubes of Paneer Shashliq ($13.50) charred in the tandoor oven and dragged through mint raita. There’s no heat in this vegetarian dish, making it perfect for those who like to avoid chilli.

The cow is also sacred at Masala Darbar, so you won’t find it on the menu. That’s not to say it isn’t an extensive menu anyway – spanning 3 pages, there are more than 18 types of dosa, 13 vegetarian mains, 9 chef’s specialty dishes, and 4 South Indian specialty dishes… the list goes on and on. We opt for a South Indian Chettinadu Goat Curry ($17) and are very glad we did. The thick, rich and satisfying gravy clings to plump goat leg cross-sections, which are kept on the marrowbone to add even more flavour. Aromatic curry leaves are the curry’s biggest note, the rest is a well-integrated blend of onion, tomato, cinnamon, fennel seeds, turmeric, coriander, cumin seeds, black cardamom and red chilli powder. It’s got good heat, but leaves my mouth enlivened rather than assaulted when eaten on Jeera Pulao ($4.90), an aromatic rice dish with cumin seeds.

We juxtapose it with Sambaar ($10) another South Indian dish. It’s a summery, light and soupy vegetarian dish that’s a good counterpoint to the richer curry. Tart tamarind is the dominant note, so it cuts the fat very well when you dangle your Garlic Cheese Naan ($4) through it.

Glistening with a nicely tempered garlic oil, this surprisingly fluffy cheese stuffed naan is the best garlic and cheese naan I’ve tried; and I’ve eaten this naan at nearly every Indian restaurant I’ve reviewed across the last decade.

Masala Darbar proved to be a real standout because of the talented and experienced chef. They're currently BYO as they await our bumbling bureaucracy's liquor licensing approval, so load up on beers and come and enjoy an exceptional South Indian curry.

Masala Darbar
460 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills
Ph: (02) 9310 4106

Masala Darbar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Travel - The Laneway Cafe Iluka

In my house we don’t eat McDonald's, KFC, Hungry Jack's, Red Rooster, Subway or any of the other fast food giants that litter this country’s major highways. This makes road trips a little more complicated, because while it's easier to acquiesce and eat junk, I try to hunt down real food (and no, I don’t mean Oliver’s Real Food). What makes me happiest is finding a small regional gem like The Laneway Cafe in the tiny coastal town of Iluka...

Set at the mouth of the Clarence River, Iluka is home to just under 2000 people. It’s a 36 kilometre round trip to The Laneway Cafe for lunch, but it's well worth the effort. While it doesn’t look like much from the front, the narrow laneway opens up into a relaxed, covered garden setting.

For owners Aaron Moon and Kieran Mutimer, The Laneway Café was part of a 'quieter lifestyle' choice, just over 3.5 years ago. They’re currently trotting out breakfast, lunch and Saturday night dinners, including the odd degustation. The succinct lunch menu contains just six dishes, plus a Prawn Salad ($17.50) special that hooked me at their on-street signboard. Promising fresh prawn meat, bamboo shoots, purple beans and mixed leaves, it proved even better than I imagined. The produce is top notch, starting with the tender, freshly prepared Moso bamboo shoots. The purple beans are fabulous, and I appreciate the prawn meat being removed from the shell. It’s all tied together with a great Thai-style dressing that's good enough to see me dragging my leaves through it to mop it all up.

I’m also pleased to note only one of the dishes on the lunch menu is a traditional sandwich. We pass it over in favour of Spicy Sichuan Chicken ($18.50) presented with lovely lightly pickled cucumbers, steamed local rice, and a bowl of mixed leaves. There’s great heat in this dish, and the portion size is perfect for lunch. The short menu is also weighted heavily towards vegetarians, with three of the six dishes containing no meat or seafood.

As we’re back to hitting the highway after lunch, we drink an Allpress Iced Coffee ($6) and an Organic Ginger Wort ($4) without even looking at their wine list. I’d happily come back to assess it properly though.

The Laneway Cafe Iluka
Shop 3, 63 Charles Street, Iluka
Ph: (02) 6645 7022

Laneway Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Event - Ham Season

With ham season upon us, you might be throwing your hands up in the air not knowing how to approach this important purchase. Buying your celebratory leg of ham feels like making a considerable outlay. Picking the wrong ham can put a dampener on your family’s special day, especially when you consider the long weeks ahead where you’ll be eating it in sandwiches, with salad, and in that eventual ham soup.

This year I joined Australian Pork Limited in Colin Fassnidge’s restaurant, 4Fourteen, for an event designed to take the guesswork out of sourcing a great tasting Australian ham.

A trio of three judges - fleischmeister Horst Schurger, and chefs Paul McDonald and Simon Bestley – spent two days taste testing more than 140 ham entries from across the country. They rank the hams on appearance, aroma, texture and taste, and come up with a state-by-state short list of Australia’s best ham.

At this event, the gathered food media also had the opportunity to taste and rank the country’s top traditional bone-in and boneless hams in a blind tasting.

Coincidentally my two favourites “number 9” and “number 2” aligned with the top two hams chosen as the People’s Choice Award winners. The best boneless ham was by South Australia’s Saint Meat Quality Butchers, which had a lovely balanced smoky flavour, without too much salt. My favourite bone-in ham was by Noosa Meat Centre, Queensland, and it had the perfect texture, and well flavoured fat.

According to the judges, Australia’s Best Boneless Ham is made by Pingelly Quality Meats in the tiny West Australian town of Pingelly, about one-and-a-half hours east of Perth. While bone-in hams are all made from Australian pork, boneless ham is where you need to be careful to ensure you’re only buying Aussie pig. You do this by looking for the pink PorkMark or the words ‘Product of Australia’; or you can follow the judges who deemed Australia’s Best Traditional Bone-in Ham to be made by Barossa Fine Foods in Edinburgh North, South Australia.

Here in NSW, the judges think you should be looking to the German Butchery in Mona Vale, Zammit Ham & Bacon Curers in Pendle Hill, and Stapleton’s Family Meats in Gymea for your boneless ham. For a traditional bone-in leg of ham, head to The Free Range Butcher in Mona Vale, Sunshine Meats in Milperra or the German Butchery, who also have an outlet in Bexley North.

Colin Fassnidge and his team took the opportunity to showcase their expertise with pork across glazed hams and a trio of long pork roasts with textbook crackling. You can eat his pig on the 4Fourteen regular menu as Redleaf Farm Suckling Pig ($39) with corn and pickled peach, or gather together ten friends for a Whole Suckling Pig ($80/per person) experience with sides, accompaniments and dessert. For cooking tips for preparing your ham for you own at-home feast, visit www.pork.com.au and don’t be afraid to crack that ham before the day. It is ham season after all!

NOTE: You can see a previous visit to this venue back HERE.

414 Bourke Street, Surry Hills
Ph: (02) 9331 5399

4Fourteen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Travel - Some Cafe

With the holiday season almost upon us, if you’re looking for a pit stop on the way to Canberra, consider Some Café in the tiny town of Collector. It’s only a couple of kilometres off the Federal Highway, and a picturesque spot to do some wine tasting and grab some lunch.

You’ll find the café in a beautiful 1829 historic building, right next door to the Collector Wines cellar door.  It would be wrong not to start your visit with a spot of wine tasting at this award-winning Canberra District winery’s cellar door. A long-time fan of the Collector Tiger Tiger Chardonnay, a wine that has all the expected Tumbarumba hallmarks, on this visit I made my first pinot meunier purchase with the 2017 Collector Landfall ($34). It’s a lovely, wet, lip smacking red. I also bought the 2017 Collector Lamp Lit Marsanne ($32) – a savoury, flinty white with plenty of power.

Despite Some Café being the cellar door restaurant, they sadly don’t serve wine with lunch. I had to make do with admiring my purchases on an outdoor table, set under a corrugated iron awning to keep you out of the blazing sun.

Ordering is done inside, giving you a chance to get a gander at the interior. The menu is succinct and simple, and well connected to the surrounding area (home to just over three hundred people).

The Pialligo ham in the Toastie ($12.50) is sourced from fifty clicks down the road. It’s presented in a nicely toasted sandwich with just the right amount of tomato, Cheddar, mustard and mayo, and an excellent crisp, long cucumber pickle to cut the fat on the side.

Greeny ($14/2 slices) might look like eating your housing deposit, but is actually green tahini rather than smashed avocado, on toasted rye bread. It’s dressed with toasted sesame seeds, green leaves and great quality tomatoes.

We team our simple but satisfying lunch with well-made Iced Coffees ($5/each) because we have the long road back to Sydney ahead of us.

Some Cafe
5/7 Murray Street, Collector
Ph: (0422) 132 883

Some Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review - Chefs Gallery Parramatta

Just over eighteen months ago, I joined a busload of food media on a trip to Parramatta to celebrate the launch of the Chefs Gallery Parramatta outpost. Getting word of a new menu that included Korean-style mac’n’cheese aimed just at Parramatta diners, I decided to hop on public transport and get myself a taste of it...

Marveling at how quick it was to get to Parramatta, I was pleased to find a fast path from the station right to the restaurant’s front door that didn’t require me to walk through Westfield Parramatta.

When compared with my last visit, Chefs Gallery Parramatta looks a bit tatty. Our table is chipped and gouged; the floors are greasy; but I’m hoping they’re simply signs of the restaurant being well used.

Waving down staff (who also seem to have lost a bit of their eagerness to please), we place an order only to be told two of the Parramatta specific menu dishes are unavailable (despite this menu being brand new). We choose another two dishes and get things underway with our favourite Chinese beer, Tsingtao ($6.90), and that much awaited Korean Style Mac’n’Cheese ($13.90). The concept of the dish is clever. It switches out macaroni for tteokbokki, those chewy Korean rice cakes I’m pretty much obsessed with, and throws in some sweet corn for contrast, and sambal and Korean chilli flakes for flavour. The execution on the other hand leaves something to be desired. There is more three-cheese sauce than filling, making it more a powdered cheese soup with the odd floaty. I wanted to like this dish a lot more than I did.

Lobster E-Fu Noodles ($24.90) purported to contain both lobster and sea urchin roe, didn’t appear to contain either. The promised lobster had been switched out for split Balmain bugs presented in their shells. While the menu photo depicted Chefs Gallery's signature hand-stretched noodles adorned with orange uni segments, on our dish, they were nowhere to be seen. Nor could I pick the flavour of my favourite seafood, sea urchin roe, in the dish, which had a strong fishy whiff that reminded me more of mullet roe.

Handpicked Blue Swimmer Crab ($18.90) with tobiko (flying fish roe), fennel and finger lime seemed to have been flung unceremoniously on a bed of limp, lightly dressed green leaves. The crab was a bit bland, which, when combined with minimal dressing, made this dish a little lacklustre

At this point we were informed that two more of the dishes we had chosen were also unavailable, so we chose two more, only to have one of our original selections – Steak Tartare ($19.90) – arrive anyway. Made on hand-cut Black Angus with mapo tofu-style tofu puree, sesame oil and a quail egg, and presented under a baton of Chinese fried bread, this dish has got great flavour and lively chilli. I would however prefer the beef to be diced more finely, and trimmed of fat and gristle.

Honeycomb Chicken Wings ($15.90) were a third choice for me made out of necessity rather than excitement. I feared they’d be way too sweet for my palate, and I was right, so take what I say here with three tablespoons of sugar. The wings themselves needed more char to counterbalance the intense sweetness of the shiso, yuzu and honey glaze dotted with honeycomb chunks. Their fat was not properly rendered, and I found it hard to eat more than one. This visit made me wish I’d stuck to visiting Chefs Gallery's city store, where cooking has always been on point, and service is efficient rather than disinterested.

Chefs Gallery
Westfield Parramatta Ground Floor, Shop 2184, 159-175 Church Street, Parramatta
Ph: (02) 8810 8881

Chefs Gallery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Review - Hawa Charcoal Chicken

The smell of barbequed chicken hits you as soon as you turn onto the main street of Granville. While this suburb is probably best known as the home of the original El Jannah, it is immediately apparent to me that this is not where this mouth-watering aroma is emanating from...

Taking up several shop-fronts, the culprit is Hawa Charcoal Chicken. It has bright red awnings, and an extensive indoor seating area that seems to go on forever. You order at the counter where you can watch meat skewers being hand-turned over charcoal, and endless racks of flattened chickens rotating on a spit to a soundtrack of pops and sizzles from fat dripping onto glowing charcoal. As you'd expect, the scent of charred chicken skin is even stronger in here, and it makes my mouth water even after a half-eaten, unsatisfying dinner elsewhere.

We consume our second dinner at one of the street-side outdoor tables, where we can watch late-night Granville parade by. Most of them seem to be coming to Hawa, or the popular El Sweetie sweet shop next door. Both stay open until at least 11pm.

We give Hawa's Lebanese-style barbequed chook a whirl in a Half Chicken Mix Plate ($22.90) that’s plenty big enough to share. The chicken is juicy and smoky, with excellent, well-charred skin. You drag it through toum (garlic sauce) and wrap it in soft rounds of Lebanese bread with salty and sharp cucumber pickles, tabouli and a drizzle of house-made chilli sauce. The chilli sauce has got a lick of sweetness before the burn that reminds me of raspberry vinegar.

Punctuate your rolled chicken kebabs with slightly bendy, lurid pink pickled turnips dragged through excellent baba ghanouj topped with a puddle of olive oil and some chilli powder for colour. Your plate also includes felafel and hummus, making for a nicely balanced meal. The only thing I can conclusively say El Jannah does better is their wonderfully fluffy garlic sauce, the rest is pretty much on par.

Hawa Charcoal Chicken
43 South Street, Granville
Ph: (02) 9637 3111

Hawa Charcoal Chicken Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Travel - The Cupping Room

Cupping is the process coffee graders use to judge the merit of different coffees. Graders rate each coffee by body, sweetness, flavour, acidity and aftertaste. Using a similar process to rate the cafes I visit, I’m struck by the fact that if I’d written up The Cupping Room before eating a week of Northern Rivers café breakfasts, I probably would have graded it more highly. This week has taught me that it’s possible to produce a good-looking breakfast that will slay on Instagram, but also eats cohesively as an utterly compelling (and well-priced) plate of food.

At The Cupping Room, dishes like Chorizo ($20) read well on the menu, and arrive looking intriguing with crumbed chorizo, a single fried egg, rounds of twice-cooked potato, heirloom tomatoes, a Romesco-style red sauce, yoghurt and strangely textured corn chips. To eat, on the other hand, it was curiously dissatisfying. It lacked both generosity and unity across the plate. The sharp corn chips hurt my mouth without adding anything in terms of flavour.

The Avo ($19) with a Wood-Smoked Bacon ($5) topper turns out to be your standard smashed avocado, despite it being written as half an avocado on the menu. Smoked labneh, red dukkah, lemon and sourdough round out the plate, though I’m not convinced that stacking the toast so you need to deconstruct and build your own second piece was either necessary nor clever.

With the name, and a separate coffee menu card, it’s pretty clear that The Cupping Room are serious about their coffee. The café is one of three venues owned by the Ona Coffee crew, Canberra’s biggest specialty coffee roasters. Under the guise of education, they’re proscriptive about how you’ll be drinking your coffee, dividing it into milk coffee, filter and black. And milk coffee doesn’t mean latte, either; all four types are only served as flat whites. Thankfully you’re still allowed to add your own (hipster raw) sugar.

I gave Founder ($4), a medium-bodied caramel-like fruity coffee; Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Sunset ($5), an heirloom varietal promising vanilla and honeycomb; and Black Betty ($4), a full-bodied chocolatey coffee, a try. While Black Betty scrubbed up the best, none of them impressed me more than my home beans roasted by Golden Cobra.

The Cupping Room is a pleasant airy light space to dine with all the usual hipster trappings of exposed wooden rafters, green plants and different styles of seating to break up the big space. The energetic young floor team are friendly and efficient, particularly at getting the waiting queue seated. While it didn’t quite sing for me, it is clear that The Cupping Room is the darling of Canberra’s coffee set.

The Cupping Room
1/1-13 University Avenue, Canberra
Ph: (02) 6257 6412

The Cupping Room Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Review - Restaurant Plage

Five months has smoothed out the kitchen at Restaurant Plage. Chef Tomoyuki Usui has cleverly cut a path between the innovative modern Japanese food he wants to be cooking, and dishes that build trust with Cremorne locals, so they can eventually share in his vision.

A chalkboard advertising well-priced bar snacks gives skeptical passers-by another easy way in.

From this menu, the well-priced Duck Liver Mousse ($12) sees earthy beetroot wafers and pork crackling draped over creamy duck liver mousse. The whole plate is dusted with a raspberry powder that is as tasty as it is visually spectacular.

The Dassai Junmai Daiginjo Sake ($24/300ml) is a pleasant first drink. It suits the amuse bouche style snacks the kitchen sends out, starting with a Brussels sprout nobody could dislike! The split sprout has been given a good cook before being coated with egg yolk cured in soy sauce and sweet sake. It's dusted with fluffy white truffle and vinegar powder, and is likely to have you asking why you ever maligned this excellent vegetable in the first place!

Tiny one-bite tarts of raw scallop, dashi, quinoa and finger lime enliven the palate.

While the snacks are fun, it’s the bar menu’s Sake Steamed Pipis ($16) that really sing. Employing the same sake we’re drinking, the beautifully cooked pipis swim in a broth of sake, butter, salt, pepper and their own juices. They’re kept simple with black garlic, some vividly green Brussels sprout leaves and dill, and of course match the sake a treat!

You’ll also find Tomoyuki’s house-made black garlic put to good effect with vinegar ash in a dressing for his salad of Heirloom Tomatoes and Feta Cheese ($18). When you eat the white nectarine, crisp dehydrated kale, grapes, tomatoes and salty feta all together with the dressing, you’ll find this dish caresses all corners of your tongue - salty, earthy, tart and sweet.

Aburi Paradise Prawns ($20) are seared so delicately, they get a thin skin that bursts with raw creaminess when you bite into them. They’re accompanied by crunchy tapioca crackers, white miso, and dehydrated shiso powder (Japanese mint) that's high in tannin and almost tea-like.

For our main courses we move onto warm sake: Kiku-Masamune ($18/300ml) from the Kumamoto Prefecture of Japan. It’s rich, savoury and yeasty, making it a good foil to the Grilled Chicken Breast ($28). The earlier version of this sous-vide chicken dish jangled a bit on my last visit, but this time it gels with intense preserved blueberries, and char-grilled cabbage and koji (Japanese yeast starter) puree, tempered by more of those beautiful Brussels sprout leaves.

Grilled Angus Beef ($32) is tender and compelling against a slightly sweet jus, and four-hour roasted onions that are served whole and as a puree balanced by vividly green kale.

Turmeric and ginger ice cream is the highlight of the Mandarin Compote ($14) peeking out from under broken sheets of langue de chat (cat’s tongue) French cookie.

The Ash Meringue Ice Cream ($12) has an almost gelatinous texture. It’s stomach settling and intriguing against mango and coconut mousse, white cherries, lemon balm and an almost salty hazelnut crumb. Believe me when I tell you all of these elements eaten together on one spoon are a super modern palate adventure that you won’t have any reference points for. This chef is very capable of surprising you, and five months of maturity have done Restaurant Plage the world of good.

Restaurant Plage
8/255 Military Road, Cremorne
Ph: (02) 8384 9043

Plage Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Travel - Frugii Dessert Laboratory

John Marshall lured me to Frugii Dessert Laboratory with cheese ice cream. His store is located in the hip Ori building that is part of the changing face of Braddon. With nods to the suburb's industrial and mechanical history, this futuristic building is so named because it looks liked folded origami.

Walking inside, each shop front has a distinctive look, with the beauty of the architectural features, like factory alloy doors, taking prominence over glaring brand names and signage. The lighting is moody, rather than fluorescent.

Fitting in perfectly, Frugii Dessert Laboratory has all the hallmarks of a science lab. They hide away their ice cream in pozzetti - lidded, temperature-controlled metal cylinders. While it’s certainly more eye-catching to see mounds of brightly coloured gelato, haven’t you noticed at the stores that do this, the ice cream's texture is always terrible?

Avoiding the use of gimmicks and colourings, John has stripped ice cream down to what it should be: good tasting, good feeling, icy cold spoonfuls of joy. He makes all his own bases, extracts, powders and even chocolate, extracting it from the bean himself.

The Stilton Ice Cream ($5.50) I tried was the stuff of (cheese) dreams. It is salty, cheesy, and rich – a small amount goes a very long way. The texture is silky, coating your mouth with a milky, pleasure that reminded me of being a kid. In my head I instantly started dreaming up dishes it could be added to, like a topping for a canape of smoked mussels, or a scoop on a piece of warm cherry pie. My hat is off to John Marshall for making the best ice cream I’ve tried.

Frugii Dessert Laboratory
Ground Floor, Ori Building,
30 Lonsdale Street, Braddon
Ph: (02) 6248 5748

Frugii Dessert Laboratory Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato