Getting back into cooking since 2009.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The best restaurants in Perth?

Gourmet Traveller released their annual restaurant guide earlier this week, which includes a Michelin-style three-star rating system, a top 100 list for the country and top 10 lists for each capital city.

Anyway, the Perth list is pretty solid, if mostly predictable:

1. Restaurant Amusé
2. Star Anise
3. The Loose Box
4. Jackson’s
5. Nahm Thai
6. Must Winebar
7. Maya
8. Fraser’s
9. Divido
10. Lamont’s (East Perth)

How can restaurants that do not have stars (Fraser's and Maya) beat a one-star restaurant (Divido)? I can understand how this might happen if the stars and the regional lists were compiled separately; different critics might be involved in the separate processes, or maybe the restaurants could be assessed by different criteria. This is one guide, with Divido scoring a star yet ranking lower than two no-star restaurants! (EDIT: Jane Cornes, the WA editor of Gourmet Traveller, confirmed via email that an error was made in compiling the WA list, and Divido should be placed above Fraser's and Maya).

I'm pleasantly surprised to see Amusé top the list after eating two spectacular meals there in the last few months. I can still vividly recall their rabbit, ceps and thyme dish, a small individual lasagne with an intense, earthy porcini flavour, served as part of their standard 12-course degustation.

musé scored two stars, making it the only two star restaurant in WA. The second star for Amusé is well deserved, but does Perth really only have one two-star restaurant?.

If you compare Perth's list to those of other cities, you can definitely make a case for Perth being slightly underrated by the GT critics. Star Anise in particular surely deserves a second star; it was rated 4/5 by John Lethlean in the Australian last weekend and would likely have kept its second star if it was in Surry Hills rather than Shenton Park. I'm not quite sure why Star Anise went from two stars to one. Perhaps Amuse's promotion exhausted Perth's quota of stars.

Still, even allowing for Perth being slightly hard done by, and controlling for our smaller population, it's clear that we're miles behind other cities, even Adelaide. We've got a few great fine dining places, heaps of decent, cheap Asian places and not a hell of a lot in between. I can't work out why.

A few high-profile chefs interviewed by WA Today suggest that Perth diners need to stand up for themselves. There's definitely something to that, people are too accepting of mediocrity (and expensive mediocrity at that). But why would that be? The issue that comes up whenever Perth is discussed, our isolation, might be a factor, but I'm not so sure. Are we less well-travelled than people from Adelaide? I doubt it.

Great mid-range places like Cantina fill me with hope, as does the mini-boom in small bars that we're experiencing. Maybe things are starting to turn around. I'll be interested to see if there's any movement in next year's list.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Meat Class #1 with the Prince of Flesh

"Pork fat... is just delicious" - Vince Garreffa

Vince Garreffa, butcher to the stars, is a master of the porcine arts. He's the sort of guy who gets up at six o'clock on a Sunday morning to boil three pigs' heads to make brawn for his charcuterie class.

I've been looking around for decent cooking classes in Perth, and Mondo di Carne's meat classes seemed like a pretty good bet. I booked in for five classes: two on charcuterie, two on boning and cooking lamb, and one on breaking down and cooking poultry.

I really wanted these classes to be good. I recently took a class on seafood cooking at another local cooking school, and it was disappointingly rudimentary, as if it was designed for people who have never been in a kitchen before.

The first Mondos class was exactly what I was looking for! There was not a single shriek at the sight of the boiled pig's head (above), and everyone seemed to be pretty into food and cooking.

Vince Garreffa first explained to us about the role of sodium nitrate ("pink salt") in curing meat. He then showed us some partially-cured pancetta and demonstrated the 'massage' or 'kneading' process that must be completed daily. We were shown how to make duck prosciutto and smoke our own chorizo, and the main part of the class revolved around making brawn.

He'd started the morning by boiling a massive vat full of three pigs' heads, a few beef tongues and various other lovely animal parts, which he spread out on huge roasting trays and asked us to chop.

The chopped meat was then mixed together with a few handfuls of capers, some salt, pepper, parsley, garlic and red wine vinegar, ladled into plastic containers and topped with a bit of the boiling liquid that had become rich and gelatinous from the trotters that were included in the mix. Next week we each get to bring home our own little container of brawn that we helped make!

As well as teaching us all sorts of valuable little meat-related tips (his method for creating an improvised hot-smoker was particularly revelatory for me), Vince taught us all about the difference between good meat and bad meat. At various points he would teach us how things should be done, and then tell us about the way supermarkets do things. All hams, it seems, are not created equal.

I appreciated getting a bit more information about the distinctions between well-prepared and poorly-prepared meat. Sometimes it can seem as if avoiding the supermarket is just a bit of foodie prejudice, or a culinary fashion statement. Vince's descriptions of supermarkets' meat preparation techniques confirm that there is a world of difference between smallgoods prepared by respectable artisans and mass-produced stuff injected with water and chemicals.

I've already done a fair bit of reading about charcuterie, mostly the writings of my favourite food writer Michael Ruhlman, but this is definitely an area of cooking in which it pays to get some hands-on instruction before trying things yourself. There's no way for a book (or a TV show) to tell you how a partially-cured duck breast should feel, or how hard you should massage your pancetta.

I think the classes on boning and breaking down lamb and poultry will be informative in the same way: instructions to "slice the knife along the saber bone to the joint" are all well and good, but what does that look like? How much pressure should I use? What angle should my knife be held at? What the hell is the saber bone?

I'm excited about my remaining four classes, and I hope to start applying some of my newly acquired knowledge at home.
If you're in Perth and looking to acquire a bit more skill in working with meat, I highly recommend the classes at Mondo di Carne.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Strawberry & Vanilla Friands

It seems like I have not baked in a long time. Friands always seemed like a big deal, more complicated than your average cake or muffin (not that I would ever cook a muffin) for some reason. I guess the words "egg whites" are to blame. But it turns out, they are not! They are easy! Last week I bought a friand pan when I saw it going cheap, and today I christened it with this recipe from delicious.P.S. These came out really well. Recommended for eating same day, as they lost the nice crispy edge once kept over night, but stayed moist for a few days after anyway.