Getting back into cooking since 2009.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Change of address

The address of this blog has changed to

The RSS feed and all of that stuff should still work, and any links to or individual pages should work too, but please let me know if you have any problems.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Restaurant Amuse (East Perth)

I don't think I'll ever lose the feeling of being out of place in restaurants more expensive than Red Rooster.

Childhood special occasions were celebrated in suburban Chinese restaurants, and throughout my early twenties a meal that cost more than $20 was an unimaginable luxury. I've always loved food, but spending a substantial sum of money on a meal always felt like something that other, richer people did, like listening to classical music or voting for the Liberal Party.

Since finishing uni a few years ago I've made up for lost time by eating in as many restaurants as possible, but I still feel like an imposter waiting to be found out. I start to panic and feel as if everyone in the restaurant has figured me out. Can they see the small rip in my jacket, did they hear my car backfire as it limped around the corner? Can they tell that I don't know the difference between sauvignon and savagnin?

Restaurant Amusé puts me at ease.

I think that's because Amusé (I'm going to drop the slightly poncy 'é' now) is all about the food. That sounds like it should be a given at a restaurant, particularly a 'fine dining' restaurant, but it's not. This is not the sort of place you come to be seen (gross!) or to gaze at the river. Amuse is stuck in the armpit of East Perth, and the exterior looks more like a suburban accountant's office than a fine dining restaurant.

Once you're inside, Amuse couldn't be more welcoming.  The dining room is mostly chocolate and beige with the occasional unfortunate splash of bad art on the walls, and the service is attentive and precise yet warm and friendly. The front of house staff are led by Carolynne Troy, wife of chef Hadleigh Troy.

I was stunned on our second visit that all the waiters welcomed us back... they remembered us! A few months later it happened again, despite all three occasions being booked under different names! How do you teach that? They never remembered me at the Red Rooster drive-through window.

Amuse serves a nine-ish course degustation menu for $115 with no a la carte menu. It builds from an amuse bouche (duh), through a number of small savoury courses, culminating in a couple of meat-centric dishes. There is a vegetarian tasting menu too, if you must. After a palate cleanser the degustation finishes with a couple of desserts and petit fours. It's a marathon, but you won't feel as if you'll need to roll out of there.

Matching wine courses cost an additional $65. Get the matching wines, it's worth it. I particularly appreciated the sommelier's descriptions of the wines and her rationale for choosing each wine. I'm not a wine guy. I know next to nothing about the subject, except for the fact that I like drinking it. This makes me keen to learn more, but I'm also wary of wine speak that is too jargony or assumes a high level of knowledge. The sommelier's descriptions are refreshingly bullshit-free.

The degustation isn't a tasting menu composed of slimmed down a la carte plates. The degustation-only format means that the menu is conceived of as a complete experience. Recurring themes emerge, different treatments of the same ingredients are explored, similar techniques are brought to bear on very different ingredients.

"Smoke, tomato and ash" could have been disastrous, with an astringent smoky smear, sprinkling of ash and tomato sorbet. It packed big, bold flavours, and was a pungent start to the meal. Like almost everything here, though, it was well balanced. It's an intriguing dish, and one that makes you sit up and take notice.

Two variations (on separate menus) on a coddled egg were not quite as successful. Coddled egg with marron was too texturally one-note. The slippery marron pieces covered in the unctuous yolk needed some crunch. "Chicken or the egg?" delivered some texture and salty balance in the form of fried chicken skin pieces, but it was still too much for me and could have benefited from some acid to cut the richness of the egg.

The egg dishes were the only slight stutters in three near-perfect meals eaten at Amuse (two degustations and a three-course classic French meal for Bastille Day).

The kitchen's skill at cooking seafood is nearly as impressive as the creativity underpinning the more complex dishes. A lone mussel in a refined bouillabaisse was the briniest, plumpest mussel I've ever eaten!

The meat dishes are even better.

Two slivers of blushing pink squab breast were accompanied by a spring roll of shredded squab meat and a line of granulated coffee and cocoa that hinted at sweetness. On another menu, quail got a similar treatment, with a tiny confit quail drumstick rivalling the squab breast for sheer deliciousness.

"Beef, bacon, butter" was a cube of medium-rare wagyu with a breaded parcel of molten Cafe de Paris butter that pleasantly exploded with the impact of a knife. It was precisely targeted to the pleasure centre of my brain. The next day I got a text message from my friend Nat that just said 'beef'. I understood. The uniform medium rare (and the fact that diners are given no choice about the degree of doneness) suggests that the meat is cooked sous vide, but it's so well seared on the outside that you're not left craving a simple grilled piece of meat.

The playfulness doesn't let up with dessert. "Carrot cake" is a completely deconstructed plate of crumbs, salt, dehydrated carrot shavings and smooth carrot sorbet that slowly melts in your mouth to reveal a sweet, pure carrot flavour. "Jaffa" is a similarly deconstructed play on chocolate and orange, tasting just like the lollies, which is no bad thing.

I wish I'd taken photos, but my restaurant anxiety prevents me from being comfortable taking out a camera. I'll get over that.

There is very little that's 'safe' about this place; no crowd-pleasing classics or 'signature dishes' to fall back on. If you rave about a particular dish to your friends they won't be able to try it. The menu changes completely each month in line with the seasons and the chef's whims.

We don't see a lot of this kind of boldness in Perth, but I wish we did. I love it.

Restaurant Amuse
Unit 1, 64 Bronte Street
08 9325 4900

Restaurant Amuse on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Georgia Style Braised Pork Shoulder (& other Top Chef recipes)

Last week's episode of Top Chef was Restaurant Wars and to celebrate (geez we are so lame?) we had some friends over and set the mild challenge of each cooking something that had been featured on Top Chef over the last 6 seasons. For the record, the recipes on Top Chef vary pretty greatly from easy to ridiculously complicated, and 'this is a michelin star quality dish' to making-Tom-Collichio-spit-food-into-the-desert, so this didn't actually mean much more than there being a massive range of recipes to choose from and an excuse to say dumb stuff like "flavour profile" and "execute the dish".

First up Nat brought Season 5 Jamie's Red Curry Carrot Soup with Raita and Smoked Paprika Oil. It was delicious! Once more a Jamie soup (with flavoured oil) is a win (see also Chilled Corn Soup that I am hoping will get another run this summer).

Then the television took over our lives for 50 minutes. We all hated on Toby Young, and were relieved with the decision made by judges at the end. Also Padma rolled her eyes a few times.

Main course: Georgia Style Braised Pork Shoulder, from (everyone's favourite) Kevin of current season.

This was from an episode where they had to cook at an air force base, for a bunch of air force officers, hence the recipe says it serves 125 people. I cooked a quarter of the amount, and we had amazing pulled pork sandwiches the next night for dinner so in the end it probably served about 6-8 full sized meals.

It all seems like a lot of mustard, but it worked really well. Kevin wins again!

We served the pork with Mustard Potato Salad, the dressing for which Matt made up because somehow I couldn't locate Eli's recipe, although now I have very easily. What's up with that? Was the internet playing tricks on me? Maybe. But the made from scratch mayonnaise that Matt created was probably better than Eli's anyway. To be fair they had to work with what they had in the airforce base kitchen (lots of cans) so I suppose he is forgiven for all the ingredients involved. But keep egg out of my potato salad please.

Again, more mustard? Yes, more mustard. I made the addition of some finely sliced up apple for colour and lightness which worked obviously because apple and pork are friends. There was going back for seconds. Hooray.

For dessert Helen made (DJ?) Hubert Keller's Gingered Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse with Toasted Pistachio! Firstly, bonus points for cooking from Top Chef Masters. Secondly this too was delicious.  Apparently there were slight changes (less cream, more ginger?) to the recipe but I don't see why it would be done any other way, it was awesome.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cured Salmon, Blood Orange and Fennel Salad

Goddamn summer. When the temperature gets above 30 degrees or so, a lot of the things that I like to cook and eat stop being quite so attractive. No more long, slow braises, no more soft polenta spiked with handfuls of butter and Grana Padano.

The last few summers I've tried to force myself to try new things and be as excited about warm-weather cooking as I am about dishes that need to sit in the oven for four hours. That's a struggle.

The main problem? Salad is boring.

OK, so obviously salad can be just as inventive, exciting and memorable as any other kind of dish. It just usually isn't.

Cured fish has those intense, concentrated flavours, so it makes a completely non-boring base for a salad. The citrus in this salad also helps lighten things up and keep it refreshingly acidic.

It's extremely basic to prepare. Curing salmon or trout is all kinds of easy. Do it!

Cured Salmon, Blood Orange and Fennel Salad

500g salmon fillets (around two small fillets), pinbones removed
50g seat salt flakes
50g white sugar
One lemon, zest removed
One blood orange, zest removed
30ml gin or vodka or limoncello or something along those lines
Fennel bulb, with lots of herby fennel tops (you might need two bulbs worth of herby bits)

1) Combine the salt, sugar, zest and a handful of herby fennel tops in a bowl.

2) Place your salmon fillets in a plastic or glass container (I use a square Pyrex baking dish) and cover all over with the salt-sugar mixture.

3) Wrap with plastic and weigh down. I loosely wrap the Pyrex bowl, then place a small plate on top and stick a couple of beers on top of that. Works for me. Soon your dry cure will turn to a liquid brine as it sucks the moisture out of the fish.

4) Leave your salmon in the fridge for about 36-48 hours, until it's reasonably firm and cured through. Every 12 hours or so, take it out of the fridge and flip the fillets, making sure they're covered in the brine.

5) Slice all the pith off your blood orange and cut it into thin wedges (supremes). Arrange on a plate.

6) Shave thin slices of your fennel bulb with a vege peeler or mandolin. Arrange on top of the blood orange and squeeze a little bit of lemon juice top stop them browning.

7) Top with slices of your salmon and some more fennel tops. Finish with a little drip of good olive oil.

I guess summer is not that bad.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Slow-braised octopus

When it's cooked well, octopus is meaty and savoury and briny. When it's cooked poorly, it's rubbery and fibrous and unappetising. 

I've stumbled across a technique for cooking octopus that results in perfectly tender tentacles with a lot of that deep-sea flavour. Result: this is going to be the summer of octopus. I got the technique from a column by Harold McGee, the author of the legendary On Food and Cooking. 

Basically this method just involves slowly cooking the octopus in its own delicious juices for 4 or 5 hours. Warning: your house will be filled with a strong octopus smell after the first hour or so of cooking. It's not unpleasant, but it is quite strong.

Slow-braised octopus, McGee style
Whole adult octopus or octopuses.
1) Preheat your oven to 95c, and bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.

2) Cut the tentacles away from the body of the octopus. Discard the body. 

3) Once your water is at a rolling boil, blanch the tentacles for 30 seconds. Do this in a few batches, so that the temperature doesn't drop too much.

4) Remove the tentacles from the blanching water with a slotted spoon or a pasta spoon, and place in a pot with a tight-fitting lid that can go in the oven. I use an enameled cast iron casserole. Don't add anything else to the pot, not even salt (otherwise it will get too salty as the natural 'sauce' reduces).

5) Place your covered pot of blanched tentacles in the pre-heated oven and cook for 4-5 hours, until very tender. 

6) Allow the tentacles to cool in their liquid.  

That's it! You've now got beautifully tender, yet still meaty, octopus tentacles. You can just season these and serve them warm, or allow them to cool completely and serve them in a salad. McGee suggests straining and reducing the braising liquid and serving the tentacles with this natural sauce.
I like to allow them to cool, cut them into chunks and then dress them like a salad. You can then either serve the tentacle pieces as a salad, or as part of an antipasto platter, or thread them on the skewers and quickly barbeque them. The BBQ method is probably my favourite.
Barbequed octopus skewers 
-Two octopuses, prepared as per the recipe above and allowed to cool to room temperature
-Juice of one lemon  
-Handful of mint leaves, roughly chopped  
-Good quality extra virgin olive oil
-One long red chilli, chopped (deseeded if you must)
-Red wine vinegar (optional)
-Sea salt
1) Add the olive oil to the lemon juice, roughly 2 parts olive oil to one part lemon juice. Stir vigorously until emulsified. This is a bit more acidic than a standard vinaigrette, but the octopus benefits from aggressive seasoning. I like to add a dash of red wine vinegar too, but you don't have to.

2) Pour the vinaigrette over the octopus, adding the mint and chilli and a few generous pinches of sea salt.

3) Toss well, then taste to check your seasoning.

4) Thread onto skewers.

5) Heat on a hot BBQ or pan for about 30-60 seconds, just enough to slightly crisp the outside and warm the tentacle pieces through.

6) Pour over any left over dressing.

Like I said, this is going to be the summer of octopus.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Small Bars and the Town of Vincent

What does the Town of Vincent have against small bars?

Small bars have started to spring up in the couple of years since the license came into effect, but very few have been in the Town of Vincent. The council has approved a few (like The Cabin in Mt Hawthorn and Double Lucky in Leederville), but they've also knocked back several for spurious reasons.

The council's stubborn recalcitrance has become a bit of an obsession of mine, and I've developed the deeply nerdy habit of scouring the council's minutes looking for something to piss me off. This is not normal behaviour, I know, but I just can't help myself.

One of the worst cases I've found relates to a small bar that was proposed for Oxford St. The applicant wanted to open a small wine bar catering for up to 80 patrons, focusing on up-market wine and food.

The council received a petition in favour of the application, signed by 104 people. It also received a petition opposing the application, signed by eight people. Eight. The council refused the application.

Bear in mind that the building had already operated as a cafe. It's on Oxford St, near the Re Store, there's a lot of traffic. The Leederville Hotel is a few hundred metres away, as is Leederville Oval. TAFE is over the road. This isn't the middle of suburbia, it's a busy inner-city suburb. The place was going to be a small wine bar, not a rowdy pub.

Then there's another case, relating to a place just a few metres away on the corner of Oxford and Richmond Streets. This bar, Bar Rosso, was intended to be "a premium wine bar and cocktail venue with associated gourmet food". Again, not a rowdy pub. Fifteen people signed a petition against the application. It was refused, too.

I must admit that neither of these bars sound like places I'd be particularly interested in, but that's not really the point.

Why did the council refuse these applications, and a whole bunch of others? Two reasons. First of all, parking. Second, the objections of a few local cranks.


On the issue of parking: uh, what? Shouldn't people be discouraged from driving their cars to a bar?

Why does everything need to be planned around the car? David Byrne said it best: "the policy of infinite accommodation to the car needs to stop and be reversed if our cities are to survive as more than clumps of offices and parking garages."

Also, several of the proposed bars have already operated as cafes or restaurants or pool halls. Presumably people drove to those. Why does the council require more parking for a bar than for a cafe? While we're at it, where is the parking for all the big pubs (the Queens, the Leederville) that already exist?

Not in my immaculately manicured backyard

My personal favourite objection came from the guy who thought that one of the wine bars mentioned above might lure young people from the TAFE over the road (I'm not making this up, it's here). Yes, your typical 19-year old TAFE student will definitely go buy an expensive glass of Bordeaux instead of getting a jug from the Leedy a few hundred metres away.

The other objections generally amount to the time-honoured cry of "not in my backyard", to which I would reply: you live in an inner city suburb. You probably moved here because it's more "vibrant", more alive than far-off suburbia. Why try to suffocate the little glimmer of activity that is trying to poke its way to the surface?

I've never voted in local council elections. It seems a bit pointless, and I can never tell what the candidates actually stand for (it's always "the community" and "small business" and "sunshine" and "motherhood"). Maybe I should vote next time.

Anyway, apologies for the slightly off-topic rant, normal service will resume shortly. I've got an awesome recipe for slow-braised octopus that I want to share.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Zapata's (Restaurant - Northbridge)

Mexican food has a bad reputation. It's been marred by association with packet crap, and there are few decent restaurants in Perth to offset the dark side. Imagine if all we knew of Japanese food was the dodgy 4-pack nori rolls they sell at servos, or if Italian food in Australia was just sharehouse-style spag bol with those Kraft shakers of dandruff masquerading as parmesan cheese. Mexican food deserves better.

Of course, Tex-Mex and Mexican are not the same thing, but that doesn't mean you should just dismiss Tex-Mex food. Genuine Tex-Mex food is more like a regional variation or adaptation of Mexican food than a worthless Western bastardisation (see the Homesick Texan blog for some great Tex-Mex recipes).

We approached Zapata's in Northbridge hoping for the best but expecting the worst. Tex Mex can be done well, as I've mentioned, but it usually isn't. It's most often a convenient ruse to mask low-quality ingredients with acres of tasteless processed cheese, washing it all down with the obligatory cheap margaritas. I'm also deeply sceptical of any restaurant on James St in Northbridge. I assume all of those places are terrible until reliably assured otherwise.

Unfortunately, Zapata's restaurant in Northbridge confirmed our fears. The food they serve is a lazy, cynical insult to a great cuisine.

The margarita was pleasantly and surprisingly strong; everything else was depressingly poor.

The guacamole, which should be vibrant, tangy and well-seasoned, instead had the gelatinous, blended texture of a supermarket avocado dip with a near-miraculous lack of flavour. The guacamole was served as part of a trio of dips with "Chilli con Queso", which apparently translates as "Utterly Tasteless Molten Fat that May Have Once Been Cheese" and a 'salsa' of unripe diced tomatoes. These were served with cheap, semi-stale, shop-bought corn chips. Not a good start.

It did not get better from there. My beef burrito was tough, as if it had been pre-assembled and cooked and then reheated. A tortilla should not have the texture of leather. The taste hardly made up for the chew, with a metric tonne of bland burrito filling needing a heavy hand with the hot sauce to lend it any flavour at all.

The dismal food should not have been a surprise. The place ticks all the boxes for cliched awfulness. We were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, but I wish we hadn't.

155 James St
Northbridge WA

Zapata's on Urbanspoon