Friday, April 18, 2014

Footscray food tours - new dates!

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Footscray - it's a wonderful place.  I don't know what my favourite is - these sort of prices...

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...this way of restocking the drinks fridge (it's sugarcane, for sugarcane juice!)...

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Photo by Nat Stockley

...or these lovely friendly faces.

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Photo by Nat Stockley

Whether you're a newer resident or an old hand keen to find some new favourites, I would love you to join in the next round of Footscray Food Blog's Footscray food tours. My tours are completely independent, hosted by me, with small groups and packed full of information, stories, and delicious treats!

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I have two itineraries for you to choose from. The Footscray Fresh Food Ramble is a market-based tour loaded with shopping tips and samples. If you're a newer resident who feels a little intimidated by the markets, or if you're simply curious about where to buy avocados for not $4 each, but $4 per kilo - this is the tour for you.

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Hobsons Bay City Council booked a private tour based on the Fresh Food Ramble, in which I introduced a group of lovely Karen people to cheese for the first time! It was a smash hit - they bought Footscray Market Deli's entire stocked of washed rind!

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Photo by Nat Stockley

Or maybe you'd like to explore Footscray's amazing multicultural community - and what better way than stomach first? On my Streetwise Snacks tour, we'll say g'day to the fantastic friendly folks in our amazingly diverse community while sampling their tasty wares. Think Somali street food, burek two ways, delightful desserts and more!

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About the Footscray Fresh Food Ramble, Sasha from Yarraville said: "I had a ball on the Footscray food tour with Lauren. The markets have been on my doorstep for years but I just didn't have the knowledge or confidence to utilise them. Ever since the tour I have been back at least twice monthly and I am loving the quality and the prices! Lauren is really knowledgeable and passionate about the markets and the produce and I picked up a lot of good tips from her."

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...and about Streetwise Snacks, Brett and Jenny from West Footscray said: "The tour is such a great way to explore the many hidden treasures of Footscray. Lauren took us to all the best spots and gave us plenty of tips on what to keep an eye out for... A must for any worldly foodie (and those of us wannabes). You certainly won't be left hungry! So much food!"

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ALL THE IMPORTANT DETAILS:

Footscray Fresh Food Ramble
DATES:  Thursday 24 April, 10.30am or Friday 2 May, 11am
DURATION:  Minimum 1 hour
GROUP SIZE:  Maximum 10 people
PRICE:  $40 (plus 30-cent booking fee)
INCLUDES:  Drinks and generous samples
NB:  This tour is suitable for babes-in-arms or young toddlers, but due to the group size, please pop them in a carrier (eg, Baby Bjorn or Ergo), not a pram.
HOW TO BOOK:  CLICK HERE TO GO TO MY TRYBOOKING PAGE.

Streetwise Snacks
DATES:  Saturday 26 April, 1pm or Saturday 10 May, 1pm
DURATION:  Was 1.5 hours - NOW 2 HOURS!
GROUP SIZE:  Maximum 10 people
PRICE:  $80 (plus 30-cent booking fee)
INCLUDES:  Enough snacks to constitute a generous lunch!
HOW TO BOOK:  CLICK HERE TO GO TO MY TRYBOOKING PAGE

I also run private tours which can be tailored to your requirements - they make a fantastic team-building opportunity for businesses and brilliant gifts. To find out more, get in touch with me on 0438 583 808 or lauren@laurenwambach.com.

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Come on and dive in!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

French Baguette Cafe

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The new French Baguette Cafe has taken so long to open - maybe, I don't know, a good year - that after a while, the Eiffel Tower in its logo started to look to me like a big middle finger.

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Now that it's open, I think the Eiffel Tower in the middle actually makes the initials look less like "FB" and more like "FAB" - so I met up with a few folks to see if it lived up to its name.

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It's really big inside, with large comfy chairs, including a few on a raised dais.  On a Saturday morning, it was full of folks enjoying coffees and a good old chinwag.

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We hot-footed it straight to the banh mi.  There are all the classic fillings like mixed ham, meatballs and fish cake, plus grilled options including chicken, pork and (unusually) beef.  The rolls are particularly big - I think a good 5 cm longer than Nhu Lan's - and only $3.50.

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The bread wasn't quite right for a banh mi.  Proper banh mi bread should be ridiculously crunchy on the outside, and with the middle gooshing down to almost nothing as soon as you apply some pressure to take a bite.  This was a big more dense, perhaps closer to an actual French baguette.  But the fillings were good, and service was with a smile.  I'd happily grab another if I was nearby.

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I did spot quite a few peeps enjoying bo kho, Vietnam's answer to beef stew - big chunks of fall-apart-tender beef plus some tatties in a tomato broth.  A small bowl plus a roll will set you back just seven bucks.

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Coffee was pretty good.  The milk wasn't silky enough and there was too much foam but the underlying shot was well pulled.  I've seen the barista before at Cafe Cui.

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French Baguette also have a giant stronghold of cakes in the middle of the store, which you are encouraged to pillage, armed with a tray and tongs a la Breadtop.

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This is a particular hit with the kiddos, as you can imagine.

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Most of the cakes are on the big side and a bit OTT for my taste, but I did spy some Greek-style baklava that I've filed for future use.  Fun fact:  Do you know why my pseudonym when I first began blogging was Ms Baklover?  When my husband first moved to Melbourne from Chicago, he became hopelessly enamoured with baklava.  In fact, he became a bak-lover.  We started our own food blog about the best baklava in Melbourne.  I think we only ever did one post before I deleted it (I think I was worried about eating too much - HA. HA. VERY FUNNY, 8 YEARS AGO ME) but the name stuck!

French Baguette are still finding their feet.  It was a bit of a struggle trying to pin down eight clean glasses for water for our group.  I also think they need table numbers on sticks rather than the little rounded ones that sit flat on the table, as right now staff need to roam the whole place looking for you to deliver your coffee.

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To me, it has a feel like Balha's in Brunswick - a multi-age, multi-ethnic hangout where you go to eat cake and coffee.  There's even a mezzanine level.

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I love this sign.  FB, I really hope the last line comes true for you.

French Baguette Cafe
Cnr Albert and Barkly Streets, Footscray

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sunshine Phở Fever 2014

Disclaimer:  I attended Sunshine Pho Fever as a non-paying guest.

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I first got bit by the bug in 2013.  Despite plenty of booster bowls throughout the year, the minute the invite landed on my desk, I felt the fever take hold yet again.  I was off to Hampshire Road to sample some of the finest soups Sunshine has to offer - presented as part of Sunshine Phở Fever.

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It was Phở Fever's second year, presented by the Sunshine Business Association as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.  The 2013 series was particularly epic, involving three huge bowls of phở, so this year's promised to be tweaked a little, adding other liquid refreshment alongside the signature soups.

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We kicked off at Sao Cafe, where we scored our choice of Vietnamese cold drink.  My taro bubble tea was fine but really, filled as they are with grass jelly cubes and chewy tapioca balls, these drinks are a meal in themselves.  Should have gone for a cafe sua da - but post-Rickshaw Run, I needed all the sleep I could get!

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Simon of Brimbank Council and Win of the Sunshine Business Association were welcoming and informative hosts...

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...and after a short chat, we divided into two groups and were led us to our first stop - in my case, Phở Hien Saigon.  A recent SBS Feast competition voted the phở here the second best in Victoria.  (The winner?  iDo Kitchen in Albert Park - now closed, apparently!)

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Owner Cung has had his restaurant for five years and in the last year has taken over the shop next door, doubling its size.  The phở recipe was originally his uncle's, but Cung has tweaked it in response to his customers' desire for a "less intense" flavour and a clear stock.

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This is really good phở.  In some broths you can really taste the spices - the star anise and cinnamon - but Phở Hien Saigon's is milder and "cleaner".  Isn't it a pretty bowl, too?  "You do eat [with] your eyes," said Cung.

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The broth here is a combination of beef and chicken stocks, made separately and combined to serve.  See the sugar canister on the table?  That's full of chilli oil.  I normally have this on the side to dip my meat into, but at Phở Hien Saigon, it's particularly good added to the broth itself.

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A short stroll down the street and we headed into Thuan An.

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Here, Julie explained that her family's phở was neither strictly northern or strictly southern, but rather was adapted to "please both regions".

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The table was beautifully set with some of the secrets of the phở pot - rock sugar for sweetness...

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...and spices, including star anise, cumin, cinnamon, coriander and black cardamon.  At Phở Hien Saigon, the broth bubbles for 12 hours, while at Thuan An, it's an 18-hour simmer.  Julie explained that each spice is added at a specific time point to draw out precisely the right amount of flavour.  These aren't all the spices that go into the mix, either - there are more, used in smaller quantities but no less important.

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Thuan An had blanched and trimmed their bean shoots for us, which was a very nice touch.  Next door are two small bowls of chilli sauce and hoisin sauce.  People sometimes squirt these into the broth, but you're not really meant to - the idea is you dip your meat in them sparingly.

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Julie explained that in Vietnam, phở is often a breakfast dish.  It's served in much smaller portions than here in Australia.  She reports that when folks head here fresh from Hanoi or Saigon, they are staggered at the size, particularly at Thuan An where the soup is served in enormous square bowls.

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I thought I'd go wild and crazy and have a phở dac biet, which is phở with all the "bits" - brisket, beef ball, tendon and tripe.  In the end, I just like good old sliced beef and sliced chicken, though.  Thuan An's broth wasn't to my taste - I found it really sweet.  But what I did love was the sliced beef in this bowl - super thinly sliced and full of flavour.  Julie explains that Thuan An use scotch fillet (Phở Hien Saigon use round).  She says to come back and try other beef-based dishes, like the bo luc lac or diced beef with garlic - her parents are meat wholesalers so they know their stuff.

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Next - what a treat, a peek in the kitchen!

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I don't know if I can call this a "pot" of phở.  More like a paddling pool's worth!

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So much freshness.  I really need to come back soon and try more from the menu.

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As we walked to the next spot, I swear I heard our bellies sloshing.  It was time for our last stop - Nhi Nuong (2 Sisters).

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The sisters in question are Yen and Elizabeth, who as well as being passionate cooks, make up a talented musical duo.  They perform at the restaurant occasionally - you might catch them on a Friday or Saturday night.

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Elizabeth explained that the tea here is different to the standard jasmine you get elsewhere.  It's pandan tea, imported from Vietnam.  Apparently people come to Nhi Nuong just for the free tea!

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As well as beautifully carved fruit, we had really good beef in betel leaves (the betel leaves home grown in Queensland and specially sent down, apparently) and excellent, thick spring rolls.  Big points for inclusion of fish mint on the plate!  (PS:  You can read more about this and other unusual Asian herbs in this piece I wrote recently for The Age.)

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Elizabeth's daughter Daniella joined in to serenade us while we munched...

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...and then it was time for a long, cold glass of sugarcane juice.  This all-natural soft drink is made by feeding sugar canes through a wringer.  Elizabeth explained that back in Vietnam, kids would be given sections of cane to chew, particularly as they were waiting for dinner.  (Kind of like a Vietnamese Milky Way - won't ruin your appetite!)

Sunshine Phở Fever was a lovely evening, from the tangible pride of the business owners to the delicious food.  I was sitting near Paul from Kew who commented that eating phở like this is "like comparing shades of white".  In isolation, there isn't much to differentiate an ivory from a cream - but put them side by side and you can see the variations.  Likewise, I loved being able to eat different bowls of phở in such close proximity to each other, which is so useful in pinpointing exactly what your phở palate says.  And mine says - when it comes to phở, Sunshine is spoilt rotten.


Even if you think you can't stand hearing Gangnam Style one more time, watch this vid, featuring some of Sunshine's finest eats - it is an absolute cack!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Chuan Wang

Ah, the Aussie counter meal. Such a neat little package - every flavour and texture taken care of. You've got a nice bit of something, be it a pork chop or some saucy rissoles, doing the umami thing. Some crisp roast taters, a wedge of squishy roast pumpkin (skin on, please) and a big helping of something green. It's your own little buffet, portioned on a plate.

Chinese food is not such a neat package. Gosh knows I try to make it so with my poor stir-fry efforts, chucking in some fried tofu along with carrot batons and wilted spinach. But - at least to my wandering eye, always visually eavesdropping on other people's meals - it seems that unless you're ordering a claypot or a soup, the right way to eat Chinese food is to order dishes that each sing in a different flavour and texture key - and then you've got yourself a lovely harmony.

However, unless you and your date fancy eating leftover cumin lamb and fish-flavoured eggplant for days on end, it's kind of tricky to attempt an eight-part harmony with just two stomachs. That's where Spicy Team comes in!

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We're a raggle-taggle band who have realised that when it comes to attacking a Chinese menu, you can either choose strength in numbers, or a groaning stack of plastic takeaway boxes. We choose the former.

We assembled one dark night to lay siege to Chuan Wang, Footscray's new Sichuan destination. It was fantastic to have Claire from Melbourne Gastronome and partner Tom along for the ride!

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Chuan Wang is where Lucky Star used to be, under the eaves of Footscray Market. It's been open for maybe six weeks now and I have to say, always looks very forlorn and empty.

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This dish is variously translated as bang bang chicken, mouth-watering chicken or even saliva chicken. The "bang" comes from the cleaver used to chop up the bird, while the references to drool are indicators of how good this stuff tastes. And Chuan Wang's version tastes great. It's chockers with silky wedges of skin-on chicken, luxuriating in a thin, vinegary sauce seasoned with sugar, chilli and Sichuan peppercorns.

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Do a bit of a textural two-step by ordering some garlicky cucumber salad for lots of crunch. Both these entrees are traditionally served cold and are perfect to drink beer by.

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Indeed, I think I was raiding the beer fridge when these dan dan noodles arrived - they were all slurped up within minutes of hitting the table. I'm assured they were great, though.

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Wherever you roam in China, the dumplings are different - from a fluffy, blended fish filling in eastern Shandong, to lamb and Chinese cabbage in northwestern Xinjiang. In Sichuan, zhong shui jiao or "Zhong dumplings" are a local specialty. They're filled with pork mince and served in a dipping sauce of soy and chilli. Chuan Wang's version was ace. (The filling was pink all over but it wasn't raw - not sure how that works, but either way, these dumplings are delicious.)

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Next, we landed this incredible fish, reclining on crisp, battered chunks cut from the fillets on either side. It was scattered with very fine fried egg threads, chillis and surprise ingredient - curry leaves! The menu description (spicy salt and pepper sliced fish) and accompanying pic don't do this visually arresting dish justice.

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Some good old dry-fried string beans, sprinkled with a little well-browned pork mince and garlic. I love how these beans manage to be crackly on the outside and tender in the middle.

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Very nice fish-flavoured eggplant, so called because the seasoning used is traditional for fish recipes in Sichuan - big chunks of silky, luscious eggplant in a sweet, sticky sauce.

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Water spinach in preserved tofu sauce was very nice...

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...as was kung pao chicken, in a sour-sweet sauce with crunchy peanuts.

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After we ordered, the waitress returned and told us the chef could see we liked Sichuan food and wanted to cook us his special chilli crab. How could we refuse? It arrived and so commenced lots of snapping, cracking and slurping as we teased morsel after morsel of meat from the claws. The top halves of the crab were just shell, which I assume is how it's meant to be - it's only $28 versus the much higher price I believe you'd pay for this many whole crabs. Whether or not you will like this comes down to how happy you are to quite literally get your hands very dirty. I loved it. Make sure you save room to eat all the wonderful crab-infused sauce on lots of white rice.

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The one misfire was the cumin lamb, which came out looking like any other sizzling plate from here to Mildura, and to my taste was devoid of any cumin at all. Compare to Dainty Sichuan's archetypal version here.

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All in all, we loved Chuan Wang. Could we please meet the chef, we asked? Chef Paul emerged from the kitchen, accepted our thanks and assured us that in the next few weeks he would be adding lots of Malaysian, Japanese and Thai dishes to the menu.

...

...

NOOOOOOOOO!

I don't know about you, but to me, a pan-Asian menu is as worrying as a voucher deal. We professed our love of Sichuan food and our concern at this development, but didn't press the point - ultimately it's Chuan Wang's business the way they want to proceed. They have been remarkably quiet every time I've gone past, and on the basis of our fantastic meal, they really don't deserve to be. Fika and Kuidaore and Temasek agree.

So, westies - if you fancy a dedicated Sichuan joint in our neighbourhood, go and support Chuan Wang in its current incarnation. Spicy Team and I will be in your corner!

Chuan Wang on Urbanspoon

Chuan Wang
190 Hopkins Street, Footscray
Phone:  9687 2288
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