Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry Christmas

Thank you all so much for your comments, emails and support over 2010.  It has been a great year.  I have enjoyed writing this blog so much and have learnt so much and met so many wonderful people in the process.

I am taking a break and hope to be back in 2011.  Have a happy and safe Christmas and a wonderful summer.

Kids Nov 10 038

Monday, December 20, 2010

Nick's Grill

Do you trust your beautician?  Against my better judgment, I do, from the eyelash tint I never knew I needed to the hair product I never knew I wanted, which inevitably joins its cohorts stuffed up the back of the cupboard, unused.  Arguably however this trust comes from the fact I walk out of the salon with change from $30 no matter how many treatments and products I have had.  I am glad that my dear friend Ms C trusts her beautician too, as that particular lady's recommendation led us to Nick's Grill.

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Kenny recently pointed out that "little shop strips that look a bit run down are gems", and by this logic, Nick's certainly is a diamond in the rough, tucked away in a strip in outer St Albans.  The family who run this little Macedonian hideaway have been much-loved caterers to the Macedonian community for years, and son Nick has become the earnest, genuine and friendly maitre d' for their new venture.

Nick's Grill 007

Nick's specialises in grilled meats and from our table, we could watch dad firing up the grill in an open kitchen.  They have been open for around three months.

Nick's Grill 003
Sopska, $8

This salad came highly recommended, and with good reason.  It was similar to a Greek salad in its ingredients - fresh tomato, cucumber, a little red onion and sheep's or goat's milk cheese.  However, here the vegetables were chopped into small pieces rather than the large chunks one associates with Greek salad and the cheese was grated on top, a la Parmesan on pasta.  It was so delicious - I could have eaten this alone with bread quite happily.  The vegetables were super fresh and the dressing light, lemony and tangy.

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This soup is a soon-to-be menu item and we were lucky enough to be offered a taste.  It was simply divine - a thick, rich broth with carrot, potato and fat flakes of pink rainbow trout.  I have never had good luck with fish soups or curries as the fish needs a very careful hand or it disintegrates or goes mushy and grainy.  The fish flavour in this was superb, present but not at all overpowering.  The broth was thick, rich and unctuous, as fine as the best lobster bisque.  It is Nick's dad's special recipe, perfected through years of cooking in Germany.  I can't speak highly enough of this wonderful soup.  With a swish of its Macednonian petticoats, it has nudged pho off its pedestal as my favourite soup of all time.  Big call but justified!!!

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Pleasantly coarse, crunchy Continental bread was perfect for wiping up every last drop of soup and salad.  The dip is makalo which is a hot garlic paste similar to Lebanese toum.  It was brash and almost acrid, great to spread on the bread and then dip in the soup.  First dates, beware!

Nick's Grill 009
Mixed grill, $26

Time for the main event.  Most of Nick's meat platters are $17 or so and come with your choice of meat, be it cevapi or skinless sausages, raznjici or skewers, various cutlets and patties.  They all come with chips and vegies.  We went for the mixed grill for a bit of everything.  The cevaps and the very similar pork pljeskavica or hamburger were great, with a pleasantly springy and even spongey consistency similar to Vietnamese 'kebab' or 'roast pork', the sausage-like, skewered tubes or balls sold at Ba Le and Nhu Lan (I don't know the Vietnamese for them - please enlighten me if you do!).  A simple piece of grilled chicken breast was perfectly cooked and delicious.  The meats went perfectly with the makalo, served here thinned with oil and I think broth, its garlic flavour tempered somewhat.

We were so full by this stage and got defeated fast, though, only managing a bite or two of the other meats before surrendering.  I am actually not that big of a carnivore and would have liked less chips and more of the wonderful grilled capsicum.  The chips were somewhat unremarkable.  The Croatian Club in Footscray has a very similar mixed grill of just cevapi and raznjici, but their vegies (capsicum, onion and mushroom) are abundant and heavenly, plus their chips are crispier and have a special spice mix on them (I acknowledge Croatian and Macedonian are different cuisines, of course!)  Next time I will choose a single platter of just one meat and share that, and hope that there will be more room for more vegies.

The standout dish was still the rainbow trout soup, coming soon to the menu and in my opinion, it can't come soon enough.  They were so kind to give us such a generous sample (and they hadn't busted me taking photos, at least not at that stage!)  Just like in the beauty shop, we got more than we came for, but unlike yet another bottle of hair product, this soup is definitely something I now cannot live without.

Nick's Grill
177a Main Road, St Albans (map)
Phone: 9310 9996
Hours:  Mon/Tues closed, Wed-Sun evenings
Fully licensed but BYO coming soon

Wheelchair Accessibility
Entry:  Level.
Layout:  Roomy-ish.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hello Gelo

Icecream in summer is one of my fondest memories of my childhood in Melbourne.  We never had it at home; it was an "outing only" affair.  The discussion of what flavour to get was a matter of national significance.  I remember Charmaine's first opening on Brunswick Street and later at Southbank and totally revolutionising ice cream.  They had crazy flavours like licorice and chilli chocolate whereas all prior icecream had been hokey pokey, old English toffee and bubblegum.

Hello Gelo and Queen's Rose 047

Footscray and surrounds has been somewhat devoid of a good icecream parlour.  Charlie's did open a gelati bar on Droop Street but to me, half the pleasure of an icecream in summer is lolling about outside the shop or walking along a pleasant promenade, which is hard to do on a busy strip like the Droop St/Ballarat St corner.  Hello Gelo is a recent addition to Yarraville village which is supremely wonderful for lounging about, particularly on a warm summer night.

Hello Gelo and Queen's Rose 023

The icecream here is handmade, very creamy and ranges from the classics to curiosities such as chestnut (made with real chestnut puree and marron glace pieces) and pear & Pernod.  A kids' cone, which is ample even for an adult, is a mere $2.50 or $3 for two flavours.  Take-home packs may be made up, too.

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I tried to interest the kids in blood orange or black forest cake, but they just wanted chocolate and bubblegum.  Some things never change.

Thanks Kenny for the tip!

Hello Gelo on Urbanspoon
15 Anderson Street, Yarraville (map)
Phone: 9078 5696
Hours:  Mon-Wed 11am-8.30pm, Thurs 11am-9pm, Fri & Sat 11am-10pm, Sun 11am-9pm (but variable depending on the weather)

Wheelchair Accessibility
Entry:  Level.
Layout:  Inaccessible upstairs seating but can sit on the street

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tan Truc Giang's vegetarian selection

There are many great things about being married to an American.  Apart from the fact my husband is just generally awesome, the benefits that spring to mind are home-made, lovingly crafted barbecue sauce and elotes, BBQ'd corn cobs slathered in mayonnaise, Parmesan cheese and chilli powder.  But there are some eye-rollingly infuriating, very American parts of my partner's personality that I would love to change, namely his tendency to customise the menu within an inch of its life.  "Can I have the tomato and avocado on toast, but with the Promite on the side, and can you squeeze a lemon over it?  And can you add just one scrambled egg - yes, just one - and a piece of black pudding?  And a macchiato with cold milk, not steamed.  Thank you."  Cue much shrinking-behind-menu-until-level-with-floor on my part.

Tan Truc Giang 005

Thankfully Tan Truc Giang in Leeds Street are set up so you can have what you want how you want it.  Want only carrots, broccoli and cauliflower out of the stirfry?  No problem.  Want a piece of chicken, a hardboiled egg, plus just one spring roll?  Absolutely.  This is a great place to bring kids to as everything is right there, enticing and colourful.  As Dani Valent writes about yum cha, "You don't have to read out a menu and have every dish description batted back with, 'Yuk, I don't like that,' until you get to ice-cream".

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Tan Truc Giang have loads of interesting dishes which I for one have never seen before.  There's a special prawn-and-egg "cake" plus mackerel dishes, both crispily fried and braised.  They do a fabulous roast pork roll that you have to know to ask for.  They always have southern-style Vietnamese chicken curry which is mild, yellow and coconutty.  A friend just mentioned the other day how much she loved this and had only ever had it at people's houses, when it had usually been made by the grandmother.  She feels it is very much home cooking, and to me that is the style of cooking here at Tan Truc Giang.

Tan Truc Giang 001

This separate unit is 100% vegetarian (and I assume vegan).  I have been on the hunt for a Vietnamese wheat gluten dish for a reader, veggiegobbler, and here it is, or something like it, I hope!  The dish at the bottom right is wheat gluten with chilli and lemongrass, so I settled down for a plate of that with a few of the other mixed stirfries.

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Mixed vegetarian plate, $8

Yum yum!  The wheat gluten, which I know as seitan, was really good.  It is eerily similar to meat, tasting (and looking) like well-cooked shredded chicken.  Seitan is made by making a dough out of water and flour and then washing it until only the strands of gluten remain.  I remember doing this in Home Ec at school but I cannot recall why or what we did with it - certainly not make seitan, given that most of our Home Ec offerings were anachronisms like roulades or things stuffed in crepe baskets.

Tan Truc Giang 002

Anyway, the rest of the stirfries were tasty mixtures of soft, juicy tofu and mushrooms and crunchy vegetables.  They use interesting gourd-like Asian vegetables here of which I don't know the name, but they are similar to zucchini or cucumber.  It came with a tangle of sweet, lightly vinegared carrots and bean sprouts.  A great, healthy lunch.  Veggiegobler, I know it's not with cashews or satay as you remembered, but I reckon it is pretty yummy!

Another reader, Matt, highly recommended the goi cuon chay or vegetarian rice paper rolls.  These are made daily and stacked in containers on the counter.  Wow - great call, Matt - they really are the best rice paper rolls I have ever had!  The skins are so tender and soft and the fillings super fresh.  Inside are rice vermicelli noodles, marinated tofu, mushroom, pickled carrot, lettuce and other good things.  I like that they are not wrapped within an inch of their life - the wrapper is still delicate, soft and pliable.

Tra Vinh and Quang Vinh 011
Goi cuon chay (vegetarian rice paper rolls), $5.50 for 4

The dipping sauce is made up fresh with each purchase and is delicious, hoi sin-based, sprinkled with chopped peanuts, chilli and carrot.  Eat them soon after purchase and if you can, purchase them early in the day soon after having been made as the skins become hard and unappealing fast.

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The man in particular who runs Tan Truc Giang is really lovely.  They keep their bain marie spick and span, constantly refilling the trays and plates and ensuring no drips smear the sparkling silver between the various dishes.  The counter is often a few people deep and with Footscray shoppers of all ethnicities.  Everyone is welcome - even finicky Americans.

Tan Truc Giang
36A Leeds St, Footscray (map)
Phone: 9689 9509
Hours:  Mon - Sat 8am - 8pm, closed Sun

PS:  From a reader:  "This is the best Vietnamese place in west. Pork roll is absolutely delicious plus try their diced beef with fried rice (yummmm). I live in North Carlton but visit Truc Giang at least once a month."

Wheelchair Accessibility
Entry:  Step - inaccessible.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"How the West was won in taste"

leader article
kenny leader

For easier reading, here is the online link.  Thank you Pho Tam for kitting out my desk with your amazing pho!

For more wonderful pho all around Australia, check out my friend and SBS Featured Foodie Thang @ Noodlies' guide to the best pho around.

If you would like some more Sunday morning reading, The Age recently published a thought-provoking article on food blogging.

Have a wonderful day and as always, thank you very much for reading!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Vardar Grill

Knock knock.......

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Vardar 002

"Are you sure this is such a good idea?" said my friend as we rounded the corner.  At the top of the stairs, though, the hearty albeit pleasantly surprised welcome from the owner made us feel instantly at home.  Vardar Grill is on the first floor of a quiet shopping strip in St Albans and is an extended "Dad's pool room", decked out in fishing trophies, pennants, flags and scenes of the old country.  It's a welcome refuge for the western suburbs' Macedonian community but also warmly welcomes seekers of grilled meats and quiet conversation.

Vardar 004

I know very little about Macedonian food.  I had a Macedonian housemate once but his only acknowledgement of the food of his homeland were his mad scientist-like yoghurt experiments, which left the stovetop a perpetual shade of burnt and bubbled brown and the house infused with the alternating smells of boiled or off milk.  He was never successful.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, all he would say of Macedonian cooking was that it was "hard".

Vardar 005

Here at Vardar, there is a small menu in Macedonian (its English transliteration, at least) above the bar.  Vardar specialises in grilled meats and we happily deferred to the owner's suggestions.  The fish was perfectly cooked, dusted in flour and fried quickly.  We also sampled cevap or skinless sausages which were super-meaty, juicy and rich.  An accompanying salad of vinegared coleslaw and just-sliced cucumber was excellent.

Vardar 006
Look for the red sign on the balcony - entrance on the side of the building (there is a sign ;)

We sipped our beers and then an impeccable short black.  As the world outside darkened slowly, one of the guys on the balcony fetched a huge accordion-like instrument and with his friends, began to sing.  Outside the Sydenham line rushed past and the gum trees came into relief against the summer night sky.  The Macedonian presence in the west is perhaps not immediately apparent, but like a folk song carried on a Balkan breeze, if you care to listen you will be richly rewarded.

More Macedonian treats can be found at Kings Fresh Burek, 58 Kings Rd, St Albans (amazing spinach & cheese burek) and Michael's Deli, 50 Leeds St, Footscray (the best sausages - try the kolbasi)

Vardar Grill
First floor, cnr Furlong Rd and Willaton St, St Albans (map)
Phone: 9364 1440
Hours: Mon/Tues 2pm-11pm, Wed-Fri noon-midnight, Sat 2pm-2am, Sun noon-11pm

Wheelchair Accessibility
Not accessible.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tra Vinh

Tra Vinh and Quang Vinh 005

One of the things I love most about Footscray is that rather than a single main drag like Victoria St, Richmond, its pseudo-circular layout gives it the feeling of a little village, full of nooks and crannies to explore.  A shopping trip is not just a plod up and back like a train journey, stopping all stations.  I love to wind my way up and down streets, tiptoeing through arcades, popping in and out of markets at different entrances that open in a splash of noise and life to totally different vistas every time.

Tra Vinh and Quang Vinh 006

Tucked up Nicholson Street near the Little Saigon Market is a little treasure, Tra Vinh.  It's a hu tieu mi shop which means it specialises in hu tieu (rice noodle) or mi (egg noodle) dishes that come either in soup (nuoc) or 'dry' (kho), with a small bowl of soup on the side.  They also have a range of bun dishes which are warm rice vermicelli salads, as well as com or rice dishes such as the much-beloved pork chop and egg on rice.

Tra Vinh 004
Hu tieu mi kho Tra Vinh (dac biet - "special"), $9.50

This is a mix of rice and egg noodles, vegies such as bean sprouts and carrot and a lucky dip of goodies including a prawn, a piece of calamari, some liver, shredded pork, quail egg and a piece of fish cake.  The accompanying broth was real chicken stock with tasty pork mince on the bottom.  The noodles were fantastic - I love the contrast of the two types, the rice translucent and delicate, the egg squigglier and "meatier" with a toothy, bouncy texure.  They were salty and slightly sweet, tasting like they had been tossed with a dark soy/caramel sauce perhaps?

I had had this dish before at Phu Vinh and bagged it for the use of sweet chilli, assuming this was a cheat's version of nuoc mam cham or seasoned fish sauce.  Reader Hung set me straight (as I so appreciate him and others doing, as everything I know, which is not all that much, is from friends, books and trial & error - I have never been to Vietnam) and said that sweet chilli sauce is really what makes this style of hu tieu mi.  Even though I am not a mad fan of sweet chilli, I followed Hung's instructions of adding a little of the broth to moisten the dish and mixing it all through.  It was so delicious, although I do think Tra Vinh had a better balance than Phu Vinh as the sweet chilli was not nearly as overpowering.

Tra Vinh 003
Bun dac biet, $10

Bun or rice vermicelli salads are a great starting point if you are unfamiliar with this branch of Vietnamese food.  Billy's salad above had the aforementioned rice vermicelli, lots of vegies like lettuce, cucumber and carrot, and was topped with the dac biet or "special" mix of spring rolls, grilled pork or thit nuong and bi or shredded pork skin.  You get a bowl of seasoned fish sauce to tip over as a dressing.  The spring rolls here were excellent - at some places they can be nothing more than a crunch-fest with negligible filling, but here you could really taste the well-made filling of pork, mung bean and black fungus.  Yum!!  Vegetarians, I'm not sure if they do it here, but at other places try asking for bun cha gio chay (vegie spring roll rice vermicelli salad), although check that the accompanying dressing is vegetarian.

Tra Vinh and Quang Vinh 007
Pennywort drink and orange egg soda, $3 each

I cannot get enough of the jasmine tea that is complimentary at every Vietnamese restaurant in a thermos on the table.  It is my number one hangover cure, preferably imbibed with copious amounts of yum cha.  Today we tried some Vietnamese cold drinks.  You HAVE to try the orange egg soda or sua hot ga.  It's a home-made soft drink made with orange juice, condensed milk and egg and tastes like a rich orange and mango milkshake - kids would go mad for it.  My pennywort drink was equally delicious, sweet with a very refreshing, almost grassy flavour.  Pennywort is apparently much prized in traditional medicine as an anti-anxiety agent, stamina-builder and is even thought to lower blood pressure.  In any case, after a crazy week, a great lunch with a lovely friend will do all of that anyway.

Tra Vinh
70 Nicholson St, Footscray (map)
Phone: 9687 8008

Wheelchair Accessibility
Entry:  Small, smooth ramp to enter
Layout:  A bit squishy but could accommodate

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Altona Pines 2

Garden and Altona 020

Ah, don't you just love the beach!  Actually, I don't really.  My skin was made for gathering kelp in the drizzle along a stony Irish coastline, not roasting under the hot Antipodean summer sun, hat jammed on head and sticky with 30+ sunscreen.  Pah, give me a misty peat bog anyday.  But what I do love is the excuse to eat fish and chips.

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Altona Pines Take Away is your last stop before the lifeguard station and the beach beyond.  It sits opposite a lovely park under the shade of the enormous pine trees.

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Love the old school sign!  The menu isn't going to win any prizes for originality but I like that.  They have a few different types of fish, from flake to blue grenadier to snapper.  I am biased towards places that still do the butcher's paper wrapping - it just feels right.  Eating fish and chips out of a box is like drinking champagne out of a tumbler.

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I love the glorious tumble when you open the last layer of paper a la pass-the-parcel and everyone dives for their deep-fried goodies.  People tend to have their "thing", be it fish and two potato cakes, fish and three calamari rings and/or a couple of fried dimmies in their paper bag with dark soy sauce.  Chips go without saying!

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The fish and chips here are really good with fish that's always fresh with crispy, ruffled batter and plenty of crunchy chips to squabble over like seagulls.  If the beach is too windy the park is a lovely place to sit, protected from the elements with a fence and trees.  There is great play equipment for the kids and on summer weekends they will have daggy but fun things like the police band.

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Really, I don't need an excuse to eat fish and chips.  The beach at sunset is a bonus.  I wonder if Altona Pines is Julia's favourite fish and chipper?

Altona Pines Takeaway
18 Pier St, Altona (map)
Phone:  9398 4903
Hours:  Lunch & dinner, 7 days

Wheelchair Accessibility
Door:  High lip/low step to enter.
Layout:  Room to manoeuvre but high counter.  No eat-in.
Bathroom:  None.
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