Monday, December 13, 2010

Huxtable Restaurant

There are quite a few places in Melbourne that I have been meaning to visit for some time and one of the places on this list is Huxtable Restaurant. One of the reasons for this is that their menu is based on the way I like to eat, divided into Bites (small individual portions) and "To Share" (larger, more substantial dishes designed for sharing). I like shared plates because they mean that you can try several different items as a group and everyone gets to try them all (if they want). So when a Saturday came up and there was not much else going on, we got a group of 4 together and headed down to Fitzroy. My good friends A & R and L (I promised I'd use their initials).

All being (relatively) adventurous eaters, we were eager to try a good mix of dishes from the menu and to start with we liked the idea of the Jalapeno and Cheddar Croquette.

Deep fried cheesy spicy goodness is the best way to describe these, although I would have liked more of a kick from the jalapeno, it was crispy on the outside and gooey and soft on the inside. All in all, a good mix of textures and flavours.

Next I chose the Rice Flour Crusted Oyster Po'Boy, Iceberg, Sriracha Mayo. This I really enjoyed, the oysters were deep fried and crispy and the lettuce was a nice and fresh and helped balance some of the richness of the fried oysters and mayo. Speaking of the mayo, that was definitely the star of this dish for me, smooth and spicy with some of the kick I missed from the jalapeno (sriracha is a Thai hot chilli sauce). I'd definitely go back for another one, but be warned - if you don't like oysters, so wont like these (as my friend A found out) as even with all the flavour from the mayo, the oysters still stand up for themselves.

So far you might be mistaken into thinking that Huxtable serves only American flavours, but you'd be wrong as they do cover a wide variety of cuisines and show a lot of influence from all around the world. The next dish showed a bit of Japanese influence - the Tempura Eggplant Prawn Fritter, Shiso. I really like deep fried eggplant, it turns almost into a delicious, savoury fairy floss and the combination of this with prawns was something I wouldn't have put together, but worked really well. The tempura batter was light and crisp.

Next up was the most controversial dish of the day, with R, L and myself all wanting to try it, but A was dead set against it. We didn't mind, that just meant more for us! Here it is, Veal Tartare, Soft Boiled Egg, Soldiers. I've had a few different tartares and this was definitely one of the better ones, a bit on the acidic side, which I quite like and plenty of onion and herbs too.

 I'm not sure if R chose the next dish because she wanted to bring something healthy to the meal or not after all the fried food, but I'm sure glad she did. Quinoa w Zucchini Flowers, Pomegranate, Goats Cheese was a great combination, every element was distinct and stood out on its own, but together they were really good. The fresh spring taste of zucchini flowers balanced by the creamy tartness of the goat's cheese and the occasional burst of brightness as the pomegranate seeds popped in the mouth was a great foil to the rest of our rich menu choices.

Next in line is the Roasted Duck Breast, Soy Braised Daikon, Sour Plum. Before this dish, we were discussing how we all liked the food and what might be our least favourite dish. I was struggling to come up with one dish that was any less than the others, all the dishes had been very good and well prepared. Then this dish came out and I finally had one. It looked awesome and while the duck was cooked well, the fat crisp and rendered, it was slightly overcooked for my taste. The whole dish had good elements, but overall the impression I got from it was bland. I expected more as I'm a big fan of duck, but I wouldn't order this again in a hurry.

 The last dish I want to talk about was the Korean BBQ Pork Ribs, Spicy Slaw, Chilli Gherkin. The skin on the ribs was crisp and the meat was sweet and delicious. The "Spicy" slaw was not so spicy and the "Chilli" gherkin had a distinct lack of heat. Even without the implied heat, this was a very good dish and who doesn't love pork?

Overall, Huxtable does things very well and the food is great and varied.  I don't know if the chef is holding back on the heat deliberately, but with so much influence from around the world I would expect a bolder hand with the seasonings. Especially when dish components are described as spicy or chilli, we know what to expect when we order it, in fact in most cases it's why we order it. Why not deliver?

The waitstaff were friendly and knowledgeable about the menu and were happy to make recommendations. When it comes to the decor, even though the floor is stone or concrete, the furnishings are well designed to keep the noise level down. The layout feels good and there are several different seating options available - stools at the bar, or high tables and stools near the window which are great for people watching, or normal tables at the back. I would definitely go back again, as there are still a good number of dishes I would like to try.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Asparagus Soup

One of my favourite things to do is go the market and look for inspiration for something delicious. Spring is a great time to do this as there is something new almost every week and what caught my attention this time was asparagus. I love the taste of asparagus and it matches well with a few other flavours I really enjoy, like bacon and garlic.

I'm also a big fan of soup and with an almost infinite number of possible combinations, it is one of the cooking methods I use most.

This asparagus soup is really one of the simplest dishes to make and explodes with intense, fresh flavour.

I began by setting a pot of salted water to boil, then cleaning the asparagus and cutting of the bottom 4 or 5 centimeters of each stalk. You can tell where to cut by picking up one stalk and holding the middle with one hand and bending the base with a thumb and forefinger until it snaps. Use this level as a guide for cutting the rest of the bunch. The part that snaps off is usually discarded, but if you're making a soup or stock, keep these to add flavour.

Next I sauteed the asparagus offcuts with some onion, garlic and a couple of bay leaves in a little butter to start the stock base.

To finish the stock I put this into a small pot with some vegetable stock and brought it to a simmer.

Once the salted water in the other pot had come to a boil, I dropped in the asparagus to cook.

Once it was tender, but still had a little bite to it, I picked out the asparagus and put them into an ice bath to stop them cooking and to keep the bright colour. It's a good idea to keep the cooking water until the soup is finished just in case you didn't make enough stock to get the soup to the consistency you like. That water has been flavoured by the asparagus and is a much better option than using plain water.

To finish the soup, I simply took the asparagus out of the ice bath and placed them into a blender with a small amount of the strained asparagus stock and blended this until it was smooth before adding more stock to get it to the right thickness. This was also the perfect time to taste and season the soup. Once this was done, I returned the soup back to a clean pot to reheat before serving.

To garnish, I gently fried a few strips of Jamon Iberico (but you can use bacon or prosciutto too) and a few drops of a really bright, grassy olive oil. Another garnish to make it extra decadent would be finishing it off with a dollop of creme fraiche.

 A very easy, bright coloured soup with lots of fresh flavour and a smokey, salty hit from the Jamon Iberico. I'll definitely want to make this one again before spring is over.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

...and we're back!

I don't even know how to start this post, but I figure after almost a year I should start out with something spectacular and mind blowing. Unfortunately I don't have anything like that...

What I do have, however is something of a retrospective. With the 20 year reunion of my high school graduation (yes, I AM that old) only weeks away and getting in touch with people I haven't spoken to or seen in that length of time has got me doing some serious self inventory. I know it's not really the point of this blog, but I promise to include some food related things...:)

Looking back, I've been thinking about my earliest food memories and probably the first food memory I can think of is learning to make crepes with my grandparents when I was about 6 or 7 years old. My grandmother - who did all the cooking - taught me how to mix the batter with a hand mixer and how to adjust the consistency of the batter until it was just right. My grandfather, who was always the one who liked joking around, was the one who taught me how to flip the crepes by shaking them to the edge of the pan and giving a sharp flick with my wrist. I'm sure many of them ended up on the floor, but it was a lot of fun learning. I still make crepes the same way (except with an electric mixer) and remember my grandparents and their kitchen each time I do.

Experimenting with food was also a significant part of my childhood, as I'm sure it was with many kids. Making crazy combinations of ingredients for a sandwich or proving I could eat the grossest things was a common theme as a teen. Ice Cream with Tomato Sauce anyone?

My strongest food memories are always those that involve other people and often the strongest memories of certain people have to do with food (or drinks) we shared. With Christmas right around the corner, I think back to all the huge gatherings that are a staple of that time of year. I am part of a very large extended family, with my parents having 6 or 7 siblings each. This makes for a lot of cousins - about 50 or so at last count.

For several years running, one of my dad's sisters and her husband would host a big family get together with an enormous spread of food. Seafood, roasts, salads, cakes, and of course copious amounts of alcohol. They were a great chance to catch up with members of the family that I almost never got to see at other times of the year and we would talk and laugh and reminisce until late into the night and continue relationships from right where we left off the previous year without missing a beat. Everyone understood that there were constraints on people's time and that it wasn't always possible to see each other often, but we made the most of the time we had and relished each others company and the brief time we had knowing we might not see each other again for another year.

Later, I remember our Christmas gatherings got a bit smaller as many of us who were teenagers eventually turned 18 and got our licenses and had other commitments and party invitations which at the time seemed more important, but it wasn't long before I started to miss those family feasts.

For several years at Christmas, we would open the doors of our house to friends who didn't have plans for that day, either because they lived far away from the rest of their family or because they had nowhere else to go that day (or maybe after the first time we did it, they heard about it and wanted to come...) and my parents would put on an impressive spread of food and we would spend a day sharing and enjoying the company of others and remembering what Christmas was all about.

In fact it wasn't just on special occasions that this happened, our house was always full of visitors and my parents were always welcoming. They opened the doors of their house (and their fridge) to a long line of friends of mine and my two brothers when we would show up at any hour of the day or night with groups of people in tow and they would almost never complain. Except for the noise when they were trying to sleep...:)

I guess that the example of my parents was very significant in the way I feel about hospitality and I like to think that in many ways I show that same spirit of acceptance, sharing and love that they taught me through their actions even though I probably show it in a different way.

In the last few years, I started getting a lot more serious about food and cooking and have made some effort to revive the traditions that I grew up with. Christmas is a big deal at our house and I start thinking about it months ahead of time. I always try to make it a big deal, not just for myself, but for family and friends. I hate to do a post without pictures, so I've included a couple of shots of some of the finger food I made last Christmas.

 Mini salads served in garlic croutons

Mini pizzas with Olive Tapenade, Caramelised Onion and Goat's Cheese.

The relationships I have with other people are the reason I am who I am. Of those people who I hope will one day read this post, some of you have been lifelong friends, some I have reconnected with after a long time and some are new friends, but you are all part of who I am today. I guess in a lot of ways I like to cook for people because I feel that it shows that I care about them, that they are important to me and that I want to do something special for them because they are a significant part of my life.

I'm sure some of you will think this was a bit sappy, in fact I just re-read it and even I think so, but hopefully I've done what I wanted to do which is explain a little about why I feel the way I do about cooking.