Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Hellenic Republic

Location: 434 Lygon Street, Brunswick East 3057
Phone: (03) 9381 1222
Link: www.hellenicrepublic.com.au
Cuisine: Greek

Another place that's been on my wishlist for a while has been George Calombaris' Hellenic Republic. Not exactly in the CBD, the place has often been brushed aside for a restaurant within the CBD. But not this time, we ventured out beyond the CBD to satisfy a craving for pita bread, dips and traditional Greek spit roasted meats.

Tram numbers 1 or 8 will get you to the Brunswick end of Lygon Street, and stop 126 is located directly outside the restaurant, about 25 minutes tram ride from Flinders Street Station.

Immediately upon entering, the amazing aromas of spit roasted meat hit us. A waitress shows us to our seats, and offer us a plate of mixed olives whilst we wait for our third member to arrive.

warm mixed olives
Again, we knock back the set menu (or what they call 'trapezi') in favour of designing our own menu.

We can't go past the pita bread with dips, and the waitress helpfully suggests we order a half serve of each dip (there are three) so that we can try them all.

warm pita bread with dips (clockwise from top-left): melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant, miso, tahini),
taramosalata (white cod roe dip) and tzatziki (cucumber, dill, garlic, olive oil and yoghurt)
The bread is warm, soft and fluffy inside, and tastes great even without the dips. But that's not why we've ordered it. The dips are divine. The roasted eggplant dip is unlike any other eggplant dip I have ever had before. At first taste, the first thing that hits you is the sweetness and there doesn't seem to be much eggplant flavour at all, Eventually, the subtle roasted eggplant flavour comes through, before the smokiness from the miso and tahini. It's a beautifully smooth texture, with a brilliant combination of flavours that just dance on the tongue.

The tamosalata is the saltier of the dips. It's a bit of a cross between a smoked salmon dip and an anchovy paste, but with the acidic flavour of lemons to cut through the saltiness. 

Tzatziki - the classic hero of Greek dips. Amazingly fresh, the yoghurt was light, smooth and creamy, the cucumber was fresh and crunchy and the garlic and olive oil were perfectly balanced. 

Having run out of bread, we save the dips to eat with the meats.

Having had an amazing corn-on-the-cob experience at Mamasita (yes yes, I still haven't done the review), this Greek version caught my eye and my curiosity would not let me skip it.

kalamboki - sweet corn, spiced butter, smoked almonds, kefalograviera
And it was amazing. Completely different to Mamasita's, but in a good way. The corn was smoky from the chargrill and served warm topped with a beautiful spiced butter and shaved kefalograviera cheese that was just starting to melt. The corn was sweet and juicy and the cheese was subtle. Slivers of smoked almonds were then scattered on top and around to provide yet another contrasting texture. Overall, a top dish. I could eat a whole meal of just this.

tyri saganaki - kefalograviera with peppered figs
Saganaki, another Greek classic that we just couldn't go past. Although, Hellenic Republic put its own spin on this classic by pairing the fried kefalograviera with sweetened peppered figs. Whilst not the biggest fan of the figs (I found them a little too sweet for my liking), I must admit the combination of flavours worked. The sweet peppery flavours of the fig cut through some of the heaviness of the fried cheese, and also provided a contrasting texture to the dish. 

meat platter: arni sto fourno (slow roasted shoulder of lamb, garlic, oregano)
and kotopoulo psistaria (Hazeldene’s free range chicken from the spit)
When I hear of Greek meat, my expectations skyrocket. We ordered the slow roasted lamb shoulder and the spit roasted chicken. Possibly because we had already eaten so much, but also possibly because I had set such high expectations for the quality of the meat, I was a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong, the meats were beautifully soft and tender. The lamb fell apart very easily, and the chicken was moist. But I found that both meats lacked seasoning compared to other Greek meats I've had in the past. I was expecting much stronger flavours - without which, the meat was more or less ordinary (but very well roasted) meat.

This was where the leftover dips from earlier came into play. The tzatziki went amazingly well with the lamb (classic combination of lamb and tzatziki), and the lemon flavours from the taramosalata paired very well with the chicken.

sides: tiganites patates (potatoes fried in olive oil, oregano, salt)
and patzari salata (beetroot salad, cumin yoghurt, coriander)
Sides, sides, sides. We probably could have done without these - or should have picked something a little different. The potatoes were relatively ordinary - reminding me a little of the duck fat potatoes from the Aylesbury, but without the duck fat. The beetroot salad was tasty, but the cumin gave the yoghurt a slightly odd taste. Given the selection of dishes we had ordered, we might have been better off with a lighter salad.

After standing in line for half an hour to buy some loukoumathes at the Canberra Multicultural Festival a few weeks earlier, there was no way I was going to pass by these Hellenic donuts.

loukoumathes - Hellenic donuts, local honey, walnuts, cinnamon
The donuts were crispy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, although at the end of a big meal, leaned a little to the heavy side. They were then coated with a thick honey syrup then sprinkled with walnuts and cinnamon. The honey was extremely sweet, and I made the first mistake of cutting open a donut, and dousing the inside with more honey. Big mistake. The walnuts provided a nutty relief to the honey overdose. 

Bakalava Yianniotiko
I've never been the biggest fan of baklava, but no Greek feast would be complete without it. The pastry on the top and bottom of each piece was built from several layers of filo pastry almost glued together from the honey (or was it sugar syrup?). The nuts inside were chopped finely and tightly packed together. Whilst I found the baklava too sweet, it was one of the better ones I've had before.

Greek coffee

H chose to finish her meal off with a Greek coffee. I personally could not understand why, the coffee was strong, bitter and grainy. But regardless of my opinion (and given I admittedly do not know much about coffee), H enjoyed hers.

Service was friendly and pleasant, and despite having told us on booking that we could only have the table for two hours, we were allowed to stay for longer. There was definitely a friendly warm atmosphere within the restaurant, and it was relatively loud, so it was nice that the tables were fairly well spaced out.

Overall Impression: 9/10
Hellenic Republic on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 12, 2012

Money Order Office

Location: Driver Lane (near corner Bourke/Elizabeth Streets), Melbourne 3000
Phone: (03) 9639 3020
Link: www.moneyorderoffice.com.au
Cuisine: Tapas, Modern Australian, European

One place that's been on my list for a long time now has been Money Order Office, and on my latest trip back to Melbourne, I finally had the opportunity to try it out.

Tucked away at the end of a little laneway opposite GPO, Money Order Office isn't exactly the easiest place to find. It has a cute little exterior, and upon entering, you descend down some steps before an automatic glass door opens for you. We suspect there is a sense somewhere on the stairs, but we couldn't find it (not that we tried very hard).

Inside the ambiance is classy but relaxed. The lighting is dim, and there are seats in booths, as well as proper tables. We're allocated a nice booth along one of the walls with a nice view of the rest of the restaurant.

A waitress introduces herself and runs through the 8-course chef's selection for the evening. It's her first night  on the job, and I'm very impressed that most of the dishes roll off her tongue with little hesitation.

Despite the degustation sounding lovely, we opt to design our own menu for the night. A couple of small bites, two larger share dishes and a salad.

First out is the charcuterie. I think Cumulus Inc, Coda and the Aylesbury have spoiled me when it comes to cured meat, and charcuterie has become almost a staple for me when dining tapas-style.

charcuterie - serrano ham, chorizo-style cured meat and salami with pickles 
This charcuterie board came with a selection of three types of cured meats - a serrano ham, a chorizo-style meat (the name of which escapes me) and a type of salami - accompanied by mixed pickles and a few slivers of raw garlic. The serrano ham was salty and with a delicate texture very similar to thinly sliced pancetta. The chorizo style meat was a little heavier with a subtle smokey flavour and slightly more chewy. The salami was what you would expect of salami, but again delicately sliced. Impressed? Yes. A good appetiser start to the meal!

Being avid seafood fans, the next dish that came out had us almost salivating just from reading the menu description.

crab & avocado toast - sous vide spanner crab on avocado toast, served with a spiced watermelon gazpacho 
Toast is a little misleading, because the base was more of a crispy cracker than anything bread-like (I'm going to refrain from making a tax-related joke). The cracker was topped with a mound of sweet and juicy diced crab meat, pieces of creamy avocado and a squeeze of fresh lime. The freshness of the topping was evident from the first bite and an amazing taste sensation.  The watermelon gazpacho was served shooter-style (designed to be shot after eating the 'toast'). We ignored those instructions, and whilst the other two found the taste a little odd (shot it before finishing off their 'toast'), I found it went surprisingly well eaten with the 'toast'. For me, this was dish of the night.

The next dish was an interesting one that we had never seen nor heard of before, so we weren't quite sure what to expect. (Wikipedia tells me that a 'brandade' is an emulsion of salt cod and olive oil.)

salted cod brandade with fennel jam, green olives and broccoli
The dish was definitely different. Pieces of salted cod were tossed through were small pieces of broccoli, small green olives and fresh fennel which was then placed atop a mound of fennel puree. The salted cod was fairly salty, and went well with the subtle flavours of the fennel. I wasn't entirely sure of what role the broccoli or olives were meant to play, but the dish itself was quite pleasant to eat.

My fascination for pork belly always seems to override the risk that I may be disappointed by yet another badly done pork belly (too dry, too oily, too bland and not crunchy enough are the usual faults). So we took a gamble and ordered the pork belly from the list of larger dishes. One thing caught my eye the most with this menu entry - the cider foam.

twice cooked pork belly with jamon, savoy cabbage & cider foam
I was not disappointed. The pork belly was perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned and the crackling was crispy. Not quite Red Spice Road, but this was good in its own way. The meat was tender and had retained most of its juices and the fat was well-rendered such that the meat did not taste too oily or fatty. The savoy cabbage had been softened through either blanching or stewing, which brought out its natural sweetness (I'm not the biggest fan of the cutting taste of raw cabbage). And the cider foam was definitely a venture into molecular gastronomy. The cider used was sweet and lightly tangy without a very strong beer taste, and had been aerated to a consistency just lighter than that of whipped cream.

Our other meat dish was a slow cooked duck breast.

slow cooked duck breast with cauliflower puree, plum jam (right) & orange caramel
Whilst the other dishes had come out in fairly quick succession, the duck took its sweet time coming out. But when it was finally brought out, it didn't disappoint. The duck meat was still tender and soft, although perhaps a little overdone. The cauliflower puree was smooth and creamy, providing a nice base which soaked up some of the duck juices. The plum jam and orange caramel provided a nice sweet and zingy contrast to the gamey flavour of the duck.

heirloom tomatoes, shallots, goats curd, basil & apple cider vinaigrette
To finish it all off, the we ordered the heirloom tomato salad. The salad consisted of a few types of tomatoes, shallots and creamy pieces of goats curd, drizzled in fresh cider based dressing.

Service was extremely polite and pleasant, and aside from the duck, the dishes came out very quickly. Definitely a highly recommended place - particularly if you're fan of Cumulus, Coda or the Aylesbury.

Overall Impression: 9.5/10
Money Order Office (Moo) on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Urban Food Store + Cafe

Location: Cnr Edinburgh and Marcus Clarke Streets, Acton 2601
Phone: (02) 6162 3440
Link: www.outincanberra.com.au/urbanfoodstorecafe
Cuisine: Breakfast, Cafe

It's been a while since my last review, and it hasn't been completely due to the lack of eating. Although I must say, after two years in our nation's capital, I still haven't found much on the food scene that I've been that impressed with. There's a couple of 'regulars', but all in all, it's not Melbourne.

Something that has been a bit of a highlight over the past two years has been the lazy weekend brunches. If anything, these cafes can do a decent breakfast that's big enough to definitely cater for the two meals brunch is supposed to substitute for. And they've generally been worth waking up 'early' for.

That brings me to the latest brunch adventure. Due to the heavy downpour of rain (so much for it never raining in Canberra...), we decided against walking into the city and took a car to Acton.

Urban Food falls into the stereotypical category of upbeat cafe. Decent portion sizes, organic and fresh produce, good coffee and a mishmash of wooden and aluminium decor.

Despite the place bustling, we're seated within a couple of minutes, and menus are already on the table. I skip the first page of 'the usuals' and launch straight into the fancier dishes - if I'm going to pay for breakfast, I'm going to order something I can't make at home.

A couple of dishes catch my eye but I settle on the zucchini and corn fritters. It's a bit of a gamble, as fritters can sometimes err on the side of being too heavy,  but I've heard good things about Urban Food and am keen to see how they go.

zucchini and corn fritters, with bacon, poached egg, wilted spinach and smokey BBQ sauce
They live up to expectations. The fritters are light and fluffy but hold together enough to remain in a stack for presentation purposes. Flavour-wise, it's well seasoned and the corn kernels provide a fresh zing and different texture to the otherwise smooth zucchini and batter mix. The bacon is crispy but not burnt, and the poached egg is so perfectly poached that after cutting apart the whites, the yolk is still runny yet intact. The BBQ sauce is sweet and smokey and fairly strong, so I'm glad they've put it on the side. It works really well with the fritters, but you don't need much of it.

M orders the bacon, hash and eggs, with a side of lamb sausages. The dish looks great, the potato is seasoned with bacon pieces and dill. The sausages are nicely browned. Good feedback.

bacon, hash and eggs with lamb sausages and roasted Truss tomatoes
Service is pleasant despite the place buzzing with customers, and the wait isn't as long as one might expect from a place with so many customers and such an extensive menu. I'm no coffee expert, but my mocha has the same aroma as the one I had at Farmers Daughter, and I've been assured that it's what a 'good coffee' tastes like.

Definitely worth missing a sleep in for!

Overall Impression: 9/10
Urban Food Store and Cafe on Urbanspoon