Pimp My Plate #36 – GIRDLERS, Dee Why, NSW

Breakfast, brunch, or lunch reviews where the main plate is $20 or less.

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You say heatwave? I say it’s another excuse for a beach café review…

As I sit opposite the bold blue sky meets ocean horizon of Dee Why beach, the words laid-back and lucky best describe the ambience of GIRDLERS cafe.

The mood is laid-back and no fuss – customers wear bikinis, shorts, or loose summery garments. Dee Why, located on Sydney’s northern beaches, is more a local hangout than a tourist spot like Manly or Bondi. There’s a community vibe and because it’s school summer holidays, lots of young tanned bodies are wearing as little as possible.

GIRDLERS sits on a prime corner location facing the beach, so you can watch the waves and visually crowd-surf a parade of beachgoers from your table.

Their vision is SIMPLE. HONEST. FOOD. Because it’s a heatwave outside of 38°C/100.4°F that is exactly the kind of food I feel like.

I read the menu and GIRDLERS’ vision: ‘There’s a spot at the South end of Dee Why we like to call our own. It’s a place where the people are real, where you can kick back and take your time, a place where you can always count on a great coffee, a clear view of the ocean and the smell of good things cooking.’

Every workplace should have this view – magic.

Tables are scrubbed-back distressed wood, enamelware plates, and the brick wall features a hippy-lace decal, and an interesting vintage photo I forgot to ask about. There’s an easy ambience, and a faded-summer-sun softness to the decor.

As I said it’s REALLY HOT. I claim the table directly under the furiously rotating ceiling fan because it IS THAT HOT.

I choose pancakes for lunch, but first I order a Sweet Cheeks ($9) – a mix of watermelon, apple, cucumber, lime and raspberry juice. It’s cold and super-refreshing. There’s also Kombucha on tap and Kombucha Spritz, fresh juices, super smoothies, and milkshakes.

My plate of gluten and dairy free Pancake Revolution ($19) arrives – coconut and banana pancakes with seasonal berries, homemade Goodtella (a Nutella substitute), vanilla coconut yoghurt, and a generous sprinkle of crushed pistachio nuts. And organic maple syrup. Yum!

It’s incredibly filling and perfect for a not-too-heavy but satisfying lunch.

Another menu temptation is Goat On the Orchard ($16) – organic rye sourdough toast with Danish goat’s feta, fresh peaches, raspberries, and organic activated nut spread, drizzled with Hinterland Honey.

There are egg dishes, and Glow Bowls ($18) based around tofu or haloumi cheese, with kale, quinoa, roasted field mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, and cauliflower sauce. Another reason to go back.

GIRDLERS is a space to kick-back and inhale beach air, smell the coffee, and ponder whether afterwards to sit in the shade of the pine trees with a book, take a long walk along the beach, swim, or wander down to the rock pools and explore. So many choices and all of them designed by Nature to kiss your spirits and extend that state of relaxation.

If you’re wondering about the name – GIRDLERS is so close to the word Grinders, isn’t it?  –  the café is named after local and ex-football player Ryan Girdler and his wife, Katja.

Once a run-down juice bar, husband and wife team Ryan and Katja and their friend Sebastian have created a café with a mindset committed to healthy deliciousness. Before or after the beach, this is the place to park your beach bum.

RATED: Pimped by pancakes!  FOOD: 4/5
VALUE: 4/5   VENUE ATMOS: 100% Laid back
VIBE:  Beachside
GIRDLERS – 7-8 The Strand, Dee Why, NSW
7 days. M-S: 6.30am-5pm SUN: 7am-5pm

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Pimp My Plate #34 – Native Feel Real, Manly, NSW

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A ‘summer holiday vibe’ is just a ferry ride away…

Manly Beach is only a 15 minute fast-ferry ride from Sydney business district, but it feels a world away.

Thankfully there are no commercial high rise buildings blocking the beachfront, just towering Norfolk Island pine trees.

Bare feet, board shorts, and bikinis replace suits on the streets as well as the beach so it’s easy to embrace the holiday vibe even if it’s only for a lunch hour.

When you step off the ferry at Manly Wharf you have the choice of three beaches – Manly Cove, Cabbage Tree Bay, and Manly Beach.

On your left, West Esplanade runs along Manly Cove toward Manly Sea Life Sanctuary. If you turn right along East Esplanade you’ll be walking alongside Cabbage Tree Bay, and eventually arrive at Manly Yacht Club.

To reach Manly Beach itself, walk straight ahead through The Corso.

The Corso is the central hub of Manly, with lots of retail and several large pubs, and full of tourists, buzz, and buff. The smaller laneways connecting to it offer a feast of boutique cafés and bars.

Not many people know that The Corso was named after the Via Del Corso in Rome, and was originally a water inlet flowing from the harbour to the ocean.

Did you know that Manly was originally designed as a copy of the English city of Brighton?

Back in the 1850s, English-born merchant and politician Henry Gilbert Smith had a huge influence on Manly.

Smith envisioned Manly as an antipodean version of the famous Brighton seaside resort he revered.

He also introduced beachside attractions to cater for day trippers of the era – a miniature version of Vauxhall Gardens, a Camera Obscura, boat-shaped swings, and a bath-house located at the end of West Esplanade.

How I wish the Camera Obscura was still in operation, certainly a drawcard for me!

All these years later Manly has evolved its own vibrant personality and community. It is the birthplace of Australian surfing and was one of the world’s first surfing reserves.

It now has over 100 bars, cafés, and restaurants Manly has plenty to offer locals and tourists.

But that’s enough history, let’s eat…

Wandering down East Esplanade, I found Native Feel Real tucked just around the corner in Wentworth Street.

Native Feel Real is a small café with several tables outside. You can eat-in or takeaway.

Their menu offers raw and plant-based superfoods that are mostly gluten-free, and their philosophy is serving ‘nourishing food from Mother Earth’.

The lunch menu includes a Native Bowl ($17.50) – a salad of raw, seasonal vegetables; a Raw Pizza (cooked below 44°C) topped with homemade pesto, spinach, mushrooms, carrots, beetroot, pumpkin, sprouts and activated cashew cheese ($17.50).

Rawsome Spaghetti ($16) is made with raw zucchini spirals, homemade pesto, spinach, tomatoes and sprouts, and grated cashew parmesan cheese, and there’s also Rawsome Lasagne.

I chose the fully cooked Quinoa Risotto ($16.50) – a mix of seasonal vegetables pan fried with quinoa and coconut cream and served on a bed of mixed lettuce and topped with alfalfa sprouts and cashew cheese. Three words: It was delicious.

It’s hard to ignore the large range of raw sweets at the counter so I ordered an itsy bitsy white chocolate and berry cake ($6).

Native Feel Real is focused on raw and gluten free drinks, but has a nice arrangement with the bar next door. They have an espresso machine so you can buy a really good takeaway coffee to enjoy with your dessert.

Native Feel Real has a yummy list of power juices, and smoothies including Liver Scrubber, Be Yourself, and Mayan Warrior.

Their selection of naturopathic teas includes Green Goddess Detox, Fountain of Youth, and Golden Glow.

You’ll find lots of cafés in Manly, but I liked the peaceful and reflective vibe of this one.

Native Feel Real offers a nice yin-yang balance of healthy food and being able to hear yourself think.

Or write your own message on a post-it note, to add to the wall of café philosophy.

As things get pre-Christmas crazy in December, it’s especially nice to have a getaway from all ‘the noise’.

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RATED: Pimped!  FOOD: 4/5   Satisfies body and soul
VALUE: 4.5/5   VENUE ATMOS: Café philosophy
VIBE:  Feel real
Native Feel Real – Shop 1A, 40 East Esplanade, Manly, NSW

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Pimp My Plate #33 – The Boatshed, Tea Gardens, NSW

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PMP is usually focused on brunch or lunches under $19 but we’re about flavour and value so we remain flexible.

Ducks, pelicans, local vibe = fabulous.

Snap! Sometimes a lazy lunch perched on a river is a much better bet than a citified Melbourne Cup lunch.

If you need convincing, consider a restaurant table overlooking a river, watching a duck family paddle past, while you’re served a complimentary glass of sparkling wine.  

Almost a moving meditation!

On the pier opposite, a large pelican basks lazily in the sun eyeing diners. Languid, but not crazy lazy, he is ready and alert to consume any food morsels that slip through the wooden decking into the water below.

Sometimes you want to slow the pace a little, because sometimes a lazy lunch can feel like a holiday in itself.

And sometimes you don’t even know you want to slow down until you do.

That’s the vibe you whole-heartedly and effortlessly embrace at Tea Gardens Boatshed. Why hurry paradise?

For me, Miles Davis’ ‘So What’ came to mind in an easy, ‘I’m where I want to be’ vibe.

Here there are boats, but no marina. Instead the river is fringed with mangroves and sea birds, not infrastructure.

The natural calm and serenity is punctuated by the pop of an occasional champagne cork, the clink of glasses, conversation, and easy laughs. Paradise, right? Are you relaxed yet?

The food at the Boatshed embraces this languid mood, but it’s not lazy, instead it glows with fresh goodness and attentiveness on the plate and the palate.

What brought me to Tea Gardens? I was travelling back from Tastings on the Hastings food festival and chose to stop over in Tea Gardens to break our trip back to Sydney. We had no set plans for Melbourne Cup Day or any expectations of fine dining.

We found both.

I’m a Sydneysider, and to see a poster advertising a Melbourne Cup lunch – the ‘race that stops a nation’ – for $60 a head felt a lot like finding an Eames chair for sale at a thrift store for $5. If only I had, ever.

So that was surprise #1.

Surprise #2 was that the Boatshed could accommodate our booking with only one day’s notice.

On Melbourne Cup Day, it seems that the locals in Tea Gardens are spoilt for choice between their own lounge rooms, their local RSL, and the local hotel. Perhaps locals consider it a bit ‘fancy’ to go to a restaurant, who knows.

The Boatshed isn’t ‘fancy’ it’s just simply fabulous. And it’s situated slap-bang on the river bank in a prime ‘embrace Nature’ position.

Which means we immediately felt any weight from city life instantly evaporate from our shoulders. Sun, wildlife, food. You get the picture.

We visited the Boatshed twice – once for the special occasion degustation Melbourne Cup lunch, and then again to eat on a regular work day.

I’ll start with The Cup lunch.

Canapes on arrival, a glass of sparkling wine, and then three courses of delicious food. We were ready.

The sun sparkled over the river as boats lolled about on the calm blue water, and sea birds stretched their wings in the sunshine.

We joined a small group of diners – a mix of locals, and Sydney expats.

You can’t fake “country hospitality” or its twin, “country congeniality”.

Where else would a restaurant come to a standstill as we demanded one of the diners don his inflatable horse and jockey garb – because we missed it first time around – while his wife held aloft a bucket of champagne because they won best costume of the day. They won for attitude and bravado, rather than celebrity. So much of that missing these days!

On this day, in this place, quality food, friendliness and inclusiveness surpassed any on-trend city hipster-ism.

Between courses, conversations swirled between local concerns like midges, art courses, dog-walking, and other local gossip. Temporarily, we felt like  adopted family. And that was even before one of the locals generously offered to buy everyone in the restaurant a drink. Name the last time that happened to you?

This Melbourne Cup lunch was the best I’ve ever experienced. And at $60 per head I kept kicking myself – is this real? It was. And it was really worth $160 per head.

So you can understand why we went back for lunch – and were similarly impressed.

The Boatshed serves great food – simple, full of flavour with, on special occasions, a flair that is easily comparable with Sydney bistros.

Spend your money here. Feel the love and enjoy the flavours. Feel special. Support the locals. Meet the locals.

RATED: Oh so, pimped!  FOOD: 5/5   Feel special and eat well.
VALUE: 6/5   VENUE ATMOS: A holiday in each bite!   VIBE:  Punching way about their weight and winning.

TEA GARDENS BOATSHED – 110 Marine Drive, Tea Gardens, NSW

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Pimp My Plate #31 – BAR ITALIA, Leichhardt, NSW

PIMP MY PLATE is back in Australia and back to a budget of AUD$19-ish.

This month I’ve been posting a series of three café reviews focused on one particular dish – Spaghetti Bolognese.  See my previous September reviews: Bravo and No Name.

A traditional version of Bolognese sauce includes onion, celery, and carrot, different types of minced or chopped beef, and sometimes small amounts of fatty pork, red wine, tomato concentrate and/or ripe tomatoes.

This week I twirl my fork at an Italian restaurant in Leichhardt. This is the third and last restaurant I’ll be reviewing in my search for that old favourite, Spaghetti Bolognese.

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Bar Italia Restaurant – Ristorante #3

BAR ITALIA opened its doors in 1952. With a sunny façade and its Italian tricolour awning, it sits midway down Norton Street, Sydney’s hub of Italian restaurants and stores.  Nearby is a cake store that features an elaborate and mesmerising cake in its window – designed to celebrate a First Holy Communion – a giant cannolo tied with a blue ribbon.

If you like your coffee Italian-style –strong and full of flavour – this is one of the few places in Sydney you’ll find it.

Ordering at the counter is simple – once you can decide! The blackboard menu is extensive, and inexpensive.

Spaghetti Bolognese is my choice and I don’t even have to check the menu to see if it’s on it.

My order of Spaghetti Bolognese ($15.50), Garlic Bread ($3.50), and a Flat White coffee ($3.50) makes a satisfying and filling meal for $23.00.

Aside from Schnitzels, every option on the blackboard menu meets my usual Pimp My Plate $19 budget. There’s Focaccia and Paninis ($8.50), Pasta, Lamb Shanks ($18.50), Veal ($18.50), Soups ($12.90), Corsica Pizza ($19.50), and Sirloin Steak ($18.50). And they do Vegetarian Lasagne ($15.50).

BAR ITALIA is divided into two sections – the restaurant area, and the gelataria, where you can order a gelato and a coffee and sit at a table to eat it.

You can sit inside the restaurant near the framed Godfather LP record, or outdoors, under a canopy of flowering pink bougainvillea. I sit outside with the breeze occasionally sprinkling my table with petals.

My coffee arrives first, in a traditional red and green Vittoria Coffee porcelain cup. It’s what I call ‘industrial strength’ and that’s just how I like my coffee. And it’s coffee without compromise! There’s no Skim Milk, no Light Milk, and no Soy Milk served here.

My side of garlic bread and bowl of spaghetti arrives and I spy the now familiar powdered parmesan cheese.

The spaghetti is al dente, and the Bolognese sauce is good, if basic. There’s no parsley, no carrot, no celery, but the other two restaurants didn’t include those ingredients in their sauce either.

The garlic bread, a Kaiser roll, is better than most. Even so, I can’t finish eating it. Likewise, the quantity of spaghetti is too generous to finish eating it either.

I feel the need to apologise to the waiter when she comes to clear my table. No one likes food wastage.

In the unlikely event I was to run a marathon, this would be the fuel I’d consume. Instead, I plan a long walk along Norton Street, with a food-for-thought stopover at Berkelouw’s bookstore in lieu of dessert.

BAR ITALIA is the type of Italian café-restaurant we all want and need – in every suburb. It’s nice that the staff speaks Italian; it’s nice that the vibe is so relaxed; and it’s nice that you can eat a meal or just sit and enjoy a scoop of gelato.

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That brings my quest ‘to see how easy it would be to find Spaghetti Bolognese on the menu’ to an end – for now. I’ll leave it for you to decide which restaurant offers the best overall value.

None of the three restaurants cooked a traditional Bolognese sauce – containing carrots, celery, or bacon, and none offered the option of freshly grated parmesan cheese.

With than in mind, I’ll be posting my own recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese tomorrow, that you can cook yourself.

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RATED: Chillaxed and well-fed  FOOD: 3.5/5
VALUE: 4/5   ATMOS: Authentic   VIBE:  Old skool Italian
BAR ITALIA – 169-171 Norton Street, Leichhardt, Sydney, NSW

(Note: cash only, no cards. There is a multi-bank ATM facility on site)

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Pimp My Plate #29 – NO NAME, Darlinghurst, NSW

PIMP MY PLATE is back in Australia and back to a budget of AUD$19-ish.

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This month I’m posting a series of three café reviews focused on one particular dish. Remember that old Italian-Australian favourite Spaghetti Bolognese?

‘Pimp my Bolognese, again!’

In this week’s quest to see if Spaghetti Bolognese has disappeared from Sydney menus, I twirl my fork in one of Darlinghurst’s oldest Italian restaurants.

As I mentioned last week, a traditional version of Bolognese sauce includes onion, celery, and carrot, different types of minced or chopped beef, and sometimes small amounts of fatty pork, red wine, tomato concentrate and/or ripe tomatoes.

This is the second of three plates of Spaghetti Bolognese I’ll be reviewing.

No Name Restaurant – Ristorante #2

It seems like NO NAME restaurant has been in Darlinghurst for …. forever. Decades ago, when I worked in an advertising agency nearby NO NAMES (as we called it) was a regular hangout on Friday afternoons with the tribe.

I remember this restaurant from as far back as the mid-1970s. Even so, I’d have been shocked if Spaghetti Bolognese had disappeared from the menu.

My heart skips a beat …  Yes! It’s still on the menu. ‘Of course it is,’ I reprimand myself.

I order a ‘small’ Garden Salad ($4 – say whaaat?) to accompany my bowl of Spaghetti Bolognese ($10), and with that I get a complimentary side of bread, a glass of cordial, and a glass of water.

‘Parmesan cheese?’

‘Yes,’ I answer without any expectations of fresh Parmesan cheese.

When it first opened, NO NAME began a tradition of offering simple, no-fuss Italian food, with a rustic style.

Not much has changed since in the style of décor or the food, and that’s its charm. The fact that over so many years NO NAME continues to offer basic Italian meals at a price that seems oblivious to inflation is unique. Especially in a large city like Sydney, where change is a constant of this city’s restaurant scene.

If my memory is correct, the only thing missing on my table compared to ‘back then’ are the little glass salt-shaker bottles full of dried chilli flakes. Part of the Friday lunch ceremony was sprinkling copious amounts of chilli flakes over our bowls of spaghetti. In their place is a sea of bright yellow plastic squeeze bottles full of vinegar. What these are for, I’m not sure, and I don’t care to find out.

My bowl of spaghetti arrives and it looks good, and tastes good. There’s no garnish or carrot – no fuss – but I notice a pleasing ratio of sauce to pasta.

This is cheap and cheerful food. It offers flavour and fills you up, and does both at an incredibly good price. So my second experience of Spaghetti Bolognese is filling, no-frills, and enjoyable. And there’s enough sauce.

NO NAME’S blackboard menu features other dishes including, Schnitzels ($15-$24), Scaloppini w Mushrooms (another old favourite), and Osso Buco (both $12), Liver and Onions ($14), and Steak and Onions ($15).

About the name NO NAME – how did it begin?

According to urban legend, the original restaurant sign kept being knocked down by passing rubbish trucks. Faced with having to continually replace the restaurant sign, eventually the restaurant was left with no name – literally.

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After lunch, I head downstairs to Darlinghurst’s other long term resident, THE ARCH, for dessert: a great cup of coffee and a crunchy pistachio biscotti.

My next and final Spaghetti Bolognese encounter is next week.

RATED: No frills  FOOD: 3/5
VALUE: 4.5/5   ATMOS: Minimalist   VIBE:  No-frills fun
NO NAME – 2 Chapel Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney, NSW

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Pimp My Plate #28 – BRAVO, Crows Nest, NSW

PIMP MY PLATE is back in Australia and back to a budget of AUD$19-ish.

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This month I’m posting a series of three café reviews focused on one particular dish. Remember that old Italian-Australian favourite Spaghetti Bolognese?

‘Pimp my Bolognese!’

Spaghetti – do you swirl it, scoop it, or slurp it?

In Italian cuisine Bolognese sauce is used to dress tagliatelle al ragù and to prepare lasagne. Or other broad, flat pasta shapes like pappardelle or fettuccine. In Australia, however, the sauce is synonymous with spaghetti.

How do you feel about those two words: Spaghetti Bolognese? Can you remember the days when every Italian restaurant table in Australia wore a red checked tablecloth, and an empty wax-covered Chianti bottle sat on top of it? Or maybe you’ve parked that dish too far back in your memory?

Or maybe you’ve never even seen it on a menu?!

In Italian cuisine Bolognese sauce is known as ragù alla Bolognese, a meat-based sauce originating from, you guessed it, Bologna, in Italy.

A traditional version of the sauce includes onion, celery, and carrot, different types of minced or chopped beef, and sometimes small amounts of fatty pork, red wine, tomato concentrate and/or ripe tomatoes.

Most Italian restaurants in Australia have now replaced red checked tablecloths with crisp white ones, or smooth wooden tabletops. Bottles of Chianti are stocked behind the bar unless you BYO – Australian vernacular for ‘Bring Your Own’.

In 2016 has Spaghetti Bolognese disappeared from menus altogether? My quest is to find out.

I’ll be reviewing three plates of Spaghetti Bolognese from three different restaurants, over three weeks. Each week I’ll post a review, and it’s up to you to choose which version you’d prefer to eat.

Let’s begin.

Bravo Trattoria – Ristorante #1

Over the years BRAVO has changed its menu, and its location. The ‘old’ BRAVO, situated in busy Falcon Street, opened in 1995. Its front counter was THE go-to for true Italian gelato, and people – including me – would travel distances to eat it.

The restaurant section featured a mural of Italian figures sitting, relaxing, playing guitar. Above them was a hand-painted list of the 101 different sauces you could order with your pasta.

Tragic circumstances closed the restaurant for several years, then BRAVO reopened ‘around the corner’ in 2013 in a newly fitted out space, offering an upmarket menu, and a new lease on life – ‘Bravo!’

Today is Saturday and the restaurant is full of diners eating lunch, but I only have to wait a few minutes. I take a seat and check the blackboard, scrolling past Risotto Calamari with peas and ricotta ($24.90), and Beef Ribs w cauliflower puree and cavolo nero ($34.90).

I spy Spaghetti Bolognese ($19.90) on the printed menu and order it, while my dining companion orders the risotto.

Also on the blackboard menu is BRAVO’s special dish, Spaghetti Amatriciana Guanciali ($24.90). My waitress explains that BRAVO is donating a percentage of the meal price to aid victims of the recent earthquake in Amatrice, Italy. Bravo! BRAVO.

I plunge my fork into my friend’s risotto for a taste, and it’s good. Now to focus on my spaghetti!

I pick up my fork and spoon – I’m a twirler. But first I tease the spaghetti, to distribute the Bolognese sauce through it.

The waitress places a small bottle of Parmesan cheese powder on the table, and I ask if they have any fresh Parmesan to grate over my plate. They don’t have it, I’m told. I’m a little stunned that any Italian restaurant would not have fresh Parmesan cheese on the premises, and I suddenly feel like I’ve been transported back to the 1970s. I can almost understand why a restaurant might prefer not to offer expensive cheese with a cheaper basic meal… Wait a minute, no I can’t! But to not have any in the restaurant AT ALL?

The spaghetti is al dente as you’d expect, or how I would describe it – springy, with an enjoyable bite and just how I like it. However the sauce disappeared into the nest of pasta almost immediately.

The amount of pasta is generous, but my eyes are asking for more sauce, or more ragu. There’s no evidence of carrot or celery in this sauce but it does have flavour. Are there onions? I can’t tell.

It’s a filling meal but I’m left wanting more ….  sauce. Several gratings of fresh cheese would have lifted this dish to another level  … of both taste, and passion.

So my first experience of Spaghetti Bolognese is a little disappointing.

Dessert however is a different story – ‘delizioso’!

The Sicilian Cannoli ($5.70 each piece) with pistachio nuts is rocking my taste buds. My cannolo is filled with a lemon-scented custard that is light, delicious, and not too sweet. A single piece of cannoli is called cannolo which means, ‘little tube’.

As a side note: my companion rated his Risotto Calamari 3.5 out of 5.

‘Grazie per il pasto.’

What will I discover next week?

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RATED: Fresh Parmesan cheese please!  FOOD: 3/5
VALUE: 4/5   ATMOS: 3.5/5   VIBE:  Always friendly and consistent
BRAVO TRATTORIA  59 Willoughby Rd, Crows Nest NSW

 

Pimp My Plate #25 – Boston, MA

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This month PIMP MY PLATE visits the east coast of the USA to see if Boston could pimp my plate. With AUD$19 currently equivalent to USD$14.50 excluding tips and taxes I’ve scrapped the usual budget in my search for flavour.

‘Salty kisses from the sea…’

Saltie Girl Seafood Bar

Few words can stop me in my tracks like OYSTERS, as I walked down Dartmouth St in Boston in the middle of a heatwave. Seconds later I was up those stairs, pushing open the door, and gazing at unshucked oysters behind the counter.

I’d just eaten lunch, so my most pressing question was whether Saltie Girl was open for dinner that night. ‘We stay open, first in gets a table.’ Dinner sorted.

Oysters. There are lovers and haters. I’ve been a lover for most of my adult life. It was a hallelujah moment when I first realized that oysters were so much more than slimy, shapeless, greyish blobs … that they are in fact poetry. If you’re still lurking in the grey area of oyster appreciation, think of them as salty kisses from the sea, which they are. Each ocean fresh salty kiss has a transformative power to rewind your senses back to ocean swims and happy times you’ve spent at the beach.

And if oysters don’t excite you there is always lobster – for breakfast, entree, main, maybe even dessert.

Because when it comes to access to quality east coast seafood, Boston is surrounded by choice. From its home state of Massachusetts you can feast on produce from Cape Cod (SE of Boston), and from Martha’s Vineyard (south of Cape Cod).

Further north is the state of Maine, famous for its prized Maine Lobsters which are considered the most succulent in texture and flavour. Down south, seafood is sourced from the state of Connecticut, the waterways of Washington, and the fisheries of Long Island Sound, which stretches between Connecticut and Long Island.

To a seafood lover, the criss-cross of Boston streets can easily be reimagined as interlocking lines on a giant trawler net. Boston is brimming with a diverse choice of sea creatures, with a seafood restaurant on every block.

Back to Saltie Girl. It’s a niche bar-seafood-hideaway. There are several cosy booths or you can sit at the well-stocked bar beneath the gaze of two mermaids.

The wait staff are hipster cool and know their seafood. There’s a set menu of main meal options, and a cutesy tick the box with a pencil menu of fresh crustaceans.

We wanted to try as locavore as possible, so for oysters we ticked Martha’s Vineyard and for sentimental purposes, Long Island Sound. I’ve seen those long skinny Razor Clams at Sydney Fish Markets but never tried them so this was my opportunity. The oysters were ocean-fresh and didn’t need condiments. The Razor Clam was pre-cut and seasoned and I didn’t like the texture as much as my dinner partner did.

Maine Lobster. No way was I going to pass up the opportunity to try it.

I chose a  Gloucester Lobster Roll (USD$32 Market Price) the lobster meat originating from Gloucester, Mass. The next decision was whether to order it served either warm – broiled in butter – or cold.

As I spent precious seconds contemplating which option was the most delicious, our waiter quickly cut in, ‘Go cold!’ OK, then. Suspicions that this lobster roll would far exceed any I’d eaten in Sydney were instantly confirmed. The ‘roll’ was a toasted brioche bun, and it was chock-full of fresh lobster pieces with a subtle tasting aioli.

The savoury chips were a cross between potato slivers and crunchy water crackers.

Having written a soul food cookbook, and eaten various versions of chicken and waffles, there was also no way I could pass up the chance to try Fried Lobster and Waffles w sweet corn butter and spicy maple syrup (USD$32 Market Price). Verdict? Unbelievably good.

Before ordering, I asked about the waffles – were they sweet? I was told they were Belgian waffles, cooked on the premises, and not too sweet. They didn’t lie. There is something about this combination that defies logic, but with each bite, your taste buds concur that this dish is nothing less than an amazing concept. Crisp tender lobster, with springy soft waffles, with a trickle of corn butter, doused with maple syrup – it’s not incongruous, it’s a flavour sensation.

Take your dollars and your plastic as this is not a cheap dining destination, but it’s worth every bite.

RATED: Pimped and pumped!  FOOD: 5/5
VALUE: 4/5   ATMOS: 4.5/5   VIBE:  Atlantis 
SALTIE GIRL SEAFOOD BAR– 281 Dartmouth St, Boston, MA 02116

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Pimp My Plate #24 – Naremburn, NSW

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PIMP MY PLATE is my weekly series of reviews of cafés and restaurants in city and regional areas. My food challenge to have my lunch-or-brunch plate pimped for $19 or less.

‘Maca my day’

Sprout Wholefood Café

Naremburn is a small mostly residential suburb, squeezed between Crows Nest and Artarmon. It’s a pretty suburb with a small, eclectic shopping strip.

SPROUT joins a community of shopfronts that includes a local government Member’s office, a small bar, a picture framing business, a bottleshop, and a pizza restaurant that opened in 1972 and still serves great pizza.

The café occupies the space that was previously tenanted by a privately-owned hardware store of the old style that sold boxes of galvanized nails, brass screws, and cut and drilled timber for you on the spot. They were trusted and their DIY expert advice was as solid as the layer of dust carpeting the shelves.

It is fitting then, that ‘new’ tenant SPROUT also provides holistic components, in this case wholefoods.

It was lunchtime and I was in a hurry, and hurried people need to eat good, wholesome food to keep them happy as they hurry.

I saw lots of healthful bowls on the menu, and that’s great, but I prefer to only eat soup, porridge, cereal, or dessert out of a bowl, and preferably with a spoon.

I scanned hungrily past those delicious-sounding-but-not-for-me bowls of Tabouli Bowl, and Green Goddess Bowl (both $17.95), or Miso Trout Bowl, and other Protein Bowls (each $21.95).

Yumm… Sprout Fritters ($17.95), made from a mixture of feta, kale, chilli, and mint caught my imagination.

I had the option to add avocado, grilled chicken, bacon, or poached egg, for an extra charge but I wanted to see how these fritters would stand up to a taste test by themselves.

They did so splendidly. The two large fritters on my plate were springy and light, and a joy to munch through. And they were gluten free, which prompted me to ask what type of flour held this fairy-light mixture together – Brown Rice Flour.

With a long haul international flight on my horizon, I chose the Anti-inflammatory Super Smoothie – banana, turmeric, cinnamon, maca, goji berries, and coconut milk.

Like me, you might be wondering what maca is? Maca is native to the Andes Mountains and is part of the broccoli, radish, and watercress family. It’s touted as a wonder food with a long list of benefits: an energy enhancer that aids stamina, athletic performance, and memory. Whether that’s true or not, its earthy flavour is a complementary addition to the smoothie I’m sipping.

I am happy to report that any of those potential health benefits come second to flavour. The smoothie has an earthy, refreshing taste, and the coconut milk flavour didn’t overpower the other flavours. In fact the flavour combination of banana, turmeric, and cinnamon made my tastebuds dance a tango.  Maybe this concoction could be renamed Flight Fit and made available pre-flight at every airport – just a thought.

Other drinks served at SPROUT include tonics, teas, lattes and macha, hot chocolate and coffees (with nut milk and coconut milk), super smoothies including a Gut Guardian (I so love that name), wellbeing juices, and the curious sounding Reishi Coffee ($5.50), which is ‘enriched with reishi mushrooms’. As a mushroom lover I wished I’d noticed it on the menu earlier. This certainly requires me to do a return visit for a taste-test.

SPROUT have a range of pretty vegan cakes on display if you’d like to reward your healthy eating with a sweet treat, to eat in, or take out.

Just a few doors down the street is specialty coffee store Forsyth Coffee House so if you prefer your coffee with dairy milk, head there for a coffee. They also serve specialty teas.

Before you do head out, be sure to check out SPROUT’s adjacent grocery section where you can buy organic fruit and vegetables, and a number of wholesome gourmet ingredients to create healthy meals in your own kitchen.

This is a feel good space to grab a quick, healthy bite, meet up with friends, or drop in for a cup of Mt Kenya-grown Gabriel brand coffee and a pretty cake.

RATED: Wholly pimped!  FOOD: 4.5/5
VALUE: 4/5   ATMOS: 3/5   VIBE:  Busy, buzzy, healthy
SPROUT WHOLEFOOD CAFÉ & GROCER – 272-274 Willoughby Rd, Naremburn

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Pimp My Plate #23 – Wollstonecraft, NSW

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PIMP MY PLATE is my weekly series of reviews of cafés and restaurants in city and regional areas. My food challenge to have my lunch-or-brunch plate pimped for $19 or less.

‘Up the garden path…’

Botanica  Garden Café

It’s easy to drive straight past Botanica Garden Café without seeing it – its leafy green exterior acts like a camouflage. But you’re more likely to find on street parking further down Bay Road anyway.

Colourful empty birdcages hang from the tree canopy at the entrance, and silver teapots hang from the ceiling above your table. There is a menagerie of bird ornaments, and a delicious scattering of design whimsy surrounds you. A small sign announces that all items are recycled, used, or vintage – and all are weather-worn.

In a suburb as affluent as Wollstonecraft, a free-spirited café with plants sprouting out of rusting Campbell Soup cans is a delightfully incongruous and welcome find.

There is an easy, organic creativity to the décor and the menu.

Today’s Specials include a Spicy Pumpkin Soup ($12.50), various homemade sandwiches, and a great selection of desserts: Apple and Rhubarb Strudel; a Lemon Myrtle, Lime and Mint tart; a Salted Caramel Popcorn and Pretzel tart; and a gluten-free Orange and Berry Teacake. I’m avoiding sugar today, so I avoid making such a challenging decision.

I see a platter of Baits & Beets ($16) – whitebait, beetroot, and corn fritters, served with pickled leek, sundried tomatoes, cress salad, and tzatziki and beetroot relish – fly past my table, but I decide it is too big a meal for one person, but perfect for a share plate. It’s delivered to the four women at the next table, prompting murmurs of delight that punctuate their stories of travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Another temptation was the Roccan’ Chicken Pie made with olives, chickpeas, carrots, raisins and Moroccan spices, topped with a flaky pastry lid, and served with grilled corn ($17.50).

But when I read the menu description of El Barra Burger ($19) – a beer battered fillet of barramundi, served with fried jalapenos, corn salsa, pickled slaw, and Swiss cheese, and served with ‘hand cut chippies’ I was sold. Forget everything I’ve said previously about burgers on menus.

I have an ongoing gripe about knives – cutlery knives. The majority of Sydney cafes and restaurants don’t offer sharp knives. I don’t know if this is for customer safety, a homeland security initiative, whether their budget just doesn’t stretch that far, or, whether they’ve just never used their own cutlery to eat with. Trying to cut through steak or toasted sourdough with the blunt equivalent of a butter knife is a chore.

But not here!

When my burger arrived it was staked to its wooden platter with a steak knife – like a culinary dartboard. The tartar sauce in the burger made it a little messy to eat, but it was full of crunch and fresh flavours, and it really hit the spot. The ‘chippies’ however, under-delivered, but that’s not a biggie.

Coffee here is good, so good that I ordered a second one and moved up to the verandah area, now bathed in winter sunlight, for some serious ‘after-nooning’.

I nestled into one of the squashy sofas and sipped my caffè latte, while admiring the three large canine ‘rapper’ portraits attached to the back fence.

BOTANICA is one of the rare breed of cafes that make you feel like you’re sitting in a friend’s lounge room, rather than a food enterprise. And that’s a nice feeling. Staff is attentive and friendly, and the food is homemade and satisfying.

Another rarity is the background music, set to the perfect volume to create atmosphere, while allowing easy conversation with your friends.

BOTANICA GARDEN CAFÉ turns 4 years old this week, and I think they’ve created the type of space they set out to. ‘A place where you can escape the hustle and bustle and enjoy homemade food and a great cuppa in a garden oasis …. A place that induces happiness.’

Yes you have. Nicely done.

RATED: Pimped!  FOOD: 4/5
VALUE: 4/5   ATMOS: 4.5/5   VIBE:  Eat, drink, and hear yourselves talk
BOTANICA GARDEN CAFÉ – 61A Bay Road, Wollstonecraft, Sydney

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Pimp My Plate #22 – Surry Hills, NSW

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PIMP MY PLATE is my weekly series of reviews of cafés and restaurants in city and regional areas. My food challenge to have my lunch-or-brunch plate pimped for $19 or less.

‘What’s up pussycat?’

CATMOSPHERE Cat Café

Who doesn’t want to visit a cat café? And if you live in a cat-free environment, for whatever reason, then a cat café is the purrfect excuse, and place, to play with four-legged fur balls.

I was really curious what a cat café in the heart of urban Surry Hills might ‘look like’.

Catmosphere’s catizens live in a terrace house, with cafés and fashion outlets for neighbours, that you may want to purrruse after your visit.

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You can ‘pop in’ to Catmosphere anytime for a coffee, but it’s not a regular café space with cats threading themselves between your ankles and table legs. If you want to spend time with the cat residents, you need to book in, which is easily done online.

Catmosphere offers several ways to spend time with its cats: yoga with cats ($25), a party with the Cat-stronauts package (POA), or coffee and cats. I chose the Coffee + Cookies with the Catstronauts ($16.50) option, which is 30 minutes of quality cat time.

The process involves booking a play date and time with the cats and prepayment. The lengthy disclaimer makes purrrfect sense because they take their cat safety seriously. ‘As a visitor, you must not try to dress up or put makeup on the cats!’ I agree!

After I arrived at #66, I checked in at the counter and ordered my flat white coffee and cat cookie. As I glanced down the corridor I saw a cute black kitten staring back. It was love at first sight, and I was itching to give it a cuddle.

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Cat playtime is one-on-one, shared with other cat lovers in a group session. Our group waited for our turn in the small café area, surrounded by cat posters and a cat-sized magazine rack stocked with issues of PUSSWEEK magazine.

Then the ‘cat herder’ appeared and ushered us into the cat play area. It has various cat toys, bowls of cat food, and, discreetly out of view, kitty litter trays.

Any coffee taken into the cat area must be in a paper cup with a sealed lid so that no accidents occur. I also discovered that kittens – well one in particular – really liked the smell of coffee and would have had a sip if the paper cup wasn’t fitted with a lid.

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You can sit on a chair, or on the floor, and then you just …… play. Cats have such great personalities and there were no cat fights and no scratching, only backscratching.

It’s best to go with a several people you know, so book a session with a group of your cat loving friends so you can be as shamelessly silly and kitty gaga as you like. Being in a group of strangers made everyone in my session a little too well behaved, so the atmosphere wasn’t as uninhibited as I expected.

So take your feline-mad friends with you, and wiggle those cat toys shamelessly!

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The great thing about Catmosphere is that their residents are rescue cats, so your patronage helps feed and shelter these cats safely, until they’re adopted. Funny, but thinking about it later, it’s the first time I’ve played with cats that I didn’t know the names of.

And perhaps there’s a reason for that – any of the cats you play with are eligible for adoption, so if you are smitten by a kitten you’ve just spent quality time with, you can organize to adopt and take it home. Or, you can sponsor a cat for $30 per month.

It was a fun experience, and I’m keen to go back and try the Yoga with Cats session – I wonder if the downward dog asana is renamed Downward Cat?

I’ll have to go and find out!

RATED: Purrrfect!  COFFEE: 4/5
VALUE: 4/5  ATMOS: 4/5  VIBE: Catmospheric
CATMOSPHERE CAT CAFÉ – 66 Foveaux St, Surry Hills, NSW
catmospherecafe.com

Visit me on facebook at Awia’s Kitchen or twitter: @pimpmyplate   @awiaskitchen