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 #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 #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 #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 #21 – Parramatta CBD, 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.

‘Winter consolation in a mug and a bowl…’

CIRCA ESPRESSO Café 

The busy area around Parramatta Station feels consumed by the cavernous Westfield shopping centre, so it’s easy to miss this little café tucked around the corner in Wentworth Street.

But if you walk down Wentworth Street, you can’t miss CIRCA’s trademark mural of a giant pug dog wearing gold bling and sunglasses.

In the higgledy-piggledy garden out front, foliage growing out of vintage suitcases catches your eye. And the aroma of coffee beans draws you inside.

I’ve made a quick coffee-stop at this café before, but today’s visit is to try their lunch menu.

Everyone asks to sit in the narrow, dimly lit space inside, where the walls feature a quirky design feast of mirrors, frames, and frescoes.

There’s outdoor dining on the pavement, and on the terrace balcony, but indoors is more atmospheric – and closer to the barista station.

Sydney’s cold snap just hit, and the air felt like holding a bag of frozen peas to your face. Perfect weather for hot chocolate!

The African Red Chocolate ($5.50) is rich and sweet. It has a fruity chocolate taste that comes from the robust, earthy flavours of Forastero cocoa beans, mixed with aromatic Trinatario beans. You can almost taste the photograph I posted with your eyes.

At the tables around me, the most popular lunch order was pan-fried Barramundi fillet ($20) with charred cauliflower florets, pine nuts, sesame seeds, glazed carrots, and it looked as delightful as its description.

At $19, CIRCA’s Chicken Salad with chermoula dressing did match PMP’s budget, but Lamb Shanks are a warming winter meal and I needed to pimp my body heat as well as my budget.

I ordered the Baharat Lamb Shank ($20), cooked in an ‘aromatic tomato and chickpea broth with yoghurt and zaatar crisps’.

Zaatar is a Lebanese spice mixture made with thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds.

Eating zaatar is supposed to ‘give strength and clear the mind.’ Did I mention it was cold? Seated outdoors without a coat, I felt I needed both.

My lamb shank arrived, resting in a puddle of reddish-brown broth with plump chickpeas. The zaatar crisps sat on a dollop of thick deliciously sour yoghurt.

I peeled off my woollen gloves to be able to navigate my cutlery.

The zaatar crisps have the crunch and texture of pappadums – a nice contrast to the tender fall-off-the-bone meat. A good broth is winter’s consolation in a bowl, and these flavours were an antidote to the cold.

CIRCA is really popular – people queue to eat in or takeout coffee, or seemingly just to ponder Life itself, so when a table became available indoors, I moved inside.

The drinks menu at CIRCA offers craft teas and tisanes, spiced latte, masala chai, and seriously good coffee. My coffee today was 10/10. There’s a daily selection of cakes on display, and I spied several glossy brown croissants of rubenesque proportions. Or better described as torture on a tray.

As I sipped my coffee I people-watched, and re-read the menu. Breakfast at CIRCA sounds rather good – Brown Rice Coconut Porridge; Winter bowls of pumpkin and veg; Ottoman Eggs; the decadent Croque Monsieur; or perhaps French Toast with banana brûlée and caramelized passionfruit. I’m intrigued by the caramelized passionfruit, so a return visit is a must. Or maybe I’ll order one of those croissants, or both – it’s truly a dilemma of the best possible kind.

With its quirky character and good food CIRCA offers diners a welcome alternative to eating in the busy retail arcades around the corner.

At CIRCA the baristas are serious, the food is pretty and pretty delicious. Warm up with their winter comfort food – or as I call it, winter consolation food. And on chilly days, don’t forget to ask for a blanket.

RATED: Pimped!  FOOD: 4.5/5
VALUE: 5/5  ATMOS: 5/5  VIBE: Quirky meets quality
CIRCA ESPRESSO – 21 Wentworth St, Parramatta,  NSW

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Pimp My Plate #20 – Parramatta, NSW

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.

‘It’s not all about the food’

 Anjappar Chettinad Indian Restaurant

 

Walking along Church Street, I noticed the word Chettinad on the façade of Anjappar Indian restaurant across the street.

Chettinad is the name of a region, not a curry, of the Sivaganga district of southern Tamil Nadu state, in India.

The word immediately triggers a food memory for me – Rick Stein’s recipe for Chicken Chettinad in his INDIA cookbook. It’s a favourite recipe and I’ve cooked it often. I haven’t seen it on a menu before, so it felt like fate – or fateful.

‘Is the kitchen still serving lunch?’ I asked, as it was approximately 2.35pm in the afternoon.
‘Yes,’ replied the waitress.
‘Great!’

I took a seat, was handed a menu, and I flicked it open.

A minute later, the waitress came back and asked me to hurry up with my order as the kitchen closed at 3pm. OK, fair enough. But at the time I didn’t realise that the kitchen closing time meant everyone – myself and one other diner – were expected to exit the restaurant.

On her way back to the kitchen the waitress locked the front door of the restaurant.

I speed-read the menu and made my choices: an entrée of Nethily Fry ($11.99) – described as ‘fresh anchovies marinated in special masala and deep fried’; and a main course of Chettinad Chicken Masala ($15.99) – chicken fried with shallots and spices. I’m not a fan of fresh anchovies but these sounded interesting and delicious.

The entrée plate of Nethily Fry arrived without a dipping sauce, or cutlery. I asked if the anchovies came with a sauce, and was told it didn’t have a sauce. OK, fair enough. The anchovies are chewy and delicious, and as munch-worthy as popping potato fries into your mouth, and having no cutlery except a spoon, that’s how I ate them.

So when my chicken arrived, I asked for cutlery.

The Chettinad Chicken Masala has a rich and delicious sauce, with more depth of spice and flavour than I usually expect from a $16 meal. There were no vegetables in the sauce, which is always disappointing, but not unusual.

Aware that the clock was ticking away towards closing time, I asked for my entrée to be packed as a takeaway. I thought this might save a few precious moments for both of us, until the waitress came back with a plastic bag and a foil bag, sat them on the table, and walked away. Well that’s a first – being expected to D.I.Y. my own takeaway!

The diner next to me paid his bill and left. Now I was alone in the restaurant, and the pressure was on…

After eating a few more mouthfuls of my masala, the waitress decided to stand vigil near my table. Obviously it was her strategy to hurry me out the door.

Tick, tock, tick, tick.

I tried to ignore this behaviour to avoid indigestion from speed-eating.

I ate another mouthful, and then she came over and asked if I could hurry up as “the restaurant closes at 3.30pm”.

I glanced at my phone …. I had 7 minutes to closing time.

I’d had enough of her, and I had eaten enough. I slid the remaining anchovies into the foil bag provided, sealed the top, and dutifully popped it into the plastic carry bag.

‘Oh I didn’t mean to rush you,’ said the waitress. Hell, no!

‘Next time I suggest you just tell people the restaurant is closed,’ I suggested, knowing there would never be a ‘next time’ for me.

I paid the bill and as I stood waiting for the waitress to unlock the front door, I picked up one of their takeaway menus. With a smirk I noticed the words HIGH CLASS restaurant on the front of the brochure.

On the back of the brochure, and on the back pages of the menu, they advertise that Anjappar restaurant in Parramatta is one of a worldwide franchise that includes restaurants in Dubai, Qatar, Malaysia, Canada, Singapore, USA, and several other countries. I imagine the hospitality offered is more generous in the other locations.

To be fair, I did arrive near end of lunchtime trading – they reopen to serve dinner – however if you can’t deliver service to paying customers then you shouldn’t seat them, and instead, say the restaurant is closed.

Later I had a look at online reviews for this restaurant and found other diners have experienced a similar lack of hospitality.

The basic principle of hospitality is that good service is more important than good food if you want to engage customers and create repeat customers.

If you manage a café or restaurant you are cooking and serving in a commercial enterprise, so there are both industry and customer expectations that you’re offering food and service at a professional level.

At home, a few hours later, I munched through my deep fried anchovies and scrolled through more online reviews of Anjappar in Parramatta. I nodded as I read the one that recommended, ‘Only do take away from here,’ and dipped my hand into the foil bag for another handful of anchovies.

RATED: Just do takeout    FOOD: 3.5/5
VALUE: 3/5   ATMOS: 0/5   VIBE: Hospitality-free zone
ANJAPPAR – 108, 106/108 Church St, Parramatta

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Pimp My Plate #19 – Burrawang, NSW

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.

‘Come on baby, light my fire’

Burrawang General Store Cafe

Burrawang is a small village in the Southern Highlands popular with day trippers and weekenders. A city getaway, it oozes with charm – pretty cottages, large trees, and rolling hills dotted with dairy cattle.

It truly is a breath of fresh country air. Breathe deeply and you’ll recalibrate your senses.

Depending on which route you take it’s less than a 2 hr drive from Sydney, mostly by freeway. Take some of the back roads though, and you’ll drive past farmhouses with sprawling acreage dotted with dairy cattle, and the occasional slumbering grey donkey.

It’s likely you’ll drive through the town of Robertson enroute to Burrawang. With its rich volcanic soil this is potato growing country, and Robertson is still famous for its potatoes. And if you had any doubts, look out for the iconic giant potato photo stop on the main street.

On my last visit to the Southern Highlands I stopped at a roadside stall to buy paper bags full of spuds – Purple Sapphires, Dutch Crème, and Kestrels.

My friends moved to the Southern Highlands from Sydney for more space and a different pace. They suggested we eat at the Burrawang Village Hotel but the kitchen had closed early for a special event. The beer garden behind the hotel has sweeping views of the countryside, but today it was too cold to sit outdoors. A more popular spot was a bar stool next to the open fireplace. Primal and sensible!

Further up the street we noticed the green roof, and red and yellow façade of the Burrawang General Store Café, nestled inside an 1860’s heritage building. The stone steps leading up to the front door are original, and well-trodden.

It was nice to step out of the chilly air into a cosy, busy space, with a glowing fireplace.

The tables were full of food and chatter and above our heads, the vaulted wooden ceiling looked like an enormous upturned boat, varnished the colour of hot buttered toast.

It was a public holiday weekend so I decided to stretch the Pimp My Plate budget to $29.

On such a wintery day our appetites screamed ‘soul food!’ We ordered Three-way Meatloaf (a mixture of pork, beef, lamb) served with charred broccoli + potato mash; Lobster Macaroni Cheese and one of the Specials – Lamb Shank Shepherd’s Pie.  So special there were barely two plates of it left.

The Southern Highlands is dotted with boutique wineries, and the café menu includes several local selections.

We scrutinised the dessert menu before we would let the waiter leave our table …. Red Velvet Brownie, Homemade Scones with butter (without the jam, curd, and cream on offer), and the oh-so-naughty-but-who-cares-order-it-anyway Eton Mess. Yes!

The meals were hearty winter fare – warming and satisfying. It being ‘potato country’ I expected more potato on my Shepherd’s Pie – maybe even too much – but that’s a minor glitch, and more about my eyeing the potato mash on my friend’s plate of meatloaf.

The standout dessert – notice how I rushed ahead (?) – was the Red Velvet Brownie served with ice cream. There is an exponential curve in relation to increased cold weather and increased sugar consumption, at least at our table.

Now I know there are two camps when it comes to ‘team brownie’. One group likes them fudgy and gooey, the other group (me) prefers them dense and cake-like. This dark red-brown version ticked all my boxes – if only I hadn’t agreed to ‘share’.

Burrawang General Store Café has the rustic charm of an old general store, with shelves of bric-a-brac, and vintage games like Pirates Push Puppets, and dominoes, and even packs of family card games, as well as essential oils and botannicals.

On a grey rainy day I can easily imagine spending quite a few hours here, shuffling through ‘family’ card games, chatting, and sipping mugs of hot chocolate or a glass of the local vintage.

It’s June, so take a day trip up here soon before it gets really cold, and be sure visit some of the wineries and produce stalls.

I bought my potatoes at a roadside but Highland Gourmet Potatoes sells a huge variety: http://highlandgourmetpotatoes.com.au/varieties/

RATED: PIMPED!  FOOD: 4/5
VALUE: 3.5/5   ATMOS: 5/5   VIBE: A cosy winter oasis, do we really have to leave?
BURRAWANG GENERAL STORE – 11 Hoddle St, Burrawang, NSW (02 4886 4496)

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Pimp My Plate #18 – Ashfield, Sydney

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 $18 or less.

‘How hungry are you …. reeeally?’

Harika 

Ashfield is in Sydney’s inner west. It’s an old suburb with working class roots, but like many Sydney suburbs its demographic is transitioning with redevelopment. The sound of building work is its heartbeat as apartment blocks emerge along busy Liverpool Road.

Most of Ashfield’s commercial hub consists of small, independently owned retail stores and restaurants.

I decided to review the busiest café along the main strip, located on the corner of the busiest intersection – Harika.

In Turkish, the word Harika means ‘wonderful, or fantastic’. The staff I met were very friendly and welcoming, and their plates of food generous.

Harika’s menu is a mix of Turkish flavours, with daily specials like Chicken Schnitzels and Burgers, and desserts including pancakes and slices.

As I ordered my lunch at the counter, I noticed a dainty silver teapot set used for serving Turkish Coffee.

I do use powdered Turkish coffee to flavour some of my cooking, but I’m not a fan of the brewed coffee itself so I ordered a more predictable flat white coffee instead.

When my coffee arrived it was a 10/10, which is never predictable. My table gave me a great vantage point of the busy pedestrian crossing outside as I sipped my caffeine and people-watched.

And then for a moment I couldn’t believe what I saw, as I watched a motorist drive into the middle of the crowded crossing. Then, still oblivious to the people around him, he performed a U-turn. Pedestrians looked on in disbelief and so did I. Thankfully you don’t see that every day. And thankfully no one was injured.

How hungry are you?

Boom!  The plate of Kafta Lamb ($15) arrived and it was enormous. This was food to fuel a marathon run. The side salad was fresh and crisp, and the lamb kafta patties were moist and flavoursome. Sauce on the side was a house-made mango-flavoured mayo with a hint of spice.

I knew I could not eat this all by myself, but I didn’t have anyone to help. Would it be sexist to call this a man-sized meal? I felt waves of Food Wastage Guilt as I apologized for leaving half the meal on the plate.

Narika delivers generous, hearty servings of food, and seriously good coffee. It offers variety – flaky French style croissants, Australian favourites as daily specials, burgers, Turkish Coffee, and hearty Turkish breakfasts.

This is the destination for a takeout coffee, or a serious feed, or both!

RATED: PIMPED!  FOOD: 4/5
VALUE: 4/5   ATMOS: 2/5   VIBE: Hearty and generous
HARIKA – Corner Hercules St & Liverpool Road, Ashfield, NSW (7 days)

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