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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Thanksgiving Pumpkin Ice Cream

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Had. To. Try. It.  In time for Thanksgiving!

With only 80gm of sugar in the whole recipe, what’s not to like?

How does it taste? The flavour of this Ice Cream is a sweet, subtle pumpkin flavour, with a very creamy, dense texture.

Don’t try making this with canned butternut pumpkin – I know you wouldn’t – it must be fresh! Did you know that the orange flesh of butternut pumpkin is naturally sweet? So there’s no need to kill the flavour with excessive amounts of sugar.

If you’re worried any recipe for Pumpkin Ice Cream for Thanksgiving is full of ‘pumpkin spice’ because you are so over that flavour, relax! The only ingredients in this recipe are cream, milk, sugar, and pumpkin. If you want to add a touch of spice I suggest grating half a teaspoon of fresh nutmeg into the pumpkin puree mixture. Trust me, forget the cinnamon and just grate in the nutmeg, to taste.

You’ll need an electric ice-cream maker to make this. Mine is a clunky older style but works fine. Check the ice cream maker specification and quantities for yours against this recipe before starting as my recipe uses more cream than milk.

Let’s get started…

PUMPKIN ICE CREAM

Yields: approx. 3 cups
Serve with pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, pudding, waffles, pancakes, or in ice cream cones.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups cooked butternut pumpkin
1 cup (8 oz.) of thick pouring cream
½ cup (2.5 oz.) of cold full cream milk
Orange Americolor food colouring gel – I used ½ teaspoon, or personal preference

3 egg yolks (use the leftover egg whites to make meringue – they stay fresh for 2-3 days)
1/3 cup of superfine white sugar
1 level Tblspn light brown sugar

7 oz. thick pouring cream

How to make Pumpkin Ice Cream

Step 1

Dice enough butternut pumpkin to fill 1 ½ cups, and steam in a medium saucepan until soft.

Take off the heat, and put aside to cool. When cool, transfer pumpkin into a small bowl and put into the fridge for 15-30 minutes until completely cold.

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Step 2

Take the pumpkin mixture out of the fridge and spoon it into a food processor. Pour in the cup of cream and half a cup of milk, and puree until there are no lumps in the mixture. Then add the orange food colour to the pumpkin puree, and pulse again until completely mixed through. Set aside.

Step 3

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together the egg yolks and sugar until fluffy and thoroughly mixed.

Stir in the pumpkin puree and mix through thoroughly.

Step 4

In another medium sized bowl, use an electric mixer to whip the remaining cream until stiff peaks form.

Fold the cream into the egg and pumpkin mixture, and whisk briefly until well combined.

Switch on your ice cream machine and pour in the mixture. Start churning the ice cream, to the manufacturer’s instructions.

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Pimp My Plate #32 – Will & Steve’s pop-up restaurant, Rozelle, NSW

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Salmon Tartare with peas, apple & fennel remoulade

Can Will & Steve’s pop-up restaurant PIMP MY PLATE?

 

‘The gourmet pommies pop up at TRAMSHEDS’

Anyone who watched Australia’s TV cooking show My Kitchen Rules last year will remember the charming and affable Will & Steve, or as they call themselves, ‘the gourmet pommies’.

Hailing from Britain, Will Stewart and Steve Flood were the winners of the 2015 series of My Kitchen Rules, and first met when they moved to Australia with the same investment bank.

When circumstances changed in their financial careers, the pair decided to fully embrace their foodie side, the catalyst being when Steve applied for them both to appear on the show. It was a good move.

Since their TV win, Will and Steve have continued their career in food, lifestyle and media. And for the last 12 months the pair has been busy producing their first cookbook, appropriately named Will and Steve, Home Cook, Aspiring Chef.

Tonight’s event is one of four pop-up dinners hosted by them, to meet some of their fans who share their love of good food, and to promote their new cookbook by serving us a 3-course meal from it.

The venue is Sydney’s new dining hub TRAMSHEDS at Harold Park. The atmosphere here is a bit like dining in a restaurant inside a restaurant. The freestanding kitchen space and tables are positioned in the busy Artisan Lane area.

It’s Saturday night and all around us, the whole of TRAMSHEDS is buzzing, while we sip champagne at our tables, in anticipation. Diners from other bars and restaurants walk by, glancing across at our tables twinkling with glassware and tea lights.

Will and Steve are happy to pose for selfies and answer all our questions, before, during, and after plating and serving. Both are energetic personalities – Will loves to engage and share a laugh, and Steve is passionate about food. And both are generous with their time throughout the night.

With a glass of champagne in hand we watch the boys’ hard work that usually happens behind-the-scenes in a kitchen. Their rhythmic precision is enjoyable to watch, and despite them having only one person to help them prep and plate, Will and Steve manage to make the work appear effortless.

Then our entrées arrive, a pretty pink and green plate of Salmon Tartare with peas and pea foam, and apple and fennel remoulade. It’s a light and refreshing start, served with slivers of crunchy black sesame seed lavoche on the side.

The main is a juicy and beautifully crispy piece of Pork Belly served with Colcannon, heirloom carrots, and apple cider juice. The only improvement on this dish would be a sharper knife to glide through that crackling and maintain the architecture of the pork. But sharp knives are a rarity in restaurants these days.

Dessert is a Chocolate, Beetroot and Milk Crunch with dramatic plating with a dark red sauce embellishment that is part strobe effect and part ‘how to get away with murder’.

As we finish each course, we flick to the corresponding recipe page in cookbook. It’s beautifully produced and also features fresh reinventions of classics, including The Perfect Steak with truffle butter and parsnip chips; Lobster Rolls with mango salsa; White Pudding with apple chutney; Sarnies (British slang for sandwiches); and a Maple Pumpkin Tart with sweet dukkha and yoghurt – a must-cook alternative to serving pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving.

Will and Steve are now touring around Australia to promote cookbook and share their passion for fresh flavours that showcase Australian produce. Will and Steve’s website also features their recipes so take a look and be inspired.

 

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RATED: Pimped!  FOOD: 4.5/5   Fresh flavours
VALUE: 4/5   VENUE ATMOS: Industrial modern   VIBE:  Friendly and generous

http://www.willandsteve.com.au

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

 

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 #27 – Cambridge, MA

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This month PIMP MY PLATE visits the USA to see if Boston can pimp my plate. With AUD$19 currently equivalent to USD$14.50 excluding tips and taxes there’s no set budget in my search for flavour.

‘Soul food made with 100% love’

The Coast Cafe

I don’t have a bucket list as such. My plan is to munch my way around the world, leaving a stack of empty plates behind me.

Some of those plates would have been heaped with soul food – collard greens, wing tips, BBQ, cornbread…

And if you live in Australia like I do, it requires a passport to achieve this particular soul food goal.

I’m so dedicated to this concept that in 2013 I wrote a book about soul food, Soulicious, after eating my way through as many soul food restaurants in the USA as I could waddle into.

I remember my first taste of collard greens – my Collard Greens Initiation – at Brown Sugar in Oakland.  I remember munching my last plate of greens in 2015 so it’s been a long time between greens!

Before flying to Boston, I sat in wintery Sydney reading Korsha Wilson’s article about Tony Brooks’ COAST CAFÉ. For twelve years this iconic soul food café has been serving Southern dishes to hungry northerners from its tiny storefront in River Street.

In the article, Brooks explains that the recipes originally came from his mother, who grew up in Mississippi, and his father, who was from Connecticut. These days he adds his own tweaks to recipes.

I add THE COAST CAFÉ to my Boston ‘To Do’ List.

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I finally arrive in Boston on a Sunday, after 27 hours travelling time.
THE COAST CAFÉ is only open Wednesday to Saturday so I’ll have to wait.

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‘Taxi!’

As we drove across the Charles River, my taxi driver informed me that we were now in Cambridge, not ‘Boston’.

As we neared THE COAST CAFÉ signage and pulled over at 233 River Street, I was suddenly VERY HUNGRY.

Starters.
Sandwiches.
Sides.
Special side orders.
Combo plates.
Coffee.

After my collard greens drought, my choice of two sides is easy – collards, and mac’n’cheese.

BBQ Pork and Beef Ribs (USD$15.49) are on the blackboard menu but then I see CATFISH (USD$16.59).

Back home, Australians are big on BBQ but we don’t eat catfish. There’s catfish in some of our waterways, but it’s not on our menus.

Barramundi is our rock star fish as any tourist knows. It can live in freshwater or saltwater – in streams, rivers, lakes, billabongs, estuaries and coastal waters. We also eat a wide range of saltwater fish that includes snapper and bream, and river fish like rainbow trout.

Pretty much everything except catfish, so I seize the opportunity.

There’s a choice of BBQ Wings or Coast Wings (USD$10.59). When I ask the difference between the two I’m told the Coast Wings aren’t rolled in a layer of flour before frying, so I order them. There’s homemade BBQ or Jerk sauce for the wings – I order Jerk Sauce.

That covers the entrée, sides, and main. What’s missing? Dessert.
It’s been a long while since I last ate Banana Pudding

I take a seat and check my phone messages, IMs, emails, Facebook, and flight times.

A black box with plastic cutlery arrives with cornbread and coleslaw.
I flip it open and dive in…

It’s the best Catfish I’ve ever eaten – super fresh, perfectly crumbed and perfectly cooked.

And that first mouth full of collard greens is Oh-So-Good after oh so long!

There’s no satisfactory substitute for collard greens. Not mustard greens. Not spinach. Not turnip tops. Just …. no.

As soon as the Coast Wings arrive in their red striped box, I crack open the container of Jerk sauce and start dipping. Oh. My. Yes!

When the banana pudding arrives there’s no meringue topping  – ok I am disappointed – but the custard is studded with fresh banana slices and Nilla Wafer pieces.

We do have banana pudding in Australia, but we don’t have Nilla Wafer biscuits and we do it differently – no vanilla wafers.

No collards, no catfish, no Nilla Wafers – now do you understand why I mainline soul food at every opportunity?

Soul food is feel good food. And I feel good.

Looking around I notice a number of soulful messages pinned up on the walls of the café, and I’m sure there’s a backstory to each of them.

However, the owner, Tony Brooks, takes me by surprise by suddenly appearing from the kitchen to say hello! It’s really nice to meet the man on the t-shirt and have a chat. I tell him I’ve travelled all the way from Australia to eat at his café, and that’s no lie.

It’s also no secret that Tony has plans to expand to other locations soon. I suggest he opens a store in Australia as well, Sydney perhaps?

He seems to think it’s a good idea, but I better not hold my breath. But why not plant the seed, right?

Wherever they do open next I envy their customers because COAST CAFÉ serves some of the most mouth friendly soul food I’ve eaten. It’s not fancy, it’s simply delicious.

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RATED: Pimped!  FOOD: 4/5
VALUE: 4/5   ATMOS: 4/5   VIBE:  Feel Good & Good eating
THE COAST CAFÉ – 233 River St, Cambridge, MA 02139

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

 

 

Pimp My Plate #26 – Boston, MA

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This month PIMP MY PLATE visits the east coast of the USA to see if Boston can 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.

 

‘Ask yourself, what does food mean to you?’

Cuisine and Confessions

It’s Friday night in Boston, and as I take my seat, a muscular young man wearing an apron and clutching a notepad sweeps past me to ask the women near me what food they like to eat, and to enquire about their love life.

A bubbly blonde in denim shorts skips through the room, offering up a bowl of gummy bears. I’m hungry, so I take one.

Several metres away there’s a man throwing potatoes at people – what a circus!

I’m in a theatre, not a restaurant, and no, it’s not a theatre restaurant – although the audience is promised plates of food at the end of the performance.

Tonight I’ve bought tickets to the unique theatre production CUISINES & CONFESSIONS (USD$40 BosTix/half price).

For several days this week I walked by their promotional poster in Copley Plaza, that promises ‘a literal theatrical feast!’ How could I resist?

The theatrical production of CUISINES & CONFESSIONS was inspired by the book Young and Hungry by Suzanne Taylor, which is a cookbook in the form of a memoir, and originally published in Boston.

This production is performed by The 7 Fingers troupe and includes sound, smell, touch, and taste. The 7 Fingers are known for their innovative acrobatic and choreographic ‘prowess’.

It’s the last week of the American premiere at the Cutler Majestic Theater after playing in Paris, Rome, Istanbul, Montreal, and Moscow.

Now I’m seated inside the Cutler Majestic Theater I see the theatre lives up to its majestic name. Its interior glows with the elegance of its 1903 ‘Beaux Arts’ style and embellishment, designed by architect John Galen Howard.

Around me it’s a chatty crowd. The vibe is a mix of a creative chaos and anticipation as members of The 7 Fingers run down the aisles, pitch an occasional potato into the air as if it’s a baseball, and scribble down the answers to love life questions as the audience is quizzed by the man in the apron with the notepad.

I don’t know where to look, because I want to look everywhere – all at once.

There’s a large kitchen construction onstage, with a working stove. We’re invited to ‘Come for the circus, stay for the banana bread!’

As the lights dim and the audience becomes quiet, we watch a series of personal and universal food stories unfold.

For most of us, food is a marker of special moments, emotions, memories, or confession.

Tonight the stage becomes a page in a human recipe book, scribbled with words of love, humour, guilt, and even persecution.

The fluid choreography of the acrobatics, aerial sequences, dance, and the juggling underlining these stories, is as spellbinding as it is energetic.

In one dance sequence white flour is thrown into the air. It takes shape then dissipates, in much the same way human emotions can.

The onstage kitchen is a genius design of interconnecting wooden boxes and frames that create a variety of theatrical and acrobatic opportunities.

Table and chair formations become platforms to sit on, or dance on, and square wooden frames become aerobic hoops to dive through. Giant whisks are juggled, a girl dangles in mid-air from a rope of tea towels, a knife is throw at a blindfolded man, and a tall vertical pole provides a linear defiance of gravity.

Meanwhile, the vegetable pasta and the banana bread is cooking in the onstage oven.

This theatre production is an immersive journey for all our senses, as we sit in awe of the incredible timing, skill, and physical ability of the cast – and the spell cast by the aroma of food.

And at the end of that journey there was food!

We queued down the theatre aisles for a tasting plate of pasta with vegetables – tasty – and a piece of moist banana bread, still warm from the oven.

CUISINES & CONFESSIONS is a production that reminds you of the power and importance of the arts to share stories using a combination of physical skill, humour, and emotion. Some stories reflect our own, but the ones that add most value, in my opinion, are those that give us new understanding of the experiences of others.

Although the season has just ended in Boston I’m sure the production will keep touring, so if you have the chance to see it, don’t hesitate. You can also find some of the acrobatic feats of The 7 Fingers troupe on YouTube.

The creation and staging of Cuisine & Confessions is by Shana Carroll and Sebastien Soldevila. The entire cast includes Sidney Iking Bateman, Melvin Diggs, Mishannock Ferrero, Anna Kichtchenko, Camille Legris, Heloise Bourgeois, Nella Niva, Emile Pineault, Anna Kachalova, Matias Plaul, William Underwood, and Pablo Pramparo.

RATED: Fabulous!  FOOD: 5/5
VALUE: 6/5 Yes!   ATMOS: 5/5   VIBE:  Passionate, exciting, inspiring, and unique 
‘CUISINES & CONFESSIONS’ – Cutler Majestic Theater 219 Tremont St, Boston, MA

*A special thank you to James Harriman for allowing me to use his photos

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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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Chilli-Choc Bliss Balls

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‘Baby it’s cold out there’

For my chilli-loving friends like me, I decided to revisit my original Bliss Balls Sugar Hack recipe and add some heat.

This is my first batch. It has a lingering warm chilli flavour. It’s subtle, not rocket-heat, as I wanted to experiment with a bottle of Chilli Choc Sauce I had in the cupboard.

You can add more or less sauce, and I plan on working through my cupboard of other hot sauces and spices and moving UP the heat scale with this recipe – health AND heat. Win-win!

(makes approx. 20)

30 pitted dates (from a 250 g pack)
1 tspn vanilla extract (not essence)
1 1/2 level Tbspn very finely ground espresso coffee
3 rounded Tbspn organic cacao powder
3/4 cup walnuts (buy whole or walnut pieces)
3/4 cup hazelnuts
1 Tbspn melted coconut oil
2 Tbspn Cranky Croc Choc Chilli Chocolate Sauce (made by The Chilli Factory)
3/4 cup dried dessicated coconut

Cut dates in half, and place in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit for 10 mins, then drain and place the dates, vanilla, coffee, and cacao into the bowl of a food processor. Blend until the mixture starts to blend together.

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Add the walnuts and hazelnuts to the mixture, and process again until the nuts are chopped into smaller pieces and the mixture starts to form a sticky ball.

Then drizzle in the melted coconut oil and pulse until incorporated.
Use a teaspoon to scoop out mixture and use your hands to roll the mixture into 1″ (2cm) round balls. Keep them small so they are just one or two bites.

Scatter coconut across a dinner plate, and roll the balls across to coat them.
Store in a sealed container, in the fridge or freezer.

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The Chilli Factory’s Cranky Croc Chilli Chocolate Sauce

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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