Sunday, March 15, 2015

Completely Monstered at Hotel Hotel

I don't know what's been happening to Canberra over the last few years. It's becoming unbearably hip. Who am I to complain, though - the place feels like another city entirely while still keeping all its old charm.

We had eaten several times in Monster Restaurant inside Hotel Hotel but always as we ran out the door to see a film at the Palace cinema next door. It had always been good, however brief. This time we were there for the evening – we were serious. We foreswore hipster heaven in Braddon to sample the slightly less hip night life of New Acton.

We started with a glass of Frogmore Creek fume blanc. At this point I’ll just note that if one bottle is good, then two must be better, something we explored not too much later in the evening. Even later in the evening this was supplemented by a glass of German Donhoff reisling and one of Collector Tiger chardonnay and finally a gamay from the Farr Winery in Victoria and a pastis to wash down all the things we’d drunk to wash down the excellent and varied food.

The restaurant doesn’t have courses as such, something I think is terrific. Sometimes I want to order nothing but entrees because entrees are invariably more interesting than main courses. Avoiding as much as possible a ‘courses’ mentality we started with a serve of muhamarrah, a dip of peppers, ground walnuts and olive oil served with warm sourdough, alongside 38-hour pork neck bao with cucumber kimchi and Cape Grim beef tartare, miso, cured egg yolk, avocado, horseradish and crisp black rice. The black rice was like a thinner (and blacker) version of prawn crisps, except it didn’t taste like prawn, just rice.

Encouraged we moved onwards with fried cauliflower, tahini, yoghurt and black garlic alongside Palmer’s Island mulloway, green paw paw, jicama, tamarind and prawn floss and a dish of pulled lamb shoulder, pistachio, yoghurt, vine leaf, pomegranate and brik. As if this wasn’t enough we also tackled the specials with a serve of bonito tuna cooked sous vide and served with seared scallops.I liked the scallops more than the rather bland bonito.

At this point we had to move into the armchairs across the room to sample dessert - green tea pannacotta with lychee, yuzu caramel, basil seeds and puffed rice praline alongside caramelised banana, dulche de leche, peanut icecream and burnt marshmallow. Those of us who had moved beyond dessert were content to have pistachio gelato, notably both green and salty.

Quite enough good times for one night.

See also

'tableland' on Facebook – life on the land and at the table
'Life on the land and at the table, the companion Facebook site to this blog, for brief and topical snippets and vignettes about land to table – the daily routine of living in the high country, on the edge of the vast Pacific, just up from Sydney, just down from Mount Kosciuszko', 'tableland' on Facebook.

Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale
‘I've always had a weak spot for Moss Vale in the Southern Highlands of NSW. I have been watching it slowly change over the decades since. The latest addition is a new and very funky bar, Wine Mosaic Lounge, combined with a wine vendor, Argyle Street Wine Merchant. Passing through, we stopped to sample it. We thought aloud ‘we must come back here soon’ – and we will’, Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale.

Big city myopia, regional cities and cool capitals – is Canberra cool and who really cares?
'I’ve been entertained by the heated discussion about whether Canberra is cool or not. The question of regional cities and cool capitals is one that won’t go away. Instead of endlessly comparing cities – Melbourne versus Sydney, Melbourne versus Canberra, Canberra versus Queanbeyan, Devonport versus East Devonport (as we did in my youth) – to gauge their degree of cool or of dismal, perhaps we’d be better seeking out the interesting places and features that lurk in every city, town and locality', Big city myopia, regional cities and cool capitals – is Canberra cool and who really cares?

Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo 
‘In winter your mind turns to food - well, it turns there anytime, but perhaps more so in winter. I can’t remember how many years I have been coming to Grazing restaurant, in the tiny historic town of Gundaroo, just outside Canberra – it seems like forever. In the time I’ve been coming here Prime Ministers have risen and fallen, Governments have teetered, illusions have shattered. On a Sunday recently, I ventured out from the cold of approaching winter on a clear, blue day and went there one more time for food, wine and firewood. I wasn’t disappointed’, Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo.

Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back
‘I seem to spend a lot of time in the small Italian and Sons restaurant in hipster heaven in downtown Braddon, with its equally small bar annexe, Bacaro, at the rear. It’s so good and so pleasant that it’s easy to forget the other parts of the Italian empire. The flagship restaurant, Mezzalira, is across the the city, near the National University. It’s in the fabulous but somewhat neglected though stately Melbourne Building, with its Italianate arches and colonnades. I sometimes think that if suddenly the world was about to end (a bit like contemporary times) and I was offered the choice of only one cuisine until the crunch, I’d have to choose Italian. That way I could die happy,’ Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back.

Ester – the sweet smell of success
‘Because the high country is adjacent to the low country, it takes only three hours to drive from the nation’s capital to the nation’s financial capital. In the early to mid 1990s Chippendale in Sydney was a suburb you travelled through to get somewhere else. All that is changing in a big way, with plenty there to explore. A sure sign of these times is eatery Ester, a restaurant that reflects the focus of its name on the science of food with some intrepid experiments in the culinary arts’, Ester – the sweet smell of success.

In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts
‘Tucked away in a corner at the Ainslie shops where it’s easy to miss entirely ­– in the heart of the suburb know as the Red Centre for it’s exceptionally high Labor vote – is an unexpected delight. The location has hosted a series of less than successful ventures but this most recent has been an unqualified success. Who would have thought that a cafe hailing from Brittany could attract such a crowd. The secret of success is that it focuses on what it does and it does it well. You can park yourself inside the small venue or outside if the weather is fine and pick from some unexpected sweet pastries, throw down the odd glass of French wine or eat buckwheat pancakes or baguettes. The cafe also runs to daily specials that can be very unexpected. Long may it reign over us – Rule Brittany rather than Rule Britannia’, In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts.

We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii 
‘I realise I may have just become a statistic. I have a suspicion that I have eaten more sorbet, gelato and icecream since local Canberra icecream outlet Frugii opened in Canberra’s Braddon perimeter than I have eaten in my whole previous life. Tucked away in hipster heaven, it keeps churning out flavours, in an ever changing smorgasbord of coldness’, We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii.

A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven
‘On a bustling Friday night in hipster heaven, I popped into my favourite Canberra restaurant, Italian and Sons, planning for little more than a quick bite to eat. I managed to get my favourite spot – when I’m not settled comfortably in Bacaro, the adjoining bar out the back, that is – sitting in the window, watching the action on the street. I headed straight for a real blast from my Adelaide past, part of my earliest discovery of Italian cuisine – saltimbocca. Then I beat a path down Lonsdale Street to Frugii, Canberra’s own dessert laboratory. What is happening to this city? It’s getting cooler by the minute and it’s not just the icecream or the approach of winter’, A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven.

Squatting on the main road – the Old Canberra Inn is new again 
‘The Old Canberra Inn has squatted on a main road in my vicinity for as long as I can remember – and obviously, as it was built in the 19th Century, as long as anyone else can remember. It seems to have changed hands – or maybe it’s just that I’ve finally looked at it more closely – but its a terrific local pub. It’s casual food that’s easy to enjoy, it’s local and it has a good range of drinks to wind up your day ­– what more do you need on a weekday after a bout of exercise when your muscles are just starting to be sore and your calves are mooing’, Squatting on the main road – the Old Canberra Inn is new again.

A princess comes home – paulownia trees and Japanese wedding chests
Recently I planted a new tree in my garden – a paulownia tree. I bought it because I have a 1930s Japanese wedding chest from near Tokyo made from kiri or paulownia, the very tree I have acquired and planted. It is named in honour of Queen Anna Pavlovna of The Netherlands (1795–1865), daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia. For this reason it is also often called ‘princess tree’ wood. It is very versatile – it has also been used in electric guitar bodies and in surboards in Australia. It was once customary to plant a paulownia tree when a baby girl was born and then to make it into a chest as a wedding present when she married. This is unlikely to be the fate of my tree but it’s comforting to know that at a pinch it could be uprooted and converted into a wardrobe for some deserving niece, A princess comes home - paulownia trees and Japanese wedding chests.

I must go down to the sea again – Sailor’s Thai Canteen still cooking 
‘We went back to a favourite spot, Sailors Thai Canteen, established by renowned chef David Thompson who has now long relocated to Bangkok, where it all originates. There were just the two of us so we kept it simple. Remembring people and places. Memory is all we have to hold the world together. Memories of eating and drinking together are a big part of that. Eating, drinking and talking – about everything and nothing, till the cows come home’, I must go down to the sea again – Sailor’s Thai Canteen still cooking.

Peas in a pod – food takes off
‘Pod Food is in the heart of the slightly ramshackle gardening and nursery hub of Canberra, Pialligo , adjacent to the burgeoning exercise in urban growth called Canberra Airport. It was always the place you went to get large pots and even larger apples. Pod Food was always good enough – but now it is something a whole lot more impressive. On a rainy Friday I entered through their marvellous cottage garden entrance way to sit on the covered and contained outside deck. The entrance to Pod Food, formerly part of an operating nursery, is the sort of garden I eventually want to have. It felt highly suitable sitting at the entrance to the Australian high country as the rain came down, drinking the fine product of another high region on the opposite side of the world’, Peas in a pod – food takes off.

Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven
‘It had been quite a week and I had been crushed by too many encounters with the crazy world of Centrelink as I fulfilled my long list of aged care responsibilities. I needed cheering up so last night ate out at the venerable Italian and Sons, the very first of the many funky venues which now enliven Braddon. My attention was drawn to the rare appearance of vitello tonnato. My imagination had been captured decades ago when I was a young boy by seeing the recipe for the dish in Margaret Fulton’s classic cookbook. I finally tried it in a tiny restaurant in Florence, during my first visit overseas, after a stint at the massive Frankfurt Book Fair in 1989. This most recent one was the best I have ever eaten outside my own home – well, perhaps the best anywhere. This is a favourite place, probably my most favourite in Canberra. Coming here always makes me feel happy and what more can you ask?’, Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven.

Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century
‘On a day and night which was bitterly cold – as cold as Canberra has been this year, with the hint of snow clouds overhead – I was reminded why I live here. As we wandered along after a full day of cultural institutions and design events, looking for somewhere to eat we impetuously popped into Restaurant Eightysix and even more impetuously were able to get a table. I had forgotten reading somewhere that famed long-former Adelaide chef, Christine Manfield was here for the month, cooking up an Asian-inspired menu. How much better could it get?’, Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century.

Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo
‘Where the market gardens that supplied Canberra as far back as the 1820s used to be a small fortune has been spent turning 86 acres overlooking the Eastern end of Lake Burley Griffin into a superb regional restaurant, Pialligo Estate Farmhouse Restaurant. It made for a tremendous birthday lunch in a spacious airy and light space, full of exciting food treated well. I couldn’t take my eyes off the copper guttering and downpipes. I thought all the loose copper in the world had already been stolen but clearly it’s still available. It’s quite clear that even though work is still being finalised, when it is finished it will be a spectacular addition to the nation’s capital and the region’, Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo.

Provenance - knowing where good things come from
‘It took me only five years but I finally found my way to Provenance, the legendary regional restaurant established by chef Michael Ryan in Beechworth in 2010. Provenance is widely considered one of the best restaurants in regional Victoria, in a tiny state that contains many good regional restaurants. I had been meaning to eat there since it was established and given how regularly we travel to Beechworth and its surrounds I was amazed I hadn’t been earlier. It took some time but it was worth it’, Provenance - knowing where good things come from

In praise of the Berra
‘When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say “if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died.” Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable. Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts. The Berra is half-way between everywhere’, In praise of the Berra.

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