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Sydney’s top five Little Italy eateries, CNN // 27 June 2011

Read my piece over at CNNGo.com or read on here…

In Sydney’s Little Italy, all things Italian permeate life like garlic in a ragu, and a journey reveals the real taste of Italian cooking. From pizzas to espressos, the delissimo grip on Sydney’s gastronomic landscape is as entrenched and authentic as ever.

Long synonymous with Italian life in Australia, Leichhardt has been attracting hot-blooded Mediterraneans to its terraced streets since the 1940s and 1950s. Branching out from the epicentre of Italian-ness on Norton Street, the march soon spread around the inner west to Haberfield and Five Dock.

Italian businesses thrive in the area and none more so than cafés and restaurants. As well as the crowd-pleasers on Norton Street, there’s a colony of gelato-dripping, pizza-dough flinging, espresso-soaked eateries that put Italian food across the rest of the city to shame.

Rome may have fallen, but things seem alive and well in Sydney’s inner west. Here’s the best.

1. Pizza at Napoli in Bocca

Napoli in Bocca

One of 250 dough-flipped pizzas from the weekend menu at Napoli in Bocca

There are few better simple pleasures than a proper pizza. The pinnacle of pizza perfection, though, is often hard to find — distracted as we are by topping-laden pies and extra cheese. At Napoli in Bocca, the humble pizza is elevated to a work of beauty.

The enormous wood-fired oven is a wonderful thing in itself, but the real art of juggling 250 pizzas every weekend evening is something that can’t be taught. Each base is hand-flung then shuffled around varying heats of the cavernous oven before emerging golden, puffy and steaming.

The trick, apparently, is utter simplicity — using fresh tomato sauce, bocconcini, basil leaves, a glug of olive oil and nothing else — on a Caprese ($19). It lets the freshness of the garlicky tomato and sweet yeastiness of the dough sing a lyrical duet.

In true Neapolitan style, the crust is pliable rather than crunchy, so that the pizza can be folded and eaten from paper, as sailors’ habits in the city port dictated. Mamma mia, those seadogs were onto a good thing.

Napoli in Bocca ,73 Dalhousie St., Haberfield, +61 (0)2 9798 4096

2. Whitebait fritters at Little Sicily

Little Sicily

The best seller at Little Sicily are wholesome with a hint of lemon.

Where chef Ciccio goes, those in the know follow. Now at his eighth kitchen, the inimitable Sicilian started one of the area’s original restaurants and still draws a crowd. It’s not hard to see why — unpretentious as the dining area is, the real magic goes on behind the scenes.

Consistent best sellers are the whitebait fritters ($17.80): golden, eggy and full of the saltiness of the tiny fish. They’re simple and packed with wholesomeness, with a zesty hit of lemon juice.

Five nights a week at Little Sicily, a whole suckling pig is roasted, the tender flesh falling off the bone and its salty crackling inducing sighs of happiness. An antipasto caldo is a different take on the cold classic starter: seafood, mushrooms, tomatoes and asparagus are flash-fried and served over rocket and mozzarella, the juices turning the lot into a warm, vinegary salad.

The Don of Haberfield will show you how real Italian food is done.

Little Sicily, 194 Marion St., Leichhardt, +61 (0)2 9560 2255

3. Penne Grauchi at Filicudi

Filicudi

The Penne Grauchi at Filicudi comes in a deep, creamy tomato sauce.

An outpost in quiet Five Dock — one of Little Italy’s furthermost tendrils — Filicudi has been faithfully serving honest-to-goodness meals for the last 35 years. Cozy and small, with Chianti bottles strung from the ceiling, it’s a warm and welcoming kind of a place, serving unfussy fare. That’s not to say its kitchen isn’t central to proceedings in the area.

Penne Grauchi ($18.50), a rich crab pasta, is a clear favorite with trusted locals and good value, too. Al dente penne has a deep tomato and cream sauce with blue swimmer crab: it’s heaped high and steaming and is enough for two to share. Get stuck in with the shell-breaking tools and you’ll end up messy and finger-licking, which adds to the rustic appeal.

Octopus in tomato sauce is also worth the trip, proving that old-style cooking endures for all the right reasons. Molto bene!

Filicudi, 11 Ramsay Road, Five Dock, +61 (0)2 9713 8733

4. Gelato at Bar Italia

Bar Italia

The gelato at Bar Italia is made in the café’s own Norton Street factory.

The strip lighting, wipe-down tables and dodgy art isn’t the draw at this 1959-established godfather of the area. You come here for the gelato.

During summer, queues can stretch out of the door for the rightly-famed and fresh ice-cream, which is made just a few doors away on Norton Street in Bar Italia’s own little factory.

The ranges of flavours are all pretty fantastic, from the cocoa-dusted Tiramisu to the zabaglioni option ($9.50 for four scoops), which goes well cappuccino, even on a cold day.

The zabaglioni flavor – sweet wine-sodden pockets of sponge in creamy, Marsala-heavy gelato – makes for a grown-up treat, but no-one at this Little Italy institution will judge you if mint choc chip is your personal favourite.

Bar Italia, 167-171 Norton St., Leichhardt, +61 (0)2 9560 9981

5. Canoli at Pasticceria Papa

canoli

The local Mafioso’s dessert is the canoli.

It’s not just because these tubes of more-ish-ness happen to be the Mafioso’s dessert of choice that make them worth a try. It helps that Pasticceria Papa’s canoli ($2) are utterly sublime.

Buttery pastry shells are deep-fried until bubbled and crisp, then filled with sweetened ricotta and dipped into chopped hazelnuts. A dusting of icing sugar and cinnamon finishes them off, adding an extra layer of messiness to the process of eating the crunchy, oozing wickedness.

They won’t win awards for healthiness but that’s a mere distraction from the cause — canoli, after dinner, with a coffee, is a rite of passage for any discerning Italianophile. In fact, canoli with a coffee at any time of the day seems to go at this busy Haberfield stalwart. If you still have room, try a slice of the ever-popular baked ricotta cheesecake, too. Then roll home.

Pasticceria Papa, 145 Ramsay St., Haberfield, +61 (0)2 9798 6894

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The great global buffet comes to Lakemba, CNN // 12 May 2011

My latest food feature for CNNGo…
Island Dreams CafeIsland Dreams’ food is Malay-influenced and served with rainbow crackers.

As media mogul James Packer blasts the tourism industry for marketing clichés, attention is turning to Sydney’s lesser-known treasures.

The multicultural food offerings in Lakemba, in southwest Sydney, are really spicing things up.

What down-at-heel Lakemba — which is named after a group of islands in Fiji — lacks in colonial charm and overpriced Ken Done apparel, it makes up for in exotic flavours and bargain meals. This melting pot of nationalities and creeds carries an ambiance more like downtown Beirut than Bondi Beach.

The area’s modus operandi is halal to satisfy the burgeoning Muslim population.

Let’s stake out six multicultural eateries in Lakemba.

Island Dreams Café

Specialising in home-cooked meals from two of Australia’s far-flung territories — Christmas and Cocos Islands — Island Dreams Café delivers a dose of sleepy island life to the suburbs – despite there being fewer than 200 islanders in New South Wales.

The islanders’ Malay ancestors heavily influence this cuisine’s flavors and it’s hearty stuff. Typically popular dishes are ayam panggang and acar –- lemon chili chicken and cucumber and carrot pickle.

Coconut oil features throughout (palm oil is used on the islands) and the fresh chili used in the special sambal tumis cuts through the rich chicken and fish dishes, which are prepared each morning by Islander Alimah Bilda.

The fish crackers — alarmingly rainbow-colored — are also a delicacy.

Island Dreams Café, 47-49 Haldon St., Lakemba; +61 (0)2 9740 9909, Sunday-Thursday 8:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 8:30 a.m.-midnight.

Al Madina Bakery

Al Madina Bakery

Some 35 years’ experience is a tasty ingredient in Al Madina Bakery’s Lebanese pizzas.

You’d hope that after 35 years of crafting lahmacun — sometimes called Turkish pizza — Ahmad Gaber of Al Madina Bakery would know his way around a Lebanese pizza; and yes, he’s nailed it.Hundreds of these freshly baked, doughy incarnations go for less than $1. This truly democratic fare keeps everyone from tradies to the old Lebanese guard satisfied.

The meat lahmacun is authentic –- the sweet and perfumed cinnamon-edged lamb is topped with a sprinkle of chili flakes and lemon juice.

All the usual suspects are also there — from fragrant thyme za’atar to spinach and cheese in all different sizes.

A varied sample of these flavors barely breaks $5.

Al Madina Bakery, 156 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9758 2665, 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily

Warung Ita

Warung Ita

Humble, cheap and halal — just like Sumatra.

This Indonesian canteen is unpretentious, bursting with flavor and cheap as banana chips. The halal fare is served up by the humble Nazar family.Serving the typical Sumatran buffet-style food, nasi rames, the restaurant is bare and plain, leaving diners to focus on the flavours in front of them.

The chunks of meat in the deep, rich, coconut sauce of the beef rendang contrast with the eggplant and chili. The chicken curry is light and lively with hints of lemongrass.

Peanuts and crunchy anchovies are served on the side, while a homemade, smoky sambal is perky without being nasal-passage-clearingly fiery.

Warung Ita, 1/168 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9740 5527, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.

Patisserie Arja

Patisserie Arja

Sweet: znood el sitt at Patisserie Arja.

Lakemba is strewn with patisseries serving Lebanese sweets.As well as the idiosyncratic baklava, Patisserie Arja does a mean znood el sitt — or ladies’ arm –- a tube of flaky pastry stuffed with ashta (sweet Arabic-style cream) then soaked in sugar and rosewater syrups.

It won’t win awards for healthiness but the level of sweetness is fiendishly more-ish.

If this taste leaves an addictive inclination, whole platters include samples of bird’s nests, baklava, finger rolls, and a variety of pastries with date, walnut, pistachio, almond and ashta fillings.

Patisserie Arja, 129 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9740 8320, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

Great Wall Kitchen

Great Wall Kitchen

The food at Great Wall Kitchen looks like Chinese but is Bengali-fused.

Indian-Chinese food with a halal bent? Where else but Lakemba? The Li family is originally from China but moved to Sydney via Calcutta.At first glance the menu seems mostly Chinese, but there’s a giveaway sign on the wall that reads: “Sweet Paan available here.” This eatery’s sleepiness feels more Indian than Chinese.

Don’t expect dim sum –- dishes are only loosely based on Chinese. Chicken Manchurian is a speciality but the most popular dish is fried chili chicken –- soya heavy and fresh without any sweetness.

Great Wall Kitchen’s fan base comes from local Pakistanis and Lebanese who return for the hot and spicy food.

Great Wall Kitchen, 154 Haldon St., Lakemba; +61 (0)2 9759 9531, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday 4 p.m.-11 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m.-10 p.m., closed Tuesdays.

Banoful

Banoful

The servings at Banoful will fill you up.

Banoful is the third in a chain of lively Bangladeshi restaurants that cater for a curry-hungry Bengali and Indian locals.Flavours are enriched by ghee and the servings are huge — the undisputed heavyweight king of Bangladeshi food, kacchi biryani, comes with a borhani yogurt drink and salad. It’s one of those dishes that’s best left to master chefs: the combination of steaming rice, fragrant spices and tender goats’ meat is close to faultless.

Not for the first time, diners are left to wonder how such exotic, sultry flavours have quietly found their way to Sydney’s west. How long will the secret last?

Banoful, 49 Railway Parade, Lakemba, +61 (0)2 8084 0187, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

Or, read over on CNNGo.
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6 Vietnamese dishes in Cabramatta, CNN // 4 May 2011

My piece for CNN:

Pigs’ trotters, congealed blood cubes, clawed chicken feet and duck fetuses were once more common in Saigon than Sydney.

But Cabramatta, a western suburbs enclave of all things Asian, is home to 40 per cent of New South Wales’ Vietnamese population. And where Vietnamese tread, the country’s fragrant, subtle, poignant flavours are sure to follow: The area is bursting with restaurants, markets, street traders and hawkers peddling everything from freshly-made noodles to sugar cane juice.

There’s something about Vietnamese food that brings out the addict within. Its heady, sweet spices and grassy, fresh herbs are thrown in with off-kilter texture combinations and punches of chili. The likes of pho and banh mi have converted even some of the staunchest Aussies; but what about some less common –- and more challenging — flavors of Vietnam?

Cabramatta expert, Thang Ngo of Noodlies.com, shows us where the locals eat.

Pho Tai

Cabramatta Vietnamese food
The salty, meaty pho at Pho Tau Bay.

It would be churlish to omit Vietnam’s most famous dish from the proceedings and where else to head to but local hero, Pho Tau Bay. To stay as true to “real Vietnam” as possible, the essential ingredient is pho tai — noodles with raw blood-red beef that’s gently cooked in hot, fragrant soup.

A pho is a subjective dish and there are two schools of thought – salty and meaty versus floral and spicy. For proponents of salty meat, this pho is manna from heaven. Torn basil leaves and fresh chili at the table perk it up.

Pho tai ($10) at Pho Tau Bay, 12/117 John St., Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9726 4583, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-7 p.m.

Com Tam (broken rice)

Cabramatta Vietnamese food

Once a cheap eat, com tam has become a modern-day delicacy.

Com tam was originally a pauper’s dish, originating from the days when broken grains of rice sold for rock-bottom prices at market. Humble as its origins may be, broken rice is now a delicacy.

A mound of al dente vermicelli with pork skin sits beside the rice, which is topped with a softly fried egg and accompanied by a pork chop, egg and vermicelli cake and cucumber slices. The gamy pork skin flavors the rice and runny egg yolk boosts the richness of the chop, which is heady and smoky with five-spice and chili.

Spoon over some nuoc mam (fish sauce) for sweetness, chili and salt and it’s easy to see why broken rice is the rags-to-riches story of Cabramatta.

Com tam (broken rice) $12.50 at Pho Tau Bay, 12/117 John St., Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9726 4583, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-7 p.m.

Banh Cuon

Cabramatta Vietnamese food

The traditional breakfast dish served at Phu Quoc.

If there’s one dish that exemplifies the counter-intuitive, shouldn’t-work-but-it-somehow-does pairing of Vietnamese textures, it’s this. Starchy folds of wide rice noodles stuffed with spicy pork mince and Chinese mushrooms sit next to slices of peppery devon and vermicelli, chili and cured pork sausage.

Cucumber and herb salad blast the palate with freshness and chunks of deep-fried prawn and soybean cake add a fatty depth. To top it all off, crunchy fried shallot delivers a hit of sweetness. The contrasting textures and flavours of this traditional, work-intensive breakfast dish are washed down by free tea.

Banh cuon ($10.50) at Phu Quoc, 11/117 John St., Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9724 2188, Open 7 days 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

Bun Bo Hue

Cabramatta Vietnamese food

Meaty noodles and a suckable trotter rewards bold eaters at Dong Ba.

Pho’s unruly cousin, bun bo hue, is a fiery bowl of lemongrass-edged porkiness. From the jelly-like cubes of congealed blood to the cloudy-skinned trotter lurking beneath the oily, red surface, this is not one for the faint-hearted.

But meaty noodles carry the big flavours and punches of chili cut through the fatty meat. The trotter can even be chewed and sucked with wild abandon.

Bun bo hue $10 at Dong Ba, 5-6/40 Park Road, Cabramatta, +61 (0)2 9755 0727, Open 7 days 8.30 a.m.-8 p.m.

Goi Ga Chay Bo

Cabramatta Vietnamese food

Get it before it runs away: goi ga chay bo.

A chicken salad with clawed chicken feet is, well, a little unnerving. Especially when the chicken in question is goi ga chay bo, or ‘running chicken’, which can only mean well-travelled feet.

But, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and if chicken skin is your thing, then these bony, sabre-like appendages are worth a try. Sinews aside, the salad provides the perfect foil to the chewy free-range flesh and fatty skin –- slivers of pink and green cabbage sparkle with lime and fish sauce.

Goi ga chay bo $15 at Diem Hen, 205 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights, +61 (0)2 9724 9800, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-11 p.m.

Hot Vit Lon

Cabramatta Vietnamese food

Eat the hot vit lon before it comes to life.

Even Anthony Bourdain, master of the gastronomic challenge, calls hot vit lon a “difficult dining experience.” Yes, foetal duck eggs, known more sympathetically as “half-hatched eggs”.

So, crack the shell, add salt, pepper and lemon, drink the foetal fluid, scoop out the mix of feathers, flesh, egg white and yolk and intersperse with leaves of Vietnamese mint to cut through the richness.

Easy? Not really –- it was fiddly, smelly, warm and furry. The intensely sweet, umami-heavy fluid had a pungent funky stink and there was an odd disk of crunchy, alien albumen that beat me. Not one I’ll be adding to my breakfast routine anytime soon, but a good route to a Saigon street market without leaving the city of Sydney.

And, just to prove it, a vid of me eating the duck foetus in question. Mmmm.

Hot vit lon ($3) at Diem Hen, 205 Canley Vale Road, Canley Heights, +61 (0)2 9724 9800, Open 7 days 8 a.m.-11 p.m.

Or, read my piece at CNNGo.com.

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Greenhouse by Joost: all that glisters is not green // 1 March 2011

In a country that is home to the world’s biggest houses, roads full of ubiquitous 4×4 utes, a world-famous city that is crippled by its own anachronistically stunted public transport network and voracious tumble dryer usage even on 30C days, green concepts have a long, steep hill to climb before hitting mainstream palatability.

So, it is no mean feat that Greenhouse by Joost, a pop-up eco restaurant sitting bang in the epicentre of some of the most globally famous and eye-wateringly expensive real estate known to man, is setting a few tongues wagging here in Sydney. It helps that the temporary structure is covered in plants, is eye-catchingly rustic against the anathematic glass backdop of (uber fancy) Quay restaurant and is the inadvertent limelight stealer in many a tourist snap of the enduring Trifecta – ‘harbour, ‘bridge and ‘house.

Londoners are lucky to have the brilliant Waterhouse and Acorn House eco restaurants in their midst, as well as the low-energy Duke of Cambridge, Saf and Clerkenwell Kitchen. Those eateries, however, aren’t housed in a glorified (but very lovely) outhouse that is a salutory call to energy-hungry Sydneysiders to try to spare some thought for the environment the next time they switch on the A/C. Joost is a brave man.

The building is made of salvaged everything. Glasses are jam jars and flowers are from the rooftop gardens. Chairs are made of reclaimed metal tubing and plates are chunks of plywood. There are no rubbish bins and all waste is composted. Cutlery is wooden and there is a little demonstration oat mill to play with. It’s a big, bright, bustling space and the view is, well, it’s pretty damn phenomenal.

But what Greenhouse makes up for in novelty it sadly lacks in a menu that didn’t cut the proverbial organic mustard for me. Although the oysters, cured meats and olives were spot-on the meal sadly didn’t live up to the view or the experience. Herbs from the roof, flour milled on site, pasta, bread, the whole shebang, made in the temporary kitchens is all very well and good – and I love the idea – but the bread was tasteless, the bumpy pasta lacking punch and the pizza dotted by crunchy disks of anaemic potato and not much else besides.

The focus, I suppose, should not be on the food but on the premise of the place – it’s here to send a message and to that extent, it’s done well. Or so the smiling waitress up near the loos must surely feel – I heard her explain to each loo goer upon leaving the trestle-table-for-door loos that yes, the tap is working fine, it is supposed to keep running to give you a sense of how much water goes into each loo flush. Sydney, though, is a city of food-lovers and green goodness alone cannot fill a stomach.

Like any good novelty, its days are numbered. It’s worth a visit if only to try the home-made (but soon to be marketed) gin, but more to the point, it’s worth a visit to see what can be done with a bit of lateral thinking and some wild strawberry plants. And all within a city in which it is impossible to find a streetside recycling bin, where the car always takes precedent and where clothes-laden washing lines are as rare as hen’s teeth.

 

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