Via Alta, Willoughby

Life gets busy. That’s what happens when you grow up, get married, have kids, work, run a household, write a blog, learn piano (slowly), eat (a lot), and do plenty of other things in those hours when you’re not sleeping. So although my mother, both sisters and I all live no more than a 15-20 minute drive apart, we can easily go several weeks and not see each other. A couple of years ago we decided we would have girls only lunches for our birthdays, which works well given that they are spread across the year. This also helps support my blog habit, and the girl crew are generally cool with anything I suggest.

Once at the chosen venue, it has in the past gone something like this: one sister will stand on chairs, move furniture and position the plate to help me get a good food shot, whereas the other will be rolling her eyes and say can we just hurry up and eat now PLEASE. Meanwhile, Mamma Rosa will look around nervously and sometimes apologise to the wait staff while I tell her that honestly no one cares that I am taking photos. Don’t you love families – same gene pool, same upbringing, but often completely different output. Over lunch we bicker, we laugh, we chat, and generally drive each other crazy, while Mamma Rosa analyses and tells us she could have made all of this food for a fraction of the cost.

It’s the “middle sister’s” birthday this time (no middle child issues by the way, she’s the most confident and outrageous of all of us, and in her opinion, the best looking; I supposedly got the brains instead). So here we are at Via Alta in Willoughby which is the new venture of the lovely Alessandro Pavoni of Ormeggio and Alex Keene, Ormeggio’s former sous chef and CIRA’s 2013 Young Talent of the Year Winner. It was High Street Bistro, but the double-A team took it over, translated High Street to Via Alta and translated the menu as well. They thought the lower north shore needed a casual Italian trattoria – and they were right.

For stuzzichini (snacks) we start with the Calamari Fritti – feather light and delicious, we devoured them – and the Modeghini, the meatballs – which Middle Sister thought were great, Mamma Rosa thought were too dry, and I thought were okay.
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We then tried sardines wrapped in prosciutto – so beautifully plated and really pleasant. Often I find when food gets wrapped in prosciutto and cooked, it is overpowered, but in this dish you still got the distinct taste of sardine.
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The eggplant parmigiana was great though very rich, it’s a good dish to share.
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On the pasta front we tried the pappardelle with oxtail ragu and the agnolotti with pork, burnt butter and sage. Both very rich dishes, and a truly excellent ragu. The pasta was probably a touch too al dente for me, but just a touch.
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The braised lamb shoulder with pumpkin and spring vegetables was a gorgeous plate and tasted as good as it looked.
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We really were too full for dessert, but there was birthday singing to be done, so we opted for the crostata with pear and pistachio. Velvety vanilla bean crème anglaise, could have had a bowl of that on its own, which complemented the crostata beautifully; suddenly I forgot that I was full.
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This is hearty Italian fare touched with Ormeggio class – well done to the double-A team.

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Via Alta, 197 High Street, Willoughby, Ph (02) 99581110
http://www.viaalta.com.au

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Today’s Cake – Orange and Semolina Cake

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My husband bought home a beautiful bag of navel oranges recently.  I’ve always got semolina in the cupboard, so when I saw this cake by Neil Perry in Good Food that used both, I thought I’d give it a whirl. Its a lovely cake for afternoon tea.  The recipe calls for golden caster sugar which is made from unrefined sugar and a pale brown colour.  If you have a Thomas Dux or other speciality food store nearby, ask if they stock Billingtons – they make every kind of sugar under the sun.  If not, just substitute normal white caster sugar.

Ingredients
115g golden caster sugar
65ml vegetable oil
Finely grated zest of 1 orange
4 eggs
100ml milk
40ml orange flower water
225g fine semolina
3 tsp baking powder
115g almond meal

Orange Syrup
285g caster sugar
425ml water
4 pieces of orange peel (use a peeler)
juice of 1 orange
juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp orange flower water

Making it
1. To make the syrup put the caster sugar, water and orange peel in a small saucepan. Set over a low heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Turn up the heat and allow it to bubble for 15-20 minutes to make a sticky syrup. Transfer into a jug and remove the orange peel. Add the juices and orange flower water. Set aside.

2. Preheat the oven to 190ºC and line a 20cm x 30cm rectangular baking tin with baking paper.

3. For the cake, whisk the sugar, oil and orange zest together in an electric mixer. Add the eggs, one at a time, whisking after each, until thick and foamy. Mix in the milk and orange flower water.

4. Combine the semolina and baking powder. Beat into the cake mixture, then add the ground almonds. Pour into the baking tin, making sure mixture is level. Place tin in the centre of the oven and bake for 20 minutes, until it is golden and just cooked.

5. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Using a skewer, prick holes in the top and slowly pour over 1 1/2 cups of syrup. When cool, slice and serve with remaining syrup if desired.

Easy asparagus soup

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I love green vegetables, get cravings if I go too long without them.  I think it must be genetic, as my boys are the same and actually ask for broccoli, beans and peas (and get excited about them!).  This is an easy to make soup by Neil Perry, its a little naughty compared to the leek, pea and zucchini from the other week, as it does contain cream and butter.  Serves 4 and super easy

Ingredients
60g butter
1tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 leek, white part only, roughly chopped
salt and pepper
4 bunches asparagus, trimmed and cut into 3cm pieces
1 large all purpose potato peeled and roughly chopped
800ml chicken stock
150ml pouring cream
1tbsp fresh lemon juice

Making it
1. Heat butter and oil in a large, heavy based pan. Add leek, salt and pepper and sweat on low heat until leek is soft. Add asparagus and potato and cook over medium heat for 3-4 minutes
2. Add stock and simmer for 15-20 minutes, then process using a stick blender (or food processor) until smooth
3. Add the cream and lemon juice and serve with crusty bread or croutons

Today’s Cake – Blueberry Crumb Cake

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Blueberry prices have been a King’s ransom of late.  I saw this cake by Smitten Kitchen back in July and knew that my husband would love it, but waited till the weather got warmer and blueberries were more reasonable, otherwise it’s one very extravagant cake! I used 3 x 125g punnets (375g) of blueberries but as the recipe suggests, you can use even more if you wish. Me, I’m take it or leave it when it comes to berries, not a fan (except for mulberries, which I adore), but as I predicted, the husband was a big enthusiast and loved the end product. The walnuts, by the way, are optional.

Crumb topping
40g plain flour
100g caster sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
55g unsalted butter
Pinch of salt

Cake
240g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons table salt
55g unsalted butter, softened
150 g caster sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
340 to 455g fresh blueberries, clean and dry
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped medium fine
Icing sugar, for dusting

Making it

  1. Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees celsius. Butter a 23cm round baking pan and line with baking paper
  1. Prepare the topping by mixing the flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt, then cutting the butter in with a pastry blender, fork or your fingertips until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Set aside.
  1. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, and salt until combined. In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar and zest together until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and beat until combined. Beat in 1/3 of the dry ingredient mixture until just combined, followed by 1/2 the milk; repeat with remaining dry ingredients and milk, finishing with the dry mixture. The batter will be quite thick. Fold blueberries into cake batter until evenly distributed.
  1. Scoop cake batter into prepared pan and smooth so that it is flat. Scatter walnuts on top. Sprinkle with prepared topping. Bake in heated oven for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out batter-free. Allow to cool for 20 minutes in the tin, then remove, dust with icing sugar and serve.

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Dimitris’ Moussaka

With this run of dismal wet weather in Sydney, our idyllic blue sky days on the island of Paros in Greece only a couple of months ago feel like a bit of a dream. While we were there we had some great food, some of it prepared by a local cook Dimitris at our villa. A few weeks ago I tried his baked eggplant recipe, which my husband loved. This time I tried his version of moussaka – there must be endless versions, every yiayia must pass down her own to her family, and it is a labour of love. If you have a mandolin (one of my kitchen essentials), you’ll make light work of the slicing. I used a 7mm slice for the eggplant and a 5mm slice for the potatoes and zucchini. If you have nice ripe Summer tomatoes, you can use fresh instead of canned. You could also use Pecorino or Parmeggiano instead of gruyere. My baking dish was approximately 20cm x 34cm and about 6cm deep.  Dimitris if you’re reading this, I hope I did an ok job!

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Ingredients
2 large eggplants, peeled and sliced
4 medium zucchini, sliced lengthways
4 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced
Olive oil for brushing and frying
100g of Gruyere, grated
50g of Gruyere, extra (for topping)
1/3 cup fine breadcrumbs

Meat sauce
1 large onion, finely diced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1kg beef mince
½ cup white wine
1 can peeled tomatoes, pureed
2 bay leaves
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of raw sugar
Salt and pepper for seasoning

For the béchamel
100g butter
3/4 cup plain flour, sifted
1 litre milk
100g Gruyere, grated
Salt for seasoning
Pinch of nutmeg
1 egg, lightly beaten

Making it

1. For the meat, sauce, put the olive oil in a pan, add the onion, and saute until softened. Add the mince and cook until browned, add the wine and cook down. Add the tomato, sugar, bay leaves, nutmeg, season with salt and pepper and simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes. It should not be too wet as you don’t want your moussaka to be runny

2. Fry the sliced potatoes in olive oil, season and set aside; fry the zucchini slices in olive oil and set aside

3. Heat the oven to 180 degrees. Brush the eggplant with olive oil, season, and bake until softened, 20-30 minutes

4. Meanwhile make the béchamel. Melt the butter in a pan, add the flour and whisk, and cook for a few minutes. Add the milk, whisking constantly; the mixture will thicken and begin to bubble. Season, add the nutmeg, remove from heat and whisk in the cheese. Finally whisk in the egg.

Assembly
Place a layer of potato on the bottom of your baking dish, covering as best possible. Follow with a layer of eggplant, the half the grated cheese. Then add the meat, make sure it is a nice smooth layer. Follow with a layer of zucchini, the rest of the cheese, another layer of eggplant, then finally top with the béchamel. Sprinkle the extra cheese on top and the breadcrumbs, bake in a 180 degree oven for about 45 minutes.  Remove from the oven and allow to sit for a few minutes before serving.

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Lucy Liu Kitchen and Bar, Melbourne

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No, it’s not named after the actress. Surely they must be tired of saying that by now – they being George Columbaris (Press Club), Michael Lambie (ex Taxi and The Smith) and a few buddies who have opened a new Mod Asian eatery in PM24’s old digs. It has only been open a few weeks when we try it out, and it is already heaving on a Tuesday lunch.

It has taken me a while to get round to writing this post – ‘the backlog’ is many a food blogger’s curse. But here’s the thing. Even when I’m writing up a place several weeks later, there will be a dish that stands out in my mind, that I can still taste, and that I’m dying to go back and try again, even before flicking through the photos that are going to go on the post. And that memorable quality for me, was slightly lacking here, no real wow. Don’t get me wrong, the food was fine, and it was early days, but the return pull factor isn’t huge. I would probably rather try Supernormal again, which I was also a little divided on, but it was slightly more interesting. My view is probably also due to the fact that I think Sydney far outweighs Melbourne in the number of great choices in the Mod Asian space and we’ve been really spoilt on that front (Melburnians don’t yell at me!), so the benchmark for this type of cuisine is pretty high.

Anyway, here’s what we ordered that day. Clockwise, starting top left Crystal Skin Prawn and Bamboo Dumplings with cucumber & yuzu dressing; Barramundi & Scampi Dumplings with chilli, ginger and spring onions; Wok fried local calamari with pickled papaya and hot mint salad, red nam jim; Crispy Fried Quail with shichimi pepper and spicy plum dressing. I found the dumpling casings a little on the thick side, though the flavours were good. The quail was crisp and not at all greasy.

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Next up, clockwise from top left: Peking Duck Dumplings with Lucy’s hoi sin sauce; Rare breed sticky pork belly, palm sugar caramel, young coconut salad & red chilli; Soft Shelled Crab Jianbing Pancake roll with spicy hoi sin; Stir fried Asian greens. The pork gave us a surprise – when we ordered it, the waitress advised that it was only two pieces, would we like to up the order to three pieces – she didn’t mention it was two very tiny pieces of pork for $20, so a very small dish for $30 – how rare is the breed exactly? The pancake, like the dumpling, was on the thick side. The greens were excellent, and probably the favourite thing I ate that day.

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As I said it had only been open a few weeks, and some refining and tweaking to be done, and I also think the serves are quite on the small side for the price.

Lucy Liu Kitchen and Bar, 23 Oliver Lane, Melbourne Ph (03) 9639 5777

http://lucylius.com.au/

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Toque Time (Sydney) – The SMH Good Food Guide 2015 Awards

 

2015awardsHot on the heels of the Melbourne Awards  last week comes the Sydney session.  The Good Food Guide turns 30 this year. It is quite extraordinary to think that 30 years ago, there was no such thing as “Modern Australian” food – instead it was called “Anglo Saxon” cuisine; and a meal at a three hatter would set you back $29.  Over the years the GFG has gotten bigger, more powerful (some would say that’s a bad thing), and the toques are always a cause for debate amongst restaurant goers like me….especially for places like Marque (sorry I had to throw that in, but really?)

So who were the casualties of war in the last 12 months? Well Guillaume at Bennelong closed, refusing to become a more casual, 7 day a week, breakfast-lunch-dinner bistro as requested by the Opera House Trust, and re-opened his fine dinner just a few weeks ago in Paddington, merci beaucoup.  Claudes shut down, with Chui Lee Luk opting for the more casual Chow Bar & Eating House, serving modern Chinese.  Xanthi went into liquidation, succumbing to the Fine-Dining-In-A-Shopping-Centre-in-Australia-Doesn’t-Work curse; Buzo is now Pinbone, though they recently taunted diners with a pop up serving THAT lasagne and the cabbage salad (when will you open that whispered CBD site?), and Foveuax and Tomislav are no more.   That’s a total of nine hats. In all, 40 of the restaurants that were in the 2014 guide closed. As we hear all the time, it is a tough gig in the hospitality game.  Having said that, 80 new restaurants have appeared in the Guide this year.

Drumroll please…..and the winners are

Restaurant of the Year – Sepia

Best New Restaurant – Ester

Legend Award – Peter Doyle (Est)

Chef of the Year – Brent Savage (well deserved in my view, loving Bentley at the moment)

The Hatters – City

Three Hats
Momofuku Seiobo, Quay, Rockpool, Sepia

Two Hats
ARIA Restaurant, Bentley Restaurant & Bar (re-entry), Berowra Waters Inn (up a hat), The Bridge Room, est., Ester (new hatter), Gastro Park, Icebergs Dining Room & Bar, Lucio’s Italian Restaurant (up a hat), Marque, Mr. Wong, Ormeggio at the Spit, Pilu at Freshwater, Porteño (up a hat), Rockpool Bar & Grill, sixpenny (up a hat), Spice Temple, Tetsuya’s

One Hat
4Fourteen (up a hat), Aki’s Indian Restaurant, Alpha (new hatter), The Apollo, Arras, Bar H Dining (re-entry), The Bathers’ Pavilion, Billy Kwong, Bistro Moncur, Bistrode CBD, BLACK by Ezard (up a hat), The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay, Bodega, Buon Ricordo (down a hat), Cafe Paci (new hatter), Cafe Sopra, Catalina, China Doll, Cho Cho San (new hatter), Clareville Kiosk, Cottage Point Inn (new hatter), the devonshire, Farmhouse (new hatter), Felix (new hatter), Fish Face (new hatter), Flying Fish Restaurant & Bar, Four in Hand Dining Room (down a hat), glass brasserie, Hartsyard, Jonah’s Restaurant, Kepos Street Kitchen, Longrain (down a hat), Lox Stock & Barrel (new hatter), Monopole, Moon Park (new hatter), MoVida (down a hat), Ms.G’s, Nomad (new hatter), Oscillate Wildly, Osteria Balla (new hatter), Osteria di Russo & Russo (new hatter), Otto Ristorante (re-entry), The Restaurant Pendolino, Saké Restaurant & Bar, Sean’s Panaroma, Sokyo, sushi e (new hatter), Three Blue Ducks, Uccello, Ume Restaurant, Vincent (new hatter), Vini (new hatter), Yellow (new hatter)

Lost hats – Ananas, Popolo, Gowings Bar & Grill

Regional Hats

Two Hats
Biota Dining (Bowral), Muse Restaurant (Pokolbin, up a hat), Subo (Newcastle West)

One Hat
Bistro Molines (Mount View), Caveau (Wollongong), Cupitt’s Kitchen (Ulla-dulla, new hatter), Darley’s Restaurant (Katoomba), Eschalot (Berrima), Fins Restaurant (Kingscliff), Harvest Cafe (Newrybar, new hatter), Lolli Redini (Orange), Manfredi at Bells (Killcare Heights), Muse Kitchen (Pokolbin, new hatter), Restaurant Como (Blaxland), Restaurant Mason (Newcastle), The Stunned Mullet (Port Macquarie), Tomah Gardens (Mt Tomah, new hatter), Tonic (Millthorpe), Town Restaurant & Cafe (Bangalow), Wharf Rd Restaurant & Bar (Nowra), Zanzibar Cafe (Merimbula)