Yum Cha @ Spice Temple, Sydney

Spice Temple recently introduced yum cha style options for lunch – which is great because down that end of town there is very little of it other than Mr Wong. And yes I know people will say ‘you could get that for half the price in China Town blah blah blah’ but this isn’t mass-produced-sitting-around-in-a-trolley type yum cha – it is Neil Perry yum cha, made to order and using some great ingredients.  I’ve been to Spice Temple a la carte several times, so was keen to try the dumplings.  The optimal group size though, seems to be 3 people, as that is the serving size of most of the dumplings. They won’t up it to four, so if everyone wants to try one and you’re a foursome, you’ll need to order two serves.  Tasting it, it is obvious that this is premium stuff, you just need to get your head around the association of yum cha = cheap.

The standouts for me were: Gua bao with roast pork belly and chilli paste ($9 each), which you order individually (spice, texture and flavour), the lobster siu mai – $12 for two – (such luxury! And just devine), the Wagyu beef and chestnut siu mai (not too often you get beef in dumplings, and these were delicious), and the Pork balls with XO sauce (oh that sauce! Give me a bowl of it with some steamed rice). Excuse the pics – Spice Temple lighting is not conducive to good photos!

spice yumcha1_marked

We also tried the Har Gow steamed prawn dumplings (these were probably the only ones we tried which didn’t stand out in particularly versus say Palace or other yum cha), the Prawn and scallop spring roll, and the Lamb and cumin pancake

spice yumcha2_marked

To finish, we had the three milk cake (normal, condensed and cream I think) with raspberry, pistachio and almond, with meringue on top. It had a slightly Middle Eastern bent with the rosewater and pistachio, and the milk was just delicious. I could happily skip the meringue and just have that gorgeous cake with lashings of the milk mixture. Any chance of a recipe, Neil?

027_marked

Spice Temple, 10 Bligh Street, Sydney ph (02) 8078 1888
http://www.rockpool.com/spicetemplesydney/

Dimitris’ baked eggplant

eggplant 2_marked

While we were in Greece, staying in a magnificent house in Paros, a local cook Dimitris made some delicious dishes for us. One that was a hit was this baked eggplant, which I was keen to try myself when we returned home. The challenge is sourcing the same ingredients. I noticed Dimitris always used red onions for example – but the red onions there were much sweeter and more delicate than those we get in Australia. So for this dish I opted for some French eschallots, which were probably the closest thing. It also looked like he had used a different variety of eggplant – here we either get tiny Lebanese eggplants (which are too small for this recipe) or massive “standard” ones. Today I found some standard eggplants but of a petite size at an Italian grocer, and as soon as I saw them I knew they were perfect for this dish. There is a lot of oil so it is not a dish you’d have every day, but gosh it was delicious, and bought back memories of a wonderful holiday.  We had some left over and heated them up the next day, I think they were even better.  You could also do these Italian style with ricotta on top and sprinkle with fresh basil.

Ingredients
6 small eggplants
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup continental parsley, finely chopped
180g haloumi, sliced into 12 slices
Olive oil for frying
Salt for seasoning

For the sauce
4 eschallots, finely sliced lengthways
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon raw sugar
1 can peeled tomatoes, pureed
2 tbsp olive oil

Making it
1. For the sauce, place the olive oil and eschallots in small pot and saute on medium heat until softened. Add the tomatoes, 1 cup water, salt, sugar, allow it to come to a bubble then simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes. Set aside

2. Cut each of the eggplants in half longways, then score in a criss cross fashion. Take a large heavy based frypan (mine could fit 6 halves), add olive oil such that the base of the frypan is generously covered. Place the eggplants flesh side down and cook on low to medium heat till golden, then turn and cook on skin side until softened but not collapsing. Drain on paper towels.

eggplant1_marked
3. Preheat oven to 160 degrees. Place the eggplant in an oven dish, season with salt, then sprinkle the parmesan on top. Spoon some sauce onto each of the eggplants and bake for about 20 minutes
4. Remove from oven, place one slice of haloumi on each eggplant, then return to the oven and bake for a further 20 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle over chopped parsley and serve.

The hunt for Sydney’s best cannoli – part II

After sharing my post on Sydney’s best cannoli to an “Italians in Sydney” group, there was a bit of an outcry that I didn’t include Mezzapica.  It was not intentional, I just forgot about them (my brother-in-law too shook his head in disbelief).  Which is a bit odd, considering that at the two hundred or so Italian weddings I went to at the Mediterranean House and Festival House growing up, everyone got their wedding cake and other sweets from Mezzapica.  And we also used to buy cakes, cannoli and biscuits from there for family occasions.  But somewhere along the way my mother became a devotee of Blue Star, and this became the default cannoli location.  My first test included Blue Star, Marineve, Tamborrino and Dolcetti.  It was time for round two.

So one sunny morning, off I went to Leicchardt to Mezzapica.    I also recently tried some great cannoli at a friend’s birthday party, and she told me they were from Cavalicious, so I decided to stop in there on the way home, and a little further up the road at newcomer Mercato e Cucina.   Once again, traditional ricotta flavour had to be the benchmark.

cannoli2

And yes, the masses were right.  The Mezzapica cannoli were fantastic, crunchy shell, creamy not-too-sweet ricotta.  But I have to say, Cavalicious, while a slightly different flavour to its shell, were excellent too, will definitely be buying both of these again. Mercato e Cucina’s version was probably my least preferred of all seven (gosh I am glad I did this in two parts, imagine eating seven at once) – loved the pistachio topping, but the filling and the casing, while good, just weren’t to the standard of all the others.

You’ve got to admit, regardless of your cannoli preference, that it is great to be this spoilt for choice.

Mezzapica Cakes, 130 Norton Street Leichhardt, ph (02) 9569 8387
http://www.mezzapica.com.au

Cavalicious Patisserie Cafe, 213 Victoria Road, Gladesville, ph (02) 9879 7378
http://www.cavalicious.com.au

Mercato e Cucina, 297 Victoria Road, Gladesville, ph (02) 9817 9457
http://www.mercatoecucina.com.au
Mezzapica on Urbanspoon

Cavalicious Patisserie Cafe on Urbanspoon

Paris, France

flowersparis

Don’t believe what they tell you about the French. Rude and cold – non! In my five visits to Paris, I’ve found the contrary. Like people who saw our bewildered faces staring at a map, and asked if we needed help; or those who kindly offered to take photos, so that I could actually be
in a few rather than always the person behind the camera. Regardless of what you think of the people, Paris is a magnificent city – so much history, art, sugar, bread, and fashion. But be warned it is expensive, and after such great affordable food in Florence, Milan, and Greece there was certainly a bit of price shock. And the coffee was on balance sub standard (and overpriced) – stick to hot chocolate!

sights2_marked

There is endless sightseeing to do in Paris – the Eiffel Tower of course, the Louvre, the Orsay, Montmarte, Versaille, Notre Dame, Champs Elysee, the list goes on and on. The Metro is an easy and quick way to get around the city if you are pushed for time and don’t have the luxury of walking, which is the best way to do Paris.

sights3_marked

Of course, everywhere you go in Paris you will find patisseries – and all so pretty.

parispatisserie3_marked

If you don’t want to go traipsing around the city, many of the “big name” ones – Angelina, Pierre Hermes, Sadaharu Aoki, Lauderee, and others – you will find in the department stores Lafayette and Printemps.

parispatisserie2_marked

In regards to presentation, I thought Sadaharu Aoki was outstanding – everything was picture perfect. But it doesn’t have to be a “big name” to be good – I bought a fabulous Paris Brest from some random patisserie on Rue Monge. And Eric Kayser’s simple almond croissant is to die for.

parispatisserie1_marked

Special mentions also go to Sadaharu’s choux pastry, and to Jacque Genin’s millefeuille – talk about flaky pastry.

parispatisserie4_marked

If you want to do a picnic lunch, there are endless specialty food stores. But do check out the foodhalls at the department stores – Le Bon Marche’s Grande Epicerie – and Lafayette’s Lafeyette Gourmand – they have almost everything you could think of for the perfect picnic. They make our Sydney David Jones Foodhall look like a hole in the wall.

lafayettegourmand_marked

Other notable mentions – we enjoyed Market by Jean Georges (Avenue Matignon), an upmarket, buzzing, modern French bistro with a hint of Asian

marketparis_marked

Cafe Sud (Rue de Castellane) had some good food going on (sorry my savoury photos went AWOL) – the cured salmon was just lovely, as was the salted caramel ice cream that came with dessert.

cafesud

Claus (Rue Jean Jacques Rosseau) is a delightful breakfast spot near the Louvre which we also enjoyed. Do book as it only seats twenty or so.

clausparis_marked

If you don’t actually want to see any of the major tourist attractions and stand in queues, you’ll have an equally lovely time in Paris just walking the streets, getting lost, and taking it all in.

Leek, Zucchini and Pea Soup

zucchinisoup

I rarely buy cookbooks these days.  There are so many great recipes available in newspapers, magazines, and online that I’m less inclined to.  At one point my stash of cookbooks got unwieldy, so I went through them all and marked with post-its how many recipes in each book I would actually make. Anything with a handful or less went to charity.

SMH’s Good Food on Tuesdays (it is the only reason I buy the paper on Tuesdays) is always a good source of inspiration.  When I saw this recipe from Pete Evans, I knew it would be the perfect winter warmer. I doubt he’d serve it with bread, given he’s gone all Paleo these days, but I couldn’t resist putting a few crunch toasted bits in it.   He also used coconut oil, but I used my regular extra virgin olive oil.  Speaking of which, I’m really loving Australian oil Cobram these days; I usually buy imported Italian or Spanish, but I’ve discovered the fragrant fruitiness of Cobram, though it does come with a higher price tag.

Serves 4

Ingredients
2 tbps extra virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, sliced
4 large zucchini, diced
200g fresh or frozen peas
1.3 litres chicken stock
4 sprigs thyme, leaves picked and finely chopped
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Making it
1. Place the oil in a large saucepan and saute the leek over a medium heat for a few minutes.
2. Add the zucchini and cook for about five minutes. Add the peas and half the stock and bring to the boil.
3. Reduce the heat, add the thyme, nutmeg, bay leaves and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for another five minutes, or until fragrant, then add the remaining stock and simmer for 30 minutes.
4. Remove the bay leaves and blend until smooth.

Easy and delicious!

Florence, Italy

firenze_marked

I knew this would happen.  I’m in one of Italy’s most beautiful cities, Florence, and I don’t want to leave my hotel. Maybe ever.

A couple of years ago we stayed at the Ferragamo family’s Portrait Hotel in Rome.  It was one of my favourite hotel stays of all time. So when I heard that they were opening another Portrait Hotel in Florence, I didn’t hesitate to book it.  The other reason I was keen is that they have family suites, which are often in short supply and high demand in Europe.

And it’s beautiful.  The epitome of modern elegance and style.  All I needed was a Fairy Godmother who could wave her magic wand and turn me into Audrey Hepburn so I could sit by the window and stare out, pouting appropriately.  The staff too, are fantastic, thoughtful and warm (and some of the best dressed hotel staff you’ll see anywhere!).  The fine eye for detail, comfort and quality I love in my Ferragamo shoes has been seemingly effortlessly translated to hotels.

portrait_marked

The hotel breakfast is top notch – everything is excellent quality.  Because we were booked as Virtuoso guests (see below), the fabulous breakfast was included.

breakfastflorence_marked

Eventually of course we do venture out and I am reminded why I love this little city – easily walkable, hardly any traffic due to car restrictions, amazing history, great food, and plenty of shopping.   A guide tells us there are 36 museums in Florence – enough to keep you busy for a while.  Of course don’t miss the magnificent Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia, and the Uffizi Gallery. And do go up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a lovely sweeping view over the rooftops.

david_marked

And one thing to remember when you are in Florence – look up!  Some of the ceilings in these places are just as amazing as the statues and paintings you will see.

ceilings_marked

Do go to the Florence food market.  What a vibrant, fantastic market – we came here almost every day.

markets1_marked

There are a few little counters where you can sit an eat, but otherwise just pick up some fresh bread, some cured meats, cheeses, salads, marinated vegetables, and make yourself a beautiful lunch.

markets2_marked

On one of the days we saw something you don’t see too often – fresh truffles! At the bargain basement price of EUR800 per kilo.

truffles_marked

We also stumbled across this fabulous grocer in Via Dello Studio called Pegna which was a treasure trove of goodies, some of which I bought home (and yes do declare them at customs).

A few places that we liked – Il Borro, on Via Lungarno Acciauoli, is a smart modern Tuscan bistro, with a small amount of outdoor seating but the interior fit out is beautiful.  I bought some of their fantastic olive oil to bring home.

il borro_marked

Cantinetta Antinori in Piazza Antinori is a more traditional Tuscan restaurant.  The star of the show here was a pasta dish with fresh porcini mushrooms. We don’t get fresh porcini in Australia and in fresh form they are fragrant yet delicate.  Combined with silky pappardelle, this was a winning dish.

antinori_marked

We went to Il Pizzaiuolo for some good pizza, but I loved the Sfizio Misto, which had some potato croquettes, some arancini, and some zepulelle (a fried dough) – delicious.

pizzaiulo_marked

For a casual and very central eat, try Osteria del Porcellino on Via Val di Lamoni near Piazza della Signoria. On the way there you will pass the porcellino statue – make sure you touch the nose – it apparently brings good luck!

porcellino_marked

Something there is an abundance of in Florence is gelatarie – I think it must be council law there to have at least one on every street! One of our favourites was Gelateria Santa Trinita, at Piazza Frescobaldi

gelateria_marked

On the shopping front, there are loads of stores everywhere in Florence, but for some of the most high end outlets you’ll ever see, head to The Mall at the Florence outskirts. A bus there, which costs 5 euro and takes a bout 40 minutes, can be caught from the bus depot at Via Santa Caterina di Siena. There are only about 25 stores but all very high end. The Prada and Gucci are enormous and I picked up some very very well priced shoes.

And then of course there are the random entertaining things you see when you are travelling…..

random_marked

Florence, you’re a pretty steep competitor to Rome.

Belinda Manning is a luxury travel advisor and Virtuoso specialist http://agents.mtatravel.com.au/bmanning/

http://www.lungarnocollection.com/#/en/the-collection/florence/portrait-firenze/

Milan, Italy

1021_marked

Milan is a strange city. I thought that a decade or so ago when I was last here, and I think it now.  As you drive in from the airport (try and land at Linate, Malpensa is miles away), you’ll see an relatively unattractive, run down city and you’ll be surprised that this is the fashion capital and a financial centre.  Then all of a sudden you’ll get to the city centre and you’ll see beautiful cobbled streets, some lush greenery, and some amazing old architecture.  But let’s be honest here – I’m not here for any of that, I’m here to shop.  And after eight days of kicking back in Greece on a small island, I was ready for it.

The key shopping district is known as the “fashion quadrangle” and is comprised of four key streets: Via Monta Napoleone (the most famous, it even has its own website), Via Manzoni, Via Venezia, and Via Senato.  In this quadrangle and it’s off streets, you’ll find all the big names and correspondingly big price tags.  The shopkeepers though, don’t seem to discriminate and are nice to everybody (unlike the waitstaff in restaurants who I found decidedly snooty).  For instance one day we were in the Giorgio Armani store in Via Sant’Andrea and in the store there was a wrinkly cougar with massive diamonds buying an entire wardrobe for her cute 35 year old boyfriend; the most immaculately coiffed transvestite; some locally famous Italian who was being served food and drink on silver trays a la Pretty Woman; and us in our shorts and rubber slides.  We were just as well looked after (other than the silver trays).

Other, perhaps more affordable, shopping streets include Corso Buones Aires, Via Torino, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, and Via Dante (which doesn’t have anything special in terms of shops but is a lovely strip to walk down). On the off chance you need to take a break and need some greenery, there are the lovely Giardini Indro Montanelli.

In terms of food, I was surprised at how much good, affordable food there was in a major city.  There are of course several Michelin Starred restaurants in Milan which will set you back hundreds of Euros per person, but for the most part you can eat well without forking out too much.  A few eat streets include Via Brera, with lots of outdoor dining, Corso Garibaldi, Via Fiori Chiari and Via Fiori Oscuri (Light and Dark Flower street, which strangely also had a lot of tarot card readers).

One very good meal we had in Milano was at Trattoria Nerino Dieci on Via Nerino, which is off Via Torino so you can drop in after the shops close at 7pm.  The buffalo milk plate three ways – mozzarella, ricotta, and smoked, is something that I will remember for a long time. And the cotoletta Milanese was just delicious.

milan nerino_marked

And for one of the world’s best snacks, head to Luini Panzerotti on Via Santa Radagonda just off the piazza where the Duomo is.  A friend had told me there are always queues, but there was actually a guy on full time crowd control! The line does move very quickly though.  The Panzerotti are either baked or deep fried, and we tried some of each. Go deep fried all the way baby. We had the spinach and ricotta, and a mixed vegetable, but the winner was the mozzarella and tomato, followed closely by the mozzarella and ham. At €2.70 a pop, this is one of the best snacks going.

nerino_marked

After that cross the street and go into Cioccolati Italiani for a delicious scoop of gelato.

826_marked

When it comes to breakfast in Italy, don’t go looking for bacon and eggs – it is just not the done thing. A typical Italian breakfast consists of a large milky cup of coffee (and note they don’t put chocolate on top of their cappuccinos) and a brioche/sweet pastry/croissant. One of the places we tried was Biancolatte (White Milk) on Via Filippo Turati. I’d seen website and I thought the place looked gorgeous – and it was. The Milanese workers were clustered at the bar for their morning coffee – and the coffee was very good – but the brioche and croissants were unfortunately a bit meh.

biancolatte_marked

We all agreed that the brioche and croissant basket at Caffe Armani (Via Manzoni, next to the Armani Megastore) was far superior. Their crema croissant (croissant with custard) was devine! We had a couple of meals there and it was good food.

807_marked

And of course there are plenty of pasticcerie around town. But remember, you’re in the north, so don’t go looking for cannoli and cassata, its not the done thing up here. I did see a lot of bigne (pronounced bin-yeh), that is little profiteroles, and sampled a good few.

milan 2_marked

Oh, and if you do actually want to sight see, then yes, there are quite a few interesting things to do. I definitely recommend climbing the Duomo – walking on the roof of an incredible cathedral is pretty cool – and do go see the Last Supper. Tickets for one of Da Vinci’s great works generally sell out weeks in advance and you can buy online. I suggest doing this with a guide because rocking up yourself for your allocated 15 minute timeslot really doesn’t put it all in context. There are only 3 or 4 official ticket sellers for the Last Supper; we bought ours through Tickitaly (www.tickitaly.com) and our guide was a Milan local who was great. There are also a few museums and the Castello Sforzesco.

milan 1_marked

Hotel – we stayed at the Hotel Armani on Via Manzoni. Uber cool, very sleek, I didn’t quite feel stylish enough to be there! But I loved it. Beautiful wardrobes (no surprise there) and huuuge bathrooms. The staff were awesome. Make sure you check out the jacuzzi and day spa on level 8 looking out over Milan rooftops.

milan armani_marked

And did I shop? In one of the world’s fashion capitals during sale season when everything is 40-50% off? Please.

Next stop – Florence!