neophilia

The Fat Duck: Bray on Thames: “A food fun park.” “…only visit if you take the preparation of interesting food seriously, it’s an experience, not a meal. That’s what you’re paying for.” “…sublime,” “..simply wonderful.” and “…gastronomic delight.”

There is no doubt that Heston Blumenthal is a very clever man, who has worked hard for his accolades. And credit where credit is due.  He has done the research, talked to the right people, experimented, played, spent hours, days, months and years perfecting his approach and in fact, creating a “new cookery” which celebrates scientific understanding, precision and technology to produce multi-sensory cooking.  
That the 16-year-old Heston was inspired to strike out on a road less-travelled when he visited L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence is wonderful. I too, appreciated the wonderment of good French food when I was there and imagined all kind of things for myself amongst the heady scent of lavender, the sound of crickets chirping, the intoxicating aromas of well-cooked lamb, garlic and rosemary. And the sweeping Provençal landscape you can see from Les Baux de Provence, the tiny village cut into the rock that looks out over the Bouches-du-Rhone countryside, is breathtaking and soul-filling. I get it. But for Heston, it was so much more. For him, it was an extraordinary and pivotal experience. It was there that he experienced the epiphany that sent him on a career-long journey of discovery and invention to recreate, for this diners, that sensation he had had. I applaud that. But I’m not sure donning headphones to eat the Sound of the Sea dish is really the way to do it.
But back to Heston’s journey. Not content to learn from highly acclaimed Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir de Quat’ Saisons, 18 year old Heston, who had petitioned 40 chefs from top restaurants to allow him to work in their kitchens, heard back from 3 of them and chose Raymond Blanc, only lasted a week with him before deciding to strike out on his own. For the next ten years he worked a series of undemanding day jobs so that he could devote all of his free time and energy to experimenting with food.
He is most well known for his dishes involving ‘molecular gastronomy’, a term Heston, in fact rejects for its ‘complicated’ and ‘elitist’ associations. He prefers multi-sensory cooking or modernist cuisine. But following these principles has earned him three Michelin stars.
What exactly is molecular gastronomy or multi-sensory cooking? I think most people, who have even the slightest interest in foodie-type conversations, have probably heard of this food science-cum-alchemy. Molecular gastronomy first entered general vocabulary in 1988 when it was used by late Oxford physicist, Nicholas Kurti, and French INRA chemist, Hervé This.
Basically, this ‘science’ blends physics and chemistry to transform the tastes and textures of food to promote new and innovative dining experiences. Chefs adopting this approach use tools from the science lab and ingredients from the food industry.
In Heston’s hands, this manifests in such dishes as toasted brioche loaf, covered in frozen bacon and liquid nitrogen-frozen ice cream made from reindeer’s milk. Or meat fruit, where a combination of chicken liver pâté and foe gras is moulded into a ball and covered with mandarin jelly so that it looks like a big mandarin. Or snail porridge. Which sounds a little like something out of Beatrix Potter, but is in fact a rich almost risotto dish with sautéed snails, fennel bulb and parma ham.
 A lot of the chefs I have spoken to in Melbourne lately talk about just wanting to prepare ‘good’ food. They want to acknowledge the seasons and celebrate the textures and flavours of individual ingredients rather than overcomplicating a dish. Don’t get me wrong, they too are all about the experience. They too want a combination of friendly, good service, welcoming atmosphere, delicious food and atmosphere-creating music. They want their diners to leave having feeling satisfied and happy.
But they don’t charge $525 per person before alcohol for the privilege, aka. 12-15 courses of “pure food theatre”.
Heston Blumenthal’s iconic Bray restaurant, The Fat Duck, is coming to Melbourne. Heston has apparently long harboured a desire to open a restaurant in Australia. With his Bray building closing for renovation, and a Melbourne foodie crowd desperate for the latest and greatest, the timing seemed perfect for a ‘pop-up’ Fat Duck in the Crown Towers on Southbank.
Is Heston Blumenthal’s product all smoke and mirrors? Are we victims of some kind of emperor’s new clothes scenario? His announcement of the cost of his degustation menu was met with excitement and almost frothing at the mouth of many Melbourne foodies and also a certain amount of indignation from other quarters. He countered the indignation by explaining that he is moving his whole kitchen, equipment and staff over from England; he sources the very best of ingredients from around the world; and many of his dishes take a long time and particular care. That’s what you’re paying for.
And such is the popularity of The Fat Duck, that a ballot system has been set up for wannabe diners to secure one of the 14 000 seats available over the 280 services it will run.
It just really seems like a lot of money. There is so much need in Melbourne in terms of the homeless, the ill, and families not knowing where the next meal will come from. Organisations like FareShare who rescue food which would otherwise end up as landfill from supermarkets and farmers, cook it and redistribute it, need $30 000 a week to run. They are not government funded. That a couple can go out and pay over $1000 for dinner…I’m just not sure.
Heston did do the charitable thing though. Three charities, Magpie Nest, Starlight Foundation and Snowdome have each been given tickets to the chef’s table which they will be auctioning off to raise funds for their organisations.
And really, if I were given a ticket, would I go? Of course. Obscene on my part to make all this fuss and then say, actually I’d like to see it for myself. But also a moot point. And anyway, what on earth would I wear?
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mina no ie

Make yourself at home.
The same team that brought us Japanese good taste in Cibi in Collingwood, now have a second incarnation in Mina no ie.
Mina no ie wants those who enter its door to feel at home; comfortable, but also inspired. And their way to your heart is through their food, which they describe as, “simple, life-affirming dishes that provide energy, health, comfort and balance”.
The setting itself has a good, clean feeling and also the feeling that some effort has been gone in to making it welcoming. Ostensibly a warehouse in dress-up clothes, the space has been transformed by a faux bamboo wall made from large cardboard cylinders and huge white swathes of fabric that loop from the ceiling creating the sensation of being in a very large, light and airy tent.
Industrial wooden benches and trestle tables hold Japanese ceramics, fabric and art books. You can feed your body and your mind and also find a beautiful birthday gift. Which is what I did.
The menu is simple. There is definitely no wading through a novel’s worth of choice. Toast with avocado or spreads, fruit toast with ricotta and honey, mina no ie granola and then some variations on egg dishes with a Japanese twist. Although, if you need meat at breakfast or lunch, this is not the place for you.
I opted for the baked egg with sweet miso, roasted eggplant, butternut, provolone cheese and sourdough. Served in the mini cast iron pan it was baked in, the combination of flavours was sensational. In fact, it was so good, I burnt my mouth as I couldn’t wait for it to cool down before devouring it.
If you visit between meals, there is a lovely selection of muffin and green teacakes available at the counter, as well as coffee, juices and a variety of green tea.
Mina no ie is a calm little pocket on Peel Street. Try it for yourself.


the world is my oyster

 And a freshly shucked Coffin Bay oyster at that.

On a night when I was supposed to be at a meeting, but the meeting didn’t happen, I suddenly found myself with a free evening stretching out in front of me.

When the possibilities are endless, it is best to consult a friend and just allow yourself to be guided.

And so it was that I found myself ringing the bell at the black door on Flinders Lane, over a year after the first thwarted attempt. This first attempt involving romantic intentions, a lost bag, subsequent credit card cancelling, tears and a detour on the evening. It is always a good idea to rectify regrets.

If you can.

Feeling akin to a vampire waiting to be asked in, I rang the doorbell and an immaculately dressed waiter invited me in to what I now know is called Hihou, or hidden treasure, aka the Black Door.
From the first moment, despite the bunker-like decor, I felt welcome. Actually, this is the kind of bunker you would want to find yourself in if ever there was a need to be in a bunker. A well stocked wine cellar and liquor supply, beautiful food, hot towels and lovely people.
And now back to the oysters.

Briny and sweet at the same time. A plump and delicious accompaniment to the Wabi Sabi cocktail I chose, largely perhaps, because of its name. Also because it has Brooklyn gin (I have a particular penchant for Brooklyn), apple liqueur, apple and mango, tonic and wasabi. Refreshingly crisp, deceptively light with a slight sparkle and a cunning afternote of heat from the wasabi, I was happy to have been seduced by the name.

Next was the exotic sounding ‘Cuban’ Spicy Tuna Cigar. Finely minced tuna mixture inside a crispy wafer shell with a soupçon of wasabi to finish.

 

Having reached the end of the Wabi Sabi, I decided I needed to become better acquainted with sake. Hihou has a range of warm and cool sake. I let the bartender decide for me and he advised the cool and subtle takaisami.


With its slightly apple tones, which seems to have become a theme of my beverage choice for the evening, the takaisami was an excellent companion to my two remaining tastes, the steamed vegetarian gyoza with ponzu sauce and the eel and tofu croquette with tonkatsu sauce.

The croquette was by far the stand-out taste of the evening. Crunchy outer shell with a beautifully smoky textured filling. And the sauce. The tonkatsu sauce was a revelation. A savoury sweet mix of tomato, prunes, dates, apples, lemons, carrots, onion and celery, I wanted to lick the plate clean.

As the last rays of sun dropped below the treeline of the Treasury Gardens opposite, and the complimentary warm plum wine, offered perhaps because I was alone in one of Melbourne’s most romantic bars, took hold, I felt as though I had been part of a secret. But it is a secret I don’t want to keep to myself.

Find someone sweet and take them to the corner of Flinders Lane and Spring Street, ring the bell and allow loveliness to take over.


There’s a certain headiness that comes with the first days of spring

New beginnings, optimism, possibility. The fragrance of change is in the air.  No matter that there are still cold days ahead, we note the change and walk towards the light.
We feel happier.
But what is happiness? Is it a biological response? Is it a state of mind? Is it an emotion? Don’t worry, be happy is all well and good, but what if we are really worried. Or depressed. Or it’s the middle of winter?
And are all these questions only prevalent in a first world society? If we are worried about survival, is there room to ponder happiness and our access to it?
The United States Declaration of Independence declared life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be an unalienable right. But I’m fairly certain that the Democratic Republic of Congo does not have such a statement.
Happiness is listed as one of the basic emotions, according to American psychologist and pioneer in the study of emotions, Dr Paul Ekman. The others are anger, disgust, fear, surprise and sadness. Through his research, he discovered that these emotions were the ones which appeared to be instantly recognised even in pre-literate cultures who had not had access to learned facial expressions through the media.
Ekman is of course not the first to explore the concept of emotion. The Greek stoic, mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, politician and generally busy man, Posidinius was hanging out in Rhodes around 135-51 BC observing both people and environment and coming up with some observational reflections. Most of his works are now lost with only fragments remaining but many of his theories about the effect of the climate on peoples’ mood and character were the antecedent of much of our modern thought around seasonal mood disorder and the emotional impact of weather.
He was the first Stoic to depart from the orthodox doctrine that passions were faulty judgments and posit that Plato’s view of the soul had been correct, namely that passions were inherent in human nature. In addition to the rational faculties, Posidonius taught that the human soul had faculties that were spirited (anger, desires for power, possessions, etc.) and desiderative (desires for sex and food). Ethics was the problem of how to deal with these passions and restore reason as the dominant faculty.
The problem, and it is unfortunate that it IS a problem, is that everyone wants to be happy but not everyone is able to achieve happiness. This is seen as a lack or a fault which then makes happiness even further off. Numerous are those who peddle books and motivational TED talks on happiness and its merits. And I don’t have anything against these people. It does seem strange though that we need to be told and then have to learn how to cultivate a basic human emotion. How did we get to the point where happiness was so elusive?

I’m not about to join the crowd of happiness-mongers but I do just want to say, the moment I let go and just allow…allow the fragrance of the daffodils in the vase on my table to intoxicate me, allow the warmth of the sun to soak through my closed eyelids and fill me with goldenness, allow for possibility and awe and wonder and delight…then I feel a deep sense of happiness. And I am lucky that I live somewhere where I can just allow this feeling to envelop me. I can embrace it and walk towards the light.