Thursday, December 09, 2004

Choc-a-block I: Fun n' Games - Max Brenner

Continuing our quest for the best hot chocolate in Melbourne, we arrive at what seems to be the hottest chocolate shop (no pun intended) in town – Max Brenner. Located on the semi-open podium level of the swanky new QV precinct, this is the newest place to see and to be seen. Colourful gift tins with cute cartoons line the walls of this dark chocolate brown chocolate boutique-cum-café, where tourists, uni students and shoppers alike sit down for a bit of choco-tainment.

Undoubtedly the most popular and the most fun is the ‘Suckao’. Small pieces of chocolate are served in a small dish of what looks like the top of an oil burner, with a tealight burning underneath, offering heat to melt the chocolate. A small jug of warm milk is served on the side, which is added as the chocolate bits begin to liquefy. This is drunk through a stylish metal straw with a little paddle at the bottom that doubles as a stirrer. This is all so fun and exciting that it’s easy to forget about the actual taste of it all – which is perhaps the point, since by then, the delicate chocolate has probably been unfortunately scorched by the intense heat of the almighty tealight beneath, leaving a grainy pile of inedible mush. You’d be better off giving the job of melting chocolate to the professionals by having some of the snacks they offer, such as a cinnamon scroll with melted chocolate. The scroll is halfway between bread and pastry – the dough is soft but layered and porous. It is not too sweet, allowing the subtle cinnamon to shine through. Cut into bite-sized pieces, dip into the pot of molten chocolate and let the fun begin. The tongue is first met with the intense milky-rich smoothness of the chocolate. Then, as the teeth take their first bites into the scroll, the morsels of bread push the chocolate around the entirety of the mouth. Soon, this chocolate-carb paste is gluing your tongue to the roof of your mouth. It’s a bit like playing in a mud pool in kindy – clumsy, messy, but utterly enjoyable. Max Brenner’s, with its bright colours and low stools is like kindergarten – it’s all fun n’ games. So don’t run home complaining to Mummy that they didn’t give you the best hot chocolate.

Max Brenner
Level 2
25-27 QV Square
Melbourne 3000
Tel: +613 96636000

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Choc-a-block II: Subtly elegant - Cacao Fine Chocolates & Patisserie

Having graduated from kindergarten, take a short vacation at the beach, and move up the chocolate education system to the sophisticated Cacao. Here, we don’t need chocolate-coloured wood to remind us we’re in a chocolate boutique. We are greeted instead by a simple, sunlit room with large glass panes, accommodated by crisp white chairs, small tables and minimalist sofas. The extravagance resides within the chocolate. Row after row of elegant chocolates are displayed in glass cabinets, similar to those in Koko Black, but at around hip-level. If you see customers bowing down at the shop assistants, they’re not begging for a taste; their heads are merely gravitating towards the captivating chocolates. Each chocolate, filled with such ingredients as fresh fruit, cream, jelly and tea, is a carefully constructed work of art – almost too perfect to bite into yet so wickedly tempting. Chocolates can be individually chosen to fill up various box sizes. The wooden box would be the obvious choice for chocoholics, who can make return visits to refill their environmentally friendly boxes. Also available are bottles of hot chocolate ‘concentrate’. Chocoholics could not be happier.

In our bedazzled and mesmerized state, we managed to order hot chocolates, pastry and cake. The hot chocolate at Cacao is perhaps the best value for money. It comes in a large mug sprinkled (sadly without as much artistic flair as the chocolates) with cocoa. Sufficiently smooth, but not extremely velvety, this hot chocolate is best consumed with food, be it sweet or savoury. This may sound weird, but the food helps to bring out the full depth of the chocolate used in this beverage. On its own, it could even appear a little bland and thin.

Cacao’s cakes are also highly intriguing and extremely fine, being a patisserie as well as a chocolatier. The croustillant chocolate we tried consisted mostly of chocolate mousse, which in itself, was well made. However, the surprise comes at the base of the cake, which is lined with praline, creating a most pleasurable and astonishing crunch. This contrast in texture is probably the essence of the cake.

Like Koko Black, customers can see Cacao’s pastry chefs and chocolatiers at work. But unlike Koko Black, they are in a semi-open kitchen at the rear of the shop rather than on display at the front. There is a quiet confidence about Cacao. For some, the chocolatiers at the front of Koko Black are the reason you enter the shop in the first place, whereas at Cacao, you see the chocolatiers and understand why you are there. The products and ambience are subtly elegant. If Koko Black was a BMW, Cacao would be the Mercedes – classic but still ‘with it’.

Cacao Fine Chocolates & Patisserie
52 Fitzroy Street
St Kilda
VIC 3182
Tel: +613 85989511

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Love at last bite - Babka

Shoo-fly bun
I’ll never forget the time I told my mother that I would never eat a raisin bun.

“I hate those things. The bun’s already sugary and crumbly and those pellets of bird-food like dried fruits do nothing to help! I don’t want one now and I won’t want any more this lifetime!”

You see, until that point in my life, I hadn’t had a raisin bun whose dough had the right balance of sweetness or tenderness, let alone one with currants that weren’t dry and tasteless.

This belief remained in me until one day when I visited Babka, a bakery-café on Brunswick Street, for my weekly loaf of bread. It must have been around five or six in the afternoon, as they were just about to close. After yet another lunch-less day, my stomach was protesting loudly, and the only snack-sized item left on the racks at Babka were their ‘shoo-fly buns’.

Glistening in the back, behind the glass counter where luscious cakes and pastries once were (more on them later), were a couple of rows of sticky glazed, golden-brown bun tops. A closer inspection revealed a creamy yellow bun packed full of the abovementioned and offensive (as it seemed then) currants. It was no less than repel at first sight, but lingering love at last bite.

Unfortunately, hunger got the better of me and I basically scoffed down the first few mouthfuls of the bun without really tasting it. However, about half a bun later, I was hit by a surreal wave of orange aromas. Chewing suspiciously, I looked at the semi-devoured bun. There they were, small flecks of orange rind distributed evenly throughout the bun amongst a very generous scattering of semi-dried raisins in the custard yellow dough. As the currants have not been fully dried, there is a surprising “pop” when initially bitten into, which is followed by a gradual release of a fruity, syrupy juice. This must be perfection in Bread World.

Exactly what makes this bun so much better than others is highly debatable. Is it the incorporation of zesty orange puree that keeps the dough moist and aromatic, or is it the strong yet pliable strands of gluten that leaves the bun tender and chewy, or would it be the intense, alcohol qualities of the semi-dried currants? Then again, perhaps it is the way that these three things so flawlessly compliment and contrast with each other.

If, unlike me, you visit Babka before they close, you may find that this quaint café is nearly always full. All complaints about waiting, however, are easily forgotten once the food arrives, although you may still prefer to come outside peak (lunch) hours.

Come at 3pm and have scrambled eggs on toast, if you so wish, as breakfast is served all day. A ‘must-try’ on the breakfast menu is the Georgian baked beans. This dark burgundy dish of flavoursome, spicy, house-baked beans comes in very substantial portions upon two thick slices of toast fresh from the bakery, with a sprinkling of parsley on top. It is a rich, hearty dish, excellent for all those cold, wet, miserable days we’ve been having recently.

The owner’s Russian heritage is evident in the permanent offering of borscht on the specials blackboard and blintzes in the breakfast menu. The former comes as a large bowl of (literally) beetroot-red soup full of vegetables, with a dollop of snowy white sour cream floating happily on top. The latter is a sweet affair – nuggets of soft, fluffy cottage cheese enveloped by crisp, thin crepes, served in a pool of citrus syrup, finished off with a light dusting of cinnamon sugar.

More ‘standard’ offerings include a range of generously-sized sandwiches made with their famous bread, and delectable pies (both are served with small side salads). The specials board also offers an array of other simple but extremely well executed lunch dishes.

It would almost be wrong not to finish a meal here without one of their excellent coffees. Also available is freshly squeezed orange juice, as well as the usual selection of beverages. By now, you’d probably be too full to try a slice of their wonderful tarte tatin, a caramelised layer of apples upon a rustic pastry, or a delightful version of the café staple, flourless orange and almond cake. Of course, there’s takeaway, but if like me, your bag’s already full with the half-dozen shoo-fly buns you’re hiding away from your mother, you may consider coming back again. And again... and again.

358 Brunswick Street
Fitzroy 3065
Tel:+613 9416 0091
Open Tues-Sun 7am-7pm (Kitchen closes 6pm)

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

More than a fruit - Arintji

What does it mean to be a Modern Australian? If we classified ourselves like we do restaurants, a Modern Australian could originate anywhere from Spain to Vietnam, passing through France, China, Thailand and anywhere in between. If we were anything like this café/restaurant/bar, we’d be a modern, down-to-earth bunch with good substance who loves to share and be wonderful to look at.

Arintji, meaning ‘orange’ in an indigenous Australian language, is classified in The Age Good Food Guide 2005 as ‘Modern Australian’. Owned by the Reymond family, who also owns and runs the long-standing award winning formal dining restaurant, Jacques Reymond in Toorak, you know you’re in for a treat.

Through the large glass panes of this prominent corner of Federation Square, is a warm, welcoming, split-level room with dark timber flooring and large paper lanterns. On the rare occasion that we are blessed with good weather, outdoor dining is also available under the large umbrellas at the front of the café. Fortunately, it is just as pleasing to watch the view of the Yarra and the Arts Centre from the windows at the back of the room, whatever the weather. Equally entertaining is to peek at the chefs working away through the narrow filmstrip-like rectangular window in the timber wall.

Always the good Australian, sharing is no embarrassing affair – it’s expected, and I would highly encourage it in order to sample the diverse menu.

This ‘Modern Australian’ offers an all-day menu, consisting of a range of small and large dishes, often along with a couple of specials. It is an invitation for a culinary ‘round the world expedition with a unique take on dishes such as 'Peking pork' pancakes, a jazzed-up, modern rendition of the classic burger and fries, wok-tossed chicken with flat rice noodles, all at very reasonable prices.

Despite my hunger, I avoided the unremarkable bread basket of pale-crusted baguette slices, and for good reason too, because the croquettes that came later were much better. Two crumbed potato, cheese, and chorizo parcels came on an oval dish with a thick, garlicky aioli. The sauce is something you wouldn’t want too much of if you were still planning to speak for the rest of the day, but the pungency of this almost yucky gooey sauce is the perfect compliment for the crisply fried crumb and the floury potato mixture within.

The roast vegetable couscous was even better executed. The vegetables were perfectly roasted, locking in the produce’s natural moisture and flavour and finished off with a dollop of fiery harissa. The flavour of the barbequed chicken that followed reminded us of good fast food chicken – I can’t decide whether or not that is a good thing. The meat itself was wonderfully juicy, something that requires much skill and experience, as slight under/overcooking would leave it either too raw or too tough. This balance is hard to achieve, which showed in one slightly undercooked piece. No biggie.

It is lovely to see families being able to dine out together in seemingly ‘adult’ places with quality food, and despite the significant number of children in the restaurant on both my visits, “yuck” was something I never heard. Difficult when you have desserts such as chocolate fondue and hot chocolate presented as a steaming glass of frothy milk with a self-serve pot of molten chocolate on the side.

There were no complaints from this child either when presented with a creamy white panna cotta carefully placed on top of translucent, bright slices of syrupy orange, with sticks of coconut macaroons artfully crossed upon it. The fruity marmalade on the side retained only enough bitterness to capture the character of the orange, and added to the crisp macaroons, created the perfect contrast to the silky panna cotta.

Sometimes it may appear that they are a little understaffed, but when they do come to serve you, the staff are friendly and knowledgeable. Also, the timber surroundings can make it a little noisy when busy, but this is a small complaint.

Arintji is a celebration of the unique melting pot of cultures that is contemporary Australian society. With its solid, unpretentious food at café prices, it is definitely the kind of place Melbourne should have more of.

Arintji **CLOSED**
Federation Square
Corner Flinders and Swanston streets
Melbourne 3000
Tel: +613 96639900