Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Mammas and the Papas - Pellegrini's Espresso Bar

[edit - 20 June 2011]: sometimes I wonder why I wrote sh*t like this. Pellegrini's coffee is horrible, and the pasta, well, it's "nostalgic" yes, like macaroni in soup in Hong Kong is - it's not exactly the pinnacle of pasta dishes... Anyway, that's what a blog is for isn't it, so you can reminisce and cringe.

Mother's day has come and gone, and as with the past four or five years, I've spent it without the day's protagonist, my mother. It's at times like these that I miss her most, her cooking in particular (a skill she now rarely displays as she has long since transferred it to our maid in Hong Kong, but that's another story), with that snuggly warmth that even the best restaurants could not reproduce.

Luckily, I've found an adoptive mother in Melbourne. She's Italian and she makes me hearty meals whenever I pay her a visit in her little corner bar at the top of Bourke Street in the City.

For all I know, my "mamma" at Pellegrini's could be a twenty-five year-old male chef working in the kitchen out the back, but when the plates of pasta are dished out, I can't help but imagine that they are the creations of a middle-aged lady in a paisley apron who sings sweetly as she stirs the garden-fresh napolitana sauce into my perfectly al dente penne.

The dish looks, smells, and tastes wholesome, thanks to the finely chopped celery, julienned carrots and melting globules of tomato that act as the base of this clean, minestrone-like sauce. It¡¯s not cloying in the least, and strikes just the right balance of acid and salt with the fresh sweetness of the vegetables. Simple yet satisfying.

The dish is plenty for one, and could probably be shared between two if you weren't too hungry, and a lot of the time I intend to do so. But for some bizarre reason, as soon as the Papa-esque gentleman serves me my plate with a "Grazie, Bella", my arms wrap around the warm plate like a fortress on the wooden bar table as I hiss "Mine! Mine!" like a five year-old.

The same happens when I order the risotto primavera, a non-creamy rendition of this rice dish that uses long grain rice. Again, it is moistened by a light, tomato-based broth dotted with peas, carrots and other vegetables. It is yet another formidable dish.

The use of cream is negligible in these dishes, if any was used at all. Its addition would only have undermined the natural balance of flavours in the sauces.

The menu of mains is brief, and all the available dishes are listed on one side of the wooden noticeboard stretching across the middle of the narrow seating space. It will have several pasta basics such as lasagna, gnocchi, ravioli and spaghetti bolognaise along with other interesting dishes such as mozzarella bolognaise, which by my translation, seemed to mean just cheese and sauce. As it turns out, it is actually a thick slice of bread smothered in a rich bolognaise sauce, something that even the pickiest of my dining companions was pleased with.

If you were generous enough to share your main meal, you may have space left for some tiramisu or other sweets beckoning to be devoured, on display at the lower end of the bar. If not, one of Melbourne's best coffees, or their super-sour lemon granita, awaits.

The dining space essentially consists of two lines of bar stools, as well as a communal dining table at the back. Despite the extremely narrow space, the bar stools are surprising comfortable and I personally have spent many an afternoon (and evening) sitting facing the mirrored wall, chit-chatting away while relishing a delightful pasta, with intermittent strikes of fear that Mamma will come out to tell me off for speaking with my mouth full.

Instead, after I recite my meal (so they can work out my bill), the waiter behind the bar makes me blush and giggle as they give me my change, along with a wink and a mischievous "Ciao Bella!"

Though I have no childhood memories of growing up in an Italian village, Pellegrini's food is nostalgic. And at their friendly prices, you can feel free to visit Mamma whenever you need a bit of homely warmth.

Pellegrini's Espresso Bar
66 Bourke Street
Melbourne 3000
Tel: 9662 1885
Open: Mon-Sat 8am-11.30pm; Sun noon-8pm

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Pearl of a bar - The Bar at Pearl, Richmond

A lot of the time we try to avoid nice restaurants because they just seem too expensive, but with the bar option at restaurants like Pearl on Church Street, you can have a Glam Night Out without getting a Big Cash Out.

From its inception, Pearl has always been on the top of many foodies' lists. Chef Geoff Lindsay is known for his adventurous Asian-inspired food that has led Pearl to win numerous awards. However, the familiar fine-dining price range at the restaurant probably means that visits there should be left for special occasions. The bar, on the other hand, is much more budget-friendly, and gives a sneak peek of the restaurant offerings as well as serving some more classic dishes. The bar is no longer just for drinks. What about those soggy chips and overdue nuts? No can do!

We visited at lunchtime, initially hoping to catch some of their much-raved-about weekend brunch, but having been spoilt by the all-day breakfast cafes around town, we forgot that at 12.30, people should really be having lunch. The friendly waiters smiled forgivingly at our ignorance and handed us lunch menus and the wine list. Wines by the glass are listed on the first page, followed by many pages of wines by the bottle categorized by type and style. I decide it's too early for alcohol and my companion was really my chauffeur so we give the wines a miss.

The lunch menu is a much briefer document, with "little", "bigger" and "sweet" dishes on the one page. "little" dishes such as prosciutto with grissini and olives, lamb and fennel seed sausages, and lettuce cups with rare beef salad are perfect as nibbles to share. We choose the flat chips with dips and the fried eggplant with ponzu sauce. The "flat chips" turn out to be impossibly thin homemade potato chips served with a flavour-packed tomato relish and a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce.

Scooping up the chunky relish with a chip is as close to impossible as for me to stop eating chocolate, due to their airy thinness, so restrict all dipping action to the other sauce or you抣l find yourself with unsightly chip crumbs planted between tomato segments. Pretend to be posh and use your knife (hint: you can load more onto each chip that way too). The fried eggplant is stuffed with finely diced Chinese cabbage (wombok) and shitake mushrooms and enveloped in a golden caramel tinted, crisp, wispy, voluminous batter, much like the type used for fried taro dumplings at yum cha. Definitely a very welcome departure from over-interpreted tempura batter. The filling is moist but not too wet, with clean, fresh flavours. The vinegar and soy based ponzu sauce was well-balanced and made a good partner for the dish. A solid combination.

The fried egg with cucumber salad from the "bigger" section was another Asian-inspired dish bursting with freshness. The nut relish in the cucumber salad is reminiscent of nuoc cham with a sprinkling of peanuts in Vietnamese cuisine. The egg is fried to a dramatic shape such that it stands atypically tall on the plate, and is loaded with parsley and threads of chilli and finished off with a sort of soy vinaigrette. We guessed that this was done in the deep-fryer, allowing the white to become browned whilst keeping the yolk addictively runny. Again, an interesting blend of flavours. If only there was some carb to mop all the liquids up!

Desserts in the bar menu consist of small items such as lamingtons, Persian fairy floss and Turkish delights, but diners are also welcome to order more elaborate creations from the restaurant's dessert menu.

Asian diners may find that Pearl's menu shows creative use of seemingly everyday ingredients and techniques, therefore probably only the more adventurous amongst us would be inspired to visit the restaurant. Nonetheless, the bar would be a good place to get a feel for the food, or just for grabbing a good-value meal in a casual and groovy designer setting.

Pearl Restaurant & Bar
631-633 Church Street
Richmond 3121
Tel: 9421 4599 (Bookings not required at the bar)
Open: (bar) 11am-late, 7 days