Monday, April 25, 2005

Eastside, man! - Replete Providore

It is often said that competition makes people work harder, to strive top be the top of the pack, or just to keep themselves from drowning. But the true winners are perhaps those who thrive continuously even without the threat of competition.

Inside this Victorian cornerstore in the well-to-do eastern suburb of Hawthorn where private schools could well outnumber decent cafés could well be a humble milkbar, but (no offense to milkbar owners) I’m glad it’s Replete Providore instead.

It’s late Saturday morning. Probably peak hour at this café/foodstore, but never had I imagined that there wouldn’t even be a single empty table. Luckily one of the lovely girls briskly cleared us a table that a couple of satisfied souls had just left.

The café is not large, but immediately feels airy and bright thanks to the two large window panes on either side of the street corner. On one side, there’s a row of seats for those who like to gawk at the eastern-suburb folk walking or driving past, but their understatedly trendy outfits and humbly elegant cars may suddenly seem much less interesting compared to the rack of baked goodies from the renowned Philippa’s behind you, or the intriguing take home meals in the counter by your side.

But no, it is highly unlikely that you’d walk out of here only good food only in your hands. Far more probably is that you’d have some (or too much) in your stomach too.

Breakfast is the spotlight here and they range from cute (Coco Pops) to healthy (muesli, fruit and yoghurt) to indulgent (scrambled eggs with chorizo).

My poached eggs with wilted spinach were suggested as a lighter, healthier alternative to eggs benedict, as the hollandaise sauce is optional, but how, possibly, could one resist the temptation of this wonderfully creamy egg yolk and butter sauce that has just the right amount of lemon juice to cut through the richness? Well, perhaps if I was forty years older, but not today and most of all, not here, where you can let your two thick slices of multigrain toast mop up all the gooey egg yolk from the two flawlessly poached eggs along with the sauce. In an attempt to reduce the guilt, there’s wilted spinach on the side, which was also cooked to perfection; it was really “wilted” and not boiled like it was the chef’s worst enemy.

It would have been unbeatable but for the under-seasoning of the dish.

behind: bruschetta; front: poached eggs Image hosted by

The tomato bruschetta, a brilliant (again) slice of thick toast topped with top-class tomatoes tossed in sweetly fresh goat’s cheese, seemed unfortunately to have encountered the same under-seasoned fate.

It may be for health reasons, or the fact that such fresh ingredients are tasty enough in the town right, but in my opinion, salt is an essential part of a dish, and a bit of it can do wonders on the tastebuds. This may just be that my tolerance of salt is higher than that of the general public, but I would have liked the opportunity to add extra salt into my dish; and the uninteresting matter that was contained in the salt and pepper shakers on the table virtually meant that I had no choice but to leave the (almost) immaculate dish alone.

Coffees are very decent, incredibly smooth though a little weak, which is a peculiar common denominator of even the best suburban cafés. Also available are the usual suspects like tea and fresh juices.

Replete doesn’t seem to need much competition to keep it at the top, but for the welfare of my fellow eastsiders, would it be awfully greedy to ask to boast a couple more café gems like this?

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Replete Providore
302 Barkers Road
Hawthorn VIC 3122
9818 4448
Open: Tues-Fri 8am-4pm, Sat-Sun 8am-5pm

A Fine Deal - Vue de Monde

I’ve been told that you need to be prepared to burn a mighty hole in your hip pocket if you want to dine with me. By going to Vue de Monde, our city’s finest French restaurant (according to this year’s The Age Good Food Guide), I only seem to be proving the point. But before you say “gotcha!”, let me explain that I went to Vue for their Lunch Menu. $26 for two courses and a glass of wine ($36 for three) at this year’s “Best French” is value for money par excellence.

White tablecloths, sensible wine glasses, staff in ties and aprons, spells out loud and clear that this cozy corner in Carlton is a fine-diner, yet there are things that make it wonderfully down-to-earth, like the professional service, that’s at the same time fun and unpretentious, and what’s even more rare, “water” that can really be “just water”. Not that I personally mind the “still or sparkling” school of formal restaurants, but I was most impressed to see a restaurant of this quality and class being so flexible to suit all markets.

The lunch menu comes in a leather file, with Menu Gourmand, Lunch Menu and à la carte options printed elegantly on translucent white paper slipped inside. Prime evidence that menus can be (and are, in fact) changed often, meaning it is reflective of seasonal availability of produce. I believe the document is much less heavy at dinner, when only the Menu Gourmand (a four to thirteen course degustation menu) is offered, and diners can discuss their preferences with staff and a suitable menu can be devised using timely produce. Many restaurants offer similar options, but not many dare to go as far as eliminating à la carte altogether. It would be most interesting (though also costly) to experience a fully-fledged showcase of this chef’s talents.

Chef/owner Shannon Bennet is the lover-boy of the Melbourne restaurant scene. He’s young, good-looking, has published a book, pocketed a few awards, and did I mention he can cook?

Nonetheless, wanting first only a taste of Vue, (and watching my student account) we stick to the Lunch Menu.

My entrée is a pumpkin soup with prawns. It is presented in the original vegetable, a dainty, golden, fist-sized version that is roasted and hollowed out, with two plump, lightly crumbed prawns resting gracefully on top. The consistency of the soup makes it quite filling, but is helped by the adequately small portion. It is also carries the distinctive flavour of cumin, and with the perfectly cooked prawns, add much depth and interest to a potentially everyday dish.

In between, we are offered a palate-cleanser, a shot-glass of tomato consommé and tomato jelly, with a pastille-sized basil sorbet on the side. We are told to first place the basil sorbet onto our tongues, and let it melt a little before drinking the consommé. Both the flavours are tremendously precise and intense, yet it truly manages to cleanse and freshen the palate. Amusing indeed.

I choose the duck confit as my main. It is served on a quaint off-white oval dish with a blue border, much like something my imaginary grandmother who lives in the French countryside would own. Though I’m sure this grandmother would need a good pair of glasses and a steady hand to be able to produce a bed of julienned vegetables as fine as this one. They are cooked to give them just the right amount of ‘bite’ on the teeth, retaining their freshness, and are tossed lightly in cream to finish. This combination gives the warmth and comfort of a gratin, without the heaviness, yet satisfies my desire for clean garden flavours. Given present-day society’s fear of cream, it is uncommon nowadays to see vegetables cooked this way, but rest assured, the flourish of flavours and the smoothness that result are totally disproportionate to the amount of cream used. The duck confit itself, however, was not totally to my taste. There were no faults in the seasoning (the housemade five spice powder on the side was well-balanced), but the leg itself seemed a little dry, rendering it slightly stringy and tiresome in the mouth, although the flesh did fall off the bone easily. This comes as a surprise since confit, put simply, is meat treated with salt that is cooked and covered in fat (its own or otherwise usually of pork) and cellared, which, in my mind, should lead to a wonderfully tasty and moist meat.

There is one dessert on the menu, which at first did not look very intriguing, but this warm halved peach with a vanilla ice cream swirl was a brilliantly refreshing end to the meal.

Well, it wasn't the end yet, really. Upon ordering coffee, we were presented with five different kinds of petits fours that are well worth trying even if it means it’ll have your dentist screaming.

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Lunch at Vue de Monde means a heavy discount for us financially, but on the food and service end of the equation, they’re giving it 100%.

The French grammar in their name is a bit off, (it should be ‘du’ rather than ‘de’), but who cares when their French food is this right.

Not only does Miss Food Brat know her French, she also knows a fine deal when she tastes one, thank you very much.

Vue de Monde **MOVED**
295 Drummond St
Carlton 3053
+613 9347 0199
Open: Tue-Fri Lunch, Tue-Sat Dinner

New Address:
Normanby Chambers 430 Little Collins St, Melbourne
+613 9691 3888

Friday, April 01, 2005

Oh yes, please, with a sherry on top - Movida

Piemiento de Piquillo
Melburnians are a trendy lot, in every respect – even food. Fashionistas at Fashion Week would have told you that tapas were “so last season”. True, the days when bars, cafés and restaurants on every other street claimed to serve tapas are over (thank goodness), but like trends in clothing, the true classics remain.

Movida is one such classic. Tucked away in a narrow laneway lined with Vespas and motorcycles beside the Forum theatre, one could easily be led into thinking that they’d been transported to Madrid (bar the uniquely Melbourne graffiti that colours the walls on either side). And we haven’t even stepped into the bar yet.

Inside this “bar de tapas y vino”, it’s surprisingly fresh, featuring lush greens and wood against clean cream walls. It’s a hard-to-describe feeling; comfortably chic is the best I can do. The warm lighting, partially attributed by the natural light, and the cut flowers complete the package nicely.

There are seats at the bar and high benches for those who just want a drink and some tapas, and tables in the main dining area for more substantial dishes, which are written on the walls that also act as blackboards.

Drinks shouldn’t be missed here - firstly because they have a diverse and interesting wine list with drops from Australia, New Zealand and other European countries (including Spain, of course), and secondly because having tapas without a drink is like wearing a trench coat without a belt. It needn’t be a strong drink, though you may like to leave the car at home because they have an intriguing selection of Spanish sherries (all available by the glass) which would go well with the tapas. The brisk and friendly service people would be more than happy to explain them to you. I chose the lovely Emilio Lustau 'Escuadrilla' Amontillado, a sweeter variety, which was nutty both on the palate and the nose, and worked in a pleasant (i have my reservations when it comes to the word 'perfect') harmony with all our dishes, including dessert (more on that later).

The tapas menu has two sections – tapa and racio. The former comes as single portions (for example, one lamb cutlet, one zucchini flower) whereas the latter are slightly larger sharing plates. That, I guess, is the beauty of tapas – ideal for indecisive people like me who want to try a bit of pretty much everything.

First came the ensalada valenciana, an endive salad with palm hearts, olives, and orange segments. Beautiful, particularly the marinated palm hearts. Then there was the piemiento de piquillo, a smoked baby red pepper stuffed with meat from blue swimmer crab and potato which was breadcrumbed and deep-fried. The crumb was a little too dark; two seconds less in the deep fryer would have been fine by me, but it was nonetheless crunchy and flavoursome. The pepper and crabmeat combined to a sweetness only fresh ingredients could emit. Speaking of sweetness, that of the flor de calabacin, a zucchini flower stuffed with goats’ cheese, was no less than delectable. The baby zucchini on the end was the most gratifying I’d ever had; and coupled with the goats’ cheese, just shows how little you have to do to create formidable dishes when you have excellent ingredients. The tortilla de patatas, a frittata-like omelette of confit potatoes and onion was much less exciting on the flavour front, though it serves as a good carb/protein dish to kick off a night of sherries and cider.

It may be hard to imagine having tapas for dessert as well, but let the guys at Movida inspire your imagination with churros (also on a blackboard-wall). This is series of sugar and cinnamon-dusted Spanish donuts in stick form, served with a cup of lusciously rich hot chocolate. Some places serve molten chocolate instead of hot chocolate for dipping the donuts into and offer a small jug of warm milk on the side to add to the remainder of the molten chocolate. Both methods are just as good – this hot chocolate is rich and thick enough to coat the churros, yet fluid enough to drink afterward. The drink is very warming, the kind that I wish I could have near home on a cold, grey winter’s morning.

Whether it be after work drinks, a rendezvous with the girlfriends, or a pre-theatre dinner, this is the place to stop by. The tapas menu and wine list are very reasonably priced – I’m compelled to try their mains one evening, but I might have to put a couple of new fashion purchases on hold.

1 Hosier Lane
Melbourne 3000
+613 96633038
Open: Mon-Fri noon-late, Sat 4pm-late, Sun 5pm-late