Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Town Mouse, Melbourne - 8 December 2014

I was in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago with 2 other colleagues for a business trip. The only time we got to relax was after our client meetings, so we decided we should reward ourselves with a nice meal after a hard day's of work. The task of deciding where to eat invariably falls to me (not surprisingly being a food blogger). The first venue that I have chosen was the always-popular, one-hatted restaurant, Town Mouse in Carlton.     

Town Mouse is all about good, fine-dining quality food served in a casual, relaxed atmosphere; much like places such as Saint Crispin and Mister Jennings. The decor inside is casual with black tiled walls, timber furnishings and bar stools (not ideal if you have a bad back).  And the service is warm, attentive and unpretentious (who wants stiff service when you're tired after a long day any way?). 

The menu, developed by head chef, Dave Verheul, is modern, seasonal and produce driven. It is divided into snacks, raw items, vegetables, meat & fish and desserts. The food is designed to be shared, which was fine with us, as this meant we got to sample a variety of dishes.    

House made sourdough bread, sesame butter
The complimentary sourdough bread was very good. The bread had an excellent crust, and a nice, slightly chewy texture. The sesame butter was addictive with toasty, nutty notes to go with the creaminess and sourness of the butter.

Goat's cheese profiterole, caraway, thyme & our honey ($3.50 each)
The goat's cheese profiteroles were the first snack to arrive at our table. We were totally smitten with these profiteroles, which were so crisp thanks to a bit of dehydration and filled with the most amazing goat's cheese mousse. The profiteroles were dusted with caraway and thyme and stuck to the plate with honey from Town Mouse's own on-site beehive. These profiteroles are a must order!

Milk curd, fried bread, broccoli, chicken and lavender jus ($9)
The fried bread were essentially large croutons, which were covered with a blanket of raw broccoli florets. The chicken and lavender jus was quite salty, which was thankfully balanced out by the milk curd. This snack wasn't bad, just wasn't anything particularly special.

Shaved calamari, oyster cream, dill and fermented apple juice ($15)
Our waiter convinced us that we should order the shaved calamari dish, as it has featured on the menu from day one. Calamari was cooked sous vide and shaved into strips of firm, slippery rice noodles. Completing this "pretty as a picture" dish were dabs of oyster cream, dill oil, fermented apple juice and cucumber. All the components were mixed together to yield a clever dish that was filled with clean, refreshing flavours and a great balance of textures.

Heirloom kales, slow cooked egg, quinoa, comte foam and mustard ($20)
The heirloom kales were served as a pile of crispy, kale leaves with a slow cooked egg hidden underneath, comte foam, quinoa and mustard. The perfectly runny egg yolk was mixed with the comte foam and mustard to create a rich, decadent sauce to coat the kale leaves. This was absolutely delicious and one of my favourite dishes of the night.

Slow roasted red cabbage, prune, parmesan and red apple ($15)
The slow roasted red cabbage is perhaps the most famous dish at Town Mouse. And for good reason. A massive hunk of red cabbage is cooked sous vide and slow roasted. The red cabbage was perfectly cooked. The leaves were tender, juicy and cooked with a good amount of butter. The cabbage was filled with lots of caramelised prunes and red apple, which were so good with the bitterness of the red cabbage. The cabbage was finished with a thick blanket of finely shaved parmesan cheese for extra bite. This was easily the highlight of the night for me and it was refreshing to see a venue give their vegetables as much attention and care as their proteins (if not more)!

Smoked pork jowl, hispi cabbage, hazelnut and sour pear ($24)
The smoked pork jowl was "melt in the mouth" soft and fatty. But it was also very, very smoky, which I didn't mind because I do enjoy smoked foods. The pork jowl was sitting in a slick of hazelnut sauce, and topped with fresh, crisp hispi cabbage leaves, and slices of sour pear.

Skate wing, globe artichoke cream, broad bean, oyster, fennel and bay leaf ($23)
The skate wing was the lowlight of the evening. The skate was dry, overcooked and not all that enjoyable. The skate wing came with sauces of globe artichoke cream and oyster cream, neither of which were able to lift the unexciting skate wing. There was also a huddle of shaved fennel, broad beans an bay leaf served on the side. 

Snapper, wood grilled broccoli, clam, capers, olive oil ($34)
The snapper was nice without being spectacular, but cooked noticeably better than the skate wing. The highlight this dish were the wood grilled broccoli, another expertly cooked vegetable. The charred broccoli was nice and smoky and had an enjoyable, crunchy texture. The dish also contained some delicious crumbed bits of broccoli florets, clams and capers.

Red currant, strawberry, lychee and macadamia tart ($16)
This tart was a recent addition to the menu and was a big hit at our table. A tart of red currant, strawberry, macadamia and white chocolate was topped with the most incredible lychee sorbet. This was a light, refreshing and fruity number that I would not hesitate to order again!

Almond parfait, fennel, licorice, chocolate and toasted meringue ($15)
Fennel and licorice desserts seem to be latest craze at Mod Oz restaurants and Town Mouse has also joined the party. This dessert consisted of an almond parfait sandwiched between two sheets of toasted meringue, slices of confit fennel, chocolate crumbs and dabs of licorice. I hated licorice growing up, but when used in moderation, aniseed can be a nice supporting flavour, as was the case with this delicious almond parfait. It was an interesting dessert with good use of different flavours and textures; but probably not one that I would be rushing back for.   

Lime posset, green apple, white chocolate, dill and matcha ($15)
The lime posset was an excellent course and my favourite dessert of the night. It was light and refreshing, like a palate cleanser. A slice of lemon posset was topped with green apple foam - a beautiful combination of tart, tangy flavours. The posset was sandwiched by 2 thin sheets of sugar, and also contained matcha green tea, white chocolate and dill to add additional depth to this dessert.

Overall, I really enjoyed my meal at The Town Mouse. The food was amazing and reasonably priced, with the highlights being the vegetables (which may come as a surprise to some). The service was excellent - the staff were friendly, attentive as well as being knowledgable without being pretentious or overbearing. And I loved the vibe at Town Mouse - a cool, relaxed dining space with a buzzing atmosphere.               

Highlight: The slow roasted red cabbage is probably the best cabbage dish you will find anywhere! 
Lowlight: The skate wing was an underwhelming course for me. 
Verdict: Town Mouse represents a new age of dining, where good, fine dining quality food is being served in a more casual, relaxed environment. These are the sorts of venues that Sydney needs more of. 7.5/10 (Great)

The Town Mouse
Address: 312 Drummond St, Carlton VIC 3053
Contact no: (03) 9347 3312

The Town Mouse on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Minamishima, Melbourne - 11 December 2014

I wasn't planning on visiting Minamishima. In fact I had never heard of Minamishima til the weekend before I flew down to Melbourne for a business trip. My wife was browsing around Instagram one night and randomly discovered Minamishima, a sushi-ya that was describe to be "just like Japan". Being the sushi nut that I am, I declared that I needed to visit Minamishima. Fortunately, I was able to secure a Thursday night booking quite easily as they had only just opened for about a month and are not that widely known... yet.

Sushi chefs displaying their craft (Koichi Minamishima in background)
Minamishima was opened by chef Koichi Minamishima in November after spending many years at Kenzan as their sushi chef. Minamishima is located in a quiet, nondescript space just off Bridge Road in Richmond. The dining room is just like a sushi-ya in Japan. Diners are seated along a wooden counter (with enough seating for twelve) and get to watch two sushi chefs meticulously prepare each piece. There are also a few tables at the back for groups, but the seats at the sushi bar are the best seats in the house!

Table setting at Minamishima
There is no menu at Minamishima. Instead there is a $150 omakase menu that consists of an appetiser, 15 pieces of nigiri sushi, shinjo-wan (fish dumpling in clear broth) and one dessert. You can also choose to have sake or wine pairings for $70. I opted for the sake pairings. Like the food, the sakes start off light, making its way up to stronger and richer sakes.    

Appetiser: pumpkin, mustard greens, eggplant, tomato
The meal started with an appetiser of assorted vegetables. There was a tomato cooked in dashi, eggplant cooked in a sweet and savoury sauce, mustard greens topped with bonito flakes and pumpkin. Each of these vegetables were well cooked and enjoyable. 
King Dory
The first nigiri of the night was king dory.The king dory had a firm texture and a mild, sweet flavour. This piece was already seasoned with light soy by the sushi chef.

The first sake of my sake pairing was Kirei Shuzo Karakuchi 80 Junmai Nama Genshu from Hiroshima. This was a light refreshing sake that was dry on the palate, which went well with the milder flavoured fish early in the omakase menu.

Seared alfonsino
The next piece was seared alfonsino from New Zealand. The texture of this piece was soft and melting in the mouth and the gentle sweetness of the alfonsino was paired with grated radish.

King George Whiting
Alfonsino was quickly followed up with King George Whiting. This was the first piece where the chef instructed me to use soy sauce. The King George Whiting was impeccably fresh and a shiso leaf was hidden underneath to add a refreshing, peppery note to the whiting's subtle flavours.  

Next was octopus from Western Australia. The octopus was pleasingly tender whilst still retaining a slightly chewy texture. There was a nice depth of flavour that was brought out by tsume.       

The texture of calamari was amazing! The calamari was expertly scored to tenderise the flesh, which gave it an almost milky texture. The calamari was simply seasoned with lemon and shiso salt to draw out the sweetness of the calamari.  

Japan may have botan ebi, but scampi (from New Zealand) is a more than capable substitute. This scampi had an intense sweetness and a beautifully creamy flesh. Mindblowingly good!

The next sake was Dewazakura Junmai Ginjo Dewa Sansan from Yamagata. This sake was soft and deep flavoured with a good amount of acidity and a clean, crisp finish.      

Tairagai (pen shell)
The next three pieces were shellfish that Minamishima has imported from Japan. All three were special and are rarely seen in Japanese restaurants in Australia. 

Tairagai is a bit like scallop except I think tairagi has a better texture for sushi. The meat is firmer and more much substantial. This piece was seared, which brought out even more of the tairagai's sweetness and umami. This was my favourite out of the three Japanese shellfish.

Mirugai (geoduck)
Mirugai (from Japan) was cut into strips and topped onto a block of rice and wrapped with nori to form a gunkan. I loved the crunchy texture of the geoduck, which was sweet and carried the aroma of the sea.      

Torigai (cockle)
Next was torigai (also from Japan). It had a slightly chewy and springy texture. The cockle's sweet flavour was paired with ginger. 

Engawa (flounder fin)
Engawa (the muscle of the dorsal fin of the Japanese flounder) was pure bliss! This part of the flounder has a high fat content, which made it very soft and melting in the mouth. There was an incredible depth of flavour and the sweet aroma of the engawa spread across my palate.

The third sake from the sake pairing was Terada Honke Katori 90% Junmai Kimoto Muroka Nama Guenshu from Chiba. The sommelier explained that this sake was produced using older, traditional methods, a rarity these days. The sake had a lovely rich rice flavour with refreshing acidity and a delicate floral aroma. 

Maguro otoro (bluefin tuna belly)
I moved from one orgasmic moment to the next with this maguro otoro (bluefin tuna belly from Japan). There are very good reasons why the otoro is so highly prized. The flavour of otoro is just unrivalled: so deep, complex and rich in umami. And the flesh was ridiculously smooth, seemingly just melting away on the tongue. This was piece so good that I wanted to cry!

Naka Shuzo Asahi Wakatsu Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu from Tokushima was selected to be paired with otoro. This sake was rich, with fruity and spicy notes and a woody finish. This was my favourite sake of the sake pairing.             

Aburi otoro (seared bluefin tuna belly)
Otoro was then given the blowtorch treatment (aburi) to melt some of the fat into the flesh. Predictably, this piece was heavenly with a buttery mouth feel and amazing flavour.   

Battera (pressed mackerel)
Next was battera, an Osaka style pressed mackerel sushi. The mackerel was cured in rice vinegar, which provided a wonderful balance to the oiliness and strong flavour of the the mackerel. This piece was amazing and confirmed why I enjoy mackerel so much in sushi.

The next pairing, Pennyweight Constance fino from Beechworth, Victoria, was actually a wine rather than a sake, as the sushi chef wanted something richer to go with the remaining stronger flavour pieces. As I am not much of a wine drinker, I would have preferred sake.       

Anago (conger eel)
The next piece was another pressed sushi, this time with anago (conger eel or saltwater eel from Japan). The eel was so soft and evaporated instantly in the mouth, like a souffle from Vue de Monde. The sauce was sweet and filled with umami. I did think with the softness of the eel, that the block of rice was a bit big. 

Uni (sea urchin)
I love sea urchin and my eyes lit up when I saw the chef fill a little dish of cucumber with Bafun uni from Hokkaido. The rich, creamy texture of the sea urchin was heavenly in the mouth. A heavy sweetness and aroma of the sea urchin filled my mouth. The crispness of the cucumber worked well as a base for the sea urchin, but I think I have a preference for rice.

Maguro otoro (bluefin tuna belly) - extra $22
After the sea urchin, the sushi chef indicated to me that I had final piece in the omakase menu and asked whether I wanted any more pieces. I decided to order another piece of otoro, since the first piece was so orgasmic and I was here any way, so I may as well make the most of my visit. This might be the most expensive single bite I've ever had, but it was totally worth it because otoro is one of life's greatest pleasures!

Shinjo-wan (kingfish and calamari dumpling in clear broth)
The final savoury course of the omakase menu was shinjo (a dumpling made from kingfish and calamari), submerged in a clear dashi broth. The flavours of this course were clean, refreshing and really delicious!

The final pairing of the night was Ota Shuzō Dokan Umeshu from Hyogo, a sake infused with ume or plum. This was one of the best ume-shus that I have ever had. The tart flavours of ume were wonderfully balanced with moderate sweetness, creating a ume-shu that was really pleasant to drink and not sickly sweet.

Rice milk pudding
rice milk pudding with a dark sugar syrup from Okinawa and summer fruits (raspberry, strawberry and dark grape) was served for dessert. Dessert was simple yet highly enjoyable. I loved the smoothness and the creaminess of the pudding. This dessert was served with a cup of hojicha (roasted Japanese green tea). 

Massive damage done to my bank account!

Minamishima is not cheap, but then again neither are high end sushi-yas in Japan, which Minamishima is trying to emulate. Despite only being open for a month, Minamishima has done an outstanding job in creating an exquisite sushi omakase experience in Australia. Each piece was amazing and there is no doubt that the sushi chefs here are some of the best in the country (alongside Sano-san of Sokyo). Minamishima is probably the best option Australians have for a true sushi omakase experience, outside of booking a flight to Japan and eating at one of the Michelin star sushi-yas.

Highlight: Otoro!
Lowlight: No tamago (egg omelette) to end the sushi omakase.
Overall: Minamishima is a sushi-ya, just like those found in Japan. This was probably the best sushi that I have eaten in Australia. Sushi fans, take note before Minamishima becomes difficult to get a booking! 9/10 (Outstanding)

Address: 4 Lord St, Richmond VIC 3121 
Contact no: (03) 9429 5180

Minamishima on Urbanspoon 

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Yasaka Ramen, Sydney CBD

"No ramen. No life"

Such is the motto of the new kid on the (ramen) block, Yasaka Ramen. Now this is a motto that I subscribe to. Ramen is my go-to dish when I am looking for something cheap, comforting and delicious. I probably eat it too often during my lunch breaks, but how can anyone not resist this delightful bowl of noodles? As you can see, a life without ramen would be rather sad for this ramen tragic. Thankfully Sydney has great depth in the ramen scene and another strong contender just joined the party.     

The view from the bar area
Yasaka Ramen is conveniently located near World Square on Liverpool Street and more importantly, near Museum Station (we all need to go somewhere for lunch right, after catching those meaningless bus/train trips during our lunch break, such is absurdness of the of the pricing structure of the Opal?).

The fit out at Yasaka is pretty sleek and modern. There's a bar area where diners sit in a row in front of the chefs and the kitchen, just like in Japan. And there's an upstairs area with table seating for larger groups. The bar is definitely the best seat in the house to watch the chefs put together each bowl of ramen.

Ramen chef Takeshi Sekigawa
At the moment, Yasaka only has tonkotsu ramen. I love all kinds of ramen broths but tonkotsu is my favourite. As with all tonkotsu broths, pork bones are simmered for hours til the bones fall apart and the collagen seeps out, creating a rich, deep and flavoursome broth. 

When you taste the broth at Yasaka, you will probably notice how similar it tastes to Gumshara (my number one in Sydney). That's because ramen chef Takeshi Sekigawa worked at Gumshara as an apprentice to Mori Higashida.  The difference between Yasaka and Gumshara is, the broth is less hectic! It's definitely thinner but you still get a good dose of collagen (i.e. it's still thick) and some amazing porky flavours.

You can order the tonkotsu ramen in three different flavours: shoyu, shio and miso. I've tried each of these in separate visits.   

Tonkotsu shoyu: kakuni ramen ($17.80) with soft boiled egg ($2)
Adding shoyu (a special blended soy paste) to the tonkotsu broth is my preference at Yasaka. You can't really go wrong with soy sauce for added depth of flavour in a bowl of ramen. The noodles, which are all made fresh on site, are a winner. I love how the noodles are bouncy and have a nice bite to them. Slurping up these noodles, coated in that delicious broth, is heaven! The kakuni (simmered pork soft bone) was also incredible! The meat was sweet, juicy and fatty. And oh so soft, just melting in the mouth! The eggs at Yasaka are pretty on point too with a gooey yolk and soft egg whites. The other toppings in this bowl were bamboo shoots, nori, and spring onions.

Tonktosu miso: grilled chashu ramen ($15.80) with extra soft boiled egg ($2)
For a taste of Hokkaido, add miso to your tonktosu ramen. This, again, was a rich, delicious bowl of ramen but I thought the miso flavour could be have been turned up a couple of notches. This bowl also came with bamboo shoots, nori, shallots and corn. All that was needed was a slab of butter and you really will be transported to Sapporo! And I ordered extra soft boiled eggs because no bowl of ramen is complete without it!

The grilled chashu slices were seared with a blowtorch to give the chashu some caramelisation. The chashu is pretty amazing and was also, melting in the mouth (I am not sure if I like the chashu or the kakuni at Yasaka more!).

Spoon for scooping up corn!
Now how cool is this spoon (maybe only a ramen geek like me finds something as trivial this amusing)! The miso ramen comes with this handy little utensil to scoop up the last remnants of corn floating around in the bowl. I've never seen a spoon like this before and I reckon it should be mandatory for all bowls of ramen with corn to come with this spoon :)  

Tonkotsu shio: grilled chashu ramen ($15.80) with soft boiled egg ($2) and kakuni ($2)
And since I couldn't decide whether I liked the grilled chashu or the kakuni more, why not order both on the next visit? This is exactly what I did with my bowl of tonkotsu shio ramen (specially blended salt paste). Shio and shoyu are probably the two flavours I would order over and over again at Yasaka. The salt paste accentuates the porkiness of the broth. The shio ramen comes with bamboo shoots, nori, black fungus (I love these) and shallots.

Takoyaki balls with sweet takoyaki sauce ($6 for 4)
Yasaka also have a number of side dishes such as takoyaki balls, gyoza, karage and chicken katsu.

These takoyaki balls were just like the ones you find in Osaka. They were freshly made and arrived piping hot. The inside was slightly gooey and filled with bits of chopped octopus. They were coated in a sweet takoyaki sauce, drizzled with Kewpie mayo and topped with dancing bonito flakes.

Yasaka Ramen is firmly one of my favourite places for my lunchtime ramen fix alongside Gumshara and Ramen Ikkyu. In all my visits to Yasaka, I have found each bowl to be consistently good. We are spoilt for choice in the ramen scene in Sydney (with the likes of Hakata Maru, Ippudo and Zundo lurking behind), and we are all better for it!

Yasaka Ramen
Address: 126 Liverpool St Sydney, NSW
Contact no: (02) 9267 9027

Yasaka Ramen on Urbanspoon