Lauraine Jacobs

Food & Wine Writer

19 April 2014

HUXTABLE & COCORO

As a food writer and food lover I get to eat a lot, and often. There are some occasions, some dinners that I wouldn’t miss for the world. The most recent was an evening filled with fun, deliciousness and some fine wine. It was a collaboration between two fine chefs; Makato Tokuyama, originally from Japan and now chef at Cocoro in Ponsonby, Auckland and Daniel Wilson, originally from New Zealand and now owner chef at Huxtable in Fitzroy, Melbourne. Daniel invited Makato into his kitchen during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival to cook an omotenashi dinner.

Perched at the bar, I could see the chefs hard at work. Huxtable, in an area that has fast become trendy since Daniel opened his doors (he has Huxtaburger across the road, one of five sites for his excellent and ever growing custom burger bars) is cosy and small with about 30 seats. The kitchen and bar take up almost half the area and it was incredible to watch the precision and speed of the two chefs, a couple of assistants and skilled front of house staff as they plated and served seven complex, intricate and detailed courses.

First up, an Aussie tiger prawn wrapped in crisp filo, and then an intricate platter of sashimi that included scampi, octopus, trevally, oyster, paua and tuna – wow! so fresh! Next the course in a Japanese dinner that is pure comfort and one of my favourites – the savoury chawanmushi custard that was silken and smooth, with spanner crab and scallop. Following that some Ora King salmon with delicate vegetables and the surprising note of cinnamon.

Then a lovely dashi stock that was a play on spaghetti vongole, crammed with clam and diamond shell clams and the fabulous flavours of nori and shiso. The final savoury course was grilled antarctic toothfish with fabulous veggies and zesty yuzu foam. To end: soy sauce icecream and panna cotta with strawberry, chocolate, praline and some delightful lemon balm cress.

Each course was accompanied by a specially selected sake or wine (loved the Greywacke sauvignon blanc.) It was a seamless performance with such detail on each and every plate. I would love to have the evening all over again. At the very least I know I will dine at Huxtable if I return to Melbourne, and can eat Chef Makato’s food in Ponsonby regularly.

Huxtable: 131 Smith St, Fitzroy VIC, ph 03 9419 5101 Cocoro; 56A Brown St, Ponsonby, ph 09 360 0927

17 April 2014

PERFECT DINNER IN MELBOURNE

Three weeks after our dinner at Attica, Melbourne one of the friends we had shared the meal with commented that he was still awestruck by every aspect of the experience. Attica owner/chef, Ben Shewry, the boy from Taranaki, has become one of the world’s best known chefs amongst those-who-know. He’s respected by the leading names around the globe and was championed by none less than the famous Rene Redzepi of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. Rightly so!

I hadn’t been to Attica since I organised a dinner there during the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival about six years ago. That had been a great occasion as at the time I was a food editor at Cuisine and I persuaded Martin Bosley to cook alongside Ben. We arranged Cloudy Bay wines, the two chefs each cooked three courses of their own and some Cuisine readers even drove from NSW for that occasion. It was a fun night and the standout was Ben’s seashore dish – briny and brilliant.

This time every single detail seemed brilliant, and the restaurant seemed to have really grown up to become almost a temple of sophistication without any pretension. After a welcome glass of Champagne, we chose to go with the Eight Course Menu with Matched Wines ($305 per person.) Does eight courses sound over the top? Well it wasn’t, as we actually had about sixteen different dishes, plus a smart little pie and an exquisite ice cream, from a cart in the herb garden, served about three fourths of the way through the meal. And that herb garden at the back of the restaurant is devoted to basil – 13 varieties. I’d love to see the full chef’s garden nearby at Ripponlea.

I’m not going to go through a bite by bite account of the meal. We started with seven tiny amuse gueules, each a bite of deliciousness.

We then moved onto the “Eight Courses” and were wowed by the tastes, the textures and the loving care of each and every course. The kitchen at Attica does not torture nor transform food. The chefs get involved in growing the food in that garden, and sourcing the very best seasonal ingredients. Everything is delicate, beautifully conceived and complete with gorgeous herbs.

My favourite courses were the ‘Ten Flavours of St John’s Wort’ – five tiny tomatoes, peeled, slightly cooked and bathed in the most delicious dressing with herbs tips to garnish, ‘Cucumbers, Holy Flax, Sauce of Burnet’ which was the most perfect cucumber salad imaginable, and ‘King George Whiting in Paperbark’ where the delicate fresh fish had been topped with crab and citrus and baked in rolled up tree bark.

Service is seamless and relaxed, everything is utterly professional and there’s almost a hushed tone in the dining room as everyone seems bowled over by the occasion. The only thing I would do differently is to order a bottle of wine I loved and was familiar with, rather than go for the matched wines. They were a fairly esoteric collection, well chosen of course, but I was there for the food and that’s what I really wanted to concentrate on.

And a word of advice. Make your reservation at the restaurant for this sensational dinner well before you book your flights. Tables, especially at the weekend are pretty well booked ahead for 2-3 months!

ATTICA 74 Glen Eira Rd, Ripponlea, VIC. Phone +61 3 9530 0111

PS. That salad in the pic accompanied my beef with cherries course. Detail, detail, detail!

20 March 2014

DUCK & FIG SALAD

  • 2 duck breasts
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 cups baby rocket leaves
  • 6 fresh ripe figs
  • 50g creamy blue cheese
  • 4-5 baby yellow tomatoes
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 3 tbsps grape seed oil
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard (or 4 tbsp Taihiki Orchards fresh fig vinaigrette)
  • Small bunch of fresh mint, thinly sliced

Trim and excess fat from the duck breasts, and score the skin in a small diagonal pattern. Scatter the surface of the duck with the fennel seeds, and some salt and black pepper. Place the duck breasts, skin side down in a cold frying pan and place over a heated element. Allow the pan to come to a medium temperature and the duck will slowly render down a lot of the fat. Fry gently on the skin side for about 10-12 minutes until the skin is crisp and golden brown. Flip the breasts over and cook on the meaty side for 2-3 minutes. Remove and allow the duck to rest on paper towels. It can be served warm or at room temperature. Meanwhile prepare the salad. Wash and dry the rocket leaves. Cut the figs in half. Cut each tomato into quarters. Crumble the blue cheese and grate the lemon zest onto a small plate. Make the dressing by blending the juice of the lemon, oil and mustard, seasoning with salt and pepper to make it tangy. To assemble the salad, arrange the rocket leaves on a serving platter. Slice the duck breasts thinly and arrange with the figs and tomatoes on the leaves. Scatter over the blue cheese and tip the dressing over the salad sparingly. Finally top the dish with the sliced mint and lemon zest. Serves 4

20 March 2014

DUCK WITH FIGS, POTATOES & TOMATOES

  • 4 duck legs
  • 2 tsps cumin
  • 1 tbsp flour
  • 2 tbsps olive oil
  • 1 small red onion, finely sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 12 baby potatoes (perlas), cut in half
  • 6 dried or fresh figs, cut in half
  • 400g can crushed tomatoes in tomato juice
  • 500 mls chicken stock
  • 2 tbsp pitted olives
  • Several sprigs fresh thyme
  • Handful of fresh rocket leaves
  • 1 orange, zest and juice

Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Trim all the visible fat from the duck legs and dust with the cumin and flour. Heat the oil in a heavy-lidded casserole and the brown the duck legs, 2 at a time. Remove, keep aside and add onion and garlic to the casserole. Brown very gently for 10 minutes and then add the potatoes and figs (if using dried). Sizzle for 30 seconds and add the tomatoes, chicken stock, olives, thyme, salt and pepper to taste with the duck legs, and bring to a simmer. Cover and place in the oven and cook for one hour. You can prepare the casserole to this point if you wish. Take the casserole from the oven, remove the duck legs to a covered plate and reduce the liquid until it is thick and syrupy and there is about a cup remaining. Return the legs to the dish, add the rocket leaves with orange zest and juice (and fresh figs if using) and simmer for a further 3-5 minutes. Serves 4

6 March 2014

THINKING ABOUT EATING LOCAL

Choosing to eat fresh, locally grown food that’s in season is the incontestable mantra of every thoughtful food lover. Fresh fruit and vegetables are at their most nutritious when harvested, while our local artisan food producers need every bit of recognition they can attract if they are to develop into viable profitable ventures. We’re a nation of small businesses that need local support.

But we’re also a nation where the food and beverage producers are responsible for well over 50% of our international export earnings. Australia, too, exports more than 50% of the food it produces and no doubt while not quite as reliant on that for their economy to work, it makes a significant contribution. So the brouhaha that has erupted when the two supermarket chains across the ditch (one of which, Woolworths, owns the subsidiary Progressive enterprises here) decided to start a campaign over stocking local produce and only purchasing using local foods for their home brands has had a much further reaching result than they ever imagined. A literal can of worms has been opened, many Kiwis are boycotting their supermarkets here and we’re learning far more about supermarketing practices than we ever dreamed of - things the chains probably never envisaged.

While it is easy to preach ‘buy local,’ we need to take a step back and think about the long term consequences of that. Neither New Zealand or Australia can be completely dogmatic about ignoring imported food as that is a hypocritical reaction. We should never forget the backbone of our country’s economy is the dairy industry, and our sheep and beef farmers are significant contributors too. But we live in a world where the global economy has long dictated international food production and distribution. We all enjoy internationally grown treats such as coffee, chocolate, and a host of other imported foods. We’d be devastated, and probably hungry, if we were limited to a diet solely composed of local food. Continue to eat the seasonal, fresh, locally produced food as the first choice for the household but do spare a thought for the farmers of other countries who rely on our support too.

The Australian rice industry is a fine example. Their brand SunRice has grown to be a major player on the international market, supplying rice to more than 60 countries. Apart from products available through a few small specialist rice importers, almost all the rice found on our supermarket shelves is grown in Australia. Following the ten year drought of the last decade, the rice growers are now in full production with 11 varieties of rice planted and harvested each year. Most of us are familiar with long grain and short grain white and brown rice, but red, black and Japanese rice varieties make an interesting and tasty alternative.

I will post two exciting recipes in the RECIPE section.

21 February 2014

GUSTO AT SKY CITY GRAND

Imagine this. Perched at the chef’s table in the kitchen of the new Gusto restaurant. Sean Connolly is in fine fettle, sitting with six of us, ordering up a host of treats, pouring wine and telling tales. And then, out comes some crisp bruschetta, a block of the very fine Lewis Road Creamery butter and a tin of Ortiz anchovies. Sean slices great slabs of butter onto the toasted bread, and tops each with a tangy anchovy. Wow! The combination of crisp, crunchy, salty, tangy and meltingly luscious fat was heavenly.

Another masterstroke move from Sky City who seem to be shifting their focus (or maybe our perception of their business) from gambling to the restaurant industry. Following the enormous success of The Grill where Sean set new heights for steak and bloke-ish dining in the city, he’s been given free reign to head the kitchen in this new Italian influenced restaurant in the lobby and rear of Sky City Grand Hotel. Exactly what was needed there, as I am told the breakfast buffet serves up to 300 people each day with a gourmet array of fine fare.

His menu is filled with dishes that all scream ‘eat me’, ‘pick me’, ‘you know you want me’. Lovely little plates of nibbly bits like olives, parmigiano reggiano, antipoasto, bruschetta and meatballs that are also designed to serve the clients who sit in the lobby over a drink or two.

The range of smaller plates or starters includes some fresh salady stuff, an amazing take on vitello tonnato, the best tomatoes (Curious Croppers) with buffalo mozzarella, and an amazing selection of pasta dishes, all made in house. The risottos are made from scratch when ordered.

But the main courses are the real standouts; crumbed veal cutlet, a hearty kingfish tail saltimbocca style, wild rabbit cacciatore (Hey Sean, we have rabbits here at Omaha Beach if you run out) and the signature dish, line caught whole snapper from Coromandel that is cooked in ‘acqua pazza’ and smothered in passata. Or in other words, fresh sea water shipped in from Coromandel to poach the fish (deliciously salty) and locally made in a dense tomato sauce with those fabulous Curious Croppers, in a joint venture with Sean Connolly. It was salty, rich and oh so moist.

We had a lovely selection of Italian wines, some wicked rum baba to finish and will be back, soon. So much choice at Sky City and the new Gusto is first and foremost a hotel restaurant. But one with a difference. I love the way the space is intimate within but still opens up to the lobby in such a way that you can’t miss it. Don’t.

4 February 2014

EGGPLANT, SAUSAGE & KALE NONYA STYLE CURRY

Nothing like opening the fridge, surveying the contents and seeing the makings of a tasty dinner. Tonight is curry night and I have no idea, when pushed for time, what I’d do without the Asian Home Gourmet range of spice pastes. Sometimes too much hot food in hot weather can be overpowering (why do they eat curries in the hottest countries?) But at risk of corrupting a nation’s favourite my favourite is the Singapore Nonya Chicken Curry paste. It’s tasty and makes terrific curry. That’s what we’ll be eating tonight. Here’s my recipe.

  • 1 large eggplant, cut into large chunks

  • 1 small red onion, finely chopped

  • 6 tbsps grapeseed oil

  • 8 small Perla potatoes, halved

  • Asian Home Gourmet Nonya curry spice paste

  • 3 cups water

  • 1 tomato, chopped

  • 6 little pork sausages, halved

  • 5 leaves curly kale

  • Handful of green beans, trimmed

  • 1 cup coconut cream

Heat the oil into a large heavy deep frying pan and add the eggplant. Fry on all sides until it is browned. Add the onion and potatoes with the contents of the curry sachet and stir well together over the heat. Add the tomatoes and the water and bring to a simmer. Add the kale and simmer, covered for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile brown the sausages and blanch the green beans. Add them just before serving with the coconut cream. Reheat and serve with steamed basmati rice. Serves 4

3 February 2014

SUMMER SARDINES

Life's a beach. Especially for me, tucked up recuperating from some surgery here at our home away from home at Omaha Beach.

The only thing is I feel the need to produce something light and interesting for lunch each day - an easy task as my pantry shelves are well stocked and there's always a surfeit of fresh produce from the Matakana Farmers Market. So I can whizz a salad up like this one in no more then 15 minutes.

Here's what you will need:

  • 2 fresh sun- ripened tomatoes, chopped into chunks

  • 6 small Perla spuds, halved and steamed for 12 minutes

  • 2 free range eggs, boiled for 8 minutes

  • 1 can sardines (preferably Albo brand)

  • large handful of washed rocket leaves

  • Peter Gordon's avocado oil and pomegranate dressing

Put everything on a platter, drizzle over the dressing and eat outdoors in the sunshine with an icy cold beer. Serves 2.

2 February 2014

DEPOT, SKY CITY

On a whim we rolled up to Depot mid week for our first meal out for 2014. As usual a small crowd was gathered on the footpath, waiting, waiting, waiting. However if there's one place that treats potential diners well in this town, it's Al Brown's diner style destination restaurant. A stack of warm woolly throws to snuggle into and keep the cold wind at bay, and staff who are on their toes and deliver a beer or wine to keep everyone happy while taking their turn in line.

I have no idea why more people haven't copied Al's concept of serving up food that everyone wants to eat. From the freshly shucked oysters and clams to the obligatory sliders that are just 2 or three bites of perfectly cooked fish, mayo and sweet little buns that kick start the meal, the food in this place is heaven.

It's casual, reliable, and the kitchen overseen by the genius chef Kyle Street, pumps out a never ending stream of dishes that are exactly what New Zealand 'kai' is all about. You may have to perch at a table with others but as it is all so amiable these may end up to be your new best friends.

Here's what I ate after those starters: a remarkably fresh 'sashimi' of kingfish served with a apple mayo and sticks of fresh apple (I think, as I was only allowed one bite for the husband got all territorial over this dish). Then a salad of very thinly sliced prosciutto with grilled peach slices, rocket leaves, roasted macadamias and just enough blue cheese to make it interesting.

I'd been told to try the bone marrow, a take on Fergus Henderson's specialty at St John's in London. I have had f Fergus' version and I must say Depot's take on it is better as the large bones are split in half down the middle then roasted and so all that gorgeous fatty inner part is richly browned and really melting. (Fergus cuts the bones the other way and the fat remains rather pallid, even if it is delicious.) Accompanied by a parsley and red onion salad and a pile of thin toast, this may be one of the most gutsy yet superb dishes of the moment.

Last up was the large kingfish belly, also roasted and served with a generous dollop of aubergine kasundi and more toast. We literally scraped every segment of flesh from those bones as you can see from the pic above.

If you haven't been to Depot, or even if you have make sure you go soon. This is relaxing food you could eat every night and perfect to linger and enjoy over a tumbler or two of wine, some ice cold beer. Great service too and if you're lucky like we were, Al Brown, the man himself may even wait on your table.

Depot, Federal St, Sky City Grand. No bookings.

2 February 2014

BAKED EGGPLANT TOMATO & MOZZARELLA

A couple of years ago I went to Sicily. The food was fantastic; far better than I possibly imagined it might be. We ate superbly everywhere we went and had amazing meals of fresh seafood, the most delicious pork feast imaginable and enjoyed some superb wines.

One evening we stayed on a olive estate near to Ragusa and our party of ten were invited to help prepare the meal. My job was to cook the eggplants. They were ripe, tiny dark purple orbs of deliciousness and were destined to be simmered in a fresh tomato sauce with freshly picked basil from the state gardens. The essence of summer!

Such an opportunity to learn rarely comes my way as I first had to slit each eggplant and then fry it in a large dish of olive oil until tender. Since then I have always, always fried my eggplant, whether whole, quartered, sliced or cut into chunks, before finishing it in sauce. The resulting dish is deliciously flavoured and there's never hint of dryness or wooliness that eggplant sometimes suffers from.

Above I have photographed eggplant slices that have been fried in plenty of lighter style olive oil, interspersed with slices of tomato fresh from the garden and Massimo's fabulous mozzarella from Matakana Farmers Market.

All that remains is to pour over half a jar of Sabato's tomato and basil pasta sauce, some salt and pepper, and bake the dish in a 180C oven for 25-30 minutes.

Lovely on its own or to accompany chicken, lamb, beef or pork.