Monday, October 31, 2011

Lao Tuo Jia (Malvern) 10/2011

This name translates proximately as Old Joe's place, Joe being an older member of the family that run this surprising little restaurant. It's clean and neat with a few different coloured sheets stuck on the wall with menu items in English and Chinese.Tables are bare, furnished with paper napkins and comfortable chairs. A TV plays Chinese programs in one corner of the room.
We had to ask for chopsticks but tea came without needing to be asked for. The lady who served us was happy to describe the differences in the dishes and their ingredients.
It is striking that there are many lamb dishes which is unusual in Chinese restaurants. LTJ specialises in Xinjiang style cuisine from the North of China where it is very cold and the fatty meat is very desirable. We started with a couple of entrees. Half a dozen steam buns were the best that Sandra has ever eaten any where. The pastry was light and they were filled with plenty of mince. Wow! but that was not all.A dozen dumplings proved to be exceptional. Well seasoned they contained a little extremely tasty soup. They leave the attempts at Shanghai dumplings that we have had at many other restaurants for dead.Our next course, minced lamb with long noodles and vegetables. This came with a small pair of scissors to cut the noodles to lengths that suit you. These are made in house and are truly first class. Another astonishingly tasty dish and a good big serve too.Our next main was eggplant with minced lamb. Another very tasty dish but a bit to oily for my taste. I also found the eggplant skin a little tough. Fortunately they do take away as we were unable, with the best will in the world, to finish the whole meal.Licensed for BYO wine, they do not serve their own wines.
Of it's type this is a great little suburban restaurant. Very inexpensive, it's a gem, they even take credit cards.
Score: 14.25/20

Fiorini's (Toorak) 10/2011

Some how my emails have been dominated by sites like Groupon, OurDeal, LivingSocial Deals and others of similar ilk offering quite extraordinary discount vouchers for meals, usually two courses and wine, at quite reasonable restaurants. Hard to believe in fact and I wondered if, when it came to making the booking the restaurants would have no more room for voucher holders, like frequent flyers where you have to book a year ahead or you can't get on the plane.
We decided to try them out and took a $49 voucher for two entrees, two mains and a bottle of wine, value approximately $130. Fiorini, not too far away was the lucky or perhaps unlucky restaurant we chose. It's a very friendly place at 470 Toorak Rd.
They have a bar at one end of the room and there is an additional space upstairs for parties. They had plenty of clients coming in from the street and it was close to full all the time. As well as their modest printed menu there is a blackboard advertising the day's specials.We started with a couple of pasta entrees. Penne with a mushroom and cheese sauce (Panna and funghi) and an aioli spaghetti. Very good sized serves and flavoursome too. For mains I had an eye fillet, which looked like something else, and a salad. It seems that Mauritzo, the chef had flattened the fillet, which did nothing to improve it and made it impossible to have it warm blue, as I wanted it. It was also not the meltingly tender experience that one sometimes get with an excellent piece of meat. Sandra had prawns with an outstanding cream sauce which was good enough to come back for, with a dish of mixed very well cooked vegetables. Quite excellent except for the veggies!. We paid an extra $12.50 for a berry dessert which was pleasant but dominated by strawberries which were not very tasty, the sort that look good in the supermarket but never quite meet your expectations. The meal came with very small, hard to resist, crusty, obviously house made, rolls. They served us a bottle of quite reasonable Willowglen cabernet merlot.I was curious about this deal because it is a tremendous bargain for the dinner so I approached Maria, the lovely lady who was running the restaurant. We will not be doing this again she said. They promised we would have people coming through the doors and we certainly did, more than 200 already! So what did they pay the voucher selling promoter? Twenty of the $49 I paid went to the promoter leaving Fiorini's with a food and wine cost which must have left them severely out of pocket. Ultimately I don't like this situation. Not only does it cost the restaurant far too much but it also takes business away from other restaurants that people may have gone to. Worse still it encourages a sort of predatory behaviour in a certain group of patrons who look for bargains regardless of what the longer term effects might be.
I wish Fiorini's well and almost feel duty bound to return for another meal at the normal price. I'm sure we will enjoy it and the only hesitation is because there are so many other places to go to.
Score: 13.75/20

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Theo's Greek Tavern (Sandringham) 10/2011

We would never have found this suburban restaurant but for our Greek fish supplier, Johnny, from Ripponlea Fish Supplies. He assured us that this was Greek food as good as it gets in Melbourne. I don't know if he's been to Hellenic Republic, or Philhellene or the Press Club or anywhere for that matter but he's a convincing salesman so we visited Theo's. It's a very pleasant place more or less opposite the train station, at no. 66 at, the appropriately named Station St.There is a decent amount of space between the tables which have table cloths covered with maritime themed paper The walls are decorated with idealized nymph like female figures and mythological scenes.
It was very quiet so we got a lot of very personal attention from both our waiter and Theo and his wife Phylis. The menu, available on the net, has a lot of dips and entrees as well as the regular fish and meat dishes normally served in Greek bistro/cafe restaurants. They also have a $45 banquet which looked like very good value. We decided to have three entrees and two mains. We started with Spanakopita -($12.5) Traditonal Greek filo pastry stuffed with our special spinach and fetta mix.I would have liked a lot more stuffing for the amount of pastry which reduced the enjoyment of the fetta and spinach. We next had Saganaki - ($13.5) Fried Greek Imported Kefalograviera. This was very good, hot and moist inside and crisp outside. Fried Eggplant -($ 12) Eggplant coated in flour then pan fried in olive oil came with a small quenelle of Saganaki dip. This was a simple entree beautifully made. We shared Snapper -($ 28.5) Whole fresh snapper char-grilled and topped with olive oil and lemon juice. So simple but superb because the fish was very fresh, the char grill gave it a lovely smokey flavour and it was not at all dry or over cooked.Their Moussaka -($ 24.5) Layers of baked eggplant, potato, and minced meat topped with bechamel sauce and served with their red sauce. was exquisite. Plenty of eggplant, well cooked, lots of bechamel with fine texture and enough potato and mince to make this a really good dish. We chose to try all the desserts.
Loukoumia Sweet jellied rose-water candy.
Baklava Spiced walnut and almonds wrapped in filo pastry and soaked in honey syrup. Galaktoboureko Traditonal Greek baked custard in filo pastry.
Kahdaifi Spiced nuts topped with finely spun pastry and syrup.
Halva Traditonal Greek cold pudding made from crushed sesame seeds. This turned out to be unfortunate. The halva was just ordinary, the loukoumia was too dry for my taste, the Greek custard topped by a little puff pastry too plain the kahdaifi spun pastry had gone soggy and the honey drenched baklava overwhelmingly sweet.
The entrees had been quite enjoyable, the mains excellent but this spoilt the meal and the memory of it. In all the cooking is simple Greek family style with no nod toward modern cuisine. Spices are straightforward, service is happy and obliging and the food is satisfying. I only wish we had skipped the dessert.
They have a very short and very fairly priced wine list including A few Greek wines. I drank a pleasant ouzo, which anyone could enjoy as long as you enjoy that aniseed taste. Sandra drank a very pleasing Lindemans cab merlot ($8.5/glass).

Score: 13.75/20

Friday, October 14, 2011

Philhellene (Moonee Ponds) 10/2001

On Friday night at 7.30 you can run out of petrol trying to find a legal parking place near this hugely popular Greek restaurant. Surrounded by restaurants on a busy road the traffic is endless but once you get into the place you don't notice it at all because there is plenty of noise inside. It's not yet full but it's buzzing. There's a welcoming feeling about the place, the bare brick walls heavily decorated with family photo's and mementos all adding to this. It's Cretan owners promise provincial Greek cuisine and express their feelings for all things Greek even in the name Phil Hellene = love of Greek culture! Tables are small and hardly have room for the food. A black board has almost as many specials as the regular menu.
Bread is provided with oil. Butter is not available. There is a modest wine list featuring several Cypriot, Cretan and Greek wines. We tried their shiraz and pinot noir
style offerings which were pleasant and inexpensive. We started with a few entrees. Zucchini flowers stuffed with herbed rice were very over cooked which diminished an otherwise nice dish. Stuffed eggplant with 'mizithra' and goats cheese was a simple home style dish. Nice enough but not fabulous. A third entree, kalitsounia, a heavy pastry stuffed with cheese and mint, one of their specials, was not very special either. Enjoyable but not rave material. Mains were all substantial serves. We had two seafood courses, a cheese stuffed calamari with roast potato and a Greek salad. All pretty bland. A slice of sword fish also came with roast potato, a loose skordalia lacking flavour, a couple of lettuce leaves, lemon and some fabulous beetroot. This was followed by a very tender shoulder of lamb also accompanied by roast potato and and thoroughly overcooked bean and pea mixture. I'm not surprised that many people are not impressed with the food here if they have expectations of some sort of Greek haute cuisine It's not that at all and doesn't pretend to be. It's just good old home style Greek food. Desserts did impress. Halva ice cream had plenty of halva flavour. Best of all was the pannacotta with a rose petal, honey and pistachio nuts, which was the perfect consistency and taste. It turned out to have been made by one of our waiters, Phillip Vakos, a former Masterchef contestant!
Score 13.5/20

Maris (Malvern) 10/2011

Its two and a half years since we ate at Maris but I remember it well so I was surprised when we returned a few days ago to find that it had been renovated and lost its warm and homely atmosphere. Even the sign outside has gone square. There are no more straw baskets with their chooks heads for bread, probably banned by the health dept, the ledge along the window with its decorations has been replaced with more seating, the rocking horse demoted to a high shelf above the bar. Tables are unchanged with fake marble tops and linen serviettes.
Their menu remains interesting and they now offer a six course chef's menu ($75) which is all or none i.e. the whole table must have it if that's your choice.
It looked interesting and was not going to cost much more than a three course meal so that's what we selected.
First they brought the most dangerously moorish house made bread which was irresistible despite a large meal to come.Service was well paced and began with fresh prawns in Brick pastry with basil.
The pastry was superb, crisp and light and the prawn unusually flavour some but some one went wild with the salt detracting from an almost excellent start.
This was followed by foie gras parfait with prune jelly and a lovely, but rather salty, rabbit terrine with a little glace mustard fruit. The foie gras was very smooth, light and delicate. Next came smoked beetroot with chicory, pumpkin, pine nuts and goats curd. The smoky taste was distinct and pleasing in this dish which was topped with a dob of goats curd and ice cream on a strip of crunchy puff pastry. There must have been at least a teaspoon of pumpkin puree under large chunks of beetroot which seemed incongruous considering the fineness of the rest of the dish. Slow roasted lamb with organic carrots, puffed quinoa, almonds and cumin seeds had great potential but was unrealized because, as good as the textures were, the crisp almond s and the puffed quinoa were great and the cumin well blended, unfortunately it came with undercooked beans and the lamb was very over cooked and grievously over salted turning a good dish into an awful one. A wagu rump was also seriously over salted. It was remarkably tough for wagu with a moderate amount of gristle through my piece. They said it was grade 6 to 8 but I think it was closer to grade three. It came with a creamy mash and a slow cooked wagu ox tail that had been removed from the bones and then cooked in a light pastry. Finally a vin santo pannacotta with burnt fig. As on a previous occasion the pannacotta was insufficiently gelatinized and the wrong consistency. The fig was a very strong tasting accompaniment for the delicacy of the pannacotta and the whole lot was excessively sweet. A drier vin santo might have helped.
The dishes are very nicely presented and of good size. This is so close to being very good that it saddens me to see it failing in basic areas like seasoning. In 2008 they scored an AGF hat for their cooking and have slipped quite a way since then. I think it has the potential to get back to that again but they are going to have to take a lot more care of their basic seasoning.
Score: 13.5/20