Monday, August 17, 2015

Brunch Takeaway from Pinbone, Sydney

On my trip to Sydney in February, there was one place that stood out in my mind as my top restaurant choice: Pinbone.  You read about my fantastic dinner there  It was so good that I returned for brunch the next day, which I deemed one of the best brunches of my life.

On my recent trip in May, I wanted to return to Pinbone again, and, I wanted to go for both brunch and dinner ... at least once each!  But, brunch is only available on Sundays, and although I was in town for two Sundays, I had plans with one couple on the second Sunday who didn't want to go to Pinbone (crazy folks), and the first Sunday was Mother's Day, which would bound to be crazy.  Since Pinbone doesn't take reservations for brunch, the waits might be extreme.  And we had huge dinner plans that night, so an epic brunch wasn't really in order.  I made my booking for dinner (which was excellent, as expected), and started scheming about how to solve my brunch dilemma.

Undeterred, I figured out a solution.  Sure, I couldn't do a full on decadent dining event at Pinbone for brunch, but I could still swing by to pick up a few of the items I eyed on my previous trip.  Remember how I said if I lived in Sydney I'd totally stop by Pinbone just to grab a muffin, donut, or dessert for takeaway on a Sunday?  This was my chance!

I proposed my plan to Ojan, saying we could get a salad or something light for a savory dish, plus a few treats, and go sit in nearby Centennial park to eat.  In my head, we'd have a cute little picnic and it would be sunny and warm. Sydney didn't quite co-operate, and it turned out to be a bit cold, windy, and totally cloudy.  Doh.  It was also my third day in Sydney, and somehow my jetlag hit way harder than the previous days.  I was exhausted, but absolutely could not sleep the night before.  I didn't feel well, and was pretty grumpy.  Ojan warned me that my mood was so foul, I wasn't going to like anything.

We still went ahead with the plan, and arrived at Pinbone right around noon.  As expected there was a wait on the sidewalk.  We entered and peeked at the treats behind the counter display.  How on earth were we supposed to pick just a few items?  Everything looked fantastic, from the muffins (orange & white chocolate or pear & ricotta), to the donuts (stuffed with chocolate, baked cheesecake & blueberry, or malted custard & rhubarb), to the assorted cakes and tarts (carrot cake, chocolate, macadamia & whiskey tarts, and of course, banoffee!).

Many moments, (ok, minutes), of indecision later we settled on one salad (to have some vegetables to justify our indulgences), one donut (because, really, how could we not?), and a mini banoffee pie (because, well, duh, banoffee).  I really wanted a muffin too as they looked so amazing, and the sound of the chocolate/macadamia/whiskey tart was almost too much to resist, but ... we did it.

Our food was packaged up within just a few minutes, and handed over in a plastic bag, complete with silverware for our picnic.

As before, the staff were very friendly and accommodating, and multiple staff members applauded our use of takeout as a great idea for the day.  Still being able to have the food but avoiding the craze of Mother's Day?  Genius!

Sadly, I didn't love anything we got.  It was all good, but not as nearly magical as my first visit.  That said ... I was tired, exhausted, and very, very grumpy.  Ojan really loved the donut, and has since compared every donut he has encountered to it.  Next time I'm in Sydney, I'd obviously still like to go back for brunch, but even if I can't squeeze in a full brunch, I'd certainly go get some treats togo again.
Bacon, maple, pumpkin tart. $12. 
We unpacked our bag to find a bonus goodie on top, wrapped up in foil.  Berri, the front of house manager, had snuck a little something extra into our bag!  A warm slice of their signature savory tart, an item from the regular brunch menu.

Pinbone has a number of signature dishes, and on the brunch menu, the creamed corn and fregola that we enjoyed last time is one of them, but this tart is the other.  A savory tart, with a base of puff pastry, a thin layer of pumpkin mash, and topped with bacon, plenty of bacon.  I'd seen plenty of great reviews of this, and really, there was nothing not to love here, so I gladly dug into our bonus treat.

The puff pastry base was very moist, not flaky and crispy as I'd expect.  It was heavy and buttery, not light and airy.  I think I would have liked something drier and crisper more, so you could actually pick it up.  That would also add a little crunch in the base?  It is also possible that when served in the restaurant the puff pastry was crispier, and it got a bit softer here since we took it to go.

The pumpkin layer was just a mash, but it was really creamy, and expertly seasoned.

The bacon slices were overlapping, so the edges that were exposed on top were crispy, but the pieces tucked under others were soft.  I really only like crispy bacon, so I liked the edges, but not the rest, as it was fairly fatty and just flabby to me.  But, this is just me; if you like bacon that isn't crispy, the tart certainly delivered.  There was sooooo much bacon.  Ojan really liked the maple flavor in the bacon.

Overall this was good, and Ojan devoured the maple bacon, but it wasn't really my sort of dish.  I did appreciate the seasoning in the pumpkin, and the fact that I got to try it though.  Thank you Berri!
Roasted carrot & beetroot salad with ricotta & baby spinach. $16.
Next we went for a salad, because I felt like we needed something savory, and we have a habit of literally eating no vegetables when we are in Australia.  We couldn't just order sweets and baked goods, right?

Salad choices were a cabbage/pecorino/walnut/pear salad, or this one with spinach, roasted carrots, beets, and ricotta.  This was a no brainer.  On our previous dinner at Pinbone I really enjoyed the roasted, caramelized carrots from one of the vegetarian dishes, so the roasted carrots immediately called out to me.  Plus ricotta?  Sold!

The salad was ok, but not remarkable.  The spinach greens were fresh and crisp.  The carrots were baby carrots, nicely roasted, still with bits of the greens attached.  Beets were lightly cooked, and chunks of both purple and yellow beets added pops of color.  Globs of creamy ricotta finished the dish.

I can't actually fault anything with the salad, but I just didn't really care for it.  There was no complexity to it, no wow factor.  The dressing seemed a bit too acidic, too tangy.  Then again ... when do I ever really like a salad?  I only ordered this attempting to be responsible.  I think my mom would have loved it though, I know she really likes beets, spinach, and ricotta.  Since it was Mother's Day, let's say I had it in her honor?
Baked cheesecake & blueberry donut. $5.
Moving on to the good stuff, a donut!

The donuts were just too hard to resist.  Huge stuffed donuts rolled in sugar.  How do you not try one?

We took a long time deciding which flavor to get.  Both the malted custard & rhubarb and the baked cheesecake & blueberry sounded like winners.  A creamy rich component and a fruit component?  Um, yes?  In the end, I let Ojan pick, since I was dictating everything else, and, really, I would be happy with either.  He picked the cheesecake and blueberry.

The donut was a big puffy donut, almost more like a sweet roll, given how large and doughy it was.  It didn't taste too fried, which is the one downfall that some donuts can have.  No gross, old oil flavors here.  It was absolutely coated in sugar.  Both Ojan and I loved the sugar coating.  It made it even more of a guilty pleasure.

The cheesecake filling was creamy and a bit sweet, perhaps a bit cheesy, but I'm not sure I would have called it "cheesecake" necessarily.  Ojan did point out that it clearly wasn't just a sweet pastry cream, and had some cheesiness to it, which, was true.  The blueberry compote on top was sweet and  a nice balance, although I would have preferred raspberry or strawberry.  Not that I don't love blueberries, and in general, I'd pick blueberries over raspberries or strawberries, but I also totally adore classic sugar coated jelly donuts, and this reminded me of a jelly donut, so I wanted a more standard flavor to match the donut.

My final criticism is that I wished there was more filling, as the donut was just split down the center and partially filled, and many bites went without filling.  I mentioned that I was grumpy and ridiculously picky, right?

Ojan really liked it though, saying he really liked how it was somewhat of a cross between a donut and a roll.  And every donut he had after this over the next few months he has compared to this one.  So, it was a success, and I'd try another of their donuts for sure.
Mini banoffee pie. $8.
And finally ... the banoffee pie.

Pinbone sells full size banoffee pies, or, mini tart style pies, as we opted for.

Now, to pack up for a minute, let's talk about banoffee.  I discovered banoffee on my first visit to Sydney.  It is not a pie that we have in the US.  I'm not sure why.  We are clearly missing out.

The first banoffee pie I had was from Cafe Sopra, in Pott's Point.  Sopra is famous for their banoffee pie, and it became a staple of my diet while in Sydney.  On every single visit to town, I make a point of going at least once to get a decadent slice of banoffee pie.  Even once I had a vandetta against Cafe Sopra and I vowed never to return to the restaurant for a meal (long story), I still made an exception to swing in for just a piece of banoffee, or, more often, picked up a slice to takeaway.  I had a vandetta, yes, but ... banoffee.  So good.

Over the years I've tried to find banoffee other places, and have even asked a few pastry chefs to make it for me, but none have ever come close to the Sopra version.  As much as I am grumpy at that place, well, they make great banoffee.

So let's just say that I was quite excited to try Pinbone's version, since, well, I clearly love banoffee, and I was eager to find somewhere else that made a version I liked.  Plus, I've loved so many other items from Pinbone, I could only imagine what they might do with banoffee.

Sadly, I didn't love it.  The tart shell was a hard, basic tart shell.  It didn't have the buttery richness of the Sopra version.  I think it was just a regular tart shell, not made with digestive biscuits.  The crust was a bit too thick, making it too dominant of a component, and it was hard to cut into.

The next layer was the toffee, sweet, creamy, a generous amount, but ... it just wasn't anything special.  I think the Sopra version uses a layer of chocolate between the shell and the toffee too?

On top of that was fresh slices of ripe banana, good enough.

The cream on top was fantastic.  I don't think it was just whipped cream.  It almost seemed like a whipped mascarpone perhaps?  I loved the thickness and flavor to it.

Finally, a sprinkling of chocolate.  It wasn't just dusted with cocoa powder, but instead was coated in little chunks of really flavorful, high quality, chocolate.

Overall, this was a mixed bag.  I really, really enjoyed the cream and the chocolate, but, the tart shell and caramel weren't awesome.  Ojan said he preferred the Sopra version, and noted that this needed a more chocolate to it.  I'm glad I tried it, and I had no problem finishing all the cream, but, sadly, it wasn't my favorite banoffee.  I guess I'll have to continue to return to Sopra.
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Friday, August 14, 2015

Bobo's Oat Bars

You know I can't resist trying assorted bars, particularly when they are most soft, almost more like baked goods than granola bars.  And particularly not when they are delivered to my desk by a co-worker to try out.

I was pretty excited about the Bobo's Oat Bars once I saw them.  Cute packaging, but also, they pretty much looked like square muffins.  These are the types of bars I like most often, like the SuniBrite muesli bars from Australia that I recently reviewed, or the Nature Valley's Soft-Baked Oatmeal Squares.

Bobo's Bars look very small scale production, so I assumed they were locally made.  It turns out, they are made in Boulder, and available nationwide.  They are more mainstream than I realized, sold at REI and Whole Foods in San Francisco, and, I even saw them at the grocery store in my hometown in New Hampshire.

The bars all have the same simple base of rolled oats and Earth Balance, and are sweetened with brown rice syrup and sucanat.  All are wheat free, non-GOM, and vegan, although only the specifically gluten-free bars use gluten-free oats.

The regular flavors start with the basic "original", and then expand to include just one or two other ingredients: coconut, almond, chocolate, banana, strawberry, apricot, peanut butter, cinnamon raisin, and cranberry orange.  The gluten-free options are peach, maple pecan, lemon poppy, chocolate almond, apple pie, and peanut butter and jelly.

Honestly, the GF flavors sounded the best.  Maple pecan! Apple pie!  PB & J!  Um, yes?  My selection was given to me by coworker to sample, so I didn't pick the flavors, and I think she (rightly so) picked the appealing flavors for herself.

Now that I know how delicious even the less exciting flavors are though, and how easy they are to find around San Francisco, I may need to seek out some of the more tempting sounding flavors sometime, you know, when my never-ending supply of products to review somehow runs out.

The bars are heavy and dense, a whopping 3 oz, which means the serving size listed on them is actually 2 servings.  I kinda hate that, who really only eats half?  What am I supposed do with the other half? And really, FDA, why do you think that 1.5 oz is the appropriate serving size?  (Side note: Bobo's also has a newer product, Bobo's Bites, that are only 1.3 oz.)

Anyway.  The bars.

Regular flavors

Almond.
"Bobo’s Almond Flavor has pieces of roasted almond in every bite."

I started with the basic sounding almond bar.

Almond shows up as both dry roasted almonds and almond extract.  The almonds were tiny little bits distributed throughout; they didn't really add much crunch, but you could see them.  The almond extract however was quite powerful, it flavored the entire bar in a really pleasant way.

The bar reminded me of a solid chunk of oatmeal, which, I realize doesn't sound good, but, it was.  The oats were soft, not hard like a typical bar.  The sweetness level was perfect.  It was a treat, but definitely not too sweet.  It really was as comforting and satisfying as a bowl of oatmeal, but in a convenient form, perfect for a grab and go breakfast alongside my coffee.  I was pleasantly surprised by this, and would gladly add it into my regular breakfast bar lineup.

Gluten-Free

Peach (GF).
"Bobo’s Gluten Free Peach Flavor has pieces of delicious peach in every bite."

The peach bar I tried was gluten-free, so the regular oats were subbed out with gluten-free ones, but besides that, the ingredients were exactly the same, mostly just oats and Earth Balance.  Of course, it had bits of dried peach in place of the almond components.

I didn't notice any texture difference between the gluten-free and regular bar.  It again was basically just a dense chunk of oatmeal.  Which again, I realize doesn't sound good, but really was pleasing.

Grab-and-go oatmeal, who knew they made such a thing? The peach flavor was subtle and delicate, quite nice.  I'd get one of these again too, but I'd really like to try some of the other flavors.
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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Cruffins @ Brewtown Newtown, Sydney

Cronuts, aka, croissant + donuts for those of you living under a rock, have taken the US by storm (for good reason).  When I was in Sydney, I kept hearing about their famous cronuts, from a place called Brewtown Newtown (although called "Brewnuts", because, trademarks).

Brewtown Newtown is actually mostly a coffee shop/cafe, not a bakery, so I was a bit skeptical, but so many food blogs raved about this place.  It is in Newtown however, further afield that our normal Sydney adventures take us, so I didn't think I'd really get in a visit.  That is, until we went for dim sum at Luly and Yum Yum, and I was left a bit unsatisfied by the lackluster dessert.  I always need dessert!  The group wanted to get coffee afterwards, and I knew Brewtown Newtown was just down the street.  They could get the coffee they wanted, and I could try a cronut.  Everyone would win.

So I lead us down the street to Brewtown Newtown, where we discovered just how popular it was.  At the front was a place you could order just drinks and baked goods to go (or, go drool over them in the display cases), and the rest of the space was for sit down dining with table service, absolutely packed.

The cafe actually sounds quite nice, serving breakfast and lunch, with seasonal menus focused around farm fresh, "paddock to plate" cuisine, free range, organic, yadda yadda.  Once we sat, I was able to see dishes delivered to tables around us, and it all looked good.  The most impressive is the Elvis Burger: "savory brewnut, canadian bacon, gruyere and mayo served with chips and relish".  Yes, that is a bacon and cheese topped burger, served with cronuts as buns.  OMG.  Many tables ordered this.  I actually laughed a bit, as there were many pairs of male + female together, and the males all ordered the crazy burger, and the females salads.  So ... stereotypical?  I didn't even see a female ask for a bite of one of these.  I totally would have!

Anyway, as for the coffee, they serve Single Origin roasters, one of my favorite beans in Sydney.  I tried a decaf long black ($3.50).  The coffee wasn't very good, harsh and acidic.  It had an oil slick floating on top, never a good sign.  It also had no crema whatsoever.  This is not representative of Single Origin's product, so I'm not sure what went wrong.  I asked to have it topped off with a bit more hot water to dilute it, and was brought a cute little pitcher of hot water so I could dilute it myself.  That was a nice touch.

Ojan opted for a hot chocolate ($4), which was unremarkable.
Interior.
The place was packed, and we had to wait for a table even though it was about 3pm.  The vibe was lively and hopping.  Music selection was a bit hilarious, obviously very hip, moving from 80s pop hits to classical numbers, and everything in between.

The space has brick walls and exposed beams, very industrial feeling.
Brewnuts.
Counters at the front display the baked goods in all their glory, starting with the Brewnuts of course.

The flavors of the day were: cinnamon, glazed, chocolate crumble, blood orange, lemon myrtle, fruit & nut, passion fruit curd, and salted caramel with macadamia.

Unlike some other cronuts, these do not have any filling, rather, they are just the croissant donut, with a hole in the center, and nothing between the layers.  The flavors are all in the toppings.  They did look quite stunning.
Cruffins.
But this is Sydney, and a hip place, so they have continued innovating.  In addition to cronuts they have ... cruffins!  You can probably guess what this is, a hybrid croissant-muffin.  But unlike the brewnuts, these ARE filled.  In my world, filling makes better, so even though I set out to get a cronut, I quickly changed my game plan and started drooling over the cruffins instead.

The cruffins available were lychee & rosewater, lemon meringue, dulce de leche, cinnamon, almond frangipane, and salted caramel with caramel corn.
Salted Caramel with Popcorn Cruffin.
We obviously had to go for a cruffin, even though the brewnuts are the item everyone raves about from Brewtown.  I couldn't resist having not only a croissant with awesome toppings, but filled too!

The lemon meringue looked awesome with the meringue on top, but neither Ojan nor I really like lemon desserts, so, we didn't go for that.  And I don't like rosewater.  Ojan ruled out almond. The cinnamon was too boring.  This left the sweet options of dulce de leche and salted caramel.  The salted caramel came topped with caramel corn, which just seemed a bit too awesome to resist, so, it became the winner.

The caramel corn was indeed quite tasty.  Did it belong perched on top of my cruffin?  Not really, but it was sweet, crunchy, and went perfectly with my coffee.  I'd gladly purchase just their caramel corn.
Inside!
I carefully cut it open to reveal the cream filling.  This was no easy task, as the cream came spilling out, and, croissants aren't exactly easy to cut with a butter knife.

The croissant dough was great.  It was crispy on the outside, buttery and flaky and perfectly laminated dough.  However ... I didn't like the cream.  I'm not sure what it was about it, but the flavor just didn't do it for me.  It was creamy and sweet, so I really should have.  Ojan loved it though, and said this treat made his day.  Of course, he added that he'd like to have some chocolate on top too.

So, this was a quasi-success.  The pastry was good, and that is the hard part to nail, so I have every reason to believe that I would have enjoyed another flavor.  Or, perhaps the Brewnut really is the item to get, as these aren't about the filling, more about the quality pastry.  I'm glad I tried it, and would return to try another item sometime.
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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Mamak, Sydney

For our final meal in Sydney on our most recent visit , we decided to be a bit risky.  I had a long list of places I still wanted to go.  Near the top of my list was Rockpool Bar and Grill.  I wasn't flying on Qantas this time around, and thus, it was my only chance to experience Neil Perry cuisine (we hadn't yet gotten there due to always being in a large group, and we were finally just a group of 3).  We also never got iconic meat pies, or any of the crazy Asian desserts in Haymarket that I was constantly eying.  I still wanted to do all these things.

But for some reason, when our final night, a Monday, rolled around, nothing I previously wanted sounded appealing.  At Rockpool B&G, I wanted to get the crumbed prawn roll and the onion rings.  And great cocktails of course.  But a week and a half of eating at restaurants and bars every night had worn me out.  I had great cocktails nearly every night.  I didn't need more cocktails.  I'd been eating huge heavy meals, and fried food in particular sounded totally unappealing.

What did I want?  What I wanted was carbs.  Bready carbs.  And sauce to dip the carbs in.  Partially, I think I was still sad that I didn't enjoy the roti and curry at Sailor's Thai this time around.  Also, the Asian cafe at my office had been serving up great curries with assorted things to dip in, and I had loved them all.  It was just the mood I was in.  I knew what I wanted.

Since my dining companions tend to humor me, I assumed they'd be up for my change of plans, and I informed them around 4:30pm that rather than going to Rockpool Bar and Grill at 6pm as planned and stated on our calendars, we were going to go to Mamak for Malayasian food (in particular, roti).  And uh, we needed to leave the office soon.

Why so soon?  Well, I knew Mamak's reputation.  They always, literally always, have a queue.  They don't take reservations.  If you've walked down Goulburn Street in Sydney, I'm sure you've seen it.  I knew that if we showed up at 6pm, we would have a long wait.  It wouldn't get better if we went later, and we needed to get back to the hotel to pack anyway.  There was only one option: get there before they opened again for dinner service, at 5:30pm.  Thus, we needed to leave the office around 5pm, and, since it was our final day, we'd need to start leaving basically at 4:30, since we had a slew of people to say goodbye to.

Luckily for me, my buddies took this all in stride, and immediately started packing their things up.  5pm on the dot, our merry band of 3 set off for Mamak.  We rounded the corner at 5:20ish, and, well, yup, there was a queue going down the sidewalk already.  I hoped we'd make it in the first seating, otherwise we'd need to wait for the entire restaurant to turn, which would easily take an hour.

We did make it in that seating, and quite enjoyed the meal.  The food was good, the prices really reasonable, and I'd certainly return.  I'm already planning what I'll order next time.  And, since I've returned to San Francisco, I've starting trying to find somewhere with amazing dessert roti, because I just can't get this out of my head!

The Space

Table.
As I said, we made it into the first seating, so it was empty when we entered.  The restaurant interior is no frills, wooden tables, already laid out with plates, napkins, and cutlery in the center.  Menus are plastic.

Orders were rapidly taken on an tablet, a very common practice in casual Asian restaurants in Sydney.  Once this restaurant starts moving, it doesn't stop.  When you are done eat, you head to the register at the front and give them your table number, the waitstaff don't bring checks to your table.  That would slow them down.

The vibe is loud.  As the restaurant filled, which it did immediately, the noise level just kept increasing.  By 5:32pm, it was full and energetic.
Roti Kitchen.
The main savory kitchen is in back somewhere, but right in front is the roti kitchen, making both the sweet and savory roti.  This seems to be another common practice in the area, as both Home and Chat Thai have their dessert kitchens right in front in the window as well.  It helps give the folks lined up along the window in front something to watch!

We didn't have a chance to watch the roti kitchen in action since we were seated as soon as they opened, but I stopped on the way out to admire their work.  It really is an impressive setup.

The piles of eggs reminded me of Cafe Jacqueline in San Francisco, where they serve basically only souffle (savory and sweet), and the kitchen is filled with eggs.
Roti Dough.
Roti dough was already pre-portions and ready to go.  And go they did.  The chefs moved so fast, cranking through orders.  And every table ordered roti of some sort.
Roti Action.
On one cooktop, a sweet roti stuffed with kaya was being prepared.  On another was a classic savory roti.  And on the third, which you can almost see behind the podium here, the crazy thin cone shaped dessert roti cone was being formed.  Each station ha a dedicated function and was busy the whole time.
Laminated menus.
The menu is broken into roti, satay, mains, rice & noodles, and of course, desserts.

We certainly didn't order the same way as most folks around us, choosing the skip basically all the mains and rice and noodles.  But this was strategic on my part.

Even though Mamak wasn't at the top of my list, I had done my research, and I knew which things were supposed to be the best.  If I were with a larger group, I would have thrown in a noodle dish, since those did actually look pretty good.  Or a curry to have more sauces to dunk roti into.  But we were only 3 people, Ojan can't handle food that is too spicy, and we most certainly wanted to save room for desserts (yes, plural), so we had to pick and choose the minimal set of best items.

I was amused by the quantities of food ordered by tables around us, until I realized that they too were strategic.  My sample size is only 3 tables, but each and every one of them ordered roti (devoured on the spot), satay or fried chicken (also quickly disappeared), a rice or noodle dish (shared, ate about half of and packaged up the rest), and then several curries (ordered as takeaway, delivered to their tables boxed up in an a bag from the start).  They knew which items needed to be consumed fresh, ate those, and brought the rest home, presumably for the next day.  That was another way to get it all!

In full disclosure, I had actually visited Mamak once before, on my very first trip to Sydney, when some locals took us.  They selected the dishes, and I don't remember much, except that both Ojan and I thought it was way overhyped and were annoyed that we waited in line so long for food that wasn't great.  I'm pretty sure we got basic roti, curries, and no desserts though.  I knew better this time.

Drinks

Limau ais. $4
"Fresh lime with syrup on ice."

We started with drinks.  Tap water was the only water option, delivered with plastic cups with a carafe of water to refill as you needed.  Again, the waitstaff weren't going to bother with you after the initial order.

Mamak does not have a liquor licensee, but I saw many folks brought their own wine.  We didn't care though, as our previous week was so full of drinking, it was nice to have a night off, particularly when we'd be up early to fly out in the morning.

The drink menu is actually fairly large, with both hot and cold beverages, but unfortunately most are tea or coffee based, and since I didn't want caffeine, my only real options were basic soft drinks (Coke products) or this, the "limau ais".

The other two diners also opted for one of these.  When the trio of cute mugs arrived, Ojan immediately said, "this must be the water?"  We all somehow assumed that our drinks were going to be slushies with crushed ice.  I have no idea why we all thought that, as the menu clearly just said "on ice".

Anyway, it was basically just sweet limeade.  Very sweet limeade.  I diluted mine down with regular water as I drank it, so by the end, I just had slightly limey sweet water.

It was fine, and actually, having a sweet refreshing drink alongside the spicy food was a good call.  It wasn't particularly notable though, and in the future, I'd probably just bring my own sparkling water with me.

Savories

Savory Roti: Roti Canai. $5.50.
"The original roti. Crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside."

We obviously had to start with roti, since that is the feature of the restaurant, and, what I was craving.

Now, this might not look like what you expect roti to look like, right?  Isn't roti supposed to be flat?  It turns out, no, not all roti is flat.  I knew from reading Mamak's reviews that this would be a unique option, so we opted to try it, new to all of us.

The roti canai arrived only several moments after we ordered.  It was crazy hot and fresh, and Ojan sorta burned his fingers trying to rip off a piece.

It was basically a big puff ball.  I have no better way to describe it.  Yet the outside was crispy, almost with scales on it?  The inside however was fluffy.

I thought it was fun to have the contrast of the crispy outside and the soft moist inside, and ripping chunks off (once cooled) was very satisfying (we should have more foods to eat with our hands!), but, I thought the roti itself was pretty boring.

Of course, it should be all about the sauces.  All roti are served with two curry dips and spicy sambal sauce.

The first curry had whole lentils in it, and was fairly mild.  It tasted like ... lentils.  And I don't like lentils.  Uh-oh.

The next curry was smooth, so I was hopeful, but, alas, it was also clearly made from lentils.  It was a bit spicier, but, all I could taste was lentils.

The sambal was provided in a small portion, just a dollop on the platter, but it was more than enough.  This was potent stuff, very fishy, made from shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, shallots, lime juice, and vinegar.

I was glad to try this dish, but I wouldn't get it again.  $5.50 price was very reasonable.
Savory Roti: Roti Bawang. $6.50.
"With lashings of sweet red onions."

I also wanted a classic flat roti.  For regular roti, the other choices are butter, egg, or stuffed with meat and cabbage.  Simple butter didn't seem that interesting, I'm not really into egg, and meat seemed too heavy, thus, red onion it was.

This roti arrived several minutes after our first one.  It too was crazy hot.  I really appreciate that they serve the food the moment it is ready here.  This one came sliced into triangles, so, no finger burning occurred as we claimed our first bites.

I expected the roti to be a bit crispier on the outside, this was mostly just soft.  It wasn't too oily.  It was absolutely loaded up with thin slices of red onion.  The onion was incredibly flavorful, which I appreciated, but, I again didn't care for the curries, since they were the same as before, lentil based.

I liked this more than the roti canai, but, I actually think I might just skip roti next time around.  Or I'd get it, but also make sure to have a curry alongside so I had something else to dunk it in.

$6.50 price is totally affordable.
Appetizer: Beef Satay. $9/ half dozen.
"Grilled over flaming charcoal for that authentic Malaysian flavour. Served with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce."

The next part of the menu is satay, available as chicken or beef, by the half dozen.  It is the only appetizer, although I think they consider the savory roti appetizers too.  Since I don't like chicken, beef it was.

The satay took a fairly long time to arrive after the roti.  Once I realized how much I disliked the sauces, I tried to save some roti to dunk in the peanut sauce that I knew was coming with the satay.  But I had a dilemma, as the roti got cold long before the satay arrived.  I saved it anyway, and used it with the sauce, but, this wasn't ideal.

Anyway, the satay.  Thin skewers of beef, cooked very well done.  It was ... just beef.  It was fine, but I didn't really taste the charcoal grill at all, and, obviously, this is not how I like my beef.  Ojan said he thought his family would really like it.

On the side were a few slices of cucumber and red onion.  We enjoyed stabbing them with our skewers and dunking them in sauce.

And now for that sauce.  When the dish arrived, I thought the size of the bowl of peanut sauce was a bit extreme.  A huge bowl of sauce for only 6 little satay skewers?  Really?

I was grateful for that sauce.  It was crazy delicious.  Not like any other peanut sauce I've had before, but I realized that I've never had Malaysian peanut sauce before, only Thai style.  It had chunks of peanut, but seemed onion and tomato based?  It was sweet and spicy at the same time.  I used it with my cold roti.  I used it with chunks of cucumber.  And then, no shame, I just ate it by the spoonful.  Over and over again.  I really loved the sauce.  I'd purchase it by the bottle if they sold it.

I'd get satay again in the future only in order to have the sauce, but, I don't actually want the satay at all.  The $9 price seemed fine for satay and a generous bowl of deliciousness.

Next time I would like to actually get the single salad on the menu.  It looked really interesting, topped with prawn and coconut fritters, and absolutely smothered in this peanut sauce.  Since I ate that sauce by the spoonful, clearly, I was looking for more things to put it on, and some refreshing vegetables might be just the answer.  Next time.
Main: Ayam Goreng. $14.
"Malaysian-style fried chicken. Marinated with herbs and spices and full of flavour."

The majority of the menu at Mamak is main dishes, predominantly curries (chicken, fish, lamb, veggie), stir fries (prawns, cuttlefish, chicken, spinach, long beans), noodles, or rice (fried rice, or a simple dish that is actually just a pile of coconut rice served with some accompaniments, apparently Malaysia's national dish, but it looked incredibly boring to me).

Besides the curries, stir fries, rice, and noodles, there is the aforementioned single salad and this, the famous fried chicken.

We skipped all the mains, except the chicken.  Yes, the chicken.  Yes, I hate chicken.  But just go with me here.  We saw orders go by of many of these others dishes, particularly the rice and noodles, but I feel no remorse for skipping them.  I had read so many reviews of how great this chicken was, plus, honestly, I was excited for the roti and dessert, I figured I'd try a bite of the chicken, and just load up on the items I was more interested in.

Ojan totally called me on this, realizing that I was basically ordering it for the others, not myself.  He explained to the other diner that I was looking out for their needs, even though they hadn't voiced any preferences.  When the chicken came, Ojan took his first piece, took a bite, and offered me a bite.  He expected that I'd take one bite, say, "eww, chicken", and hand it right back.

I didn't.  I took one bite.  I think my eyes might have gone wide.  I took another bite.  I probably looked dumbfounded.

The fried chicken was nothing short of amazing.  I honestly didn't know you could make chicken taste this good.

The batter was flavorful and spiced.  The exterior was super crispy.  Seriously, all other crispy chicken just tries to be this, and never succeeds.  And inside?  The moistest, juiciest chicken I've ever encountered.  Every bite had juices pouring out.

How did they make it so crispy?  How did they lock the juices in?  I have no idea.  I can safely say that I have never enjoyed chicken this much.  It was actually good.  Yes, I would have preferred that they had battered just about anything else in that flavorful batter and made it magically crispy.  I didn't actually want it to be chicken.  But for chicken ... wow.  I ate more of the actual chicken than I ever expected, but also totally massacred a piece eating just the crispy outside.  Yes, chicken skin, batter, and oil.  Remember when I said that I didn't want heavy, fried food?  Whoops.

Our order of 4 pieces had two drumsticks and two breast/thigh chunks each.  I think we probably could have specified a preference if we had one.

Available by the piece for $4 or a standard serving size of 4 pieces for $14, which is what we opted for.  I'd get this again.  Yes, the chicken.

Dessert

Dessert: Cendol $6.
"Starch noodles made from fresh pandan leaves, with gula-melaka syrup, coconut milk and shaved ice."

Moving on to dessert.  There were two non-roti options, both based on shaved ice.  One involved red bean, corn, grass jelly, and rose-syrup, which did sound interesting, but, we had to go for the one with pandan, since we were fascinated by pandan on this trip and ordered it every opportunity that we got.  You just don't see pandan often in the US.

This dessert arrived very quickly after we ordered it, and new silverware was brought out (3 spoons, 3 forks, and 1 knife), but no share plates.  The dish itself was served with one soup spoon inside, which none of us ended up using, opting for our personal regular spoons instead.

The base of the dessert was bright green pandan noodles, which you can't actually see here.  They were soft and had a decent texture, not too mushy, not too hard.  The flavor was subtle, but, I think that is how it generally is with pandan.

The noodles were swimming in a broth made from coconut milk.  It was a thin broth, not thick like the coconut cream often served with Thai desserts.  It was sweet and fairly coconuty.

On top was the shaved ice, very thinly shaved.  It was a cold day, so I didn't actually want a cold dessert, but, I think this would be very refreshing on a hot day, and actually went really nicely after a spicy meal.  While we opted away from most of the spicy dishes, if we'd had the curries, we'd certainly want this.

Drizzled all over everything was the gula-melaka syrup.  None of us knew what that was so I had to look it up.  Gula-melaka is just palm sugar.  It was obviously sweet, a richer flavor than standard sugar, and almost tasted like coffee.

Overall, this was interesting.  A dessert made with noodles in broth with ice is certainly outside the realm of normal American desserts, so I appreciated trying it.  And I did like the coconut and pandan flavors.  But, certainly not something I'd order again.  Maybe I'd try the other iced dessert?

$6 for a full size dessert seemed like a great price.
Dessert: Roti Bom. $9.
"A truly indulgent roti served thicker, richer and sweeter (Allow 20 mins)."

As I said, there were two shaved ice based desserts.  But there is also an entire dessert roti section.

Dessert roti are available in several forms, starting with a simple version with sliced banana, a crazy thin tall cone version, or one stuffed with kaya (pandan and coconut spread), all served with ice cream.  I did actually really want the kaya one, since I have enjoyed kaya in the past (like the dessert at Ms. G's where I first discovered it), but in choosing only one roti, I couldn't get past the roti bom.

First, it was described as "truly indulgent" and "richer and sweeter".  Um, hello!  Plus I'd seen photos, and had a good idea what to expect.

I'm a bit surprised they serve this, given that it takes 20 minutes to prepare, compared to just several minutes for the others, and their desire to turn the restaurant around so quickly.  It came long after our other dessert.  It meant we sat there occupying a precious table for far longer than necessary.  But, I'm sure glad they offer it.

Like all the food, it came to use ridiculously fresh, piping hot.  We suddenly understood why we were provided with one knife, it was to cut this up, although that was no easy feat.

The exterior was crispy and somewhat caramelized from all the sugar.  The very middle was doughy and warm, which I adored.  The entire thing was indeed rich and indulgent.  It was also very sweet.

To cut the sweet was the scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side.  Not much to say about that, it was just vanilla ice cream.  I love cold ice cream with my warm desserts, and this certainly needed a creamy component on the side, but I would have preferred whipped cream.  Ice cream was just a bit much.

This was really quite good, and I'm glad we ordered it.  My favorite part was the doughy center.  I'd get this again, but I'm also still curious to try the standard less sweet, less thick, kaya stuffed roti.  The $9 price was again totally reasonable for a full size dessert, particularly given that it came with ice cream too.

Since leaving Sydney, this is the dish I haven't been able to forget.  I want more.  Now.
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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Dinner at Pinbone, Sydney, May 2015

You may recall that on my previous Sydney trip in February 2015, I came back absolutely raving about one place: Pinbone.  I went for dinner on my second to last night in town (and would have gone back the next night if they were open!) and returned for brunch the next day.  The dinner was amazing, the dessert stunning, and the brunch perhaps the best brunch I've ever had.  And I adored the ambiance.

It goes without saying that when I returned to Sydney in May, there was one and only one place that I knew I HAD to return to, and Pinbone was it.  I made a reservation for myself, Ojan, and two of our friends who are locals.  Since I've reviewed the atmosphere, menu concepts, and general elements of the restaurant before, I'll skip that this time around, and dive right in with the review of our meal.

Summary though?  The best chicken liver I've ever had.  The best sunchokes I've ever had.  Fascinating pickled peanuts.  A dish Ojan dubbed "toasted marshmallow salmon".  Overall, a entire meal of winning dishes, all fantastic preparations of familiar ingredients, combined in unexpected ways.  Still my favorite restaurant in Sydney.

To go along with my meal, I also wanted to sip on something alcoholic to truly relax.  The drink menu had two sakes, three beers, wine, and a couple classic cocktails.  Since no one else was drinking, I opted for a glass of wine, and, even though I knew I would mostly ordering seafood, I opted for red.  I was in a red sort of mood. I asked for a recommendation on the lightest option, since I was pairing with seafood. The suggestion was a Jean-Paul Daumen grenach, syrah, merlot, and cab sav blend, which I went for. It was a light, easy drinking wine.  I appreciated that they recommended the least expensive wine on the list, clearly not trying to upsell, and offering up the best one to go with my meal.  The others all enjoyed the house sparkling water, again left on the table in a carafe for us to serve as we pleased.

Individual Snacks

The menu again started with "Individual Snacks", small bites all priced individually.  There were more options this time, but the classics of the "fairy bread", "smoky, cheesy, potato thing" and lamb ribs remained, as did the gougère, although this time filled with corn and bacon, rather than corn and miso as we had before.  All the snack bites were again priced $4-5 each.

Since the snacks are priced individually, each person can order whichever selections they want.  And somehow, everyone in our group wanted slightly different things.  I only tried a few snacks, since I had my eyes on basically ALL the sharing plates that were coming up next.
Assorted snacks, $4-5 each.
We wound up with a hodgepodge of items, but somehow, the kitchen managed to deliver them all at once, very soon after ordering.  As before, I was impressed with the speed at which they pump out the snacks.  The meal throughout had a good pace.

We skipped only three of the "snack" options: the "oyster, beef carpaccio, dill pickle", the "mussel, pickled daikon, chilli", and the chicken popper.

From top left, clockwise:
  • Fairy Bread: This is one of Pinbone's signature dishes, a play on the Australian childhood favorite of white bread topped with butter and hundreds and thousands (yes, this is a thing, look it up).  I wanted to try it last time, so I'm glad I was able to this time.  The base was toasted bread (brioche, way more exciting than simple white bread!), and it was spread with creamy mascarpone (I love butter, but mascarpone is even better!), and then, assorted roe and chives.  It was really a fun bite, and I loved how the roe popped in my mouth as I ate it.  The inspiration from fairy bread was obvious, but it actually reminded me a bit more of something American: a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon.  It had the same bread base, creamy spread, and slightly smoky fishy flavor.  In any case, fun, playful, and tasty. 
  • Corn and Bacon Gougère: Since I had a gougère last time and didn't really care for it, I skipped it this time around, but the preparation was a bite different.  It had bits of bacon on top and oozed a redish filling, which I assume was a creamy corn with bacon.  Last time it was corn and miso.  I love miso, but, bacon always makes better!
  • Smoky, Cheesy, Potato Thing: I also skipped these, since I had them previously.
  • Crispy Chicken Skin, Bread Sauce, Anchovy:  Now this was kinda the definition of a perfect snack.  An indulgent snack.  It was crispy and super salty, just like you want any snack to be.  It had a slightly fishy aftertaste, clearly from the anchovy, but it wasn't bad fishy, just, fishy.  I really liked this, and think it would make an awesome canapé or appetizer for a party.
  • Pork Crackling, Ricotta, Smoked Rockmelon: Ojan went for this, but, due to the rockmelon, I had to abstain, although I did want to try the crispy pork crackling.  Crispy, salty, creamy, sounded like another great bite.
  • Lamb Rib: Another one I skipped, since I don't care for lamb.
All the "snacks" were met with success with the group, and we were off to a tasty, fun start.

Cold Sharing Plates 

Narrowing down our order of sharing plates was incredibly difficult.  I wanted so many of them.

As before, the menu was broken into sections, starting with five light seafood options, moving into six slightly heavier poultry and offal dishes, followed by four more substantial dishes, and finally the largest selection, six vegetarian dishes.

Since I love seafood, we opted for three from the first section, one from the second, and one vegetable dish, skipping the third section entirely.  The kitchen coursed this for us into two groupings, in a way that made the most sense, starting with the cold dishes, moving into the hot.
Chicken liver parfait, persimmon, toast. $18.
Our first course began with our one choice from the second section: chicken liver parfait.  I can't resist a good liver dish (although of course, I prefer it to be foie)!

The other dishes in this section were a rabbit tartare (skipped due to my history with rabbits as pets, I just can't bring myself to eat them), duck hearts (I'm not opposed to trying this, but, limited stomach space!), lamb sweetbreads (this would have been my next choice if we were getting one more dish), and quail (meh, poultry, meh, little birds.  Although honestly, I was interested to see what they could do with quail, since I never care for it, and the chefs here are magic).

When the chicken liver showed up, I was slightly surprised.  Pinbone has a way of taking a list of ingredients and presenting it entirely different than you imagine, and this was no exception, but in this case, it was due to the word "parfait" in the dish name.  I expected a layered dish, probably layers of chicken liver and a persimmon compote, with toast on the side to spread it on.  I was right about the toast, although it was more of a crostini even, super crispy.

The chicken liver was probably the best I've ever had.  It was incredibly smooth and creamy.  Expertly seasoned.  Really flavorful.  You could taste the liver, which I wanted of course, but it wasn't too livery.  I think even those scared of liver would like this.

The persimmon was soft, perfectly ripe, super sweet, excellent paired with the richness of the chicken liver.  Liver and fruit, always a great pairing.

The surprise element of the dish was ... radicchio.  Not listed on the menu, and not what I'd expect to be served with chicken liver.  It really was just pieces of fresh, bitter radicchio.  But it worked.  Once I realized I wanted more liver, but didn't want to fill up on bread, I realized I could create lettuce wraps with the radicchio, stuffing it with a generous spoonful of liver and a chunk of persimmon, and it was awesome.

The perfect bite really was crispy toast, spread with a very generous smear of liver, and topped with a chunk of sweet ripe persimmon.  It had everything going on texture-wise and flavor-wise, crunchy and creamy, rich and sweet.

I really, really enjoyed this dish, as did the others.  I wanted to save room to try everything else, but I couldn't stop going back for more and more of it

My favorite dish of the night, and Ojan's as well, which was surprising, since he doesn't normally like liver, but said it grew on him.  The two of us easily polished this dish off.
Bonus! Peanut custard, pickled peanuts, edamame. $20.
Ok, I lied.  The astute reader will notice that I said there were 6 dishes listed in the second section, I just showed you one, and mentioned 4 that we didn't get.  Where was the 6th?

The 6th dish was a fascinating sounding peanut custard.  We actually discussed ordering it, since it sounded unique, and I do love both custards and peanuts, but, we had to cull our choices, so decided to skip it.

But ... the kitchen brought it out for us, complimentary.  Aww, thanks!  I was secretly thrilled, since I did want to try it from the start.

The base was a chilled creamy custard, which reminded me of soft tofu.  I didn't detect a lot of peanut flavor in it, but I'm not really sure what that would be like, as much as I love peanuts, it isn't like I'd want to eat a big block of peanut butter (ok, wait, nevermind, yes I would).

But that isn't to say that peanuts didn't show up here in a dramatic way.  It was covered in the pickled peanuts, which were just totally crazypants.  I had no idea you could pickle peanuts.  There was so much tartness in these.  I couldn't stop eating them, out of complete fascination.  Pickled peanuts!  Who knew?

The other toppings were edamame and fresh snow pea tendrils.  I loved the burst of freshness against the strong flavors of the pickled peanuts.

It was served in a light vinegar based broth, providing additional tartness.

This was my second to least favorite dish of the meal, but the pickled peanuts were just crazy fascinating, and I'm glad we got to try this dish.  It was in no one's top three.

I again loved the rustic charm of the assorted dishware that everything came on, specially crafted for Pinbone by local artisans.  This one was particularly stunning.
Pickled octopus, white beans, orange. $20.
The final dish that came in our first grouping was pickled octopus, from the first section of the menu.  We skipped the other cold selection from that section of bonito sashimi, which I'm sure was good, but, sounded the least interesting of all our choices.

The octopus was cooked, chilled, and sliced mostly into disks, although we had a few tentacles in the mix as well.  Everyone was skeptical about ordering this dish, since octopus can be so chewy and rubbery, but when done well, I really love it.  Sadly, this went the way everyone feared.  The slices of octopus were quite chewy.

Also in the mix were large white beans, nicely cooked, not mushy, not firm.  It was all sprinkled with a nori dust.

The broth was a citrus based broth, full of flavor, and pretty tasty.  Ojan loved this sauce, and once the octopus was gone, he took a spoon and tried to lap all of it up.  He stopped just short of picking up the dish and licking, but, if it had remained on the table much longer, he probably would have.

My least favorite dish of the evening, but Ojan at least loved the sauce.  Still, not in anyone's top three.

Hot Sharing Plates

Three cold dishes down, it was time to move into the hot dishes.   Our individual plates were exchanged out between the two rounds, which was appreciated, and a brief pause gave us time to contemplate and discuss the previous round.  Ojan couldn't stop talking about the chicken liver, and I don't blame him, it was still on my mind too.
Grilled salmon belly, charred shallot, mirin. $22.
We started with the dish I was most looking forward to, grilled salmon belly.

I wanted to order this on our previous visit, but it didn't make the cut then.  I was so jealous when I saw it walk by time and time again, so this time, we were getting it, no question.  Plus, I knew the Pinbone cooks did great things with the grill, since I loved the grilled kingfish wing so much last time.

The salmon belly was lightly cooked, with beautiful grill marks, served skin on.  It was fatty in a luxurious way.  I thought the char imparted on the fish was great, but Ojan took his first bite, and didn't like it.  "It tastes like burnt marshmallow", he declared.

I thought he was crazy.  It had the perfect char, what was he talking about?  But of course, I was doing my classic technique of trying each component individually first, before combining into a "perfect bite".  It was the puree on the plate that had the strong char flavor, not the fish itself, he just didn't realize this since he was eating it all together.  The puree was made from charred shallots.  It was crazy smoky.  Yes, a bit like a burnt marshmallow, like when you are toasting marshmallows and get impatient, and decide to just let it catch fire and seriously char.  But it wasn't a bad thing, and I loved the flavor of the char, and thought it cut the fattiness of the salmon nicely.  I was also just crazy impressed that they managed to get such an incredibly strong char flavor into that puree.

Once he went into it with his expectations adjusted, Ojan decided he liked it too.  "Toasted marshmallow salmon" he dubbed it, not intending it to be a negative comment, just reflective of what he tasted.  He deemed it the most interesting dish of the night

I also really liked the grilled spring onion that was served with it, and claimed the whole thing for myself.

Overall this was tasty and interesting, my third pick of the night, and second pick of another diner.
Leatherjacket & snowpeas. $22.
Our second hot dish was the leatherjacket.

The final hot dish from the first grouping on the menu was steamed pipis in garlic butter, which we also skipped, since we had pipis a few days prior at Gantry, and they just weren't a favorite.

I had seen photos of this dish, and knew it would be a nice, light offering, which I wanted, since I knew we had several rich dishes in our order, and were gearing up for an epic dessert feast.

The leatherjacket was indeed light, delicate, and somewhat refreshing after the heavier food.  I'm pretty sure this was my first time having leatherjacket.  It was nicely prepared, but not all that remarkable.

It was served over snowpeas, which were thinly sliced and chopped.  I think that was also a first for me, I don't think I've ever had them chopped up so small before.  They were cooked really nicely, not too cooked down, still a bit crispy.  I liked them quite a bit, again, a fascinating preparation of a familiar ingredient.

There were also some tart onions in the mix, which I thought overwhelmed the other more subtle flavors of the dish.

This was my forth, middle-of-the-road pick for me, but a strong favorite of another diner.  He said it was hands down his favorite.  I was amused in this meal how we all picked totally different dishes as our favorites.  I'm used to some slight differences of opinions, but in this meal, reviews were all over the place, although everyone was happy.

As I mentioned, we skipped the third section of the menu, the more substantial dishes of kingfish wings (delicious, but we had this last time, although I was tempted to get it again, as I loved it!), chicken breast (meh, chicken), rump cap (meh, rump), and pork (meh, pork).
Jerusalem artichoke, parnsip, barley. $14.
Our final hot dish was a vegetable selection.  This selection of the menu had the most options, six different choices, all of which were listed just simply as a list of vegetable ingredients, like "fennel, enoki, nori" or "mushrooms, yolk, sake".  We had to ask for clarification on what these dishes might be.

In the end, we took our server's recommendation for her favorite.  Ojan raised some red flags right away, saying "Julie, you don't like artichokes!"  I reminded him that "Jerusalem artichokes" are what we know as "sunchokes", and he immediately took back his statement, knowing how much I love sunchokes.

I came into this expecting to love it, because sunchokes, but wow, even with high expectations, and love of sunchokes, it blew me away.  I've had a lot of sunchoke dishes that I've loved in the past few years, but this was honestly the best sunchoke I've ever had.

Let me break the dish down.

The base was a creamy parsnip puree, smooth, well blended.  It was sprinkled with barley, which I think might have been toasted, as it was a bit crisp, and added a great crunch.  On the side was a grilled lemon, to squeeze and drizzle over.

Those elements were all good, fine, but it was the sunchokes that stole the show.  I have no idea how these were cooked, but they were insanely creamy inside, entirely unexpected  Deeply caramelized on the outside.  So incredibly good.

A perfect bite could easily be composed with creamy and crunchy elements, something I always like.  The second favorite for myself and one other diner, and number one pick for the other.

Dessert

After our feast, we were pretty satisfied, but you know me, I always need dessert.  The Pinbone dessert menu is small, only 4 choices.  You'd think this would make things easy, but we struggled between ordering three or all four.  There were only four of us, and we were pretty full.  I knew from past experience that Pinbone desserts are HUGE, but, three of the four did sounded amazing.  In the end, we ruled out the daily tart and the lemon curd dish since neither Ojan nor I tend to like lemon desserts, although it sounded really fascinating (more on that soon).
Ready for dessert!
Desserts at Pinbone, like the rest of the meal, are designed to be shared, so dessert bowls were soon brought out.  I was stuffed, but waiting in eager anticipation.
Decaf Long Black. $4.
I also ordered a decaf long black to go along with my dessert, as I always do.

I had it the last time I went to dinner at Pinbone, and at brunch the week before (stay tuned for that review), so I was going to leave it out of this review, except there is a funny story.

I ordered my decaf long black, and was told by the server that they didn't have decaf.  I hesitated, because, well, I knew they had it the weekend before.  "Are you sure?", I asked, telling him I had it just a few days prior.  He went to check and came back able to confirm that yes, they did have decaf.  Lols.

I'm glad I checked, since, as always, I loved having my bitter black coffee alongside my sweet desserts and it was the perfect pairing.

Neopolitan. $14.
We started with the "Neopolitan", which we knew that in true Pinbone style wouldn't just be some vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream.

And indeed, it wasn't.

The top layer was actually a vanilla ice, the least interesting.

Next came strawberry tapioca, with an incredibly intense strawberry flavor.  Like the charred scallion puree, I again wondered how they managed to get so much flavor into it.

And finally, chocolate mousse, coated in chocolate crumbles.  Creamy, rich, chocolatey.  Hands down my favorite of the layers.

This was my favorite of the desserts, mostly due to the chocolate mousse layer, but I also liked the strawberry and chocolate combination.  Ojan's favorite as well.
Toasted sorghum ice-cream, buttermilk granita, brittle. $14.
This is the one I was intrigued by, and, since I loved the ridiculous ice cream sundae last time, so I assumed it would be equally elaborate.

The ice cream was creamy, but I didn't detect a very specific flavor to it.  I'm only familiar with sorghum in its usage to make molasses, or toasted and popped for cereal, so it isn't a flavor I know much about, but, this just tasted like sweet, creamy ice cream to me.  Fine, but nondescript.

There was also a fluffy mousse (meringue?), I believe buttermilk flavored, that I didn't care for.  The texture was off for me.

But on top was brittle.  Crispy, sweet brittle, studded with bits of popcorn.  OMG.

I probably don't talk about it often, but I love brittle, and have it several days a week with my morning coffee.  And popcorn is one of my favorite snack foods, savory or sweet.  Caramel corn is always high on my list of munchies.  So, popcorn brittle is right up my alley.  I loved it, and stole most of it to crunch on with my coffee.  Simple, but delicious.

Overall, I didn't care for this dessert much, besides the brittle of course, making it my third pick.  But that brittle was a winner.
Lemon curd, burnt milk, custard, black olive. $14.
Wait, didn't I say I only ordered two!  Yes, yes I did.  We settled on two, but, the lovely staff threw in a bonus dessert for us as well.  I love Pinbone for the food and the atmosphere already, but the staff?  They are what set it even further apart!

As I mentioned, we ruled this out because Ojan and I don't tend to care for lemon desserts.  But it sounded so interesting, with burnt milk and black olives?!

It was also unexpectedly a warm dish, which made it super comforting.

While I didn't like the lemon curd, the creamy custard was lovely, as was whatever the crispy topping was (presumably the black olive was hiding in here, along with the burnt milk?)

I really enjoyed the experience of eating this one, crispy, warm, comforting.  A great end to the meal, my second favorite of the desserts.

While I ranked my preferences of the desserts neopolitan, then lemon, then sorghum, that was the ordering for the dishes in their entirety.  Each one had one component that really stood out, that I really enjoyed.  Ranking just those individually, my list is: peanut brittle, chocolate mousse, crumble topping.  One dinner refused to pick a favorite, saying she enjoyed all three desserts quite a bit.
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Monday, August 10, 2015

Westin Martin Place, Sydney, Executive Lounge

Update Review, May 2015 Visit

In May, I returned to my favorite city, Syndey, and again stayed at the Westin Martin Place.  Much was the same as on my previous visit, except that the evening canapé selection, which I really thought were quite bad during my first stay, was much improved.  Please go read the original review for details about the lounge in general, my breakfast reviews, and the previous canapé experiences.
Mint Tea.
I normally drink coffee when in the lounge in the morning, and wine or a cocktail at night, but one evening I was feeling really sleepy, and just wanted mint tea.

I felt a bit lame ordering mint tea when surrounded by folks drinking alcohol, but, it is what I wanted.  I was thrilled when an entire pot of loose leaf tea was brought over, with a clear glass cup.  The tea service here is quite nice, and I imagine would be lovely in the afternoon as well.
Evening Canapés.
As I've said before, the canapé platter is different every night, but always follows the same format: soup, vegetarian bite, meat bite, seafood bite, chocolate.  An entirely vegetarian option is also available.

(From right, since that was the order in which they should be consumed):
  • Creamy potato soup: This was actually good.  It was thick, creamy, warm, potato soup.  Basically like slightly liquidy, really creamy, mashed potatoes.  Decently seasoned.  Far better than any of the soups I had before.
  • Cream cheese filled wonton moneybag with sweet chili sauce: This was also actually good.  The wonton was crispy.  It was hot.  Inside was cream cheese that was, well, creamy.  I liked the contrast of the crispy exterior and creamy inside.  Served over sweet chili sauce.  I always like wontons in sweet chili sauce, and it turns out that sweet chili and cream cheese combine nicely.  I quite enjoyed this bite.
  • Pork neck on bread: This was not good.  The square cube was described as pork neck I think.  It was tough and tasted like catfood.  The little round of bread it was served on was dried out and stale.
  • Kingfish over avocado puree with salsa on top:  This looked like sushi from a distance, particularly since I was told it was kingfish, but I think it was a pressed fish sausage perhaps that had been sliced into a disk?  It certainly wasn't raw fish.  It was really fishy and I didn't care for the taste at all.  Served over avocado puree, which I had to avoid since I'm allergic to avocado.  The salsa on top was fine.
  • Chocolate: Definitely the best chocolate we ever had in the lounge.  Dark chocolate shell, good quality chocolate.  Inside was a softer chocolate, also quite good.
Overall, I liked three of the five items quite a bit, and would have eaten more of them.  It was shocking how much better this was than previous visits.  Good on ya Westin!

I also ventured back to the buffet.  It was mostly the same, with some slight changes.

This time, the nuts were macadamias instead of hazelnuts, and the dried fruit was apricots rather than pears.  The crackers, cheese, meats, olives, antipasti, and dips all seemed the same.  I liked the smoky gouda cheese the most.  The brie didn't seem ripe enough.  I really liked the dried beef.  I'm not sure what it is about it ... it is just dried beef, super thinly sliced, and I'm sure not that high of quality.  But I like the flavor and the chew to it.  I also enjoyed the cream cheese based spreads, but again thought it was strange that crackers were the only thing available to spread them on.

So, nothing amazing, not nearly the calibre of the Sheraton on the Park, but decent for a nibble of cheese/spreads/crackers.

Original Review, January 2015 Visit

During my recent trip to Sydney, I stayed at the Westin for the first part of my trip.  We ended up moving hotels for several reasons, to the Sheraton on the Park down the street (stay tuned for that lounge review next!), but for the first 8 days, the Westin was home.

The Westin is a lovely hotel, located in Martin Place, inside the historic General Post Office.  They offer two styles of rooms, historic rooms inside the GPO, and more modern rooms in the newer tower building.  We had a suite in the tower building, and as always at a Westin property, we greatly appreciated the Signature Westin Heavenly Bead and Shower.

But this isn't Julie's Hotel Review Club, is it?  You are here to read about food.  Perhaps not normally what you focus on when staying in a hotel, but, for me, it matters!

Our suite came with access to the Executive Lounge, which served breakfast and evening canapés daily, and which we obviously had to check out.

I failed to take any general photos, but the lounge was pretty small, although it was never crowded.  They also didn't have the standard security on the doors requiring a keycard, so anyone could just walk in.  I quickly understood why, it really wasn't that great of a destination, and not up to par with most other executive lounges I've visited.

Breakfast

Breakfast is served Monday - Friday 6:30am - 10:30am, and Saturday - Sunday 7:00am - 10:30am.  I appreciated that they served until 10:30am, since it meant that those of us having trouble adapting to the time zone could still get breakfast, or, it was possible to eat a little, get in a workout, and then go back for more.  Most hotel lounges only serve until 10am during the week, so this was most welcome.

Breakfast is mostly continental, with a few hot buffet items.  There is a coffee machine that makes espresso drinks, but every time I approached it, I was intercepted by staff who wanted to make the drinks and carry them back to tables.  They did this to everyone.  Given that the machine is just a robot machine, this was unnecessary, and honestly, a bit annoying.  I wanted to just be able to push the button and get my drink.  I appreciated that they did have real decaf coffee however, not just instant.  They did not have any togo cups though, so coffee was only for consumption while inside the lounge.  Sparkling water came in glass bottles, which were also only for consumption inside the lounge, even though they were small individual sized bottles.  If you tried to walk out with one, you were chased down, as no glass was allowed outside the lounge.

Overall, service was fine, but not particularly friendly, and in general, was more invasive and took away from my experience than added to it.
Hot Food Buffet.
The hot foods buffet always had scrambled eggs, plus two other items that rotated between hard boiled eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans, and green beans.  I mostly avoided this stuff, but Ojan said it wasn't horrible.  There was also toast, a toaster, and an assortment of jams (Hank's brand) and butter.

At one point I got desperate after trying everything else in the lounge and not really liking anything, and tried the scrambled eggs.  They were a fresh batch, and didn't look that bad ...

The eggs were really, really strange.  Watery and moist in a strange way.  I honestly wouldn't have known they were eggs.  I'm not sure how Ojan managed to eat these every day.  I certainly didn't try them again.
Cereal, Baked Goods.
Moving on to the safer, continental zone.  There were little boxes of Kellog's cereal (Coco Pops, Sultana Bran, Just Right, Weet-Bix, Nutri-Grain, Special K, and Cornflakes).  I never had any cereal, as I'm really not a cereal fan.

And then, the area I always look forward to in breakfast buffets: baked goods!  You know how much I love my baked goods, particularly for breakfast.

The baked goods didn't look good.  And they weren't good.  They didn't seem remotely fresh.  But I kept trying them, day by day, assuming I'd find at least one that was ok.  They were all awful.
Blueberry Muffin.
The first morning I wanted to just grab a muffin and coffee to bring back to my room, as I was really jetlagged and didn't want to be around people, so I went for a blueberry muffin, as it looked the best.  The danishes and croissants looked horrible.

The muffin was moist on top, but in a damp way, not in a good, moist, fresh muffin way.  It was dry inside.  The flakes of oats on top made it even more dry.  The base didn't have an interesting flavor.  The blueberries were fine I guess.  This was not a very good muffin, and certainly didn't seem remotely fresh.

A few days later I tried the almond raspberry muffin.  It had the same gummy top as the blueberry, with bits of raspberry inside.  The base flavor was even worse, my notes just say "nasty flavor'.  The only thing I liked was the almond slivers on top.

I never tried the third option, chocolate.

I guess I give them credit for almond slivers on top of the raspberry almond, and oats on top of the blueberry, a little touch of flair?  But wow, not good muffins.
Danish.
After giving up on the muffins, I tried several assorted danishes.  Some were this style with a crust on top, others were round open ones you can see in the earlier photo.

They all had really horrible pastry.  It was stale and dry.  It wasn't buttery.  It was even somewhat ... spongy?

I never figured out what kind this one was.  Nor did I figure out the type of the round one I tried, with a center filled with a reddish paste (jam?) and a single blueberry.  I thought it might be quince?  But I really have no idea.  Again, the pastry was horrible, just really not good.  The sweet filling was ok, and I actually extracted it to add to my muesli, but I wouldn't get another of these.

I never tried the plain croissants, since the basic pastry wasn't good.
Jelly Donut.
On my very last visit, they had a new baked good: jelly donuts!  Even though I had sworn off the pastries, I eagerly dug in.

Like all the baked goods, the donut was clearly not fresh.  The dough had a staleness to it, and the top was all crispy, perhaps due to the powdered sugar coating, but more likely due to not being fresh.  But it wasn't entirely unpleasant, and it wasn't too oily.

Inside was a nice jam.  I'm a sucker for jelly donuts.  What can I say?

Was this a good jelly donut?  No way.  But, it was certainly the best of the baked goods, and I did somewhat enjoy it with my coffee.  If I had stayed at the Westin longer, I probably would have tried another donut, if they ever showed up again.
Bircher muesli, greek yogurt, assorted yogurts.
Moving along to the more palatable options, the chilled items.

First, packaged yogurts: Chiobani Greek yogurt, Yoplait and Nestle flavored yogurts.  Like the Kellog's cereals, all were just regular yogurts you could buy in a grocery store.

The bircher muesli was the item I was most looking forward to. On my first visit to Australia, I absolutely fell in love with bircher muesli.   I loved it everywhere I went - hotel breakfast buffets, fancy restaurants, even on flights.  I got addicted.

This muesli came in individual little jars, topped with dried fruit.  But ... it wasn't great.  It was just cold soggy oatmeal, with some raisins and dried fruit sprinkled on top.  I added fresh fruit as well, but it still was never quite right.  I observed others around me also adding fruit, or jam, or anything after a few bites, so I clearly wasn't alone in finding it too plain.

I also tried the "natural unsweetened yogurt" jars.  These were much better, and the winning thing from the entire buffet.  The yogurt was rich and creamy, and they were topped with a little sweet compote and a few bits of granola.  I really wished there was more granola available to add, but none of the boxed cereals seemed quite right.  The yogurt jars were not great as presented, but I added a lot more fruit and actually somewhat enjoyed it.  It became my go-to breakfast, but I wouldn't rave about it.
Fresh Fruit, Meat.
And finally, the fruit I keep mentioning.  Besides the yogurt, the fruit was perhaps the best part of the buffet, although it also wasn't great.

I was initially quite excited to see halves of kiwi and passion fruit, since tropical fruits are more rare where I was coming from.  But the kiwi was mushy.  The passion fruit was a bit dried out and fairly mediocre, but for someone who doesn't have easy access to passion fruit normally, it was nice.

The fruit salad had a lot of great ingredients, including mango, strawberries, figs, and blueberries, but again, none of the fruit was particularly good.  The mango was probably the best, usually ripe, but not all that flavorful.

On another visit the fruit salad was jazzed up a bit with dragonfruit and starfruit.  I give them credit for including interesting fruits in the mix, but besides the mango, it was never that great.

The stewed apricots were just sweet and mushy, but I liked to add them to my yogurt.

Evening Canapés

Canapés are served every night from 6pm - 8pm.  While I appreciated the breakfast hours, I didn't feel the same for canapés.  I wanted them as a little snack in the evening, before heading out to dinner.  But not starting until 6pm made that a bit hard.  Were these really supposed to be pre-dinner snacks?

Anyway, on paper, the canapé service sounded better than most lounges.  There was a basic buffet of cheese/crackers/dried fruit, but then each night a set of 5 made to order bites was brought to you at your table once you settled in.  In practice, these plated canapés were some of the worst food I've ever tasted.  After trying it on two separate occasions I decided to never ever return in the evening.  No wonder the lounge was always empty!
Crackers, dried fruit, nuts.
The buffet started off a bit boring, with basic crackers, one type of nuts (hazelnuts), one type of dried fruit (pears), and a few soft drinks.  On the other side was a small selection of wine.
Cheese, meat, dips, antipasti.
Next was an antipasti platter, with marinated peppers, artichokes, eggplant, and olives, which I didn't try, as they aren't really my thing and didn't look very good.

Next were dips.  I was excited for the trio of dips, until I realized I had nothing to dip in them.  No crudite nor chips to be found, were we supposed to use the crackers?  I tried to awkwardly put dips on my cheese, and then eventually just ate some by the spoonful.  The taziki style one was my favorite, but none were very good.

The cheese platter had several cheeses, including a rather flavorless gouda, a blue cheese that was a bit too stinky for my liking, and a decent triple cream.  There were also nuts and dried fruit cubes.

Ojan went for the "dried beef", but didn't take more than a bite or two before declaring that we needed to just go elsewhere.
Canapés, night one.
The first night, I was thrilled to see this platter arrive.  Look at the plating! And delivered to our table!  No buffet canapés here!  But wow, this was really not good.  And clearly not made to order, they were just hiding around the corner somewhere, as nothing was hot.

From right:
  • Consume: I never like consume.  It was too rich for me, with an oil smear on top.
  • Fried barramuni ball with sweet chili sauce: Now we were talking! I love fish, I love sweet chili sauce.  But this was horrible.  Lukewarm, fishy, and super oily.  Spongy-oily.  Not good at all.
  • Tomato and mozzarella: I tried this before Ojan, and didn't get to warn him how bad it was.  His facial expression as he bit in revealed that he agreed with me completely, and that he wished I had stopped him from even trying.  How could a little tomato and mozzarella bite be that bad?  Well, the little piece of bread on the bottom was soaked in olive oil, the tomato was mealy, and I honestly couldn't identity the mozzarella as cheese, let alone mozzarella.
  • Grilled beef over mixed vegetables: Ojan tried this before me, and told me to not even bother.  Normally I *still* try everything, but given how awful everything else was, I took his advice for once, and just skipped it. 
  • Chocolate petit four: I'm still not sure what was inside here.  Ojan first thought it was nougat, and then he declared it was marzipan.  I'm not convinced it was either.  But there was something creamy, and something cake-like.  I never eat chocolate in the evening, but since everything else was such a disappointment, I finished this bite, even though it wasn't anything special.
Canapés, night two.
I never intended to try the canapés again.  But another night I visited the lounge, just for a drink.  I forgot to say that I didn't want any awful canapés, and the next thing I knew, this platter showed up.  I tried them out of morbid curiosity, and wow, they were just as bad as the first night.

From top left:
  • Salmon mousse on a cucumber slice.  The cucumber was soggy, and the mousse was awful.  It had a nasty fishy taste, and the mouthfeel of pure Crisco.  I think it probably was cream cheese based?
  • Carrot (?) soup.  It was thick, it was warm, and that was about all I can say about this.  I guess better than the consume from the prior night.
  • Mixed shredded veggies with soy gelée.  These were mushy, and awful.  Why were they even trying with gelées?
  • Lamb over pumpkin puree.  I don't like even good lamb, so I didn't try this, but the pumpkin puree had a nice flavor.
  • Chocolate: A thin chocolate shell, with strawberry cream filling.  Something sweet to cleanse the pallet from the rest of it, but, again, not good.
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