If it's not fit for a pig, it's not fit for you!
If it's not fit for a pig, it's not fit for you!
The best food in the world is made in France. The best food in France is made in Paris and the best food in Paris, some say, is made by … So goes the beginning of Ratatouille, a children’s film that appeals to the foodie within us sprinkled with a few grains of truth for added insight. French food has long been revered as the culinary benchmark by which others have strived to equal or best at with only the Spanish and Danish doing just that through El Bulli and Noma respectively.
Perhaps it is our proximity to Asia, our larrikin distaste for snootiness, or just our descent from the rather bland English, but our appreciation for French food has remained tepid at best. Even when the dishes turn out right at say, Le Pub, the staff lets it down by butchering its name into English. Menu says “Steak au Poivre”, waitress calls it “pepper steak”. Enter Claire’s Kitchen at Le Salon, a brasserie sitting at the start of the winding rabbit hole that is Oxford Street.
White table cloths, dim lighting, art deco interior, jazzy tunes, the place stays true to its ‘brasserie’ roots rather than abuse it with a rowdy pub-like environment. As we were ushered to our tables, I could hear the wait staff speaking in French. Finally, I thought, a proper French restaurant.
As an entrée, I couldn’t resist the Steak Tartare. For some, it’s an acquired taste; for me, it’s an indulgent delicacy that relies on both the meat’s freshness and the chef’s knife skills under pressure. Here, they kicked it up a notch when it came in the form of a starfish. Tangy, sharp, and crisp, the dish was an interwoven tapestry of gherkins, onions and herbs, laced with Worcestershire sauce, mild Dijon mustard and tomato sauce before topped by the primordial egg yolk. It was magical. I’ve had this in Paris and this was better.
Curious, I looked toward my partner’s Souffle aux Fromages only to find but a morsel left. And why wouldn’t it with its skin bubbling with gleeful decadence and heavy aroma of melding cheeses. It’s a wonder its innards felt airy and buttery harbouring hints of gruyere, cheddar and undertones of truffle. If you’re calorie counting, this is a meal in itself.
My plat de resistance the Poitrine de Porc, an exercise of pure perversity (my favourite kind), appeared before me on a bed of fragrant lentils ready to sing its swansong with what looked like pork crackle. And yet, it made nary a whimper when my knife pierced its skin. How anticlimactic. How demoralising. With every cut, every bite, I desperately sought the elusive crispy sensation like a distraught rescuer looking for survivors. Amidst the succulent and unctuous flesh, the lentils, and the red wine vinegar jus tempering the meat with its herbs, tanginess and umami flavour, were just my hopes dashed away like embers in the wind. In trying to cope, I even deluded myself into thinking ‘maybe there was no crackling to begin with. Maybe this is how it’s meant to be’. That thought stayed with me until my last bite where a tiny crunchy rind was finally found. Unforgiveable!
Frustrated, I stuck my fork into my partner’s Filet de Boeuf without warning. Dark and seared on the outside while remaining tender and juicy on the inside, a true sign of respect and finesse for the grass-fed Tasmanian eye-filet prepared medium-rare. Gratified, I moved onto mashed potatoes laced with earthy truffle oil taking my tastebuds to otherworldly heights.
With my own porcine belly stretched to its limits, I agreed with my partner to share the dessert, the de-facto benchmark that is the Crème Brûlée. Done right, it’s a hearty treat rich with egg custard and vanilla beans, topped with a thin layer of bittersweet toffee. Done wrong? And it’s like eating clumps of margarine and eggs beaten together with the dexterity of a bull. And here? They did it just right. Not perfect like Baroque’s, but creamy and delicate enough to be good. Dig towards the bottom and you’re rewarded with some sour rhubarb for a refreshing change.
If there’s any doubt that this is one of the better French restaurants in Sydney, let me cast them aside for you and declare it one of the best there is. Yes, there was a hiccup, but like most hiccups, they’re temporary and not a reflection of them as a whole. As a vanguard of French culinary traditions, it serves as a reminder of how service should be, what ambience is, and definitively of what it means to be a brasserie. Served with the occasional hiccup.
You’d think that with a name like Pancakes on the Rocks, I would be purely restricted by its namesake on the menu. It makes sense doesn’t it? To buy pizzas from Pizza Hut, hamburgers from Burger King, and cheesecakes from The Cheesecake Factory. Contrary to common sense, they actually pride themselves as being purveyors of Sydney’s favourite pizzas, salads, crepes, and ribs in addition to the pancakes.
Frankly, I don’t feel like eating pancakes for dinner. Call me old-fashioned, but the sanctity of savoury flavours should never be mingled with dessert-like flavours. It is a line when crossed, fraught with suicidal tendencies. If there is so much as a thought to the concept of a Hawaiian pizza flavoured cronut, peppered with sugar then coated in maple syrup, you can rest assured that … (insert Taken reference: here).
Normally, I probably wouldn’t be caught dead here. Yet, the circumstances that transpired bordered on providence more than anything else – binge watching House of Cards Season 2, coveting Freddy’s Ribs within it, last screenings of Gravity 3D at The IMAX, and a coupon for Pancakes on the Rocks.
So, how were the Pork Ribs here anyway? Let’s start with the meat. The rack came steaming hot, the meat rips right off the bone as my teeth tore it apart like a prehistoric hog. I love it. The sensation, the motion, the piling of bones. These ribs delivered them in spades. Using baby back ribs, they’re lean without the hanging globs of uncooked fat, packing porcine flavour without the hints of gaminess. This was a good cut, grilled superbly but where this failed was the sauce. Between the 3 sauces on offer, there’s only one true sauce that should go with ribs – American barbeque*. When done well, the sauce is a harmonious sweetness and tanginess against a backdrop of spices that lends it an ethereal tingling on my tastebuds. What I had here was closer to Worcestershire sauce, an overly salty brown sauce that threatens the ribs at every bite. Perhaps this was honey soy? But there was barely a honey flavour. Maybe teriyaki then? Frankly I’m not sure what it was supposed to be and whatever that droopy brown liquid was, it was detracting from the ribs.
Usually chips either play second-fiddle or become some forgotten appendage to a plate of ribs. This time it played the all-important role of mopping up the sauce from the ribs. It may not be the crispiest nor the fluffiest, but at least they made the sauce bearable. Needless to say, I mourned when my supply of chips dwindled to none as I was left with the inept salad to deal with the sauce.
Generally, my dining companions enjoyed their crepes, the Greek Delight was delightful (pun, maliciously intended), the Tabriz was polished off the quickest and the Mexicana, well, edible. I sampled my partner’s Mexicana crepe. For me, it was a concoction of bland ground beef, tasteless tomato salsa, and cheap cheese wrapped in a soulless pastry. You can use the sour cream to temper the spiciness, if there was any. Finely blended guacamole? Who’s in charge here?!
I know, I’m being harsh here, aren’t I? I should have seen this coming miles away and went straight to Hurricane’s instead. But here’s the thing, they both have around the same number of branches. These guys have been around since 1975 – they have heritage; and they proudly proclaim it on their website that they are Sydney’s “favourites”. Chalk it down to deceptive copywriting or just hopeful aspiration, but that was an invitation for someone like me to test that claim which sadly didn’t cut mustard. But beyond the saline-like sauce, the hackneyed crepes, there’s potential. Whether they improve or close will come in due time.
~ Jambon Cochon
* Let’s not get too technical and argue the merits of Texas-style over North Carolina style. It’s Sydney, we’re lucky to get this remotely in the ballpark.
Long ago I had the pleasure of eating at Toko Restaurant, remembering fondly the dishes served in a dimly lit, swanky Japanese interior. The restaurant sparked a genesis in upmarket Izakaya-style dining, showing Sydneysiders that we don’t have to settle for just sushi trains and stuffy formal eating establishments like Tetsuya’s. Today, we have our pick of places to eat like Saké, Sokyo, Mizuya, Yebisu and the list goes on. So, how does Tokonoma, the Toko’s younger and easygoing sister fare amidst the crowd?
From the moment you set foot inside, you know the restaurant takes after its next door sister, featuring the same suave and dimly lit interior. Music blared from the warped wave-like ceiling deafening us into submission when we try to converse. We sat mostly in silence awaiting for our first course as we snacked on the Edamame Beans. To call the beans a ‘first course’ is akin to calling the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima a ‘battle’ – not quite reaching expectations.
The lightspeed service soon offered the Hirasama no Usuzukuri, a ruby-like kingfish flesh shimmering through the shredded shiso leaves and sesame seeds. It’s tragic that I’m only afforded with one slice as each bite felt like a whisper of ponzu growing to a heartfelt coda of herby chives and shiso enveloping a seaside musk before ending it with a crisp pickled daikon slice. It’s such a tease but I’m hooked and I wanted more.
Next, bare on a bed of ice was the Honjitsu no Osusume no Sashimi, a selection of sashimi which is what the house has best to offer today. For us, we were presented with Kingfish and Salmon. Sliced into neat slabs, the salmon tasted milky and tender with nary a hint of the sea while the Kingfish was silky, supple and understated. Try it with the sweet soy sauce and you’ll be rewarded by the nuances of each fish as the mirin brings out their own unique characteristics.
As I savoured the last of the sashimi, the neatly crafted Chirashi Maki took its place at our table none too soon. Subtly sweet, crisp and refreshing, the daikon wrapped roll held the firm tuna in place as the miso paste spoke in hushed umami tones.
Then came a familiar sight, the Kingfish Nigiri in all its pearly glory beckoning my hooves to pick it up and feast on it. If you’re picking this up with chopsticks, drop them and stop making the chef despair as these are actually meant to be eaten with your hands. Take a bite. Savour it. Taste those soft, fluffy grains of rice that’s taken the chef years of practice to hone, and cooked perfectly as his master taught him. When I ate this, my trust in the chef was affirmed when the wasabi slightly pecked the nostrils of my snout clearing them to give way for the accompanying nikiri sauce
Beside it, the Gyuniku no Tataki was stealing my attention. In a nod to the maki, shaved daikon wrapped around the diced wagyu like a kimono dress on a geisha. Seared rare, the meat just melts away letting the tangy rice, garlicky mayonnaise and flourishes of yuzu dance on my tastebuds.
With Izakaya, the concept of ‘courses’ is a foreign one as the dishes just come when they are ready and now there were four of them. I decided to start with the Kohituji to Yasai Suzuke Zoe as not many Japanese dishes use lamb. As simplistic as a piece of lamb chop may appear, the taste is complex and full of flavour. Marinated in a spicy peanut sauce, it’s grilled to have a sultry crust whilst eschewing the typical gaminess that many find unpalatable. Serving as a palette cleanser, the Wafu Zucchini was a fruity contrast to its meaty predecessor melding strokes of miso into its flowing natural juices. Building on that, the Hotate no Jalapeno Amazu Zoe felt like a balancing act between the sweet scallop, pureed jalapenos, and mashed apples, leaving me with a citrus-like, earthy, spicy aftertaste. Finally, I’ve reached the Butabara Amakara So-Su to Issho Ni, grilled pork belly cubes with sprinkles of black and white sesame seeds while sitting on a smear of viscous sweet soy sauce. I’m glad I had this last as it’s the epitome of all the courses with bits of charred flesh meeting the gelatinous fat to form an unctuous and zesty union that one could die for.
As a sweet goodbye, we were offered the Higawari Mizugashi (Chef’s selection of desserts). Tonight that included a Crème Brulee. I was nervous when the crust didn’t crack easily, fearing it was a sign of an overly sweetened custard or worse, an ash-like toffee. Thankfully, it’s neither as the custard was creamy and buttery, evoking flashes of vanilla while the crust bore the hallmarks of a caramel brittle – a bittersweet taste. Cutting through the rich custard was the Raspberry and Mango sorbet which were very intense and reflected their natural flavours admirably if not, faithfully. As for the fruit platter of pineapple, rockmelon, honey dew and strawberries, they tasted as fresh as they looked.
Let me be clear: I like Tokonoma. I liked the dishes and the funky décor. But as I took one mouthful after another, I felt more and more uneasy until it hit me – was this in the spirit of Izakaya? There certainly is an extensive drinks menu, but they’re mostly in bottles with intimidating price tags. The dishes are delectable but are forgettable and reminded me of the fine dining side minus the foam. Yes, Tokonoma fares very well amidst the competition, yet along the way, the ideals of Izakaya got lost in translation. Though Yebisu and Mizuya captures a bit of that spirit, their dishes are flawed, leaving a lot to be desired. For me, this restaurant, this lounge, remains the domain of the ‘swanky with cash and eat well crowd’, the antithesis of Isakaya. But if your wallet’s bulging and plump, that would be the least of your worries – wouldn’t it?
~ Jambon Cochon
It took China over 4,000 arduous years to have the word ‘republic’ appended to it, so it wasn’t surprising that the formation of this restaurant felt just as long as passers-by would casually stroll past its wooden walls hiding the enduring struggle behind it. Having opened its doors in late November, I wondered along with many others, was it worth the wait? Can it astound us? Will it sensationalise our tastebuds to new heights? Or will it plunge our mouths down to the toilet pan in disgust? Nothing is certain until we try, and that I did.
Approaching the restaurant, you’re already humbled by the towering terracotta warrior standing guard as you carefully tread through the palatial doors and into a dimly lit modern take of the Forbidden City, complete with koi pond and imperial saloon. The only thing missing are rose petals thrown beneath my hooves as I’m guided toward my front-row seat to the cooks crafting my meal as I was tucked in.
When you’re handed about four menus – a Top Ten listing, an a la carte menu, a drinks menu and a cocktail menu made from bamboo slats tied together to form a scroll – you know your wallet is going to hurt.
Besides being the more economical choice, the Peking Duck appears to be a specialty here as a brief glance toward the darkened flaming ovens suggests. Just as Din Tai Fung has taught Sydneysiders how to eat Xiao Long Bao with their instructional pamphlet, so is China Republic with this dish. Scoff if you will, but the duck served here is the modern style served in posh Beijing restaurants rather than the standard old-school style we often see in Sydney. That means, 9 different condiments and ingredients to play with and if you threw away that pamphlet, good luck eating this right.
Served with 2 types of pancakes – flat and pouch-like, along with the ingredients and sauces, it was time to eat. On its own, the skin is a world of its own. To say that it’s crispy is to do it an injustice. The way it crackles and pops with each bite. The way the lipids just melt away as I savour each piece. Coated with a dash of sugar and it becomes toffee without the clinginess. That’s Step 1 and there’s 4 more to go.
Next up is a palette cleanser, as I’m instructed to slather a piece of duck with Garlic Paste. It’s fairly strong nigh on overpowering, and left a tingling sensation on my tongue for the remainder of the meal. I know, you’re probably wondering when will I get to the familiar hoisin-smothered, cucumber and spring onion filled Peking duck pancake. About now, according to the pamphlet.
In my hooves, the Mandarin Pancake felt warm, delicate and gritty as I took my first bite and was placed into an eye-rolling trance. Inherently balanced, I knew what to expect but that hoisin-sauce surprised me and delivered pure ecstasy. A harmony of sweet and saltiness with hints of white pepper coursing throughout giving it a deep and alluring sensation. This is custom-made and would be out of place everywhere else but here. Before I could move on to Step 4, I had to take a detour and try it again with the doughy Pocket Pancake. That sauce just hits the spot.
Something I had not tried before with Peking Duck was Pickled Cucumber and Chinese mustard. A sharp contrast to the dark hoisin sauce, this was tangy and piercing like English mustard with bouts of hidden spices clearing what little gaminess remained in the duck. Eating this was akin to looking at Shanghai during daytime, it’s tame compared to its glittering, neon-fuelled nightlife that is the hoisin-filled pancake.
I didn’t have to yearn for long as Step 5, the last, loomed over with the remaining pocket buns ready to be slit open and stuffed with slivers of red onions, cucumber and a spoonful of that magical hoisin sauce. A touch crisper and sweeter than my detour, I’m back to nearing nirvana.
Like a disciple learning the ways of his master, perfecting each technique, we’re told to go and forge our own ways with the duck – except, there’s hardly anything left to go with it, save for the pancakes. It’s a devilish ploy to pay more for additional sides. One that I would fall for time and again. Who wouldn’t?
Without a doubt, this is the best Peking Duck in Sydney and would rival the finest Beijing has to offer, including DaDong. One could go to China Republic just for that, but it would do the restaurant a disservice akin to reducing Chinese culture to just kung fu and chopsticks. I could go on about how the Chef’s Special Sweet and Sour Spareribs felt like a choir singing in unison, how soothing the Spinach Soup with Enoki Mushroom is, or even how surreal the Kung Pao Chicken with Peanuts was after dipping a piece into a streak of Worcestershire sauce. But those words would just pale next to the perfectionist zeal they show in each and every dish they serve. It is no wonder they took so long to open, and the answer is yes, the wait was worth it.
~ Jambon Cochon
Once the proud site of the mighty Dragon Star Seafood Restaurant and China Grand, it is now home to The Eight Modern Chinese Restaurant. Part of the Zilver Group, an old hand in the Canton-style cooking in Sydney, there’s no doubt that this is the old guard, albeit with some clever makeup. From the auspiciously red lanterns to the white linen that bathe the tables dotting the vast space within, it all felt familiar yet trendy at the same time. For the Chinese restaurant of old, this is classy, elegant even, as the muted sounds of the kitchen fill my ears and the aroma of roasted meats coursed through my snout.
Celebrating a friend’s birthday, we were in for a banquet starting with Peking Duck with Pancakes and Hoisin Sauce. Balancing between soft and crispy, savoury and sweet, while remaining warm yet cool, there was a harmonic beauty to it as the tortilla-like pancake dissolved away, letting me go at the meat, cucumber and spring onions. As its carcass lay bare carted away into the distance, my only lament was that I didn’t get enough of it.
But I didn’t have to despair for long as it was resurrected in the form of Duck Meat in Sang Choy Bow. A smoky and nutty concoction of bamboo, crushed peanuts, deep-fried rice vermicelli with a dash of hoisin sauce on a refreshing bed of iceberg lettuce leaf. It lends a different perspective of what else the duck can be, a counterbalance to the crispy skin encased in that doughy tortilla. Still, I preferred the former than the latter.
Next came the Steamed Scallops with XO Chilli Sauce & Vermicelli Noodles served on the shell of its crowning jewel. Yet it was in hiding. Muddled by the frazzled mess that was the glassy vermicelli, it became clear why it was hiding. Biting into it, I empathized with its sorrow, being overcooked, and becoming a mushy, briny appendage to the whole thing. What once was a sweet and firm delight had been disfigured into a grotesque thing to be hidden away under a thin veil of noodles, piddling spices, and dried-up shrimps.
Painful as it was, the scallop was put out of its misery when the Braised Snow Crab in Garlic & Butter with e-fu noodles came to draw everyone’s gaze. Draped in a milky sheen along its voluptuous contours, we were in awe until we ate it. The sheer richness was obscene as the overwhelmed garlic failed to put this display of opulence into perspective. Eating the noodles felt like eating spaghetti carbonara, with the sweet crab occasionally kissing us with a sea-like musk.
Without much fanfare, the Wok Seared Diced Beef Fillet with Black Pepper Sauce made its entrance and took its place on the lazy susan. Peppery, the cubes of beef were tender and plump, seared just right before letting out its juices to meld with the soy-infused sauce. Onions and button mushrooms provide a vegetarian reprieve, soaking up the sauce to be smeared on my bowl of white rice before I sink my teeth into the marbled bovine wonder that it is.
Buoyed by the beef, I looked toward the centrepiece, the Steamed Live Fish with Ginger and Shallots, for the same sense of wonderment. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Its flesh fatty, descended into a pulp-like state with each pick of the chopsticks. Drenched in an oily light soy broth with slivers of ginger piercing through the fishy and decaying innards, it was a startling and perplexing disappointment since fresh seafood form a cornerstone in Cantonese cooking. Simply put, this was akin to Italians opting for spoiled tomatoes to be eaten in a bruschetta. It’s unthinkable.
Thankfully, the Crispy Skin Chicken with Ginger and Shallots stepped up to the fore, despite sitting in the same puddle of oiled up soy-sauced broth as the fish, it differs with one crucial detail: it doesn’t stink. Instead, its juicy neutral flesh tasted clean, working with whatever flavours present at the time, be it the mild shallots, or the basted soy sauce that roasted into its skin.
Serving as sides were the Braised Mushroom with Vegetables and Fried Rice. Bland and devoid of personality, there was little difference between the Fried Rice and the boiled rice aside from its nutritional value. The Braised Mushrooms looked delectable until bitten into, bursting with remnants of the preserving brine and left a metallic aftertaste scarring my tastebuds for the rest of the evening. Healing my wounds were the bok choy, blanched and sautéed perfectly to comfort me with its crisp liveliness.
After the obligatory cake was served, we were treated to the standard banquet desserts – a fruit platter and Chinese cookies. My pork belly was about to burst like a Monty Python skit unable to fit in another bite, and yet curiosity got the better out of me as I ate and regretted the stale sesame seed cookie.
As the lights were dimmed, and the tables were cleared, we made our way out of the restaurant cracking jokes about our inevitable mortality. Just as many people of my generation approach their mid-life crisis, The Eight seemed to hit theirs, having seen better days and knowing that they could do better yet didn’t. Our strain on its kitchen was showing. For every sublime dish, there seemed a sub-par dish. Seeing The Eight this way was like watching an actor made young again because of some clever CGI: yes, it’s possible but it’s just plain too embarrassing to watch.
~ Jambon Cochon