I have something a little bit lame and embarrassing to tell you Dear Readers on this Monday morning. I was recently at a dinner organised by Penguin Lantern for journalists and bloggers to meet with their latest cookbook authors. They had assembled a great list of people including George Colombaris, Gary Mehigan, Andrew McConnell, Paul Bangay, Indira Naidoo, Clare Press and Anson Smart, plus Christine Manfield was cooking an Indian feast for us.
But I have no idea what to say to chefs. Really. Apart from "I had a great meal at your restaurant" I don't quite know what to talk to them about. Which may sound bizarre for someone that interviews chefs but in the context of a conversation or chit chat rather than an interview, I am stuck as I am notoriously bad at small talk. Give me the context of an interview and I feel like I can grill them but if we're just chatting I suspect most chefs don't really care about who is the best looking guy on True Blood.
Andrew McConnell the chef and owner of Cutler & Co. and Cumulus Inc was sitting diagonally opposite me at this dinner. I did want to tell him that I really enjoyed the meals that I had at his restaurants but he was just that bit too far from me so that I would have to shout so I stayed with my mouth shut. After all it seemed a bit odd to shout "I like your food" across the table. I said to myself that I would just just have to content myself with the food rather than the small talk.
And a few weeks later I found myself at his new venture called Golden Fields one Sunday afternoon. Inspired by his time working in Shanghai and Hong Kong it is a slight departure from the rest of his restaurants as there is a definite Asian focus to the dishes.
My phone rings. It is my friend Nic. "Are you there already? Because I'm standing outside and I don't know how to get in!" she whispers. I nod and laugh for only minutes before I had done the exact same thing. For starters there is no signage to speak of apart from the name written in small letters on the glass front. For the life of me I cannot figure out where the door is and I contemplate having to go around the back or climb through the window (which I'm sure is wrong but I'm willing to do if that is what needs to be done). I get a little closer and breathe a sigh of relief. There is a door and I see the handle. Phew. I wasn't up for low level acrobatics.
Golden roller skate
Inside it reminds me of Cutler & Co in parts. The dining space is one long room with a long marble bar with tall barstools where people can also sit and dine or wait for a proper table. There a gold roller skate on a shelf (apparently a purchase by McConnell from Venice Beach, a chicken's foot bottle opener that just sits there looking like it's giving entering customers the bony finger (feng shui! ;) ) and a taxidermied bird suspended mid flight. The coat hooks are red hooks in the shape of chicken's feet pointing skyward.
We take a seat at a table. It's a few weeks old but the restaurant at 1pm on a Sunday is already half full (and by 3pm it will be completely full). The service is very friendly and they explain that the menu is designed to be shared and that courses will come out staggered but if we would prefer them to come out all at once that is not a problem. They suggest some must trys which Nic and I are happy to have.
Roasted pumpkin seeds
Instead of peanuts roasted soy seasoned pumpkin seeds are offered. They're nutty and moreish and do a good job of getting us hungry for the entrees.
Duckfish, avocado, fresh horseradish and dried sea lettuce $13.20
The duckfish is a white fleshed fish with the slices looking similar to snapper. It sits on a bed of ginger, oil and soy and is topped with fresh horseradish, moussey avocado squirts and little sprinkles of dried sea lettuce. The duckfish is a very mild tasting fish and is lovely and fresh although we both find that it is hard to get the flavour of the oil, soy and ginger as the fish was sitting on top of it and it was hard to scoop this up from the plate with the spoon.
New England lobster roll, hot buttered bun, cold poached crayfish, watercress and Kewpie $16.50
This was another of the waitresses recommendations and being a lobster fiend I was more than willing to try this. It comes out as a small bun about 8cms in length, warm and crispy to the touch. The roll itself is worth breaking any low carb resolve for as it is buttery, sweet and crispy and when it is filled with the perfectly cooked tail meat of lobster, a bit of watercress and a serve of Kewpie mayonnaise... well you've got the most perfect picnic lunch ever. "I think I'll need a conveyor belt full of these" I tell Nic.
White Onion conpoy soup, shredded pearl meat $11
Conpoy is dried scallop and my mother used to make a soup just like this. I used to suck on the dried scallops as a child (yes odd, I know) so I always love the flavour of anything using it. The soup is thick, warming and fragrant and with the taste of white pepper. At the bottom there are bits of shredded pearl meat which is a very expensive ingredient which would explain the price of the soup. The pearl meat tastes like a meaty fish full of flavour. I wonder what my mother would make of this soup. And interestingly I look around and in the crowd there is only one other Asian person with the clientele being mostly Caucasian.
Twice cooked duck, steamed bread, vinegar and plum sauces 3 pieces $22
They asked us if we would like an extra bun to make it four as there are usually three buns and we thought that since we were both trying to eat carefully that it wouldn't hurt being a bit lower in carbs. But we were glad that they gave us four buns anyway. The soft steamed buns are folded over and to fill them you just pry them apart. The twice cooked duck comes out fabulously deep fried crispy and you take the meat off the leg and thigh and shred it and fill up your soft bun with the meat, a baton of cucumber and some plum sauce. Lastly you dip it into the gingery vinegar. Holy macaron this was excellent with the sweetness from the plum sauce, the tang of the vinegar, the crunchy skinned and fall apart softness of the duck and it's like a comforting home version of a Peking Duck . And yes if there are two or four of you do upgrade to four buns as there is enough duck to fill four buns.
Watercress & chrysanthemum leaf, ginger vinegar, white sesame oil $8.80
Served in a colander snugly fitted over another bowl the salad is made up of watercress and the slightly celery tasting chrysanthemum leaf. It is dressed lightly with a gingery vinegar and sesame dressing which is light and flavoursome with a slightly smokey flavour from the sesame oil.
Peanut butter parfait, salted caramel and soft chocolate $11
Dessert time! This was Nic's dish. In fact she said that I should go ahead and order what I want for savouries except that we had to have this having taken a look at the menu a few days before. It's a neat square of peanut butter parfait, soft and not frozen and sitting on a crunchy biscuit base. Thick, salted caramel is poured over it as are chopped roasted peanuts. On top of it is a bittersweet soft chocolate quennelle which saves it from becoming too sweet like a Picnic bar if I were to draw a comparison to something.
Green tea ice cream, pumpkin and licorice $9.90
This dessert had us doing a double take. It was nothing like what we expected. Presentation wise it it's not your most comely choice and in one corner is a scoop of green tea ice cream which is soft and gentle with green tea. It sits on a bed of crunchy gingerbread crumbs and pumpkin puree and on top is a lot of licorice foam. I'm not a huge licorice lover but I tried it because I didn't realise that it was blanketed with it (we both thought that since it was the last ingredient mentioned that it would have a relatively small amount of it). Granted it's not that throat searing aniseed like Ouzo and it is more of your sweet Darrell Lea licorice which is how it was described to us. But there is a lot of it! Nic grows to like it but I wasn't quite as taken although I can see how licorice lovers might be smitten with it.
It's now 3pm and the crowd has really picked up. So much for the lunch time rush on a weekend. There's no hurry at all.
So tell me Dear Reader, are you the type to start talking to strangers at parties or are you shy? And would you have said anything if you were me?
The tiniest salt pail!
NQN travelled to and explored Melbourne as a guest of Tourism Victoria
157 Fitzroy Street, Melbourne, Vic
Tel: +61 (03) 9525 4488