Category Archives: Reviews

Review of Tawlet – Beirut

By | Lebanon Trip 2011, Reviews | 7 Comments

I’m sick of it. There’s a sort of monotony in Lebanon’s restaurants: the same old mezze, charcoal barbequed meats and some seafood if you’re on the seaside. I came hoping to see some flair and innovation, but the whole thing might be a fleeting dream. When every restaurant is a déjà vu, inspiration for writing is a bit hard to come by.

Tawlet is not a déjà vu, unless you’ve been reading the NY Times, Vogue, Masterchef magazine or if you’re a Bourdain fan and remember the Beirut episode (the one were he didn’t get stuck in a war). This widely acclaimed and highly publicised restaurant is a spin off from Souk El Tayeb, Lebanon’s first farmers’ market. In a most unlikely neighbourhood below a residential building in the grittiness of Beirut’s Mar Mikhael, Tawlet is a funky, little spot showing off its modern, clever design and stylish finishings and is home to a crowd so hip and cool that they’ve forgotten how to speak Lebanese. I joke, but deep down, I feel a bit upset about the lack of real Lebanese people at Tawlet. That is perhaps the result of Tawlet’s international reputation being much stronger than its local one, which means a more international clientele is attracted, in addition to those Lebanese wankers who can only speak French.

Forget the stupid crowd. You probably won’t notice it, and in any case, we’re here for the food, so let me tell you a bit more about it. Tawlet has been better described as a producer’s kitchen – the same people who grow the food for the farmers’ market Souk El Tayeb cook the food for Tawlet. Like the menu, the chef changes daily. Today, it could be a farmer’s wife, and tomorrow it could be a local cook, but they all use high quality, seasonal produce and dish out some seriously tasty stuff. The food is not cheffy but it’s not boring either. It’s home cooking, all honest and all good, and done really well. The food is served in a buffet and is for a set price : 40,000LL + VAT for open buffet or a reasonable 15,000LL + VAT for a “Business Lunch”. Tawlet likes to celebrate regional cuisine, but from what I’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t rush to label the food as regional. My general feeling is that true regionality in Lebanon is quite minimal due to the country’s small area – most Lebanese people cook from the same repertoire, with minor variances on recipes, with few exceptions of course. Forgo regionality for seasonality: depending on the time of year and the chef, you could get anything from wonderful makloubeh (eggplant, chicken and rice pilaf with nuts) to mildly spicy sujuk (Armenian sausage) cooked in pomegranate molasses, great salads, soft white beans with coriander and garlic, and eggs with awarma (confitec lamb), all made from prime Lebanese produce. Desserts haven’t failed us yet. If available, try halawet el jibn, a cheese pastry filled with clotted cream and doused with sugar syrup – it’s bloody wonderful – or anything else since it’s all good. There’s a fantastic list of Lebanese wines to boot, and good arak, so if you’re in Beirut, go to Tawlet, and if you’re Lebanese, stick to your mother tongue.

P.S. My deepest apologies for the hipstomatic photos… I couldn’t help it.

Let’s Do Lunch at Azuma Kushiyaki – Crave Sydney International Food Festival

By | Reviews | One Comment
Ohitashi - Spinach with Soy, Mirin and Dashi

Ohitashi - Spinach with Soy, Mirin and Dashi

This article was written for The Sydney Morning Herald blog.

After eating at two French restaurants consecutively for Let’s Do Lunch – Becasse and glass brasserie – we’re giving our livers a break with one of Sydney’s favourite cuisines, Japanese. We’re aching for some cleansing miso and the destination is Azuma Kushiyaki. I’m a fan of chef Kimitaka Azuma’s other restaurant (Azuma) in Chifley Plaza and am excited to try out Kushiyaki.

As expected, the interior is elegant and modern, with beautiful wall hangings and various objets d’art that reinforce the relaxing Japanese aesthetic. The exposed, timber tables make for a welcome change from the linen clad counterparts of the previous two days.

Kushiyaki’s $35.00 Let’s Do Lunch offer substitutes the usual coffee with green tea. That is served first and arrives in a stunningly glazed ceramic cup. The meal that follows is bento style, with a variety of dishes accompanied by rice and miso soup.

Azuma's Seared Tuna Salad

Azuma's Seared Tuna Salad

Sesame sprinkled ohitashi – boiled spinach with soy, mirin and dashi – is simple and light. More exciting is Azuma’s seared tuna salad, known to food lovers through the television show Food Safari. Yellowfin tuna is briefly seared, then marinated in a punchy ponzu dressing and served completely covered with grated onion and daikon. The flavours are fresh and the tuna is silky smooth – a dish that lives up to its reputation.

Though it is perfectly ok to visit Azuma Kushiyaki while Azuma’s not there, it’s incomprehensible to leave without trying a few kushiyaki (grilled skewers). Luckily, these are also there as part of our meal: a crunchy zucchini skewer sprinkled with dried shiso leaf and a simple, single prawn skewer, edible with shell and all. These two are perfect companions to beer, and the included Coopers Pale Ale works a treat.

Beef Tenderloin with Garlic & Soy

Beef Tenderloin with Garlic & Soy

On the Crave Sydney International Food Festival website, the meal’s centrepiece is advertised as wagyu sirloin steak with garlic soy, but is described on our menu as grain-fed tenderloin. A quick back-and-forth between the waitress and the kitchen confirms that the beef is in fact, not wagyu; but the juicy, wonderfully flavoured steak reminds us that, yes, there are varieties of beef other than wagyu that are still worth eating.

As we finish with rice and miso, my colleagues have wide grins on their faces. Azuma’s meal is so far the week’s favourite. It not only ticks the flavour box, but it also fills up the tummies of hungry office workers. Portion means a great deal to us blokes.

Let’s Do Lunch at glass brasserie – Crave Sydney International Food Festival

By | Reviews | One Comment
Luke Mangan's brand of olive oil and Let's Do Lunch menu

Luke Mangan's brand of olive oil and Let's Do Lunch menu

This article was written for The Sydney Morning Herald blog.

Day two of a week full of Let’s Do Lunch in Sydney’s CBD, and this time, the destination is the Hilton’s glass brasserie, and pork belly is on the menu.

Chef Luke Mangan describes his French cuisine at glass as “clean and light, with a contemporary twist” – we’re not sure how light a piece of pork belly could ever be, but Mangan’s description could easily be targeted at the dining room itself. The design is lively but uncluttered, with a wonderfully high ceiling visually supported by Herculean pillars. A large floor-to-ceiling wall made of, well, glass, overlooks the Queen Victoria Building and floods the room with light while another wall of wine bottles in the middle serves both form and function.

We order bread ($3.50 extra) which prompts the waiter to reach for Mangan’s own olive oil label sitting at our table and pour a healthy amount into a dipping plate. The large, screw-cap bottle of olive oil feels slightly unsophisticated and bulky compared to the surrounds, but the oil works a treat with the hot, fresh, raisin-studded bread.

glass brasserie's pork belly with swede puree and roasted apples

glass brasserie's pork belly with swede puree and roasted apples

The pork itself arrives in a large bowl and looks wonderful. A palette of colours oscillates between green asparagus and herbs, golden crackling, white pork flesh, cream swede puree and roasted apples that hint of red.

Crackling is not made to be cut with a knife; we separate it from the meat, pick it up with our fingers and enjoy its crisp fattiness all on its glorious own. The plate however, is not warm and by now the rest of the dish is slightly cold. Since it’s delicious, we rush to finish before all remaining heat dissipates. A side of parmesan and “truffled” French fries ($12.00 extra) has a good deal of parmesan, but the truffle is actually truffle oil, which explains the missing specks. The waiter assures us the oil is infused with real truffles, but regardless, we’re still slightly hungry and the fries are tasty, so we finish those as well.

Our hour is almost over and the office beckons, so we order our coffee (included). glass’ short black is full-bodied, rich and smooth with hardly any unpleasant bitterness, one of the best we’ve tasted in the city. The food and the beautiful dining room are good enough to tempt us back to try the a la carte menu, but that short black alone is worth another visit.

Let’s Do Lunch at Becasse – Crave Sydney International Food Festival

By | Reviews | No Comments

This article was written for The Sydney Morning Herald blog.

The Crave Sydney International Food Festival ends this week, and last Friday I was feeling slightly guilty for not having taken advantage of all that is on offer. To make up for it, I thought it would be a good idea to fit in as many events as possible from now until the 31st of October. For most of us, the only time we have available is our lunch break – and that’s perfect for a series of one of Crave Sydney’s favourite events, Let’s Do Lunch.

Many of the city’s restaurants participate yearly, and the concept is simple: a main course, a glass of wine and a coffee for $35.00. I managed to convince two of my colleagues to go all out and join me for a Let’s Do Lunch session for every work day this week. Trust me; nothing makes you look forward to a Monday like knowing that lunch is at Becasse at Clarence Street, Sydney.

Olive Biscotti with Goat's Curd

Olive Biscotti with Goat's Curd

I am in love with Plan B, the busy, little food outlet also by Becasse’s chef/owner Justin North, where I get my $10 wagyu burger fix (if you haven’t tried it, go, now). Becasse is right next to Plan B, and this time, I am excited to actually be going inside rather than staring sadly through the glass, holding a Plan B takeaway burger bag.

The space is elegant and minimalist, with uniformed wait-staff and table linen – its neutral colours remind my colleagues and I of our office and though comfortable, we feel the room lacks a bit of vibrancy to offset our usual drab daily decor.

The friendly French-accented waiter swiftly navigates us to our table and hands out the menu. A more expensive, three-course Let’s Do Lunch is also on offer, but we opt to remain cheap and stick to plan A, the $35.00 option.

To start, an amuse-bouche of wonderfully crunchy olive biscotti is slightly sweet, its texture well contrasts with a silken dollop of goat’s curd, aromatic with lemon. Justin North ought to branch into packaged foods, mass produce and wrap this little fellow in cellophane – I could happily munch on a dozen, or two.

Prawn and Prosciutto Risotto

Prawn and Prosciutto Risotto

To follow, a small, warm bread roll comes with a separate dome of whipped butter. Again, nothing too fancy, but totally delicious. Good bread and good butter. Then comes the main event, a risotto of prawns and prosciutto. At first glance, the portion seems lean and a bit mean, but the big flavours make up for size. The rice is cooked with velvety prawn shell bisque enriched with cream and brandy, and the taste of the sea is torrential. Prosciutto adds a punch of meatiness, while slightly translucent South Australian prawns are amongst the softest and sweetest you’ll ever try. South Australia, we salute you.

This is a good omen for the week ahead and we leave more than satisfied. On the way out, our sweet tooth is tempted by Plan B’s tarts and brownies, but the decision is unanimous – we’d better not. There’s a whole week of eating ahead, and the kilos won’t shed themselves.

Raki and Redemption – Dinner at Efendy, Balmain

By | Reviews | 2 Comments

I know. I’ve already written a post about the article I wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald Good Living. But hey, The Food Blog should feature the story too, right?
Here it is, once more, but this time, with some of my own photos.

Raki and Redemption – Dinner at Efendy, Balmain – Written for SMH Good Living

Cevizli Biber - Walnut and Red Capsicum Dip similar to Muhammara

Cevizli Biber - Walnut and Red Capsicum Dip similar to Muhammara

Only recently, I was let in on a dark family secret. More than 100 years ago, my great-grandfather, known by the affectionate name Jiddi, a respected landowner and political leader in south Lebanon, was visited by a tax collector. At the time, Lebanon was under Ottoman rule and it was law to pay taxes to the Turks. Tax collectors were then, as now, not the most loved of people. Jiddi had had enough of handing out his hard-earned cash to a foreign occupier and in a fit of rage, or calculated cool, grabbed his knife . . . and the rest is history. True story.

More than a century later, I attend a presentation at the World Chef Showcase, part of the Crave Sydney International Food Festival. It is given by one of Turkey’s foremost chefs and food scholars, Musa Dagdeviren of Istanbul’s Ciya restaurant, aided by the head chef and owner of Balmain’s Efendy Restaurant, Somer Sivrioglu. Inspired, I book a table at Efendy for a meal cooked by Dagdeviren and Sivrioglu.

Murad, Me, Musa and my good friend Ludwig

Murad, Me, Musa and my good friend Ludwig

Weighed down by the sin of my ancestry, I arrive at the dinner with two tokens of peace to offer my hosts. I have a small bottle of handcrafted orange blossom water from the Lebanese village of Maghdouche, famous for its perfumed orange trees. I also have a bottle of arak, called raki by Turks, an artisan, triple-distilled grape spirit mixed with aniseed made in Ain El Delb, the village of my birth. I hoped that at some point during the evening I would confess Jiddi’s story to my Turkish hosts and they would tell me it was all OK. To be on the safe side, I thought it best to do so towards the end of dinner to avoid getting kicked out too early during the feast.

What a feast it was. Dagdeviren’s food is honesty on a plate: unpretentious yet outspoken, unadorned yet full flavoured, seemingly simple but only achieved with an expert’s touch. It’s a skill Arabs describe as “forbidden ease”. Alaca corba is a prime example: a green-lentil and pearl barley soup from the city of Gaziantep, using just the right amount of tarragon and sun-dried pepper paste – two ingredients that could easily overpower – to create a fresh, wholesome and different starter. This is followed by a jump to Aegean Turkey and balik tursu, a ceviche-like dish of sea bream “cooked” by the acidity of lemon and paired with the classic Middle Eastern flavours: garlic and parsley. The fish is tender and sharp, while the flavour holds its integrity because of the absence of heat in its preparation. I love it. This is Turkish food I’ve never experienced before.

Even Dagdeviren’s pide and dips are far removed from Sydney’s Turkish scene. From south-eastern Anatolia comes dovme, a pearl barley and yoghurt dish that is all about lightness and texture. More familiar to my Lebanese palate is its companion, cevizli biber, from Hatay, a southern province of Turkey. This walnut and red-capsicum dip is sweet, smoky, earthy and spicy. Hatay borders Syria and the Turkish incarnation closely resembles and is equally as delicious as Syria’s muhammara.

A pattern emerges with every dish, each inspired by a different Turkish region. This is intentional and in line with the chef’s strong-held belief that food should be viewed and understood by regionality not nationality. The menu reflects his ethos wonderfully, reading as a culinary travel journal introducing us to the gastronomy of the poor, who Dagdeviren considers the truest of innovators in the culinary realm. We stamp our passport and move on to visneli kofte, a marvel of soft, marble-sized lamb meatballs cooked in a sour cherry and tomato stew. The dishes are so easygoing, so approachable. Real food, cooked by real people and perfected by a master.

Musa and my little girl

Musa and my little girl

Downing raki between every memorable mouthful, I spot Murad Ilgicioglu, Dagdeviren’s assistant, also from Turkey. I invite him to our table. He holds my baby daughter to give me and my wife a moment of not having to be ambidextrous. We drink to each other’s health, laughing about the similarities between our cultures, while he explains the history of the various dishes. I like him and he seems to like us. In a moment of Dutch courage, I spill the beans and recount Jiddi’s story. He looks me straight in the eye and says without hesitation: “Tax collectors. The same happened even in Istanbul.” Instantly relieved, I realise nothing brings people together more than food and raki, other than perhaps a shared hatred of the taxman.

Beef Nachos $9.90 – Guzman y Gomez – Lunch @ Sydney CBD

By | Lunch @ Sydney CBD, Reviews | 13 Comments

Note: This blog entry is the first of many in my attempt to discover and share dishes in the Sydney CBD that are suitable for a quick, cheap and cheerful lunch. The most I will pay for a meal is $20, while the average meal will be below $10, and the condition is that the lunch can fit into the 1 hour lunch break most of us have. This means that the trip from Town Hall to the restaurant and back, including the time to feed, is equal to or less than 1 hour. The focus is on just one dish which can provide a quality lunch within a restricted time and budget, in a city where lunch time can be a treacherous affair.

With locations in Newtown, Bondi Junction, the Cross and Australia Square, Guzman y Gomez (GYG) is hardly a well kept secret. But the MLC Centre branch is right across the road from the office, so this one is a quick win. Housed in a food court that is otherwise devoid of any culinary merit – think expensive sambos, bain marie mock-Chinese, overcooked pasta and a Muffin Break – GYG’s successful formula (Tasty, Unique, Affordable and Fast) brings salvation to the working masses. Its popularity is apparent, as is evident by the huge number of staff servicing the hordes of office workers queuing up for their daily dose of anything with pico de gallo, the omnipresent condiment of fresh tomatoes, onions and coriander that is served with, well, everything.

Staff members this nice are hardly found working in a fast food joint. Big welcoming smiles, cute accents and helpful suggestions make you forget that this place makes its money from being a churn machine (keep an eye out for Superwoman who can wrap a burrito in under 15 seconds), and with food this good, any comparison with the likes of MacDonald’s goes out the window. Which is a good thing. The menu is packed with what we perceive as typical Mexican food: tacos (soft and hard shell), burritos and quesadillas. The idea is that you choose a filling – chicken (not bad), steak & onion (good), pork (good), beef (great), barramundi (avoid) or veg (boring, get a life) – and your carbohydrate wrapping of choice, take a ticket and wait till your number is called (screamed). Burritos are tasty but slightly stodgy, and combine two diametrically opposed ingredients: rice and bread (the tortilla wrapping). Unlike blue and green, which might be seen together if there’s something in between, rice and bread should never be friends even in the company of cheese. As we no longer live in times of extreme poverty where we have to bulk up our food with excess starch, ask them to hold the rice, and enjoy a much better burrito.  I know this might go against all manner of convention and tradition, but the black beans will provide you with sufficient carbs, I promise

I can safely say that I’ve tried mostly everything on the menu, and though the burritos are great and the hard tacos are not bad at all, my hands-down favourite has to be the beef nachos. The nachos themselves are pure corn chip crunchy pleasure, but add to that full-flavoured, slow cooked shredded beef along with cheese, guacamole and pico de gallo, top it all up with any of the complimentary chilli sauces, more freshly diced onions and chopped coriander, and what you have is something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Absolutely delicious, and for $9.90, lunch at the MLC Centre has never looked more attractive. Now if only they churned out those frozen margaritas they serve in Newtown, I’d be set for a proper day’s work at the office.

Guzman y Gomez MLC Centre
Level 6 (shop 14) MLC Centre Food Court
Martin Place (Cnr Castlereagh Street)
Sydney NSW 2000
Phone: 9221 1777