Cast Off! Sustainability Festival

castoff53_1And so we find ourselves back in the Woy, NSW, and I’m starting think this is becoming quite the groovy place to be. Two organisations seem to be contributing mightily to Woy Woy’s foodie ascendancy – the Gnostic ’empire’ and The Fisherman’s Wharf.castoff31

It’s the latter spearheading Cast Off!, on its second outing for highlighting sustainability in the region. Especially, naturally enough, of fish. But also, importantly from my point of view, obviously, as it’s an Australian do – beer, wine and cider.

Spread out all along the wharf at Woy Woy, and across into Fisherman’s Wharf itself, on a bright and sunny Autumn day, the rows of cheerful stalls ran, mostly representing local produce and enterprises, as well as one or two from further afield.

I was surprised to see that New Zealand had a showing from Cloudy Bay Clams, selling what looked like a seafood curry in a giant paella tray:

The ‘Malaysian sauce’ didn’t taste that authentic to me, but I can’t argue that the seafood – mussels, prawns and two distinctly different types of clam – wasn’t pretty damn tasty. They insisted this was still sustainable seafood, despite being flown across to Oz, vacuum packed. Well, if they say so.

Other seafood offerings from further afield included some lovely, tender octopus all the way from Fremantle, served up by Avoca locals bombini:

Contented customers wallowed nearby in gaily striped deck chairs, soaking up the sun and possibly the cocktails from this chap, of Bar Toto, Ettalong, fame:

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Though we noticed another bar from Ettalong mixing up the drinks nearby, from Gusto. No wonder everyone looked so relaxed.cast2

Whilst on the subject of drinking for relaxment (do believe that’s a new word, there; you’re welcome) we are lucky enough to have not one, but two, artisan breweries on this bit of the Central Coast. The rather fabulous six strings, of Erina, who’ve gone down the canning route (flying in the face of fashion there) and relative newcomers Block’n’Tackle, who prefer to encourage reusable mini kegs and bottles.

No surprise then perhaps that after all that booze, and watching of bands, we were feeling a tad fuzzy…

Happily there was more food; the fish tacos were good, though very wee, which probably explains why there were orders coming through of half a dozen at a time. Bit steep at $5 a pop I thought but hey ho, I’m notoriously stingy.

Plenty of other options available mind; loads of fish including albacore tuna, swordfish, paella, fish & chips, pippies and pasta, fish burgers, and many more. Coffee boost from the lovely rustic looking All Ears: 

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There were take home options too, with Six String Lemonade and Coastie Ale, jars and spice mixes, and gluten free from the No Bull Food Co:

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In the desserts corner were ice creams, churros, margarita slushies (that counts as dessert, surely?) and the rather splendid Fat Meringue, which I obviously made a beeline for. Miso ginger meringues!

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So excited was I, I almost forgot to pay. I l loved the caramel syringe – as if there was ever any chance of not eating every last sugary drop – it was still fun to inject through the crunchy outer shell.

For those bored with eating and drinking sustainably, there were cooking demonstrations lined up all afternoon long from a variety of chaps; Matt Kemp while we were wandering past, plus an information section with advice about sustainable local (Hawkesbury) fishing, just for the look of it, you know.castoff52 (2)

Finally, sated by the all afternoon nibbling, we headed round the craft and goodies stalls, checking out the lovely plants and homewares:castoff1_1 castoff1_5 castoff1_6 castoff1_2

This sort of do is a real plus for the area, well organised and well ‘stocked’ with quality vendors. Go The Woy!

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Aria: More fishy takeovers in the Woy

After my last post in late 2015, we thought we’d give the ‘Takeover’ series at Fisherman’s Wharf in Woy Woy another go.  This month, current head chef of Aria & fellow Brit, Ben Turner, takes centre stage in the restaurant kitchens.

Judging by the full house, these monthly sessions have been something of a hit. And what’s not to love; the rustic charm of bare floorboards, windows swung wide to the water views on a warm autumn evening, the quiet lapping of the water and the ducks and pelicans drifting hopefully past your table.

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Quiet before the storm


The seafood based menu was short and sweet; 4 courses starting with yellowtail scad; our waiter informing us that this is normally used as a bait fish, but here sustainably re-purposed as sashimi with a Japanese inspired dressing. It seemed a pleasant enough fish; I’ve never understood the public resistance to trying new types of seafood, taking pressure away from the Big Four. Pretty as a picture, accompanied by beetroot stained pickled onions and salty cucumber slices:IMG_0649

This vanished pretty quickly, leaving us to tuck into chunks of crisp, white baguette. Slathering the wonderfully rich butter on my bread was something of a highlight – I suspect properly cultured butter courtesy of Pepe Saya, though I wasn’t moved sufficiently to double check this. It was delicious, anyway. The pat of ‘seaweed butter’  alongside it was also delicious but not because of a particularly iodine, sea-veg flavour – to me it was more of a pleasantly cheesey overtone.

Second from the menu was ocean trout, one of my favourite types of fish. The Petuna trout has featured in previous takeovers here, and comes with an impressive list of Australian famous chef fans.

Initially this looked to be another raw fish dish, but transpired to be sous-vide cooked (sous-vided? Someone help me with my French please??) and then served chilled; I have to confess I was hard pressed to tell the difference between that and sashimi in texture but we enjoyed it a lot anyway. Turns out apple goes terribly well with dill – who knew?IMG_0677

The powdery white stuff there (above) was allegedly horseradish, treated in some exciting modern way to become entirely tasteless. Pretty though, no?

I guess in a foreign kitchen with a full house to serve, it’s easier to have a batch of dishes you can make up in advance, hence the two cold courses perhaps. And indeed, the dishes did come out without that irritating wait between courses, as you often get in these set dinners.

The main, seared sea mullet, had a deliciously crunchy skin, just the right side of too browned, with a hint of gelatinous that I quite like. Adorned with blobs of spritzzy citrus, it brightened up the dish no end. My fairly dull photo, below (the light was going and by gosh if I still haven’t gotten round to reading the instruction manual for the camera) doesn’t bring out the vibrancy of the green powdered wasabi – again, modernity rendering it tasteless – but the fish was  perfectly correctly cooked even if lacking a teeny bit in presentation. ‘Mussel butter’ leant it a nice saltiness – and by the way, joy of joys, a whole meal that wasn’t oversalted! – though possibly made the mussels a little less tender than they could have been. IMG_0683

I loathe reading reviews of meals where the main complaint runs along the lines of “the dishes were so tiny we had to eat somewhere else afterwards”, where value for money is determined by how easy it is for the diner to do up their buttons post repast. Having said that: whilst they were being generous with the protein, there was a distinct lack of carbohydrates. Though a paleo diet pleaser, if it weren’t for the second round of bread we ordered, we would genuinely have been a bit peckish. Not to mention a bit more tiddly, seeing as the matched wines were a terribly reasonable $30 extra per head…

Finally, with apologies for more shocking photography, the dessert was an awesome rich, blob of dulce de leche, with a scattering of crunchy candied pecans and a smear (what modern meal would be complete without a smear, after all) of sweetened pumpkin that even Mr C, a notorious shier awayer from squash of all sorts, enjoyed.IMG_0684

Personally, I wasn’t convinced that the coconut sorbet went that well with the rest of the dish, but it did go ever so well with the accompanying dessert wine, a Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise from La Pigeade.

Another successful Takeover, and who wouldn’t love top city chefs rocking up on your doorstep, after all?

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Hopeful diner

Contact the restaurant for details of upcoming Takeovers:

The Boulevard, Woy Woy NSW 2256
(02) 4341 1171

Fishy Take Overs

Well, been a quiet year here on LeftHandedChopsticks, because conversely, it’s been a hectic one for me personally. But there’s still been food adventures, here and abroad. Part of what I’ve been working on is a series of experiments with kimchi, of which hopefully more later in the year.

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More recently, I’ve been delighted to see those excellent chaps (and chapesses) at Woy Woy Fisherman’s Wharf (WWFW) have been inviting guest chefs to a short residency at their place, allowing us Coasties to eat out big city style and still be able to walk home. Well, nearly walk home.

Previously they’ve been graced by chefs from such leading lights as Momofuko Seibo, Longrain, and Pilu at Freshwater. This weekend was the turn of Troy Rhodes Brown of Muse fame, all the way from the Hunter Valley.

Muse, currently boasting 2 SMH Good Food Guide Hats, consistently gets good reviews from punters, and we could certainly see glimmers of that on Saturday. The ambience was there (they’d rolled out the actual linen napkins rather than paper towels!), the candles were twinkling, the view over the water as good as ever & our waiter was knowledgeable, attentive and generally awesome. All of which is, of course, WWFW rather than Troy/Muse themselves, though when I mentioned my food intolerance, they were more than happy to accommodate it, despite it being a major part of the dish in question. All the more disappointing therefore that the food itself, though excellently cooked, largely came out on the bland side. Our expectations were fairly high here and, whilst it wasn’t actually bad in any sense (and it must be tough working in someone else’s kitchen) it’s just that my socks were not really much moved, let alone knocked off.

Yes, I know this is a matter of taste; purely subjective & so on, but there we have it. With the exception of the dessert and the more gutsy Squid and King Brown Mushroom Noodles dish; easily the best of the evening for our table (as well as at least the one next to us, judging by their reactions), I came away wanting a bit more pizzazz. That squid though; local, Hawkesbury Squid shredded alongside the mushrooms to form thin, perfectly cooked noodles, dressed with a custard of miso and sake and topped by a (faintly sinister looking) black tapioca crisp, coloured by squid ink. Blobs of yuzu and ginger gels along with pretty pink garlic flowers zazzed up the flavour further.IMG_2693 IMG_2696

sans disturbing looking wafer

Other dishes of the set menu included a week-long marinated tuna – with a seaweed & ginger/garlic crust that neither of us could actually detect – which tasted…mildly of tuna. Medium rare and with an oddly crumbly surface texture, presumably from whatever it was marinated in for all that time. Much was made of the 9 hours roasted truss tomato which in my case was very salty, not very tender and off-puttingly refrigerator cold alongside the otherwise warm dish. Mr C ate it for me, which had the benefit of his being able to compare and contrast – mine was both colder and saltier than his so I guess that was just one of those plating up errors. Along with the rather tough piece of fennel.IMG_2699

The other appetizers fared slightly better, with the ocean trout rillettes coming out in cutesey little pots, differing on each table and paired with the only carbohydrate of the evening, some rather nice warm sourdough. IMG_2685The rillette itself was nice enough – apparently teamed with New Zealand wasabi, though again, neither of us were aware of it. I couldn’t help thinking it would have been stronger if the trout had been smoked perhaps; as it was I was having a hard job working out what kind of fish it was. Ditto the kingfish tartare – could’ve been any white fish. Looked a picture though. IMG_2689I wanted it to be more zingy, and from the looks of the write up, it should have been – pickled choko, shaved eschallots, shao hsing reduction, coriander, lime and spinach – absolutely none of which we could identify.  By the time it was wrapped in the baby cos leaves, it basically disappeared flavour wise. It’s a rum do when your dish is overpowered by lettuce.IMG_2691

I did like those little crunchy bits of what I’m sure were porky crackling, though it wasn’t mentioned in the summary.

Let me not give you the impression it was all dull, heavens no.

The share plate dessert, Coconut Cloud, was a perfection of frozen coconut cream offset beautifully by the tart mulberries, with tiny crunches from the black coconut sugar crystals and a bit of body from the coconut water sago pearls. IMG_2703IMG_2705Liberally sprinkled with flowers, it looked gorgeous – and huge, but strangely disappeared everso very quickly. Mr C displaying his more Labrador qualities whilst I was distracted by trying to get my camera to operate in the low light, I suspect.

We didn’t have the matched wines, though these were a very reasonable additional $30 (did say it wasn’t quite a walk); instead I had the rather splendid Victorian (but French style) La Sirene’s Saison, which I’ll be having again just as soon as I return. Which of course I shall. It may not sound like it from our grouches here (oh & did I mention the wait between the courses really was a touch on the lengthy side?) but we’re actually pretty keen to support any small business in the region keen to try out something new; and I do believe these guys are worth supporting.

So vive la guest chefs! Next up is the turn of Merivale’s Mr Wong – 4th & 5th December. Get in quick, Coasties….

Woy Woy Take Over, Woy Woy Fisherman’s Wharf, The Boulevard, Woy Woy

$80 per head plus drinks

Hawkesbury River Squid – the full colour guide to cleaning squid and calamari

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Here I’m going to show you how to clean squid / calamari, and follow up next time with a simple recipe for Salt & Pepper Squid.

2 medium squid usually does well for 4 people for a starter sized dish. I personally think a main course size of this would be overdoing a good thing!

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These chaps are local, Hawkesbury River squiddies, beautifully fresh – see the bright clear eyes – and the fishmonger assured me that you don’t need to de-skin them, but the same instructions would apply to any squid. Continue reading

Fishermen’s Wharf, Woy Woy

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Fishermen’s Wharf has a surprisingly varied beer menu. This totally gets my vote. Woy Woy is utterly devoid of decent drinking holes – actually, holes is a better description of what there is – so forking out to eat good seafood in order to drink beer with a water view doesn’t seem too much of a hardship. Sitting out on the Wharf itself you could be forgiven for thinking you’re actually somewhere rather nicer than, well, Woy Woy. The view is of Brisbane Water, Pelican Island and pelicans – lots of pelicans, some of them roosting mere feet away, eyeing up you, and more specifically, your fish based meal._MG_4484

A pelican…

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Pelican Island, as seen from your table….

There’s actually 3 parts to the ‘Wharf: it’s a multifunctional wet fish/takeaway chippie & cafe/fish restaurant and seems to be pretty popular, particularly since recent accolades. The restaurant is at the back, approached via a side passageway (look up as you walk along, to see curious (hopeful?) pelicans looking down at you from their perches on the roof), and is kitted out bare boards/casual/rustic stylee._MG_4495

Rustic Stylee…..We’re not sure why…

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The restaurant wharf extension

We’d had fish’n’chips from the takeaway before; reasonable stuff (still looking for an Australian equivalent of my beloved chippie in Aldeburgh, in the UK, with its amazing chips and beef dripping fried batter), but – and this might be my imagination – the chips are actually better from the restaurant than from the café out front. And I’m sure it’s the same kitchen. Is there a chip class system in place? Do they hold back the good stuff for the classier types round the back??_MG_4512

Fish of the day – $19.50

For these chips are really pretty good – approaching a glassy crunch on the outside, nice levels of those yummy, slightly browner, more translucent bits – only a fraction more fluffy action on the inside could make them any better. Practically a 9/10. Portion sizes decent too – I had 4 pieces of gurnard in my generic fish of the day and chips (“fry only” – like you’d want them grilled. Pah!) – $19.50. Mr C was cock-a-hoop with 2 fair sized blue swimmers in his crab hot pot special – $28, and though I think we could taste generic sweet chilli sauce making up the basis of the sauce, it was augmented with spring onions and other spicing to make it good enough for me to be chip dunking most of the evening._MG_4504

Blue swimmers, chilli crab

He’s previously had a lightly tarragon flavoured cream sauce with juicy clams plus a snapper & scallop ceviche during another visit – so that’s twice now he’s chosen better than me.  Not that my fish wasn’t well executed – crispy batter top and bottom, fish perfectly cooked through but not over on the thinner parts. I just wanted what he had. Again.

And then there’s the beer. A range of bottled from as far away as Mexico, California & Japan (2 types of rice beer!!) and as nearby as Erina (Six String Brewery, whose easy drinking Hefeweizen I rather took to), with home grown classics in between (Lord Nelson, Stone & Wood, Mountain Goat, Montieths from NZ). Something for everyone, just in time for summer.

I foresee many more visits….

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Ritual Restaurant, Nelson Bay

Ritual Cuisine, 2 Austral St, Nelson Bay NSW 2315,

So: this is a fabulously detailed post, with fascinating detail and (mostly) lovely pictures, but if you’re one of those ‘get to the point’ types, here’s the low down. If you love food as theatre, get to Ritual. Soon. 9/10

First off, let me tell you I have never been asked to fill out an acceptance of terms and conditions document, and return it signed before a booking can be confirmed. Not at the Fat Duck, not at Tetsuyas, not at Momofuku Seibo. Though the latter does have some booking quirks of its own.  So it was a surprise to receive it from Ritual. I mean, I get it, right? No shows give people the shits. I’ve been asked to provide a credit card in advance plenty enough, knowing I’d be charged if I didn’t turn up. Fair enough. Personally, I would never, ever not show up without ringing (well) in advance and explaining my dire emergency to the restaurant concerned. But I know that Joe Public is ultimately a selfish bastard, and can therefore understand eateries’ desire to firm up their bookings any way they can. So I filled out the form, sent it back, and heard…nothing. Until the day of the booking. Mmmm. Interesting start.

Is this a whinge? Am I saying not to go? Nope. Because other than that wee complaint, Ritual was absolutely terrific. Fantastic. Stunning. Dreamy. Whatever. I’m a fan and can I move in next door please? Alongside the IGA and the Malaysian takeaway. Cos that’s the other thing – the location is weird. So much so that when attempting to find them, walking the backstreets far from the hub of the town, we nearly rang to ask if we were in the wrong suburb. It’s in the middle of a quiet, middle class suburb of Nelson Bay, nowhere near anything even remotely ‘happening’.

Sorry, that sounded like another whinge, didn’t it? Well, in that case it will balance out the rest of this post, which frankly is going to sound as if I’m sponsored by Ritual (I’m not, sadly. Though if they want to send me samples of their excellent kimchee, I for one, am not going to complain).

The general format is to choose your appetiser, main, and dessert courses based on 2 samples which are presented and explained by the chef. The seating was described as communal (always gives me the horrors, that, since I hate talking to people I don’t know, finding out that they hold some awful clashing point of view to my own and then be stuck next to them for 4 hours. Ugh). As it turns out, the tables were sized for two but pushed together in a zigzag, cleverly allowing you to be a cosy couple, or sociable should you wish to be. Neat.

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Communal seating and set start time meant Chef had only to describe everything the once, which he did from the centre of the room before each course, presenting the rationale and the background to each dish, and an audience participation thing got going that bordered on a bit of a party atmosphere. There were questions from the floor about ingredients and techniques. Foodie heaven. There was so much information that I had a hard time jotting it all down – and ended up swapping notes with the couple posting photos opposite us! It was as if you’d asked a food blogger what could make a meal more perfect than just the taste, visuals and physicality of it all – most of us would probably say – “background on how it was made – techniques and process, experimentation and all”. Probably didn’t make for a romantic evening for two but I’ve no doubt that everyone was having a whale of a time – I could see they were.

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The first 2 samples – pork & apple, and white chocolate & caper

After leaving us for a while to taste the 2 samples, chattering excitedly about what the tasters could be leading to, he returned to take our orders, going round the room for call outs. Until each course was actually presented, we were kept guessing as to content; a totally genius way to keep the tension going, interest up. In between main courses were a succession of tidbits and more audience participation, ensuring we were never left idling waiting while food was prepped. Extra neat. The four hours just flew by!

Anyway – to the food. We started, outside over drinks, with a series of canapés, beginning with rosemary & garlic candy floss, served on a ‘stick’ of rosemary.??????????????????????????????? Intriguingly sweet at the same time as garlicky, it was a pleasing glimpse into the experimental nature of the food to come. As was the next canapé, an artichoke sorbet. Though not stated, I suspect from the flavour it was Jerusalem artichoke, earthy and actually quite plain. Wasn’t my favourite thing. Unlike the tom yum soup bubbles served on a tiny onion omelet, presented as ‘eggs’, with coriander & chilli ‘papers’ to add if you wished to. We wished to. It was divine. My flashed out picture, taken in the increasing twilight, simply doesn’t do it justice:???????????????????????????????IMG_9203

One of the pre dinner seating areas, cleverly separated from the restaurant by hanging dividers

Then it was time to take our places indoors and start the meal proper. I’d noticed while we were sitting outside that there was a fair bit of prep going on – intriguingly, on the wall hangings, where small canisters were being placed, and plastic spheres were appearing on a faux tree of wire.???????????????????????????????


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Intriguing paper lined little pots on the walls

At one end of the room, a wire covered ‘tree’ stood, surrounded by astro lawn. Peering into the tree, trying to work out the contents of the plastic ‘fruit’ balls – of which, more later – certainly made for an ice breaker, setting the format for the evening to come.IMG_9221

Though we’d been told not to try the soup spoon samples until they’d been described, we had a few more nibbles to be going on with while everyone settled down. Salty titbits in a wee bowl, plus a tiny – oh, so tiny! – spoonful of delectable kimchee, that I could’ve eaten by the truckload full:

???????????????????????????????After hot water was added to another bowl, the white tablet inside resolved into our instant hot hand towel. Kinda cute.  A pineapple and black sesame sorbet cleared the palate again – by now though the meal proper hadn’t begun we were already on our 6th or 7th dish.???????????????????????????????

Pineapple sorbet, black sesame

We were advised that all the nibbles were intended as prebiotics – a subject dear to my heart – the kimchee and pineapple especially. Finally we were allowed to try our first choice spoons – apple and pork or white choc and caper.  Orders were taken, and by this time the excitement over what could possibly be coming next was palpable. Delightfully, one of the pieces of wall art come into play – the artists models along one wall, each holding a diminutive tray.

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Hot, fresh from the oven baby rolls were placed for us to chose from; a camomile sourdough. This from a starter begun 2 years ago from water & camomile, allowing natural yeasts in the air and on the flowers to take hold.

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I could’ve eaten another – ooo, dozen or so? But no need, as at last the first ‘proper’ course arrived, the result of choosing the white chocolate and caper selection:

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A chicken brioche ‘pie’ with a white chocolate sauce, mange tout dukkah, containing chilli & caraway, cumin & hints of pickled onion, the salted capers almost licorice-y.  Personally I couldn’t handle the sweetness of the white chocolate here so I was pleased it was served separately. Mr C wolfed his and the rest of mine. In an error of judgement we had both chosen the same dish. No photos therefore of the apple and roast porky crackling amazement that we saw being delivered to the rest of the tables. (The split, in case you’re wondering, was about 50/50 for most of the dishes.)

Next up was a lime sorbet ‘cooked’ in nitrogen with a parsley dust and sherbet – the parsley giving an interesting grassy flavour to the zing of the lime.

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No sooner than that was snaffled, the second tasters appeared – one containing beetroot & the other, mushroom:???????????????????????????????

In between the ordering and the delivery of our mains, the wall art was reloaded with more teeny rolls; this time a pretzel bread, to be served with ‘beer butter’ – a bitter tasting, to me almost quinine-y, tannic affair complementing the dark, shiny bread.

More excitingly, we were encouraged to get up, wander about and help ourselves to the other wall hangings – which turned out to be Fish & Chips – the little paper lined pots containing sashimi, and the plastic spheres, celery crisps, deep fried pickled ginger, & crispy wonton skins. I’ll be making pickled ginger crispy in my own kitchen I think – it was a bit special.???????????????????????????????The beetroot sampler turned out to be kangaroo, with a strong beetroot theme; it had been marinated in beetroot, and was served with coffee marinated beetroot, deep fried beetroot, cous cous, & pickled cherries:

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I wasn’t expecting coffee’d beetroot to be as interesting as it was but actually that was one of my favourite parts of the dish – though the rest was delicious as well; the kangaroo tender, cooked to perfection (I’ve always managed to make it leather like in my attempts to cook it).

Mr C chose the mushroom – in fact, as I had specified no mushrooms for my dishes, I didn’t even receive the mushroom sample spoon – and his dish was a stunner.

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House smoked chicken yakatori, which had also been confit’d to fall apart tenderness, on buckwheat in stock & mushrooms, plus hazelnut, artichoke, pickled gherkin & onion in a separate cast iron casserole. That was dreamy, yumtious chicken. Healthy dose of carbs too – always welcome if I’m drinking; the frequent lack of which is one of my complaints about fine dining. Anyway, no such problems here.

Round about this point, given the matched wines (matched beers or teas also available), things started to get just a little hazy. I clearly recall the pink peppercorn fudge – partly because of the theatre of picking it from the final wall art:

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Pink peppercorn fudge

But this final palate cleanser I sadly failed to make a note of:

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And so to dessert, and our final sample spoons of the day:

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On one was a spiced apple (so I thought) and the other strawberry and cream.

The spiced apple was actually pear, and my notes are just a scrawl at this point. I think I said “poached, with pomegranate, malt, chocolate soil, pear, choc cake, cardomom ice cream, fudge choc malt (or milk??)”. Well whatever, it was lush. And see that dessert wine? That was lush too. God knows what it was. ???????????????????????????????

This is why I try not to do restaurant reviews. Do you see? Anyway, we again failed miserably and Mr C also chose pear (see comment above) – frankly the chances of him passing up on anything chocolate-y were slim to non existent. So here’s a picture of another couples’ strawberry based dessert:

???????????????????????????????Looks mighty fine, doesn’t it? They wouldn’t let me eat it (I tried) so I have only their thumbs up to go on here. This puts Ritual in that rare category of a restaurant able to do starter, main and dessert to the same standard – so many seem to find this a challenge. We have a code for it – a place is a starter/main (ie crap at afters) or perhaps a starter/dessert. Avoid mains. So another well done, Ritual.

So much of what they achieved in such a small premises is down to canny planning and a real passion for what they do. The format they use to such amazing effect means they can use seasonal ingredients that change, naturally, all the time, much of which can be prepared in advance – all those palate cleansers, for instance – while still making it an interactive and fun experience. They don’t need to have a huge menu – just 2 choices per course, but presented so ingeniously that no-one would ever find this restrictive. If you desire a quiet, romanatic place to pop the question, Ritual may not be for you. But if you are interested in great, sustainable food and a jolly good evening out, get along there. Oh did I mention that they’re also ridiculously cheap?

April 15 update: Disappointed to note that the restaurant is now listed as closed. Sigh.

Port Stephens, NSW

There was a public holiday here in NSW recently and the House of Chopsticks decided a trip to the nearby Port Stephens was called for. In the interests of promoting this lovely part of the world, (Sydneysiders! Life outside the City!) here’s a little travelog.

Staying in Nelson Bay seemed the obvious choice as it’s the most densely populated town-let with the largest range of accommodation (well, largest for a last minute booking – maybe that speaks volumes in itself?), but the real beauty of the area is all around the bay. The rugged, rocky southern side of the peninsula is grandly wild – where it isn’t covered in allegedly the largest moving sand dune in the Southern Hemisphere.

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One of the things that’s a given while you’re here is sandboarding on the famous Stockton Dunes, where you hire a tiny plastic board and are 4WD hauled out to favoured, precipitous spots, ready to spend as long as you like whizzing down ridiculously steep slopes. Well, as long as your legs hold out, what with the walking back up to the top each time. Mr C was dubious about the appeal of this at first, but was soon shrieking like a girl as he plummeted down.

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Check out the height of that dune! We went with Sand Dune Safaris, but there’s plenty of companies to choose from and you can just rock up at the Lower Car Park, Birubi Point, Anna Bay without booking.

And yes, there really are camels, though sadly not wild ones; they were packed up and sent back to their farm home at the end of each day of plodding tourists along the sands.

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But of course it was the food I was most fixated on. No trip to the area can be complete without a trip to Murray’s Brewery – I note they’re doing wines as well these days – and they do a brisk trade of a public holiday weekend, I can tell you. Their Moon Boy ale was a winner with us, as was their most basic (cheapest at $18) garlic pizza:

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They were doing a roaring trade that weekend, and we hadn’t booked a table, so we ended up, as did many others, happily picnicked near their vines, under the shady trees.???????????????????????????????

As to Nelson Bay itself, it’s a fair enough little place. For a relatively small town there is a range of pretty reasonable eateries, alongside the usual seaside offerings. There’s good breakfast and coffee options all along the front, near the Tourist Info office, and a couple of streets in from the Marina are popular cafes recommended to us by several shop keepers. We ate at Sandpipers Restaurant, a nice enough choice but I don’t recall what I ate so…Mr C enjoyed his prawn hotpot, usually a starter but ordered as a main. Through ‘yum’ noises, he commented that its richness could’ve done with a little something green to set it off. I was disappointed that the wholefood cafe Essence on Donald was closed for the public holiday – as they stock foods from Ritual Restaurant (of which more later) and I was ready to pay in blood for their kimchee.

Much is made of the local prawns and oysters – next time we’ll try the Fishermans Wharf and the intriguing sounding ‘Bubs’. But this time we were saving ourselves for our dinner at Ritual. And I’ll tell you about that, next time.

Cafés – Central Coast Style

Breakfast locations are not in short supply on the Central Coast.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not complaining about this; I love a good weekend brekkie, especially one I haven’t had to cook myself. For a long while we’ve been wishing for more decent night time options round here though. Particularly looking out over the water – whether that be inland (Brisbane Water, Tuggerah Lake) or the sea.

Seems our wishes have been heard; many of the better cafés are now opening in the evenings, with booze licences and everything.

Newer openings around Ettalong and Umina include the Box on the Water, and Jasmine Green’s Café & Kiosk, Pachamama at Hardy’s Bay, plus there’s a wealth of good cafés in Ettalong already – Coast 175, Ferry Café, Wollombi Pantry to name but the odd one. Coast is the only place I’ve found that I can buy my precious Campos coffee beans up this way too.

So I thought I’d mention a few of my breakfasty / brunch go to’s:

My TOP PICK at the moment – is Pachamama, Hardy’s Bay. (*June ’15: see note, below)IMG_8999For me, they tick all my boxes – local, organic offerings including from their own gardens, green credentials, nice vibe, good view, great food and great service.IMG_9003

View out to Hardy’s Bay from Pachamama

The menu is brief, and changes regularly; I’d prefer a short, well executed menu than one with all the usual suspects, but delivered in a lacklustre fashion. In any event, they were happy to cook a version of one of their dishes just for me because I hate mushrooms. I’m sure they would be happy to whip up whatever you wanted as long as they had the ingredients – and, seeing as they have an (optional) organics bartering thing going on, you could probably just take your own! (The idea is to take them your lovely home-grown organic veggies and in return, you drink their coffee or eat their food, depending on what’s agreed. Toppest top marks! If you eat there in the next day or two and have mustard greens, they will be from my garden!) I was even offered a new flat white if the one they’d made me – with my lactose free milk – wasn’t flat enough (on the basis that she wasn’t used to my milk so it was frothier than she’d hoped!).IMG_9004

Latte/recycled, hand painted chairs

The extra touches with the food make it for me – homemade pesto drizzled our plates, and generous dollops of delicious homemade tomato chutney.IMG_9013Even the egg and bacon roll was adorned with beautifully cooked fresh peas, greens and (sadly for me) mushrooms – which Mr C claimed were really good. Despite having a whole plateful of his own:IMG_9005

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Bespoke, no mushrooms!

Best for ViewPoint Café at Killcare. World class view of the beach and sea from a 1st story vantage point. Downside is the prices. I don’t want to pay $24 for a breakfast, people! Not unless it’s prepared by Heston Blumenthal, anyway. Due to this I now only visit when I have friends to the area to impress with our views.                              Runner up – Box on the Water, Ettalong: looks out over to Wagstaffe and Pretty Beach, on the Broken Bay end of Brisbane Water, where the two unofficially meet up. Pretty as a picture, and great food. Plus they do a naturally lactose friendly coconut milk quinoa porridge. Wow. IMG_9017

The Box on the Water, Ettalong, and the view out towards Lion Island

IMG_9020Runner up – View ain’t half bad from The Entrance Lake House, if you can score a spot near the window, looking out over Tuggerah Lake. Also good if you fancy a microbrewery schooner or two along with. Brunch that is. Not beer with brekkie!   Runner up: Pachamama, Hardy’s Bay; across the road from the bay, the whole café is outside (under cover). My overall top pick, see above.

Best for house roastBlend & Roast, Koolewong. There are a couple of tables outside and a good park 100m away (Couche Park) with lovely views of Brisbane Water for those take aways, but the café itself is not one for the looks. Go here for the coffee, which is roasted in front of you on the premises, and the friendly staff (owner is a Brit, not that I’m biased at all). roaster1

The roaster at Blend & Roast, Koolewong

Honourable mention – Jasmine Greens at Umina Beach; not a house roast but using Mecca coffee from Alexandria, a special brew with amazing citrus notes. Makes for an amazing espresso! Plus awesome food & pastries.

Apparently Loo Loo at Copacobana is good, comes well recommended for it’s house coffees but I haven’t visited as yet. Will let you know when I have.

Kid Friendly – look, Disclaimer: I don’t have kids, and I’m sure most places are kid friendly, but I would say that Jasmine Greens and the Box on the Water are both right next to playgrounds. Also spotted plenty of paper and colouring sticks in happy fervent use on the floor at the former, last time I was there. Easy to see the playground and keep an eye on the blighters through the huge glass windows too.IMG_9030

Awesome Rhubarb & Strawberry toastie, Jasmine Green, Umina

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 Jasmine Green’s and playground

Commuter friendly – Short Black, Woy Woy. Reasonable coffee with a smile, friendly as all get out and in a perfect location to grab and go if you happen to be one of the many who park up at Woy Woy and travel into the City. Love their bacon and sweetcorn muffins; they have a daily range of sweet and savoury muffins and quiches made in house. Not open at weekends.

For when you need deli items too: Wollombi Pantry in Ettalong and The Fat Goose at Hardy’s Bay; coffee is good at both & we love the sweet potato crisps at Wollombi that come with everything.IMG_9002

Just for the home made Greek sausages: Ela Mesa in Woy Woy.  Funny little place which seems to be attached to the motel; doesn’t look promising, but if you scratch the surface and get chatting to the owner, you find out interesting things such as how he makes his own sausages; from goat, marinated in red wine and his own blend of herbs and spices. It is a thing to behold – treacle black like a blood pudding but with a rich, complex flavour. OK I confess this isn’t a serious recommendation but the sausages are really good and there really isn’t much else in Woy Woy….

For the hipster vibe: top of the Central Coast hipster list has got to be Glass Onion Society in Long Jetty. I mean, doesn’t the name say it all? Decent coffee, with art gallery to boot. Trawl round all the vintage shops nearby (of which it is pretty much one itself) and make a morning of it.

Needless to say all the cafes above have been happy to use my lactose free milk when I’ve supplied it. Which is why I do not, sadly, go to Gnostic Manna, Woy Woy any more. They refused.

Edit, June 2015: I’m sad to say Pachamama is closing on 14th June 2015. Just not enough passing trade visiting Hardy’s Bay during the week. But happily Pachamama continues in the form of her catering business; a rare thing is a specialist vegan/vegetarian caterer. Contact them at www.pachamama2257.com .

Durian – an illustrated guide (thankfully, not scratch ‘n’ sniff)

So – I’ve been on holiday for a couple of weeks looking after relatives from blighty, making our own entertainment in the unseasonably warm surrounds of the Central Coast.

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Food wise, once we’d hit lovely new restaurant the Box on the Water at Ettalong a couple of times (great brekkie, great dinner, great coffee, though kiosk lunch slightly more variable – fish’n’chips basically ok, but my salad entirely devoid of any dressing) and gone the usual scenic café route (Point Café at Killcare a case in point) it was back to good ol’ home cooking. Laksa with home made laksa paste a la Christine Mansfield, pressure cooked rendang, Christmas in July (natch). And, on request from the Olds, a durian.

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Now, I’m not unfamiliar with durian. It’s stinkiness goes before it, usually literally, albeit this particular example (from a grocer in Chatswood) was actually remarkably bland smelling – until opened – though there were a few sidelong looks on the train as it commuted its way back along the North Shore line.

But with there just being the two of us, and durian being so big, and Mr C being an anglo, well….let’s just say it’s not a regular on our fruity 2 a day roster. In fact, basically I’ve never actually opened one myself before.

They look menacing right? A weaponisable, medieval mace of a fruit. No idea where to start? Well allow me to assist!

Start with either hand protectors (oven gloves would be good) or hold it with a newspaper as we did. Those spines mean business!

Take a good look at the fruit. You’ll see that there are actually sections in the shell, kinda giant segment lines in between the spines. Follow these to the point of the fruit and insert a large, sharp knife there. Follow the line of one of the spines down – the skin is tough so use your muscle power. ???????????????????????????????

Repeat with the next segment line – and when you get to the end, stick the knife into your cut and twist. The segments will pop open – OK, so pop is maybe an exaggeration, you probably will need to get your finger tips in and pull out your first durian segment:

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The custardy goodness revealed!

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Keep going until you’ve sectioned the whole fruit – it doesn’t keep that well so you may as well cut it all up at once.

Next, use a spoon to scoop out the soft, yellowish flesh, which will contain a dark brown, inedible seed. Discard the seeds.???????????????????????????????

While you’re at it, discard the shell too – unless you need to inflict injury upon someone, in which case throwing would be an option. ???????????????????????????????You’ll be left with a plateful of unedifying looking custardy mush (here pictured still with the seeds in amongst):

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According to the Olds, this one was a bit over ripe.

Next step: ignore the smell and tuck in! It’s going to be messy – this isn’t a first date food. Fingers – or cutlery if you have the patience. Enjoy the custard like texture, the faint savoury-ness of it. Think soft cooked scrambled eggs, crossed with….well actually I don’t know what. It’s its own thing. You love it, or hate it. It’s a Marmite fruit.

Brisbane Water Sunset

The Central Coast is, admittedly, a little short on small bars. All the rage in the City, the sticks are, as always, a bit slow to catch up.

As we travel about the Coast, we’re forever saying to each other – ‘wow! this would be a great spot for a lovely little bar, some tables, few tapas, what a view!’. Sadly, there’s only two that we know of on the water and they’re a) restauarants and b) a bit of a drive away.

Not to be defeated, every now and then we do our own thing; set up on a bit of public land with a fantastic view, and settle down to watch the sunset with a glass of wine or a beer. Not in a hobbo sort of way, you understand; obviously we have glasses, picnic blankets and tableware. And snacks. There are standards.

Last weekend we picked a spot, settled down with our latest favourite ale, and some fine mature cheddar. And gherkins, obviously. As we sat, legs dangling over the pier, we were visited by a small ray, and a married couple. Of ducks. Which pecked my bare toes. The sun set. It was warm. Small things, which made me very happy.

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