Casa Marcelo, Santiago de Compostela

 
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I have died and gone to heaven.  I'm not usually prone to spiritual exultation but that was my first thought after my first bite of food at this restaurant. Maybe I'm connecting to all the spirits of pilgrims past who journeyed here for the Camino de Santiago, seeking complete absolution so they could ascend to heaven with an untainted soul.  Maybe it's because our accommodation used to be a Catholic convent. Maybe it's because none of us imagined we'd have our best meal of this trip to date in this religious city of Galicia.

Oyster Gillardeau

Oyster Gillardeau

Pan casero

Pan casero

Casa Marcelo offers Japanese tapas of the best kind, taking advantage of Galicia's renown for amazing seafood. It's located on Rua das Hortas, a mere stone's throw away from Praza do Orbradoiro. Casa Marcelo is surprisingly cosmopolitan in this quaint UNESCO World Heritage town of cobblestoned streets. 

Tomato salad with garlic sauce and rocoto (a kind of Spanish pepper) sorbet

Tomato salad with garlic sauce and rocoto (a kind of Spanish pepper) sorbet

San Martino (fish sashimi) with usuku

San Martino (fish sashimi) with usuku

We were so affected by this gastronomic event that even my teetotaler mum had a divine intervention and ordered a glass of wine claiming she just had to drink something that matched the bounty on her plate. If this is the Way of St James, then I may turn into a pilgrim yet.

Poke picante de toro (spicy tuna) 

Poke picante de toro (spicy tuna) 

 

Casa Marcelo has a funky and modern look with a long communal table as well as a chef's table fronting the open kitchen.

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Fritura de cabracho (fried scorpion fish) with garlic aioli

Fritura de cabracho (fried scorpion fish) with garlic aioli

It is owned by Marcelo Tejedor who is a chef himself. The staff were friendly, relaxed and attentive. I tried to get a photo of head chef Martin Vazquez but he refused to have a photo by himself insisting he will only have photos taken with the entire team. He gets 5 stars from me just for that!

Head chef Martin Vazquez (4th from left) and his team  

Head chef Martin Vazquez (4th from left) and his team  

Speaking of stars, this is one of the best-value Michelin starred restaurant I've been to. The 3 of us had 8 courses, 6 glasses of wine plus water and bread and the bill was only 136 euros.

Steak tartar

Steak tartar

Plantain in pastry with vanilla ice cream and orange sauce (divine!) 

Plantain in pastry with vanilla ice cream and orange sauce (divine!) 

Limon gratinado  

Limon gratinado  

So if you happen to be in Santiago de Compostela, make this restaurant part of your pilgrimage and have a buen Camino.

El Barril de Las Letras, Madrid

 
Red prawn paella

Red prawn paella

I don't know about you but I always get a little nervous about taking on restaurant recommendations when it's from someone I've just met. People have different tastes. When I'm in a foreign country, my bad-meal anxiety kicks in even more because I wonder if I'm being sent off to slaughter at a tourist trap. I have serious trust issues.

We just met Moises this morning, our local guide, and as lovely, informative and helpful as he is, I was on tenterhooks until the first plate of food arrived.

Moises recommended this place for seafood and paella so those were exactly what we ordered. They started us with a plate of olives and based on its taste and presentation, I began to exhale slowly.

We were each presented with complimentary hot bean casserole in a mini tureen which I forgot to take a photo of. It was warm, satisfying and told me everything was going to be alright.

The restaurant is an easy walking distance from the Prado Museum and far enough from tourist crowds. e arrived just after 2 pm and my Sydney brain initially registered the few occupied tables as people just finishing off their lunches. In actual fact, we were one of the early guests and by 3 pm this large restaurant was packed with smartly dressed locals eating their biggest meal of the day.

 

The fried calamari was perfectly cooked and seasoned, served with a mix of pickled peppers. Even the green salad was a standout with the tomatoes having just the right balance of sweetness and acidity. The berberechos or clams were divine and had bread-dunking-worthy sauce made of olive oil, garlic, white wine, parsley (but ground to a paste rather than just chopped and I think this method gave it a much deeper flavour) and chilli. 

Fried calamari & tomato salad

Fried calamari & tomato salad

Berberechos

Berberechos

We were so full and couldn't imagine ordering dessert. This didn't stop us from scoffing down these complimentary morsels of butter cake.

Butter cake

Butter cake

So thanks to Moises Perez Zapata, the friendly staff and talented Filipino (yes!) chef at El Barril de Las Letras, this little piggy was happy and cried hee hee hee all the way home!

Yok Thai Tapas, Neutral Bay

Thai tapas?  I admit I was dubious when this restaurant first opened in Neutral Bay a few years ago. Was it going to be fusion? If it was, how could the strong Thai flavours successfully work with Western cuisine?

salmon ceviche with avocado, ponzu, flying fish roe, truffle oil & shiso

salmon ceviche with avocado, ponzu, flying fish roe, truffle oil & shiso

Now before I carry on and risk sounding like like a food-blogging tosser, let me deviate for a paragraph or two and qualify my intentions for writing about restaurants. I do not tout myself as a restaurant expert or gourmand and therefore have no desire to review restaurants as if I were. I like to write. I like to eat. So I'm going to write about what I like to eat.

Make no mistake though. I am writing about restaurants for selfish reasons. I'm only writing about restaurants I like. I want to spread the good word about them because I want them to stay in business and keep ME happy! I cannot count the number of times I've bemoaned the closure of a restaurant I love and repented too late, "if only I'd gone there more often," "if only I'd taken more people there." MoVida, Sel et Poivre, Japaz, Tomislav, Chez Rene, Uchi Lounge- RIP.

Dining blog mission statement done. Back to Yok Thai.

In my humble opinion, mixing cuisines can lead to calamity or something heavenly if done with a deft palate.  The grey areas don't taste good. Japanese cuisine lends itself well to fusion largely because its mild flavours can benefit from being uplifted by Peruvian flavours Nobu-style or complimented by French flavours and techniques the way Tetsuya does it. But super aromatic Thai cuisine with lots of chillies? Hmm...

prawns on betel leaf

prawns on betel leaf

Then there's the tapas description. If by tapas they mean small dishes to be shared, can they pull it off and really go beyond curry puffs and spring rolls? Or will it be a glorified Thai mixed entree but on separate plates?

These misgivings and the sad fact that the restaurant's main view is a brightly fluorescent Woolworth's store across the road meant it took me me several months before venturing to make a booking.

Twelve months later and we've taken at least 10 different groups of people who've all wanted to go back. That doesn't include those other times Mr B and I have just popped in for a quick dinner - and picked up some toiletries or a packet of mint slice at Woolies, so the proximity has its perks.

shucked oyster with lime, chilli nam jim & crispy shallots

shucked oyster with lime, chilli nam jim & crispy shallots

Yok Thai does fusion lightly and wisely. The large tapas menu mixes Thai cuisine with flavours from China, Japan, Italy, South America and France. You can expect salmon ceviche, Thai seasoned fries, steamed scallop & pork belly wonton and stuffed zucchini flowers.  Don't miss the twice-cooked pork belly that has been slow-cooked to melt in your mouth but only after it has been crisped up in a light golden batter and tossed in a sweet savoury sauce.

There are a lot of dishes that are still unadulteratedly Thai like curries, satay sticks, fish cakes and stir-fries and Yok Thai does them well. But if all you want is regular Thai, kindly go somewhere else and free up some tables for the rest of us that go there for the tapas (or gub glam, meaning food eaten with alcohol).

spicy prawn crackers with pork and crab meat dip

spicy prawn crackers with pork and crab meat dip

crispy mini chicken wings

crispy mini chicken wings

Somehow having tapas feels more fun and sociable. You get to sample a bigger variety of food. You use your fingers more. You probably drink more and laugh more. Even the food looks fun. If that's not fun enough, you'll be pleased to know you can BYO and grab your wine from the bottle shop across the road. With the average tapas dish being around $15-$20, tapping your bank cards at the end of your meal won't hurt so much.

Yok Thai's fit-out reflects the same vibe. The space is dimly lit like a wine bar but with candles, wooden tables and dark cabinetry that cosy up the place. The eclectic mix of decor with only a faint whiff of hipster makes the atmosphere modern and lively.

A final note. I know I've gone on about the tapas - but if you're going to make an exception (which I often do but only for this), do it for the truffle fried rice. Please. How those ugly little lumps of fungus can transform so many dishes is a glorious mystery to me. Check it out at yokthaitapas.com.au and makes us all happy.

TFR - truffle fried rice with crab meat & mushrooms

TFR - truffle fried rice with crab meat & mushrooms

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cooking with Chef Dan Hong

Last Saturday,  I went to my first cooking class at the Sydney Seafood School. I know they've been around for ages and come to think of it, it's strange that it has taken me this long to get to one of their classes. Strange because I've been consuming a lot of cooking classes during my overseas holidays recently and yet it has been more than 10 years since I've done one in Sydney.

So what got me there? Mr Wong, I mean, Hong did. Chef Dan Hong, that is.  I'm a big fan of the food at Ms G's and Mr Wong. Squid ink nasi goreng, crispy pork hock with apple kimchi, and pan fried prawn toast with foie gras and almonds to name a few.  "Classic with a twist," was how Chef Hong described his food. These restaurants use premium quality produce and dish out ridiculously tasty Asian food handled with finesse (no gluggy sauces, overly thick batters, or dodgy mixed seafood meats here). As soon as you have one dish, you'd think, oh my god, I've got to come back here, and then order more. The menu does keep changing at Ms G's so you don't get to have the dishes you like often enough. On the upside, it's great to look forward to what they'd come up with next and go, oh my god, I've got to come back here, all over again.

I've been thrilled since Sydney chefs seriously began embracing Asian food and doing their different takes on it. Fifteen years ago, I could only remember Tetsuya Wakuda and Neil Perry excelling in Sydney and I suppose they were the pioneers. I mean, which top local chef hasn't worked with Tetsuya?

Top to bottom: tempura of bugs with sriracha mayonnaise, new-style sashimi of cobia with yuzu, ginger & leeks and steamed hapuku with egg fried rice and shiro dashi sauce. We did make a fourth dish, the diamond shell clams with corn, butter, chorizo and basil but there was a hairy arm that managed to sneak into the photo so I haven't included it here.

Top to bottom: tempura of bugs with sriracha mayonnaise, new-style sashimi of cobia with yuzu, ginger & leeks and steamed hapuku with egg fried rice and shiro dashi sauce. We did make a fourth dish, the diamond shell clams with corn, butter, chorizo and basil but there was a hairy arm that managed to sneak into the photo so I haven't included it here.

The class was advertised to run from 11 am - 3 pm but most of us were done cooking and eating by just after 2 pm. The first one and a half hours had Chef Hong cooking 4 dishes in an auditorium, complete with 4 TV screens capturing what he was doing on the kitchen bench. Chef Hong was relaxed and casual in his manner but would become animated when he tasted his finished product and delightedly say, "siiiiick!" and shake his head with disbelief.  At one point, Chef Hong was heroically sawing into the hard top shell of a Balmain Bug with a - yikes, bread knife, and was pointedly told by one his assistants what the knife's purpose is usually for.  Well, what's the point of being a top chef if not to have mignons do the all the prepping for you?

Chef Hong in action and reading off the recipe sheet. And here I thought top chefs only cooked from their gut instincts and highly developed taste buds. How reassuring for the rest of us!

Chef Hong in action and reading off the recipe sheet. And here I thought top chefs only cooked from their gut instincts and highly developed taste buds. How reassuring for the rest of us!

After the lecture, we were swiftly herded into a huge room where all the work stations were. Each work station had a stove, sink, bench top, fridge and probably an oven (? I can't remember because we didn't use it).  There were 5-6 people at each work station and each station got to make all 4 dishes. A huge tick, in my books, because it really allowed me to have a go at making the different dishes instead of just watching someone else do it.  Chef Hong and his assistants were regularly coming to each station to guide and make sure we were on track.

BSK trying to copy Hong's deft deep frying technique of swirling the tempura bug in the oil to make sure the batter sets before completely dropping it in.

BSK trying to copy Hong's deft deep frying technique of swirling the tempura bug in the oil to make sure the batter sets before completely dropping it in.

Before I knew it, an hour had gone by and people from each work station started clearing and taking their food to another room, the dining room, where we got to enjoy the fruits of our labour with a nicely chilled glass of Taylor's riesling. My partner only came along to support me and his gripe was we could've done with more than 1 bottle of riesling for each table of 6 people. Too true, as our group started to pour the wine we realised we wouldn't have enough to fill 6 happy glasses and began tipping the wine in each other's less happy glasses to even things out. 

I can honestly say all the dishes that we made were delicious. When I was watching Chef Hong prepare them, I did wonder how tasty they would be because they all seemed quite simple to make. I guess that's what you get when you have really good recipes like his. And, that did lead me to purchase his cookbook on the day (dedicated and signed, no less, which reminds me of how my partner got me a signed copy of Tetsuya's cookbook but that's another story).  I've flicked through Chef Hong's cookbook before and the food looked amazing. I think I just assumed that because they looked amazing then they must be really hard to make. Wrong! 

It was a full class of 60 people and I was really impressed with how everything went so smoothly. The entire event was very organised and the facilities were clean.  Staff were helpful and worked efficiently.  Overall, the cooking class was run very professionally and probably worth the cost of $165 pp, although I'm sure they could've easily squeezed in another glass of riesling. Perhaps the most surprising thing was the parking. It was free, yes, free! I mean, when do you ever get free parking in Sydney?! Maybe, the parking fee was included in the cost anyway but even if it was, what clever marketing to say it's free. It certainly worked on me!

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fermentAsian, Barossa Valley

I'm only going to say a few things about this restaurant. I booked it for my family's Easter lunch because I was intrigued by Chef Tuoi Do. She won SA's chef of the year award in 2011- less than 2 years after she opened and without having any prior professional cooking experience. Her restaurant has also been garnering several wine list of the year awards ever since. I'm happy to report none of these accolades have been exaggerated. 

fermentAsian is easily the best Vietnamese food I've had in Australia and what a lovely surprise to find it in the heart of the Barossa. The 7-course Chef's Tasting Menu is a steal at $65 per person. Every single dish was well balanced and cooked to perfection. The restaurant is set in a beautiful old stone house with a tasteful modern interior. I was also impressed by how the staff remained relaxed and friendly and the food came out at a good pace despite being a busy Easter lunch service. My only complaint is it's not located in Sydney! 

Fresh betel leaves with sticky caramelised Hampshire pork

Fresh betel leaves with sticky caramelised Hampshire pork

Grilled SA prawns with pomelo salad

Grilled SA prawns with pomelo salad

A new favourite wine (crisp, delicate with light spices) thanks to this fantastic example of garganega wine

A new favourite wine (crisp, delicate with light spices) thanks to this fantastic example of garganega wine

SA squid stir-fried with Chinese celery and spices - my favourite!

SA squid stir-fried with Chinese celery and spices - my favourite!

Woops. Too yummy I forgot to take a photo first. Melt-in-your-mouth yellow curry of SA snapper. 

Woops. Too yummy I forgot to take a photo first. Melt-in-your-mouth yellow curry of SA snapper. 

fermentAsian
Another delicious drop

Another delicious drop

Hanoi Spring Rolls with fresh herbs and classic Vietnamese dipping sauce

Hanoi Spring Rolls with fresh herbs and classic Vietnamese dipping sauce

Salad of grilled wagyu beef with chilli jam

Salad of grilled wagyu beef with chilli jam

Barossa Hampshire pork belly with ginger and orange sauce and stir-fried seasonal vegetables with garlic & fish sauce

Barossa Hampshire pork belly with ginger and orange sauce and stir-fried seasonal vegetables with garlic & fish sauce

There are no photos of dessert because we were too stuffed to have any. It's not a big dessert menu but i've already tagged the tapioca with orange and Szechuan pepper ice cream for next time.

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Hill of Grace, Adelaide Oval

Our foodie friends took us to Hill of Grace restaurant because of the menu's Filipino influences and its partnership with Henschke wines didn't hurt.  I still recall being perplexed when we fronted up to Adelaide oval wondering if our dinner was in a food truck or kiosk lurking around the corner.  Maybe, we're getting a pork adobo (a stew with pork marinated in vinegar, soy sauce and garlic) roll while we watch an AFL game. It was all a bit surreal as we entered the deserted stadium and were ushered into a formal room that curved alongside the oval. I'd love to see what it's like when a game is on.  It's hard to imagine how the restaurant can maintain its muted voices, soft footsteps and uncreased linen while an adrenalin-fuelled crowd was raging right beside it without looking like a scene from Monty Python.

We only ordered the Filipino inspired items because how often do we get the chance to try Filipino dishes, fine-dining style, in an oval and outside of the Philippines? I was excited when I saw the words longanisa, sinigang, kare kare and sisig on the menu. We chose the 4-course menu ($105 per person) and that didn't include the wine; this is the least amount of food you can order because they don't do ala carte.

The amuse bouche of oysters was a fabulous theatrical start. The fresh oysters were topped with a finger lime froth and moored in a foggy seascape made of dry ice and seaweed. A little less froth might've been better as the tanginess overpowered the oysters a bit.

Amuse bouche of oysters

Amuse bouche of oysters

Sisig, grilled pork, spring onion, soft egg. Sisig is a pulutan (ie food that you snack on with an ice cold beer) and is made up of diced meat coming from a pig's head, ears and liver.  The meat is flavoured with onions, calamansi and chillis and typically served on a hot sizzling plate making the meat crispy and smoky. 

Sisig, grilled pork, spring onion, soft egg. Sisig is a pulutan (ie food that you snack on with an ice cold beer) and is made up of diced meat coming from a pig's head, ears and liver.  The meat is flavoured with onions, calamansi and chillis and typically served on a hot sizzling plate making the meat crispy and smoky. 

Siningang, marron, native lemon grass, radish, native tamarind. Sinigang is a savoury and sour soup made from tamarind.

Siningang, marron, native lemon grass, radish, native tamarind. Sinigang is a savoury and sour soup made from tamarind.

Tres leche cake, kumquat marmalade, calamasi curd, calamansi sorbet & crunchy mandarin

Tres leche cake, kumquat marmalade, calamasi curd, calamansi sorbet & crunchy mandarin

Longanisa, poached egg & garlic chips. Longanisa is a Flipino pork sausage typically eaten at breakfast with eggs and garlic rice.

Longanisa, poached egg & garlic chips. Longanisa is a Flipino pork sausage typically eaten at breakfast with eggs and garlic rice.

All the Filipino-inspired dishes were easily recognisable in terms of taste but garbed in modern French plating.  The sinigang, was outstanding, particularly due to the clarity of the broth and its taste. They did, however, have longanisa as a starter, sisig as an entree and kare kare as a main. Each of these dishes are quite rich one their own. If you were eating these at a Flilipino table, you'd be sharing them, eating them with rice, flavouring some of them with a squeeze of calamansi and all these go a long way in preventing taste and gut overload. This isn't to say we didn't enjoy our meals but by the time my main of kare kare arrived, I could barely eat it because I was so full. My overall observation is that some of the dishes were wobbly when it came to the balance of flavours, tending to be overly sweet, sour or rich.

My father was anticipating the arrival of his kare kare kangaroo tail only to find the tail had gone largely into the stock and bagoong. The big piece of meat on this dish was actually from the area above the tail. This sparked off a lengthy discussion which eventually included the waiter and one of the chefs explaining why the appendage was missing from the plate in its traditional form. The chef who came out to talk to us was lovely (sorry I forgot her name) and she explained how they decided to use a normal looking piece of meat because they weren't sure how people would react to dining on a plate of tail. 

I think presenting a type of cuisine most people are unfamiliar with can be quite challenging. Those who grew up with it will want it the way their mothers made it while those new to it may struggle with flavours, textures and cooking styles they're not used to. I would love to see Filipino food enjoyed by more people and I'm glad that Hill of Grace is giving it a good go.

Kare kare, kangaroo tail, squid bagoong & peanut chards. Kare kare is a stew often made from ox tail and peanut sauce accompanied by a pungent shrimp paste called bagoong.

Kare kare, kangaroo tail, squid bagoong & peanut chards. Kare kare is a stew often made from ox tail and peanut sauce accompanied by a pungent shrimp paste called bagoong.

Petit fours

Petit fours

Filipino BBQ chicken tails, leather jacket cheeks, quince puree, sea urchin emulsion, salmon roe and desert limes

Filipino BBQ chicken tails, leather jacket cheeks, quince puree, sea urchin emulsion, salmon roe and desert limes

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Paul Bocuse, Collognes-au-Mont-d'Or

 
Lobster salad a la Francaise. This lobster was completely de-shelled.

Lobster salad a la Francaise. This lobster was completely de-shelled.

Did you know that French gastronomy is on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list? If you want to sample some quintessentially French food, then you must head to Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France.  It has one of the highest number of restaurants per capita in France. Lyon has rustic French food and bouchons, a type of restaurant only found in Lyon that is usually family owned and serves traditional rich Lyonnaise food that developed from feeding the silk workers of Croix-Rousse coming back hungry from their night shifts. Lyon is also famous for the pope of French cuisine, Paul Bocuse, who broke the rules of the Lyonnaise bouchons and came up with a lighter, fresher and more artful presentation of food called nouvelle cuisine.

Turbot with potato scales

Turbot with potato scales

I decided to start with Paul Bocuse for my first travel post because France is one of my favourite places to visit. It was also during this trip that I began taking food photos. 

Pigeon in puff pastry with young cabbage

Pigeon in puff pastry with young cabbage

Veal sweetbreads braised

Veal sweetbreads braised

 

Paul Bocuse's restaurant l'Auberge du Pont de Collognes is the oldest 3 Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. Bocuse has received many awards including the medal of Commandeur de la Legion d'honneur, the highest decoration in France.  This restaurant serves classical French food and has been doing so for decades. Some people accuse this restaurant of being dated and merely relying on Bocuse's fame. I beg to differ. No, I insist on differing. 

Scallop of foie gras, pan cooked, passion fruit sauce

Scallop of foie gras, pan cooked, passion fruit sauce

We visited this establishment back in 2012. I admit, I was kind of taken aback by the somewhat gaudy exterior of the building and rather tired opulence of the rooms inside.  But the food, the food was beautifully presented and every single dish delighted the taste buds.  Rich, yes, but not bouchon-rich. It was rich in a satisfying sit-back-and-sigh-with-glazed-eyes kind of way. Granted, it was like stepping into a time warp. But, I've always fancied travelling back in time and stepping into this bubble of classical French cooking was certainly one of the best time travel I've ever done.

"Fantasies and chocolates"

"Fantasies and chocolates"

Fresh berries

Fresh berries

Selection of cheeses to choose from

Selection of cheeses to choose from

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