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!

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.

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     Amuse bouche of oysters

Amuse bouche of oysters

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      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. 

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      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.

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

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

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      Longanisa   , poached egg & garlic chips.  L    onganisa  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.

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      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

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     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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