Monday, 17 December 2007

naked nut stands out from the crowd

Contributor 'So, wots for dinner" shares a night out with family .......

WHEN you enter the Naked Nut restaurant – tucked away at 120 Collins Avenue, Edge Hill – immediately you know you are among friends. People who love what they do, serving fine food, beverages and whose attention to detail is second to none.

In a simplistic, suburban setting, the NN is well laid out. Even with a full house (as it was the Thursday night we dined), you do not feel ‘hemmed in’ seated in this comfortable restaurant. The walls are adorned with a series of entertaining etchings of famous (or infamous) characters whose bald heads match our convivial host, Franco, whose ‘naked nut’ inspired the name of his restaurant.

My parents and I were greeted at the door and again at our tables by friendly, welcoming staff who looked after us and quickly gave a rendition of the specials, including drinks such as the Cosmopolitan and Lychee Martini ($12).

The menu & wine list at the NN is consistently good, although you can BYO wine only. Our waiter suggested a bottle of the Yalgarnia Classic Dry White ($8/$36.50) and we were not disappointed with the full fruit but crisp finish of this little known West Australian.

In anticipation of fabulous desserts, we forewent Entrees in favour of the Bruchetta Special ($8.50) which on top of the traditional combination of tomato, basil and quality olive oil was bursting with the flavour and colour of freshly diced Spanish onion, capsicum and olives.

Apart from the versatility of seven main dishes and four pasta options served as Entrée & Mains (ranging from $12.30 to $28.50), the Specials will always entice.

My mum ordered ‘Fish of the Day’ – a modest Barramundi fillet topped with 4 medium sized prawns and a flavoursome bisque ($32) while her partner succumbed to the other special of Slow-Cooked Lamb Shanks (also $32).

Knowing my parents hailed from Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria, our host apologised for the absence of wild-caught prawns and promised to make amends by seeking our product out at Rusty’s Market the following day.

Any disappointment at the farmed seafood was quickly overcome by the size and tenderness of Bruce’s lamb shanks! Despite being a permanent resident for at least the past 30 years, we have long accepted having a ‘kiwi’ in the family and his hankering for anything lamb.

Apart from filling most of a ½ metre boat-shaped plate heaped atop lashings of creamy potato mash in a rich, tomato-based gravy, the shanks were so tender the meat literally fell away from the bone. Such was the nostalgia evoked for the homeland, at one point our guest threatened to break into a passionate rendition of the ‘Green Green Grass of Home’.

My Lemon & Lime Chicken Breast oven-baked with chilli, ginger, shallots, capsicum & coriander on a bed of glass noodles ($28.50) proved a little dry and not as interesting as anticipated.

However, this was more than compensated by another glass of wine (Rymill’s Bee’s Knees Sparkling Red $9/$38.50) and fresh Pecan Pie ($12) served with mandarin and almond ice cream AND chantilly cream (extra points to the chef for NOT making us choose!). Meanwhile, our designated driver wondered aloud whether Franco’s aunty’s Tira Misu recipe ($10) was going to tip him over the limit, with the sponge biscuits drenched in coffee and marsala, layers of mascarpone cheese and cream, ganished with grated chocolate… not to mention the complimentary Lemoncello with which our host proceeded to ply us well after the dinner and bill had been finalised.

This latest experience left us in no doubt the Naked Nut is a place locals will keep going back to simply because they will always come away knowing they have paid for quality food and outstanding service.

* Check out Sunday dinners locals special (buy one main course, receive one free) or Wednesday Summer Scorchers Menu (2 courses $25). Open Wed to Sunday; also for lunch Friday & Sunday, ph 4032 2136 for bookings.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

'Sleeper' of the Year Award goes to Jardines

Although I am writing this opinion in December, I actually had this experience back in April 2007. And of all the dining experiences I have enjoyed this year, Jardine's at Cairns Colonial Club was the outstanding favourite. My expectations were for a 3 star dining experience and Jardine's delivered a 5 star night out.

It was a humid Cairns night when we pulled up out the front. We climbed the stairs and entered another world. Sitting on the Queenslander style verandah over looking subtly lit tropical gardens and sipping bubbles was a good start.

Although we were outside the temperature was cool and atmosphere comfortable and relaxing. Tables were not set too close so conversation could be animated or intimate without being overheard. Starched white cloths set the scene and the formally set tables had all the necessary glassware and cutlery for a series of courses and choices.

We had chosen to visit Jardine's to experience their degustation menu. A chance to try the menu concentrating on textures, flavours, combinations, presentation and the different things the chef wants to explore. We were not disappointed.

The chef had combined two taste size entrees, mains and desserts into each course and chosen a wine suitable to accompany each. We chose to make it a decadent night out and added a bread selection and coffee to the evening.

Everything was perfect. The food itself was interesting, flavoursome and presented beautifully. The wines were well matched and served by the glass so we didn't feel the need to over indulge. The service was exemplary with just the right combination of attentiveness and invisibility.

And then little extras that cap off a night like came with a handmade chocolate selection, complimentary port was offered and never once did we feel encouraged to leave, although we sat and enjoyed our night til very late.

Thank you Jardine's for reviving my faith that eating can be so much more than a piece food.

I checked the Mastercard statement for the bill for this excellence and it says I paid $158.90 ...breads, three courses, coffee, choccies, four glasses of wine and port...for two people...I thought it was good value at the time, but looking back I believe it was the best value for money.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Salsa Bar Sunday

When it all comes together it's hard to beat the Sunday jaunt to Port Douglas. The colours come out to play in the morning sun on the drive north with the azure ocean blues to the right and the vibrant green ranges to the left.

At journeys end an excellent strong coffee near the water provided the boost for a morning among the sunday market stalls and exploring the shops along Macrossan St. My companion for the day was set on a Christmas shopping crusade and determined to peruse every saleable item of jewellery in Port. The kitchen slut's role as handbag in this crusade being frequently diverted by replenishing his condiment supplies at the 'Pickled in Port' market stall, discovery of the new 'Taste on Macrossan' delicatessen, and sussing restaurant menus.

Well before the jewellery crusade was complete the slut had completed his review of restaurant specials boards and was outside the Salsa Bar salivating under the spell of sandcrab cakes and tempura yabby with a goma aioli and kimchee.

The Salsa Bar has always been a traditional Sunday lunch favourite for locals. The open Queenslander style building has great ambience and the friendly waitresses were quick with the ice water on a very steamy day and equally fast to replenish the quickly drained glasses while we perused the menu and wine list.

After some deliberation of the menu, my accomplice chose the preserved lemon tempura coral trout fillet with wakame and kipfler potato salad, sundried tomato salsa. A glass each of NZ Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is an ideal accompaniment for atmosphere, climate, and seafood.

The food, as usual, excelled with the highest quality fresh ingredients providing interesting blends of subtle flavours and more defined tastes, all beautifully presented. The subtlety of the sandcrab was not overwhelmed by the delightfully tangy kimchee, the cucumbers with just the right crunch, an adaptation of a traditional Korean dish to modern Australian cuisine. The goma aioli (Japanese sesame) was an interesting addition.

The coral trout was perfectly cooked in its light tempura drizzled with the more intense flavour of the preserved lemon. It's rare to be able to be able to rave about potatioes but the kipfler salad was a perfectly textured complement to the coral trout. Lunch prices are also reasonable with both dishes under $20 for superb quality.

As my companion was the driver for the day she went for a Flat White reviver for the afternoon trip home and then proceeded, along with the persuasive but friendly staff to convince me that an espresso martini would be a good idea. Deliciously decadent and I really should thank them for talking me into this grand finale.

Martini enhanced, the colours were if anything even more intense for the drive back home with a clear sky and light breeze rippling the ocean as we snaked our way around the headlands and coves. When the Far North turns it on like this it just can't be beaten.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Al Porto - a little cafe with big taste

Well much debate was had between the lady friends about visiting this cafe on the water overlooking the boats at the Reef Fleet Terminal at the (very) water end of Spence Street. Some said they had had terrible experiences in the past - others said it was one of their favourites.

So, we tried it out. Eleven Luscious Ladies joined the taste test and overall it got the thumbs up. The menu is predominantly Italian with plenty of variety. The meals arrived within 10 minutes for 10 of the 11 ladies. Just one was well overdue.

Service was friendly and attentive. I was impressed by the young waitress who took coffee orders and payment from the table, although the system was to order/pay from the counter. She certainly understood the key to good women's business is not interrupting the flow of conversation!

The meals themselves were very large and certainly could have been shared between two. Especially ladies and at lunch time. I found my chicken and mushroom risotto hot and fresh but rather bland. The Cannelloni and salad was voted very good as was the 'special' Cabonara.

With mains priced between $15-19 for pasta. I would recommend sharing. Then when you add a glass of wine and/or coffee you still have a well priced lunch that leaves you satisfied.

The view is terrific, if rather windy, as it can be down on Trinity Inlet. It was not overly noisy although busy. Well worth giving Al Porto a try for yourself.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

The tide is out at Tides (on the boardwalk at The Shangrila)

I've tried eating here on three occasions now and each experience has confirmed to me that this potentially great restaurant is arrogantly uninterested in serving their customers. The food is great - last Friday for lunch I enjoyed a dish of prosciutto wrapped prawns on a bruscetta-style bread with a glass of crisp NZ Sauvignon Blanc. But trying to get service was just terrible - again.
My first experience was a ladies lunch when they first opened with about 10 in the group. It was as if we weren't there. And once we had managed to order, the meals took ages, we had to chase them for coffee and to pay. It's so long ago I don't remember what we ate but it was tasty and from memory reasonable value for money.

Then about 12 months ago I took a friend there for a late breakfast. We were the only people in the restaurant and no-one approached us to take an order, I had to go into the restaurant proper to chase up some service. I warned them we had to be gone to catch a flight in an hour and they managed to get us a meal with 5 minutes to spare. While we waited for our Eggs Benedict we twice had to go inside to chase coffee. Even I can prepare a simple breakfast choice like this in under an hour.

Why did I go back for a third try? This time the friend got geographically embarrassed looking for another restaurant we planned to visit and just sat down and refused to budge. So against my better judgement I found myself giving Tides another chance.

Why am I telling you this story? Because I am passionate about food and the emotions that food experiences can satisfy. I don't understand why restaurateurs don't 'get' that I can forgive average food if the service is exemplary, but I won't forgive average service with great food.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Hole-in-the-Wall Curry aka The Curry Bowl

I've been frequenting this fantastic cheap lunch spot for years. Hiding in the Mainstreet Arcade between Lake and Grafton Streets, it is one of several good cheap eateries in this arcade. A friend introduced me about 10 years ago and I've been getting my curry fixes here ever since. You can get a medium sized plate of mixed curry (with popodom) and a bottle of water for $10. The curry is fresh, spicy and consistent. The chilli potatoes are divine and you can top up the heat with freshly chopped chilli pieces when you order. I go for the 'meat eaters' plate that includes a generous spoon of beef curry but a vegetarian option is available for a slightly reduced price. There is also curried pumpkin, dahl, curried mixed vegetables and rice all available and usually I mix the lot (with a slightly bigger spoon of the chilli potatoes - they are my favourite after all - there's nothing better than slightly numb lips after a good curry!)

Sunday, 2 December 2007

The Banana Leaf - Fast and Informal

This entry is courtesy of Cairns Eye contributor Narelle Muller. I read her review in the Nov21-27 Edition and was struck at how close her thoughts were to my own. I ate there about 6 weeks previous to her and had a very similar experience. So it is a bit of a cheat to publish this, but in my opinion why rewrite what is already well written. Thanks Narelle for your contribution....

When you're offering quality meals at reasonable prices, speedy service is really the icing on the cake. You can tick all the boxes at The Banana Leaf ofnthe Esplanade. Billing its fare as modern Asian cuisine, The Banana Leaf has put many eggs into multiple baskets.

This is all part of its beauty, as there are almost no restrictions. In one dinner party, several pockets of the globe can be visited.

Someone may have a Thai seafood salad ($16.90), while another diner might opt for Chinese-style sweet and sour pork ($22.90). A Japanese favourite, miso soup ($3.50), could precede chicken breasts with ketchup ($19.90). It's all mix and match to your personal preference with no hint of deterioration in authenticity or quality.

Positioned on the site of former Hans Cafe, which in its day called itself a purveyor of authentic Asian cuisine, The Banana Leaf is suspiciously similar in almost every way bar title. This is no bad thing however, as Han's had a reputation for serving excellent food and its new operators are following suit.

Daily specials are posted on The Banana Leaf's street-front chalk board and certainly draw a crowd. On this occasion, hoe mok thalay, seafood in coconut milk and Thai herbs ($19.90), stir-fry prawns and snow peas ($19.90) and deep fried whole chilli fish with special sauce ($25.90) all sound and look mouth watering.

Yellow chicken curry ($16.90), a mild dish served with Thai herbs and potato, is a huge hit with young diners. Stir fried pork with cashews ($16.90) turns out a surprise in terms of deliciously subtle seasonings, tenderness of meat and crispness of vegetables, cooked just right. Spicy beancurd mapo style ($15.90) is a heart-warming soup-style tofu dish with minced chicken.

All require a separate order of rice, which is cheap enough at $5.50 for a large serve or $2.80 for a small portion. Steamed rice with coconut milk is also a snip at $5.90.

Freshness is the first word that springs to mind when describing The Banana Leaf's food. Flavour-packed, yet with clean tastes, each dish is artfully presented.

Heavily staffed, there's no question of waiting too long for anything. While you may have to ask for things like chopsticks or water, requests are met promptly and service is polite. Be sure to check your bill though as on this occasion we were charged for something we didn't have.

Not much has changed in terms of decor since its Han's days. Most diners opt for the pavement to catch the sea breeze but inside is slick and up-to-the-minute with glass, stainless steel, blonde timber, subtle grey artworks and an overall feel of understated chic.

Positioned in the centre of the tourist strip, fellow diners tend to dress down but the surrounds are classy enough for those wanting to mark a special occasion. Whatever the time of day hunger strikes, The Banana Leaf offers good, fast, informal eating.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Sacred Spice overcomes dining reticence

Sacred Spice is the new dining experience at Stratford. It is the latest reincarnation of the outlet on the corner of Stratford Parade opposite Marsh's Meats. My interest in visiting this establishment was sullied by past experiences with dining at this location.

But I am happy to report this new addition to the Stratford dining scene was worth the visit.

Husband and wife team Heather and Peter Boulot have collected their favourite African inspired recipes and offer them in a relaxed suburban environment. Peter was my waiter and was friendly and knowledgeable. Service was a little slow but as my friend and I had plenty to talk about and were not in a hurry we we not concerned. But being a suburban restaurant that accepts children diners, families may need to take this into account.

My friend and I had several interests in the menu but were swayed by Peter's recommendations.

We chose the Flamed Sambal Prawns and Lemongrass Cha Bo (the only Asian item I saw on the menu) as entree. These were both generous serves, easily as big as many restaurants offer as mains. The prawns were fresh, crisp and flavoursome. I tend to like my spices hotter but the dish had some lovely subtle spice flavours that may have been lost had it been hotter. My friends Vietnamese Kebabs looked a bit like mini Thai fish cakes and again the flavours were a bit subtle. But the mint and Noc Dam sauce on the salad was a real surprise, very interesting and amazingly complimentary to the meats.

The special was Maldives Sour Fish and we chose this and the West Indies Spiced Goat for mains. The goat was a tender young thing from the Tablelands and was perfectly prepared. Don't be put off thinking goat is a tough or cheap meat. After some fantastic Turkish goat experiences, it is now one of my favourites for a great curry base. The fish was beautifully complemented by its condiments. The rice subtly flavoured and enhancing the sour tang of lime and tamarind.

Being a decadent night out we were easily convinced by our host to explore the dessert menu and sighed over the Fresh Dates. These were marinaded in Marsala and served with home made wattle seed ice cream, double cream and Persian Pashmak (fairy floss). Fresh dates would be one of my favourite fruits and in the Marsala were the perfect end to a very good meal. A hot fresh coffee finished me off and I felt very decadent. We also were impressed by the Cardomon Orange with an organic vanilla bean yoghurt cream and Pashmak. The yoghurt was a perfect foil for the citrus.

The bill was not too scary. Entrees were generally in the $12-15 range. Mains $25-28 and desserts about $10. The nicest surprise was the very affordable wine list. With quality wines available by the glass or bottle and the bottle affordably priced. We shared a Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough NZ at $36.

And the menu was not too large. Even after our decadent indulgence, it had sufficient of interest for me to go back for a further tasting.

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