Thursday, March 17, 2016

Subterranean Spice Temple - Indu Restaurant Sydney

Despite my name (Indira Naidoo) and appearance (brown) I have sadly never been to India the country of my forebears. I'm a fifth-generation South-African-born-Indian who grew up in England, Australia and Zimbabwe. My claim to Indian-ness is mostly genetic and therefore rather tentative. (Even my Australian Anglo-Irish husband has visited India twice).
Like most Australians I've only really experienced India through cricket and its exported food culture - and through the ocassional 'Where are you from and why have you never been to your homeland' rant from a sub-continental taxi-driver.

So to say that Indu Restaurant has made me want to visit this fascinating country, like, right now, is a testament to its entrancing powers.

 Mardi Gras night in Sydney and there is a frisson of excitement in the city as sequins, feathers and tiny shorts are dusted off for their once-a-year outing. Unlike the rest of the crowd we're heading to the opposite end of the city centre... to George Street and to the tantalisingly hidden basement entrance on Angel Place of Indu Dining.
As we walk down the concrete steps and through the industrial firedoors to the restaurant bar, we know we're in the right place: the heady aroma of Indian spices is unmistakable.
The restaurant's dimly-lit cocktail bar is a James Bond den of seduction and intrigue. Huge earthenware pots of warming cinnamon sticks, cardamon pods, cumin seeds, and star anise line the Dosa bar's work bench.

It's these aromatic spices combined with a confident modern Australian interpretation, that expertly transforms Indu's menu into the sorts of ethereal dishes you're unlikely to find anywhere else....

         Even Indu's cocktail list gets the spice makeover.

The Village Negroni ($18) combines garam masala-spiced gin with lillet rouge and campari. Then for those with a sweet tooth, there's the already signature cocktail The Kerala Kolada ($19) mixing spiced rum, pineapple, coconut and chai syrup, with a coconut sorbet.

We move through to the main restaurant. Tonight I'm dining with 3 of the best palates in the business - two restaurateurs and my husband who thinks about eating almost as constantly as I do.

As we settle into our gold and green embroidered semi-circle banquettes, our waiter for the evening
Pedro (aka Pesto due to the auto-correct setting on his iPhone's annoying habit of mispelling his name) recommends we start with a Spanish Gin Mare. Our cocktails come served with ice, a slice of sweet mango and a sprinkling of freshly crushed black pepper. Invigorating. This is food foreplay.

The restaurant is starting to pump now.. helped along by an unexpected playlist of rock and pop hits from the psychedelic 70s including Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd.

 With so many dishes to try, we've decided on the Indu feast with Lamb Raan ($80pp) so the kitchen can showcase the best of its coastal village menu.

To begin our tasting journey along the shores of India and Sri Lanka, Pedro prepares a coconut sambal ($14) at our table using a mortar and wooden ladle. In goes some roasted coconut, red chilli, red onion, and cashew nuts. They're lightly mixed together and served in a coconut shell with some sweet Indian milk buns. The sambal is an explosion of fiery flavour that can be added to all our other dishes.

We're flooded with feel-good dopamines from the chilli. For a moment I'm lost in space and time. I've been transported to a village on a beach surrounded by coconut palms, the air thick with humidity, fishing boats returning with their morning catch, the sand warm between my toes...
... and then I am brought back to Sydney with a jolt, Brown Sugar blasting through the restaurant's speakers. Our next dish has arrived - smoked goat's leg, zucchini ribbon raita, pomegranate, chilli and bacon jam ($18). I am a devotee of goat. A tasty and environmentally-friendly animal that we just don't see enough of on Australian menus.We tear pieces off the crispy, tangy pancake-like dosa and scoop up some curry and accompaniments. Earthy and unctuous but still so light. Such clever cooking.

  Our next dish is a cooling salad of watermelon with mint, cucumber, radish, hung yoghurt and cardamon pomegranate molasses ($16). Exotic and refreshing.

And don't come to Indu without ordering one of the parathas($6). These flatbreads are made at the Dosa Bar and are layered with buttery flakes of the crispiest pastry. It will be hard to stop at one.

More excitement at the table as Pedro delivers the five-spice crusted barramudi on string hoppers (a type of rice noodle) and gently floods the plate with a tumeric and coconut mollee sauce ($34).

The barramundi is robust and flavoursome under that glorious crust. It's so squeaky fresh it was probably swimming happily somewhere just a few hours ago. The sauce however is a little muted and lacks the same zing of our other dishes.

I love a great rice dish and the lemon rice with crispy lentils, smashed peanuts, green chilli and fresh coconut ($9) is a perfect accompaniment....

..... for the highlight of the meal 'The Great' Lamb Raan as the menu describes 'marinated and slow roasted for more than 48 hours with yoghurt and spices and served with fresh mint chutney and lunumiris', a spicy sambal ($45 half serve, $80 full serve). The meat is impossibly tender and fragrant and the mint and sambal balance out that richness. All my fellow diners said this was the dish that knocked it out of the ballpark for them.

Chef Bimal Kumar and his kitchen team are doing the almost impossible here. Within a few months of opening, Indu feels as though it could help redefine modern Indian cuisine in Australia. Owner Sam Prince's committment to supporting local communities in India and Sri Lanka also makes Indu a unique enterprise. He's partnered with the Palmera group, an Australian not-for-profit, that directs some of the restaurant's earnings to needy projects in Asia. The first goal of their 'Village to Village' programme is to build a chicken coup for a community in Northern Sri Lanka. This is food that tastes good and does good as well.

  Despite its serious philosophy Indu knows how to be playful. As our meal winds down we are each presented with a palate cleasing watermelon and mint  popsicle ($6)..... we can make room for the gulab jamun (deep-fried milk curd balls) rolled in coconut sand   and served with saffron anglaise and honeycomb shards ($16). A little rich for me but the rest of the table wolfs it down.

So ends this eating adventure. How fitting that on Mardi Gras night we've dined on food of every vibrant colour of the rainbow. We retire to the bar where it is a little cooler to finish our wines ( By the way, there are some delicious Indian wines on the drinks list you should try).

Indu is a truly exciting dining experience. Whether in couples or celebratory groups the magic of this place is how it uses food to tell our story and bring people together.

The next time you feel like an exotic holiday but only have a night to spare you now know where to go.

photos: Cole Bennetts
Saucy Onion dined as a guest of Indu Restaurant. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Adelaide - The Franklin Hotel

It's a chilly Friday afternoon. My conference has wrapped up for the day and I'm ready to kick back at The Franklin Hotel and catch up with Adelaide - my old haunt.

Adelaide's city centre has change enormously in the past few years. New laws allowing small bars has seen hip eateries and designer hotels like The Franklin spring up along laneways and in previously dozy parts of the city.

The Franklin is my type of hotel - low-key but stylish with wonderfully textural fittings and eye-catching pop art. 

Its range of 'dawgs' has already made it a favourite watering hole for the lunch-time crowd and after-work office drinkers. The bar doubles as... well... the bar and hotel reception.

My room is located on the first floor of the elegant stone building next to another bright reading nook.
Each of The Franklin's 7 rooms has been individually-designed with dramatic colour palettes and furnishings.
I'm staying in a deluxe room (a more glamorous way of saying 'standard' ) with a large flat screen TV, iPod docking station, free WiFi and ensuite.
I love the dark, black walls...
...with contrasting pops of yellow... and the light shades which throw playful shadows around the room.
The bathroom has been beautifully renovated in keeping with the era of the building... white subway tiles with a black floor 
...and a huge soaking bath which sadly I didn't get time to enjoy.
One of the best advantages of The Franklin is its location... on Franklin St just a street away from my favourite fresh food markets in the country - the Adelaide Central Market
This is a foodie's paradise. Every type of fruit and vegetable, meat or dairy, pasta or grain from dozens of cultures.
And the quality of the ingredients makes me wish I had a kitchen to cook them in!
 But there's no need to cook. If you're after something a little more high-end than The Franklin's hotdogs, just two blocks away is Adelaide's hottest bar and dining strip Peel St - off Hindley St.
I drop in to Clever Little Tailor and have a delicious Eden Valley Riesling with a bowl of Coriole olives.
 .. then an early dinner at Peel St restaurant a little further down the lane. I manage to get a seat at the bar and watch the expert kitchen prep for a busy night ahead. How can I go past the Masterstock crispy quail with pickled carrot salad and a glass of Mac Forbes chardonnay from the Yarra Valley? This is a very happy way to end a business trip.
and knowing my hotel and large, warm comfortable bed is just a short staggering distance away allows me to indulge in one more for the road.
Saucy Onion stayed as a guest of The Franklin Hotel.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Black Gold - Truffle Hunting in Canberra

This unremarkable brown lump is why we've trekked all the way to Canberra on a wintery weekend.
This is a Perigord black truffle or tuber melanosporum. It's one of the most expensive food substances on earth fetching up to $3000 a kilo. Why so expensive and who would pay so much money for a innocuous looking tuber?
I'm about to find out.
We're heading to a truffle farm or trufferie on the outskirts of Canberra. French Black Truffles of Canberra is a fledgling enterprise but already proving a money-maker. Last year it produced 65 kilos of high quality truffles.

We pull off Mount Majura Road and park our Bayswater car rental RAV 4 in a paddock near the farm ready for our truffle hunt. It's been a comfortable drive here in our 'no birds' car.

To the untrained eye this just looks like a paddock of trees. But in fact this is the Field of Dreams containing 2,500 trees that have been producing truffles since 2007.

Truffles are formed when fungus spores develop a symbiotic relationship with the roots of specific tree varieties such as hazelnut and oak. They've occurred naturally in forests in Europe for centuries. It has only been in the last few decades that Antipodeans discovered there were similar climate conditions in parts of New Zealand, Tasmania, Margaret River  - and here in Canberra.

The only problem the French Black Truffles of Canberra found with their conditions was the pH level of the soil. It was too alkaline. Truffles need a pH of about 8. So the owners trucked in 75 tonnes of lime and dug it in 2 metres into the ground. The property is well-fenced to stop native animals and foxes digging up the prized truffles. All that expense and preparation seems to have paid off. This year the farm expects to double production to 130 kilos.

Farm manager Jayson Mesman is a police dog trainer who 8 years ago turned his dog whispering skills to training truffle dogs. His black Labrador Samson is one of the country's leading truffle dogs. Samson can detect truffles growing deep underground from metres away.
Fungus contamination is a real problem on a truffle farm where infections can spread quickly ruining a crop.
We all need to step into a disinfectant dip before we can begin the hunt.

 Participants are truffle ready.
Jayson sends Samson off scurrying through the trees, sniffing at the roots. He quickly zones in on one tree excitedly. Samson is trained to only smell mature truffles that are ready for harvest. Jayson removes some of the dirt under the tree with a knife and sniffs it. Yep there's a truffle under there.
A lucky participant starts gently digging at the dirt using a spoon. This truffle is buried quite deep under the surface. 
Eh Viola! We all get to hold the buried treasure. The aroma is intoxicating. It smells of mushrooms and forest and wet leaves.  A truffle exude up to 80 different compounds
Jayson explains that an 'A' grade truffle should have a firm surface covered in tiny diamond shapes. And when you cut into it there should be a rich veining of white. There are some tubers that look like truffles so you need to be wary of fakes.
Back at the truffle shed Jayson gently washes our truffle with a soft brush and some water to remove the mud. It reveals a prize truffle worth at least $300! Truffles can vary in size from 2 cm to the size of a grapefruit.
While the farm's truffle dogs are the current truffle-detection stars, Jayson hopes his two Wessex Saddleback pigs, Winnie and Piglet, can eventually be trained to 'bring home the bacon' so-to-speak.
With the scent of truffle in the air, it's time to put them to a taste test.
We walk further down the hill to the farm's cooking demonstration tent.
The hungry hoards are gathering...
Chef Andrew Haskins, from 3 Seeds Cooking School, has planned a 'Death by Truffle' degustation lunch for us today.
Andrew is not a believer in the practice of just 'shaving' truffles onto a dish. He's passionate about 'infusing' them into an array of products from salt to olive oil to eggs and honey.
Andrew believes this layering creates a deeper more satisfying flavour. It's certainly the best cauliflower soup I've ever tasted.
Then we try some truffle-infused scrambled eggs (from eggs that have been put in a glass jar with a piece of truffle and left for a few days). He then adds truffled butter, truffled salt, and truffled cream to the simmering eggs. When too much truffle is barely enough. Delish.
I had no idea truffles could be enjoyed so many ways... 
Truffles can be beautifully showcased in scrambled eggs. Possibly their perfect match.
Andrew truffles his own brie by slicing a round through the centre, inserting some truffle pieces and then sandwiching the halves back together. 
 Generous truffle slices are strewn over a mushroom sauce with pasta...
That brie is used on some baked figs, doused with truffle honey.
...I may soon turn into a truffle..
...but wait there's more.... prawns that have been cyro-vaced in truffled butter are tossed in a hot pan.
 .. and then served on some pasta.

 ... as close to divinity as food can take you.
I'm losing count of the array of truffle dishes... 
These are truffled whole Portobello mushrooms encased in butter puff and then backed for 30 minutes. The pastry seals in all those glorious truffle aromas. I've run out of room but others steam on...there is still veal and desserts - pannacotta, chocolate truffle-infused truffles....
As the winter sun sets outside, we float out of the tent in a cloud of truffle. For $180.00 we had an adventure, an education and then a lunch fit for a king. I know you're already making your booking. But remember truffle season in only for a few weeks every year so hurry.
We head back to our hotel ...
The Hotel Kurrajong has been a favourite of ours for years and has just undergone an extensive remodelling.
It was the residence of Australian Prime Minister Ben Chifley and the refurbishment captures the d├ęcor of the 1920s.
The hotel's restaurant Chifley's Bar and Grill takes it's inspiration from what a simple bloke like Chifley would have liked to have eaten - meat, meat and more meat.  
The foyer has a cosy art deco lounge arranged around the original fireplace and mirror.
Complimentary fabric and carpet designs have been expertly selected.
Our room is luxurious, with fabrics and fittings echoing the same turquoise and caramel palette. 
This feels like a home you can keep coming back to.
Small but stylishly designed bathroom.
I know it seems hardly possible but we have room for dinner - fortunately, given the biting cold tonight,  Malamay is only a staggering distance away. It's snuggled in the groovy Burberry Hotel. in the Realm District three streets away.
This modern Szechuan restaurant is dark and comforting with pops of lacquered red in the light fittings and room dividers.
We could be in the study of an emperial noble.
The tasting menu is the best way to sample the kitchen's wonderful technique with texture and heat.
A crab ball comes with squid ink reduction and meaty slivers of smoked portabello.
.. a revelation.
Then there's a Xian-style spicy duck that is so flavourful and cuts like butter.
For dessert a creamy earl grey custard with a salty pretzel.
Owner Josiah Li joins us later with a bottle of  Tumbarumba sparkling, and soon the conversation gets loud and raucous with tales of the restaurant trade, life in Canberra and the joys of food. Somehow we make it back to the Kurrajong in the cold inky night and dream of being chased through a paddock by a giant truffle....
Saucy Onion stayed as a guest of the Hotel Kurrajong.
French Black Truffles of Canberra -
Malamay restaurant  -