Saturday, June 30, 2007

June 30, 2007: Leftover Makeover - another fruit crumble

The first tray of choc-chip cookies were dreadfully overcooked, black on the bottom and hard on the teeth. (And no, a couple of weeks lurking in a lunchbox didn't really help, either.) So I scraped off the black with a sharp knife and threw the remainder in the food processor with some extra butter. Voila - fruitless crumble. Enter two apples and two pears. Once baked, I garnished our crumble with some leftover cream. The entire incident is a heinous violation of my fruit crumble manifesto but heck, it was a Saturday night in and I was using up leftovers. It was a mighty tasty violation, with all those blended up choc-chips.

June 29, 2007: Enlightened Cuisine

Edit 25/04/2017: Enlightened Cuisine is now rebranded as Vegie Kitchen.

We've been looking forward to seeing the Guggenheim Collection at the NGV and jumped at the chance to attend the preview screening on Friday night. As far as dinner goes, the surrounds seem to be dominated by overpriced bar food and the Crown. Rather than succumbing to the neon lights we discovered the more zen Enlightenment Cuisine Chinese Vegetarian Restaurant, tucked away a little further along Queensbridge St. Much like the White Lotus, this is a very mock meat experience (chicken, duck, beef, lamb and a variety of seafoods) although there are also tofu-based and vege-only dishes in the menu as well. Meals are free of garlic, onions and leek and the restaurant strives to be vegan-friendly. The meals are a dollar or two more here than at the restaurant's North Melbourne ally, but for those dollars you'll receive a more meditative atmosphere: tables are large, of lacquered dark wood, and well spaced; decorations are similarly sparse and tasteful, and piano music tinkles on the stereo.

Mindful of the few hours that the art gallery remained open, we reluctantly skipped the entrees and soups, heading straight for the mains. For Michael, it was Kung Po Lamb: gluten, mushrooms, capsicum and dried chillies in a sweet, tangy and somewhat fiery sauce. I thought it was great and I can only assume that Michael did too given how quickly he finished it. I tried the roasted duck: its 'skin' was super-crispy, probably due to the light use of plum sauce (sweet, but not syrupy). I, too, managed to clear my plate! Some more veges would have made a more well-rounded meal, but this portion size didn't sit heavily in my stomach and we comfortably bustled on to the main event.

Given its closer proximity to our home, we're more likely to make repeat visits to the White Lotus than Enlightenment Cuisine. However, Enlightenment Cuisine does a equally enjoyable line of Chinese mock meats and I may well rely on this haven again when I'm hungry and in the shadow of the casino.

Address: 113 Queensbridge St, Southbank
Ph: 9686 9188
Price: veg mains ~$12-23, rice extra

June 27, 2007: Abla's Lebanese Restaurant

Some midweek laziness had Michael and I working a little late and then meeting in the rain for dinner. Our venue was Abla's Lebanese Restaurant, an institution that has been around longer than the Age's Cheap Eats Guide. Although we worked 'late', we were early for dinner and there was room for two "as long as you're finished by 7:45". When we gave the waitress our sincere promise, we were generously offered a table fit for four - plenty of room to spread out. I liked our waitress' attitude, a little brusque but also friendly and efficient. I also liked the space - it had a dated but luxurious look and warm air. Unfortunately that glow made for a set of really bad photos - sorry about that, Michael and I really need to improve on our lowlight camera skills.

Abla's menu has a vegetarian section, with dishes that are small to medium-sized and share-friendly: our plan of an entree and then three plates between two was just right. The starter and main lists are 100% meaty - best not to read about the spiced lamb or lemon garlic chicken if you're at all tempted to lapse! Just concentrate on the felafel and you'll be fine, I promise. We began with a plate of three dips (labnee, hummous bi tahini and baba ghannooj) with bread ($15). Michael was quite taken with the tangy labnee while I remarked most on the baba ghannooj - it had a distinctively smoky undertone. Before we'd scooped our way through the plate our mains arrived: foulia medammas ($10), felafel ($14), and loubyeh ($14). I was keen to try more foulia medammas since our visit to the Half Moon Cafe and these broad beans had a lovely dressing, pungent with lemon juice and garlic; the felafel had super-crisp shells and weren't too greasy; the loubyeh (grean beans in a tomato-based sauce) were pleasant but left unfinished at the end of the meal. To wash it all down, we each had a glass of limonada ($3), a Lebanese lemonade full of real, slightly pulpy lemon juice and a floral kick of rosewater - none of that sugary feel against the teeth.

I really would have liked to try Abla's home-made baclawa ($3), but my stomach was out of room and we were just about out of time. It was a pleasurable meal, of higher quality and higher price than the kebab-shop Lebanese we're more accustomed to. But to be honest the price hike is a bit greater than the pleasure hike for me, and the cheap and cheerful establishments of Coburg may see me a bit more often than the spirited staff of Abla's.

Address: 109 Elgin St, Carlton
Ph: 9347 0006
Price: veg plates $6-$15 (aim for 1.5-2 plates per person)

June 25, 2007: Wild mushrooms on toast

As autumn and then winter have swept through Melbourne, I've noticed that wild mushrooms are available at lots of good fruit and veg shops. I've always been intrigued by their gnarled shapes and earthy colours and, after talking about it for about six weeks, I finally got around to actually buying some. Just a pine (on the left) and a king brown (on the right) from one of the organic shops at the Queen Vic Markets to get me started.

To make sure I properly appreciated their flavours, I just fried them with a dob of butter and served them up on lightly toasted Turkish bread. The texture of the king brown was a little soft for my tastes, but both were quite tasty - probably not as exotic or exciting as I'd hoped, but satisfyingly earthy nonetheless. If anyone has any good tips about wild mushrooms - tasty varieties, places to get them (buy them I should say - I'm not quite keen enough to spend the weekends foraging) and recipes to use them in, it'd be much appreciated.

June 23, 2007: Chocolate and pear tart

When Emma and Simon visited for dinner on Saturday night, Michael did most of the dinner work, while I typically pondered on dessert. I was pretty keen on this chocolate and pear tart from Jules' stonesoup, but wasn't psyched about pre-roasting pears (although I must admit they do look incredibly good!). A brief wander around the internet turned up another pear and chocolate tart (this time from Clotilde of Chocolate & Zucchini) and I enthusiastically wrote up a shopping list after a glance at the procedure. That 'glance' meant that I didn't actually notice that this tart is served from the fridge, not the oven! Not quite what I had in mind on a winter evening, but still comforting enough when paired with a cup of tea.

I had a few nervewracking moments at each step: it was difficult to press the crust evenly into my dish, and then work out when it was ready to come out of the oven. (It took 5 minutes less than Clotilde's, and was a teensy bit burnt around the top edge.) Then I worried that I had over-cooked my chocolate and that the ganache would be lumpy, though it eventually glided into the dish without a hitch. The pears, which were firm and perhaps a little under-ripe, took an extra 10 minutes of poaching to soften completely. I slid the tart into the fridge several hours before our guests arrived, sure that the frazzling bits were over and I could enjoy their company without nagging kitchen thoughts.

Unfortunately, when it was time for my work to be unveiled, this bugger of a tart wouldn't slice. My puny arm muscles couldn't get it to budge, and Michael managed to dig chunks of it onto our plates instead (he's not big on delicacy). Clotilde credits the crust as her mother's no-fail recipe, but I think I failed at it. I certainly should have greased the baking dish more throughly, but I don't think my problems stopped there. Nevertheless, the chocolate ganache filling had the deep, bittersweet taste of the 70% cocoa Lindt that went into it and a smooth, buttery texture. The rich, barely sweet ganache and the syrupy sweet pears were not just complementary, they needed each other for balance. They make this a dessert worthy of trial, error and eventual perfection. Thankfully Emma and Simon are willing to weather the trial and error, and I'm no longer too proud to show them that I'm short of perfection.

For the recipe, visit Chocolate & Zucchini.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

June 23, 2007: Mushroom paprikash, potato pancakes and pickled baby beets

With Emma and Simon coming over to enjoy our hospitality, I decided to make use of my European inspiration and crank out a Hungarian inspired meal. Having had at least three shots at the potato pancake and mushroom paprikash at Vegetarium, I figured I was experienced enough to have a crack at my own version. Luckily, Cindy had already tracked down a mushroom paprikash recipe, and the weekend papers had a nice-looking potato pancake with pickled beetroot recipe that sounded like the perfect accompaniment. Unfortunately, I think I threw the recipe away by mistake, so the following will be the product of my fading memory.

The paprikash was a lot spicier using hot, Hungarian paprika (an interesting spice - not one that leaves a burning on your lips, but one that gets you in the back of the throat), and I think I preferred it without the seitan. The pancakes were a divine accompaniment (as I suspected following my Budapest experiences) and the beets (which I was sceptical about) were probably the highlight - soft, sweet and with a tang from the vinegar. Superb.

Mushroom paprikash
Follow this recipe, with the following changes:
Skip the dumplings.
Drop the seitan.
Add in 1/2 a cup of dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in about a cup of water.
Use genuine imported Hungarian paprika.

Potato roesti
3 desiree potatoes
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
oil for frying

Boil the potatoes (whole and unpeeled) for about 30 minutes - until they're soft without being completely mushy. But don't be too conservative - I was sure mine were too mushy, but they grated perfectly.

Peel and then coarsely grate the spuds.

Stir through the flour, salt and pepper.

Form the mixture into roughly tennis-ball sized lumps, flatten them slightly and then fry on both sides in a small amount of oil.

Pickled baby beetroot
2 bunches baby beetroot
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup red wine vinegar

Trim the beetroot and boil them in 3 cups of water and half the vinegar until soft (about 35-40 minutes).

Peel (you'll look like you've stabbed someone by the time you've peeled 12 baby beets).

Dress the peeled beetroot in the rest of the vinegar and the olive oil and let them soak for a while.

Serve up the pancakes, scoop a few ladles of mushroom paprikash on top and set some baby beets gently to one side. They're very photogenic.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

June 23, 2007: Inkari III

Inkari was one of the first restaurants Cindy and I investigated when we moved to Melbourne. It's an oasis of Latin America inspired food in a desert of mediocre Italian joints and we've made a return visit since for a cheap and delicious lunch. We admired the breakfast menu on both trips, but our only attempt to actually go there was foiled by our weekend sluggishness (the breakfast menu cuts off at some ungodly hour like 11:30). Luckily we made it out of bed before 9am last Saturday and stumbled along for our second Mexican-themed breakfast in 9 days.

For once, Cindy opted for a cooked breakfast - the Buenos Dias Inkari: pan-fried eggs, Ilapingachos (potato pockets), refried black beans, corn, tomato, grilled banana, avocado, sour cream and soft corn tortillas. Typically, Cindy was most excited by the potato pockets - honestly she'd have chips for breakfast, lunch and dinner if I allowed it - but less excited by the eggs and tortilla. The banana and the black-beans made a surprisingly good combination (particularly surprising given how evil bananas are) and the whole package was a satisfactory if not inspiring meal.

I opted for the Huevos Motulenios: a traditional Mexican breakfast of grilled eggs, chiltomate sauce, refried black beans, cheese and green peas served on fried corn tortillas. The corn tortillas were overly crisp, but everything else was spot on: spicey sauce, delicious cheese, mexi-flavoured refried beans and tasty, well-cooked, eggs.

It's not really a place that aims at a vegetarian clientèle (I had to get them to hold the ham in my breakfast), but it's local, reasonably priced (about $13 each) and pretty tasty - certainly a worthwhile breakfast option.

Read about our previous visits to Inkari here and here.

Edit 19/12/07: Sadly, Inkari appears to have closed permanently.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

June 22, 2007: Leftover Makeover - Orange Tiramisu

The key ingredients to use up here were some dry sponge fingers (from dessert pesto days) and cream cheese (from a second batch of cream cheese brownies - Michael wanted to impress the ladies at work). Add to the mix a duty-free bottle of Cointreau and you have orange tiramisu! In haphazard blobs, these glasses contain:
  • sponge fingers, sprinkled with a smidge of cointreau and left to soften, then gently chopped into chunks;
  • cream cheese, whipped briefly by hand with a bit of brown sugar and orange juice until dissolved;
  • fresh orange segments.
These were messy-looking but fun, sweet and tangy little desserts!

June 21, 2007: Leftover Makeover - Smoky chipotle tacos

On Wednesday night, Michael made a lot of soup. Enough to feed us both for dinner, lunch, and a fair bit more besides. On Thursday, for the sake of my fickle palate, I converted the rest of the soup to taco filling by adding 1 cup of TVP rehydrated in 1 cup of hot water. Teamed with taco shells, salad and grated cheese, it was a whole other meal to enjoy.... and a whole other pot of leftovers to munch on during the weekend!

Monday, June 25, 2007

June 20, 2007: Creamy Roasted Chipotle Soup

With winter in full swing, I've become a firm advocate of soup for dinner. Particularly warm, spicy soup like this: creamy roasted chipotle soup, courtesy of Yeah, That "Vegan" Shit. Since first discovering chipotles and adobo sauce some time ago, I've been tempted by its smoky heat, but cautious of its feisty spice power. With a generous slopping of sour cream included to keep things from overheating, I was pretty confident that this recipe was going to be a winner. And so it turned out: thick with beans and corn and rich with the spice that the adobo sauce and chipotle provided, it also doubled as a tasty taco sauce (soon to be featured in one of Cindy's leftover makeovers).

I altered the recipe a little from the Lindyloo's, so I'll reproduce it here.

Creamy Roasted Chipotle Soup

1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion (chopped finely)
4 cloves garlic (minced)
1 large can crushed tomatoes
2 tomatoes (chopped)
2 cobs of corn, stripped from the cob and blackened under the grill
1 can of kidney beans (drained)
750ml of vegie stock
1/2 cup of sour cream
1 chipotle in adobo sauce (chopped finely)
an extra dollop of adobo for good luck

In a big saucepan, fry the onion in oil for about ten minutes until it's nice and soft. Add everything else except the sour cream and bring it all to a boil. Simmer for half an hour or so and then swirl in the sour cream. Simmer for another few minutes and then serve, preferably with some fresh crusty bread.

- Michael, strangely signed in as Cindy.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

June 18, 2007: Forty One

January 2016: Doing a bit of blog tidying up and it looks like this place has been closed for ages. 

I spent a few days this week at a conference based in the city, so for the first time in years I was subjected to a schedule, peak hour public transport and a semi-professional dress code. There was an upside, too, of course: a change of scenery, a couple of interesting presentations and some fine lunchtime catering. In addition there was a conference dinner on Monday night at Forty One, on the 41st floor of the Rialto building. This afforded us some great views across the CBD and some time to converse with colleagues on a broader range of topics than the conference themes. We were offered a choice of three items each for three courses, and the entree and main lists included one vegetarian dish each. With the entree and main choices virtually selected for me, I was happy to spend a little more time lingering over my favourite course, dessert!

My entree (pictured above) was "pumpkin gnocchi tossed in rocket leaves with a tarragon and parmesan cheese sauce". It was served in a size that I'd be content to call dinner on any other night and in anticipation of the food still to come, I ate only half of it. The gnocchi were sweet and pillowy but drowning in creamy, cheesy sauce. Between the serving size and the richness, it had me feeling a little lethargic already, rather than appetised and excited about what was to come.

The vegetarian main was "sweet potato, English spinach and Gippsland brie lasagne with a roast tomato cream sauce and vegetable crisps". As you can see, it was very orange. The crisps were dominated by salty, crispy sweet potato with a little of something else - I don't think I worked out whether it was beetroot or sundried tomato but it sure got stuck in my teeth. These crisps were the only respite in taste and texture from thick tomato sauce. It tasted pleasant enough, but I failed to discern any spinach, brie or even distinct pasta sheets.

Finally to dessert. I bypassed the fruit plate as a cop-out then rejected the bread pudding, which has never excited me as desserts go. I relied on the age-old favourite, chocolate, to carry me through and hoped that the mention of aniseed would bring a novel element. So, a blurry photo of "rich chocolate terrine with macerated raspberries and aniseed biscotti". The biscotti reminded me more of shortbread and the raspberries weren't anything to shout about, but chocolate won the day as always. The terrine had a deep cocoa flavour and wasn't over-sweetened; the texture was smoother and fluffier than a flourless cake but denser than a mousse. My cocoa-meter was well satisfied only three-quarters of the way through. I was in no state to require the coffee, tea and dainty chocolates on offer to finish the evening.

This meal was appropriately carb-heavy and comforting on a winter night and I was certainly grateful that the sponsoring academy considered me a guest worth catering for. However Forty One's menu was less inspiring in execution than it appeared in text. Glancing at the prices online I suppose that they're charging for the view, and I'm not inclined to return with my own wallet. It was a conference dinner enjoyed but not a restaurant experience to highly recommend, particularly not to a vegetarian exploring the city.

Address: Level 41, Rialto Building - South Tower, 525 Collins St, Melbourne CBD
Ph: 9614 2127
Fully licensed
Price: veg entrees $9-20, veg main $25.50, dessert $11-17.50

Saturday, June 23, 2007

June 17, 2007: Borsch, Vodka and Tears

Many months had passed since we last made our way to Windsor for the Polish goodness of Borsch, Vodka and Tears. So, on some flimsy pretext or another, Cindy arranged a night out with Mike and Jo-Lyn to introduce them to the longest vodka menu in Melbourne. I settled for a Polish beer of some sort, but Cindy got into the spirit of things and ordered up a Pleasant Street Tea (turkish apple tea, pomegranate syrup and wild honey bee vodka, served piping hot; $8.50):

As well as a ridiculous number of vodka options, BV&T has a surprising (for a Polish place) number of vego options and Cindy and I did our best to avoid duplication with our last visit. We started out with some Polish borsch (which is apparently more watery than the Russian version) with a handful of porcini mushroom uszka (pan-fried Polish dumplings) floating (sunk to the bottom actually) in it ($13).

We followed up with kopytka ($13), pan-fried gnocchi served with a wild mushroom ragout and finished with truffle oil, which was a rich and hearty treat perfectly suited to the current burst of winter that seems to have engulfed Melbourne. I was only disappointed that I had to share it with Cindy.

For all our best intentions about trying new things, it would just be silly to go all the way to Windsor and then not indulge in pierogi. In fact, I don't think anyone would have been complaining if we'd just told the waitress to keep on bringing pierogi until we were all stuffed. On this occasion we limited ourselves to just one plate full of the potato and cheese variety ($13.50). All I'll say is that it was a good thing they served up an even number of them.

We'd remembered this time to leave enough space for dessert and Cindy and I shared some Russian crepes with strawberries and apples served with cream and raspberry coulis ($10). It was fine - quite good in fact, but I think next time I'll ignore the call of dessert and just order another plate of pierogi.

I can't remember what Jo and Mike had (I do know they didn't end up with the gypsy sausage soup, despite Mike's urging), but there's a ridiculous selection for meat-eaters so I'm sure it was tremendous. Needless to say, the sophisticated Polish vibe remains, as does the friendly and prompt service. So whether you're after an array of absinthe and vodka, a selection of hearty vego delights or an authentic Polish sausage, I'd highly recommend a trip to Borsch, Vodka & Tears.

Read about our previous visits here and here.

They also have a new website:

Friday, June 22, 2007

June 17, 2007: El Mirage

Sunday brought me a mild red wine hangover, the residue from my cousin's engagement party on Saturday night. I was highly vulnerable to Michael's proposal of a cafe-cooked breakfast and suggested one of Truffle's recent recommendations, El Mirage. Though I didn't recall it at the time, the title of her post must have had an effect on me.

El Mirage has the typical terrace house width of so many Melbourne cafes but it offers a surprisingly large and open space indoors (which we needed on this wintery morning), with a clean retro-modern look that stands out amongst the trendy, cluttered and grungy cafes we so often find ourselves at. We were very pleased that a table for two was available right away, though as the clock drifted on towards noon, we witnessed a few other people regretfully turned away.

The savoury options are egg dominated and the suggested combinations have a lot of meat going on. Michael inquired as to whether he could order the Gringo breakfast without bacon and was refused permission - instead he built his own of poached eggs, toast, mushrooms, beans and home fries for $1.30 more ($16.30 all up).

This was an enormous plate of food - I will pressure Michael to order only one or two extras with his eggs next time! Michael loved the beans, and the mushies and home fries (I tasted them) were so good that I thought I might order them next time we visit (this statement will astound you in its high praise when you read below what I ordered). The only drawback was overcooked eggs:

No slopping yolks around for Michael. Meanwhile, I was served probably the best tea and toast combo ever. Here's my soothing but cumbersome chai setup:

I'm sure a lot of people like the ritual of all the little cups and jugs, but it does take up a large proportion of a little cafe table. Anyway, here's what you really need to see, the Neapolitan ($7): chocolate and sour cherry toast with mascarpone.

Now I've long been sceptical of the chocolate and bread thing, but this was fantastic. Rich and moist like a cake but with a bready crumb. The plump sour cherries inside and mascarpone on top were just perfect. The only strange element was the garnishing raspberries which were bitter and not at all fruity to taste. But this didn't detract from my ultimate dessert toast.

After our very indulgent breakfasts, Michael and I sought to make amends with an hour-long walk through Brunswick and then home. We were lucky to enjoy the couple of clear and mild hours that Sunday gave us! I returned home with a clear head and satisfied stomach. Despite a couple of imperfections it should come as no surprise that I'm keen to return to El Mirage: maybe next time I'll trade a plate of home fries for making the trip by bike.

Address: 349 Lygon St, Brunswick East
Ph: 9388 0966
Price: veg breakfasts $5-20

Thursday, June 21, 2007

June 16, 2007: Almost-as-good gyoza

Lucy from Nourish Me has a knack for pretty photos and simple, elegant recipes involving fresh produce. The latest one that I bookmarked was for kaffir lime leaf gyoza, and I tried my hand at them on Saturday evening. With a base of tofu and mushrooms, these are freshly flavoured with red chilli, ginger, spring onions and the eponymous kaffir lime leaves. Unfortunately, my gyoza were inferior to Lucy's on three main fronts:
  1. Most obviously, they aren't as attractive. (Next time I'll have to take a dumpling assembly lesson from Ellie.)
  2. I couldn't find any fresh kaffir lime leaves on my shopping trip (I was too lazy to get to the markets on time). Instead I found some preserved and shredded ones in a jar at Safeway.
  3. Because all of the filling ingredients were going in the food processor, I got lazy on the chopping and grating. This resulted in occasional but large flares of chilli and a woody texture from the lime leaves. If you're tempted to try these dumplings, do it properly and finely then just pulse the lot gently in the food processor. It'll maintain a bit of texture in the mushrooms and tofu.
In spite of my sloppiness, these were tasty little fellers! I'll certainly make them again, when I'm feeling patient enough to tackle wonton wrappers. For the recipe, head on over to Nourish Me.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

June 16, 2007: Mr Tulk

Cindy welcomed me home on Friday evening with a delicious wok full of fried rice and, after my first non-hotel breakfast in weeks, I was ready to get out there and buy some food again. I couldn't possibly eat three meals in a row at home. You've got to ease back in to these things. So, with some vague excuses about shopping, we headed into the city to try out Mr Tulk, the state library's on-site cafe. I'd read good things about Mr Tulk, so I was quite surprised to see only a selection of pre-made pides and the like and a couple of specials on a blackboard. It turns out that there's a whole menu as well, but by the time we figured that out we'd already made our selections.

And fine selections they were too: crostini with hommus and a red pepper, walnut and tarragon dip along with a pide filled with pumpkin, ricotta and caramelised onion. The dips came with a splash of olive oil on top and a couple of tangy peppers for garnish. The red pepper dip was particularly enjoyable, although it must be said I couldn't really detect the tarragon, and, for once, an adequate amount of crostini were provided for the amount of dip. Usually we're either left eating undipped bread or stuck with an abundance of leftover dips - it's rare for someone to get the balance just right. The pide was served up nice and hot (something of a bonus for me as I readjusted to Melbourne's winter following a couple of weeks of 30+ degree days overseas) and was flavoured with an earthy spice - cumin maybe. All in all it was a pretty satisfying lunch - next time I'll make sure we grab a proper menu. If the readymade options are any indications there'll be some tasty treats to explore.

Address: Corner Latrobe and Swanston streets (in the State Library)
Ph: 8660 5700
Price: Our two dishes (and a couple of Tiro drinks) cost $22.50, but that's all I can tell you.

June 15, 2007: Trinkets from Europe

While Michael was gadding about over the last few weeks he was generous enough to choose a number of gifts for me and the kitchen along the way:
  • three packages of Hungarian paprika (each one a different combination of sweetness and heat), which came with the cute wooden spoon;
  • a decorative little pepper grinder, also from Budapest;
  • a cheap and cheerful set of matryoshka dolls;
  • a sample of Xocolat chocolates from Vienna;
  • a box of Neuhaus chocolates (with his spare change at an airport).
He clearly knows me and my interests well. So well that he even gambled on a beaded necklace in my absence and passed with flying colours: sparkly, autumn-hued, glass-bead colours. I'm a lucky girl!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

June 1-15, 2007: Europe

As Cindy mentioned in a couple of her recent posts, I've been swanning around Central Europe for the last couple of weeks - initially at a conference in Budapest and then a few days in Vienna and Amsterdam. And this is my reward, a blog post summarising the experience. I'll broaden out a little bit from the usual theme and include some trip highlights as well as the best food moments.

The majority of the trip was spent in Budapest - the venue of the conference and a few spare days I'd booked in to recover from jetlag and generally see the sights. The conference venue (and hotel in which I was staying) was the Hotel Gellért, an impressive looking place which is especially well known for its indoor pool and thermal baths. Alas, there are no pictures from inside the baths - I'm not sure random Hungarians would enjoy being photographed with just their swimmers on, and I certainly wasn't going to have anyone take pictures of my stunning torso.

Budapest is a funny old city, much like the hotel, it's got a kind of faded grandeur. Lots of impressive old buildings, but everything's just a little frayed around the edges. It has a great 'lived in' feel. Some of the highlights:

The Hungarian parliament building - the largest and most expensive building in Hungary, which cost an obscene amount of money and took nearly ten years to build:

Saint Stephen's basilica - as tall as the parliament, but not quite as impressive. Named for St. Stephen, Hungary's first king, who converted the Magyar pagans to Christianity (or, failing that, had them killed):

Statue Park - a small repository of some of the communist statues that dotted the streets of Budapest before 1989. The various communist monuments were taken down shortly after the communist regime fell and a few of the more impressive ones were set up in Statue Park as an open air museum.

Hungarian food is not widely lauded for its vegetarian delights - beef goulash soups, pancakes stuffed with veal, chicken paprikash, a variety of sausages and a range of fish soups were commonly found on menus with only the odd pasta or mushroom stew catering for non-meat-eaters. Luckily, one of my co-conferencees was also a vego and had discovered Vegetarium (website in Hungarian), conveniently located just across the river from the hotel.

As an indication of how impressed I was with this restaurant, I'll tell you that of the eight nights I spent in Budapest, six involved dinner at Vegetarium (the others being the night I arrived and the conference dinner). It was excellent - a large, varied menu (full of vegan options for those that are interested), good prices, friendly (if slightly slapdash) service and really, really good food. The star of the show was definitely the Burgonyalángos gombapaprikással töltve (potato pancakes with paprika mushrooms) - a slightly spicy creamy mushroom dish served on top of a dense and delicious potato pancake. Simply outstanding (again, as an indication, I had it three of the six nights). Unfortunately, the lighting wasn't particularly conducive to photography, so the pictures don't do the food justice.

Burgonyalángos gombapaprikással töltve (potato pancakes with paprika mushrooms)

Zöoldspárga krémleves pirított mandulával (Asparagus cream soup with toasted almonds)

Tofu diós bundában, feketeszeder mártással (Tofu coated in walnuts with blackberry sauce with mashed potatoes)

Gombagulyás (Mushroom goulash soup)

I ate a few other dishes as well (a hearty 'country-style' Hungarian dish filled with potatoes, mushrooms and paprika was particularly memorable), but haven't mustered up the courage to pull the camera out with workmates and international colleagues present. Across the various visits, we brought a decent number of conferencees along with us and everyone enjoyed the food - pizzas, salads, falafel, various stuffed pancakes, pasta - everything was demolished with great enthusiasm. If anyone reading this is ever in Budapest, I'd strongly recommend a visit - whether you're vegetarian or not.

My other meals in Budapest were generally less exciting - breakfast at the hotel was included in the price of the room, so I didn't sample traditional Magyar brekkies, and lunch (when I hadn't stuffed myself at the breakfast buffet) usually involved a quick trip over to the Great Market Hall.

Once you dodge past the sausage stands and butchers at the front of the hall, the market is filled with cheap fruit and vegie shops, bakeries, some delis and spice shops and a few eating (and drinking - seriously, there's a good reason our alcohol policy research conference was held in Budapest, there's a whole lot of drinking going on) establishments.

I was particularly fond of the strudel stand, which sold about fifteen different types of strudel (for about $1 each). Pictured below is a typical lunch: pumpkin and poppyseed strudel followed by apple and sour cherry strudel for dessert.

After the conference wound down I jumped on board the hydrofoil that runs up the Danube to Vienna for a few extra days of sight-seeing without any work-related distractions. The central part of Vienna feels more like an open-air museum than a city that people live and work in - around every corner is a castle or museum built when the Hapsburg's ruled large chunks of Europe and had more gold than they knew what to do with. It's all very grand, and I've got more photos than anybody would really be interested in. A few highlights:

The view from the south tower of Stephensdom (St Stephen's Cathedral - not the Hungarian king) - it's a pretty good view, but climbing the 350 narrow, curving stairs on a humid 30 degree day left me in a pretty poor state to enjoy it. The Cathedral itself is quite impressive - it dates from the 1300s and is stuffed with ancient Christian artworks (and tourists).

Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Art History) - one of countless art museums in Vienna and, supposedly, second only to the Louvre in terms of its collection. I didn't actually make it inside - I'd exhausted my art gallery enthusiasm with a few hours checking out the Klimts and Schieles at the Leopold Museum.

The Secession building - the gallery created by a group of Viennese artists (led by Klimt) who quit the main artists association in Vienna as a protest against its conservatism. They designed this building as their exhibition building.

On to the food. The first thing that pops into my head when I think of Austrian food is sausage. Unfortunately, the vego sausage stand that the Lonely Planet guide promised me had gone out of business by the time I arrived, but luckily Antun's Biobar came through with the goods. The menu was substantial, with a range of soups, salads and mains (as well as organic beer and wine - although to be honest, the organic beer didn't really measure up to the regular stuff that I'd been drinking on my travels), and I selected a garlic vegetable soup and the country-appropriate sausage with dumplings and sauerkraut. Salty and delicious.

Having had my fill of traditional Austrian food, I hunted down a falafel place (Maschu Maschu) for lunch the next day. I had a falafel plate - six falafel balls, amazing hummus, three types of cabbage and some sort of pickled vegie sauce. Sitting out in the sun munching on this and watching the people go by... sigh, not what I need to think about while the Melbourne winter rain rolls in.

In the evening I hunted down Wrenkh, another Lonely Planet recommendation, which promised classy vegetarian dining. It was a classy enough place, but the menu had been infiltrated by a few fish and chicken dishes. Still, my red pepper and mango quinoa with fried cheese was pretty impressive.

Some other treats: the world famous Sacher Torte served up at its traditional home, Hotel Sacher, along with a 'melange', the standard Viennese coffee:

A lunch from the Naschmarkt, stuffed peppers and artichoke hearts, followed by an apple strudel.

The vagaries of connecting flights meant that I had a choice of a 6 or 27 hour layover in Amsterdam. It seemed sensible to take the longer stop off and actually spend some time in the city, rather than just hanging around Schiphol. With its multiple canals and gorgeous old canal houses, it's a very pleasant city just to stroll around for a day (until you stumble into the red-light district and scantily clad women start tapping on their windows for your attention). I skipped the Van Gogh and Rembrandt museums, preferring to enjoy the sunshine and to soak up the atmosphere.

In Cindy's honour, I enjoyed a traditional Dutch snack: chips and mayo.

For dinner, I chased down another specialist vegetarian restaurant: Green Planet, near the Singel Canal on the western side of the inner city. It was a small place, with a small menu, and I opted for pumpkin and coriander soup, followed by the special of the day, Aloo Gobi served with rice and a green salad. Both were great - particularly the soup - but it was as much the outdoor table and parade of cyclists meandering past as the food that made it such a pleasant meal.

So, all in all, it was a very enjoyable trip - a good conference, three new cities to explore and lots of wonderful food to enjoy. And summer - it was quite a shock to come back to Melbourne and find that winter had finally arrived properly. Still, it's nice to go out and be able to make sense of the menu again and to have delicious home-cooked treats after two weeks of eating out every meal.