Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March 24, 2010: Tokyo II

As we were getting set to leave for Japan, our cat Zimbra realised something was afoot and decided to make Cindy feel even more guilty about leaving him behind by staging a silent protest on her bag. Once we got here, Cindy's kitten-guilt grew even stronger, and the only way to get her through it was to take her to Nekobukuro - Cat House - a weird cat play area at the top of a department store in Ikebukoru.

For 600 円 (around $7) you can spend as much time as you want patting, playing with and hassling the 10-15 cats roaming around a three-room cat jungle-gym. Sounds amazing doesn't it? Alas, the reality is a little less exciting. The cats fell into two categories - sleeping:

or hiding:

The primary clientele of Nekobukuro are parents and their excited little kids, who run madly around grabbing handfuls of kitty's tail or 'patting' them with a little too much enthusiasm. Thus the cats that have the energy hide - either up high or down low.

They're still cute, and you can at least pat some of the lazy sleeping ones, but the whole experience was a little odd - I guess they have better lives than the strays we've been seeing everywhere, but it didn't seem like life in the Nekobukuro was a barrel of laughs. The good thing about the morning's cat-based entertainment was that it was inside - overnight Tokyo had turned rainy, and a steady stream came down on us for the rest of the day.

Our next order of business was lunch, and Pure Cafe came highly recommended by the Vegan Pocketguide. A quick train ride to Shibuya and we were ready to walk through the rain to Omote Sando and track it down.

Alas it wasn't to be. Despite managing the hardest part - getting us to the Omote Sando subway stop which was the reference point for our Pure Cafe map - I then spent a good 45 minutes thinking we were facing at 90 degrees from the direction we were actually facing. In this situation, a fairly undetailed little map is very, very frustrating. By the end I was convinced that the Pocketguide had completely misled us. A quick scan of one of the very helpful neighbourhood maps by the side of the road put me straight - I'm just an idiot. Once we had ourselves all turned around, we located Pure Cafe in about 90 seconds. Unfortunately it was too late to grab lunch - we had a meeting scheduled with Matt at another subway station in less than twenty minutes.

We arrived at Roppongi and shamefacedly explained our failure. Matt quickly located a Mos Burger, which Lisa had recommended to us before we left - they've got one vegan burger, a weird vegie patty squished between two rice cakes (250 円, $3).

The burger was okay - a bit of a let-down after the high hopes we had for Pure Cafe, but quick and filling in an emergency lunch situation.

Our reason for visiting Roppongi was another rainy day activity: the Mori Art Museum. The major exhibition was called 'Can there be art?', and featured young Japanese artists - mostly working with installations or multimedia. I enjoyed a lot of it, particularly these tiny trees cut out of retail packaging:

and the crazy sound installations with moving parts and flashing lights, all controlled by a few turntables and some fancy circuitry:

The Mori Art Museum is on the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills complex and included in the ticket price to the exhibitions is access to Tokyo City View, an observatory. A rainy night is not the best time to visit, but there were still some pretty striking views across the lit up city.

Our final stop for the day was Hiro, for dinner at J's Kitchen, another Pocketguide recommendation. Matt and I spent a lot of time carefully considering our dinner options.

I hit upon the teriyaki tempeh sandwich set (1575 円, $18), a tempeh sandwich, served with salad and a bowl of soup. If you ignore the slightly ludicrous price, this was a cracking choice - the tempeh was saucy and moist, the bread lightly toasted and the salad and soup provided good support. If nothing else, this reinvigorated our enthusiasm to make more tempeh sandwiches when we get back to Australia. Delicious.

Cindy opted for the even more expensive seitan balls in sweet and sour sauce (1680 円, $20), which were comparatively less exciting. The seitan balls and vegies were beautifully cooked but a lot hinged on the sauce and Cindy wasn't overly enthused by it. She still sampled dessert, a vegan custard tart, that was quite dry and wholesome tasting, with a hint of citrus - it was hardly going to be rich or eggy at a vegan macrobiotic restaurant.

With the rain showing no sign of letting up, there wasn't much to do but catch the subway back to Matt's house. On the walk home we stopped in at the local supermarket - surely one of the highlights of a visit to any new country.

Matt helpfully pointed out a set of mochi-based sweets and some plum liqueur for us to end the night with. The mochi were a bit weird - one had a red-bean based sauce, which is something neither Cindy or I have entirely come around to yet. The other had a sweet and slightly soy-sauce tasting sauce, which was a bit much for me, but has converted Cindy to a slightly crazed mochi-hunter for the rest of the trip.

The plum liqueur came in cute little single-serve jars, each with a plum stewing at the bottom.

Nothing says 'classy' like a man drinking from a jar.

Monday, March 29, 2010

March 23, 2010: Tokyo I

As I've hinted in some recent posts, both Michael's and my jobs have been quite demanding in the past month or so. It's a good thing that we had a long, and long overdue, holiday to look forward to! Within days of our commitments winding up we packed our bags and set off for Tokyo, where Michael's brother Matt has been living for the past three years. (Long-time readers might remember Michael previously dropping in on Matt in July 2008.) We arrived early in the morning, grubby and zombified but determined to see some sights and spend as much of the day as possible awake.

Matt flexed his hosting skills, sorting out subway passes and confidently leading us through the maze that is Tokyo's rail system. I could do little more than follow dumbly, struggling to take in the high density, high energy and utterly foreign city around me. Our first destination was Shinjuku for lunch at The Loving Hut.

This tiny second-floor vegetarian restaurant is part of the Supreme Master fold (see also: La Panella back in Melbourne). Our limited ability to communicate with the two staff barely mattered, as the time of day dictated that we'd be eating their set lunch (500円 ~ AU$5.90), speedily and elegantly presented in a cardboard bento box.

It was just perfect! There was faux-chicken, spicy tofu, gingery pickled cabbage, curry-spiced daikon, bean shoots, plenty of rice, and in the lower-right corner, an intriguing sponge-like substance that soaked up its marinade like nothing else - it could be another faux-meat, but we wonder if it was actually a fungus of some sort. This meal was delicious, it was extraordinarily cheap, and most importantly at that time, it didn't require us to labour over menus, communication or decision-making. An added bonus was that the Loving Hut stocks copies of the Japan Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide (1600円 ~ AU$19.00). Michael has been clutching this as keenly as the subway map and Lonely Planet guide ever since.

With our first foray into vegetarian eating in Japan such a success we were well energised for some more walking, making our way to Yoyogi Park in Shibuya.

Though we thought it would take a lot to outdo our fine meal at the Loving Hut, the demands of travel and our tranquil surrounds soon defeated us and we napped on the grass.

This park is also home to the Meiji Shrine.

The crowds increased as we made our way east from the Shrine to Harajuku.

It's full of crazy-sparkly-fun-shopping. I wasn't tempted to part with any of my cash, but I enjoyed the atmosphere and the stroll.

Matt led us further east to the Design Festa Gallery and then to the A to Z Cafe. Too late for lunch and too early for dinner, the cafe was scattered with only a few quiet patrons. Though A to Z serves meals, we focused on the cakes and hot drinks. With English subtitles across the menu and photographs of their regular desserts, the only challenge was agreeing on which plates to order.

Michael was fascinated by the 'homemade sweet bracken jelly with soybean flour' (500円 ~ AU$5.90) and when Matt observed that it looked like mochi, I got pretty keen too. Before our departure our friend Lisa impressed upon me the importance of eating mochi, and having seen it mentioned on many of my favourite blogs, I was eagerly keeping my eye out for it. Served with a sugary syrup, these were nice but not typical - more silky and jelly-ish and less starchy and doughy than most.

We also shared this delightfully light and sweet 'rolled cake with brown sugar taste' (550円 ~ AU$6.50). It's served with a side of red beans, a delicacy I haven't yet acquired a taste for. (Actually, I think it's more the texture than the taste I need to make peace with.)

With no pressure to vacate our table, we spent some time lounging at A to Z, flicking through our restaurant guide and planning where to go for dinner. When we emerged, darkness had fallen and Shinjuku was even more dazzling.

For dinner, Michael and Matt had settled on Nagi Shokudo, a cosy vegan restaurant within walking distance.

photo by Matt
They offer a range of share-friendly plates for dinner ranging in price from 350-850円 (~AU$4-10). English subtitles across the menu again helped a lot in our ordering.

Everything we ate was lovely, with the fried eggplant and pumpkin soaked in sweet teriyaki soup (pictured above) being the absolute stand-out.

The fried lotus roots and carrot soaked in sweet sour sauce were also quite an experience. Though I've occasionally eaten lotus root before, it's never been with this texture - less fibrous or starchy, and even a little waxy. It was surprising, and surprisingly good.

Warmth and good food had Michael and I rather drowsy and we very contently headed back through the drizzle to Matt's flat for sweet, sweet rest.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

March 19, 2010: Banana-date smoothie

We've got dates and, as usual, I've got frozen bananas. They're a fine combination, and I've been choosing to combine them in smoothies. They're both plenty sweet as they are, so all they really need is some milk. I also like the teensiest pinch of ground cardamom.

Whenever I get to the smooth dates and banana stage I notice that this would probably make another fine banana icecream. My processor can't quite blend the dates to smoothness, so the 'icecream' is flecked with their caramel sweetness. They're a treat when I find them sunk into the last quarter of my smoothie, too.

Banana-date smoothie

Remove the pits from 6-8 dates and place them in a food processor. Process the dates until they're as mushy as they're gonna get (mine are usually still quite chunky when they're out of the blade's reach). Add a couple tablespoonfuls of milk (dairy or non-) before processing some more. Add a frozen banana and a pinch (just a pinch!) of ground cardamom and process it all until smooth. Then with the motor still running, gradually add more milk in a stream to get the quantity and consistency you want. Pour it into a glass and drink up!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March 18, 2010: Morocco-inspired carrot salad

When our friends Mike and Jo returned from a summer trip to the Middle East, they kindly brought us back a box of magnificent dates. (They're nature's caramel, people!) Then our latest vege box yielded half a dozen or more cute little carrots and I thought of a recipe that my dad's wife Anne has served on a couple of my visits. It features lightly steamed carrots, which are dressed in a Morocco-inspired mix of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, some herbs and spices and, of course, chopped dates. I emailed Anne for the recipe over lunch and she responded when she arrived home from work, just in time for me to adapt it for dinner that night. I phoned them for a catch-up chat at 9, and she was delighted to hear that we'd already managed to prepare and devour it.

Since I was working from the pantry I didn't have everything required for the original recipe. I replaced the lemon juice with pomegranate molasses and reduced the oil, and used dried parsley for a bit of green in lieu of the coriander. While it probably wasn't quite so fresh, it tasted great! I'm starting to wonder if there's anything, sweet or savoury, that doesn't taste terrific with pomegranate molasses.

We ate this salad with some mixed green leaves and faux chicken kievs. They're based on this recipe by melbedggood. Ours were pleasant enough, though some of the alterations I made didn't really work - I'm looking forward to blogging it properly in the future when I get it right.

Morroco-inspired carrot salad
(based on a recipe at entertaining made easy)

~300g carrots
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
pinch of garlic powder
generous pinch of cumin
generous pinch of chilli flakes
salt and pepper, to taste
4 dates, finely chopped

Peel the carrots and slice them into thick rounds. Cook them in boiling water until just tender.

While the carrots are cooking, whisk together the remaining ingredients in a medium-sized bowl.

When the carrots are ready, drain them and add them to the bowl, tossing them to coat them in the dressing. Serve!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March 16-18, 2010: Kiwi financiers

We've had a takeaway container marked '6 Egg Whites' in the freezer for some time. I couldn't remember where the yolks went but I suspect David Lebovitz had something to do with it. Regardless, it was well and truly time to use them and after a couple of weeks away from the kitchen I was keen to bake. These financiers looked like a good solution. They include only a small amount of flour, which is easily substituted with a gluten-free mix that makes them palatable for a couple of my favourite workmates.

The original recipe has these moist almond cakes topped with strawberry halves but I chose sunny kiwi slices instead - these make a nice sour contrast to the sweet, creamy cake. The batter comes together in less time than it takes to heat the oven, so they're an easy weeknight task. I found that the financiers last happily for a few days, though they may sink a little in that time. My only complaint is that they make their paper cases greasy inside and out - perhaps reducing the quantity of butter would avert that problem.

Kiwi financiers
(based on a recipe at cuisine.com.au)

110g ground almonds
90g plain flour (I used a gluten-free mix)
240g icing sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
6 egg whites
250g butter (consider using less)
2 kiwi fruits, sliced into rounds

Preheat the oven to 190°C. Lightly grease a muffin tin or line it with cupcake papers.

Place the ground almonds in a large bowl and sift over the flour, icing sugar and baking powder. Gradually beat in the egg whites. Melt the butter over the stove or in a microwave and stir it into the cake batter until it's all just combined.

Spoon the mixture into the muffin tin (it should make a dozen). Gently place a kiwi slice onto each cake and bake the financiers for about 30 minutes, until they pass the skewer test.

Monday, March 22, 2010

March 14, 2010: Cheezy mushroom croissants

Well, foolhardy ol' me set myself the task of veganising and de-glutening this year's calendar recipes. January was a cinch, February was more success than failure, and March just about defeated me before I'd even begun. Croissants - little more than butter and flour - are surely the antithesis of a vegan, gluten-free diet. I ditched my gluten-free aspirations and focused on a vegan rendition. Here's what I came up with:

Croissants: Croissants are just puff pastry, right? So why not use Borg's excellent vegan puff pastry for the job? I watched Emmanuel Mollois roll croissants on Poh's Kitchen a few weeks ago and figured I could give it a shot. (You can watch it too - it's at the 14-minute mark in the Family Favourites episode, archived here.) Mine were nothing special. Their shape was just barely evocative of a real croissant, and they were compact and heavy. Chewy, even. Fail.

Mushrooms: I stayed relatively true to the original recipe, just replacing the butter with Nuttelex and omitting the cream altogether. They were still delicious.

Brie: I wasn't in the mood for elaborate vegan cheese-making, and instead thought that Vegan Brunch's cheesy sauce might be a nice alternative (even if it doesn't resemble brie in the least). It's a fab sauce, but ultimately I didn't really think it matched the mushrooms.

Not a meal worth repeating. Still, there were enough pleasant (if mis-matched) elements here to contently eat my way through what I'd cooked. And I reckon experiments like this one are doing me and my cooking skillz more good than harm.

Mandee's been going mad for vegan, gluten-free French food recently - check out her culinary creations here (including croissants!) and here.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

March 13, 2010: Mushroom & brie croissants

March's calendar recipe of creamy brie and mushroom croissants looked devastatingly rich. Not only does it involve the creamy brie and buttery croissants of the title, but the mushrooms are also cooked in butter and cream! I was pleasantly surprised to find that, once cooked, the mushrooms weren't at all gluggy - much of the moisture had evaporated off and the white wine gave them a terrific acidity that counteracted all the fat. In fact, the mushrooms, brie and croissants worked together very well. (I was initially sceptical - but proven wrong! - about the brie/croissant combo.) It all still calls for a whopping garden salad on the side and no dessert to follow, but it's worth that latter sacrifice.

Mushroom and brie croissants

20g butter
1 clove garlic
200g Swiss brown mushrooms, sliced
100mL white wine
1/3 cup cream
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
2 croissants
100g brie, sliced

Melt the butter in a frypan over medium heat. Add the garlic and mushrooms, sautéing them until soft (3-5 minutes). Add the wine and simmer for a couple of minutes or until the wine has evaporated. Stir through the cream and thyme leaves and simmer the mushroom mixture for 3-4 more minutes, until thickened. (I actually found that most of the moisture evaporated.)

Slice the croissants in half and place them cut side up on a tray. Toast them under a grill for just a minute or so. When they're ready, set the tops aside. Arrange the mushrooms and then the cheese slices on the croissant bases and return them to the grill for a couple of minutes, just until the cheese melts. Pop the croissant tops on and serve.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

March 12-13. 2010: Choc-banana icecream

On returning home from my travels, I didn't have much time to settle in. A major deadline loomed in just four days, necessitating an all-work-weekend. After lots of eating out I needed plain, home-cooked food and even resisted any replenishment of the Lindt stocks.

A chocolate version of the blended banana icecream was a consolatory alternative. It only distracted me from my work for a few minutes at a time, the banana provided a nourishing base, and the cocoa was nice reward for all that reading and writing. I made it a few times and experimented with the proportions - 1 tablespoon of cocoa allows the banana flavour to equal the chocolate, while 2 tablespoons just about drowns it out.

Choc-banana icecream

1 frozen banana
1-2 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 - 1 tablespoon agave nectar (or another sweetener you like)

Add all the ingredients to a food processor and blend until smooth and creamy. You may wish to start with the smaller quantities of cocoa and agave, then taste and adjust to your preference.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

March 3 & 5, 2010: Atomica

Edit 06/05/2021: Atomica is now closed.

Atomica cafe was doing business the entire time I lived in West End, yet it was only in my last year there that I took a special liking to it. The lower prices and longer menu regularly attracted me to Espressohead next door, but eventually Atomica charmed me with its consistency and quality.

It's a small cafe and it's difficult to find a table on the weekend (perhaps another disincentive when I was a local?) but on my recent visit to the neighbourhood I had the luxury of stopping by for breakfast on weekdays.

You probably know by now how rare savoury breakfasts are for me but I wavered for mere nanoseconds before ordering the herbed scrambled tofu with spinach and toasted sourdough ($14.90). The tofu's firm but moist, quite sweet and with a hint of spice. The baby spinach leaves on top aren't cooked, but wilt gently from the tofu's heat and provide a nice contrast to the its sweetness. The serving size is HUGE - for lunch that day I could muster up the appetite for no more than a bit of fruit.

On my second visit a couple of days later I succumbed to the temptation of buttermilk pancakes ($10.90). You've a choice of maple syrup and caramelised banana on top, and icecream comes standard (I asked them to skip it). These guys really put the 'cake' in 'pancake' - these ones are bizarrely tall and fluffy and sweet. And as you can see from the volume of sauce, it's not just the bananas that get caramelised. Breakfast does not get any more dessert-like than this.

There's plenty else for vegos to enjoy on Atomica's breakfast menu, with a good representation of non-eggy savoury options as well as the usual eggs, toast and muesli suspects. They also make delicious (from distant memory) bubble and squeak, which comes with the Vego Breakfast plate and is also available as an extra. I've been utterly spoilt by Melbourne's brunch scene in the past few years, but it's great to see that this old favourite still measures up.

Address: 3/173 Boundary St, West End QLD
Ph: (07) 3844 0333
Price: veg breakfasts $4-$15

You can read more reviews of Atomica at food bling, Hungry Kittens and Gustoso.

Friday, March 12, 2010

February 28, 2010: Caravanserai

I've been in Brisbane for work, with a side of nostalgic pleasure. I made room in my itinerary for old friends, old neighbourhoods and a few restaurants that are old favourites too. One of them is Caravanserai, a richly decorated Turkish restaurant in West End.

I was keen on the Turkish lemonade with limes, lemon and mint, an enthusiasm that spread round the table and culminated in a jug of the stuff. It had just the right sweet-to-sour ratio, though having now tried a rosewater-tinted version nothing else is quite as spectacular.

I don't know that I've ranted too much about it on this blog but the vegetable stack is one of those dishes that often appears as the sole vegetarian option on a menu. (It seems to have been superseded by gnocchi and/or risotto in recent years, but that's another story...) Though these are occasionally tasty, they are more often bland and poorly cooked, and they are a sign that the resident chef has no love or imagination for their vegetarian customers.

Not so at Caravanserai! Their Sebze ($22.50, described as a stack of chargrilled vegetables) is one of three vego options. And it is fabulous. The eggplant slices and mushroom are meltingly tender and deeply flavoured. The smothering tomato sauce didn't excite my eyes but it was an entirely different story once it hit my taste buds - it has just the right complementary tang of vinegar. Fried strips of haloumi and a wedge of polenta add richness and further contrast, and there's a little fresh greenery to perk it all up.

Dining at Caravanserai isn't cheap, but the food is made with care and the servings are generous (I challenge anyone and everyone to finish the banquet!). Vegans and gluten-free folks are catered for, and service is usually good - on this night we had a terrific and savvy waiter.

Address: 1-3 Dornoch Terrace, West End QLD 4101
Ph: (07) 3217 2617
Price: veg mains $22.50
Website: www.caravanserairestaurant.com.au