Thursday, February 27, 2014

Kung pao seitan with asparagus

February 24, 2014

This dinner had me pulling some home-made seitan from the depths of the freezer and our ol' Charney cookbook from the shelf. It's a formula we know well - cook some rice, chop some veges, stir-fry 'em quickly with a few condiments from the pantry. But there's something about this recipe that I don't think we would have managed on our own: the seitan chunks are chewy and satisfying but not overpowering, the asparagus and capsicum are fresh and crunchy, there's just enough savoury sauce clinging to the veges, and there are whole dried chillies that I'd never let Michael toss in without a chef's express instructions.

The balance was dead on - I reckon this kung pao is at least as good as the ones we've eaten around town.

Kung pao seitan with asparagus
(adapted slightly from a recipe in Ken Charney's Bold Vegetarian Chef)

2 tablespoons tamari
2 teaspoons mirin
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon vegetarian Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon black bean or chilli bean sauce
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon arrowroot
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 carrot, thinly sliced into half-moons
1 large bunch asparagus, chopped into bite-sized lengths
340g seitan, preferably chicken-style, chopped into ~1cm cubes
3 cloves garlic, minced
10 small dried red chillies, 1-3 of them broken open
1 red capsicum, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup roasted peanuts
230g can water chestnuts, drained

Chop the vegetables and seitan as directed above and set them aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the tamari, mirin, sugar, sesame oil, Worcestershire sauce, bean sauce, pepper, arrowroot and 1/4 cup water. Set the sauce aside.

Heat up the vegetable oil in a wok or large frying pan. Add the carrot and asparagus and stir-fry them for about a minute. Pour in 1/4 cup water and allow them to steam for a further minute. Add the seitan, garlic, and chillies and stir-fry for half a minute. Add the capsicum and peanut and stir-fry for another half-to-one minute, until the capsicum is slightly softened. Pour over the sauce and gently stir it through the vegetables until the sauce is thickened. Stir in the water chestnuts and serve over rice.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

N2 Extreme Gelato

February 21, 2014

With half of our Thai dinner packed away for later, I had room for dessert and persuaded Michael to stop by N2 with me. I was keen to see what kooky combinations were currently on their menu after lamenting the LAB's somewhat staid flavours the other week.

Actually, N2 Fitzroy has toned down the 'weird science' theme compared to its Sydney sibling. Though there are safety goggles for staff and copious clouds of nitrogen vapour, I didn't see any conical flasks, white coats or antiquated instruments - they were going for a cuter vibe of LEGO figurines and plush toys with their fake grass.

The flavour selection seemed toned-down too, mostly variations on chocolate and lemon, but this was probably just the luck of the week - their wall of past flavours harks back to days of kaya toast, vegemite, miso caramel and Earl Grey. The major moment of novelty was the syringe full of chocolate ganache served with the mochachino cups ($8). I made the mistake of saving it up for the second half of the mild coffee custard gelato and focusing first on the crown of cream and cocoa nibs; the ganache set firmly in the tip, and sprayed messily when I stubbornly forced it.

N2's best trick was actually that they serve vegan options! The mango and lemon tea sorbets ($6) were clearly marked as such. Though it seems neither comes with toppings (one point to the LAB), we were really impressed by the mango's luscious texture and really-true-to-the-fruit flavour (two points to N2).

I will probably pop my head back in, hoping to try one of N2's more adventurous flavours, but they might struggle to beat Berrissimo up the street, where veg*ns have more control over what's in the mix.


You can read about our visit to the original Sydney store here.

There's been a lot of hype around N2 in the six months it's been in Melbourne, see The Modern Connoisseur, I'm So Hungree, grazing panda, confessions of a little piggy, new international students, peach-water, Adventures of a Melbourne Girl, Poppet's Window, Wild Mixed, I Spy Plum Pie, Ichigo Shortcake, Mr & Ms, this (hungry) little piggy, Just Keep Eating with Miss M & Miss K, THE BUTLER BROADSHEET, Eat. Play. Shop., Where food is, Mango Macarons, A Sheepish Flog, Mon's Adventures, Food Diary, The Hungry Excavator, The Urban Ma, Woo Food, Sweet & Sour Fork, Ms I-Hua, Nurikko Visits, Seasoned Plate, Hold The Peas, de-brief me, Klaus & Fritz, MoMo & Coco and Little Wanderings. Reviews are a little less effusive on PETIT MIAMx, Melbourne Din(n)ing Blog, Missy Ness' Food Train of Thought, Yellow Eggs, Dave Plus Food and Vic's Blog, while Gourmet Chick doesn't buy into it at all.

N2 Extreme Gelato
329 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
current menu

Accessibility: I believe the entry was flat; the interior certainly was (at most there's one step on entry). Furniture inside consists of large wooden crates against walls and smaller, movable milk crates. There's plenty of space to move around unless the queue is out of hand. We ordered, paid and received our icecream at a relatively high counter. Toilets are individual, unisex and located on the same level - we didn't see inside them, but the doors were wide and we'd guess they were moderately spacious.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Mamanee Thai

February 21, 2014

We were at a loose end in Collingwood on a Friday night and, after scoping out the queues at Jimmy Grants and Shop Ramen, decided to finally visit MaMaNee Thai. It had been recommended to us years ago as a decent and cheap Thai option and we were happy to be able to just wander in and grab a table. It's a pretty basic fit-out - cheap looking signage, brown plastic accoutrements and slightly harsh lighting. The kitchen is on display behind the front counter, so you can entertain yourself by watching the chefs in action.

The menu has a dedicated vegetarian section, always reassuring at a Thai place. There's curries, stir-fries and a range of noodle dishes, alongside a few more interesting options. The noodles all have egg in them, but the stir-fries and curries look vegan to me. The rest of the menu goes well beyond the standard Thai options (including a special Southern Thai selection), but I'm not sure how many of them are fish sauce/shrimp paste free. They also have special Thai drinks, including this milky iced coffee ($4) that gave me the kick I needed after a tiring week.

We ordered a couple of mains - starting with the vegetarian Singapore noodles with vegetables, tofu and rice vermicelli noodles ($15.50).

I was a bit disappointed when these appeared - visually they're not particularly appealing. Luckily, they tasted incredible - heavily seasoned with some sort of curry powder and cumin and probably MSG, served with lime slices to provide a bit of tang. They're not particularly spicy, but the restaurant has a tremendous range of sauces so you can tweak the chilli levels yourself.

Our second dish was the incomparably named tofu delicious ('with seasoning sauce topped with sesame seeds and onion', $15.50).

This was excellent as well, big chunks of thickly battered tofu with a sweet and spicy sauce and a nice range of vegetables. 

The food at Mamanee was fantastic, with both dishes providing something a bit different from the standard Thai options. The servings were massive as well - we took home enough leftovers for a whole second dinner, after springing 60c for plastic containers. Mamanee seems like the perfect neighbourhood Thai - good food, reasonable prices, friendly service - if only it was in our neighbourhood!

We were tipped off about MaMaNee more than four years ago by commenter Ruth. It's also had positive reviews by MEL: HOT OR NOT, Food-in-Melbourne, Fitzroyalty, hookturns, Lots of Cravings and That Jess Ho and a less positive write-up by Pooh in the kitchen.

MaMaNee Thai
324 Smith Street, Collingwood
9419 0538
menu: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Accessibility: There's a flat entryway to a reasonably spacious interior. We ordered at the table and paid at a high counter. The toilets are on the same level, gendered and not especially accessible.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Cruelty Free Shop

February 20, 2014

Brunswick St has already established itself as a vegan hotspot with the Vegie Bar, Yong Green Food, Madame K's, Lord of the Fries and Berrissimo all clustered just south of Alexandra Parade. What better spot to set up the first bricks-and-mortar outlet of the Cruelty Free Shop?

The Cruelty Free Shop opens officially for business tomorrow, Saturday February 21, but we were lucky to get a sneak peek at their launch. Inside we found neat white shelves stacked with hundreds, if not thousands, of vegan groceries.

Fridges nearly groaned with the weight of vegan cheeses, icecreams, mock meats and frozen snacks like bao and spring rolls. Shelves were lined with convenience meals stocks and soups, including a few unfamiliar brands and products (ready-made coconut bacon! sample packs of Tartex!). Amongst the puddings, cake mixes and sweet flavoured milks I was delighted to discover a ready source of soy condensed milk.

There's stuff for vegan minds and bodies as well as their digestive systems - books, cosmetics and skin care, shoes, wallets and bags. I'm feeling a twinge of regret over the vegan leather wallet I bought a couple of months ago, 'cause these ones are real cute.

The Cruelty Free Shop aims to stock products that are intentionally vegan, and often made by vegan companies. It's not a place to source bulk biodegradable detergent or dried legumes - instead it's all about the luxury goods that confirm vegans aren't missing out on anything.

The Cruelty Free Shop
385 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
9495 6673

Accessilibility: I think the entry was flat, if a little narrow. Floors inside are flat and corridors should be clear and moderately wide when not crammed with people at launch time. Some stock is located on rather high shelves.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Vegetable moussaka with pine nut cream

February 17, 2014

I've had this recipe bookmarked since 2008: a time before I had my own copy of Veganomicon, the era of regular updates on Yeah, That "Vegan" Shit. Dairy substitutes were still a novelty to me, and I imagine that I was particularly taken by the pine-nut cream topping on this moussaka (it sure couldn't have been Lindy Loo's "worst picture ever" that lured me in, right?). 

I just never got around to making it until we found ourselves with five eggplants in the fridge this week. And then I decided to make it on a Monday night. Yep, I thought it'd be a good idea to thinly slice and pre-bake two and a half kilos of vegetables, make a sauce and a pine nut cream and layer it all up for a final bake, all after coming home from a full day at work. It. Took. Four. Hours.

Let's leave aside my questionable judgement for a moment, while I assure you that at least it was not a stressful four hours. There was no point at which I was wrangling three saucepans and a tray under the grill, burning one component while trying to blend another. Michael patiently sliced all the vegetables before I arrived home, then tagged me in for the bulk of the cooking: methodically baking those vegetables, tray by tray, cooking the tomato sauce and then blending the pine nut cream as the veges baked. Relying on a timer for my cues, I even caught moments to read other blogs at the kitchen table. Helping myself to a few of the baked potato slices kept my spirits up too.

With the quantities of water held in these vegetables plus the oil and salt bandied about in the recipe, there was a risk that this would end up a sludgy, salty mess. It was precisely the opposite - draining the salted eggplant kept the fluids in check, and a light touch with a can of spray oil rendered it velvety and not at all greasy in the finished moussaka. It did slice a bit sloppily, but that was to be expected - refrigerated pieces (such as the one photographed) flaunted much prettier layers.

We were very happy with the result, but it's not often that we'd set aside another four hours to earn it. I suspect we'll be turning back to our tempeh lasagne and Lancashire hotpot recipes before we go The Full Moussaka again.

Vegetable moussaka with pine nut cream
(adapted slightly from Yeah, That "Vegan" Shit,
where it's already adapted from Veganomicon)

vegetable layers
900g eggplant
450g zucchini
1.3 kg potatoes
lots of spray oil

tomato sauce
1/4 cup olive oil
1 medium brown onion, chopped finely
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup vegetable stock
2 x 400g cans crushed tomatoes
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 bay leaf

pine nut cream
1/2 cup pine nuts, plus extra to garnish
juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon arrowroot
1 clove garlic
generous pinch nutmeg
generous pinch white pepper
450g silken tofu

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

Preheat an oven to 200°C. Line baking trays (as many as will fit into your oven) with baking paper and spray them with oil.

Wash the eggplants, trim off the stems and slice them lengthways into large flat pieces, about 4mm thick. Rub the slices with salt and layer them in a colander over the sink to drain. Wash and trim the edges off the zucchini, slice them lengthways into 4mm-thick rectangles and set them aside. Scrub and peel the potatoes, then slice them into large rounds about 4mm thick.

Spread the potato slices across the baking trays, sprinkle over a little salt and spray them lightly with oil. Bake the potatoes for around 20 minutes, turning them over half-way through, until they're cooked through and just browning a little at the edges. Set the potatoes aside. 

Retrieve the eggplant slices from the colander, tapping off any excess water, and spread them over the baking sheets, spraying them with oil. Bake them for around 15 minutes, flipping halfway through. Finally spread out the zucchini, spray them with oil, and bake them on both sides for a total of 15 minutes. Keep the oven on.

While all of this baking is going on, you can make the sauce and the pine nut cream. Place the oil in a large saucepan and set it over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and cook it for just 30 second, then add in the onion. Cook the onion, stirring regularly, until soft - I gave it 5-10 minutes. Add the stock and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Pour in the crushed tomatoes, oregano, cinnamon, bay leaf and a little salt. Allow the sauce to simmer for at least 10 minutes more, stirring occasionally.

Use a blender to make the pine nut cream. Start with the pine nuts and lemon juice, blending them to make a paste. Next add the arrowroot, nutmeg, white pepper and salt and blend thoroughly. If you have room, blend in the tofu - otherwise whisk the tofu to a smooth creamy consistency in a bowl, using a fork, and then whisk the pine nut mixture into it.

Now you might be ready to assemble the whole shebang! Remove the bay leaf from the tomato sauce and discard it. Spoon a third of the sauce across the base of a large, high-walled baking dish. Layer half of the eggplant across the sauce, then half of the potato. Spoon over half of the remaining sauce and sprinkle over half of the breadcrumbs. Use all of the zucchini in a single layer, then finish up the eggplant, then the potatoes. Spread over the remaining sauce and sprinkle it with the rest of the breadcrumbs. Spoon the pine nut cream evenly across the dish and sprinkle over any extra pine nuts.

Bake the moussaka for 35-40 minutes, until the pine nut cream is set, golden and staring to crack. Allow it to cool on the bench for at least 10 further minutes before slicing and serving.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Gills Diner

January 2016: Gill's Diner has closed, replaced by Emilia, an Italian joint run by the same people.

February 13, 2014

This week we bid farewell to some dear friends who've quit their jobs to travel the world; we celebrated their four years in Melbourne and upcoming adventure at Gills Diner. When this restaurant opened six-ish years ago cursory research revealed that their churros were popular and they otherwise weren't too veg-friendly, so I never bothered to investigate further. Their current menu does have several meat-free entrees and one main so we fit in fine on the night.

Gills Diner's atmosphere is not what I expected by name or reputation. There's no booth seating or jukeboxes, but nor are there starched tablecloths or smooth tunes. The raw wooden tables, bare floors and chalkboard menus are those of a mess hall, with only gothic candlesticks, cloth napkins and the prices indicating that this is one-hat dining.

There's good bread and fancy butter, which I fairly pounced on when it arrived.

As an entree, we each ordered a zucchini flower ($7) and they were the teeniest flowers I've ever seen, stuffed with ricotta and pine nuts, battered and fried, then served with a fresh sweetcorn salsa.

We shared another entree at mains time, a goats cheese pannacotta ($14) with spicy tomato salsa. It was more firm than gelatinous, to my relief, but lacking a bit of bite; the accompanying salad didn't bring much of the promised spice either.

The vegetarian main is... *yawn*... gnocchi with summer vegetables  and feta ($26). To be fair, these were great buttery little gnocchi, and the asparagus spears, sweet beetroot and kale wisps stood out best among the veges.

We shared all the sides ($9 each) across the table too. The kipfler potatoes were a highlight, smoky with paprika and garnished with roasted garlic. I also enjoyed the fennel and orange salad and the rocket salad with sliced pear, gorgonzola and candied walnuts. However they were burdened with too much oil and salt, a recurring problem across all the savoury dishes - none of the vegetables really got to shine.

We shared the two chocolatey desserts across the table, but neither the churros ($12) nor the chocolate fondant ($16) lived up to expectations. Even with nine of us present, they were left unfinished.

Wait times were reasonable and the service was professional, though we would've liked more attention paid to our often-empty water bottles. Gills Diner isn't ideal for pesky-tarians, though its chefs could probably whisk up something suitable with due warning and a reservation. Vegetarians dining with friends can slip happily under the radar, but I think our fine dining dollars are better spent elsewhere in this city.

Gills Diner inspired mixed feelings on Food Fable, MSG: The Melbourne Social Guide, Popcorn & Toast, PETIT MIAMx and The Epicurean of Southbank, and failed to impress my seasonal table and Gastrology.

Gills Diner
Gills Alley, rear of 360 Little Collins St, Melbourne CBD
9670 7214
menu 1, 2, 3

Accessibility: The entry is wide and flat but the tables inside are pretty dense, the lighting is fairly dim and the dining room can get noisy. The mounted chalkboard menus might be tough to read for the less agile too. There's full table service, and I didn't visit the toilets.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Rice noodles in grapefruit-sriracha vinaigrette

February 10, 2014

We've been going a bit mad for Isa's recipes lately, shifting gears from the hearty queso bowl to this brighter, more summery salad. We had cucumber and noodles to use up and this combination of smokey tofu, tart grapefruit and mint seemed like a great way to go about it. It's all pretty simple to make - the tofu gets a quick fry, the noodles boiled and everything else just mixed together and combined.

The meal didn't work quite as well as I'd hoped. Our choice of thin vermicelli noodles was probably a mistake - they didn't combine that well with the rest of the ingredients and made eating it a bit messy and awkward. We also should have upped the mint and grapefruit to match our increases in the noodles and tofu. Still, the dish had a lot going for it - spiciness and tanginess in the dressing, crispy cucumber and bursts of flavour from the tofu and grapefruit. It makes plenty as well, and the leftovers served as excellent weekday lunches.

Rice noodles in grapefruit-sriracha vinaigrette
(adapted very slightly from Isa Chandra Moskowitz's PPK blog)

300g firm tofu, cubed
3 tablespoons tamari
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon liquid smoke

1 clove garlic
3/4 cup red grapefruit juice
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 tablespoons sriracha
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 teaspoon maple syrup

400g rice noodles (the recipe only calls for 250g, which would have worked better)
half a Lebanese cucumber, sliced thinly
1 red grapefruit, peeled and cut into segments
1/4 cup fresh mint, roughly chopped

Prepare the noodles as per their directions and then rinse them in cold water.

Combine the tofu marinade ingredients and stir the cubes through it. It doesn't need to soak it up much - five minutes will do.

Heat a pan with a teaspoon of oil. Tip the tofu and the marinade into the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring often until the dressing is cooked off and the tofu is browned (about 10 minutes).

Combine the dressing ingredients in a blender and whiz them together.

Toss together the noodles with the cooked tofu, cucumber pieces and grapefruit. Pour in the dressing and mix thoroughly to coat. 

Sprinkle with mint and sesame seeds to serve.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Isa's queso blanco

February 9, 2014

Can we talk about Isa's bowls? You might've noticed that they're this thing she does - in fact, there's a whole chapter of them in her latest book. Isa's bowls always look cosy and nourishing. They typically include a grain, a protein, a vegetable or two and a sauce. They look like something good to eat on the couch with a movie.

But Isa's bowls have a dirty little secret. They dirty an assortment of bowls, blenders, pots and pans in the making. They can have you cooking up to four different things simultaneously. Lucky for this one, it was darn tasty and stretched to several lunches. I couldn't stay mad at it for long.

Isa's queso blanco bowl involves brown rice, canned beans, fresh avocado and tomato, a thick cheesy sauce and crispy kale. This is our first time making kale chips (I know, shut up!) and we were mighty impressed by them. A little spray oil and salt yields light and lacy crispy leaves without any bitterness. We further learned that bitterness and chewiness can creep in if you (1) leave the central leaf stem intact, or (2) continue to eat the 'chips' as leftovers the next day. Treat kale chips as a high-maintenance, bake-to-order kinda thing.

Here's the very-good sauce recipe; I imagine you can patch together the rest yourself. If not, try pouring this sauce on nachos and you'll be in couch-and-a-movie territory for sure.

Isa's Queso Blanco
(a recipe from Isa Chandra Moskowitz's Isa Does It)

3/4 cup cashews
1 tablespoon white miso
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/4 cups vegetable stock
2 teaspoons oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 jalapenos, seeds removed and finely chopped

Cover the cashews in water and soak them for at least 2 hours. 

Drain the water off the cashew and blend them together with the miso, nooch, garlic, cumin, salt, lemon juice and as much of the stock as you can safely fit, until you have a very smooth, thick paste.

In a medium saucepan, heat up the oil. Add the onion and jalapenos and cook them, stirring, until soft (Isa says 3 minutes, but mine took much longer). Pour in the cashew sauce and any remaining stock and simmer the sauce for 10 minutes, stirring often. The sauce will be very thick, ready to pour into your bowl.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

La Tortelleria

February 9, 2014

We've been trying to make our way to La Tortelleria for nearly a year now, since Claire and Lauren started raving about it. Something about Kensington felt very far away though, at least until we realised that the Upfield train line would get us within 500m or so of the restaurant. It's tucked into a very uninspiring industrial area - there's no way it's relying on passing traffic for its customers, people are seeking it out.

They're seeking it out for good reason - La Tortelleria promises Melbourne's most authentic tortilla experience, hand-grinding their own corn (a process called 'nixtamal') rather than using the finer, processed masa flour that most places use. They've go their own machinery pumping out hundreds of tortillas to serve in the cafe and to sell for people to take home and make their own tacos. They also sell a bunch of Mexican groceries - spices, sauces and the like.

It's pretty tiny - maybe seating for 30. We turned up on a Sunday for lunch and had no trouble getting a table (although by1pm it was more or less full). They take bookings though and it would be wise to call ahead if you were aiming for dinner or had a group for lunch.

The menu's pretty straightforward - there's a guacamole and corn chip dish ($6.90), a selection of quesadillas ($3.50-$4.50), some non-veg tacos, a tostadita de tinga ($4.70) and empanadas (dinner only, $5). There's also a share plate option ($40 for two people), which would be the way to go if you had the hunger for it.

We didn't, so we limited ourselves to the quesadillas and the tostadita de tinga. We ordered three of the four quesadillas (all veganised - although more on that in a jiffy): the frijoles (beans and white cheese, $4.50), chorizo (based on a spicy tofu, $4.50) and hongos (mushroom, $4.50). The tostadita de tinga is a hard tortilla base, topped with refried black beans, lettuce and crema, $4.50).

The tortillas are interesting - much chewier than the standard soft taco and with a lot more flavour. The fillings didn't really rock my world - they were really loaded down with 'cheese', overpowering the mushrooms, tofu-chorizo and beans. The tostadita de tinga fared a little better, with the crispy base and the light crema instead of the cheese letting the bean flavour shine through. We forgot to use the chipotle sauce until right at the end, so we might have made a key strategic mistake.

A note on the vegan options: we were both amazed at how melty and cheesy our vegan quesadillas were, so it wasn't that surprising when we were informed by Toby that the 'vegan' cheese that La Tortelleria is Mini Chol, which by many reports is not vegan. Tread carefully.

Our experience at La Tortelleria fell a bit short of the very high expectations that I had for it - the tortillas were excellent, but the fillings of the heavily cheesed quesadillas didn't measure up to the fresher and more varied offerings at places like El Chino, Touché Hombre or even The Reverence. We'll be back to grab some tortillas and maybe to try the chef's sampling plate and to taste the well-regarded flan, but I doubt we'll become regulars.



La Tortelleria
72 Stubbs St, Kensington
9376 5577
menu: 1, 2

Accessibility: Not good. The entry is up some stairs (see top photo), and things inside are narrow and quite crowded. You order at the table and pay at a high counter. There's a single unisex toilet.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The LAB Nitrogen Gelato

February 8, 2013

A gimmick that's been kicking around globally for a few years has recently arrived in Melbourne - flash frozen icecream made with liquid nitrogen and a mix master. Sydney's N2 Extreme Gelato has launched an outpost in Fitzroy and the LAB has set up in the CBD, both embellishing the dramatic churning vapours with chemistry-lab props and safety gear.

(They're clearly not fluent in mathematics, though - I'll accept a limeth root of chilli2, but how is that mint operating? And assigning it all to capital sigma, really.) The LAB's current half-dozen flavours are fun if not as daring as N2, with riffs on Tim Tams and Golden Gaytimes, green tea with red beans and black sesame with mochi.

What impressed me most was that their menu board clearly labelled their gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free and vegan options, freeing many of those with special dietary requirements from awkwardly queuing and quizzing the staff. We strode up and went straight for the vegan mango delight ($6), a refreshing, sweet gelato with a spoonful of sago and a dusting of dessicated coconut.

The staff worked seriously but served every cup with a smile on the side. I'm more excited for the sweets frozen in Fitzroy - N2 is wackier and Berrissimo has broader vegan choices - but a late-night dessert option in the city is going to come in handy. Actually, it already did.



The LAB Nitrogen Gelato
188 Bourke St, Melbourne
9077 5354
current menu: 1, 2
facebook page

Accessibility: The LAB has a flat approach from the street to the medium-height counter, where we ordered and paid. The interior is more likely to be crowded by people than furniture, most of which is a collection of re-arrangeable stools. We didn't see the toilets, though Sally reports that they're upstairs.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Twenty & Six Espresso II

February 8, 2014

Our Saturday involved a few things around the Queen Vic Markets and Flagstaff Gardens, so we figured we could sneak over to North Melbourne for lunch. After failing at Elceed (I think they were packing it in early because of the heat), we settled on a return trip to Twenty & Six Espresso. Given the ridiculous weather and our decision to walk rather than catch a tram, Twenty & Six's effective air conditioning was very, very welcome.

As was their selection of cold drinks: an iced coffee ($4.50) for me and iced chai ($6) for Cindy. Cindy's chai wasn't super strong, but was made from real tea. We were both happy that the iced beverages came without cream/ice-cream or other sweeteners and very, very glad to see all that deliciously cold ice.

The menu has changed a lot since our first visit. Gone are both the dishes we ordered then - I thought that the sticky black rice was their signature dish, so I was surprised it was absent. In their place were a new batch of veg-friendly dishes, including a fattoush salad with tomato, cucumber, avocado, radish, herbs, flatbread and roasted shallots ($15, probably vegan), a brioche French toast with poached peach, creme patisserie and roasted almond icecream ($16) and an apple, coconut and fig granola with yoghurt, almond milk and stonefruit ($12). 

I went for something eggy - fried polenta with braised mushrooms, asparagus, ricotta, salsa verde and a slow poached egg ($18).

Twenty & Six have clearly retained their fondness for stylish plating - this looked stunning. It tasted pretty great as well, with the herby ricotta spread over crispy polenta squares and a tower of veggies piled on top. The asparagus was crunchy and fresh, the mushrooms rich and the egg oozing perfectly. I quite like the idea of swapping the standard toast out of brekkie for fried polenta squares - something to try at home maybe.

Cindy went with the vegan sweet option - a chilled tapioca and coconut pudding, with kaffir lime, toasted almonds, lychees and mango ($14).

There was a lot to like about this - the fruit was great and the flaked nuts gave a bit of texture, but they were a little heavy handed with the coconut cream, meaning the pudding part was a bit thicker and a lot richer than Cindy was hoping for. Tapioca/coconut puddings are clearly becoming a fixture on cafe menus, and I think Hobart's Property: of Pilgrim remains the gold standard.

Twenty & Six Espresso was a welcome haven from the heat for us, efficiently serving up beautiful plates of food and cold drinks in a very pleasant space. The staff are friendly and the menu always interesting - it's definitely worth a visit if you're after something a little different for brekkie.


Twenty & Six Expresso
594 Queensberry St, North Melbourne
9329 0298

Accessibility: There's a small step on entry (although there are also some outdoor tables). The interior is pretty cosy and the toilets are out the back via the courtyard (which we didn't explore). We ordered at the table and paid at a low counter in the front room.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Foxtrot Charlie

February 1, 2014

Eliza tweeted us a few weeks ago to recommend Charlie Foxtrot, one of Brunswick's many cafes that we've failed to visit thanks to the inexorable pull of Wide Open Road. We finally achieved exit velocity this weekend and made our way up with a visiting friend to check it out. It's a very stylish cafe with exposed brick, geometric light fittings, a model plane hanging from the ceiling, a wall-mounted herb garden and a small light-filled back room that we parked in.

The menu isn't loaded with vegetarian options and has some very confused labelling (the baked eggs with three kinds of cheese was 'vegan' and my genuinely vegetarian dish had a 'vegetarian option available' - you're basically going to have to ask). Still, what there is to choose from is a bit more interesting than the standard egg and bean options. There's ricotta fritters with mushrooms and a pea fondue ($16.50), a stinging nettle omelette ($14, which I'm assuming can be done veg in spite of the lack of a label) and granola with house-made almond milk and poached raspberry rhubarb ($12) - it all sounded pretty great.

Cindy stuck with the sweet side of the menu, going with the poached pears on brioche with marscapone cream and honeyed walnuts ($15.50).

It was artfully presented, with a two soft pear halves sprinkled in sugarred-up nuts and covered in sweet syrup and a generous dob of marscapone. The brioche was cakey without being soggy and Cindy was happy that they served up a whole pear rather than just a few slivers.

After clarifying that it was actually vegetarian, I ordered the poached eggs with chickpea panella, spiced kasundi and herbed quinoa ($16).

The panella is basically a fried up chunk of chickpea dough and served as a kind of surrogate toast in this dish. It was lovely too - dense without being heavy and absorbent enough to soak up the runny eggs. The kasundi was the highlight though - spicy and tangy and lifting this dish to something a bit fancier than just eggs on toast. It was nice to get a good load of greens as well.

Our dining companion ordered the baked eggs in tomato sugo with soft gnudi (cheesy gnochhi) and toast ($15.50)

It was breakfast with a spoon - loads of sauce and some very squishy cheese dumplings topped with a couple of baked eggs. It looked delicious.

We were all pretty impressed with Foxtrot Charlie - the three dishes we tried were executed perfectly. The staff were friendly and the setting pleasant enough - the sweets at the counter looked pretty decent as well.

Price-wise Foxtrot Charlie is kind of mid-range for Brunswick: not as expensive as Wide Open Road or Code Black, but pricier than The Green Refectory. The menu doesn't have so much variety that we'll be coming back every weekend, but it's another excellent cafe in a suburb increasingly full of them.

Foxtrot Charlie has been around for about five months now, but only Hey Bambini and Ebezilla's Food Blog have reviewed it.

Foxtrot Charlie
359 Sydney Road, Brunswick
9387 3397
facebook page 

Accessibility: Excellent. A flat entryway and a reasonably spacious interior (although there's a bit of a bottleneck between the front and back rooms). Ordering is at the table and payment at a low counter. There's a fully accessible, unisex toilet.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Loving Hut

Update 07/04/2020: Loving Hut has been rebranded as Brother Bon.

January 30, 2014

Back in November, The Lentil Institution spread the news that there'd soon be a new Loving Hut in Northcote. It's now been open a little over a month, and we stopped by for dinner before hitting the Northcote Social Club for a gig last week.

This is a huge outlet stocked with groceries at the front - bulk TVP, gallon jugs of vegetarian oyster sauce and the widest range of mock meats this side of Vincent. Behind the screen is a flouro-lit cafe with the atmosphere of a quiet food court.

The menu's largely what we've come to expect from Loving Huts worldwide, i.e. mostly Asian-style meals heavy with mock meat. There's spring rolls and sushi, noodle soups and stir-fries, with a couple of salads and Southern fried chicken breaking the mold. Everything is vegan (including the broken rice - apparently they're serving fake egg!) and the gluten-free, raw and onion-garlic items are clearly marked.

We started out with crispy wontons ($8) and they didn't make much of an impression - crispy enough, chewy enough, but a bit bland.

The Southern fried chicken on rice ($12) was much more satisfying - the huge chunks of 'chicken' boasted a thick and crunchy, subtly spiced batter and were even better dipped in the barely-spicy sweet chilli mayo. Carrot-radish pickle and cucumber slices provided some refreshment, and I would have enjoyed a meal with more vegetables still. This is one for the KFC-nostalgics, and now that Gasometer is gone, I know I'll be back for another fix.

Michael had a go at the fish clay pot ($14) with a side of rice ($2) and was impressed by their stock, though he caught himself wishing for more vegetables in the mix too.

The Loving Hut staff were eager to please and our food was served unexpectedly quickly. Mentions of Supreme Master were limited to an unobtrusive book shelf, and the TV mercifully showed a snowboarding show rather than the Master's own station. We're keen to return and try more of the menu, hopefully timing our trip to allow for some grocery shopping on our way out.

The Lentil Institution first broke the news about Northcote's Loving Hut. veganopoulous and The Lentil Institution later gave it a go and were both generally positive.

Loving Hut
377-379 High St, Northcote
9077 1335
menu 1, 2, 3, 4
facebook page

Accessibility: Lookin' good! A very wide automatic door, flat floors and moderately spaced tables. We ordered at our table and paid at a low-ish counter. We didn't visit the toilets, but I spotted a disability-labelled unisex toilet down a wide corridor at the back of the building.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Clifton Hill Brewpub

January 27, 2014

Fitzroyalty's recent post brought the Clifton Hill Brewpub to our attention. A new pub in the inner north with decent food? Straight to the top of our pub-club list. The Brewpub has replaced the old Clifton Hill Hotel. They've stripped out the TAB and tried to go a bit upmarket, brewing their own beer, fancying up the menu and adding some modern stylings to the fit-out. It's a huge venue - there's a front bar, a small side area where we sat and a huge carpeted dining space. We thought it must have once been a pokies area, but a bit of research suggests it was the old live music space.

The veggie options aren't hugely innovative: eggplant parma ($18), a pasta bake ($24), a lentil burger ($17) and a whole bunch of starters and snacks. None of the three salads on the menu are vego and vegans will basically be stuck with chips (or maybe the lentil burger).

We started with a huge serve of chips ($7), which were crinkle cut and crispy and very satisfactory.

On top of that we ordered the vegetarian platter ($16 per person with a minimum of 2 people ordering).

It more or less compiles the veggie starters from the menu: spinach and feta boreks; potato, blue cheese and walnut croquettes; olives; pickled veggies; crumbed feta and macadamia stuffed mushrooms; bread and dips. This was a bit of a mixed bag - the beetroot dip and the bread were quite nice but the pumpkin didn't really do much for me. The various fried goods were just okay - it's hard to go too far wrong when you're frying pastry and/or cheese - but they weren't amazing. The mushrooms were probably the pick of the bunch. The pickled veggies looked really sad, but Cindy said they were good (I focussed my attention on the olives). 

Our dining companions were pretty happy with their meals (including a massive and massively cheesy eggplant parma) and their beer range is top notch. The service was a bit weird - they've  clearly got a bit of an issue about kids, offering a kids' menu but not high chairs, and were pretty concerned that our party's toddler was kept under close supervision despite there being almost nobody else in the pub. The whole experience was solid - not a rival to some of our nearby favourites, but not a bad addition to the neighbourhood.


Brian's very positive review at Fitzroyalty seems to be the only blog action at that the Clifton Hill Brewpub has attracted so far.

Clifton Hill Brewpub
89 Queens Parade, Clifton Hill
9489 8705

Accessibility: Not bad. There may be a small step on entry, but things are flat and spacious inside. There's full table service and the toilets are fully accessible.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Thyme sugar syrup

January 27, 2014

Thyme is usually sold in bigger bunches than recipes need, and I've found that thyme sugar syrup is an easy way to use up the leftovers. I must've come up with this idea after drinking thyme cocktails at Cafe Vue, then googled around to confirm that I needed nothing more than thyme, sugar and water.

I tend to use a lot more thyme than other online recipes recommend and then use my syrup sparingly - just a centimetre in the bottom of a glass, twice as much orange juice, topped up with ice cubes and soda water. Some day soon I'll try a boozy version with vodka, gin or Cointreau. I wonder what the syrup would be like on fruit salad, or waffles?

Thyme sugar syrup
(adapted from a recipe at imbibe)

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
20 sprigs thyme

Place all the ingredients in a saucepan. Simmer them over medium heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Turn off the heat and allow the syrup to continue infusing as it cools to room temperature. Strain out the thyme sprigs and store the syrup in an airtight jar in the fridge.