Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cravings Magazine: Spring 2009. Pata Negra

Coming Full Circle

Star Anise owner/chef David Coomer with Pata Negra chefs Matt Stone and Kurt Samson were amid the embryonic shambles of their new Nedlands venture when I chatted with them. Upon meeting up with David, he quickly launched into an introduction to his new baby, Pata Negra, while the builders provided a convincing backdrop of clamor behind us. Pata Negra (which opened its doors in July) is Spanish but, it is emphasised, does not only offer tapas. Spain is a country close to the hearts of these chefs, with David relishing the simple, rustic cooking traditions and Matt having recently spent several weeks touring the country.

"I went to Spain and got to taste a lot of different types of food," says Matt.

"It was great. You go into a pintxo (Basque for tapas) and have an anchovy on a bit of bread, then walk up the road and have a totally different tapas experience - it might be croquettes or freshly sliced ham with tomato bread. It was definitely very inspirational and got me totally excited about this cuisine".

"There are very few restaurants around Perth that do a realistic style of Spanish food," adds David.

"So we are looking to introduce something very new. There'll be a real Moorish theme to it. Historically, Spain was heavily influenced by the Arabs, and they introduced cinnamon, cardamom, coriander and all sorts of spices that are found in Middle Eastern and North African food. These have become entrenched in Spanish cuisine. In Spain, a lot of the tapas bars are moving to all sorts of global foods. You might find sashimi-style tapas in Barcelona. But I['d rather start here with real Spanish food".

It's quite a seismic shift from the fine dining and gastronomic wizardry that has made Star Anise what it is today. But things weren't always so rosy for the much-lauded establishment. Opening its doors in 1998, Sydney-born David and his wife Kareen's plan was to create a nice suburban bistro that locals could flock to that served simple, modern food.

"But people, for some ungodly reason, didn't get it". says David.

"They complained about the chairs, or the noise, or the lack of atmosphere. Plus we had no money at all. No equipment and all our ovens were lousy. It was a really difficult time. So it took us a little while to get where we're at - around six years for things to start coming around and for people to say 'this is great'. And whether Perth has caught up to me or something, I don't know. I used to serve a curry with lamb shanks or a wagyu beef pie, pretty straightforward stuff. We'd always had a duck dish on the menu too and a lot of Asian-influenced food as well. I loved the food. It was so much simpler back then".

Nowadays, of course, Star Anise is best known for being uber-creative in the kitchen, with adventurous dishes such as oyster and hiramasa kingfish tartare with horseradish foam and pavlova with fairy floss peppering the menu. Techniques used in molecular gastronomy, such as freezing with liquid nitrogen and poaching in vacuum bags, are among David's bag of tricks. But, he believes, it's all just a part of progress.

"There are a lot of misnomers about the whole molecular thing," he says.

"We had the stove, then convection ovens, and this is just the next progression. I can see everyone will be doing it on ten years' time. The liquid nitrogen thing is just freezing the heck out of something. But it's probably no more of a crazy concept than deep-frying, or microwaving.

"I think if people knew how easy it was to cook in a bain-marie, for example, then everybody would be doing it. Your food is consistent every single time. It retains all the juices and succulence and doesn't tighten the muscles like high heat does. In other words, a steak will be medium rare on the outside as well as the inside and not seared on the outside as people are used to. It doesn't have that graduation".

"Instead of whacking it into a hot oven, we just whack it into the freezing cold," adds Matt.

"Visually it's amazing, steaming and smoking, but it's just another way of cooking something. It's a concrete way to get a food consistently cooked every single time".

But while David is pleased with Star Anise's runaway success, it is his craving for simplicity that has brought him full circle in the restaurant game. The fundamentals of home cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients hold a lingering place in his heart, and it is clearly a methodology to which he is keen to return.

"I think the more I keep cooking, the more I like cooking simply," he says.

"It's the way I cook at home. In a little tapas restaurant you can chuck six prawns on the grill and a blob of garlic and parsley and it's so pure and simple. Whereas I can't do that at Star Anise. People would complain it was just prawns and garlic. While here, I can and it's food I really like to eat".

SPICE magazine: Spring 2009. Grainaissance Bakers

Slow Dough

Local masters of the slow art of artisan baking kicked buns and cleaned the floor at Melbourne's Australian Artisan Baking Cup.

Way before it sped up and became industrialised, way before any strains of wheat and gluten intolerance raised their unwelcome heads, bread used to be made slowly. Artisan bread is made with a gentle hand, employing traditional methods and natural ingredients, and allowing for lots and lots of time for the culture to do its own thing. The ingredients are basic, and simply by tweaking fundamental techniques such as fermentation, time and baking, a whole raft of different types of breads can be produced.

Rob Howard is the owner of 'Grainaissance Artisan Bakers' in Osborne Park. Unlike many bakers, they're a wholesale outlet whose bread can be found on menus at eateries around Perth, including Bistro Felix, Beaufort Street Merchant and Caffe Peckish.

Rob is a staunch advocate of artisan baking. After spending half of his childhood in the kitchen, he began work as an apprentice chef at the age of fifteen before moving on to pastry cooking. But after discovering the many living permutations of sourdough ten years ago, he eventually turned his hand to artisan baking.

"Sourdough is fascinating because you are dealing with something that is alive, that you can control," says Rob.

"It uses no commercial yeasts, just natural culture. You need to look after it, feed it and care for it on a daily basis. It's really not like any other food. There are no additives put into it to save time and money. When I first discovered it I did a lot of experimenting until I had created my own sourdough formula using a combination of malt flour, honey, wheat flour and slow fermentation. It grew and grew, and we started making bread from it after the third week".

But there were a few hiccups in the embryonic stages, and that is when fellow artisan baker Leon Bailey entered his life.

"I had some trouble with the first few batches and there weren't many people in Perth making sourdough to talk to about it. I had read a few of Leon's articles in 'Leading Edge' baking magazine, so I contacted him. He was very helpful, and we stayed in touch".

The Melbourne-based Australian Artisan Baking Cup, which has been running for three years now, was the brainchild of Leon Bailey, who modeled the Australian version on international baking competitions such as Italy's SIGEP, in which Australia came second in the bread baking section this year. It's an enormous coup. Leon's dream is to end a team to the creme de la creme of baking championships, Paris' La Coupe du Monde Boulangerie, which is held every three years.

This year, along with his colleague Trevor Sims, Rob was the 2009 winner of the Australian Artisan Baking Cup competition, thanks to his winning interpretation of the Ettamogah Pub as an artistic (and entirely edible) centrepiece. Rob also took home wining trophies for his ciabatta and two of his baguettes, while Trevor won trophies for his croissant, Danish and stollen.

"It was pretty embarrassing actually," recalls Rob over the multiple wins.

"There we were, two blokes from Western Australia, and a table loaded with trophies. I think we had about nine between us in the end".

The Cup's competitiveness is becoming increasingly fierce as each year passes. This year there were 25 competitors from all States, including Sydney-based pastry wizard, Adriano Zumbo of MasterChef fame. The judging is stringent, and time restrictions must be adhered to.

"We had one hour the day before to prepare our ferments, which we had to fly over to Melbourne in a bottle," says Rob.

"And then when we competed we started at 6am, with tools down at 2pm, which included cleaning up and preparing the tables for judging. We were meant to have three people in our team and we were one person short, so Trevor and I had to work extra hard".

As if that wasn't taxing enough, the duo will be heading over to Italy in January for the SIGEP competitions, and this time they'll be taking a teammate, Dean Gibson.

"It's going to be fantastic, although we're going to be so busy. It's already late in the year and the team needs to practice together a certain amount of times before we go. So it will be pretty crazy between now and January".

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Spice magazine: Spring 2009. Tapas reviews

Restaurant Reviews: Tapas the Test

Roll up to any self-respecting wine bar in Perth these days and you're guaranteed to find tapas of some description on the menu. For the uninitiated, tapas are small tasting plates that have their origins in Spain and are now all the go. Better still, tapas are suited to all types of pockets because of their varied prices. So considerate in this bleak economic era. It was time to dig a little deeper.

Andaluz Bar

Andaluz is a beautiful space with beautiful food, yet I sat there feeling a tad perplexed. There were rich, inviting Chesterfield lounges cosying up to an open fireplace. There was nouvelle cuisine-style tapas fare, and there was Aretha Franklin singing her lungs out on the sound system. Los Gentlemen's Soul Club? Heterogenous styling out of the way, the only sore point remaining was that we didn't get to score one of the opulent booths tucked away in their own little niches.

The tapas dishes we chose were sublime. They were sophisticated and complex with long, mouthwatering descriptions, which always bode well with me. We chose four dishes, starting with a tortilla Espanola ($8) - thick cubes of potato topped with fried egg, which was good and hearty. Chargrilled asparagus, quail's egg and tarragon aioli ($9) followed, with the asparagus spears blanched and quickly grilled and the itty-bitty quail's egg gently salted and semi-hard boiled. The tarragon aioli was subtle and tangy, making it a beautifully light dish. Next up were twin towers of seared scallop atop a Berkshire pork cheek confit, with an exquisite sauce of Alvear PX wine and muscatels ($9.50). Our last dish was eight hour braised venison and creamed portobello mushroom empanadillas ($9.50). All excellent value, considering the amount of time and love that clearly goes into each dish. Yum.

Lamont's Wine Store

Kate's latest offering is Lamont's in Cottesloe, and it has already become a Mecca for the local well-heeled pashima set. Naturally the emphasis is going to be on the wines, with a staggering 250 varieties offered on a rotating basis, but the tapas menu, although more Australian than Spanish, does well to keep its end up. The marron dusted with pepper and garlic dust $15.50) was a big hit at our table, as was the cod croquette ($10.50), but I couldn't quite get past the price of a solitary scallop - $7.50 - no matter how succulent it was. Despite not getting much bank for our buck, the dishes were exquisite and, as with all of Kate's food, well-balanced in the flavour and artistic departments. Although I have to admit, the jewel-like macaroons flown in from Paris (see above pic) were my personal faves.

The Imp Cafe & Bar

Being a stone's throw from my house, I quite badly wanted to like this place. It throbbed to a Melbourne beat and was always pumping when I passed by. Alas things are not always as they seem.

The proffered olive is like the proffered water: you tend to assume it's gratis. When said olives were offered while I waited for my friend, I made the same sad presumption and got nailed $7 at the end of the night. A bit, dare I say, impish. Mind you, on arrival it was the size of a small tureen. Anyway. When my friend arrived ("What's with all the olives?!") we ordered crocodile cakes with yoghurt (4 for $12), beef and pork gyoza with an Asian dressing (4 for $12) and a warm lentil salad with coppa ($11).

The croc cakes sounded more exciting than they actually were and, other than the occasional Thai kick of lemongrass, were simply too bland while the accompanying minted yoghurt seemed to be sans mint. The warm lentil salad was a major hit - generous and perfect for a chilly winter's eve, with the coppa mixed through it giving it a real lift. A perfect combo. The gyoza were too strong - the tiny parcel of meat was far too spiced, which my heartburn thanked it for.

But all is not lost, there are several big ticks for The Imp too. Everything on the menu is made in-house and there are lots of gluten-free and vegan dishes on offer. The atmosphere is lovely and inviting. Brekkies are big 'n hearty. So are desserts.

Pata Negra

Star Anise's David Coomer has finally been able to fling open the doors to his new venture. David's former sous chef, Matt Stone, spent time in Spain last year checking out the local tapas fare and the menu is as about as authentic as it gets.

Along with the rest of Perth's foodaphiles, we had nabbed ourselves a table barely before the black wall paint had dried. We were given complimentary olives (ahem) and sampled the beautiful hand-packaged smoked almonds. The house-smoked octopus 'escabeche' (pickled marinade) ($14.50) was next, a slow-cooked delight that had been pickled in a Forum cabernet vinegar and dished up in a cute preserving jar. The jamon iberico, variously imported from Spain and local sourced, was sublime. And at $300 a kilo - hello - so it should be. The mussels, Manzanilla and jamon ($16.50) were also a winner, with surf and turf fighting for supremacy in a preserved lemon-laced broth. For mains we went with the Pata Negra fabada (stew) - ham hock, duck confit, chorizo and lentils ($36 for two). Pata Negra's food has a distinct Moorish theme running through it, and this dish was a great example of those strong, Arabic flavours.

The flavours at Pata Negra are big and gutsy, just what you'd expect from a Spanish pintxo. Add a glass of Marques de Riscal and you could be in Barcelona.