One week. Two meals. Two Worlds.

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I’m about to begin a series of posts on the restaurant. But before I do that, I want to write about two meals eaten this past week to illustrate the diversity of dining in this big city. Mazi Mas  the first, and then Capriccio in Leichhardt.

First, Mazi Mas at Bar Cupola in Pitt Street. Mazi Mas, part of a Greek phrase meaning Eláte na fáte mazí mas: come eat with us, is a pop up restaurant project. The organisers host dining events around Sydney and provide training and employment opportunities for migrant, refugee and asylum seeking women who have the right to work (aren’t we generous?).

These women cook and serve the food. And if the event I attended with (and thanks to) my friend Paul Van Reyk is any indication, it is a wonderful thing, on every level.

This is a time when we are served dishes from menus devised by chefs seeking plaudits for originality and daring, things like – and I’m quoting from an actual review – ‘a small piece of lamb…juniper smoked and sprinkled with pickled miniature Monterey (AKA Pinus radiata) pine cones’. Or a menu described as speaking ‘fluent Manly, a lingo that mashes Mexican, Japanese and dudey street food’

Call me an old gastronomic grump, but that is not what I want to eat. It is, in the memorable words of Michael Pollan (although for different reasons), not food my grandmother would recognise.

Neither, of course, is the food at Mazi Mas, because neither of my grand mothers were Persian, Sri Lankan or Pakistani.

And rather than mash Sri Lankan with Persian, and strive for never before seen combinations dedicated to the glory of the chefs, the gentle women who cooked – and served – the dishes we ate that night recreated them as they had received them from their families.

When I tell you that the standout dish of the night for me and for Paul was Gowu Maluwa, a cabbage curry, whose gentle heat was derived from sliced fresh green chillis, you may wish to ignore or ridicule me. Not far behind it was the Ghormeh Sabzi, a slow cooked Persian lamb and herb stew, aromatic and, again, delicate. But I’m passing over the entrees, Kachay Qeemay Kay Kabab, beef kebabs with fresh herbs and spices and the Chicken Karahi, chicken with tomato and Pakistani spices. All served with delicious and perfectly cooked saffron rice.

And the dessert, bastani, Persian ice cream made with saffron rose water and pistachio was an aromatic and – there’s that word again ­– delicate interpretation of those ingredients, which you can almost taste as you read them.

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Accompanying the bastani were two little ovals of what was described on the menu as ‘nougat’ but which was, as I discovered by interrogation, gaz. Gaz, from my brief foray into Dr Google’s emporium of limitless information, comes from the Isfahan area, and the name is ‘associated with gaz-angebin which translates to ‘sap of angebin’, in reference to a species of  Tamarisk native to the Zagros mountain range, west of Isfahan and Boldaji.’ This may be the missing link in my investigations into the origins of halva, nougat, turron and torrone. But more of that later.

In place of spectacle and bravado, we were offered finesse and traditional treasures from cooks more interested in our pleasure than their fame. My only criticism was that there should have been an opportunity to sit down with the cooks and discuss with them the dishes and their aspirations. Being a couple of pushy blokes, Paul and I engaged with them anyway. But a more organised encounter would have been the gaz on the bastani.

In many ways the meal at Mazi Mas and that at Capriccio could not have been more different. One cooked and served by amateurs, home cooks from different parts of the world and the second cooked and served by restaurant professionals, all from Italy or of Italian origin.

The two owners of the restaurant are Michele Rispoli and Matteo Galletto: Michele is from Positano, and Matteo, as the name will tell you, is the son of the well-established restaurateur Lucio Galletto of Lucio’s in Paddington. The chef is Bryan Gerlini, is from the border of Romagna and Marche.

But if all three are professionals, and Capriccio is a most professional operation, the food offered there shares with the food from the dinner at Mazi Mas approachability and flavour over shock and awe. Case in point.

Passatelli vongole, an almost impudently simple dish based on a kind of, sort of, pasta I had never heard of. Passatelli, like little worms, are made from Parmigiano, dry bread crumbs, eggs, (traditionally) beef marrow, nutmeg and pepper. A paste is made and pushed through either a purpose built passatelli maker or a potato ricer. Traditionally served with broth, this dish was  passatelli with pipis and fresh tomato. Sensational. And simple.

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We were greeted with a tray of cannolo alla mortadella, cannoli stuffed with a paste made of Italian mortadella, which, as cannolo con mousse di mortadella is all over Google but in Italian, so I guess it’s a modern Italian recipe. We gobbled them up.

Another dish which I assume (I’m not as au fait with Italian as I am with Spanish) is from la nuova cucina Italiana, was the tuna tonnato, just-seared triangles of albacore tuna –an under rated and not endangered species – with a tuna mayo, as in vitello tonnato, littered with little anchovies and drizzled with dill oil.

But having shown us the modern, Michele, Matteo and Bryan had the courage and good sense to present the traditional: prosciutto con melone, actually two melons, rock and honey.

There was, embarrassingly, much more including some terrific dishes around bread which is excellent and made in house, and included panini of thin slices of porchetta with fennel and radicchio.

So two meals, worlds apart, but cooked and served with honesty and a desire to please not so much the cooks and the food press, but those very important human beings: the customers.

And as we all remarked after the Capriccio meal, isn’t it good to have Italian food back in Leichhardt?

Mazi Mas: go to mazimas.com.au for details of the next pop-up. See you there.

Twitter @eatmazimas

 

Capriccio: 59 Norton St, Leichhardt
(02) 9572 7607

Web: capriccio. Sydney

Twitter @Capriccio_Syd 

focaccia

 

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Next two critics critted. Lethlean and Dubecki

imagesAvid readers of this blog (hah!) might recall that on December 20 2013, I posted a crit of two Sydney.-based critics, Terry Durack and Guy Griffin. I now turn my attention to Melbourne.

You might also recall that I had one criticism of Mr Durack which prompted me to deduct two out of a possible five pens from his score. I wrote ‘There is, for me, one problem. And it is not in the words. It is in the picture of Mr Durack above the review.’ I my be old-fashioned, but I do believe that restaurants critics should be anonymous, as indeed are the inspectors who work for Michelin and Gault & Millau.

So I come to Mr Lethlean, whose criticism is published in The Weekend Australian Magazine, and whose picture does not appear in the review. But it does appear elsewhere, above his column in the A Plus section (disclaimer: a section for which I also occasionally write). This leaves me in a bit of a quandary with my stern stance on anonymity.

Call me a hypocrite if you will but I have decided not to deduct from Mr Lethlean. Journalism is a very different craft today than it was when my mother practiced it. Most stories were published anonymously. When she practiced her ‘criticism’ (more like notices) she did so under a pseudonym. Only the stars were given by-lines. At least Mr Lethlean’s picture does not appear in his review.

I have chosen to look at his review printed on January 25th 2014, of Hatch & Co in Brisbane. And it is that rare example of the form, a bad  one.

Why write a bad review I have been asked on the rare occasions I have written one. And the only answers I can give are one, to point  out to readers places that pass themselves off as better than they are or – and this is more difficult because it could come across as arrogant – to look closely at a place that is popular but doesn’t – in the eyes of the reviewer – deserve to be so. This review of Hatch & Co falls into the latter category: Mr Lethlean informs us that it is busy and ‘all the rage.’ Well, if it is the duty of the professional reviewer to ‘educate’ his or her readers, then that is the reason for this kind of review. But you must provide evidence that the problems are endemic, and not just the result of the place having ‘a bad night.’ I think Mr Lethlean proves his points.

It begins with a general critique of waiters in the current age. ‘Once’ he writes ‘they [waiters] would approach, subtly make their presence felt and wait for chat to cease…it was called “good manners” and it was a two-way street.’

But not, Mr Lethlean claims, at  Hatch & Co. Here, the waiter is a ‘relentless repetitious nuisance’  who, instead of announcing that ‘she will be looking after us’ should have said ‘ I’ll be interrupting you this evening.’

This is a terrific opening that chimes in with the experiences of many of us who eat out frequently. I worked with Beppi Polese on his book, A Life in Three Courses, and if anyone understands service, then it is Signor Polese, who has survived the cruel Sydney restaurant scene since 1956.

The section on service in that book should be read by every waiter who wants to understand how it works. ‘People don’t like to be disturbed’ he says, ‘Once you say hello, make them welcome, take the order, be gentle.’ Be gentle. How many gentle waiters have you had lately?

According to Mr Lethlean, there is not very much to like about Hatch & Co. But in the manner of a good bad review (if you get my meaning) he is explicit, and spells out exactly what exasperates him. It is ‘oh so predictable’, with a menu ‘I could have written on the plane… the interrupter does not know where the pimientos de Padron are grown’… and so on, right down to the fact that the bathrooms are a long way away.

It could just be that I share Mr Lethlean’s pet hates and predilections, but this review I find, like most of his that I have read, intelligent, precise, contextual (he points  out that this is  a ‘new venture from the folks at the excellent Gerard’s’), entertaining without being ingratiating or cruel and with enough sensuality in its food descriptions to offer a clear picture of what is on offer. And in this instance,  good reasons for me to avoid Hatch & Co. I’m giving him  4 out of a possible 6 pens.

Now to Ms Dubecki whose writing I have admired from afar (Sydney) for some time. I have chosen to look at her November 27th 2012  review of Rosetta, Neil Perry’s entry into Italian cuisine at the Crown Complex.

Alas, there is  a portrait of Ms Dubecki on the hard copy version of this review and also something on the online version which I feel is as bad: a video of Mr Perry spruiking his restaurant. He tells us  that the restaurant is “beautiful, luxe and sophisticated” and that it features “beautiful Italian design”  and that the food is made using “fantastic ingredients” and that they are also “fantastic fresh ingredients.” In other words the review is accompanied by an advertisement and not a very well-written one at that. This is not Mr Perry’s fault: he is a chef and a restaurateur (and  very good at both), not a writer. But it does not sit comfortably above a review that is, in theory, criticism: that is, the analysis of the merits and faults of (in this instance) a restaurant. But unlike the likeness above the review, the video is out of Ms Dubecki’s control – I have recently been subjected to just such an online imposition.

Unfortunately, Ms Dubecki’s review is, itself, at first, a little gushy. “I thought they didn’t make restaurants like this anymore” she begins, and goes on to write (very well) of what she sees as the virtues of the space, everything from the ‘billowy fouff of soft white curtains’ to the joy of ‘lowering your bottom onto the banquette’s russet velvet cushions.’

After making comparisons with Harry’s Bar, Cipriani and Babbo, she writes ‘then you hit the wall of black-and-white portraits of famous Italians – Armani, Sinatra, Loren – and then another layer emerges. It’s a rat-pack time machine.’ And I begin to wonder whether Ms Dubecki doesn’t have her lingua firmly in her guancia: it does sound somewhat – what’s the Italian for kitsch? My Collins Italian dictionary doesn’t give me one so it’s probably – kitsch.

But, as she  so cleverly opines, ‘fit-outs are just foreplay’ and moves onto the food, and almost all is forgiven. The risotto is ‘all silky heaven, pure creaminess, texture like a cloud; the ‘nakedly minimalist mains – lots of roasted meats at prices might make you gasp (tripe at $39!)’ are forgiven because you are bidden to ‘sit back and think of great produce’ from Mr Perry who, earlier on in the review, Ms Dubecki  has dubbed ‘Mr Produce-Driven.’

Look. I may be being Sydney cynical but I suspect that the reviewer is having a seven-veiled dig at Rosetta while still enjoying the show. ‘High rollers will love it’ she ends, ‘but everyday punters  like me [?!] ‘might also appreciate the  dazzling produce and pitch-perfect treatment behind the expense and fin de siecle glamour.’

If I’m right, and Ms Dubecki has delivered a cleverly coded criticism wrapped in  sweet as candy copy, then she deserves her 4.5 pens minus two for the portrait. 2.5 in all. What makes me think I might be right is the score: a creditable but not gushing 16/20.

And that ends my crit of the crits. Until something particularly tasty or terrible strikes my fancy. How dare I judge the judges? What’s the  point of having your own blog if you don’t transgress.

 

First two critics critted: Durack and Griffin

imagesSome time ago (November 3 to be exact) I posted a piece called Criticising the Critics. At the end of that piece I promised to follow up with a review of four restaurant reviewers: Terry Durack [The Sydney Morning Herald], Larissa Dubecki [The Age], John Lethlean [The Australian] and Guy Griffin [until it’s demise the (sydney) magazine]  Somewhat belatedly. I was interrupted first by the death of a dear friend who I wanted to write about – and then much work. Better late than never. This post, the first two, from Sydney. Terry Durack and Guy Griffin Let me start with Mr Durack.

Terry Durack could be said to be the doyen of Australian restaurant reviewers. He has been at it for longer than any others still serving up opinions, and has done it both here and in London, for The Independent. And, like at least two others (reviewer emeritus Leo Schofield and me) he began life in advertising, as a copywriter, before realising that the most interesting part of the day was spent at lunch.

In the days when Mr Durack and I were toiling away as the poets of commerce, there was plenty of money and plenty of free time to lunch well. There is one other reason why so many ex-advertising copywriters have gone on to do well in other word-smithing jobs, novelists Peter Carey and Salman Rushdie being just two. It teaches you to make people want to read what you write. Because nobody wants to read ads, you learn to become very good at first sentences.

Consider the review I am writing about here, of Vincent in Woollahra on October 15 2013 (you can read it here). Mr Durack’s first sentence begins ‘I, for one, can see through their clever little scheme…’ I, for one, defy you not to read on. He is introducing the Baked Comte Custard which later stars in a breakout as the Go To Dish. His description of it makes me both smile and want to slip it into my mouth. ‘This tall, free-standing cylinder’ he writes, ‘wobbles like a strumpet on its way to the table’ and it has ‘the airy-fairy texture of something between a panna cotta and a soufflé and a clean, nutty almost caramel flavour that fills the mouth  like a cloud.’ This is masterful writing about food. Descriptive and, even if some might question the taste of ‘wobbles like a strumpet’ (a tad sexist Mr Durack?) compelling.

Later he does that which is essential in a piece of writing that serves many purposes – historical document, guide to where to go tonight just two of them – it establishes context.We learn the provenance of the owners and the chef. Restaurants rarely pop up out of nowhere. There is history and it is useful to know. Mr Durack is also knowledgeable about the wine, and lets us know that here, it is mainly French and displays a love affair with the Loire. In this he is ahead of Maestro Schofield who loved his wine but was not demonstrably au fait with it. All in all this is a very fine review which, having read it,  leaves me with a feeling for the place, a hunger for the food and a desire to visit. There is, for me, one problem. And it is not in the words.

It is in the picture of Mr Durack above the review. Now I know he has said that there is nothing that the restaurateur can do to make his experience any better than that of the average diner other than make the servings larger.  Balderdash. Some of you may remember the television series Heat in the Kitchen, in which (then) Sydney Morning Herald restaurant critic Matthew Evans is shown deciding on the fate of two restaurants in terms of the number of hats they will receive in the Good Food Guide. There is a memorable scene when Evans walks unannounced into Aria which is desperate to have the hat taken away from it the previous year given back. Chef Matthew Moran is not in the kitchen. The sous chef in charge panics. From then on there are only two people in the restaurant, Evans and his companion. Everything is done to ensure that their meal is perfect, including preparing several versions of each dish they order. I would not have wanted to be eating at Aria that night. In her book Garlic and Sapphires, restaurant critic Ruth Reichl writes about her adoption of disguises. She would visit a restaurant once as herself, then go back disguised as a  little old lady and compared here treatment. Needless to say the LOL was not treated as well as the New York Times reviewer.

So I’m giving only three out  a possible five pens for this otherwise admirable review. Two taken off for lack of anonymity.

My next choice is a critic who, as far as I know, is no longer practicing. Guy Griffin was the restaurant critic for the recently departed the (sydney) magazine which appeared free in The Sydney Morning Herald once a month. It was glossy, it was fashionable and when it first appeared, it was also thoughtful. In my opinion, this quality was generally lacking towards the end of its life. Mr Griffin’s reviews appeared on a page labelled ‘hot’ in thematically chosen colours.

 The greater danger for the restaurant critic, as for the wine critic, is to disappear up his/her own cloaca. Mr Griffin falls into this trap in the first paragraph of his review of Alpha (Issue 126 November 2013 read it here).

‘There are versions of classic dishes you’d call righteous’ he writes, and goes on ‘In Abruzzo this year my buddy’s nonagenarian nonna served her famous lasagne as one course in the family’s annual Ferragosto 15-course celebration.’ Now, I have no problem with his citing of a traditional dish, but citing it in a way that makes Mr Griffin rather than his ‘buddy’s’ grandmother’s lasagne the hero is not really on.

It gets worse.

‘In contrast, two weeks before, there was that vegetarian “cassoulet” cooked by well-meaning former friend.’ So important is food to Mr Griffin we are led to believe that he drops his friends for infractions of his kitchen rules. Were we all to be so stern we would have no friends left.

None of this has anything to do with the review in question which, when we finally get around to it, states that ‘Peter Conistis’ moussaka ranks alongside nonna’s lasagne in the righteous category.’ Well, actually no. The ingredients for the lasagne he quotes as emanating from  the nonna in question’s kitchen (shouldn’t it be Nonna?) are classic. Chef Conistis’ moussaka is famously not. Recognising that the moussaka we know and some love so well was not really Greek but had been invented by a mid-twentieth century Greek chef by the name of Tselementes as one of a series of dishes to expunge any remnants of the orient from Greek kitchens (it’s a long story) Chef Conistis invented his own luscious dish which he called moussaka which, some twenty five years ago, infuriated the Greeks of the city who visited his then restaurant Cosmos. Righteous it is not. Delicious it is.

We learn much bout Mr Griffin in this review, about how clever he is, how well travelled, and in between the selfie gossip, we do get a good a taste of Chef Conistis’  splendid food. And it is well and accurately described: I have eaten at this restaurant know some of the dishes and am an admirer of  Chef Conistis’ kitchen. Mr Griffin gets it and also displays a good knowledge of Greek wine.

We also learn that he is not strictly truthful. Towards the end of the review he writes ‘ “Socrates said desserts are like mistresses” the Midnight Cowboy announces. “They’re bad for you. So if you’re having one you might as well have two.” I had no idea he was a classics scholar.’ He wasn’t. As amusing as it is, there is no such quote either from Socrates or the film Midnight Cowboy.  The quote is attributed to  Alain Ducasse. How very strange to invent a false provenance for a quote.

I’m giving him two pens for good food description and wine knowledge.

Next – and more than likely post-Christmas– I will have a look at John Lethlean and Larissa Dubecki, both from Melbourne, although Mr Lethlean’s brief is the entire country.