The caress of cosseted opulence

 

 

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Often, when describing myself, I use the term ‘second generation restaurant critic.’ If it’s not strictly true, nor is it entirely untrue.

Today’s restaurant critic is – or should be – a critic in the best sense of the word. One who assesses and passes judgement based upon an accumulation of experience, taste and observation. A good critic is also a good writer, someone who can hold the object of criticism up to the light examine all its facets and come up with an original way of seeing it. That’s the ideal anyway. The restaurant critic can offer critical analysis or entertainment and often, successfully, both.

My mother, Gloria Newton, was not like that. She had a column in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, then as now a tabloid, but not then as rabidly right wing as now. Her nom de plume was Elizabeth Pitt, and if you know where the Australian Consolidated Press Building is and was, you’ll know why. Her column was called ‘Goings on About Town’, and she reviewed restaurants and night clubs.

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While not a critic in the formal sense of the word she was the first writer in Sydney to write the truth as she saw it. If she didn’t like it she said so, even though each piece wasn’t a lot longer than today’s tweets. There’s no doubt she was read. The owner of the notorious strip joint the Pink Pussy Cat, ‘Last Card’ Louis Benedetto, an associate of Sydney’s Mr Sin, Abe Saffron, was so delighted with her comments about his business that he gave her a little card, which I still have today, offering free entry to her and her friends. Why? Every time she slammed him, his business boomed.

When my father couldn’t come with her for whatever reason – didn’t want to, couldn’t, was away on business – I was dragged along. In my short pants and long socks – school uniform. Dressed like that, I met Sammy Davis Jr, Sal Mineo, Frances Faye as well as local luminaries Gordon Chater, Gwen Plumb, Noel Ferrier – all the greats of that time.

And then there were the restaurants. That was when it began, this curious and lifelong relationship. A relationship not, funnily enough, with the food, but with the feeling, the character, the mood of a public eating house.

The first restaurant I remember – as opposed to the night clubs, like Prince’s and Chequers – was a place called Rainaud’s in Queen’s Square at the top of King Street. I have no idea what we ate – I recall we went several times and not for a review, because my father was also there. Rainaud’s was a wholly Greek-owned business, the two names I can find associated with it are Vrakbnas and Andritzakis. And, much later, I reviewed a restaurant in Ramsgate called Omeros on the Beach and by the door, was an article that said that the owner was a descendant of Costa Omeros who had cooked at Rainaud’s

But what I do remember to this day is the weight of the cutlery and the thick, starched double damask table cloths. These emblems of a luxury, of cosseted opulence remain with me to this day.

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There was an ante-room too, where my father would go after dinner and talk to – was it George? – the dark-panelled wooden walls of which were hung with photographs of race horses. And this is perhaps the key to our interest in the place. My father loved horses and horse racing. George, being an owner, probably gave him tips.

But for me this place was everything that home wasn’t.

Oh, we lived comfortably enough, at that time in small flat in Double Bay, and we ate well and at the table. But that cutlery! Those table cloths! It was another world and one in which I felt like snuggling up.

In another book, I quoted Frank Moorhouse who wrote ‘Paradoxically I am most at-home in a restaurant. No, this is wrong – more precisely I like being in a restaurant because it is where I feel not-in-any-way-shape-or-form at-home.’

So the first quality of restaurants which I will note is that sense of being coddled, wrapped in cotton wool and served. I’ve experienced that in my adult life. But only rarely. And it does have much to do with the quality of furnishings. I remember a review of breakfast at Galileo in the Observatory Hotel in Sydney. ‘As we entered’ I wrote, ‘we were led by our elegant white-coated waitress – Sin Im, her name tag tells us – to a long, polished walnut table against the back wall, balloon-back seats padded in an olive green and bronze colour scheme on one side and a padded and opulently cushioned banquette – more of a built-in sofa – along the wall.’ Sin Im returns with bright pink watermelon juices for the girls and orange and ruby grapefruit for us, and takes our food orders. “I feel so important,” whispers younger daughter, looking around at the room now slowly filling with hotel guests who have, lucky things, been sleeping in on their luxurious hotel beds.’

I described it as sumptuous and indeed it was. The other place that achieved this quality, without the accompanying formality and froideur was Tony Bilson’s eponymous restaurant,  Bilson’s, also in a hotel, the Radisson Plaza, also in Sydney. Of this I wrote, in a story celebrating Tony Bilson’s 60th birthday and his fortieth year behind the stoves ‘It is one of Sydney’s most elegant dining rooms. White quarter paned windows look out onto Pitt Street and at this time of the year, the seasonally themed hanging mobiles flutter with ochre and russet Japanese papers. A duck egg blue private room….lined with Mike Parr self portraits faces down the long cream and brown room. A table groans beneath a tempting display of Armagnac, Calvados and Cognac.

That groaning table says it all. Temptation, indulgence. The very words Armagnac, Calvados and Cognac scream Cuban cigar smoke, heady fumes, full belly, lay back. At that level, you do feel ‘so important.’

 

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Menus. Kitchen. Action!

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In reviewing the book Dishing it Out by Robert Appelbaum, a scholarly, insightful and funny meditation on the restaurant in modern western culture, I found myself making withdrawals from my own restaurant memory bank. In particular, one ancient episode of eavesdropping which has stayed with me for more than 30 years.

I’d like to take you back to a seafood restaurant on the north side of Sydney harbour, a place that we – my work colleagues and I – used a lot. We worked in advertising and this entailed many lunches: obligatory in that business, at that time. We knew the owner, the owner’s wife, the owner’s mistress all the waiters and cooks. In other words, we felt comfortable there.

The restaurant was in a large room behind the main business of the business, which was a wine bar. North facing, with high windows at that northern end of the building. Were there views over the harbour? I don’t recall. But I do recall the luminous afternoon light flooding in through those north windows, filtered through the leaves of tall trees.

On this particular day, a gorgeous summer’s afternoon, we had eaten well, had opened the second bottle of wine (‘only a fool breaks the two bottle rule’), and we glowed with post-prandial bonhomie and silly grins for our fellow lunchers.

At the next table to us were a couple, boy and girl, both of whom I knew slightly. She was in her early twenties, blonde, glowing not just from the food and wine but with sex. She radiated a healthy and almost visible sexuality. She squirmed in her seat as she laughed and leaned towards her companion. He was English, a little older than her, blonde, tall and if not handsome, attractive. I am amazed that as I write this I can see them so clearly. There was very little doubt that when they left their table, they were not going back to work.

There was, about that moment, those two, something essential about the restaurant experience. Writing elsewhere on this theme, I said that every meal in a restaurant is a live performance, each table a separate audience, that there are no rehearsals, no out of town tryouts, no scriptwriters and no special effects. Just a waiter and a maitre’d between the chef, the brigade and the customer.

This is especially and perhaps only true in the high end restaurants, not necessarily in the kind of place you go to sit and eat, the cafe or the diner. But even then, a certain level of theatricality can slip in.

But in those high-toned places, like the one in which I was observing that young couple, a mood, an atmosphere is created which is not unlike that created in a real theatre, or a cinema. You are taken out of yourself, away from your dreary daily problems. While you are seated at table, being served (hopefully) wonderful food and feted by skilled, attentive and gentle waiters, the problems of the office, the lost account, the unhappy marriage, the dwindling bank account float away and burst, like bubbles. Not only is the restaurant a theatre, but if it is a successful one, then you are left with the feeling that you are a star.

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A colleague of mine went on a tour of the Michelin three star restaurants of Paris. The only difference, she concluded, between them and those a little further down the star trail was the level of fawning: the more you paid, the more you were fawned upon. I don’t know about you, but I am not fawned upon very often. And when I am, it is a heady experience.

So those two young people floated out of that restaurant having, for the two or so hours they were there, been treated like kings and queens, movie or rock stars. Into a cab, back to his or her place and into bed, still tingling with adulation.

That is what a great restaurant experience can do for you. That is the apogee of the experience.

Sadly, there is a postscript to that story. Life intruded harshly on both those people as they added years to their lives. There was great pain and sadness on the one hand, and on the other flaws and failure. I wonder whether they remember that afternoon of their shining as well as I do.

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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 

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