Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Partying Hard(ware)

Last night, The Husband and I visited Bondi Hardware for its annual end of summer birthday party. I used to live one street away from the dinky little bar when it was indeed a hardware store and if the brief was to nod to its former life, owners Hamish Watts and Ben Carroll have nailed it.

Hamish Watts and Ben Carroll, of Applejack Hospitality and staff get all touchy feely at the annual end-of-summer party.

Although the handsome space has been given a good polish since the original occupant moved out, it still references the building's working village past with its industrial lights, wall lined with tools, exposed bricks, big old beams and ceiling clad with recycled timber.

Bondi Hardware remains lovingly scuffed up from its former life as three decades'-old hardware shop.
Watts and Carroll, of Applejack Hospitality, lured about 150 locals, media, friends and celebs to the party, where, given its proximity to Bondi Beach, the Point Break dress code was a cinch.

Chef's signature beef sliders.
Watermelontinis #winning
As well as celebrating its third year in operation the party celebrated the launch of head chef Elliot Anders' new menu, with tasters such as polenta and quinoa bites, tuna poke spoons, crispy pork belly and pumpkin boats , pearl barley arancini balls with lemon aioli, triangles of margherita pizza and his signature beef sliders.
Pearl barley arancini balls

Tuna poke spoons.

Punters also enjoyed watching the bartenders ply their trade, with endless rounds of watermelontinis made with Ketel One Vodka, elderflower liquor, watermelon, apple and lime, boutique beers from Endeavour, wine by Howard Parken and ciders by Batlow.

Bartenders work their magic with watermelontinis using a few tricks of the trade.
Co-owner Ben Carroll worked the room for the annual end-of-summer party.

Bartenders mix things up at the Bondi Hardware Point Break party.
Applejack Hospitality also have The Botanist, in Kirribilli, SoCal in Neutral Bay and The Butler, in Pott's Point.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Q & A with the Hongsta

Merivale's executive chef Dan Hong @Hongsta_gram has published his first book, Mr Hong.      Photo: Jason Loucas.
Dan Hong’s first book, Mr Hong is a collection of stories about the life experiences that led a young teen obsessed with rare sneakers and rap from Sydney’s western suburbs to carve out a name for himself as one of Australia’s top chefs. I was lucky enough to be invited to copy edit the book, which Hong co-wrote with the lovely Melissa Leong. The book follows Hong’s journey along a colourful path from his mum’s Vietnamese restaurant in Cabramatta to working at some of the world’s best restaurants and teaming up with Merivale gastropreneur Justin Hemmes.

The book includes recipes from Mr Wong, ElLoco and Ms G’s as well as food that Hong likes to cook, eat and share. Following are some of the dishes he says represent defining moments in his career.

As a kid, I grew up eating banh mi on the streets of Cabramatta. As well as being food from my heritage, it’s an iconic sandwich. What I love about banh mi is the balance: there’s the acidity from the pickles, the richness of the pork and the freshness of the herbs. Mini pork banh mi is the defining dish at Ms G’s.
This noodle soup is my death row meal. I’ve tried it all over the world and nothing beats Mum’s version. It’s got lots of lemongrass and chilli and is for the real food lover who likes funky shrimp paste, pig’s trotters and blood jelly.  It’s a dish that acknowledges the influence my mum has had on my cooking career. Mum still inspires me. I go to her house every Monday for dinner and she makes a Vietnamese feast for all her kids and grandkids.
The El Loco Hot Dog sums up my food philosophy: it’s about eating delicious food with your hands and making the dining experience a lot of fun.  The important thing about my hot dog is it has a nicely smoked sausage that has snap when you bite into it. There also has to be more sausage than bun; there’s nothing worse for the hotdog to bun ratio to be out of whack.
I like to play around with classic dishes at Mr Wong and this is my take on a classic Cantonese dish that utilises native ingredients such as Warrigal greens, which have lovely oceanic overtones. As well as showcasing Australia’s fantastic range of cultivated mushrooms, it’s a dish that reflects my mixed heritage.
As Best Young Chef in 2008 I won a scholarship and went to work under Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 in New York. While in the US, I ate a lot of burgers and they were all so much better than what Sydney had to offer. At that time, I was right into molecular gastronomy, but I returned to Lotus with the realisation that I didn’t care about being different. I just wanted to cook food I wanted to eat.  The cheeseburger was an epiphany.  
My time at Longrain was so important in terms of the training I received. It taught me technique and helped further develop my palate. This is a version of the Aussie staple – sweet and sour pork – that was inspired by my first year of cooking at Longrain. I’d been eating pigs’ feet for years but Longrain’s caramelised pork hock with chilli vinegar was crazy good.  
Mr Hong by Dan Hong, published by Murdoch Books $39.99. This article first appeared in Good Food.

10 of the best restaurants in Tasmania

10 of the best restaurants in Tasmania

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Take me to your happy place

Bombs away off the coast in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Vanuatu is one of the ultimate get-away-from-it-all destinations.  It's a choose-your-own-adventure trip where you can decide to remain stuck on your sunlounger listening to the sigh of the palm trees or venture beyond the confines of the resort to learn more about life in the Southwest Pacific island nation.

There are many beachside resorts in Vanuatu where you can do as little or as much as you like.
While holidaying in Australia, at places such as the Hamilton Island or Palm Cove, my focus is very much on flopping about. But this South Pacific nation was new territory for The Husband and I and we felt compelled to stretch both our eyes and legs. 

Locals visit the Port Vila market to buy takeaway meals that they bring home ready-to-cook in banana leaves.
After catching the ferry into Port Vila, we trudged through the dust-filled streets to see what we could see. We sat watching young women cooking yam in banana leaves, had lunch with an Aussie social worker who was teaching carpentry to the prisoners in the town jail and learned from local stallholder Harry Moli that we'd fortuitously timed our visit to coincide with a cultural festival that - because of a lack of funding - only happens every three years. 

Dancers arrived in Port Vila for the National Festival of the Arts, a celebration of cultural diversity.
The National Festival of the Arts is a celebration of cultural diversity for a sustainable economy. We follow our ears, drawn by the thrumming of drums, to the top of a hill overlooking the main drag of Port Vila, the nation's capital, to catch some of the action.

The crowd at the cultural festival await for the pigs to be slaughtered and offered as part of the 'peace feast'. 
Despite a thronging crowd of locals and clans from different villages around Vanuatu, there are very few tourists present at the event where the slaughtering of pigs is now under way.  We hang back a bit at first, but because of the intensity of the celebration, are soon drawn in closer to watch the dancers from various tribes lurch this way and that, squealing and shaking their spears.

The National Festival of the Arts offers a great snapshot of traditions and customs still practiced all over Vanuatu.
The men and women from the different clans are painted in neon-bright dye, clad in everything from elaborate loin cloths to grass skirts with feathered head dresses. We are completely transfixed and find a patch of grass next to Alison Fleming, one of the organisers, who explains that the pigs are given as offerings to chiefs from all around the Y-shaped chain of islands.

The dancers clump together waiting for their turn to impress the other clans and villages.
After the festival died down, Alison, a young Australian anthropologist from Canberra's ANU invites us to sit in on a cultural exchange occurring between a delegation of Maoris and the villagers of Mangaliliu on the island of Efate the following day .

Chief Mur-Mur, of Mangaliliu, of the island of Efate.  

Meet and greet with the chief
When we arrive at the village, Chief Mur-Mur is standing in the jungle welcoming the 12 Maoris from Rotorua who helped secure the island nation's first world heritage listing of Chief Roi Mata's Domain in 2008. "Nem blong mi chief Mur-Mur," says the chief of the village, who has a grandson attached to his hip and welcomes us as if we were family.

Chief Mur-Mur's village is near to the now-abandoned site and the delegation are here to guide him on how to ensure the destination remains sustainable as a tourism venture and proffer advice on how best to preserve the site's cultural significance.

A re-enactment of life before Chief Roi Mata brought peace to the island nation of Vanuatu.
Chief Mur-Mur explains to us that the moral legacy of Roi Mata's social reforms remain front of mind in Vanuatu. He then claps his hands together as a group of villagers re-enact a scene that took place about 4 1/2 centuries ago, when Roi Mata reconciled the warring tribes and brokered a peace deal that united all of the islands.

Seeing this haka performed on the dirt floor of the village remains a highlight from my travels.
We then watch, in awe, as the men from the Tamaki Maori village in Rotorua declare they come in peace but would like to demonstrate, in return a haka - to complete the cultural exchange - right there on the sand floor under a canopy of green.

Maori chiefs from the Tamaka Maori village in Rotorua perform a haka in the village. 
 It was a spine-tingling performance and the villagers were enthralled, some giggling, others wide-eyed. We were then invited to share a feast with the Maoris and local villagers, who, in between mouthfuls, marvelled at some of the words they had in common.

The feast we shared with the Maori delegations and local villagers of Mangaliliu.
The feast was laid out on a colourful tablecloth under a palm-thatched hat on the beach and included pork-filled tuluk, laplap, vegetables, eggs, and capsicum, yam fritters, beef stew, taro topped with fried fish and chicken wings cooked in coconut.

The whole village converged to watch the Maori guests perform a haka.
The soaring walls of Fels Cave, on Lelepa Island.

Sculpture by the sea
After the feast, we travel by boat through turqouise-green seas over to Lelepa Island scrambling over boulders and up the stairs until we reach Fels Cave, an enormous eggshell-coloured rock formation.

While the exterior is rippled and curved and incredible, the walls of the cavernous space are burnished and smooth and soar, like ice cream cathedrals, some 55m above us.

Today, you can take a Roi Mata tour to the village, an hour's drive northwest of Port Vila and hear the story about the revered chief who was reportedly poisoned by his own brother in the early 1600s.

The tour also steers visitors to the cave where Roi Mata was said to have taken his last breath.

The large chamber cave also features engraved rock art as well as ominous dates scratched into the wall, historical graffiti that announces the arrival of missionaries in 1874.

Happy smiling faces greet us at the village of Mangaliliu.
What enriches this history lesson is the fact that it is knowledge passed down as part of the oral traditions practised by chiefs for the last four centuries, which has ensured Roi Mata remains a central character in contemporary Vanuatu.

Making a splash at Mangaliliu.
Roi Mata's vision for peace promotes the benefits for all to live together in harmony. Perhaps the trickle-on effect of this resulted in the island nation being awarded Happiest Place on Earth by the New Economics Foundation in 2006.

Such a treat to be invited into a local village to meet the families who call Mangaliliu home.
One of the most wonderful things about travelling is when such lucky encounters land in your lap. Besides rewarding us with a really layered understanding of Vanuatu's legendary chief, chancing upon such a colourful cultural exchange meant we truly found our happy place.

Everywhere we went in Vanuatu, we were met by smiling happy faces.

Visit www.vanuatu.travel or chiefroimatasdomain.com/ for more information.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Arabian nights at Yalla Sawa

When restaurateur Jad Nakhle told his friends and family that he was going to open an eatery serving refined Arabian cuisine in Cronulla they all told him he was crazy. And that it would never work.

Yalla Sawa is the sum of all its parts and such a welcome addition to the Cronulla dining scene.
A riot of colour
Yalla Sawa means 'come together' in Arabic. And since it swung open its doors 18 months ago, the restaurant perched on a corner of Monro Park opposite the railway station has been embraced by the local community and then some. In my mind, it also sits as a glittering example of just how far Cronulla has come.

Colourful pointy-hatted tagines tell a story about age-old Arabic culinary traditions.

Location, location
While the exterior of the restaurant is not especially lovely, its proximity to the park and ocean is. Step inside the tiny space and you will also be charmed by the distressed walls, the bifold windows that pull in the sea breeze, the metal lanterns, the wall of wines, moody lighting, distressed timbers, earthy Moroccan tiling and staff that mostly sit on branches of the family tree.

Yalla Sawa packs in the punters every night it is open.

Chargrilled octopus with zhoug ... it's enough to build a dream on.
Sharing is caring
As for the food? While it looks deceptively simple, the dishes on the menu also reach heights of greatness largely because of head chef and co-owner Walid Karam's skill in the cupboard-sized kitchen, but also because the dishes are all based on time-worn recipes that have been passed down through the generations. The food is rustic and earthy, with boisterous flavours that marry Middle Eastern and Mediterranean themes with Moroccan flavours and place the emphasis on fresh herbs and salads that add lightness to the equation.

Sharing is caring at Yalla Sawa, with the dips made by owner Jad Nakhle's mum, Amal.

Sam Kekovich would be proud of this luscious lamb shish dish with tabouli, hommus and saj bread at Yalla Sawa. 
Mama's Mezze
From the mezze made by Jad's mum Amal - silky smooth hommus, vivid beetroot dip and smoky baba ghanoush - to the insane falafels that are crisp and nutty and benefit from a blast of fresh herbs - to the stonkingly good side dishes of chargrilled occy to roasted vegetables and fatoush, the food is an exercise in loveliness.

Yalla Sawa is on fire and a family affair both in the kitchen and on the floor.  
Breeze blocks
While the mains do deserve their own belly dance, it's that cumulative effect that makes Yalla Sawa sing. Great food: Tick. Attentive service: Tick. Sea breeze: Tick. Good vibes: Tick. I tried and failed to procure the head chef's recipe for the fresh tagine of kafta, quail eggs, spicy Moroccan red sauce or the slow-cooked lamb shank, with honey, raisin and toasted almonds. But, on reflection, I don't want to learn how to cook these dishes. I want to stroll 3km along the Esplanade with family and friends to enjoy these dishes at Yalla Sawa.

Food for the soul: Yalla Sawa is no longer just a local secret.

Neighbourhood gem
A quick straw poll of all those I've urged to try this restaurant suggests I'm not the only one who dreams of  diving headfirst into Amal's dips, which are served with fluffy warm Lebanese bread. And, despite not being a dessert queen, I admire the gusto with which sweet tooths tackle the pistachio ice cream, halawa and pinenut brittle or orange blossom tart with ashta and toasted almonds. The drinks menu is also decidedly grown-up as is the demographic that mobs this neighbourhood gem.

Pistachio ice-cream with halawa and pine nut brittle.
It's summer. So what better time to share the good times and #cometogether at Yalla Sawa? Out-of-area peeps need to know that you can't expect to lob and get a table as the place is permanently rammed. Also worth mentioning is that Jad and his wife Hayley also have a stake in the Brass Monkey and El Sol, which are two firm local favourites to hear live music and enjoy a bite to eat.

Shop 8, Beach Park Arcade. 138-142 Cronulla St, Cronulla. e: bookings@yallasawa.comm.au. Open Wed-Sun 6pm-11pm. Phone: (02) 8544 0614. If you'd like to receive new posts and links to my latest articles, please subscribe via my website @ www.carlagrossetti.com.