Tuesday 29 December 2009

Greedy Diva's Gluttonous Travel Highlights for 2009

(Lamb & spinach pizza wrap, St Ali, Melbourne)

The Greedy Diva blog is a wee piglet at less than 3 months old, but the Greedy Diva philosophy of exploring the world as led by the rumbling compass of her stomach has been a life long journey. Here are my top greedy travel adventures for 2009 - with more gastro-travel snaps to follow when my feet hit London where they're stashed (the photos, not my feet).

    (Pickled vegetables, Japanese style)
1. Tokyo:  It's hard to put your lips wrong in Tokyo. At one end of the scale are high end restaurants serving the freshest melt-in-the-mouth sushi & intricate bento meals presented gracefully like beautiful foodie giftboxes. At the other are discreetly hidden bars dishing out mouthwatering grilled yakitori skewers to accompany refreshing Japanese beers. Either way, if you can cope with the sensory overload, this is a sensational travel destination for any food lover.

Best of all (and that's saying something in Tokyo) was Kantera, a Korean shabu shabu restaurant hidden discreetly in the 'burbs of Tokyo, and recommended to us by Rob, a former man about Tokyo town. At reasonable prices, we tried 2 types of wagyu (including the richly marbled - premium wagyu tenderloin which will send you off into the clouds), barbecued pork, seafood pancakes, refreshing leafy salads with sesame, sizzling vegetables and plate after plate of delectable fare. All were selected by the manager who was so delighted to see two salivating westerners who had arrived on a recommendation that he gave us personal service all night. We lost count of the sake flasks. Make sure you take a taxi - impossible to find. Kantera, 3-12-26 Daizawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 155-0032

For fabulous gyoza in the funky Harajuku shopping area, we loved Harajuku Gyoza Lou, also recommended by the now beloved Rob. 6-2-4 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku 150-0001. Other fab foodie finds: eat fresh sushi washed down with a beer for a 5am breakfast at the stalls surrounding the amazing Tsukiji Fish Market (the giant tuna auctions begin at about 4.30 am); gulp in the breathtaking views of Tokyo over an expensive cocktail at Hyatt Hotel's New York bar (straight from the scenes of "Lost in Translation"); sample beautifully presented, delicate Japanese fine dining at Kozue (also at the Park Hyatt) where the panoramic views include a squizz at Mt Fuji on a good day - service is amazing (you'll be treated like a king or queen).
    (Lashings of truffle at La Cocinella, Piedmont)
2. Piedmont: My all round favourite foodie holiday. Tuscan type scenes, but less tourists, more local food holes with Nonna in the kitchen. Dawdle lazily around the vineyards drinking Barolos, Barbarescas and sparkling proseccos from nearby Asti, stopping off at roadside eateries for perfectly cooked plin ("pinched" little raviolis) with rosemary or fresh eggy tagliatelle with rich and meaty ragus. Sample chocolates from Turin, prosciuttos, cheeses and melt in the mouth meats topped with lashings of truffle straight from the local forrested foothills and encrusted in the sweet, native nocciola. Alba, home of the famous white truffle and the Alba Cheese Fair and Slow Food Festival was 10 minutes from our "hotel", I mean "castle". Wander around the bustling markets scoffing local nocciola delights (nougats, hazelnut cakes - even the Nutella factory is nearby), yellow peaches the size of a baby's head and other fresh summer fruits bursting with flavour.

Some of the best eateries included La Coccinella (amazing fine dining quality food cooked up by 2 brothers, with a mix of homey and elegant atmosphere) and, at the more casual end of the scale, the brilliant Trattoria Nella Vigne in Diana D'Alba where, for around 20 Euros a head, plate after plate of delicious, rustic local fare was brought to our table as we slowly reached explosion point - never before have we been defeated before even making it to the main (meat) course (which was rabbit). All this, while soaking in the views over the hills and valleys of Piedmont.

These suggestions are just the smallest tip of the massive local culinary iceberg. We stayed at the excellent Hotel Castello di Sinio (centrally located in the cute local town of Sinio, with a pool overlooking the piazza, and a reputedly great restaurant which was unfortunately closed during our visit - but the owner, Denise, is free flowing with many other great foodie suggestions) and the stunning La Villa (closer to Asti, glamourous villa and gardens, friendly service, lie by the pool smelling the lavender and rosemary bushes at your feet while looking over sunflower fields, and enjoy views of the Alps to help digest your breakfast on the terrace after a morning bike ride through the local hilltop villages - however not so central and local scenery out on the tracks is not so stunning as that in the Sinio area).
    (Smack your lips around the Little Owl burger, NY)
    (Bedazzling Million Dollar Chicken & sprouts at The Standard Grill, NY)
3. New York: Foodie nirvana. From mouthwatering steaks to gob stopping cupcakes, the Big Apple has it all. With fabulous shopping opportunities in between to help burn it off. Don't miss Shake Shack for your greasy burger fix. See my previous rants here (Breakfasts and Brunches), here (Lunch, Dinner, Snacks on the run), here (The Standard Grill) and here (the fabulous Babbo).

Those were my top 3 foodie destinations for the year. Other culinary highlights for 2009, somewhere in my top 10, included:
Paris: Mais oui. Of course. I adore the cafes, bakeries, cheese shops, florists, chocolatiers, patisseries, butchers etc on Rue Montorgueil for some serious people watching and typical Parisian street scenes, guaranteed to include freshly baked bagettes protruding from bicycle baskets. Mooch into any of the cafes on the strip for a decently cooked piece of steak or duck. Nearby, you gotta love the Love Burger at Cafe Etienne Marcel. This looks like the sort of uber trendy place which we would not normally give a second glance for lunch in Paris, but we were stopped in our tracks by the glorious sight of the Love Burger and it did not disappoint - quality beef grilled beautifully and nestled within a lovely brioche bun, with perfect frites on the side.

Chez Janou is fun for bistro fare in a bustling atmosphere - although the food is not always amazing, and recent visits have featured more tourists than it used to, it's worth a go for the massive bowl of chocolate mousse alone. Said mousse is left at the table to scoop one's own serving to one's greedy heart's desire (although they may have stopped this honesty system as a direct result of my last visit - definitely an eyes bigger than stomach trap every time). Make a late booking for when the crowd hots up and have a kir at the bar beforehand. I also like Juveniles wine bar for casual wine soakage, and can't wait to try Marche Les Enfants Rouges (markets) in the Marias and Chez Georges in a few weeks times. God Bless the Eurostar.
    (Parisian patisseries feature aplenty in the GD travels)
Antwerp: This funky design and fashionista city is not just beer and chips - but they're good too; great bars, cafes and restaurants aplenty. Give the fashion museum a miss unless paper dress installations are your thing.

Moscow: Hit and miss on the foodie scene, and the locals constantly look morose, but Moscow is worth a mention for the vodka alone. Who would have guessed sushi would feature so rampantly on every menu in town? The grand and expensive (yet somehow still tacky, being a replica mansion and all) Cafe Pushkin needs to be seen - enjoy the classical live music while you eat in 19th century replica grandeur ... just don't order the beef strogonoff which looks like a microwave meal from an old people's home. Enjoy traditional Georgian fare at Tiflis, under a canopy of vines, washed down with lots of you know what. Purse your lips and don't dare crack a smile as you mingle with the models (and rich old blokes trying to meet them) at the local bars and clubs.

Miami: Some unexpectedly delicious finds, and none better than Michael's Genuine Food & Drink - see my posts here. And you're never too far from a palm tree.
    (The Spot's Po Boy in Miami)
Rome: In a city where the men out dress the women every day of the week, soak up the atmosphere at wine bars and trattorias, sipping Aperol as the sun sets and breaking the egg yolk over a delicious pasta alla carbonara after dark. Coffee gelato, big flat pizzas where 2 ingredients pack more flavour than 20 anywhere else (such as the pizza alla romana - brushed with olive oil and rosemary), gorgeous al dente pastas, fried artichokes, and basic cuts of meat cooked by hairy chinned Nonnas to taste like the food of the Gods. All while wearing your black Armani shades.

Kuala Lumpur: Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Japanese, Portuguese and Korean influences for a touch of exotica - see my previous rant here. Let me know how it goes if you sample the frog porridge.
Melbourne: So many places, so little time. I never miss Cicciolinas for pure Melbourne Italian in funky St Kilda, and Mart for my morning coffee and breakfast wedged between Albert Park and the sunny shores of Middle Park beach. Melbourne does Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Italian and Greek with aplomb - and did I mention the coffee? I am enthralled by all the amazing new places which have sprung up on the Melbourne food scene over the last 18 months - best get exploring.
GD's more detailed guide to Melbourne is coming soon - for now, you can see here (my tribute to the Melbourne dimmy, typical Aussie street food) and here (dreamy corn fritters at Mart 130).

Happy New Year to all! I'm looking forward to clocking up more stamps in the passport and sharing further greedy adventures in 2010. A big thanks for reading the Greedy Diva throughout her infancy.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Gluttonous Travels: Stand out brekkie at Mart 130 (Melbourne)

Mart is my "Cheers" - that familiar homing ground where everybody knows your name.

True, this may not be ideal at 8am, pre-hairbrush and pre-caffeine, when there's a desire to remain incognito until one's more human traits finally kick in. However, it's nice to step off the plane from London into a local coffee shop and be remembered fondly for the hardy caffeine addict that you are.

The Peanut Gallery and I have not lived in Melbourne for over 3 years, but every time we return to our former local breakfast haunt at the Middle Park tram stop (Mart is "tram" spelt backwards) it's so lovely to be greeted by our favourite cafe owner (the super fabulous Dan), talk about the snow in London and gaze out over Albert Park as the sun streams in through the gum trees.

Inside the old station master's building has been converted with a gorgeous shabby chic decor, and is filled with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and crackling bacon. Outside is a casual decking laden with wooden tables overlooking the park, where the smell of eucalyptus wafts freely. And all this is a 10 minute walk from the beach and a 10 minute tram ride from the heart of the city.

The coffee (Genovese, I love you) is sensational, and the food is delicious. After our first night's (ok, 3 hours) jetlaggey sleep in Melbourne this holiday, I woke up at 3am that first morning dreaming of Mart's corn fritters with sour cream, bacon, relish and coriander. They had to be had. It was a long few hours wait until the doors opened.... But, oh so worth it.

 (Yes, you've seen the above but you need to see them again)

These corn fritters kick the butts of any others I've had - even those at London's Providores. Juicy, plump corn, amazing relish, perfectly fried bacon - all stacked up in generous amounts. Helloooo Melbourne.

TPG had the deliciously runny poached eggs and bacon with thick slices of crunchy toast. And there's plenty of other options, ranging from healthy granola/fruit salad combos to stuff-it-all-I-need-bacon-and-I-need-it-now seductions to delight and tempt you, right down to the simple Vegemite on Turkish toast which is one of my staples.

Yes, of course we had more than 1 coffee. And OJ. And when can we come back for breakfast again?

Open for breakfast daily (I find it hard to force myself to try anywhere else), and is also great for lunch - fabulous salads, sandwiches, toasties, pastas etc - or a big slab of cake for afternoon tea. Then walk it all off with a stroll around the lake, or a jaunt at the beach. Then go back for more...

Mart 130, 107a Canterbury Road, Middle Park, Melbourne

Mart 130 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Gluttonous Travels: Tribute to the humble Melbourne dim sim

It would be a sign that something had gone horribly wrong (an event in the league of my own death or city wide flood and famine) if I had not consumed my first dim sim within 48 hours of arrival in Melbourne.

The dim sim is a unique Australian take on the Chinese dumpling. Known colloquially as the "dimmy" to proud Australians everywhere, the Aussie dim sim is about twice as big and thrice as ugly as your standard Chinese variety known elsewhere. That beloved mix of pork and mystery meat, cabbage and flavourings is encased in a thick dumpling wrapper which is steamed or fried, then doused in a vigorous splash of soy sauce which must reliably leak through the brown paper bag from which it is eaten and drip lazily down your arm as you eat and walk. The dimmy is not to be eaten gracefully.

The debate over whether steamed or fried is best can divide otherwise loving friends and families. While I'm usually a steamed fan, the fried variety is an undeniably solid hangover companion. Neither option is to be eaten on a train, in confined spaces or before a hot date - beware the post dimmy breath.

The elephant man of the dim sum world, it is fair to say the dimmy's blistered skin and lumpy innards have an appeal which is confined largely to the local palate. The same can be said of other national icons, like Vegemite (our yeast extract spread, a more bitter twin to the beloved British Marmite) - although unlike Vegemite, the monopoly on the production of this enduring national treasure is not foreign owned.

Chinese food has long been a part of the Australian culture - and for many years it was the only commonly consumed Asian food in Australia, which would often compete with fish and chips for the Friday night take away slot. Chinese food in Australia has now evolved well beyond its traditionally "dumbed down for the Westerners" approach, and many excellent Chinese restaurants thrive in Australia - such as the Flower Drum which has won awards as Melbourne's best restaurant and is no stranger to lists of the world's top restaurants.

But there remains a firmly entrenched place for the simple, street food style dim sim.

So who do we have to thank for the humble dimmy? Legend has it that the dim sim was originally developed in 1945 by William Wing Young (father of Elizabeth Chong, a prominent Melbourne food writer and educator on Chinese cuisine) for his Chinese restaurant in Melbourne, Wing Lee. The thick skin was chosen for safely transporting the dimmy to football matches where they would compete directly with another Australian culinary hero, the Four 'n Twenty pie.

While they are available at fish and chip shops everywhere, it is often unanimously agreed that the best dimmys are sold at the South Melbourne market. However, the original stall holder died in 2006, and some say the new larger, rounder versions are not as good. Well, after a dim sim-less 8 months, let's just say those passing me on that Sth Melbourne corner a few days ago were left in no doubt that an enthusiastic reunion was taking place. I believe the words "get a room" were contributed from passing motorists. Yes, I love the dimmy. And I have the soy stained hands to prove it.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Barrica: Tapas in Fitzrovia, London

It was a scene straight from "Revenge of the Nerds". A Rather Unusual Chinaman and I entered Barrica for an impromptu "I'm tipsy, starving and need to soak up those cocktails" emergency feed on Friday night. We walked in, stepped 2 paces and turned to each other with respective glasses fogged over. Just too cool.

However, we managed to de-mist and recover our composure sufficiently to obtain a barside table in amongst the bustling, Barcelona-like commotion.

Setting up Barrica in its Goodge St locale is one brave move, given the terrific Fino and Salt Yard restaurants can be found within 10 paces. However, Barrica is a slightly more relaxed option than its nearby contemporaries (it is more "tapas bar" than "restaurant"), and - for me - while the food may not be of the same quality, it is more evocative of walking into to your average Barcelona tapas joint on a teeming Friday night.

It boasts chef James Knight, formerly of the much lauded Moro in Exmouth Market, as its head chef as well as a really lovely selection of wines (including over 20 sherries - hooray to that!). It's not a place for a tranquil meal (bah, who wants it?!), or perhaps even ultra fine dining quality or creative fare, but we tried a thorougly enjoyable selection of tapas in a fun and boisterous atmosphere.

I started with a glass of the easy drinking, smooth Tinto Fino ordered from our friendly, Spanish speaking waiter - I got the sense that all of the staff were Spanish.

The finely sliced Jamon Iberico Cebo (£6.50) was not the highest grade jamon on the menu (the pigs are fed on just a cereal feed diet, no acorns - so the taste is less nutty, with less marbling, than higher grades), but it was lovely and creamy. It was a fairly decent serving size for the price and quality.

Other dishes included the bright green and juicy Pimiento del Padron (peppers) and some absolutely delicious mushrooms with jamon and Fino sherry sauce were a highlight. This serving was also quite generous in size, compared to some of the other dishes at our table and those surrounding us.

The breaded pig's trotter with tomato and capers (below) was scrumptious and was wolfed down accordingly.

My very poor photography does not show the black pudding sausages for the delights that they were. Yes, they were ugly little runts but the taste was all fatty goodness. We both loved the flavour and somehow managed to share them between us without coming to blows.

The lowlight was probably the charcoal grilled aubergine, pepper and onions which were not bad, but not particularly great, and oilier than expected.

Service was friendly and helpful. And delivered with a Spanish accent to boot.

In all, I think the traditional and lively ambience here has the edge over the food. This is good, unpretentious, wine-accompanying fare, done Spanish style. For the prices (although only £20 per head for us), you should of course expect very reasonable quality food, which we obtained on the night. And it's certainly a fun place for a drink and a nibble or a widespread graze.

I knew I loved Barrica the moment I walked in (once the glasses had de-fogged) and it did not disappoint. I'll be back.

62 Goodge Street, Fitzrovia, London, W1T 4NE

Barrica on Urbanspoon

Monday 14 December 2009

Bistrotheque breakfast on a lazy Sunday morning - London

There's a "cold snap" in London, although it's likely to feel more like a long, laborious tearing of the ligaments than anything brief and snappy. The first nibble of frost bite is starting to set in to the toes, and with Christmas party mounting upon Christmas party, hauling oneself out from the cozy comfort of the duvet in the mornings is no mean feat.

Fortunately, Bistrotheque shares my sentiments, offering no possibility of brunch before 11am on a Sunday. For the lackadaisical, this has the handy side effect of completely erasing any guilt factor involved in being caught out still munching one's toast at 12pm.

Getting there involves one hell of a trek into scenes reminiscent of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. But it's probably my favourite breakfast spot in London (and is a fine lunch/dinner spot also), so well worth the bus ride to no man's land in the far East. And you can always pull on your skinny jeans to stock up at the Colombia Rd Flower market afterwards. Although, take a body guard if you're walking to Bistrotheque down Wadeson Street at night - yes, you will find yourself wondering if you're in the right place and, yes, that apparent factory you just walked past is Bistrotheque.

Inside is simple and airy - high ceilings, white walls, dark wooden floorboards, lots of windows, with an industrial, abandoned factory feel. The food is simple, well cooked classic French bistro cuisine with a British edge. Breakfast feels particularly British.

We stocked up on their newspapers and mags, and treated ourselves to a lazy Sunday brekkie. The Peanut Gallery went for the English Breakfast with 1 perfectly poached egg, bacon, sausage, black pudding, grilled tomato and large flat mushroom, all on freshly baked and toasted bread. TPG doesn't normally do tomatoes with breakfast, but was grovelling about how well these ones were done, and was utterly cooeing over his "fantastic" bacon and sausage. (He initially offered the sausage to me, but took back his words upon first bite.)

I feasted on 2 poached eggs on toast with black pudding (and a widespread sampling of TPG's plate). The dribbly bright orange yokes were perfect for toast dipping. Completely delicious. And the latte was good enough to warrant a second as we slowly worked our way through the Sunday papers.

From previous visits, I can also vouch for the amazing pancakes - with strawberries and maple syrup or blueberries and ice cream. Ice cream for breakfast is, of course, perfectly acceptable. [Postscript: I have since been back for the pancakes - you can read about it here.]

There was a man tickling the ivories yesterday on the baby grand piano which enhanced the festive mood.

Bistrotheque also offers a traditional roast lunch on Sundays for £15 (or 3 course prix fixe lunch for £21), and the super value prix fixe dinners, starting from 3 courses on Mondays - Thursdays for £17.50 or, on Fridays, 3 courses plus cabaret ticket (at their show downstairs) for £30. The bar downstairs is also worth a visit for a pre-dinner drink.

Love it, love it, love it.... In that lazy Sunday kind of way.

23-27 Wadeson Street, Bethnal Green, London E2 9DR
Bistrotheque on Urbanspoon

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