Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dinner At MoVida, Melbourne

Movida was at the top of my list of restaurants to dine at during my brief trip to Melbourne. There's something about the Spanish way of eating that I adore, and I must admit, I've often envisioned a siesta after a lazy lunch. How I'd love to be sitting in the middle of a terraza, feeling the worn cobblestones beneath my tired feet, the dappled sunlight warming my cheeks. The moment would be complete when a ruggedly handsome waiter appears with a platter of paper-thin slivers of pulpo á galega in one hand and a glass of Mahou con limon, dripping with cool beads of condensation, in the other. "Muchisimas gracias!" I'd say, rolling the long 'R' off my tongue and trying to imitate the soft lisp that only true Spaniards can make sound absolutely sexy.

It's my first time in Melbourne so we spend the afternoon exploring dark laneways, and taking photos of public artwork and commission pieces. Our map leads us down Hosier Lane where I spot the Spanish mecca. I peek through the window to get a glimpse of what wonders tonight may hold and I'm greeted by a dingy looking room with posters plastered to the walls and a vacant stare from the chef sitting inside. Umm.. Awkward..

We return at half past 8 after whetting our appetites at Der Raum in Richmond. Under the cover of night, Movida undergoes an immense transformation. Soft lighting and rich wood panelling set a moody scene. We're seated at a long booth that divides the dining room floor. A few large tables look like they're finishing up as we settle into our seats and the second sitting begins.

It's a full house tonight and our waiter is friendly enough if not a little rushed off his feet. He takes our order without pen and paper which of course ends up being completely botched. The wrong wine is poured, rabbit is mistakenly placed at our table and the Valencian salad never arrives.

Two types of bread come out first. They're served with a little side of olive oil that has a really pungent, peppery kick. I like it. Confit salt cod is next and quite frankly forgettable. It's dusted with a little paprika, alongside a smear of lemon "emulsion" with a single fried parsley leaf on top.

Tigre is another matter entirely. Spring Bay mussels are stuffed into croquettes and deep-fried. The subtle flavour of the sea combined with the velvet soft filling and crisp coating of fried breadcrumbs provide the perfect medium to match with a sharp tangy lemon aioli and the meaty flavours of dried chorizo.

The specials tonight include cured tuna with goat's curd and almonds. It sounds appealing but the tuna is overly salty and the dish lacks lustre. Thinly sliced, air-dried Wagyu follows. The waiter suggests we pierce the poached egg and combine it with the "truffle foam" that surrounds it before digging in. The foam is rich and creamy but instead of bathing in that familiar earthy musk, my olfactory sensors are overwhelmed by the distinctively pungent odour of artificial truffle oil, and again, the cured meat is way too salty.

Thanks to the truffle oil, my taste buds are now defunct and the pulpo with fried potatoes I'm chewing on seems fairly bland. A chef I'm dining with loves the bombas. They're seriously large croquetas filled with creamy potato and spicy chorizo sausage. The chilli and ground spices give the mojo quite a kick but I'm not a fan of the harsh acidity present.

Caballa ahumado is the dish I'm looking forward to the most. Transparent slices of smoked mackerel line the plate. A quenelle of gazpacho sorbet is perched in the middle amidst a drizzle of sauce, reduction and sprinkling of pine nuts. The plating has as much visual appeal as a 5-year-old's finger painting and unfortunately it doesn't taste much better. The fish has a deep and enticingly smoky flavour but yep you guessed it. It's too fucking salty. The reduction that is drizzled over the sorbet is too intense for enjoyment and when it comes to overall balance, the dish is left seriously wanting.

The special of roast partridge is cooked perfectly. If good food is like sex on a plate, then this is definitely it. The breast is sliced and fanned so that the delicate pink flesh sits exposed. Crushed hazelnuts trail down the side, paper-thin rings of raw eschallot are scattered about. A burst of sweetness, a mild tang, smooth, creamy, crunchy, mmm.

For the first time in my life dessert doesn't hold any interest for me. A companion orders flan con pestiños so I try a little. The flan is beautiful. It's just set, not too eggy, and doused in caramel. Someone needs a little more practice turning them out though, as one side looks a little sad. I'm nothing short of confused by the pestiños. Pestiños that I've eaten are light and flaky, flavoured with lemon peel and anise, cooked in the deep-fryer until just golden and dipped into hot, runny honey. Is this supposed to be a modern twist on the traditional? Are they supposed to be stale, over-fried, dense fingers dredged in a copious amount of cinnamon sugar?

Spanish cuisine holds a special place in my heart but despite the cool setting and theatrics, Movida fails to evoke gastronomic bliss. Dinner ends and I'm left with an unordered glass of wine on the bill and the unsavoury taste of bitter disappointment on my lips. If I were to return, it would be with trepidation, as the Spanish say "tantear el terreno".

MoVida - Bar De Tapa Y Vino

1 Hosier Lane
Melbourne 3000
+61 (03) 9663 3038

Monday, June 14, 2010

4 Days in Melbourne

Ahh, Melbourne! We haven't known one another for long, but there's something I must confess. You weren't quite what I expected when we first met but you drew me in with your rusticated charm and love for all things green. There's something about you, shrouded in mysterious romance, that causes me desire to explore every dark corner of your soul. Who would have thought that you would be the one to teach me something new; that you would lead me to experience the exquisite sensation of ice-cold glass pressed against my lips, white smoke and fiery caramel enveloping all of my senses.

Oh Melbourne, you may not be a rose by sight but your looks belie your scent by tenfold. Your passion for the arts is inspiring and your cooking has me weak at the knees. Despite your cold demeanour, I know that there is more to you than at first meets the eye. I want to spend more time with you if you'll allow me. There are so many things I'd love to discover with you.. 

Saturday, June 5, 2010

How To Take Better Food Photos: Basics

Do you ever wonder what you're doing with your life? I mean really? Do you ever wake up thinking 'Gosh I think I'd like to be a farmer so I can grow lots of blueberries and make goat's cheese'? I do all the time! Though funnily enough, photography was never one of those things.

My Dad gave me my first camera - an old Olympus OM10 when I was 16. You can find the camera body on eBay for under $100 now but just to give you a rough idea of just how old it was, he bought it before I was born. When I was 20, I took a course in black and white print processing at community college then ran away to Europe for 3 months and lugged the damned thing with me, all the way.

I never became interested in food photography until after I started my blog back in 2005 and for a very long time I satisfied myself by looking at other peoples' photographs. Eventually when I began blogging more seriously, I would revisit some of the incredibly inspiring blogs that I'd found and yearn to be able to take photos that did as much justice to my food as did theirs. My friends were probably sick of seeing my amateur happy snaps taken with a craptacular camera phone and encouraged me to get a DSLR which I finally did in 2009.

Spain - Olympus OM10

I bought a Canon EOS 450D and have since swapped the 18-55mm kit lens with a EF 50mm f1.2L which I use almost exclusively. It's a lens that I think works exceptionally well for portraiture and intimate food shots. It's outrageously fast which is handy for when I'm out and want to take action shots. When I open the aperture right up it gives beautiful bokeh too.

Not one to do things in halves, I signed up for a few photography classes at ACP in Paddington earlier in the year which have really helped me to become aware of the basics in digital photography that I've been trying to learn by myself all along. I've also learned that if you want to take good photos, it is imperative to know your camera and its functions. Also, it probably doesn't hurt if you're lucky enough to watch professional photographers shooting in a restaurant for a certain celebrity chef's new cookbook!

It's no fun learning if I can't share my knowledge so I've compiled a small list of things that I think are really important. If you're a beginner DSLR user you might find something useful to help you improve your photography too.

Aperture vs shutter speed:

Opening up the aperture (eg. changing from f22 to f1.8) lets more light into the camera, which means you can use a faster shutter speed and makes it possible to freeze movement. It also impacts the 'depth of field' or the area in focus. If you've ever wondered how to blur out the background and keep the front in focus, open up the aperture to the smallest number (with my lens it's f1.2) and shoot something really close-up. This is referred to as a shallow depth of field. The opposite applies so when you close down the aperture (eg. from f2.8 to f11) you're letting less light into the camera so the shutter speed needs to be longer to compensate. You'll be able to capture blurred motion and the depth of field or area in focus will be greater.

The relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO:

Say you have the correct exposure but you want to change the depth of field so there is more in focus. If you close the aperture down by one stop, you'll need to compensate by either lengthening the shutter speed by one stop or increasing the ISO by one stop to achieve the same exposure. 

Shoot at the lowest ISO:

Food is in most cases static, so if you have a tripod, set your ISO to 100 for the best picture quality and increase shutter speed to gain the correct exposure. If you set your ISO to 800 you will notice an increase in 'noise' which is like graininess in film, especially at night. Using a higher ISO such as 800 means that you can take 'faster' shots in low light conditions or freeze motion that may have come out blurry if you used a 'slower' ISO like 200 for example. Just like in film, a higher ISO makes the camera more sensitive to light, hence a faster image capture.

Shoot in RAW:

This lets you adjust the white balance on your computer later. It's important if you want true-to-life colours, or even if you want to distort colours. Shooting in JPEG is faster and convenient but often means that your photos will be stuck with a colour cast that is hard and sometimes impossible to fix later. If you edit your photos with a program such as Photoshop, it's best to save your file as an 8-bit TIF and then save it as a JPEG at the final stage. Saving a file repeatedly in JPEG will result in a massive loss of information and be detrimental to the quality of your final image.

Shoot in manual:

Your camera assumes that every picture you take is mid grey (ie. 50% white and 50% black). If you take a picture of a white cat on a white bedspread for example, you will have to expose by 1 or 2 stops above the recommended meter reading to reach the correct exposure. Bracket by taking a few shots at different exposures to make sure you end up with one that you like. If you shoot in automatic, the white cat and white bedspread will come out grey. Similarly, if you shoot a black dog on a black rug, you'll need to underexpose by 2 stops or the dog and rug will become grey. Unless you're Chinese like me, a dog will never make it into your food shots but it's important to keep this piece of information in mind when you're shooting with light or dark backgrounds.

Use natural light where possible:

I've never ever used my built-in camera flash. It's too harsh. Even if you set your camera to underexpose by a couple of stops, light from the front makes things look flat and you may as well be using a point a shoot. It's a good idea to avoid shooting in direct sunlight for the same reason as you'll end up with lots of bright spots, lots of deep shadow and not much detail. If you want to emphasise the texture of an object, adjust your setup so that the light comes from the side. The best light is ambient light or indirect window light.

If you don't get much ambient light in your kitchen you needn't worry. I often sit an old jamon box on the desk in my bedroom and shoot there as the afternoon light is much better. Remember, you're in control of the camera and it's ultimately your choice what is included or excluded from a picture.

I hope this has helped! :)

Cathy x.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

MasterChef Challenge: Peter Gilmore's Garlic Custard

Being on holidays this week while the restaurant is having the floor revamped, and after watching MasterChef masterclass on Friday with Peter Gilmore demonstrating how to make garlic custard, I thought I'd head back into the kitchen to give his recipe a whirl.

Peter Gilmore is an AMAZING chef (that's AMAZING in capitals!). He's my biggest industry idol and his incredible food is reflective of his unbounded depth of knowledge. 

Unfortunately I don't have squid growing in a tank out on the back porch and there's not much in the fridge aside from corn milk, a jar of my hot cucumber pickles, middle-rasher bacon and hokkien noodles. I have a little walk around the garden to see what I might be able to throw together and I decide to combine the bacon with a simple salad of red mustard leaves and pickled onion.

My mum owns a nifty machine that makes soy milk. It works basically the same way as a thermomix, ie. it cooks and blends at the same time. This morning she used it to blend up the corn milk that's sitting in the fridge which is actually quite tasty. Sweetcorn kernels, water and a little dehydrated milk powder goes into the machine and 15 minutes later.. Voila! Corn milk! It's surprisingly sweet and I can imagine this being the base for some kind of Mexican dessert though I might have to figure that one out later.

The first thing I do is turn the oven on to preheat at 160ºC. A sprinkle of salt goes into the corn milk to maximise flavour and enhance the natural sweetness. Garlic is sweated away in a knob of butter before joining the milk. The steamer goes onto the stove to boil while the milk is infusing. I temper the eggs with the milk, strain the mixture into 3 small serving bowls, cover and steam.

Meanwhile I lay out a sheet of baking paper onto a heavy steel baking tray and spread out a few thin slices of bacon. I lay another sheet of baking paper over the top and weigh it down with another tray. Into the oven it goes. Ten minutes later the top tray comes off and the slices of bacon are cooking without a kink to be seen. I leave the paper on top to stop the grease from splattering all over the inside of my oven and give it another 10 minutes. I pour away all the delicious fat that's rendered out of the bacon and keep it aside to make the dressing. The bacon's not quite done yet so I throw it back in for a few minutes more until it's 100% crispy.

The custards are done so they're sitting on a rack, cooling. The bacon is nice and crispy so it's out cooling also. I heat up the rendered bacon fat in a small pot and throw in a few small sprigs of thyme to infuse all of those lovely thyme-y essential oils. A quarter of a brown onion, brunoise, goes in next to sweat slowly with a tiny pinch of salt. A splash of white wine vinegar and a teaspoon of castor sugar join the mess and I let it simmer for just a few minutes. It comes off the heat and a few drops of olive oil completes this vinaigrette.

All I have to do now is spoon a little custard onto the plate, arrange a few bits of crispy bacon in an aesthetically pleasing manner, toss a few freshly picked baby red mustard leaves in the vinaigrette, spoon a little more around the plate and just to be fancy, I toss in a few chilli flowers as well.

And there you have it: Corn custard, garlic, mustard, bacon!

Has anyone else tried a recipe that they've seen on the show?
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