AN ODE TO RESTAURANTS PAST

I was excited by a recent article in the Sunday Age (14th October by Gemima Cody). Excited, because it highlighted two of my favourite Aussie restaurants of all time – Fanny’s and Two Faces. I realise that the purpose of the article was to publicise the newly released 2018 Good Food Guide, but it was heart warming to see kudos being given to a couple of the original 3-Hat establishments from the groundbreaking inaugural edition from 1980. (Two of four 3-Hat establishments in that edition – I presume one of the others was the wonderful Flower Drum, but what was the fourth?)

Actually, when I first came to Australia in the early 70’s, Fanny’s was one of the first restaurants I visited. Known in those days as Fanny’s by Gaslight, I had read about it in a local magazine and my notes tell me that I was highly impressed – not just by the food, but the ambience and the professional service as well. (Those were the days when my restaurant visits were infrequent enough for me to make notes). And, in latter years, Two Faces became a regular haunt, with Hermann Schneider commenting to me, many years later, that he thought I was in a dubious business of one sort or other, because I was obviously not his atypical client, yet always spent and tipped well. (I just spent a fair proportion of my earnings on restaurant visits – as any young chef should.)

To my mind, Gloria and Blyth Staley and Hermann and Fay Schneider were the forerunners of today’s inspiring restaurant scene. Sure, Ms Cody in her article was a touch disparaging about the classical ‘Frenchness’ of each establishment and, yes, cream and butter did play a significant role in their kitchens – particularly in those early days. But, I will always remember the tender, flavoursome Goose with Fresh Cherries at Two Faces and the Scallops Provencale at Fanny’s, which were opaque in the centre at a time when our wonderful local scallops were normally cooked within an inch of their life (and then for 10 minutes more).

Obviously, Vegemite Scrolls with Black Garlic and Miso and Camel Milk Sorbet using liquid nitrogen (Attica) didn’t rate a Guernsey. And neither did a menu like Dan Hunter’s at Brae, which centres around his inspiring gardens. (Although, Dan, a little credit to the original ‘gardener/chef George Byron wouldn’t go amiss.)

But the food at Fanny’s and Two Faces was inspiring nonetheless and this was a time when hospitality positions were rarely regarded as ‘real’ jobs and top quality produce was hard to find. (“Of course the fish is fresh Sir – it’s fresh frozen.”) Yet, even with such challenges, both establishments set what seemed at the time impossibly high standards and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for today’s vibrant restaurant scene. They inspired customers, restaurateurs and cooks alike (take a bow Luke Mangan, Andrew Blake, Teage Ezard, John Lepp, etc., etc.) and introduced us to the suave, urbane Claude Verysser, who ran Fanny’s dining room with such aplomb and the highly professional Anders Ousback, who oversaw Two Faces with flair and a delightful touch of dry humour. (Anders went on to run the room at Berowa Waters, where the food of Tony and Gaye Bilson was, to say the least, world beating – but that’s another story!)

I digress. I will always remember Mrs Staley sitting at the corner table, where she witnessed almost every dish as it exited the kitchen pass. And those kind, yet on the mark, words from Good Food Editor, Claude Forell when she passed:

“Gloria was an inspired impresario with a flair for design, a sense of style, an antenna for contemporary trends and an intuitive feeling for exquisite food.” How true!

Whilst a former apprentice from Two Faces, who preferred to remain anonymous, but is these days a very successful restaurateur in his own right, once told me:

“Chef not only had eyes in the back of his head, but could somehow tell – even if seated at the other end of the dining room – if you had the slightest f..k up in the kitchen. And, sure, you got a bollocking (only if deserved), but overall he was a generous and caring boss who, for our own good, installed in us a desire for perfection.”

So, were Fanny’s and Two Faces up there with the world’s best, like our current breed – maybe not? But did they serve bloody good food (which was innovative for its time) and look after us as if they really cared – sure did!

PS. And, just out of interest, it was not a trick question. My restaurant Fleurie was not the fourth 3-Hat restaurant mentioned from the 1980 Good Food Guide. I did receive 3 Hats, but not until later in the eighties, when I also had Hats at Champagne Charlie’s and The Last Aussie Fishcaf.

VALE VALERIO NUCCI

It was with great sadness that I read that Valerio Nucci had passed on. The founding chef of both Cafe di Stasio and Richmond’s Grand (where he was also an owner), I have been privileged to eat many a meal prepared by this master.

Because of his predilection for cooking good, fairly simple food that always used the very best ingredients and had tonnes of flavour, I always regarded Valerio as a chef after my own heart.

He had no truck with fancy pants rubbish and, in a day and age when Italian cooking in Melbourne was still dominated by the stodgy offerings of yesteryear, his light, fresh food was a revelation. I will always remember his light touch with pasta and protein alike and the fact that an accompaniment to a dish may have been as simple as a few slices of tomato, but always the perfect tomato (I often wondered where he found them) dressed with the best olive oil, a few drops of superior balsamic, a couple of perfect tiny basil leaves and a judicious amount of seasoning. Perfection on a plate! But, as any half decent chef will tell you, perfect simplicity is hard to achieve.

I often had a drink with Valerio after service at Donlvey’s George Hotel when I first set up Tolarno and I must admit we rarely spoke about culinary matters (except for my enquiries about those bloody tomatoes, to which I never received a satisfactory answer). The state of Fitzroy Street always interested him, as did what the rather diverse locals were up to. But, above all, he was just a good bloke to have a drink with.

When he moved to the Grand, I visited him fairly regularly over the years. And, whilst he was rarely in the kitchen in the latter years, his food philosophy remained.

I am told he then returned to Italy to run a family property and, if this was the case, I’m sure he would also have excited the Italians with his precise, flavoursome cooking.

Valerio, to my mind, was one of the forerunners of Melbourne’s food revolution and, as I mentioned before, I was lucky enough to enjoy his inspired cooking and have certainly missed both his company and his cooking alike in recent years.

 

note:  Valerio Nucci was a chef in Melbourne, Australia

Quick Bytes – DID YOU KNOW?

In 1946, amendments to the Liquor Licensing Act in NSW created their first licensed clubs and allowed restaurants to serve ‘light wine and malted liqueurs’ with meals until 8.30 pm.

But restaurants with seats in alcoves along the wall were excluded. The police presented evidence, in getting these banned, stating that the combination of cosy alcoves and liqueur would leave the door open for “a great increase in promiscuous sexual behaviour.”

THE ART OF DINING ALONE

As a man who produces a YouTube channel (Huey’s Fabulous Fast Food For One or Two) dedicated to producing recipes for one, it’s obvious that I would be interested in the increasing popularity of dining alone.

Actually, I have always been a supporter of such a practice and, in fact, at my restaurant Fleurie – which only had 44 seats and was always booked a month in advance (I wouldn’t take bookings any further out) – I always kept one table up my sleeve obstentially for mates, regulars and the like – a table that I also happily let for solo diners whether they were mates or not. But, I do remember the other hot restaurant of the moment Petit Choux not being quite so generous and turning away my Sous Chef because he wanted a table for one. I rang the owner who said: “Of course he can have a table and I’ll sit with him, otherwise people may get the idea that we let tables go for singles.” Well, John actually didn’t want to dine with him – not just because he was a bore, but because he actually wanted to dine along, was quite happy doing so and didn’t expect any special treatment because of same.

I was reminded of this by a recent article in The Age that spoke of a restaurant which proudly told of putting a goldfish in a bowl (named Embla) on a lone diner’s table for company. For some reason, Sydney’s Firedoor was quite proud of this, supposedly, thoughtful effort. And, other restaurants, whilst not repeating the fish dining companion experience, spoke of involving the guest in everything from video games and WiFi to specially created menus to detailed descriptions of a dish’s component to, worst of all, tours of the kitchen.

In fairness, I am sure there is the odd customer who enjoys such efforts. But, as a person who has always enjoyed the peace and quiet of dining alone, one can only hope that most staff understand that many such clients just want to be left to their own devices. And one can only hope that all staff are instructed how to read the signs, because we have all experienced those well-intentional waitpersons whose involvement in your dining experience goes something along these lines: “Hi, I’m Bruce your waitperson for tonight and I’m going to enquire every time you take a bite whether you’re enjoying your meal, and the rest of the time I’m going to stand at the end of the table and bore the shit out of you.”

But, jokes aside, there are good things coming out of restaurants realising that there is a demand for sole dining and not just at that table stuck next to the kitchen or toilet door. (L’Archestrate in Paris where, at regular intervals, Chef Alain Senderins would burst out of the kitchen to glare at the staff – banging my table as he did so.) No, what I’m talking about is seating arranged around the kitchen bar or on a communal table, which is now common practice in restaurant design. As is the offer, in many of our leading restaurants of half serves where applicable and a good selection of quality wines by the glass – all of which certainly makes the solo dining experience more enjoyable.

And the number of persons dining along is definitely increasing. According to booking service Dimmi, solo reservations have risen by 27% in the past year and according to hospitality professionals “there is no longer a typical demographic for solo diners. They range from young cooks wanting to experience other establishments to travellers and business people to my dear mate Siggy, who has been a happy solo diner for the 30 years I have known him and does it because he not only enjoys food, but his own company as well.

As Lennox Hastie of Firedoor states: “It’s actually a huge compliment for me as a chef and restaurant owner when someone comes in and eats alone, because they are purposely coming to your venue for your food – not because friends have dragged them there.” Very similar to my feelings all those years ago at Fleurie and, although I do appreciate his sentiments, when I visit Firedoor (which is certainly on my list) if he plops a fish in a bowl on my table, I will not be responsible for my actions – SASHIMI ANYONE?

 

COQ AU VIN REVISITED   (for 1)

Put 1 chicken breast, skin on, in a bowl and pour over 1 cup decent red wine. Marinate in the fridge overnight, turning once or twice.

When ready, heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and seal the drained breast all over (retaining the liquid). Remove.

Add 4-6 whole small button mushrooms to the pan with 4-6 peeled baby onions and 1 sliced small bacon rasher. Cook until coloured. Then add 1 heaped tbsp plain flour, mix very well and cook for 1-2 mins, before adding 1 cup beef stock, the marinating wine, 1 crushed plump garlic clove, 1 bay leaf, 1/3rd can diced tomatoes, seasonings and 2 thyme sprigs. Cook gently and, when starting to thicken, return the chicken and add a good slurp of fresh wine. When the chicken is ready, remove and if necessary cook down the sauce until thick and fragrant.

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BEEF WELLINGTON AND CREPES SUZETTE?

I know we are supposedly eating out more than ever. (Although our eating habits seem to be changing in recent times with home delivery sites, such as Uber and Deliveroo  jumping on the bandwagon.)

But, as far as restaurant dining goes, we have certainly got more choice than ever. Still, or as a man who appreciates simplicity (great ingredients presented in a manner that enhances rather than obscures the prime ingredient), I am having a problem with the current obsession with extra long-winded degustation or multi-course menus. I noticed just the other day one particular establishment whose only offer is 16 courses and – get this – other courses can be added on at an extra cost, of course. Apart from being terribly sympathetic to the dish pig who has to wash all those dishes, this so-called ‘feast’ that involves 4 or 5 hours at the table, sounds to me like culinary torture. I’m sure the food is absolutely wonderful, but do I want to sit at the table for that long? I suppose, by the time I’ve taken a photo of every dish with my phone and posted on social media about where I am and how special I must be because I’ve scored a table, I’ve completely forgotten the main reason for being there – to have something to eat. It smacks of Emperor’s Clothes, doesn’t it? We’re too frightened to stand up and say: “I’ve just had the most boring night of my life, when all I basically wanted was a bloody good piece of beef or poultry or seafood, etc.”

Actually, while I’m bitching about restaurant choices, I’m also getting very tired of share menus. As a friend recently said: “If you want to taste this dish, order your own.” Quite right! I must admit though, I refused to give him a taste of my dessert. But, jokes aside – the share concept is becoming a bit much, because not all dishes are suitable for sharing and, anyway, I do like the idea of a main course of some sort or other. That said, I would happily share dishes such as a Chateaubriand (roasted centre cut of eye fillet, oven roasted and normally sliced at the table) or even that old fashioned favourite the Beef Wellington, as long as they are correctly garnished and are perfectly cooked.

And, while I’m obviously a little excited by such classics, I notice that Merivale’s new Sydney restaurant Bert’s has brought back the habit of carving and slicing at the table and a whole perfectly cooked large John Dory is filleted right there in front of you and is the star of the show. I can’t wait to visit and maybe we can persuade them to do the odd flambé or two. Actually, Bert’s appears to be a restaurant in the style of famous American establishments such as The Brown Derby, Delmonico’s and The Four Seasons, which were just as much about being pampered as they were about the food. And, I suppose, if we were looking for Aussie equivalents – in days gone by, Beppi’s in Sydney and Florentino, The Latin and Maxims in Melbourne would also have most probably fitted the bill. All of which put the customers on a pedestal, although I always felt that Vincent, the Maitre d’ at Maxims, let the side down with the ever-present lit cigarette in his hand. But, he did make up for that by whipping up a wonderful Crepes Suzette, which was almost as good as their famous Chocolate Souffle.

And, there’s more … for plenty of new recipes, log onto my YouTube channel – Huey’s Fabulous Fast Food For One (or Two) – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmvDLNrITNG0Gyhpz6350FA

image: Taste

 

Quick Bites – HAVE YOU EVER WONDERED WHERE THE HABIT OF TIPPING BEGAN?

In the Tea Gardens of London in the 1800’s, locked boxes with a slot on the top were left on the tables inscribed with the letters T.I.P.S.

If customers were in a hurry for their refreshment, they dropped a coin or two in the slot

TO INSURE PROMPT SERVICE

Obviously the originator didn’t have a great command of the English language – “insure” rather than “ensure” – or maybe this was just the old English spelling?

No matter, because the habit certainly took on and to this day it’s tips rather than teps and, in the States in particular, a lack of some will result in little or no service. And, in other parts of the world, a reputation as a ‘bad tipper’ will at the very least get you that dreaded table next to the kitchen or toilet door.
“I gave the waiter a tip – I told him not to step off a moving bus.” – Groucho Marx

Quick Bytes – NOT HAPPY MR LETHLEAN

John Lethlean, restaurant reviewer and culinary commentator from The Australian newspaper, is one of Australia’s few journalists who is qualified to hold such a position. (Terry Durack, you can also take a bow.)

But, reviews of Merivale restaurants in Sydney in successive weeks, Mr Lethlean! Really? Now, I have certainly nothing against the Hemmes family or their amazing ability to keep coming up with the most stunning hospitality operations, but surely John you could have put a few reviews between Bert’s and Hotel Centennial just so it seems, dare I say it, ‘fair’, even if it is hard to ignore anything new from this stunning duo – especially if the hugely talented Danielle Alvarez is also anywhere near the stores.

AWFUL OFFAL RIDES AGAIN (vegetarians & vegans keep clear)

For a very brief period in the early 70’s, I worked at Lacy’s – a very fashionable restaurant in London. Owned by highly regarded Chef Bill Lacy and his wife Margaret Costa, the Sunday Times Food & Wine Editor, it  championed offal. And, in her wonderful “Four Seasons Cookery Book”, Margaret christened the offal chapter ‘Awful Offal’, lamenting the fact that all these delicious bits and pieces, so full of nutritional value, ended up with such an awful nano – even refusing to quote the Oxford Dictionary (parts fallen or cut off”), as it may “put you off these good and nourishing foods forever”.

These days, Fergus Henderson of St John’s Restaurant in London fame is regarded as the champion of ‘awful offal’, but isn’t it time that us Aussies in, a day and age when we continually talk of no waste, jumped on the bandwagon of offal to a greater extent? In fact, how dare we even consider slaughtering a beast, any beast, and not using up every skerrick of same. Instead, we need to follow the lead of our parents and grandparents and embrace delicacies such as kidneys, liver, tongue, brains, sweetbreads and the like. Although, I must admit, my mother and grandmother almost put me off tripe for life when they smothered it in the world’s worst white sauce (cornflour thickened milk with tonnes of parsley). It was only when I discovered the joys of the French version (Tripes a la Mode de Caen), where the Bechamel was not only made correctly, but it was heavily flavoured with the world’s best apple brandy – Calvados. But, I do remember my father happily eating my mother’s version. Then again, he also loved haggis (he was a Scot). I do wonder whether it was the generous tot of single malt alongside that swayed him. Me? Haggis didn’t ever do it for me and I am, to this day, reminded of Greenkeeper Willie from The Simpsons, who described it as “the awful bits and pieces from the animal stuffed into a wee lamb’s stomach” or words to that effect.

Anyway, I digress, my Salade Nouvelle of pan seared duck livers with baby spinach, bacon, lardons and a tangy mustard dressing was always popular on my restaurant menus. As was Twice-Cooked Ox Tongue with beetroot relish and/or celeriac remoulade and a Chicken, Brain & Spinach Pate en Croute was an absolute hit.

Also, as a kid, I was pretty keen on Crumbed Brains & Bacon and Devilled Kidneys, and Lamb’s Fry went down a treat as part of our breakfast feasts, particularly if there was fried bread alongside. I will always remember Ann Taylor’s stunning Calf’s Liver with onions from her Sydney restaurant, the highly moreish salad at Leon de Lyon in (where else) Lyon, which was packed with goodies – many of which I was loath to enquire as to their origins (it was so tasty, I ordered seconds!), and then there was Jimmy Shu’s bloody wonderful crispy tripe, which I hope still features on at least one of his many Northern Territory establishments.

And, I mustn’t forget the Sweetbreads Grenoblaise from Melbourne’s Fanny’s – one of my favourite restaurants of all time, which were drenched in a foaming mix of brown butter, capers and tiny wedges of lemon – delish!

All in all, enough to encourage each and every one of you to immediately rush to the butcher’s shop and grab some offal, any offal. But do keep in mind that this is not supermarket fodder and you may have to visit a ‘real’ butcher and maybe even pre-order some of these delicious goodies.

 

PS.

For all you tripe haters, here is a recipe that will appeal. Keeping in mind how much Aussies love anything crumbed, just parmesan crumb fine slices of par-cooked tripe, deep fry and serve with a Sauce Bearnaise laden with lots of fresh tarragon.

A friend of mine served such a dish to his kids without appraising them of the fact that it wasn’t chicken or fish. It’s alright, I’m not advocating such behaviour, but they scoffed the lot.

 

PPS.

Another of my father’s favourites – the unfortunately named faggot. Originally a Cockney working class creation, the faggot is a simple sausage of ground bits and pieces wrapped in caul fat (lining of a pig’s stomach) and baked until golden brown. Absolutely delicious, it’s other claim to fame is that a tray in a faggot shop in London’s Pudding Lane, which caught fire in 1666, started the Great Fire of London. The moral of the story – don’t flame the blessed things.

 

And, there’s more … for plenty of new recipes, log onto my YouTube channel – Huey’s Fabulous Fast Food For One (or Two) – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmvDLNrITNG0Gyhpz6350FA