Friday, February 24, 2012

Wok+Wine Sydney

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the global underground dining event that is Wok+Wine. They describe themselves as the 'world's most delicious social network' and base their concept in simplicity - 40 people, 40 pounds of jumbo prawns and 40 bottles of wine. No chairs, no cutlery, and a secret location that is only revealed 24 hours before the event. This is not strictly a food event, not a networking event, but an opportunity to engage interesting and diverse people in a night of conversation fuelled by great food and wine. Locations change with every set-up and this time the venue was the board 'Excited' room, lent by Naked Communications in Surry Hills. Decked out with chandeliers, tapestry print wallpaper and a hidden bookshelf entrance, the space was small and when filled with people, seemed to overflow with chatter.

The 'Excited Room', Naked Communications

When co-founder Peter Mandeno entered the room with the giant wok of steaming prawns, all talk subsided to a murmer as we watched him spread the first batch onto the palm leaves lining the table. The aroma was intoxicating, and we could only wait in twitchy anticipation for them to cool down enough to eat. Peter took this time to talk about Wok+Wine and its concept before proceeding onto briefing us on the ideal prawn eating technique. He explains that although the most commonly consumed part of the prawn is the body, most of the juices and flavour conjugate in the head, which is too frequently discarded.

Round one

The technique he demonstrated followed four simple steps, also displayed on posters on the walls of the room - rip, lick, bite, suck. When the head is removed, you rip off the outer shell, lick it, then bite down on the soft part of the head and suck out the flavour. Rather gruesome sounding, but delicious tasting. You then move onto the body, peeling outwards from the bottom, after which you take a chunk of the fresh bread and dip into the sauces. Finish with a sip of wine.

Cake Wines

On wine, the social lubricant of choice that night was a Cabernet Merlot by Cake Wines, a local label based in Surry Hills from which 25c from each bottle sold is donated to FBi radio (94.5FM). Still barely above the legal drinking age, I can't claim to be a wine aficionado of any sort nor give any proper descriptions but I can say I did enjoy the drop very much.

Digging in

Fresh jumbo prawns

The jumbo prawns were these beautiful big suckers with sweet juicy flesh, I generally never eat shellfish but these were amazing. The flavour of the sauce was incredible, rich, garlicky with a little chilli; the entire process of peeling was entrancing and the taste so addictive, I just kept eating until there was a shamefully big pile of empty shells sitting in front of me. The best part for me though, was the bread - fresh crusty loaves which were soft and dense on the inside, perfect for mopping up that ridiculously good sauce.

The process of getting hands on with the prawns made for a fun and messy atmosphere and is probably the best way to enjoy food and company. There was a lot of laughter, finger licking and involuntary foodgasm moaning.

Getting your hands dirty

How to effectively use the bread

When bellies became full with prawns, attentions returned to the wine and conversation. Most people came as group or with a buddy but I went in solo - being thrown into a room full of strangers was daunting at first but the aspect of communal eating easily broke the ice and I wound up meeting so many lovely and interesting new people.

Empty bottles and empty shells

Full glasses and lively conversation

Fresh pineapple for dessert

Later in the night, Wok+Wine co-founder Lizzie Shupak came around with 'dessert', a big bowl of refreshing pieces of sliced pineapple, the sweet tartness of which was a brilliant way to cleanse the palate. If you'd fancied something a little stronger, there was also ice-cold Lemon Z limoncello shots on offer.

Limoncello shots

Thank you to all involved for an unusual and mesmerising night - Peter and Lizzie for creating such an amazing concept and organising each event, Cake and Lemon Z for the tasty drinks and Naked Communications for your mind-blowing spaces (think Alice in Wonderland). Most of all, thank you to all the lovely people I met, for the fantastic conversations and the countless laughs. I will be back next time!

Naked Communications

Sunday, February 12, 2012

El Loco, Surry Hills

Late again on the bandwagon I am, but punctuality was never my strong point. Mexican, it is this time and you may have noticed that in the past year and a bit Sydney has been experiencing a definitive mejicano trend. El Loco set up camp at the back of the Excelsior Hotel mid-2011 and the cantina y barra has since buzzing strong, dishing out street-style Mexican food served in takeaway containers. With its kitsch decor of gaudy tabletops, bright walls and multicoloured stools, the cantina was packed out when we first visited last week at around 7PM on a Tuesday and we gleefully nabbed the last available spot.

Corn Chips, El Loco
Corn Chips with Guacamole and Salsa $5

We ordered at the bar and received a table number stand in the form of a ludicrous giant wooden cactus; food arrived swiftly and we share a box of the corn chips with guacamole and salsa - fat, crunchy chips perfect for dipping into the luscious guacamole and a mild tomato salsa packed with herbs. So moreish and I just couldn't get enough of the guacamole.

Quesadillas, El Loco
Chorizo and Jalapeño Quesadillas $5

On the specials board was the chorizo and jalapeño quesadillas, thick slices of chorizo, pickled jalapeños and oozy melted cheese sandwiched between two toasted mini tortillas with some dippy chipotle sauce on the side. Deliciously fiery.

Pork Sandwich, El Loco
“Al Pastor” Pork “Torta” Sandwich $10

I realise that this is an incredibly subpar photo of the “al pastor” pork “torta” sandwich but I was too distracted by my quesadilla at this time to have taken it properly. It's marinated pork chunks from the spit grill with pico de gallo salsa blanketed by cabbage, coriander, spring onion and mayonnaise, tucked inside a sesame hamburger bun. Vern gave the thumbs up.

Tacos, El Loco
Al Pastor, Pollo, Carne Asada Tacos $5 each

Pork, chicken and beef (clockwise from the top), Sharon has her bases covered. The al pastor taco is spit roast pork and pineapple salsa, the pollo taco is chicken and sweet corn salsa, and the carne asada taco is lemongrass beef with salsa verde; all include cabbage, spring onions and coriander. We watched Sharon spill taco innards all through dinner, but she enjoyed it despite making a mess of herself and the table.

Tacos, El Loco
Camaron, Secret Taco $5 each

My choices were the camaron taco containing prawn, salsa verde and pico de gallo and the secret taco, a daily special with surprise ingredients notorious for its fondness for offal (previous fillings include  intestine, chicken hearts, pig uterus, lamb tongue and brains). The prawns were plump, the coriander and cabbage refreshing and a far cry from the cliched Tex-Mex flavours we've become accustomed to. I think the secret taco that night might've been some sort of battered fish, I had no clue and forgot to ask but it was delicious, topped with sweet corn, tangy dressing (chipotle, I think) and two pieces of chilli.

Classic Margarita, El Loco
Classic Margarita $13.50

It ain't Mexican without margaritas, I opt for the classic but there's a small but varied selection here (jalapeño, celery and avocado, beetroot). It's Herradura Blanco Tequila and Cointreau shaken with lime juice and sugar and served into a plastic cup with a salted rim; there's just something special about a lime+tequila+salt combination that tastes like love.

Hot Dog, El Loco
Excelsior Hot Dog $9

I went back within the same week. This time at a much quieter hour for a late lunch, my choice is the Excelsior hot hog. Finely shredded queso fresco cheese smother a grilled pork Frankfurt, held in place by a generous squiggles of mayonnaise and mustard, inside the soft bun you will find pickled jalapeños and pico de gallo lining the bottom. This dawg is a creamy, tangy, delicious mess.

Salad, El Loco
El Loco Salad $12

Another victim of the "watching what I eat" logic, Joseph orders the El Loco salad and I smugly note the deep-fried slivered tortilla chips and blizzard of grated cheese adorning his otherwise healthy veggie pile. The salad is rather unusual with Asian influences, compromised of chilli spiced tofu, avocado, shredded cabbage, shaved fennel and radish, coriander, spring onions and a dressing that reminded me of Chinese sweet sauce. Strangely addictive.

El Loco
64 Foveaux St, Surry Hills 2010
Telephone: (02) 9211 4945

El Loco on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 3, 2012

KuraKura Japanese Casual Dining, Chinatown

On one of the busiest street corners in Chinatown you will find a microscopic Japanese eatery. This is Kura, and though only seating about a dozen people at a time, has been a long-time favourite for us hungry uni-students to take a quick food break from procrastinating in the UTS library across the road. Late last year, we noticed something new was happening with the upstairs space and soon after, KuraKura Japanese Casual Dining off-sprang from the original joint in a mitosis-esque manner. The new adjoining diner is freshly done up and much more spacious, featuring the original menu and then some. While the tiny yet busy space downstairs incites a more dine-and-dash atmosphere, the extra room here invites a more leisurely lunch, featuring long windows facing a bustling Chinatown intersection, perfect for people-watching.

Okonomiyaki, KuraKura
Okonomiyaki $6.50

We start with a classic okonomiyaki, a thick Japanese-style savoury pancake swathed in otafuku sauce and liberally drizzled with mayo, topped with spring onion, dancing bonito flakes and a cheerful pile of pickled ginger. It's served in its pan, the fried exterior hot and crisp, the insides soft and filled with shredded cabbage.

Tempura Gyoza, KuraKura
Tempura Gyoza $5

Also recommended here is the tempura gyoza, which trust me when I say if you, like me, don't care about clogging your arteries, it is the most incredible thing.

Hoddaiko Udon, KuraKura
Hokkaido Udon $9.50

A rather unusual dish, the Hokkaido Udon is made with a 'special cream sauce', topped with thin slices of pork sukiyaki, parmesan cheese and an onsen tamago (half-boiled egg). Served on a large wide plate on a bed of baby spinach, it resembled an Italian pasta dish more than any type of Japanese udon I've ever encountered. The perfect googie egg sitting in the middle was pierced, allowing the thick orange yolk to ooze out before being mixed in. The fresh wriggly noodles were toothsome and coated in the creamy, silky sauce with the egg yolk adding another layer of richness. The tender strips of pork lent saltiness, working perfectly with the parmesan and freshly cracked pepper. For lack of better words, I'd say the combination was heavenly. Indeed the dish was similar to carbonara, but the udon was texturally different to pasta in a way which I actually found preferable; while the pork sukiyaki definitely gives any bacon a run for its money. Divine, really.

Gyoza Udon, KuraKura
Gyoza Udon $9.90

My dining campion Tim went for the gyoza udon, a big bowl of steaming udon topped with goyza, bean sprouts, seaweed, spring onions and there's a fried egg hiding in there too. I had a taste of the broth and it was strong and flavoursome, and although he had gone for the spicy version (I can't hold my chilli), I found it incredibly addictive despite the (probably mild) burn. The gyozas were fat and plentiful, I also stole one and it was one of the best ones I've had (listen to me wax lyrical, seriously), the pork and cabbage filling was so soft and tender and delicious everywhere everything gosh darnit

Umeshu Jelly, KuraKura
Umeshu Jelly $4.50

Leisurely lunch indeed it was and we punched on for dessert, I went for the umeshu jelly which was crushed up and served with a pickled ume (I assume) and a sprig of mint. Umeshu is a Japanese liquer made with the ume fruit, commonly known as Japanese apricot or Chinese plum (thanks, Wikipedia!). The jelly was light and refreshing, slightly sweet with a mild alcoholic taste and sour where it was stained by the pickled fruit.

Green Tea Iced Latte, KuraKura Green Tea Ice-cream, KuraKura
Green Tea Iced Latte and Green Tea Ice-cream 

I wanted Tim to get the green tea ice-cream with red bean spring rolls, but he said he was trying "watch his weight" so he passed on the spring rolls (pffft). Regardless, you can't go wrong with plain and simple green tea dairy and I am completely obsessed with that stuff so all's well ends well.

KuraKura Japanese Casual Dining
Shop 2, 76 Ultimo Rd, Haymarket 2000
Telephone: (02) 9212 5661

Kura 1 on Urbanspoon