Sunday, July 26, 2009

Taste Prevails

Peri Peri
Monash University, Clayton, Vic

There is a great deal of guff in the culinary arts and letters – not to mention from the tongue of those pesky postcolonial academics – that contends a dish should not just taste wonderful but also 'tell a story', be it about its origins, cooking method or some such other nonsense. To wit, if I wanted my food to tell me a story I would deposit some Faulkner and Proust into a blender and consume the result. Such trifle! I demand only one thing from my meal: exquisite flavour.

Indeed, one often finds that a hint of mystery is the more suitable accompaniment to a dish, especially if its origins are perhaps better left unspoken, as is the case with much common cuisine. Enigma enlivens the dining experience and focuses one's attention upon nothing other than the dish at hand, not the plight of the third world farmer that was paid pittance for its ingredients, or the homeland vanities of the chef that cooked it.

What a godsend, then, to discover, strapped to the corridor of the Monash University agora (or, in plebeian vernacular, ‘Campus Centre’), the humbly named Peri Peri. Indeed, I doubt its uniformly oriental staff even know or care of the purportedly African origins of its namesake, the birdseye cultivar. Similarly, the store's decor (crude poultry caricatures) and dish names (‘Combo 1’, ‘Combo 2’, ‘Spicy Chicken Burger’) make no such pretensions to national affiliation - unlike a certain 'Portugese' restaurant - and speak no desire to tell tall tales.

Instead, it is a strangely universal meal I am served: chauffé chicken roll, potatoes julienne and a cola tonic (again, for the plebs: warm chicken roll, chips and coke). The latter – that darkest of fizzling drinks – needs no mention, for it is liquid perfection incarnate. Let us instead consider the main course.

The roll is served in a plain, foiled paper bag, with ‘Chicken Roll :)’ scrawled across the top – the charming facial expression a disarming touch, as if to distract one from the horrors inside. The bread itself is mushy, chewy, almost approaching gum; one must clamp down and stretch one’s neck rearward to render an edible chunk. The chicken filling is stringy and lacquered, alarmingly multi-textured. The sauce, haphazardly applied, if at all.

And yet, it is beautiful. This dish is a culinary miracle: despite its otherwise abysmal ingredients, execution, texture, appearance and presentation, that utmost criterion, taste, transcends all error. It is indescribable – the sugared overtones of the bread melt together with the richness of the sliced, oven-roasted chicken, which is more mouth watering than the finest filet mignon. Indeed, I must mop up my keyboard as I write, so salivating is it to recall this dish. I must refrain from elaborating its delights any further!

Suffice to say, this meal mutters no guff, tells no tale, harks to no homeland, speaks no shit. It is tranquil, harmoniously quiet as it achieves oneness with the culinary universe. If it utters anything, it is but a single word: delicious.

3.5 gulls

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Crossed with Croissant

Bakers Delight Chocolate Croissant

Ah, the revered pâtissier, perhaps the most feared and respected in the whole brigade de cuisine, these are chefs who have devoted a lifetime to the refinement of but one food, the pastry. The entremetier, rôtisseur, even chef de cuisine, all kowtow and tremble at the feet of this most accomplished of culinary artists, for stationed against him or her they are mere plongeur. And whilst the layperson has been miseducated by a certain programme into regarding croquembouche or soufflé as the most difficult dishes in the pâtissier’s repertoire, refined gourmets know that it is truly the croissant, that leavened crescent of buttery delight, that is the true test of a great pastry chef.

After sampling this particular pain au chocolat à la Boulangerie Plaisir I am left with the distinct feeling that this otherwise trusty establishment does not even employ a pastry chef, or if they do that the chap should be presently shot. For one, upon entering the store and asking the attending serviteur to "fetch me a sho-co-laht cwah-son quick smart", she replied with nothing but the listless blank stare of ignorant youth. "Sorry wot?" she drawled in that crude, vexing accent of the Australian species. "A cwah-son you ingrate!" I fumed. "Oh, you mean a chock-lat crass-ont? Yeah, no worries," was her incivil reply. 'Showing such irreverence for the elocution of the finest of culinary grammars, Français, in that typically Antipodean manner, refusing to enunciate words in anything but her own vulgar vernacular,' I thought to myself, 'It simply isn’t possible that a pâtissier resides here!'

My fears were confirmed when, upon my arrival home, I unwrapped the pastry to find a veritable deluge of sucre glace covering the dessert. The pastry itself was barely apprehensible beneath this Antarctic blizzard of white powder, both in appearance and taste. Icing sugar should be that ever-so-brief sweet hint that prepares one for more complex tastes to come, not rudely overtake all others as the principle flavour. Not to mention that this excess of powder continually slid off the pastry and onto my cravat, which was particularly distressing as it was an otherwise fetching black number I was sporting at the time. Any pâtissier worth their salt would cringe in shame at such a clumsily executed garnishing.

Bakers Delight's fanciful idealThe sad reality

Unfortunately, the rest of the dish did little to redeem itself, despite the generosity of its serving (one could feed a family with a single pastry from Bakers Delight). Whilst appearing nice and fluffy, it was a little on the doughy side and lacking in crispness to call itself a true croissant. Couple this with the unevenness of the baking – cindered and blackened on the underside, undercooked above – and the execution was decidedly haphazard. Much the same with the chocolat filling. An otherwise satisfying texture as it sluiced gently between the palate and tongue, and welcome billet-doux to balance the heaviness of the pastry, it was nevertheless unevenly distributed throughout, tainting all suggestions of harmony.

Such baking faux pas are to be expected from a franchise outlet that produces baked goods en masse using little more than a formulaic recipe, an industrial oven and the labour of oafish amateurs. What an injustice to that most respected of French sweets! For whence I journeyed throughout the villas and provinces of that land of liberté, égalité et pastry, I happened upon pâtissiers that would toil hours on a single croissant, leavening the dough, tempering the chocolat, meticulously forming crescents. They would keep their eyes trained on the oven for every second of the time it took, so the pastry would emerge perfectly baked. These French pain au chocolats were of such sweet delight that I felt much like I believe Adam did upon his first taste of the Apple. And whilst I know he did wrong, so too did I in the great quantity I consumed, for such sweet sin was this.

The croissant I eat today, however, fulfils no such desire except to return to the homeland of this otherwise delectable delight. For Australia, and Bakers Delight in particular, is where pastry comes to die, murdered in as crude and obscene a fashion as its inhabitants do the French tongue.

1 gull

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"I Just Want Milk That Tastes Like Real Milk"

Farm House
1 Litre Milk, approx $2.14

Ah, milk: that glorious product of the eternal toil of legions of listless bovines, loved by all men, that nurturer of marrow and smoother of java, liquid among liquids.

And yet, I am confounded whenever I enter my local grocery larder by the knavery on display in the milk refrigerator – ‘low fat’ this and ‘skinny’ that, not to mention the scores of home brand offerings of such dubious provenance. It is an offense to one’s tastebuds, one should lap up this heavenly libation and it taste as if suckled from the teat of the great animal itself: rich, full and creamy. Such watery, translucent aberrations as Physical, Skinny Milk, Rev and all such other fitness alluding products are insults to Aditi. Give me full cream or give me death!

Indeed, if it is full cream you crave, then the holiest cow is indeed Farm House. Like gold unto a bronze world, this milk is the crème de la crème, quite literally! Take it in, you can nigh feel the butterfat layer rising to the top and becoming cream in your mouth, so thick and luscious is this milk. Indeed, the purveyors had such compassion as to only produce single litre pails, knowing that any more might lead to a euphoric emesis. Every gulp bursts with that full creamy dollop, with sweet vanilla top notes balanced harmoniously by a ever so faint salt and sourness at the edge of the palate. Feel it coat your mouth in a glistening, sticky aftertaste, allowing you to savour such rare experience.

For rare it is, indeed – not all supermarkets stock such fine produce, and if they do, it’s often relegated to the upper recesses of the refrigerator. Do not dismay, however, and lift your skinny fists like antennas to the dairy heavens! Reach, I tell you! Bring down this hallowed liquid, bathed in a golden halo, and sup from its teat – or carton. For then you will have tasted nirvana.

4.5 gulls

Devil's Associates

Subway Sandwich Bar
Leeds St, Footscray, Victoria

Inessential, impossible in fact
Seating Up to two per table
Toilets Nil
Price Around $7 per head (more for footlong)
Features Delightful pour-your-own post-mix machine

(Jake Longstreth)

I despise fast food that postures as healthy, balk at strangely tasteless bread and consider Jared my epicurean nemesis, so what the devil am I doing sitting in Subway? Convenience. It is the scourge of modern eating, yet alas, we’re all guilty of it at one point or another. I’m all too happy to disclose that I don’t mind slumming it with the great unwashed at Hungry Jacks when the desire strikes, but Subway has always struck me as floundering in the shallow end of that great takeaway food pool.

Apparently the staff at this particular franchise, flanking the Footscray railway station, couldn’t agree more, such is their desire to impress upon me their singular lack of dedication to and conviction in their place of employment. The gentleman I find opposite me as a stride up to school canteen-style serving area is at pains to make sure my brief interaction with him is as bland, hasty and sloppy as the food he prepares me.

This impatient ‘sandwich expert’ – or whatever it was Doctor’s Associates, in a recent propaganda drive, called their army of underpaid student and immigrant labourers – moves so fast from one sandwich element to the next that I find myself making foolish snap decisions. Did I actually desire red onion and mayonnaise on my meatball sub? And did I really want two cookies?

No time for reflection, and before I know it I’m unwrapping the sad approximation of a sandwich that was prepared for me only seconds before. ‘Prepared’ is, perhaps, a little generous – slapped together is more accurate: meatballs crushed to one side of the unevenly cut bread, salads and that cursed mayonnaise falling out the other. The wrapping is an afterthought, as if done by the hands of a kindergartener.

Though I’ve chosen it (choice, of course, being the inalienable right of fast food consumers), the combination of textures is woeful – the rubbery meatballs, their excessively rich sauce clashing with the bland, sloppy mayonnaise, those chunks of tomato that posses an alarming crunchiness, those despicable stringy slices of red onion.

The play of flavours, meanwhile, is imperceptible. Indeed, it is the defining characteristic of all Subway dishes that everything tastes the same, within and between sandwiches. 'Why so', you ask? Be it the claustrophobic space in which all the ingredients are prepared? Or, perhaps, Doctor’s Associates devised some form of primeval soup of foodstuffs in their Mephistophelian laboratory, so that with the tweak of a few settings the appearance of meatball, olives, bread, cheddar, ham, crab, and so forth issues from the same strange grey goop.

Whatever sandwich you do choose, that is, you are guaranteed but one flavour: regret. And this taste haunts you in those demonic little burps, yeasty and saucy, that uncontrollably manifest from deep within your gut, as if your body had a mind of its own and was toiling desperately to exorcise the foul substance you have just ingested.

In all, possibly the finest aspect of dining at Subway is this revelation, once again, of how truly disgusting it is, ensuring that you will think twice again before going there for a good year or so. If you do, however, heed this: if fast food is plastic, Subway is the detritus of wrappers, bottles and bags that cling to school-yard mesh fences compared to, say, the Tupperware that is Grill’d.

0.5 gulls

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Gourmand Gull

How many snooty food critics do you come across that refuse to review nothing less than five star establishments? Why should their erudition and wit be reserved for the chef hats, Michelin stars and silver services of the food world? It’s time to bring a touch of discernment and culture to the places where the common people gather and eat. If MasterChef brought fine food to the people, then The Gourmand Gull will bring fine food criticism to the masses!

Seagulls, as every Australian beachgoer and fish-n-chip connoisseur will testify, will nary turn their beaks up at any and all victuals, and it is in this spirit that the following pieces will be written, as we cast our critical gaze over local eateries, fast food ‘family restaurants’, street-side vendors, crappy cafés and all manner of popular eating establishments inbetween. In our travels, we will encounter and appraise such cuisine as home-cookery, service station snacks, ready-to-eat meals and so many etceteras. Indeed, no outlet or foodstuff is safe from the swoop of this gull!

Remember, though, this particular avian has a sense of the good life, fine dining and true food appreciation, so no ink will be spared, effortlessly cogent witticisms withdrawn, punches pulled or eloquence withheld when it comes to critiquing the service, dining and decor of such purveyors of common cuisine.

In the immortal words of Matt Preston, that articulate, sexy and passionate cravat-sporting Dionysian to whom this journal is dedicated, “This isn’t wind, this is dragon’s breath!”

Enter the dragon.

(Dave Franzese)