Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Fan's Notes II

July 9, 2016

We had a pretty decent breakfast at A Fan's Notes last year, but it was a pretty low-key brunch place at the time, so I was surprised when I read on facebook that they'd started doing fancy degustations on the weekends. They take it week about: meaty one week and vegan the next. I hit up the vegan night with a couple of friends to try things out.

You get five courses for a very reasonable $40, and they've got a good selection of vegan beer and wine to accompany the food. The staff are casual and friendly, and the atmosphere is still more dive bar than fine-dining, which suits me down to the ground.

Onto the food! The first course was a sesame and peanut crusted rice paper roll, with enoki, pickled cucumber, burnt eggplant and miso dressing. This was a fancy twist on a a classic - crunch from the cauliflower and peanut, and a lovely mix of smokiness and umami from the eggplant and miso. 

Next up was probably my favourite dish of the night: heirloom carrots, polenta, zucchini & pinenut puree with olives and seeds.

This dish really lets the veggies shine, with the polenta chips adding some salty goodness. Simple, but effective.

Next up was a butternut and caramelised onion agnolotti with smoked hazelnut pesto, artichoke and white bean puree.

This felt like the most 'fine dining' dish of the night - dustings of powders, dabs of pesto and micro-greens garnishing a soft and sweet agnolotti and a wedge of caramelised onion. Fancy.

The last of the savoury dishes was a crispy fennel-stuffed onion with potato puree, toasted corn and truffle.

This was another winner - the little roasted ball of fried goodness sitting on top of a smooth smear of creamy potato, all backed up by the salsa-esque corn. 

The dessert course finished things off: an apple and date trifle with coconut custard, pistachio crumb and mandarin.

This was another lovely mix of textures and flavours - not too sweet and with plenty of fruit, but still indulgent enough to be a worthy ending to a fine meal.

At $40 a head, this is a really good value meal - among the best value vegan meals in town. Ray's vegan degustation was cheaper, but it's been discontinued (at least over winter), meaning only Shu is really offering a similarly-priced vegan degustation. It's a lovely venue, with great staff, good music and a really fun atmosphere. Hopefully A Fan's Notes keep these degustations running - you should really get along as soon as you can to make sure they do.

Read about our last trip to A Fan's Notes here. I can't find any blog reviews of the degustations yet - hopefully the buzz will keep building.

A Fan's Notes
787 Nicholson St, Carlton North
9943 8373
our menu (it changes every fortnight)
facebook page

Accessibility: There's a flat entry way to a slightly crowded interior. You order at the table and pay at a high counter. We didn't visit the toilets.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Washington, DC II

July 4-6, 2016

This year I was in Washington DC for the 4th of July. Lodged in a hotel just blocks from the US Capitol, I anticipated garish, crowded celebrations and mawkish patriotism. I found little of it, just the floats pictured above and a glimpse of the evening's telecast. At this time of year the National Mall actually hosts a Folklife Festival that casts a spotlight on another country and culture.

In 2016 the festival presented Basque culture. We witnessed metalsmithing, pottery, stone-cutting, boat construction, weaving, painting, cheese-smoking, sports, singing and some truly unique performance. It was tough to imagine what was to come as we watched a troop of men (pictured above, click to embiggen), in what looked like petticoats and soft dancing shoes, lacing each other into furry coats as if they were corsets and strapping enormous bells onto their backs. Joaldunak proved very entertaining, and gave a friendly, generous translated interview about their village traditions, the family connections among the team, and the new all-woman group that's started up in their region.

Jovial cooking demonstrations ran throughout the day, with at best half of the jokes making it through to those of us who don't understand Basque. It was hard for me to imagine recreating any of their dishes at home, as they prepared fish three ways, and later added four kinds of red meat to a breakfast skillet. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the demonstrators' banter and pride in their traditions.

We did manage to find a few veg options at the Basque food stall. A cold bean stew didn't sound so exciting but was actually rich and well spiced, colourfully garnished with pickles and peppers. My hosts urged me to try Basque ciders - they have a particularly astringent aftertaste, ranging from sour to olive-y. The almond custard pastry we shared for dessert was a much more typical crowd-pleaser.

I spent rest of the week seeking veg-friendly dinners around the city centre. We, The Pizza was located just around the corner from my hotel. It's a bright and casual spot with an eye-catching display of enormous New York-style slices. A US$4 (~AU$5.30) slice of Forest Shroomin' Pie was enough to call dinner, but I grabbed a nice little Farmers Market Salad to diversify my veges (and took a slice of Spinach & Artichoke Pie away for next day's lunch). I also liked that they make a range of sodas with their own syrups. The Co, Co Nut Soda (US$3 ~ AU$4) was unusual and refreshing, but not a great match for cheesy pizza.

Happy Cow pointed me towards British-themed pub The Alibi. Their credibility was somewhat undermined by the inclusion of Cinnamon Sugar Sweet Potatoes with Vanilla Icing, Shrimp Po' Boys and Gumbo on the menu, but I was there for Vegan Fish And Chips (US$13 ~ AU$17.20).

These guys got the plate off to a good start by using Gardein mock fish - I reckon it's the lightest, flakiest fake-fillet on the market. The triple-cooked chips were a respectable tribute to the mother country, and the tartar sauce was much appreciated. (Honestly, I would've loved some green veges on the side.) Unfortunately my ginger soda (US$4 ~ AU$5.30) lacked both bite and bubbles.

Located in the business district, the pub was comfortable but a little cheesy, a spot for after-work drinks and tourists rather than neighbourhood residents.  While I didn't have the stamina for more than one pub meal in a week, it might have be fun to try their other veg options, including sausage rolls, devilled eggs and mushroom burgers.

As the week went on I honed my hipster-vege eating, so stay tuned for few more DC eateries.

I also visited and blogged about Washington DC two years ago!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Seattle & surrounds

June 28-July 3, 2016

I didn't just cloister myself away in Seattle's all-veg restaurants (or indeed, the city itself) during my stay. I was also inducted into the world of baseball, witnessing the Seattle Mariners defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates. I'd expected that the refreshments would be restricted to hot dogs and beer and I swooped on these Dirty Tots as soon as I saw them - the 'tater tots are scattered with surprisingly sharp, soft cheese, pickled peppers and, if you're not me, bacon. I washed them down with the smallest Mountain Dew I could find and tried not to notice the oil pooling in the bottom of the tray.

Actually, there was a broader variety of food than I'd expected - I noticed wood-fired pizzas, tacos and even a Thai noodle stand further around Safeco Field. I was delighted to match up the real baseball experience with what little I'd learned from The Simpsons - the organ music, the spruiker throwing bags of peanuts and, on my way out, evidence of a stand selling nacho hats.

As well as the Mariners, Seattle is the home of Orangette, a food blog I've been reading for nigh on a decade. Its author Molly Winzenberg and her husband Brandon own a pizza restaurant with a bar next door; these venues were on my wish-list for the trip. Three of my Aussie friends obliged in joining me there one night.

I assumed that Delancey and Essex would be located on a hip retail strip and was surprised to see them nestled unobtrusively in a residential area. This didn't seem to dim their popularity - we put our names on the waiting list at Delancey and settled in with drinks and bar snacks at Essex. I had a potent little cocktail called Cedro in Thyme (US$12 ~ AU$16) and made from vodka, Salers, pear brandy, Acqua di Cedro, and a house-made thyme tincture.

We nibbled on bright, sweet Castelvetrano olives (US$4 ~ AU$5.30) and an intermittently hot and sugary snack mix of cashews, rice bubbles and flaked coconut flavoured with vanilla and Aleppo peppers ($US6 ~ AU$8).

Delancey didn't keep us waiting any longer than we'd been warned, finding us a table for four in the back corner. It was a little loud and dimly lit. The pizza menu has the very American style of just a small number of toppings per pizza, although here they take extra care and pride in sourcing high-quality ingredients from local suppliers.

The bases were relatively thin, crisping up at the edges and softened with sauce in the centre. The white pie (above left, US$16 ~ AU$21) was a festival of cheese with house-made ricotta, fresh and aged mozzarella, Grana, and a bit of garlic. The Crimini (above centre, US$14 ~ AU$18) was generously scattered with its namesake mushroom, a little thyme and a strong whiff of truffle oil.

To drink, I tried a non-alcoholic house-made beetroot shrub (above right, US$4 ~ US$5). It was such an unusual, almost savoury soda, and it suited the pizzas well.

We opted to pack up some of the pizza and order some desserts to share. Delancey is known for its chocolate chip cookies sprinkled with grey salt (US$3.50 ~ AU$4.60) - so much so that you can eat them baked, as dough, and/or matched with a Ramos Pinto 20-year tawny port. My companions tried every combination! Preferences for baked vs dough varied, but we agreed that we preferred mixed-in salt to the concentrated sprinkle here.

I had my eye on the bourbon roasted peaches (US$9 ~AU$12). Although I expected more fruit and more syrup on my plate, I nonetheless enjoyed their combination with crumbled corn cookies, anise hyssop leaves and brown butter icecream.

Neither Delancey nor Essex are really designed for vegetarians (and I don't think vegans would have much fun there), but I was very glad to visit them - I think I'd be a fan even if they didn't have a blog connection that's special to me.

On my last day on the west coast, my mate Kim and I ventured out of Seattle, and she suggested the Black Diamond Bakery for a breakfast stop. The bakery's brick oven was built in 1884, but the adjoining cafe serving breakfasts is a youthful 25 years old by comparison. The menu is a classic diner selection of eggs and bacon and chicken fried steak, pancakes and French toast and hash browns. Everyone is served half a canned peach in syrup and a miniature blueberry muffin to begin.

There are a few incidentally vegetarian options, and they'll also happily omit the meat on other items (like Kim's burrito). I took on a veggie and cheese omelet (US$11.99 ~ AU$15.80), a brightly yellow egg batter wrapped around sauteed spinach, capsicum, onion, mushroom, tomato and a long, stretchy thread of orange cheese. I must admit to being more enamoured with the sides, a huge serving of home-made crispy edged hash brown and, in preference to toast, a gorgeously fluffy biscuit spread with butter.

On a clear day, the Black Diamond Bakery supposedly has a view of Mt Rainier, but we weren't blessed with one of those. We thought their garden was charming anyway.

We did eventually find our mountain views, though, and a waterfall too before we turned back to town (see pics below). Here we queued up for one of Seattle's other attractions - the original Starbuck's.

I'm not much of a coffee drinker (much less at 5pm) so I revelled in Starbuck's diluted conception of this drink, ordering a 'tall' (i.e. small) S'mores frappuccino. My straw first hit on a thick chocolate syrup base before working through a sweet, milky vanilla coffee; I could barely suck the 'marshmallow-infused whipped cream' through my straw and, honestly, I didn't really want to. 

To finish, here are a few snaps of the more natural beauties of Washington state...

Friday, July 08, 2016


June 25-30, 2016

Hello from the U S of A! I'm visiting four places for a week apiece for work reasons, and finding scraps of time around that for sight-seeing and fun eating. My first stop has been Seattle, a new city for me. I was based in the U(niversity) District, which had a relaxed school's-out-for-summer atmosphere and affordable, veg-friendly restaurants. Here's a run-down of the exclusively-vegetarian places I checked out.

I arrived on a Saturday evening - the late sunlight allowed me time to shower and get my bearings, then settle in for a modest meal at Chaco Canyon Organic Cafe. With mosaics on the walls and sprouts on the menu, this place has clear hippy roots. It offers the distinctly American suite of soups, sandwiches and salads, plus some bowls and breakfasts. There's French toast and a little seitan, but the vibe is overwhelmingly wholesome.... just what I needed after 26 hours of airports and planes.

I tried an Artichoke Melt half-sandwich (US$10.20 ~ AU$13.60), a comforting savoury concoction of artichoke pate, vegan cheese sauce, veganaise, cucumber and sprouts between slices of lightly toasted and perfectly unAmerican sourdough bread. It was served with a big house salad full of leafy greens and sprouts lightly dressed in an apple garlic vinaigrette. To drink, I nursed a mug of hot apple cider (US$3.85 ~ AU$5.10), an apple juice spiked with ginger topped with frothy pulp and cinnamon.

By the next night, I was ready to embark on something more uniquely American. I found it at Pizza Pi, a vegan pizzeria located at the northern end of the restaurant strip on University Way. It's intended for take-out more than eating in, but my two game non-veg companions and I were able to grab a flour-dusted table and settle in 'til closing time.

As is usual here, the salad came out before the mains - this large house salad (US$6.75 ~ AU$9.00) was based on lots of greens, and was dotted with tomatoes, cucumbers and some great crunchy croutons. We picked the honey mustard dressing and dabbed at it judiciously.

My least hungry co-diner ordered a half-serve of the mac'n'yease (US$6.50 ~ AU$8.70) - it was a nice, Daiya-based version that was light on the sauce.

As for the pizzas, the range is somewhat overwhelming and tends towards the outlandish and the mocking. Phoni-pepperoni, Aloha, Indian Curry, BBQ Chicken, and even a mac'n'yease pizza... it was tough to choose. (I didn't even entertain the appetizer, sandwich or calzone options!) My second co-diner went with a small Bruschetta Delux (US$8.25 ~ AU$11.00) and I was really impressed by its thick layers of white garlic sauce and cashew ricotta topped with a piquant bruschetta tomato mix and a little sliced field roast.

Its lurid orange-green counterpart up there is the saucy and spicy Buffalo Chicken pizza (US$8.25 ~ AU$11.00). Here the white garlic sauce was overwhelmed by the Buffalo-style chicken and a pourover of ranch dressing. Fresh celery pieces are true to the theme, but didn't really appeal to me as a pizza topping.

As well as Pizza Pi, Seattle obsessive @dimsimkitty recommended Wayward Vegan Cafe. It was a longer walk away from my base, but I gladly made it twice. This diner is lodged in a boxy commercial building but the internal soundtrack of Elastica, The Breeders and Hole assured me that I had definitely come to the right place. Wayward boasts another enormous menu: several dozen different breakfast fry-ups, over a dozen sandwiches and subs for lunch, plus salads, bowls and miscellaneous other plates for dinner.

For my late, large breakfast, I focused on the fact that they do American biscuits (8 ways). The Backwoods Biscuit Stack ($9.00) was really a big fat sandwich made from a fluffy herb biscuit and stuffed with a small vegan omelet, crumbed 'chiggen', strips of tempeh bacon and country gravy. It was all very salty, and I was glad for the equally-enormous side of garlic steamed greens.

A couple of days later I returned for a late lunch. They were all outta ribs so I satisfied myself with a Wayward Burger (US$9.00 ~ AU$12.00). The accompanying French fries were tired and floppy, and the burger had a nicely charred patty but was similarly lacking liveliness. The staff kindly comped my drink after I had to wait awhile for my meal. While the Wayward menu holds a dazzling array of vegan diner foods, the execution seems uneven - for me, it was worth it for the biscuit.

My final veg-specific stop was at Araya's Place, a vegan Thai restaurant I'd spotted nearby Pizza Pi. It's got the fried noodles and rice, green & red curries and spring rolls we've all come to expect, plus a few interesting additions. The appetiser list goes pan-Asian with Chinese leek-stuffed rice cakes, pot stickers and veggie tempura; there's a fried Brussels sprout salad, and curries containing mango, avocado or banana.

I bravely took on the latter option, a Massaman Banana Curry (US$13.95 ~ AU$18.60). The few banana chunks noticably infused the sweet-and-sour coconut sauce, and I enjoyed sifting through it for fried tofu slices, decoratively sliced potato chunks, capsicum and peanuts. Unfortunately the accompanying roti was woefully undercooked, little more than rolled-out dough without a sliver of flakiness.

Though the meals were mixed, I had fun exploring the veg-focused eateries of the U District. They fortified me for some long work-days and scattered city sight-seeing, including a night at the Spaceneedle and another viewing a Wearable Art exhibition at the EMP Museum.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Cheesy broccoli beer soup with smoky sunflower chorizo

June 24, 2016

Cindy bought me a copy of the Cinnamon Snail cookbook for my birthday (and whipped up an amazing meal from it while we were in Stockholm), and I wanted to take it for a test drive before she jetted off to the US. Melbourne was turning on typically soup-friendly weather, and this broccoli/beer soup seemed like something I could tackle on a Friday night. 

It came together really easily - you can cook the soup while the 'chorizo' is cooking. The sunflower seed chorizo is worth the effort too, smoky and spicy with a little bit of crunch. This recipe made way more than we needed, but I enjoyed the soup so much that I made a second batch straight afterwards to use it up. The soup itself come out nice and thick thanks to all of the blended up potatoes - it's part soup/part mashed potato, with the nooch adding some cheesiness. Ours didn't come out the kind of vibrant green that was pictured in the book - the broccoli colour was swamped by the beer and tamari, so we got more of a khaki. 

This is a solid winter dish - it'll slot into our regular soup rotation for sure. 

Cheesy broccoli beer soup with smoky sunflower chorizo

(adapted from a recipe in Adam Sobel's Street Vegan)

Sunflower chorizo
1.5 cups sunflower seeds
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning (we found some in Woolies)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons tamari
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1.5 teaspoons liquid smoke
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons fennel seeds

3 tablespoons peanut oil
2 shallots, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (don't be heavy-handed with this, the cayenne really packs a punch)
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
2 tablespoons tamari
1 head of broccoli, roughly chopped
1 stubby beer
2 cups Massel 'chicken' stock
3 small potatoes (the recipe specifies Yukon golds, we used Pontiacs I think)
1/2 cup nutritional yeast

The first step is to make the chorizo. 

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees and line a baking tray with baking paper sprayed with oil.

Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse for about a minute - you want to combine everything and break the seeds up a bit, but you don't want it to grind to powder or anything.

Crumble the mixture over the baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes, until just before it starts to burn - if you've spread the mixture out it should go a bit crispy.

Then, onto the soup.

Heat the oil in a big pot and saute the shallots, garlic and celery for about 4 minutes. 

Throw in the mustard, cayenne, paprika and tamari and stir-fry everything for another couple of minutes. 

Stir in the stock, beer, broccoli, nooch and potatoes. Cover the pot and bring the mix to the boil, cooking until the potato chunks are soft (about 15 minutes for us).

Allow the mix to cool a bit to lower the burn-risk and then blend everything up with an immersion blender. 

Serve, topped with a generous sprinkling of the chorizo.