Tuesday, 12 August 2014

On Robin Williams' passing.

Note: I hesitated to post this, in all honesty, with it originally going to be a lightweight beard vanity piece containing a veganised muffin recipe, and somehow turning into an overwrought overshare and an unworthy almost-Eulogy of the late, great Robin Williams. But, as I stared at my good-looking but average tasting muffin and listened (for the first time) to Antony & The Johnsons'  "I Am A Bird Now", something deep within me wanted to put this out there. And what is life, or death really, if it isn't putting yourself out there?

Please take this in the spirit it was intended. Rambling awkwardly with respect.

One of the perils of being a man and having a beard is that some days - it's unavoidable - you wake up with a case of "bad beard". Whether it's sticking up at the corners of your moustache and making you look like Ye Olde Time Fruitcake Fellow, or whether it has been dreaming of the ocean and has curled to the side, therefore going Full Mermaid on you, there's not much you can do. The Beard has a mind of its own and resistance is futile. 

Waking up sad, with a case of a Mermaid Beard.

I woke this morning, saw my beard, grumbled, rolled over and checked my Twitter, only to receive horribly sad news. The great man who smiled and laughed through the pain, Robin Williams, had died. Of apparent suicide. What can one say, really? Not much that could be of any comfort. 

As an only child whose parents got divorced and were *not* getting back together, Mrs Doubtfire was a huge comfort for me. As a child of *parents and step-parents who were people, too*, with broken hopes and dreams, busy careers, but ultimately loved their weird, precocious, lonely performer kid as best as they could despite still trying to find their own way, Mrs Doubtfire made me feel less alone, and more understanding.

As an awkward gay pre-teen who didn't fit into any conventional boxes, and long before gay couples and families were in vogue in Hollywood, The Birdcage made me laugh - and showed me a beautiful, real, boring/exciting, openly affectionate but not sleazy, happy-in-their-quirks gay couple who, with a little effort, patience and understanding, found the love of an extended step- and in-law family; and loved a son who also loved them. Something to aspire to.

As a Genie who cared fiercely for those around him, watching them fall in love and live a life he would never live, while yearning to be free, I related to him. 

As an overweight, hairy, awkward, unstereotypically-masculine teenage alcoholic suffering from mental health issues who tried to crack jokes through the pain in between various private and public meltdowns, I sought solace in seeing my own pained smile reflected in his, understanding the depth and complexity of his expressions, and his desire to make others think, and laugh.

Enough rambling.

Robin Williams was who he was, who he wanted to be, and who he didn't want to be. So were his characters. He defied convention, insisted on being real. The characters he portrayed were so human, always touching your heart with their combination of love and loneliness, always with a sense of "standing on the outside, looking in". Thanks for the love and understanding, Robin. We can only offer you that in return, and hope that you're now free.

Because - as another beautiful, beloved, complex character (the fiercely intelligent and always comforting Nigella Lawson) would awkwardly phrase it on her TV chat show - "life is a combination of light and shade", I was also going to post a veganised/adapted version of Nigella's Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Muffins that I made this morning, to comfort myself. They're not chocolate-chocolate chip, just chocolate chip. But... although they looked fine, on the inside, they didn't quite taste up to standard in their vegan form. So I'm going to keep working on them.

Here's to Robin and Nigella, who both will always make a difference by living their lives in their own ways, who are deeply complex, with unshakeable dignity, now and forever. And here's to all of us who live our life as flawed, complex characters, who don't always know that someone, somewhere *gets* what is going on understand the surface of our smile, and appreciates our existence. Love is always somewhere.


Sunday, 27 July 2014

Quick & Easy Vegan (Yeasted) Cinnamon Buns

Cinnamon Rolls. Cinnamon buns. I won't quibble over specifics - if there's bready goodness with a sweet, creamy, gooey, cinnamony filling - I will be there in a flash. With or without the glaze that makes them totally over the top.

I grew up with a single, working Mum who didn't have a lot of spare time. But every now and then, I'd wake up to gorgeous scents floating through the house, jump up excitedly, and run to the kitchen to find that she'd made us cinnamon rolls. 

Now, my Mum was a busy, single working mother, so she didn't have time to mess around with yeast and kneading, so the cinnamon rolls she made were unyeasted - basically, a rolled and filled almost-shortcrust pastry. And they were darn delicious. My mum is actually extremely, horribly allergic to dairy and eggs, so I grew up with cinnamon rolls that were unintentionally vegan, which made returning to them as an adult even easier - they didn't even require any tweaking of the recipe. I still make them sometimes.

Me at approximately 4, baking with my Grandma. Look at my crazy eyes - I loved it.

As I've gotten older, I've also found an equally passionate love of cinnamon buns - which, are obviously more bakery style - and are yeasted, with a silky, tender, puffy, slightly chewy tender dough in place of that creamy almost-shortcrust I grew up with, but are otherwise pretty much the same. The yeasted nature gives them an almost un-explainable umami richness.

I have a Kitchenaid stand-mixer, so pretty much the only thing that stops me making either buns or scrolls is a) the unavoidable rolling-out of the dough and the sprinklings of flour that I know are going to get everywhere and b) the time component.

I'm now learning just to relax, put down a Silpat (silicone baking mat), and spread that flour everywhere, knowing that it won't be hard to clean up afterwards. If I just start, I'll overcome the mental hurdle of hatred of mess. Watching the way Nigella Lawson gleefully gets her hands right into every step of the cooking process has also helped me too. It just takes a quick wipe down and a hand-wash for her to revert to looking pristine. Maybe I could too... Now if only I had her lighting team, and luscious, luscious hair...
A screenshot I took from Nigella's 2005 talk show on dieting, as she announced she was giving the entire audience free Krispy Kreme donuts, because "you mustn't deprive yourself". You've gotta love her.

Getting over this hasn't helped fix the time component for yeasted buns. I'm pretty bad at delaying gratification - so making something and waiting four hours to eat them is akin to slow, painful torture for me. And then, this morning, the Universe smiled down on me, and I saw that my friend Kittee had made quick cinnamon buns, based on the recipe that Somer McCowan of Vedged Out had posted on Instagram. They're yeasted, but only require 10 minutes rising time, thanks to a special ingredient she (and I) had on hand after making Bryanna's palm-oil-free vegan butter, called Liquid Lecithin, an emulsifier and humectant which I've discovered has properties that greatly improve yeasted doughs, and require little or no rising time.

I thought I'd take a punt and give them a try, and they worked out gorgeously. You may still get covered in flour, but at least you won't have to wait. I can't find the recipe on her website, so thought I'd share it here. It's quick, little fuss, and very satisfying. Thanks very much to Somer for pulling this together.

Somer McCowan's Quick & Easy Cinammon Buns, re-written (so blame me, not her!):
1. Preheat your oven to 180 C or 350 F and grease a square or circular baking dish (I used a glass Pyrex pie dish and canola spray).

2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, fitted with the beating paddle, add:
1 cup warm water (not too hot, or you'll kill the yeast)
1 tablespoon instant yeast (I used Lowan brand)
1 tablespoon liquid lecithin (eyeball this, because it's near impossible to get it off either utensils, OR your hands - trust me, it's a very unpleasant feeling to have this all over your hands)
2.5 cups + 2 tablespoons plain flour
1 teaspoon sea salt

3. Knead for 8-10 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. My dough was pretty touchable, and not sticky.

4. Flour your work area and your rolling pin, and roll the dough out into an 8 x 14 inch rectangle (my silicon mat has inches marked, which is fantastic).

5. Mix together
1/4 cup softened butter (I'm not going to get into naming wars. Use whatever you use as butter - whether nuttelex, earth balance, or dairy butter - just don't write to me proselytising and raving about how unhealthy butter/margarine is, because I truly don't care. Add salt as needed, if what you're using is unsalted. Salt makes things delicious).
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon

6. Spread butter mixture all over the dough, right to the edges (I used a pastry brush)

7. Grasp both edges of the longest length side (bottom of the rectangle), and gently roll it forward, taking care to keep the filling even, until you end up with a cylinder which is spiralled inside. 

8. Cut cylinder into one inch rolls, turn them sideways (spiral visible from above), and place in your greased baking dish. Continue cutting and arranging until complete. I had to squish some of mine up, but that's okay, their will to rise is strong, and they will be fine.

9. Set the dish, packed with yummy buns full of potential in a warm (but not hot) place, to rise for 10 minutes, or until almost doubled (which I admit I forgot to do, I was so eager - and they turned out fine, with no "yeasty" taste).

10. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, until the tops are lightly golden.

They're good as they are, or you can make an icing sugar/butter/milk glaze to drizzle over them if you're feeling really Nigellicious and want your hands dripping with sugar and fat.

Unfortunately, I was pretty slap-dash and devoured half of them like a ravenous beast, so I don't have a photo of the outcome, sorry (not sorry). So here's a photo of my darling Devon Rex cat Sylvia, when she was a baby kitten and I had just brought her home. Today, she's a ferocious beast, but she's still gorgeous.

She's not shy. Work it, girl!

I'm also interesting in hearing about your experiences with liquid lecithin - I've read you can use it to make super fast-rising pizza dough as well. Let me know what you think.
And in the words of Nigella Lawson - "I don't believe in deprivation. Enjoy yourself".

Monday, 7 July 2014

5 Housework Helping Hacks for the Helpless

I used to detest housework. Detest detest detest. I used to have help. Two cleaners, over the years. The first, a friend of a friend's mother who arranged my bathroom toiletries in new and terrifying ways, like gorgeously/innovatively arranging my shampoos and body washes around the vanity sink. She was really short though, so if I didn't want her to see or move anything, I just had to hide it on top of a cupboard. Win. I guess she was blind. Then there was another lady I employed after moving house, who snarled "I don't work well with other people, so now I clean. Alone", when I first met her. I'm not gonna pretend that sometimes my spirit animal isn't Paranoid Parrot, so I admit to sneaking up to the driveway and taking a photo of her car and registration plate, in case she decided to kill me. How would that help? Oh, I'm so glad you asked. Let me tell you: You know it and I know it. If I die, the first thing my dear friends/neighbourhood policeman are going to do is go through my camera roll on my iPhone, looking for concrete evidence of my misplaced vanity. And maybe some cute photos of cats. They'll see the photo of her car, remember I'm paranoid and crazy, and my death will be avenged. Anyhow, I digress. I ended up not booking her again after she took 6 hours to clean my one bedroom apartment, and didn't get time to wipe down surfaces. And, because, despite my warnings, I came home to find my cat Sylvia in a mega-drugged up state, rolling around with a bleach soaked rag, in fits of pure heaven/hell. Apparently some cats find bleach THE BEST THING EVER. "Help, My Cat Is Addicted To Bleach" is a common veterinary advice column question.

Anyway, I found myself growing up and reaching the age where I care not only about what other people will think about the tidiness/state of my house, but also, I just wanted things to be clean and organised so I feel comfortable and can sit down without embedding myself with shards of potato chips, or falling over shoes and roses in a stumble in the dark of night.

So, without further ado (what a stupid saying - i'm gonna say "hairdo" from now on, because then I can say "hair-don't" and people will laugh), here are the things that got my lazy, potato chip-scarred butt into gear, and also made me a house-proud house-dude. In order from "tiny, c'mon, just do it, it's a bare minimum", to "this is nice and worth it, you should still do it". Along with photos of my very own models.

The benefits? Well, Let me just say this - I don't have to brush my feet anymore. There's no dirt or crumbs for this reformed slob to walk around the house anymore. I don't have to brush my feet against each other when I go to bed (I know you've done it, don't get all hoity toity on me).

I warn you, the photos I took of myself demonstrating make me look, upon reflection, a little unbalanced.

1) Detergent-dispensing washing up wand. (Around $6).
So. Easy. There's nothing that makes me feel more unclean than dishes sitting in the sink, in various stages of water-filled, clean-ish, and dirty. It makes me shudder. When cooking for one, there may only be a couple of pots, a plate, and a piece of cutlery or two. And that's hardly reason to don gloves and fill up the sink. Bazinga - in comes the detergent-dispensing washing up wand. There's no excuse to not have one of these if your washing up jobs tend to be small in number. They're available pretty heavy duty these days (even coming with scourer heads for tougher jobs), and are nearly as planet friendly as just a sponge - you just replace the head when the old one is getting manky. To wash up a dish or a pot, just turn some hot water on, hold the stick, and rub the sponge head over the surface. Like most things, I find it easier to do it as I go, washing dishes up immediately as I use them. While you're rubbing/sponging, it's automatically releasing your detergent of choice through the sponge head. And your dishes are clean, and you can go dirty them again with endless cups of herbal tea, vodka, and spaghetti. Magic.

You could even do dishes whilst kneeling on the hardwood floor in front of your computer's camera! So amaze!

2) Robot-sweeper. (Mine was $89).
Oh my goodness. I'd wanted a robot vacuum for so long, but really wasn't convinced the hassle was worth the trouble. Creating "walls" and setting "boundaries" and "programming directions" on a $500+ machine wasn't my idea of fun. Also, I can't think of anything worse for regular use than it wandering around the house with the sound of a vacuum running all the time. Too noisy, and annoying. In comes the Robot Sweeper, entering the scene, in affordability and swishing movements, brushes blazing.

Like Rex Hunt with his fish, but I ain't throwin' this baby back!

I fought for this. I was shopping with The Academic, saw the Robot-Sweeper, and fell in love. He really, really, didn't want me to get it. He told me I was wasting my money, that I already had a Dyson vacuum cleaner, etc, etc, and was so vehemently opposed to me purchasing it that it made the prospect of me buying one IRRESISTIBLE. So I did, and I've never looked back. I have genuine emotional feelings towards my robot sweeper.

It's bare bones in terms of features, but so effective. The first time, you attach the brushes, turn it on, and it's off and on. The only settings are for optic sensitivity (if you have stairs or ledges you don't want it fall off). You charge it for 3 hours, and it wanders the house for about 40 minutes to a cycle. If you want it to do just one room at a time, shut the door. It doesn't make the loud noise of a vacuum, but instead has circular brushes that look like spinning whiskers underneath it, which it uses to sweep dust, dirt, hair, and small debris up into its collection receptacle. It doesn't have bags or any of that drama, so, when full or after a completed cycle, you just remove the receptacle, tip it into a bin, and bang the filter to shake the dust up (it's also water rinsable). It does a remarkable job, getting right into corners and under tables and beds that I would never bother with, and navigates the terrain really well - just remove most things from the floor and it'll go about its business. It has a movable part on the front that recognises when it has come in contact with an obstacle. The only difficulty you may have is that it's not carpet-friendly - it can damage the whiskers. (Mine goes over my rug just fine).

So, does it really do a good job? Is it worth it? In the beginning, I didn't imagine it would, provided  I was vacuuming regularly, and it was cheap. But even after doing my entire timber/tile house super thoroughly with the Dyson, the robot sweeper STILL seems to collect a full collection receptacle each cycle. It gets all the dirt and dust and hair you don't even see, just as a matter of course. And because it's quiet, I run it once every day or two. The fact that Sylvia hates the Dyson, and hisses if you even just touch it, the robot-sweeper is a life-saver. She looks at it with bemusement and slight annoyance, but not anger. It does a pretty darn good job of maintenance cleaning, and I'm a hairy-shedding-beast. I wouldn't want to be without it now. 6 months on, The Academic now admits that it's a good purchase - and has one himself.

3) Steam Mop (plugged in to extra-long extension cord). (Mine was $99).
Mopping with a traditional mop is THE WORST. Water and cleaning solution and lugging buckets around the house and squeezing and waiting for things to dry, pouring dirty water into the bathtub and splashing it all over your face and then wanting to cry - it's just not worth it.

In comes the steam mop. I used to tease my Dad about his steam mop collection, not realising how useful they were (I'd actually never... I mean, NEVER, mopped anywhere I'd lived, after 10 years of living away from home, until I got this steam mop). So, after being freaked out and fed up with constantly spot-cleaning areas with paper towels where Sylvia had a) vomited, or b) dragged blood-seeping meat around the house, I had the bright idea to ask Dad about what steam mop to buy. After he went on for about an hour about how good they were, whilst talking in a very slow and deliberate voice, like he was The Lion King passing very important knowledge on to his adult son, I eventually got a brand recommendation out of him.

So off I trundled to purchase it. I got it home and it sat on the lounge room floor in its box for a couple of weeks, until Sylvia had ripped a big enough hole in the box (she'd sit on top, and use a technique comprising fang hooking in concert with paw-clawing, sometimes at the same time) for me to be able to see into. 

It couldn't be easier to use. You just draw-string a fluffy cover over the head, fill the back up with water, plug it in, and you're off. The only important thing is to use a mega long extension cord. I can't think of anything worse than having to plug and unplug per room, reaching the end of my cord. It's important to remember with a steam mop that it takes a bit of time to develop your technique. You want slow, steady motions back and forth. Find a stain or dirt on the floor, and start with that, watching how your different technique attempts affect the stain/dirt, and you'll see what works and what doesn't pretty quickly. And make sure you work from the back of the room to the front, so you don't walk in the already-cleaned wet spots. It only takes a few minutes to dry, though, so it's not a big drama if you forget.

At the end, you just remove the head cover, and throw it in your next laundry load. It's also really satisfying, because by noticing how dirty/clean it is, you can see how dirty/clean your house was.

I wanted to go all "American Gothic" like this one, but it looks too much like something Ariel's Dad would wield undersea

4) A Decent Cordless Stick Vacuum (Mine's a Dyson. It was around $500, with a number of "bonus" attachments - everything required from cleaning the car, to ... god, I don't know. I don't use any of those attachments. They sit in the closet and make me feel inefficient). 
What are the worst things about vacuuming? 1) The weight you're dragging along behind you, and 2) The cord that's never long enough, tangled, in the way, etc, etc, etc. I don't know if bags are a 3rd, because I live in a post-bag-vacuum society.

In comes my wonderful Dyson cordless vacuum to fix all of the problems of the world. You charge it for 3 hours, and it gives you around 15 minutes of cleaning time per charge. It's light as, a perfect height, has a motorised head, and makes cleaning as simple as basically walking around the house with it comfortably in your hand. To save on battery, you have to squeeze a "trigger" to activate the suction, so no moment of battery is wasted. OH MY GOODNESS IT'S SO EASY. For carpets or more heavy duty areas, it has a "max" button, as well, which I really only use on the rug or on cat litter pellets (AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO HAS A CAT WHO FLICKS CAT LITTER ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE?! Gee those things hurt when you stand on them unexpectedly). 

When you're finished, you just press a button and a cover pops open, allowing you to just shake the collection receptacle area into the bin. Woohoo.

As a bonus - imagine if the witches of Hocus Pocus had this? I mean, no extension cords, they could just fly off into the night? I'm pretty sure the children of Salem would have lost that round...

Come here, Zachary Binx! Zachary Binnnnnnnx! Dueeeeell!

5) And finally, getting off your backside and just doing it. Get into a routine if you must. ($Freeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, and it develops discipline, which is priceless).
I have actually grown to quite like cleaning. It makes my home nicer to be in, it's a little bit of exercise, and it has visible results, which is uber satisfying. I've made it super easy for myself with the aforementioned tips, and I always feel great after relaxing in my newly clean home. BUT STILL, I struggle to get started. That little voice of procrastination in the back of my head tells me it's awful, it's a chore, that I don't want to do it, that it's boring, and it'll take me ages. Despite me knowing that's simply not true, it can still be a bit of a struggle to get started. But the magic is: once I start vacuuming, I almost instantly remember how easy it is, and how much I like cleaning (and the results - a clean house!), and I go for it, not stopping until my floors and dishes are clean. Then I have a shower and relax. 

To overcome this, I made a deal with myself. On the first day of my work weekend, before I do anything else, I clean. And in a particular order, so it gets into my muscle memory and helps the habit form. First I vacuum, then I steam mop, then I send the robot-sweeper on its mission, and finally, I do the dishes (if there are any from the day before). It takes me no more than an hour and a half before the house is spick and span, and I'm free to enjoy myself in or out of a clean house without the nagging feeling of guilt or grossness.

It takes about 5 weeks to form a habit, so stick with it. Set the same time every week aside at the start of your rest period, and just do it. Convince yourself to just get started on one task, preferably vacuuming. Like brushing your teeth, it'll become a habit, and you'll get used to it and do it without thought in no time. 

You'll be enjoying the benefits and relaxing afterwards in no time. Then you can lock yourself in your bathroom with a bottle of red wine and a book (okay, your mobile phone/ipod, which you constantly live in fear of dropping into the bath and electrocuting yourself with - NB. I do not advise this, but I know you probably do it anyway, so don't get litigious with me). ENJOY!

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Vegan Tasting Menu at Sono Portside

A couple of weeks ago, we were invited by Lindsay Bennett marketing to attend Sono Portside to experience their tasting menu. I promptly replied with "Will they do something vegan?" and was pleasantly surprised to hear that they were happy to come up with a vegan tasting menu.

Sono Portside is the sister restaurant of Sono Brisbane CBD (in the Queen Street Mall), opened some 10 years later with a slightly more modern look, but the same commitment to tradition. We had a brief chat with the owner of both restaurants who considers himself simply an "coordinator", someone who organises the best of the best for the various areas of the restaurant (waitstaff, bar, restaurant (in fact, he noted that many of the chefs are brought over from Japan)). Rather than chasing food trends, and aiming to find the latest Japanese "fusion cuisine", Sono's aim is to provide a consistent and traditional Japanese restaurant experience, with a menu that has slowly evolved, but rarely changed, over the years that both restaurants have been trading.

We all slowly gathered in the bar, where we each enjoyed a libation of our choosing. When everyone had arrived, we were ushered into one of the private tatami rooms, which meant our shoes had to come off (I was very glad I had picked non-holey socks, not that I have any holey socks, that's crazy who would do that). Once we were all seated, and had wisely opted to do the matched wines/sake, the meal began.

First course: pumpkin with edamame and tofu in broth. I thought the edamame could have been much more salty, but I absolutely adored the tofu in broth: delicious!

Second course: assorted sushi with wasabi and pickled ginger. Yes, I finished off that whole lump of wasabi and, yes, I couldn't talk for about 10 minutes afterwards. But hello clean sinuses!

Third course: eggplant with miso. The slice of eggplant was a little thicker than I'm used to having it (and made it difficult to eat with chopsticks!), but it fell apart and melted in your mouth, and had absolutely no bitterness. The miso was quite thick, so it will difficult to eat without getting too much miso in every second bite, but as a big miso fan, I was pretty happy with that. 

Fourth course: mixed vegetable tempura. This photo doesn't really capture how beautiful it looked when it came out. Not at all oily, and delightfully crispy.

Fifth course: tofu, shiitake mushrooms and mixed vegetables in teriyaki sauce, with miso soup side. As I'm sitting here writing this, the cold air is blasting through the windows and I just want to jump inside these photos and have this dish again. The teryaki sauce was well balanced, and mushrooms and vegetables were perfectly cooked and SO MUCH DELICIOUS TOFU. I don't think I've ever eaten this much protein at a non-vegetarian restaurant. I nearly cried. This was also the only course that had it's own matching wine distinct from the omnivore courses. The miso soup was also lovely. I think I may go and make some now.

Dessert: fruit salad. Eh.

Matt trying to convince Charelle to top him up a little more
What stood out most for me during the whole meal was the service. We were served Charelle, who managed to perfectly be present when ever we needed her, but then seemingly disappear when she knew we didn't. Before each meal was served, she gave a detailed description of the wine or sake matched with each course, including how it would match with the dish. She was also sure to inform us that they weren't sure about the fining agents for some of the wines, something with a number of sommeliers (from our experience!) are apparently ignorant about! She was truly wonderful and is such an asset to the restaurant.

The food, for me, was a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, I found several of the dishes felt rushed in their conception, or weren't quite flavoursome enough for my tastes. This is a common complaint amongst restaurants offering vegan options (even in vegan restaurants, to be honest), however, and is often easily fixed with a bit of practice and feedback. The biggest disappointment was, of course, the fruit salad (especially as the omnivores had brownies with chocolate sauce!). On the other hand, it is probably the most protein-rich meal I have had at a non-veg restaurant in Brisbane (I was particularly pleased that they didn't skimp on the tofu for the final savoury course; I actually left satisfied!), and many of the individual elements of some of the courses were wonderful.

As for drinks, I couldn't name a single wine or sake we had on the night (which is why Charelle has the job, not me!), but all were wonderful. Though most of the wines were only matched to the omnivore menu, I was very pleased that our "main" had it's very own wine matched to it.

Finally, I could not find one thing to complain about with the decor and ambiance; it strikes a fine balance between traditional and modern, and though the restaurant was packed, and the door to our private room open, we never had any trouble with noise. The view is also quite lovely, though I was facing the wrong way to enjoy it. (I would suggest, with the cooler weather, wearing some thick socks if you're in the tatami room, though!)

In sum, I had a very enjoyable evening. The menu was diverse (both in flavour and texture) and very protein-rich (and, consequently, satisfying), the drinks were wonderful, and the service and ambience were impeccable.

As we only had the tasting menu (designed for us on the night), I can't comment on how many vegan items are on the regular menu, so I would still recommend calling up in advance to check what's available, or simply calling up to book in for a tasting menu! Portside is close to several bus lines, about a 10 minute walk from the CityCat, and, due to the large number of other venues there, usually has plenty of cabs available, should you choose to also do the matched wine/sake.

Thank you to Lindsay Bennett for the invitation and hosting a delightful evening. It was good to get back in the game and try somewhere new!

Sono Portside
39 Hercules St Hamilton (in the Portside Wharf precinct (where the Dendy is))
3268 6655 | www.sonorestaurant.com.au/sono-portside/ | facebook

Lunch: Wed-Sun, 12pm-2.30pm
Dinner:  Tues-Thurs & Sunday, 6pm-9.30pm; Fri & Sat, 6pm-10pm

Sono was busy when we went (a Tuesday night), so it would probably be wise to make a reservation no matter what day you decide to go. Sono is on the second level of the Portside centre, but is accessible by stairs, an escalator and an elevator. While the bar may provide some accessibility issues, the main seating area would provide no problems, and the entry is quite wide. Other guests on the night included Miss Foodie, Eatin Mess and Food Me Up Scotty.


In unrelated news, I have partnered with Laneway Learning Brisbane to do some cooking classes! It's only about a week til the first class, so I probably should've promoted this a bit earlier but HEY that's life. I will be taking a "breakfast" themed cooking class, where I demonstrate how to make vegan savoury crepes, pancakes, scrambled tofu, and a quick and easy marmalade, and then a dinner class where I demonstrate a couple of entrees (dips, bruschetta), a creamy pasta, and then an easy chocolate pudding.

Each class is limited for about 20 people, so hopefully it's popular and I have to tell you to rush but please rush anyone because it will make me feel good and not nervous, which is how I feel right now!

Register for the breakfast class and/or the dinner class.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Urbane's Vegan Degustation - June 2014

So the other night I had the pleasure of attending Urbane Restaurant for another degustation, under the guidance of Head Chef (and a man I'm proud to call "friend"), Alejandro Cancino.

As many of you would know, Alejandro calls himself "vegan at home". He's a big supporter of the vegan movement and is an excellent example of someone who complements and works with people to achieve progress, rather than shoving propaganda down people's throats and pissing them off. He has successfully opened the eyes (and tastebuds) of many of the food community I've watched scoff at vegan food for years. He's winning over the militant vegans who used to bitch about him for cooking meat at Urbane. He's also The Queensland Good Food Guide 2013 Chef of the Year. The fact that he's hugely inspirational, animated, and a really lovely guy doesn't hurt either.

For those of you who haven't been to Urbane in a while, you'll notice less of a focus on molecular gastronomy than when Kym Machin (The Queensland Good Food Guide 2012 Chef of The Year!) was at the helm. Kym is another of my favourites, now running his own "cafistro" called "Bare Bones Society", which I also highly recommend. Kym is also an immensely talented Chef  - particularly with vegan food. 

Below are the 8 courses (plus bread, amuse bouche, and bonuses) we were served. My companion was enjoying the omnivore degustation at the same time, so some of the amuse bouche were mixed vegan/omnivore. We were both really, really impressed by the fact that the vegan degustation was not missing anything or "less than". Both omnivore and vegan degustations were totally on par in terms of taste, texture and flavour enjoyability. 

I'm going to keep the commentary light - my memory fails me because I was enjoying it so much in the moment - and you know the food was good - I don't need to tell you that. Dining with Alejandro is an experience I wish everyone could have. Names of menu items are in italics.

Note to other chefs reading: it's so great to be able to get creamy sauces, potato, charred flavour, and a variety of proteins (and I'm not talking three cashews over 10 courses), in an upscale restaurant. Please consider this when feeding vegans - it really helps add that missing component and stops us leaving your restaurant unsatisfied.

The service was good - in particular, a charming, infectiously kind bearded man, and a very efficient blonde woman. However, I was a little unsure how to take our first waiter's comment of "here you go, Brisbane's finest" when he brought our tap water, to the table, though, with an odd smile. I may be humourless at times, but that's not generally the first introduction I expect from a waiter in a fine dining restaurant.

Overall, A winner, as always, and so far, the best degustation I've attended at Urbane.

Shitake consommé. This was perfect. Such a delicious, umami broth, holding the best dumpling I've ever eaten. Mushroom richness with the dial turned up to 1000.

Coffin bay oyster with wasabi and pea broth (omnivore) alongside potato and sesame thing. Like a really fancy potato chip. I would love to eat a bag of them, let me tell you. Even whilst running the risk of ending up with many sesame seeds in my beard.

(Right) four week pickled carrots. A nice segue-way between dishes.

Smoked corn... dust? Became instantly creamy in the mouth. Very cool.

Tofu, ponzu. Avocado, capsicum. The tofu in ponzu, kim chi and toasted buckwheat was interesting, but I found the vinegaryness of the broth a little overpowering, especially when previous dishes had gone along these lines. The thing in the middle - a sort of latin american spiced AWESOMENESS with the avocado was really something to behold. This is where the art comes in - something so small and simple has no room for error - and there was no error. Perfection.

Just bread, right? No way. Rich, dense, chewy, incredibly moreish bread studded with macadamias. I knew this was going to fill me up, but still couldn't stop.

Quinoa, cucumber, apple. Varieties of cucumber preparation, in a creamy sauce with quinoa and a char. A really interesting variety of textures, and the toasty quinoa was really unique.

Onion, macadamia, dill. Onion and dill, in a macadamia cream sauce. The omnivore version was served in a beurre blanc, but we both agreed that this was the winner. So creamy and delicious.

King brown mushroom, kombu, dashi, wasabi. The mushrooms were so delicate, smooth, and toothsome - really artfully prepared.

Tempeh, jerusalem artichoke, lime. Local tempeh by our friends at "Totally Tempeh" prepared in a really inventive way - crumbled and toasted/sautéed to perfect brownness. Jerusalem artichoke too, which is something I don't prepare at home. Nice and savoury.

Turnip, potato, onion. Parsnip, smashed potato (yes, yes, yes!) and onion. Some interesting flavours and textures in the land of the middle - between light and dark. Lip-smacking but light umami.

Pearl barley, eggplant, mushroom. Mushroom barley risotto with various mushrooms (including "dust"), and eggplant puree. The omnivorous equivalent of this featured lamb, but... this vegan version really knocked my socks off. This vegan dish had the flavours and satisfaction of a naturally charred smoky meat that would impress any omnivore. A real showstopper.

A palate cleanser. Grapefruit gel. Very runny, and so sour. A great opportunity for someone to take photos of me pulling awful faces. I'm super sensitive to sour or bitter, and this almost hurt my feelings.

Local pink lady apple, lemongrass, ginger. (On the menu. Though perhaps this changed before service?) Dessert one. Granny smith apple was the featured ingredient. Sorbet, maybe poached (?) and an almost marshmallow textured sample, topped with dehydrated apple. The marshmallow-y confection was my favourite.

Coconut rice pudding, peanut, raspberry. Coconut sorbet with raspberries, toasted peanuts in a creamy peanut sauce. The sorbet was so rich and creamy, and who can go wrong with peanuts? For the win. A really nice way to end a highly enjoyable evening.

Keep an eye on Alejandro. Every time I see him, he's doing greater and greater things. This man is going to continue to push the boundaries and rise up. Urbane is very lucky to have him, and keeping people on the edge of their seats too, when so many restaurants are playing it safe. Bravo.

You can find our previous post about Urbane here. For more information about dining at Urbane, please see their website. 
Urbane on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Veg Eats in West End

Up until embarrassingly recently, I bemoaned the lack of veg options in West End. It's so hip and alternative and dirty; it should be OVERRUN with vegetarians and food for them!

I spent so much time bemoaning this that I somehow failed to notice how often I was eating there. No longer must vegans be relegated to coping with The Forest (I don't care what anyone tells you; just no) or scrounging options from the outwardly-vegan-friendly-seeming-but-oh-wait-it's-not 3 Monkeys! Go forth, my veg friends, for there is food to be eaten!

I will attempt to keep this post updated as we go more places and existing places add new items. If you have a favourite place that isn't on this list, let us know in the comments so we can check it out!

Note on public transport and parking: All of these places are within a short walk of bus stops serviced by high frequency 199 bus, which can be caught from the city of the Cultural Centre. Most parking on main streets in West End are metered or are short parking, but if you look on side streets, you can sometimes find unmetered parking (for example, Thomas St is metered where it comes off Vulture Street, but is unmetered from about halfway down).

Shop 1/60 Vulture Street (The West Quarter), West End
07 3844 6696 | www.zagyoza.com | facebook.com/zagyoza
Mon: 11am - 8pm | Tues-Thurs: 11am - 6pm | Fri: 11am - 8pm | Sat: 8am - 8pm
Parking around the back between the shops and the West Quarter Apartments, otherwise there is parking in nearby streets. Right across the road from a bus stop.
Wheelchair accessible from street and parking (there's a ramp next to The Cupcake Parlour, though it is quite narrow and the seating for the Cupcake Parlour is sometimes in the way). All tables are quite high, though the counter is not.
Vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous options available; no gluten free gyoza dumplings though some lunch specials may be gluten free.

Originally, Zagyoza was a stall at a few markets around Brisbane, but a few months ago they finally secured a permanent location in the West Quarter on Vulture Street.

The best part about Zagyoza are their daily lunch specials: $10 gets you either a salad and 4 gyoza, or a hot meal and 3 gyoza. They announce their specials on their facebook page every day around 11am, or you can just turn up and be surprised! I've had some truly fantastic meals here, and it's always something different. Sometimes they won't have a vegetarian or vegan special, so it's good to check the facebook page, but sometimes they'll be able to change the omni special to make it vegan or vegetarian, so it doesn't hurt to ask.

Left: Cold soba noodles with grilled tofu topped with house made BBQ sauce (which I could drink)
Right: Bean sprout and rice noodle salad with capsicum salsa and hot eggplant relish

As well as their permanent shop, they also regularly attend the Mitchelton Markets and the Powerhouse Markets; times they attend these are listed on their website. If you can't wait for them to be open, they also sell frozen take-home packs of gyoza which you can cook up at home (these are also sold at some delis, so find out from them if they're available closer to you). Last but not least, they also do catering trays in case you're having a party, or really want to see if you can eat 100 gyoza in one sitting.


71 Russell St, West End
07 3844 4444 | www.cafewrapture.com.au | facebook.com/pages/Cafe-Wrapture/152375321486467
Mon - Sat: 7am - 3pm | Closed Sunday
Onstreet parking nearby, none on premises. 2 minute walk from Boundary St bus stop.
Shop accessed directly off the street. Interior is quite narrow and tables are pushed quite close together. Meals are ordered and paid for at a counter. A mix of vegetarian, vegan, and omnivorous items; some vegetarian items can be made vegan by omitting certain ingredients. Unsure about availability of GF options. Inside, undercover and outside seating.

Matt went here a few months ago, and since then I have returned several times. The menu is small, but manages to pack a lot in (like a wrap! Oh, they're so meta...). The wraps themselves are the most delicious, puffy homemade panbread, and the fillings manage to strike a balance between tasting both wholesome and delicious. Wraps range between $9 and $12, so it makes a good quick lunch on the go (though I have often experienced quite a wait even at quiet times, so if you're in a rush, it's probably worth calling up). The Zen Wrap and Satay Tofu wrap are my favourites.

Unfortunately, there is no information on their website except their location.

El Torito
146 Boundary St, West End
07 3844 5977 | www.eltoritorestaurant.com.au | facebook.com/TORITOrestaurant
Lunch Wed-Fri: 12pm - 2pm
Dinner Tues - Sun: 5:45pm - Late | Kitchen closes at 9pm | Closed Mondays
Onstreet parking nearby, none on premises. Bus stop is right outside.
Shop accessed directly off the street. Toilets (individual cubicles) are accessible through a narrow doorway and up a bumpy path. There is table service but meals are paid for at a high counter.
Menu entirely omnivorous and vegetarian. Several items can be made vegan by omitting certain toppings. All items are gluten free UNLESS marked on the menu with an *.

Embarrassingly, the first time I tried this, I was desperate for a burrito after... quite a big night. As I'm sure you can imagine, I went on about how good it was, but I didn't return for a number of weeks, at which point we wisely went before drinking.
I cannot even express how delicious the enchiladas at El Torito are. The bean filling is perfectly cooked, soft and flavoursome, topped in an absolutely delicious tomato sauce. Just remember to ask for it without dairy!

There are a number of other items on their menu that look as though they could easily be made vegan, but I cannot go past the enchiladas. They have quite a range of alcoholic drinks available, and among the cheapest cocktails I've seen in a long time.

Burrito for lunch! $9.95
For lunch, they have a range of lunch specials (many of which are shared with their dinner menu; oddly, they don't appear to have a vegetarian burrito option for dinner, only lunch), all of which are $9.95, listed on their website. They have also recently started opening for lunch on weekends.

Otherwise, I cannot recommend highly enough heading there with some friends to share a jug of sangria and some excellent food.

Lock N Load Bistro
142 Boundary St, West End
07 3844 0142 | www.locknloadbistro.com.au | facebook.com/LocknLoadBistro
Weekdays: 11am - Late | Weekends: 8am - Late
Onstreet parking nearby, none on premises. Bus stop is right outside.
Entrance bar and lower dining area are wheelchair accessible (there is a wheelchair lift next to the stairs to the lower dining area). Upper dining area only accessible by stairs. Toilets are in lower dining area. The entrance bar is often crowded at night which may impede accessibility. There is often live music or a DJ, so the bar is quite loud, and sections of the interior aren't very brightly lit.
Menu is largely vegetarian (marked with (v)) and omnivorous, with many gluten free options clearly marked with (gf). Limited vegan options, also marked on menu (with (vv)). Their menu clearly states "NO SUBSTITUTIONS" (this includes sauces: if you ask for the chips without the aioli, they will come with aioli).

Initially, we only went to Lock N Load for their Beer Towers (which we're still suspicious of: is the 3L mark before or after the ice stick is added? And will you really care by the end?), but I was meeting a friend in West End for lunch a few months ago and, having always wanted to try their food, I suggested we meet there.

They only have the one vegan lunch and dinner option (it is also gluten free): sweet potato falafels with a warm quinoa salad, tomatoes, pine nut dressing and mint oil. I was pleasantly surprised as how good it was. They also have one vegan side, a warm cauliflower salad, which I haven't tried. I was sadly disappointed by both their regular "thick cut" fries and their sweet potato fries.

If you're going there for a drink in the evening, we found out from the kitchen that the tofu & shiitake spring rolls are vegan, though it isn't marked on their menu (according to them, this is because they use the same deep fryer for everything that they cook, and vegans probably make more fuss about that than vegetarians. Fair enough).

You can view their menus on their website. If you're feeding a large group of people, you can use their lunch order form to order larger amounts of food, and they also host group events.

And if you happen to be in West End on a Saturday morning, there are the West End Markets, which has it's own post dedicated to it! A little further off the beaten track, and more a destination than a quick lunch/dinner stop, is Mondo Organics, where we tried their vegan tasting menu (remember to book in advance!).

Let us know if you've tried any of these places, or if there's a favourite place of yours in West End that we need to visit and add!

Thursday, 22 May 2014

On (Terrible) Pizza/Pizza Snobbery and "Authenticity"

I don't know about you, but bad pizza makes me really, really sad. Pizza is one of my absolute most favourite meals, hands down. Naturally, my trip to Italy last year was one of my favourite experiences of my lifetime, and this was in no small part due to the availability of incredibly tasty, excellent-in-every-way pizza every step of the way down most streets.

When it comes to pizza (or most things really), I'm no food snob. I can appreciate a gorgeous, hand-made and stretched, delicious puffy-crackly base topped with an array of high quality, simple ingredients in a minimalist fashion and then wood-fired at a blistering high heat. But, I can also appreciate a doughy, greasy, trailer-trashy pizza topped with a boatload of non-authentic ingredients such as smoky soy curls, pineapple, vege sausages, and finished with a swirl of satay, BBQ or creamy sauce. A lot. I just recognise them as two completely different foods that I want when I'm in two completely different moods. You're looking at a guy who sometimes wants nothing more than a vegan dagwood dog (corn dog).

That being said, I have to admit I don't understand the appeal of the "authentic" pizzas available here in Australia. I find that their "minimalist" aesthetic in striving for this authenticity far too often ends up actually achieving "stingy" and one-dimensional. Call it "authentic", "artful", or whatever, but when you're paying up to $25 or so for a fairly small pizza with just a couple of things on it, I'm really not impressed. I know that pizza ovens and dough rising takes time and money, but it all feels way too much to me like you're simply trying too hard. And it certainly reminds me nothing of the amazing pizzas I ate in Italy. Ultimately, food is about enjoyment for me. Not fitting into a box and applauding replication.

Maybe it's the prosciutto, but this pizza from another of Brisbane's best, just doesn't appeal to me in the slightest. That's not a meal. And for $23!!!!!!!
A photo I found on Facebook from another of Brisbane's "Best Pizza places". I'm sorry, but.. yuck. Just yuck.

All this being said, I recognise that it's hard enough to get good "regular" pizza here in Brisbane, let alone vegetarian pizza. People just don't have a clue. You have to source incredible tasting vegetables, and treat them with care and attention. So, I keep trying to find good pizza (for now, Colle Rosso is my favourite - and incidentally, it is run by a real Italian family. Read our review here).

Yesterday, upon seeing many recommendations rising up from both the ferals of urbanspoon AND professional food writers, I visited a place that many had described as "Brisbane's Best Pizza" and is well known for its beer selection. I've never wanted this blog to be negative, so I'm not going to name and shame, but boy, it was so bad. 

The first pizza ordered by our table was a margherita, without the dairy. Now, a good margherita doesn't usually have a lot of cheese on it anyway, so we thought that it wouldn't impact too negatively. This is what we were served, much to my amazement and heart-sinking disappointment:

The pizza that broke my heart. I wanted it to be extra big for you to see.

SO. BAD. The crust: Papery, cardboard-y, crackly, insignificant. It didn't even seem adequately cooked. But there wasn't really enough to bite into to get a good taste.
The sauce: I don't even remember. 
The tomatoes: Could they look any more like the cheapest, limpest, blandest, supermarket tomatoes if they tried? I don't think so. Completely flavourless as well.
The basil: On at least half of the pizza, right? So carefully placed. Not.
The green liquid: That was fruity olive oil. Certainly not the kind I'd put on pizza.
The presentation: Speaks for itself. This pizza was assembled and baked by someone who is either incompetent, or has absolutely no pride in their work. Look at the chunk-drops of basil and the drool-trails of olive oil.

The other pizza we were served was along the same lines. A little better looking due to the fact there were more toppings, but so bland. So. Incredibly. Bland. Crap vegetables treated with no care or respect, chucked on a half-assed base and poorly baked. And then bizarrely topped with sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and rocket. WHAT IS THE OBSESSION WITH TOPPING PIZZA WITH PEPPERY SALAD GREENS? It doesn't add to the authenticity. I don't remember the rocket in Italy being anywhere near as bitter as ours.

The bright side was that the "gnarly fries" and "onion rings" we got on the side were really good, despite oddly, both just being served with aioli. James ended up asking for tomato sauce, and a bottle was brought out from the kitchen and plonked on the table in front of him, no ramekins or sauce-pots or anything.

I'm sure they are probably from a mass-produced freezer bag.

To top it all off, I got to the end of my $10 tap IPA to realise that there was a big old bottle top floating in the bottom of my beer. How could someone not realise this as they were pouring? Whose bottle top was it? How did it get in there? I could have choked on it! To the credit of the waitress, she was very kind and apologetic and offered to replace the beer, and when I said it wasn't necessary just wanted them to know, she offered me a loyalty card with some free coffees on it. By that stage, I just wanted to get out, and had no desire to go back, so we thanked her and left.

The bottle top in bottom of my tap beer. Glad I drank slowly and didn't chug and choke.

I don't mean to rave, but how could a restaurant/bar known for its pizza serve this to someone? I must stress, they weren't particularly busy, and there were only two of us, so it's not like they were rushed off their feet. Were they just having a bad day? Do the ferals of urbanspoon and bloggers really just have no taste? If one person says something is good, does everyone else follow like Sheeple?

With very few exceptions (one? two), is good, authentic pizza outside of Italy even possible? Or are we better just hedging our bets and making something that tastes good to us at home?