Secret Osteria, Lake Como and a Special Risotto

Wander around the little lanes and back streets of the smaller and less touristy villages of Lake Como and you will find some real gems. One perfect but modest osteria can be found in Cernobbio, a village accessed easily by bus or ferry. I¬† prefer the ferry option, not only for the wonderful views of the Palazzi and gardens along the way, but just to hear the ferryman call out the names of the villages en route, “Torno, Moltrasio, Blevio, Cernobbio”, lazily trilling those ‘r’s and the nautical sounds of whistles, ropes and gangway planks landing.

Lake Como ferry on the way to another small village.

The day we went to Cernobbio, the wind was icy and the ferry was almost empty: we were well rugged up for the day. It was early November and most of the large gardens had closed for the season. Among our fellow travellers was a young chap, honey blond hair perfectly groomed, sporting a mustard coloured scarf carefully arranged over the shoulder of an expensive and conservative blue outfit, tanned ankles bare above sockless and effeminate boating shoes, with a newspaper tucked under one arm. Too affected to embody the insouciance of a Castiglione courtier, la bella figura gone awry. An aimless and idle palazzo owner perhaps? He was the only other passenger to leave the ferry at Cernobbio. The place looked deserted.

We wandered around Cernobbio: it had that empty, out of season look. Although not accustomed to taking coffee at 11 am, it seemed like a sensible thing to do, given the weather. And this decision led to a most wondrous find, the¬†Osteria del¬†Beuc, a small worker’s cooperative and restaurant up a back lane in Cernobbio. This is where all the locals were hiding on that cold November morning. At one large table, a group of older men in sensible jackets were grazing on morning snacks to go with their pre- lunch wines. A few tables away, couples were partaking of coffee but there was a sense of expectation in the air. More people were beginning to arrive. I glanced at the paper sheet listing the menu of the day. The gregarious waiter/front of house/barman advised that I should book immediately as there was only one table left for 12.30. Good advice. I ordered a Spritz and settled in for some more people watching, buoyed by the glowing euphoria that only a Prosecco laced with Campari can produce at such an ungodly but most welcome drinking hour.

By 12.40, the place was packed. The elderly gentlemen reluctantly vacated their morning table and wandered back to the safety of their separate homes, wives and a home cooked meal. The table was then replaced with a large group of hungry young office workers. Smaller tables were occupied by elegantly dressed couples, some accompanied by small, pampered dogs on leads: the place was alive as the enthusiastic waiter theatrically went about his business.

But then, dear reader, you didn’t come all the way with me to Cernobbio to simply ogle the locals, although if you’re a bit like me, you probably enjoy a bit of people watching as you travel through life, inventing scenarios and stories for each one. The food at Osteria del Beuc is well priced and seriously very good. Honest and simple food cooked perfectly. The lunch menu came with prices for one, two or three courses, 9‚ā¨/ AU$14, 12‚ā¨/AU18/ ‚ā¨14/AU22, which included a 250 ml carafe of wine per person. Of course I went for the three course option.¬†

For il primo, I had a composed salad of endive, spinach and soft white cheese, beautifully dressed while Mr T had a zucchini frittata. Then came a creamy risotto dish, perfectly cooked, nicely moistened, cooked in red wine, with rosemary and Taleggio cheese, the latter still visible and just beginning to melt. Sadly there is no photo, but if there were, it wouldn’t look great- just a pile of wet white rice on a plain plate. And yet it tasted sensational. The bread supply was generous. A fairly ordinary chocolate mousse followed. This didn’t detract from the overall delight of the meal and the venue: I have come to expect unimaginative desserts in Italy and should remember not to order them, unless there’s a visible¬†nonna on site who may have just baked a homely torta of fruit or nuts.

I have worked on recreating that lovely risotto dish and will continue to refine it. The Cernobbio version retained a lovely creamy white appearance and perhaps used less red wine and a little less rosemary than my version. Every time I make this, my heart flies back to Lake Como. Below is a version but feel free to play with it to suit your palate.

Risotto, red wine, rosemary and taleggio. Large serving for two or three. Ugly but good.

Risotto al Vino Rosso, Rosmarino e Taleggio. Risotto with Vino Rosso, Rosemary and Taleggio.

Ingredients for two smallish serves. Adjust quantities to suit your appetite, bearing in mind that it’s a rich dish and best served with a simple salad before or afterwards.

  • 150 g Carnaroli rice
  • 1/2 red onion, very finely chopped
  • 150¬†ml¬†good quality red wine ( the one you’ve opened for dinner is best)
  • 350 – 400 ml vegetable stock ( it’s always better to have extra on hand)
  • 20 gr butter
  • 40 gr or more of Taleggio ( substitute Stracchino if on a budget)
  • 40 gr grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano or more to taste
  • a teaspoon of very finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • salt and white pepper to season

Method

In a small saucepan, warm the vegetable stock and keep it on a low heat. In a separate cast iron casserole, choosing a suitable size for the measure of rice you are using, add the butter and saute the onion gently until soft and pale golden. Add the rice and toast for a minute or two. Then add the red wine and heat, stirring, until it is fully absorbed. From this point, begin to add a ladle¬†of hot stock to the rice and stir through on low to medium heat. Don’t stir too vigorously: an occasional stir is enough. Once that stock is fully absorbed, continue to add more ladles, one at a time, for around 20 – 25 minutes, as per the usual method of risotto making. The only way to judge the readiness of the rice is by biting it. If the centre is still hard, continue cooking. Once ready, turn off the heat, and add the rosemary and Parmigiano and half the Taleggio chopped into smallish chinks. Stir through then cover with a lid and leave to steam for a few minutes. When ready to serve, add the remaining Taleggio to the dish.

For Helen Legg.

Osteria del Beuc, Via Felice Cavallotti, 1 Р22012 РCernobbio, Como, Italia

 

 

A Visit to Testaccio, Rome

Testaccio in ancient times was the centre of trade along the Tevere, and in the centre of this suburb stands Testaccio Hill, which is made up entirely of broken clay amphorae or vessels, a kind of Roman midden pile, providing archeological evidence of ancient everyday Roman life. I would love to go digging in that pile of remains, a highly unlikely¬†prospect. In the meantime, I went digging for culinary treasure at the Testaccio market, a venue often heralded as one of Rome’s food havens.

On the way to Testaccio Market
Testaccio, a Roman working class suburb with great bars and restaurants. Gentrification here we come. Just like Brunswick, Melbourne, complete with hipsters too.

Testaccio is a plain looking working class suburb that is on the turn. The bars and restaurants look more appealing than many of those located in the tourist traps around Rome, though they are being discovered and some are beginning to blandify their offerings to suit small tour groups run by American food bloggers. In one such establishment, Flavio Al Velavevodetto, I had the best Carciofi alla Giudìa, that classic Roman Jewish dish of deep-fried artichoke, and a rather insipid Pasta e Ceci, redeemed only by the cute bottle of their own freshly pressed olive oil, which went straight into my handbag. The restaurant is carved into Monte Testaccio and you can view amphorae shards in the hill through carved out arches in the rear wall.  Perhaps this is a worthy reason to visit in itself.

The best of Rome’s Carciofi alla Giudea at Flavio Al Velavevodetto
Not like Nonna used to make. Pasta e Ceci at Flavio Al Velavevodetto

The Testaccio market building is modern, fairly ugly, and not particularly appealing. However, If you have an apartment in centro and are after fresh ingredients, this is the spot to shop. Other offerings include an outdoor cafe, a shop touting a list of so-called Strit Fud snacks, a concept I still find jarring in the Italian context, and a wonderful little corner bar offering a tall glass of Prosecco at any time in the morning for ‚ā¨2

Prosecco for breakfast at Testaccio Market.

 

I was intrigued by the padrone of the prosciutto shop, who hand cut his special cured meats. A small crowd gathered as he carefully shaved off thin slices of Cinta Senese, that Tuscan pig with its own DOP.

Hand cut Prosciutto
The art of hand cutting prosciutto
Cinta Senese

While the produce is fresh and appealing, the market was, for me, underwhelming. We needed that glass of Prosecco.

Rome you seduce me

and begging me to return

Obsessed, I obey.

 

For Unlikely, at WordPress and Ronovan’s weekly Haiku

The Three Chimneys Restaurant, Skye, Scotland

Today, dear reader, we will be travelling by car to the remote north-west of the Isle of Skye, to my favourite restaurant of all time. Come along and tell me what you enjoy the most.

Views along the way. Isle of Skye near Corbost

The Three Chimneys Restaurant has always been famous and deservedly so. It is situated nearby a Loch in Corbost near Dunvegan, in an area that is surrounded by cliffs, green wet hills, sheep and distant white stone houses. Despite its rural location, it is well-known and popular so a booking was made many months in advance.

Simple and Scottish, a vase on our table, Three Chimneys, Skye

Inside the metre thick stone walls, even at lunchtime, the lighting is moody and dark, and a small candle glows in the nearby fireplace. A beautiful smiling woman who looks uncannily like Geillis Duncan brings bread. Her eyes sparkle, and her sweet sounding Scottish accent is beguiling, while the breads take me back in time. Freshly made each day, there are three different types- seeded, dark and oat coloured. They are soft and evocatively celtic, and come with different butters, one containing salty sea flecks of dulce seaweed. More arrives without question.

More courses arrive, mysterious little bowls of land and sea, brought by the amber haired Geillis. For me, a Peat Smoked Haddock Ravioli, leeks, a quail egg with Smoked Sea Dashi, the latter poured at the table by a chef’s assistant, transports me to another heaven.

Peat Smoked Haddock Ravioli, leeks, a quail egg . Smoked dashi broth.

Something for him with seaweed so nice.

For main course, we choose beautiful seafood caught from that Loch just outside the window. For me, a roasted Salmon with fennel, Sconser scallop and lemongrass, and for him, the Three Chimneys Seafood Platter, consisting of West Coast Chowder, Dunvegan Dressed Crab & Langoustines, Sconser Scallop,  Loch Harport Oyster, Lemon Mayonnaise and Bridget Glendale Salad.

The seafood platter attracts a 15 pound supplement.

Some things never change. Shirley’s signature dish, the Three Chimney’s Marmalade Pudding with Drambuie custard, is still available. We first tried this in 2000 and even though I vowed to make it at home, I never did. It was time to try it again. The weather in the Isle of Skye goes very well with an old-fashioned pudding, a traditional ending to a modern Scottish meal.

As I wandered out to the bathroom, I noticed three long hooded capes hanging on pegs. Simple in style and made from Harris Tweed in muted tones, I’ve been dreaming¬†about those Hebridean capes ever since. I wonder if I’ll return to the beautiful stone buildings of Corbost, the Lochs and the green hills, the sheep on roads, the superb but invisible attention, and the glorious food of Three Chimneys, and to Skye, my beloved Skye.

Those capes

The Three Chimneys has been named UK Restaurant of the Year for 2018. It won a similar award when we visited in the year 2000. Booking well in advance is essential. https://www.threechimneys.co.uk/

Over the sea to Skye

My other Skye posts.

Skye boats to Elgol

Speed Bonny Boat

In my Skye Kitchen

Top Thai Restaurants in Chiang Mai

Good Thai, bad Thai, Australian suburbs all have at least one local Thai restaurant. Most Australians are familiar with the more common dishes on a Thai menu. We assume that when we travel to Thailand, the food will automatically be much better, more authentic and spicy. This is not always the case. You can read Trip Advisor or similar sites for clues. In Thailand, these recommendations are often written by people staying in 5 star Western hotels who are happy to pay 5 star prices for food, or backpackers who hang around cafes and juice bars who are more interested in the ‘chill’ factor than taste. During my last trip to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, I found another clue to bad Thai food in¬†restaurants-¬†simply look at the clientele. If a place is full of tourists of any age, you will most likely eat bland, over priced, ordinary food masquerading as Thai. There are exceptions of course, but choosing a restaurant on the basis of a sea of Western diners will usually lead to disappointment. Thai food will be better in your local suburban Thai at home. Watch where the Thais eat. They know where the food is good so just follow their lead.

Here are two of my favourites. They both happen to be vegetarian. The first, Ming Kwan Vegetarian restaurant, is one is frequented by locals from early morning until they finish (around 5 pm). Some brave tourists like ourselves love this place. Little English is spoken. You just point to the things that look good, then ask for a plate of rice, which happens to be wholesome red rice. The cost per plate is between 20 and 30 Thai Bhat ( AU$1.14 or less). The water is free. Favourite dish: the iconic Khao Soi soup, made with a curry sauce and coconut milk base, with some added textured soy meat, a handful of yellow egg noodles and topped with deep-fried crispy egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, coriander, a squeeze of lime and some ground chillies fried in oil.

A bowl of Khao Soi at Ming Kwan, Chiang Mai
One. Start with the soup
Two. Then add the toppings

My second favourite is Taste from Heaven. This place is frequented by tourists, expats and some locals. ( thus breaking the rule I espoused above). Nan has now opened two more branches in the Moon Muang area but I’ve only eaten at her original branch. The serves here are generous. The menu is in English. Beer, Wine and WiFi ¬†are available as well as things like Vegan brownies, all being tourists draw cards. The food is sensational and medium priced. Most dishes are around 70 – 90 Bhat per plate, (AU $3 or so), and choosing is agony. I want it all. Return visits are a necessity. Favourite dish: Tempura battered morning glory vine with cashews, tofu and peanut sauce and the charred eggplant with chilled tofu salad. The sate of mixed mushrooms with peanut sauce is hard to pass by also. Hungry now?

Ming Kwan Vegetarian Restaurant. 98 Rachadamnoen Rd Soi 4, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Taste from Heaven. 34/1 Ratmakka road (opposite soi 1) Prasing Muang Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Next post. Old Hong Kong.

Blue Range Estate. Wine, Smiles and Spuntini

Perched high above Port Phillip Bay, Blue Range Estate is a surprising find. The journey involves travelling through the back blocks of Rosebud’s sprawling suburban hinterland, housing estates that scramble up the foothills of Arthur’s Seat in search of that all important bay view. Following¬†the signs, a narrow gravel track winds up the side of the range, and eventually a sea of white net covered vines indicate you have arrived. The winery, with its cosy tasting room and raised platform deck with market umbrellas, is a fine place to fritter away a sunny afternoon with a wine and a snack.

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An ocean of grapes, ripening under their nets

Blue Range is not like the other wineries in the nearby Red Hill wine district. It is unpretentious with very friendly service, a small wine tasting area and an outside dining area. Franc De Cicco and his wife Filomena established the winery 30 years ago. Frank must have been a very industrious man, as he also ran a cheese factory in Coburg, an inner Melbourne suburb of Melbourne. The winery is now run by the Melone family, Cosi, Jo and their four children.

Service with a smile, and lots of stories
Service with a smile and lots of stories.

My sister and I often travel up to this winery in the sky to share a light lunch and a bottle of wine, thanks to our obliging chauffeurs! The menu is made up of spuntini, small bites of light Italian style dishes designed to go with the wine. The food is simple and tasty, but I doubt that much of it is house made. It’s cheap and works well with the sensational wines. We ordered the calamari fritti, the arancini, and Tuscan sausage with artichoke, a bottle of¬†the 2009 chardonnay and the sensational vista was free. Other menu offerings include flat breads with various toppings and antipasto platters.

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spuntini and wine

The vineyard produces Pinot Noir, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. The wine list consisted of aged wines from 2009 to 2010: no youngies on the list at all. The 2009 vintage wines were made by Frank the founder, while some of the 2010 wines were made by a visiting Italian winemaker. I suspect the current grape crops are sold to nearby wineries. It’s a great place to visit if you want to taste an 8-year-old Pinot Noir, which is an exceptionally good drop.

It’s a good idea to do a full wine tasting before you choose a bottle to go with your bites. A tasting puts you in a festive mood and the sommelier or assistant needs to be well-informed and cheery. This young member of the Melone family was the perfect host, with lots of great stories to go with it. His Italian ancestors came from Benevento, the city of witches in Campania.¬†There are some great folkloric legends about this region, a new little Italian nugget for me to explore further.

Deck at Blue Ridge Estate
Deck at Blue Range Estate

Cellar Door open from Thursday to Sunday 12pm-4pm (weather dependent, alfresco dining)

Address: Blue Range Estate, 155 GARDENS ROAD, ROSEBUD.VICTORIA. Ph 59 866560

Hopetoun House Hotel, Jeparit. The Jewel of the North-West.

Good food is hard to find out in the little wheat district towns of the Wimmera. No, that is an understatement. Any food is hard to find in the Wimmera, a district in the north west of Victoria. We were caught out badly one Sunday during our drive around the tiny towns of Brim, Beulah and Rainbow. All the pubs were closed. Most, in fact, were for sale, and in desperation, I resorted to a Chicko Roll, a peculiarity of Victoria dating back to the 1950s. For those not in the know, a Chicko Roll is a large spring roll made from cabbage and barley, carrot and green beans, beef, beef tallow, wheat cereal, celery and onion. The filling is mostly pulped and enclosed in a thick egg and flour pastry and then the whole fat roll is deep-fried. My purchased version bore no relationship to the above description. There were no discernible vegetables, the inside tasted like clay, the outside resembling some form of edible cardboard. It may have spent 5 years in a deep freezer before hitting the deep frying basket of the Rainbow take- away. I told you I was desperate.

snapper stack
Snapper stack on smashed potato, pesto, rocket. $18

So you can imagine how delightful it was to find a pub in this remote area serving lunch and dinner 7 days a week. Jeparit’s Hopetoun House Hotel re- opened a few weeks ago, having been closed for some years. With new owners and energetic staff, is has become a little oasis in a food desert.

Spinach and Ricotta tortellini with a rich sauce and fetta. Large serve, $22.
Spinach and Ricotta tortellini with a rich sauce and fetta. Large serve, $22.

When we visited, the staff, who live on site, hadn’t had a break for 10 days or more, given that the menu needed to be trialled and put into place before Christmas. Talk about dedication. The smiling Mel greets all patrons warmly: she is the business manager, bar attendant, and raconteur. She knows the locals by name and makes every one feel at home, including tourists like us. Steven, the chef, is a foodie by inclination. He comes from Tullamarine, a suburb of Melbourne, and talks fondly of his mother, a Montessori teacher, who encouraged his cooking passion. Steve originally came from Sri Lanka. Other kitchen staff hail from the Punjab in India. It is so refreshing to see our talented new Australians ready to embrace work in these isolated towns. I hope they stay.

Steven the chef. It all depends on him.
Steven the chef. It all depends on him.
Sticky Date and Pear Pudding. $10
Sticky Date and Pear Pudding. $10

The weekend we visited, at least 4 times, they trialed their first Sunday roast dinner. Mel mentioned that they sold out at lunch time, (15 serves). She was thrilled. During one of my lunch visits, a mixed gender and very polite bikie group of 12 arrived for lunch. They were on a mystery tour of the Wimmera. I bet they were delighted to find these offerings bordering the desert.

Beautiful sides.
Beautiful sides.

I was also pleased to find a quality house wine at a reasonable price. The Harcourt Chardonnay, a local wine from near Bendigo, a top pick at around $20 a bottle.

Mel the business manager, and Steven, the chef. Two key players in the success of teh Hoptoun House Hotel.
Mel the business manager, and Steven, the chef. Two key players in the success of Hopetoun House Hotel.
Mel bought this sweet concoction over to show us what Steve had been up to.
Mel brought out this sweet concoction over to show us what Steve had been up to.

The tiny town of Jeparit ( population 550)  is situated 370 kilometers north-west of Melbourne. It is a long drive and one I doubt you, dear reader, will be ready to do on a whim. The success of this venture does rely on visitors dropping in for a meal. If you are out west, loitering through that open silo- towered wheat country, exploring the ancient little towns clinging to dear life, remember that the food choices are thin. Hopetoun House is your place.

Cool dining room, good linen, efficient service.
Cool dining room, good linen, efficient service.
HOPETOUN HOUSE HOTEL
31 Roy Street, Jeparit
Ph. (03) 5397 2051 AH 0487 926 888

http://jeparit.com.au/

Open Daily. 11 am to 11 pm

The Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld. Bistro and Kitchen Garden

People who know about the culinary delights of the Royal Mail Hotel are prepared to travel three hours from Melbourne to dine there. Overseas travellers also make the journey into the Western District of Victoria: the word has spread far. The Royal Mail Hotel has been a two hatted restaurant for some years now and continues to win annual awards. The dining room, and the more affordable bistro, are definitely on the foody itinerary.

Carror risotto, with baby carrots and herbs.
Carrot risotto, with baby carrots and herbs. $26

The Bistro, now called the Parker Street Project, is open every day,  whereas the fine dining restaurant, with 5, 7 and  9 course set menus, is open for dinner from Wednesday to Sunday and lunch from Thursday to Sunday. We visited on a Monday and were delighted to find well priced and stunningly good food at an affordable price in the Parker St bistro. Under its present incarnation, with new chefs and a revitalised menu, it is even better than the last time I visited in 2009.

Fish and chips with a difference. Port arlington flathead, hand cut chips, baked vegetables and brocollini.
Fish and chips with a difference. Port Fairy flathead, hand cut chips, baked vegetables and broccolini. Smoky Pimenton aioli. $24

The key to the success of the hotel is not simply the dedicated world-class chefs, assistants and trainees who work here, but the vibrancy of fresh, organic produce. The Kitchen Garden, which was established in 2009, is the largest hotel garden in Australia. Run on organic principles, it spreads over more than an acre. Eighty per cent of the vegetables, herbs and fruit used in both the dining room and the bistro, comes from this huge productive garden. Chefs pick twice daily: it’s their larder, green grocer and inspiration.

Beautiful just picked green salad, with a paper thin slice of turnip, simply dressed
Beautiful just picked green salad, with a paper-thin slice of turnip, simply dressed. $8

The head gardener, Michelle, will tell you which flowers the chefs love best, ( for instance, society garlic, viola, nigella, cornflower, nasturtium ) and what wonderful beer they are now making with the Verbena. Most of the produce grown here are heritage vegetables and rare herbs, which are not generally available to chefs.¬†Michelle uses a number of organic practices ‘such as using ducks to control pests like slugs and snails and using compost derived from vegetable waste, grass clippings, spoilt hay from chicken coops and animal manure from nearby farms to build up soil structure and provide nutrients.’ She also has fabricated wire cages to protect some crops from the ducks and white cabbage moth, has made circular shade cloth surrounds for blueberries, encourages early tomatoes with wind and frost surrounds, does some experimental planting in hot houses, and trains berries onto tall wire strained structures. The whole tour is an inspiration. If you are a keen vegetable gardener, ¬†you must not leave Dunkeld without a visit to this garden. Ask questions and learn. And try to get your tour when Michelle is on duty, if you are a garden fanatic like me. The chefs lead the tours on the other days. Tours cost $15 per person and last around 45 minutes. A staff member will drive you to the site, given its location some distance from the hotel.

Royal Mail Kitchen Garden
Royal Mail Kitchen Garden

Take your own tour of this amazing kitchen garden by opening this media slide show of photos separately.

Staying at the Royal Mail Hotel is a treat, with private suites facing the grand view of Mt Sturgeon, a large swimming pool for hot days, and great walking, which start within the hotel grounds. If you don’t wish to splurge, the caravan park has spacious powered sites for $25 a night, which are set on a shady creek, and also has cheap overnight self- contained cabins. ¬†Dining in the restaurant is rather special, but you will also do very well in the bistro. The new Parker Street Project, is managed by Stephen, a friendly, hospitable young man who really loves his job. Enthusiastic staff make a huge difference here.

Chefs at work. Dining Room, the royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld, Victoria
Chefs at work. Dining Room, the royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld, Victoria
a customer sits on a shady veranndah at teh Royal Mail Hotel Dunkeld, set under the watchful gaze of Mt Sturgeon.
A local sits on a shady verandah at the Royal Mail Hotel Dunkeld, set under the watchful gaze of Mt Sturgeon.

More details about the Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld, Victoria, Australia can be found here.

Warung Santai. Bali on a Plate

There are really good ones, meaty ones, vegetarian ones and ones that have sat around a little too long. I’m talking about that Balinese classic combination dish, Nasi Campur ( pronounced champur). The dish consists of a central serve of rice, which is then surrounded by small scoops of other delicious morsels, along with two spicy sambals. To me, it’s Bali on a plate.

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nasi campur

Some of the side dishes are spiced with basa genep, a paste unique to Bali. They may include long beans cooked with strips of tempe, curried tofu, grilled tuna, cucumber, stir fried spinach, lawar, tempe in chilli, beef cubes, chicken, sate lilit, pepes ikan, and more.

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Nasi campur. Rice, fried tofu, beans and tempe curry, lawar, sweet tempe with nuts and kaffir lime, corn cake, Bali sambal on the side.

Two new warungs have popped up in the last two years in Sanur. Run by young staff, both are doing a roaring trade in day time nasi campur, catering to travellers who are keen to eat well on a budget, with their modern take on Balinese traditional classics. Warung Santai is now rivalling the very popular Warung Kecil. Both are tiny, though at Warung Kecil- kecil means small- with its tiny communal tables and benches, it is often too crowded at lunch time.

corner table at Warung Santai
Corner table at Warung Santai

Warung Santai also offers a few western dishes as well as juices and coffee and does a separate Balinese dinner menu after 5.30 pm. They stock raw organic cacao and nut brownies from Ubud, as well as a few Western cakes.

Hard to choose your nasi campur sides.
Hard to choose your nasi campur sides.

We stuck to nasi campur and iced lemon tea, which comes in a tall glass with lots of ice and a side serve of palm sugar syrup. Our meal with drink came to around AU $4. This is not just cheap food, it is delicious, clean and filling and ideal for those missing their vegetables.

The Campur menu
The Nasi Campur menu at Warung Santai. The numbers have had their thousands removed, a growing trend in Balinese restaurants. 23 or 23,000 rupiah comes to about AU $2.30.
Look for this sign along Jalan Tandaken, Sanur
Look for this sign along Jalan Tandaken, Sanur

Warung Santai, 9 Jalan Tandaken, Sanur, Bali

Warung Kecil, Jalan Duyung No.1, Sanur, Bali

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Nasi campur and iced lemon tea.
  • A warung¬†is small family-owned business, often a modest small restaurant.¬†A warung is an essential part of daily life in Indonesia. In Bali, a warung will serve authentic Balinese food, usually at lower prices. Warungs used to look more funky and were often thatched huts along the road. These days, they are small modern shops that rely on fast turnover.

Jumping Jimbaran, Bali. Sunset and Fish Frenzy

A sleepy hollow by day, Jimbaran Bay turns into a frenetic dining spectacle by sunset, as tourist buses, mini vans and taxis descend on the place, disgorging passengers onto the broad sandy stretch for a big night out eating barbecued fish. It’s amusing to watch.

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View from our front row table which is about to become a back row table.

At around 5pm, smoke begin to rise along the fringe of the bay as restaurants light their coconut shell charcoal fires. The front row tables are dragged out to the sandy berm, the demarcation line for each restaurant. Front row sunset seats are apparently sought after: we are happy sitting back a few rows, under a shady umbrella, a cold Bintang beer in hand, watching the madness unfold before us.

more
They’re coming. Time to make more front rows.

Each narrow restaurant can be accessed from the beach or from the back lane running behind the buildings on the shore. What looks like a confusing enterprise is well-managed in typically Balinese fashion with different coloured tablecloths signifying each enterprise. There isn’t much point in reading all the menus, they are generally all the same. Each place offers barbecued platters of fish and seafood at various prices, depending on your appetite or greed. More expensive platters will include lobster. The Bintang beer prices are standard but the wine price differs enormously. I do like a drop of Two Islands wine, a cooperative wine venture between¬†Australia and Bali, so I know which one I’ll choose.

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The restaurant that specialises in bus tours.

It is probably best to avoid the places with very long tables joined together. This indicates the restaurant specialises in tour groups.

tour group in action.
A tour group setting means tour group food.

After the glorious sunset fades, the umbrellas are removed and tea light candles appear on all the tables. The wandering minstrels appear but fortunately for us, they favour large groups.

xx

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Bintang and serenade

It is probably best to choose what is known here as a Packet which is a meal deal of fish and seafood, at various prices and sizes, as well as a small serve of acar (a pickled salad), some steamed kangkung, rice and a small serving of fruit. If you choose your own fish, be prepared for an amusing experience. The scales are totally rigged and some of the fish looks a little water-logged. But by the time they are gutted, basted in spicy sauce and barbecued on hot charcoal, you won’t know the difference.

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Waiting for customers.

The best way to guarantee a great seafood meal is to buy your own fish at the Pasar Ikan, the Jimbaran seafood market and take it to a restaurant up that way, where they prepare and grill it for you at a very reasonable price. This assumes you are staying locally for a while and feel confident in buying fish, as well as having a little Bahasa Indonesian under your belt. The Jimbaran Fish Market provides fish and seafood for all the major restaurants and resorts in Bali.

And don't forget that selfies are mandatory- well for some!!
And don’t forget that selfies are mandatory, well for some!!
As the sun goes down over Jimbaran.....
As the sun goes down over Jimbaran.

 

Masterchef at Qu√°n BŠĽ•i in HCMC, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon- the city still happily goes by both names- is a surprisingly advanced city, a modern Asian Tiger. Wide boulevards, generous public spaces, landscaping, cleanliness and well designed buildings feature prominently in District 1, the central and oldest quarter of HCMC. It’s a relief to find wide footpaths that are pedestrian friendly, one way streets, traffic lights, at least in District 1, which makes walking a pleasure.

Thee centre of Ho Chi inh C
The centre of Ho Chi Minh City.

The restaurant scene here is undergoing a renaissance. Many expensive restaurants offer refined versions of Vietnamese cuisine, alongside the usual internationally acclaimed restaurants you would expect to find in a modern Asian capital city. Leading the way, in terms of modernising Vietnamese classic cuisine at an affordable price, is the restaurant Qu√°n BŠĽ•i. The goal of the owner, Danh Tran, is to provide casual dining ,offering high quality Vietnamese food, with daily sourced healthy ingredients, in a stylish environment. Qu√°n BŠĽ•i opened in 2011 and now has four branches around the city. We lunched at the relatively new branch at 39 Ly Tu Tong, district 1. It is situated on the second floor and is a little tricky to find.

Goi (salad) is a popular starter in Vietnamese cuisine. Goi generally consists of one main ingredient such as cabbage or morning glory and is topped by fried onions or peanuts then mixed with meat or seafood and herb leaves. The composition is then gently tossed with a dressing made from vinegar, sugar, spice and seasoning, as well as the all important ingredient, fish sauce, the ‘invisible enhancer’. Fish sauce is either incorporated in the dressing or comes as a side dish.

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Mango and shrimp salad

We begin with a mango and dried shrimp salad, a huge serve and a little different from the Thai version. The mango was grated, as in Thai papaya salad, but the fruit was riper, then tossed with rehydrated dried prawns, mint, nuts and jellied fish, the latter an intriguing element.

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Goi- a great starter.

An unusual version of deep fried tofu arrives topped with crispy fried fresh coconut. The overall flavour is sweet, an unusual sensation in a main course, providing a counterbalance to the other bitter or spicy dishes. Mr T shoved some fresh chilli in the middle of his tofu cubes, a habit he picked up in Java, Indonesia.

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Fried tofu with coconut

The eggplant dish was described as chargrilled, and I was hoping for a smokier flavour in this dish, similar to the Thai version. Stripped of skin, the young green eggplants were grilled, then topped with fried nuts, herbs and dressing.

Grilled eggplant
Grilled eggplant

White or brown steamed rice are offered as an accompaniment. Washed down with a few beers, five Saigon beers to be precise, the total came to around VND 500,000/ AU$30. Expect to pay more for fish or meat based meals. Wine is by the glass or bottle and is imported. The serves are generous and the setting is stylish with enough ombra to suggest a hint of Graham Greene.

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The chef is Thanh Cuong who won the Masterchef Vietnam series in 2015. I hope to try at least two more branches of Quan Bai before leaving Vietnam. This food is clean, beautifully presented and traditional with a modern twist.

http://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/art-entertainment/148720/hcm-city-based-cook-wins-masterchef-vietnam-2015.html

Header photo taken from a wall in Qu√°n BŠĽ•i, First Floor, 39 Ly Tu Trong, District 1, HCMC