Friday, 26 August 2011

Review: Wilbur's at Hackett Shops

Canberra is a funny town.  Sometimes the best places to eat are tucked away in little suburban shopping centres.  It’s only the locals that have this special knowledge, and they usually don’t let on.  So, it was armed with local knowledge that we headed down to Wilbur's at Hackett shops for a relaxed Saturday family lunch.  

Family gatherings are always a rather loud, noisy affair, expecially for my family.  So you can imagine the poor staff when in I walked and asked for a table of eight for lunch, right then and there, no booking.  The friendly waitress blanched for a millisecond and then said, sure no problem, of course they could fit us in.  Then mum, little sister, her baby boy, little brother, uncle and auntie, grandmother and Mr D. piled in - pram and all.
Wilbur's is a reasonably cosy little place, with bright red leather seats placed around a slow combustion fire place and small tables tucked into corners. Nice for a lazy coffee and newspaper reading afternoon (and the coffee is good). Of course, the eight of us were seated in a long row, hastily rearranged just for us and the pram.
Mr D. and I were hungry - a tasty margherita pizza and garlic pizza bread to share between the two of us sounded like a good idea.  We thought we would get a couple of small pizzas to share.   What came out was huge! The two pizzas were large enough to feed a small army (or at least six people).  This turned out to be a good thing, as the pizzas were delicious and I was rather greedy.  So much so, that I only thought to photograph the food half-way through devouring it.  I won’t tell you how many slices I ate. J
The margherita pizza had lots of tasty, fresh tomato topping with melted bocconcini and basil, the crust was crisp on the bottom as it should be - very, very good as far as pizzas go. The garlic pizza was covered in melted mozzarella and parmesan and was pungently garlicy – a definite thumbs up.
Wilbur's margherita pizza - $17.50

Wilbur's garlic pizza
Sharing food brings my family together – along with lots of joking, poking fun, teasing, fighting and laughing.  This is something that the newest member of our family is discovering.   My three month old baby nephew is very cute and the centre of attention at the moment.  He’s not quite at the grabbing stage yet, but it won’t be long before we have to move all the sugars and cups of coffee and cutlery out of the way when we take him out.  I can’t wait!

No doubt we'll all be coming back to Wilbur's.
Hackett shops
14 Hackett Place
Hackett   ACT
Open Tues-Sun for breakfast and lunch, Tues-Sat for dinner

So tell me, are you greedy too when it comes to good pizza? And do you have a large family that loves to get together to eat?

Wilbur's Cafe Bar on Urbanspoon

Friday, 19 August 2011

The Lighter Side of Chocolate Brownies

Chocolate brownies that are less fattening.  Is it possible?  Can it be?  Do they really exist?  Yes, my friends  - it’s true!
I found this great little recipe in the Australian Institute of Sport’s cookbook ‘Survival for the Fittest’.  The cookbook was designed to help athletes stick to their strict nutritional requirements through fun and interesting recipes.
I like to add in white chocolate bits instead of walnuts, because Mr. D has a nut allergy.  I’m thinking of trying pepitas next time to give the brownies a lovely crunchy texture. 
So how did I come across this cookbook, you might be thinking, for I am hardly an elite athlete. It all started when I was approaching a birthday marking a certain significant decade. In a fit of madness and a desire to prove my youth and vitality would last forever, I signed up to a gruelling 8-week novice triathlon training program (including an introduction to the cookbook).
I never looked back.  While I soon discovered that I was no top triathlete (no surprises there!), I did build up a huge amount of confidence.  This set me on a path of crazy mountain biking endurance events and other adventures over the next few years.  I had so much fun, I even managed to pull in Mr D.  Now he’s an even bigger try-hard mountain biker than me J.
So, don’t be afraid to challenge yourself.   Get out there, have fun and eat well.  Let these chocolate brownies show you the way.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Review: Brunching at Bills in Sydney

I’d always wanted to try Bill Granger’s cafe in Surry Hills, ever since I bought his first fabulous cook book a few years ago.  On a recent weekend trip I finally got my wish!  
We arrived after a brisk walk from our hotel downtown, just far enough to get our stomaches really growling.  It was late on a Saturday morning and people were lining up out the front waiting for tables. 
Will we or won’t we, we thought – is it worth the wait?  Luckily we were patient and managed to get a table for five of us within about ten minutes.  This proved to Mr D. that good things come to those that queue J.
It was a beautiful, sunny spring day and pleasant to sit outside.  The waiter was friendly – he liked us, he said, because we were nice, polite customers.  The coffee was good and strong.
Choices, choices – what to order?  Four out of five of us were going to run the City to Surf the next day, so a fair amount of carbo loading was in order.

Mr D. and I couldn’t go past Bill Granger's famous ricotta hotcakes.  We weren’t disappointed.  They were light and fluffy and soaked up all the luscious maple syrup.  You can try making them at home with his recipe.
Ricotta hotcakes with fresh banana and honeycomb butter - $17.50
Our good friend Ms Y., a staunch vegetarian, chose the delicious corn fritters, opting for smooth avocado over crispy bacon.  However, she was unfortunately charged extra for the privilege.
Sweet corn fritters with roast tomato, spinach and avocado (instead of bacon) - $18.50 (+ $4.50)
The lovely Ms E. chose soft boiled eggs with toast soldiers for dunking, a dish which always brings back happy childhood memories for me.  The yolks were lovely and runny.
Two soft-boild eggs with buttered sourdough soldiers - $11.50
While Mr J. decided to go all out with the big breakfast option.  A mighty feast!
Full Aussie breakfast - $24.50
Good food, good company, lots of laughs - life doesn't get better than that!

359 Crown St
Surry Hills, NSW
Open 7 days

Tell me, where do you like to brunch with friends? 

Bills on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Secret Wine Business

There is a secret society in Canberra.  Its members gather every Mid Winter to appease the gods with offerings of fine wine and gourmet food.  Led by the ‘High Winer’ (like the Grand Poobah), members must prove their worth by creating amazing culinary dishes to share and pontificate about the merits of the various bottles of ‘nectar of the gods’ they consume.

The ‘Winers ‘ group of Canberra friends has been meeting for almost twenty years.  Every few months we get together for blind wine tastings.  Every now and then we find some beauties, and every now and then some absolute shockers come out.  We never get consensus about most favourite and least favourite, and no one ever guesses them totally right, but we have good fun trying.  The High Winer does a fabulous job of keeping our unruly mob under control as the tasting evenings progress.

The Mid Winter feast is the Winers’ annual highlight.  There is always a great amount of unspoken friendly rivalry to see who can whip up the standout dish of the evening.  This year ended up being a bit of a French provincial theme, and the competition was fierce.

The evening started with hors d'oeuvres of asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto, dates stuffed with fetta and dried apricots topped with soft blue cheese.

The real standout dish of the evening was the entrĂ© of tomato and capsicum soup, topped with a basil leaf, and served with sourdough bread.  The fresh, clean flavours were lovely.  Particularly impressive given our friends who made it are currently going through a major kitchen renovation and cooked the dish in their bedroom using an electric wok!  Watch out for the recipe in future posts.

We had two dishes for main course - a hearty beef braised in Guinness, and coq au vin (chicken in red wine) made by Mr D. and yours truly.  Cooking a new recipe for other people is always a little nerve-wracking, so we were rather relieved that the chicken turned out to be melt-in-the-mouth tender and the sauce rich with wine, rosemary and thyme flavours.  The polenta was a beautiful accompaniment, smooth and creamy with parmesan and a touch of butter.  See the recipes below.
Dessert was a classic cherry clafoutis (cherry custard tart), which complemented the rich mains wonderfully with its eggy lightness and lovely fruity sweetness (again, watch out for the recipe in future posts). 
As a grand finale, the chocolates with coffee were amazing works of art in their own right – little Christmas trees of white chocolate filled with the smoothest, most delicious strawberry mousse (the little gems can be bought from the chocolate counter at David Jones).

And what of the wine, you may ask?  There were some fabulous bottles produced – an Orlando St Hugo’s Cab Sav 1996 from the Coonawarra ($65/bottle); a Hardy’s Eileen Hardy Shiraz 1996 from McLaren Vale (hard to find now; $100+); and a Finniss River Sparkling Shiraz 2008 from South Australia (another one that’s hard to find now).  The last was my absolute favourite, with the bubbles bringing out a wonderful full body with blackberry overtones – fabulous with the dessert!

Coq Au Vin
(chicken in red wine)
Mr D. and I always cook our dish for the Mid Winter feast together (which is great, but it means that I have to let go – a bit hard for a total kitchen control freak like me!).  We found this great Womens Weekly recipe for coq au vin (see the recipe).  We doubled everything up so we could feed a large group of people.  One thing the recipe doesn’t tell you is to tie all the herbs together with kitchen string first so you can fish them out later – we ended up having a very twiggy dish J. 
Creamy polenta
The creamy polenta accompaniment was perfect for the chicken and all that rich sauce (see the recipe).  We used chicken stock instead of water to give a slightly more intense flavour, and didn’t bother with the cream – the parmesan and butter were more than enough to make the dish nice and creamy.

So tell me, what do you love to cook for your friends?

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Review: Steak Dinners at the ‘Kingo’

Do you fancy a succulent steak dinner?  Then, the ‘Kingo’ (as Canberrans fondly call the old Kingston Hotel) could be the place for you.  Mr D. and I recently attended a good friend’s birthday bash there and had a blast.   It was the first time I had visited the old dear (the hotel that is) in many years, and I was pleasantly surprised.
When I was a uni student in Canberra many moons ago, the Kingo was one of those places you went when you wanted cheap beer, cheap grub and a game of pool. The Kingo still delivers these, but the decor is so much nicer than I remembered.  The 1920’s heritage-listed building is looking pretty good these days.
The Kingo is renowned for its cook-your-own steak bistro.  Call me a snob, but isn’t the whole point of going out for dinner so you don’t have to cook your own food?  I was relieved to find there was quite a decent steakhouse in the room next door with no self-cooking required, which is where we were headed.
In fact, the steak was beautifully cooked. When it arrived, the steak was medium-rare to order, tender and juicy, and full of the beautiful charred flavour you can only get by cooking on a proper chargrill – delicious!
Served with crispy fries and fresh salad, the decent-sized angus scotch fillet proved good value at $29 per serve.  I particularly liked the fact that our chosen sauce was served on the side, as there’s nothing worse than soggy chips (and everything else on the plate) drowned in the stuff!
The dessert menu was basic pub food, but done well.  We both ordered the individual pavlovas with passionfruit syrup (Mr D. didn’t want to share!).  There was a conspicuous absence of fresh fruit unfortunately.  But the pav itself was lovely and fluffy in the middle, with a very light, crisp crust.  I watched the couple across from us devour a sticky date pudding, which looked pretty scrumptious as well.  Good value again at $7 a serve.
Now for a bit of trivia!  The Kingo is rumoured to have been home to some Cold War espionage activity in the 1950s.  ASIO agents supposedly based themselves at the hotel so they could monitor KGB spies visiting the Soviet embassy across the street. 
For you political history buffs, the Kingo is infamous as the place where the ’36 Faceless Men’ of the Labour Party met in 1963 to develop their party manifesto.  These were the unknown officials who ran the party.  Menzies used knowledge of this meeting to his advantage to create a perception of secrecy and lack of accountability around the then Labour Opposition.  He held onto power in a thriller of a Federal Election later that year, winning by the narrowest of margins.

The Kingston Hotel
73 Canberra Avenue
Griffith  ACT
Open 7 days for lunch and dinner

What’s your favourite steakhouse?