Truffle Festival: Majura Valley Experience

21 Jun

* I enjoyed the Majura Valley Experience as a guest

My relationship with truffles has been fraught. I’ve had dishes where I can really taste what is supposed to be a flavoursome delicacy, and dishes where I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t notice if it had been added or not. It’s been cheese with truffles and Frugii’s divine truffle ice cream which has really helped me understand the flavour and what I should be looking for, but I’ve still come away confused about whether my palate just isn’t truffle friendly. The Majura Valley Experience – a day of three different truffle experiences – promises to change all that.

We arrive at French Black Truffles off the new Majura Road at 10am for a truffle hunt. The sun is shining brightly but, as every Canberran knows, clear skies just means it’s going to be stupidly cold. In the shade of Canberra’s tallest mountain, Mt Majura, the cold is biting. As the last of the cars arrives, we head into a small shed where the magic happens.

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Hidden treasures in Dunlop Grasslands

12 Jun

Blogging has introduced me to some of Canberra’s very best, and that includes people like bushwalking legend John Evans. John has an extremely popular website where he documents every single walk he takes with plenty of detail and maps. John’s simple goal is to inspire people to resist sedentary life, head outside and enjoy some fresh air, and appreciate our surroundings. I look on in awe at his commitment to providing as much information to make that possible for people.

John and I have been on a few walks together – Mt Coree and Urambi Hills. As well as being knowledgeable, John is a gentleman and has a great sense of humour. When he offered to show me a part of Belconnen with which I wasn’t yet familiar, I jumped at the chance.

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Pot Belly, Belconnen

7 Jun

It seems everyone has a story about visiting the Pot Belly in Weedon Close in Belconnen. The bar sits in the same street as other Canberra institutions – Turkish Delight, Laser Tag and Can Tho – and has been a haunt for generations of uni students and Belconnen residents. But the last few years of its decades-long history have been a little shaky.

Let’s be honest: as many Canberrans will attest, the Pot has always been a dive bar. Its lack of natural light and dark wood throughout lends itself to an ‘English pub’ descriptor. It’s also familiar – the customers are familiar (which can be a bit daunting if you’re visiting for the first time), the beers are familiar (the only craft beer offered was Roger’s), and the location hasn’t changed in 40 years. In the last few years it took on the name Pot Belly Bar and Bistro, operating a small restaurant which was open most days of the week – but it was empty. Few people knew about it, and if they did, they rarely took advantage of it.

Pot Belly had been for sale for around a year when finally there was a taker – or takers. Six people – or three couples – now co-own this skinny pub in the heights of Belconnen’s Town Centre. Within a few days the new owners stripped the taps and replaced them entirely with craft beer (and I’m not talking Roger’s). The structure is entirely the same, but oddly-framed live act memorabilia that crowded the walls has disappeared. I think the most interesting thing to watch over the coming months is whether the usual customers will disappear – and, if so, if they’ll be replaced.

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Dining at Pialligo Estate

21 Apr

Many of you’ll recall me visiting raving about Pialligo Estate just before it opened. The food is innovative and fresh and the setting is divine. But that was a preview to the real thing. There’s a difference between a taste of what’s to come versus sitting down in the venue with the kitchen putting together its menu for hundreds of diners, crafting meals. So, I had to check it out – and in the interests of being thorough I went twice in three weeks!

My first visit to Pialligo Estate was in early February, one of those lazy afternoons that have to really stretch to touch darkness. This evening’s mid-March and it’s colder and darker and I’m happy to say that once we’re through the enormous, heavy entrance doors, it’s inviting and welcoming. We’re seated in the lounge area and offered cocktails and starter drinks as our table’s readied. The Ginger Tonic – ginger and elderflower liqueurs with gin and Fever Tree tonic water ($18) – is an absolute delight. Around us, the colours are earthy and warm – despite the restaurant’s grand size, it feels like we’re sitting in a cosy cabin in the Snowy Mountains.

Yes, those are pumpkins.

At our table on the first night, we opt for the six course chef’s tasting menu. The amuse bouche is salmon sabayon – something we sampled at Pialligo’s opening. The dish is as good as I remember, but again so cruel that it’s simply an opener rather than a main.

It’s followed by a tomato and burrata (cheese) which complements the sweet coolness of the salmon.

Our other dishes flow in quick succession, adding up quickly. There are two things you need to know about dishes at Pialligo: even with the tasting menu, the dishes are huge. Do not fill up on bread, no matter how tempted you are – and you will be – or you will be carrying around an oversized food baby (learn from my mistake).

The second is that all our dishes (save dessert) come with a jus or sauce which is poured over the dish after serving, so as eager as you are to consume, wait for the jus!

The sweet cobia with radish (so pretty and delicate) and salted plums surprises me; I’d normally have had no interest in the fish, but enjoy it.

The sweet spanner crab with dry watermelon vinaigrette and cornichons looks fantastic but doesn’t quite fit the menu for me; for some reason I think crab should be an early starter dish, before any other seafood.

One of the prettiest and tastiest dishes is the Jumjum farm roasted duck from outside Sydney, accompanied by blood plum and lightly grilled sweet corn, grown near where we walked in. It’s huge but soft, and the other flavours cloy to the duck.

The wagyu is silken, supported by black onion sauce and a shallot puree. Only thanks to the moreish flavours am I able to fit it into my first stomach (there’s always a dessert stomach).

The cheese course challenges me but my palate establishes strong relationships with new flavours so that I’m begging to know what they are to be able to hunt them down.

This blackberry, blueberry, pistachio crumble with two types of ice cream is one of the most beautiful dishes I’ve seen; the picture is striking but the dish is even more engaging in person (and yes, tastes great). As we polish it off, we’re offered the petit fours – nougat, lime macarons, marshmallows and salted caramel pieces. It’s a gorgeous but somewhat overwhelming finish following such a large meal.

The weekend we return it’s incredibly busy: a Saturday right in the middle of Easter with a 21st to boot. We’re sat and served drinks and starters quickly. Our entrees are served with equal attention and the cured and raw Blackmore wagyu with sourdough and beetroot ($21) is among the best I’ve ever had, and Boyfriend’s vegetable medley (artichokes, garden-grown black figs, hazelnut) is large and delicious ($19). I know I’ll be ordering these dishes again and again.

I normally enjoy smaller oysters, but these McCash oysters from Bateman’s Bay ($4 each) vary in size, with some so small they lack structure – no fault of Pialligo’s but a little disappointing all the same.

For main I order the Holmbrae chicken – chicken that’s served at restaurants like Sepia and Aria – served with prawns, peas, sea urchin and shellfish sauce ($42). This is unlike anything I’ve ever had before, and the strong sauce with the strong chicken flavour challenges and confuses me; I don’t think the flavours match but I’m glad I’ve tried such an interesting dish.

We’re full this time after an entire day of constant eating so, tempted as I am, skip dessert. Petit fours again conclude our experience.

Pialligo Estate’s service each time echoes the warmth of the building – it’s a pleasure to visit!

Dates: Saturday, 14 March and Saturday, 4 April

Where: Pialligo Estate, 18 Kallaroo Road, Pialligo. You will need to book – it will be busy! (02 6247 6060)

Cost: The chef’s tasting menu is $110; drinks extra

Value for money: High

Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile

Want more? Try their Facebook page and website.

Marble & Grain, Braddon*

16 Apr

* I attended this experience at Marble & Grain as their guest.

Hopscotch. Black Fire. Marble & Grain. Braddon restaurants have a thing about clever names and I was particularly excited when Marble & Grain launched, expecting a high-end gastropub, with gorgeous, delicately-marbled steaks and sides and a range of excellent beers to match. After its soft opening late in 2014, I watched first with interest, then surprise, as respected reviewers and friends emerged from their experience and gave Marble & Grain a resounding thumbs down.

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La Sable Patisserie, Mitchell

15 Apr

La Sable Patisserie is right up there with Pialligo Estate as something I’ve been waiting for for a long, long time. Years ago, the hairdresser who essentially created my hair colour (yes, the red hair) mentioned that a family member had worked at Flute Bakery and was quite the pastry chef (talented family, right?) that I hoped we might one day see something akin to Flute on the northside. (And we all know how much I love Flute.) La Sable opened up earlier this year and – in addition to a big plug on Scotty & Nige’s radio show – it’s getting great reviews around town. One of the greatest things about it is that, unlike Flute, it’s open more hours daily and it’s open on Saturdays!

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Auto Italia 2015

29 Mar

Auto Italia is a fantastic car event. I love that you can have a fantastic day admiring the cars whether you know a great deal about them or whether you know nothing (me). I often marvel at the effort the car owners put in – not just for this day, but every day, being responsible for vehicles like these.

As usual, it makes a lot more sense for me to let the pictures do the talking!

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