Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When you have been cooking all wrong...

There is a trend in cooking - I think driven by the extreme scientific types - about concentrating flavours.

When Thomas Keller makes a little soup (just a mouthful) from brocolli - the flavour of a whole bunch of brocoli is concentrated in that soup.

When Hestor Blumenthal makes his (fantastic) spagetti bolognaise he has a dozen tricks to make the meat taste meatier - and its all about trace ingredients such a a touch of thai fish sauce and star anise.

And I admit that I used the star anise pretty liberally for exactly that purpose.

So then I go to another style of restaurant. I am staying with my inlaws in Western Victoria so the wife and I went to Stefanos. This is one of the best restaurants I know anywhere in the world. It is better than any in Sydney (including Tets and my favourite Seans Panaroma). Its certainly better than any in Melbourne - and hey it stands up against St Johns in London too.

But Thomas Keller it is not.

The meal was one of delicate balance after delicate balance. The first dish was a cured kingfish.

But I was struggling to work out how it was cured. Everything I cure tastes pretty salty. This did not. But if it was citrus cured you could barely taste the lemon.

It turns out it was cured in the juice of five oranges and 30g of salt. Relatively little salt given the task - and oranges are so much gentler than lemons (though I am determined to try grapefruit).

It was served with capers - but very few. Sort of like the melodrama of putting saltanas in your saltana bran. You want a few - but no so much that there is no surprise when you get the sweetness of one. This was perfect.

There were a few cubes (2mm cubes that is) of beetroot - which struck me as very Australian - but I can't work out why they were there.

My wife - and this was a compliment - described this as so delicate it was almost flavourless. It set the tone for noting subtlety - and that was what was really special about Stefanos.

The next course was the most delicate beef carpacio I have ever had. Not rich - and with some home made mayonaise and a few other odds - truly scrumptious - but without being anything like as overwhelming as the Bourdain Steak tartar.

Then followed zuchini flowers stuffed with a light goats(?) cheese and fried. Nothing complicated - with some shaved ham of the most amazing but delicate flavour. The cheese and ham platter from heaven.

Then followed a hand made ravioli stuffed with quail and served in sage butter. Simple stuff - well executed (but I guess it is a pain to make). My wife who is allergic to wheat had one of the most original pastas I have ever tasted - a buffalo mozarella and caramelized onion sauce on a gluten free pasta. I think it was a one-off but if so Stefano is a genius.

Mains however were a disappointment. The lamb was good - the potatos were excellent - but it did not sing. I can cook better lamb - and so can Stefano. Last time we were here the mains were an italian style roast chicken. Good -but not as good as Seans.

Desert was simple - vanilla and orange panacotta (but he called it something other than panacotta). He must have used some very bitter oranges and they offset the sweetness of a very sugary sauce. Fabulous and delicate again.

What this taught me though is that there is a sterility in the modern flavour concentration methods of cooking - and that some things can be obtained through balance rather than brute force.

This is not a restaurant of the modern fashion. The Hestor Blumenthals of the world dominate the debate because they are so darn clever. But it is real food done with a flair you will find few places in the world.

I know the readership of my main blog (and hence this) is London and New York - but if anyone has influence this deserves a place in the top 50 restaurants in the world... and it should be so rated.

John Hempton

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