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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Quán Bụi 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 Quán Bụi. 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. Quán Bụi 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 Quán Bụi, First Floor, 39 Ly Tu Trong, District 1, HCMC

Eating Out Guide to Hue, Vietnam

After my trip down pizza lane the other day, you might think that I had given up on local food. This is definitely not the case. Staying in Hue, Vietnam for nine days has given me a chance to sample many of the local dishes as well as frequenting a variety of restaurants, except for those owned by large hotels or glitzy palaces. My only rule when travelling is to avoid these places. We have eaten very well. A short list of restaurants appears at the end of this post in case you ever find yourself  spending time in this relaxed and refined city. Although only around 145 km north of Hôi An, via the dramatic Hải Vân Pass, the city of Hue has its own regional dishes, although in some instances, one could say they are the same, same, and not very different. The locals swear that they are only to be found in Hue!

The ultimate sweet snack.
The ultimate sweet snack.

When I’m craving something sweet, I start munching on Kẹo Đậu Phụng, a peanut and sesame brittle treat. This double layered version, with ample toffee between the layers is a firm winner and can be found in Hue’s Dong Ba Market for 15,000VRD/Au 88c a piece. There is just a hint of residual smoky flavour left from the open charcoal cooking. Versions of this snack are probably found all over Vietnam- some come in flat rounds, others in square blocks.

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Banh Beo, served in Hanh Restaurant, Hue Vietnam

Each restaurant in Hue seems to have a different take on the local dish, bánh bèo. Bánh bèo  (literally “water fern cake”) is a small steamed glutinous rice cake in the shape of a disc. It features a dimple in the center which is filled with savoury ingredients including chopped fresh shrimp, spring onions, mung bean paste, crispy fried shallots or dried pork crackling, with a side dressing of fish sauce and rice vinegar. The best version in Hue can be found at  Hanh, a little restaurant down a small lane, where they served these snacks in little pottery dishes. To eat them, you add a teaspoon of the dressing, then scoop out the paste with a spoon, fold the parcel in half and slide it down in one mouthful.

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Banh beo – the vegetarian version from Lien Hoa Restaurant Hue

The vegetarian version at Lien Hoa Restaurant came steamed on a plate and was not so exotic in presentation but still made a fine starter. Lien Hoa is packed with locals on the weekend so time your visit with this in mind. The menu is exciting, cheap and radically different. The main challenge is to not over order. I want it all!! Below, the little nem rán or vegetarian spring rolls, differ from the usual: these seem light and airy, as if made from flaky pastry and resemble little sausage rolls. The small grilled banana leaf parcels contain glutinous rice stuffed with a tasty bean paste. The hot sauces and chilli add another dimension to each mouthful.

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Nem Ran, and steamed tofu served with salt and pepper dip mixed with lime, and Vietnamese mint leaves.

After a few days wandering around Hue, you begin to notice the prominence of vegetarian restaurants in this city. The key word to look for above restaurant doorways is Chay. They are scattered throughout the city,  on both sides of the Perfume River, to serve the locals who have a strong tradition of eating vegetarian food twice a month as part of their Buddhist belief. Another feature of the local cuisine that sets it apart from others in Vietnam is the smaller serving size and refined presentation. They can often be more spicy than other regional foods, though chilli concoctions are generally served on the side. It is still mild compared with Thai food.

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Banh Khoai, crispy rice pancake, served at Hanh Restaurant, Hue.
Banh ... in the making
Banh Khoai in the making

Banh Khoai is a crunchy rice flour pancake, not unlike a taco, made bright yellow with turmeric and extra-crispy due to sugar and carbonated water in the batter. It is a smaller and thicker version of the Banh Xeo, the version found in Hôi An discussed in my post here. The rice flour mixture ( there are no eggs used) is cooked in a frypan with ample oil, then stuffed with shrimp and pork belly or sausage, then when the pancake is crispy and golden on the bottom, spring onions and bean sprouts are added to the top. It is then folded and left to drain. The Banh Khoai is served with an abundant serving of lettuce, cucumber, mint, rau ram, coriander, perilla and a small pickle, along as a peanut sauce that is dark and a little challenging, given the touch of pork liver. To eat, break the crispy pancake into edible chunks, add to your serving bowl, cover with lots of herbs and lettuce, and then add a little peanut sauce. Eat with chopsticks, making sure you get lots of mint, which is the main counterbalance to the fried morsel. It is possible to ask for the meaty elements to be removed when you order Banh Khoai. We had them with prawn at Hanh Restaurant.

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A fresh salad adds balance to fried food and soups.

The Vietnamese have embraced a few French staples: not only the ubiquitous baguette, which can be found all over the country and on every street stall, but my favourite little dessert, creme caramel. Kem Flan can be found in most restaurants throughout Hue and is very much a local food. The bakeries across the river near the citadel churn out mini tubs of them daily. I ate a double whammy plate full at Hanh restaurant. They are baked on the premises daily and come with a huge slurp of passionfruit on top.

Half of my double serve of Kem Fflan - Miss greedy couldn't wait for the photo.
Half of my double serve of Kem Flan – Miss greedy couldn’t wait for the photo

A few restaurant recommendations. Each one offers something delightful and not necessarily the food.

  • Hanh Restaurant. A great local restaurant with interesting local dishes and a very small but authentic menu. One English-speaking waiter will help show you how to assemble your dishes. 1 Phó Đức Chính, tp. Huế, Phú Hội
  • Lien Hoa Vegetarian Restaurant, very busy with locals on the weekend, serving unusual and exciting vegetarian food. Đôn, Thiêh, 3 Lê Quý Đôn, Huế, Thua Thien Hue
  • Zucca, the best restaurant in Hue. Great Pizza, pasta and fusion food. Cheap local beer and wine. See my review here.
  • Risotto. Has a similar menu to Zucca but the food is disappointing. Free bruschetta seems to appeal to the crowds. Handy to the hotel precinct.
  • Serene Shining Restaurant. 57/5 Nguyen Cong Tru street, Hue. This restaurant is attached to our hotel and makes lovely soups. The crab and lotus seed soup is very comforting after a long day. The staff are a happy crew and keen to assist with anything. This hotel is small, comfortable and the staff make you feel very much at home.
  • Bo De Vegetarian restaurant. 11 Le Loi, Hue, Vietnam. Great eggplant dishes. Many things were unavailable during our last visit and I suspect the food comes from a bain marie. Close to the river at the Museum end of Le Loi.
  • Lac Thien, 6 Dinh Hoang, Hue, Vietnam. On the Citadel side of the river and handy if you are strolling about in that older neighbourhood. Simple food, nothing special, except for the large extended family running the place and the 92 year old grandmother who still helps out. 

A few good Links on Vietnamese Food

Zucca Restaurant. The Best Restaurant in Hue, Vietnam

There comes a time, every two weeks or so, when my body screams for pizza. This tends to happen more often in Asia. The scenario goes like this.”Where do you want to eat tonight? What do you feel like?” Local food options are considered, followed by an hour of walking along hot, busy streets, reading yet more menus, all delightful but strikingly similar, when finally my inner Strega rises to the fore and growls, “I would kill for a pizza”. Can we go back to Zucca restaurant? My guilty acquiescence is abated when Mr Tranquillo admits to the same desire.

Pizza Marinara, Zucca Restuarant, Hue, Vietnam
Pizza Marinara, Zucca Restaurant, Hue, Vietnam

Don’t get me wrong: I love the local Vietnamese cuisine here in Hue and have tried some excellent local restaurants in our nine-day sojourn here. The cuisine of Hue is a lot more varied and spicy than the usual Vietnamese offerings in Melbourne. But a good pizza washed down with a glass or two of wine is a heavenly thing, even when the wine in this divine coupling is the local Dalat wine, an acquired taste to which, through necessity, I have succumbed.

Pizza Heaven at Zucca, Hue
Pizza Heaven at Zucca, Hue. Pizza Marinara 139,000VND/AU$8.18

Running an Italian restaurant in an Asian tourist area is a licence to print money. These restaurants are always packed with expats, travellers and backpackers, some seeking respite from the local cuisine, while others, especially the younger travellers, needing food that is familiar and non- challenging. Asian versions of pizza and pasta are generally lost in translation. The pasta is often overcooked or drowned in Dolmio or Raguletto bottled sauce or the pizza is disappointing. Not at Zucca in Hue. The food here would rival the best Italian offerings in Rome or Melbourne.

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Meet the chef at Zucca, Huy.

After eating a couple of their excellent pizzas, we returned one night to try the pasta, in particular, the spinach and ricotta ravioli. The pasta is freshly made on the premises and the serving size is generous, topped with a home-made tomato sauce or cream. There is a tiny topping of basil ( Vietnamese basil- the only local touch). There are sadly no pics of this remarkable dish.At VND 70,000/AU$4.12, I am keen to return to try the pumpkin ravioli version.

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grilled calamari, marinade of lemongrass, nicely charred.

After we sated our lust for Italian food, we began to notice that Zucca also offers local food as well as fusion food. The grilled calamari spiedini are marinated in aromatic lemongrass, then threaded with capsicum and onion slices and grilled on charcoal. They are served with a large salad and rice. VND 100,000/AU$5.88

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The Melanzane Parmigiana is a slab of crumbed and fried eggplant, layered with mozzarella, home-made tomato salsa and parmesan. It was very sustaining, but a little dry due to my taste due to the crumbing.  VND80,000/AU$4.71

squid tempura entree with salad.
squid tempura entrée with salad.

The calamari entrée comes with a generous salad,  VND 80,000/AU$4.71,  making it a great little snack to go with a glass of fresh beer on tap  at VND10,000/AU$.59c. ( yes- 59 cents! a glass). Mr T claims that the local beer is the safest and most economical drink in Vietnam. The local chilled white wine, which is made in the cooler district of DàLat, is a bargain at VND120,000 /AU$7.06.

DaLat wine. It grows on you.
Dalat wine. It grows on you.

It really is hard to keep away from Zucca.

  • Zucca Restaurant, 3 Doi Cong street, Hue, Vietnam

Guide to Cooking Schools in Asia

Attending a cooking school in Asia is a satisfying holiday activity. These classes are usually cheap ( somewhere between AU $20- $40 per person ) and last for around three hours or so. You will usually learn 3 – 5 dishes, and in the better schools, will also come away with a greater understanding of the culinary traditions of the country. I have enjoyed cooking schools in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Vietnam. Each one was memorable and each had its highlights. These days, however, I am quite selective about the classes I wish to attend.

Market stall buffet, Hoi An
Market stall buffet, Hoi An, Vietnam

The price for a class will often include:

  • a pick up from your hotel
  • a trip to the local market to buy ingredients and introduce you to the local produce.
  • a menu which will invariably include savory fried starters  – spring rolls and paper rolls for example, with slight variations from country to country.
  • a noodle dish
  • one other meat dish (usually chicken)
  • separate small cooking stations for participants

    Market lady making fresh Bánh phở noodles.
    Market lady making fresh Bánh phở noodles.

Once you have mastered the spring roll/paper roll thing, it’s time to move on. If you have already been to the local market in the town you are visiting, there’s no need to visit again with a cooking school. I prefer to go to the market for a whole morning, to wander through all the stalls slowly, taking lots of photos along the way. The local markets are usually hot, dark and very cramped and although at times I get hassled, I love this total immersion in local food and culture. It is one thing I must do in every Asian town, big or small.

Hoi An market stall.
Another Hoi An market stall.

Many cooking schools claim to cater for vegetarians in their menu selections, but this usually means substituting tofu for meat in the same dishes cooked by the other members of the class. In curry dishes in Thailand, they will substitute a few vegetables. In other words, you won’t be learning much about the real vegetarian traditions of that country.  Menus offering fish will be far more expensive. Fish is a costly item in Asia so will rarely appear on a cooking class menu.

Small fish stall at Hoi An market. Mackeral is the best option in Asia
Small fish stall at Hoi An market. Mackerel is the best fish option in Asia.

Consider the following before choosing a school:

  • if the cooking school is attached to a restaurant, eat there first. Read their menu and get an idea about the quality of the food and its authenticity. Some of these schools tone things down for the Western palate.
  • check on class sizes. I once attended a famous cooking class in Ubud, Bali, where the class size blew out to 20 or more. Too many people meant very little hands on learning. It was very impersonal and depended entirely on the presentation and personality of the celebrity chef. Ask about the class size and the number of cooking stations. Any number over 8 is too many.
  • Make sure that the dishes you will be cooking sound appealing. There is no point in learning something that you won’t cook at home.
  • If you are an experienced cook, consider taking a private class. It will cost you a few more dong, bhat, rupees or rupiah but in the end, you get to make more complex dishes and ask more questions. They usually require two people to attend. Also negotiate the menu before hand. This might be done on the morning of the class.
  • Make sure that you will be taught by someone who has a good command of English and preferably a cook or chef. In larger classes, young trainers who have learnt a set repertoire will take you through the dishes. This leaves little room for  in-depth questions or discussion of culinary traditions.
  • Have a light breakfast. You will need a healthy appetite to eat everything you make.
  • Take a pen and notebook. Some schools will give you a little recipe book but making your own notes is more valuable.
  • Take lots of photos – a great reminder of technique as well as providing inspiration when you get home.
    A vegetarian soup made from tow stocks- one a vegetable stock, the other a deep mushroom stock. The soup contains rice noodles, vegetraian wontons, mushrooms, fried tofu and rau ( a kind of green vegetable) and Vietnamese mint. It is deeply satisfying. ( Minh Hiein Restaurant, Hoi An, Vietnam
    Above. A vegetarian soup made from two stocks- one a vegetable stock, the other a deep mushroom stock. The soup contains rice noodles, vegetarian wonton, mushrooms, fried tofu, rau ( a kind of green vegetable) and Vietnamese mint. It is deeply satisfying. Minh Hien Restaurant, Hoi An, Vietnam. The recipes at this restaurant are complex and full of flavour and were passed down to Nhiem, the chef, from his grandmother.

    Cao lầu noodles from Hoi An. These special local noodles are made with water sourced from an ancient well on Cham Island.
    Cao lầu noodles from Hoi An. These special local noodles are made with water sourced from an ancient Cham well. They turn up in most local restaurants in Hoi An but once you leave that town, they are not the same. Vietnamese food is very regional.

In My Kitchen, August 2016

This month, In My Kitchen takes place in a Vietnamese kitchen in Hôi An. As I mentioned in a previous post, I had arranged to do a private cooking class which took place in the back rooms of Minh Hiên Vegetarian Restaurant in Hôi An. What an amazing experience. Here is an excerpt from a future, still evolving post, highlighting some of the gems found in a Vietnamese kitchen.

Great little grater. I want one. Better than the Thai version.
Great little grater. I want one. Better than the Thai version.
Staff member using the great grater.
Staff member using the great grater.

Cooking classes not only introduce the participant to local recipes and new ingredients, but more importantly, they reinforce good technique, economy and the importance of mise en place. Vietnamese cuisine looks fast and easy to cook, but the flavour comes from careful and exacting preparation and the making of rich stocks beforehand.

The importance of Mise en place.
The importance of mise en place in Vietnamese cooking.

The tools and gadgets used on that day were perfect for each task. Long chopsticks are used for cooking, frying and stirring eggs. Turning over tofu slices with long chopsticks stops them from breaking, once you get used to handling slippery tofu in hot oil that is. Scissors are used to cut the green ends of spring onions: this part of the onion is never wasted and is also never cooked. The green part is usually cut into 2 cm pieces while the white onion end is always cooked, and is usually cut vertically.

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Mr T learns better technique.
Draining fried food without paper towels.
Draining fried food without paper towels.

Using a strainer over a bowl or saucepan is an economical and efficient way to drain fried food, and makes more sense than using paper towels. The strainer placed near the stove before any frying takes place. Above, some Banh Xeò ( crispy rice pancakes) drain before wrapping and eating. The street version of Banh Xeò includes prawn and pork in the filling. This vegetarian version substitutes hand torn oyster mushroom and thinly sliced cooked carrot. These colours resemble the colour and shapes used in the original version. The fun comes in the eating. Cut the Banh Xeò, using scissors, into two, lay it in rice paper, add lettuce, long strips of cucumber and mint, roll and dip in a special sauce made from fermented soya beans. Recipe will be coming soon.

A couple of nice blokes playing in a kitchen is a joy to behold. Here Nhien and Mr T are discussing technique. More on this amazing cooking school in a future post.

Nhien and Mr T discuss technique in a Vietnamese Kictehn
Nhien and Mr T discuss technique in a Vietnamese Kitchen.

Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant

50 Trần Cao Vân, tp. Hội An, Vietnam