Dinner @ Courgette (Canberra, Australia)

January 2, 2020 in Australian, European by thywhaleliciousfay

Because I was spending 4 days in Canberra, I made a pact to myself to try at least 2 fine dining restaurants. Keke. So beside Aubergine which was an obvious choice as it’s the highest rated restaurant in ACT (Australian Capital Territory) by Good Food Guide 2019 with 2 hats, I decided on Courgette which was awarded 1 hat.

Now… I originally made reservation for lunch via Courgette’s website. However, when I was in Canberra, I called the restaurant to ask if I could change my lunch reservation to dinner; I was visiting galleries the day I meant to have lunch at Courgette, and it didn’t make sense to cross the bridge to go to the restaurant and cross the bridge again to resume my gallery-hopping. My bad. When I did my itinerary planning on Google map, I didn’t expect Canberra to be so big. And thankfully they could slot me in at 8.30pm.

On the day of my dinner, I decided to reach much earlier than my 8.30pm reservation time. I honestly thought I could be seated earlier by reaching earlier. And thus starting dinner earlier for me to return to hotel earlier (Haha. The number of ‘earlier’ I used). However, I soon realised it was a bad decision.

Entering through the entrance at 8.10pm, I immediately noticed the staff was bustling around. Even though they saw me, no one came forth to the receptionist desk to acknowledge my presence. And soon, more customers streamed in at 8.15pm. It was apparent the staff were struggling with crowd management. But thankfully chef-owner James Mussillon stepped in to manage the mess.

There’s 3 dining areas. The main dining area had a view of the internal garden through the full-height glazing. Unfortunately for me, I was seated in another area and right at the corner. So it could be because I was out of the waiting staff’s line of vision or they were seriously too busy understaffed that I only had my order taken 20 minutes after seated. For dinner, Courgette offered a 4-courses meal (AUD88). And from the menu (pages 1, 2), I ordered:-

  

1) Bread, Complimentary (above)

2) Welcome soup, Complimentary (above) – The waiting staff didn’t elaborate the flavour, but I guessed it’s probably celeriac.

3) Dish #1 with options of:-

(A) Hawkesbury River stuffed baby squid, blue eye cod, Eden Bay mussels, chorizo, charred red pepper (above)

(B) Beer battered courgette blossom filled with lightly, smoked buffalo mozzarella, basil & olive pesto, carrot gel (above) – I was surprised to see head chef James serving the dish personally. And after introducing the dish, he apologised for the slow service as it’s a busy night with many big groups. I softened. Ha!>

4) Dish #2 (above) – Seared clearwater scallops, free range confit chicken wings, cauliflower puree, star anise & Szechuan pepper gastrique.

5) Dish #3 with options of:-


(A) Spinach & ricotta tortellini, pumpkin, baked eggplant, haloumi, mixed seeds, sage beurre noisette (above) – I didn’t like this. The pasta skin was too thick.

(B) Market fish of the day, smoked salmon custard, herbed potato hash, seaweed salad, avruga caviar sauce (above)

6) Dish #4 with options of:-


(A) Caramelised honey crisp apple and cinnamon, flaky pastry, milk sorbet, freeze fried maple (above) – Similar to the pasta, I found parts of the pie pastry too thick. Especially the perimeter. It even tasted a little… Doughy? But the apple puree served alongside with the pie was really good.

(B) Brillat-Savarin, red wine poached pear, granola cookie, quince, lavosh (above)

7) Petit fours (above)

I wasn’t too impressed with my meal at Courgette mainly because of the service. But! When I was onto my last dish, head chef James came over. He was surprised at how much I could fit into my stomach. HAHA! So the thing was… I ordered extras. A supposedly 4-courses dinner became a 7-courses meal. Keke. And through my conversation with him, I learnt that they were short handed because a number of his staff pulled out at the very last minute. At 5.30pm! It was the Labour Day long weekend that I was in Canberra too. So that explained the bad service. He went on to say he could have done something if his staff gave him enough notice. In fact, I noticed head chef James was busy shuttling between the kitchen and dining area. And I really give him credit for it. He’s a good multi-tasker.

So ignoring the poor service standard (which shouldn’t happen normally), I would say Courgette is ideal for a fancy dining experience. And because my 3 additional dishes coincidentally happened to be 1 appetiser, 1 main and 1 dessert, I was told I was charged AUD154 which was the price for a 4-courses dinner & a 3-courses lunch.

COURGETTE
54 Marcus Clarke Street, Canberra ACT, Australia
+61 2 6247 4042, Website
Overall: 7.5
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 7
Mon – Sat : 12:00 – 15:00 (Lunch)
Ambience: 7
Mon – Sat : 18:00 – 23:00 (Dinner)
Value: 7
Service: 6
* Closed on Sun

Dinner @ Aubergine (Canberra, Australia)

October 14, 2019 in Australian by thywhaleliciousfay

When I was holidaying in Sydney back in 2017, I didn’t think I would return to Sydney. Don’t get me wrong… It’s just that I would visit the other states when I do return to Australia for travels. But I guess the statement ‘You never know what your future holds’ is true. I certainly didn’t expect myself to be out-stationed. *Sheepish grin*

After I settled my accommodation, etc, I began making my plans to travel within Australia. And my first trip out of Sydney was to Canberra! I mean, Canberra was really accessible. Just a 4-hours rail journey. And October couldn’t be a better time to visit because of Floriade! But of course, no trip would be complete without satisfying my craving for good food. Keke. And for my Canberra trip, I made reservation at Aubergine and Courgette. =)

For Aubergine, I was re-directed to a third party online booking system The Fork where I made my reservation 1.5 weeks ahead.

Aubergine wasn’t located in the city centre. The suburb which it was located in was actually nearer to Canberra Railway Station. And from the city, I took bus R6 to reach the restaurant at 6.25pm.

For dinner, Aubergine served a 4-courses meal (AUD105) where one had up to 4 options to choose from for 3 of the 4 courses. And from the dinner menu, I ordered:-


  

1) Snack #1, Complimentary (above) – Beetroot tart, and puff with smoked ocean trout cream. The beetroot tart was a delight to eat; It had various textures which included beetroot puree, beet-vinegar jelly, etc.

2) Snack #2, Complimentary (above) – And I was told the sugar pea was meant to be a refreshing dish. Hmm… Interesting.

  

3) Bread, Complimentary (above)


4) Dish #1 (above) – Hiramasa kingfish, celeriac, creme fraiche & mustard oil. I really enjoyed this refreshing dish. It was brilliant! I especially liked how they played with the textures; The crunchy celariac strips and buckwheat against the kingfish’s chewiness. Glad there’s no option offered for the first course so that every diner would get to enjoy this.

5) Dish #2 (above) – Duck breast, grilled celtuce, lovage, wakame & buttermilk dressing.

6) Dish #3 with options of:-

(A) Potato tart, roasted yeast, black garlic puree & creamed swiss chard (above) – This potato tart tasted like pizza to me. What sorcery is this! The potato was cooked perfectly through, and was so soft to the bite. I never had a potato tart before cause it’s like carbohydrates on carbohydrates. But I was so glad I decided to be more adventurous care less about putting on weight from eating too much carbohydrates. Keke.

(B) Fillet of hapuka, baby octopus, caramelised cauliflower & sudachi (above) – And I was told that the fish was cooked skin down and then cooked through in the oven. Now, I am not one to order fish for my main but I was attracted to this dish because of the baby octopus. Ha. But I am glad I ordered this fish dish (because of the baby octopus). Pretty good!

7) Dish #4 with options of:-

(A) Baked cheesecake, lemonade fruit, passionfruit & coconut sorbet (above)


(B) Coffee & caramel delice, frozen chocolate milk, brown butter (above) – The waiting staff went on to explain egg white and cocoa powder were put into a piper and hardened with nitrogen. Thus, creating the melt-in-mouth melt-upon-contact texture of the frozen chocolate milk.

Everything about my dinner at Aubergine was great! I really enjoyed the dishes. To be honest, I didn’t think much of the dining scene in Canberra. But this meal changed my mind. Good food could also be found in Canberra! Not just Sydney and Melbourne! Hee. During my dinner, I even heard the table of diners seated near me exclaim “this is really good” at least twice. Looked like I wasn’t the only one enjoying my meal!

Will I recommend Aubergine? Definitely.

So while it was a 4 courses menu, I ordered additional. Thus explaining the 6 dishes instead of 4. Yes, I finished everything as a solo diner even though the serving were regular portion. Keke. And for my additional main and dessert, I was charged AUD25 and AUD16 respectively. Really reasonable, I say!

And I thought I should share… So while Michelin Guide hasn’t come to Australia, Australia has their Good Food Guide Award where restaurants are awarded hats. The more hats, the better. And for the latest Good Food Guide Award (2019), Aubergine has 2 hats under their belt. I certainly agree with their verdict!

AUBERGINE
18 Barker Street, Griffith, Canberra ACT, Australia
+61 2 6260 8666, Website
Overall: 8
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 8
Mon – Sat : 18:00 – 22:00
Ambience: 8
Value: 8
Service: 8
* Closed on Sun

Dinner @ Tempura Niitome にい留 (Nagoya, Japan)

October 3, 2019 in Japanese by thywhaleliciousfay

I had been fortunate to eat my way through Japan the past few years. Visiting some very famous and reputable restaurants. A quick recap… For tempura, I gone to Mikawa Zezankyo and Tempura Fukamachi in 2016, Tempura Motoyoshi in 2017, and Takiya and Nihombashi Sonoji in 2018. And for my trips in 2019, I was extremely fortunate and blessed to secure reservations at Tempura Niitome, Tempura Kondo and Kusunoki.

When I was planning my 2019 trips, I realised the restaurants I dined in my earlier trips was just a scratch of the surface. There were so many other good tempura restaurants. Names which unfortunately didn’t come up on the first few pages of Google’s search results. So yes, I created a new list of tempura-restaurants-to-try. Keke:
  - Kusunoki: Also known as the most expensive tempura restaurant
  - Mikasa
  - Tempura Kondo
  - Tempura Naruse
  - Tempura Niitome: Best tempura restaurant in Japan. Yes, it held the no. 1 spot on Tabelog’s tempura restaurant ratings.

Being the typically paranoid me (since 2019 also marked the year I finally ventured out of Tokyo), I decided to use Tableall’s service instead of trying to make the call on my own since I had a specific date for my meal in Nagoya (before I proceeded on to Kyoto); I didn’t want to risk not securing a seat at Tempura Niitome cause I also read it’s super hard to get through once the line opens for reservation. So I sent my reservation request in December 2018, but was informed by Tableall that Tempura Niitome take reservation for April on 1 February 2019. And so, the wait began. It was nerve-wrecking cause I read that it’s really hard to get through their line. But thankfully on 1 February, I got my confirmation from Tableall. Yeah!

Confirmed for 6pm, I was informed that dinner would last for 3 hours minimum. I was asked if I had to catch the last bullet train (shinkansen) at 10.12pm. Cause if I had to, chef-owner Shuji Niitome would then (try to) quicken the pace of dinner. But thankfully, I didn’t have to.

  

So one could say I only traveled to Nagoya because of Tempura Niitome. And it was honestly with much excitement as I counted down to dinner. And for my 6pm dinner, I entered the restaurant at 5.55pm. I actually reached earlier but chose to linger outside the building. Till I saw a couple making their way up to Level 2 where Tempura Niitome was located at.

And once everyone settled down, I commenced my ¥‎28,000 omakase dinner with:-

1) Dish #1 (above) – An English-speaking staff came round and helped to translate head chef Niitome san’s introduction of the dish. But I wasn’t sure if I heard her right. Pine nut? Scallop? Bamboo shoot? But this was seriously good. The (green) sauce was superb.

2) Dish #2 (above) – 3 slices of snapper (tai) sashimi.

3) Dish #3 (above) – Marinated bonito.

While we were waiting for our fourth dish, the English-speaking staff came up to me and asked if I was fine with dinner lasting till 10pm. Since I was not rushing for the last bullet train, I confirmed with her that I was good.

4) Dish #4 (above) – Squid stuffed with roe. This was my first time having it so huge, and it was a bit too much for me. I didn’t quite enjoy the roe which was of a mushy texture. But I finished it nonetheless.


5) Dish #5 (above) – Clam soup.

6) Dish #6 (above) – Tomato served with vinegar jelly.


7) Dish #7 (above) – Prawn heads tempura. It’s interesting and really unique that head chef Niitome san removed the shell head before deep frying. And these were crispy and flavourful, especially with all the high cholesterol (prawn head) insides still intact. Yum!

8) Dish #8 (above) – For the prawn tempura, I noticed head chef Niitome san would flex the prawn tail before frying it. And before my first prawn was served, I noticed him calling his staff over. And although he was whispering to her, I overheard a “Tan san”. Haha. So I figured it had to be something for/about me. And true enough, she came round to me and said I should have the prawn tempura without any sauce.


9) Dish #9 (above) – And with my second prawn tempura, I realised it was intentional for the batter to be consistently gathered at where the (prawn) legs were.

10) Dish #10 (above) – Cuttlefish (ika) tempura.

11) Dish #11 (above) – Broad beans tempura.

12) Dish #12 (above) – Baby white anchovy (shirauo) tempura.

13) Dish #13 (above) – Mountain herb tempura.

14) Dish #14 (above) – Sillago (kisu) tempura.

15) Dish #15 (above) – Dandelion flower tempura. And with this piece, I really noticed even though the batter was just a teeny weeny oily, the batter was really light and airy. In fact, the batter wrapping the various ingredients was like cloud; Biting into a light mass of tempura batter. Really crispy. Really nice.

16) Dish #16 (above) – Bamboo shoot tempura. And I really enjoyed watching how the various ingredients were prepared differently. For the bamboo shoot, head chef Niitome san had an additional step of dusting (dry) flour with a sieve onto the bamboo the ingredient with dry flour with a sieve, before proceeding with his next few steps of deep frying.


17) Dish #17 (above) – Sweet fish (ayu) from Nagano prefecture. Before head chef Niitome san started working on this dish, he went round the table for us to snap pictures. Although I had my turn, I decided I wanted more (photographs) while watching others take picture and raised my mobile. And it was really nice of head chef Niitome san that he noticed and brought the pot towards me (again). And after our photo-taking session, I watched him pour some of the water out, put ice in and shake the pot (with the plastic lid over the pot mouth) really, really hard. He must have seen the question marks on my face, because he used body language to explain that the shaking was to put the fishes to sleep. Ohhh… The ‘sleeping’ fishes were then transferred to a straw tray where head chef Niitome san dried every one of them with a cloth before coating them in a wet batter for frying.

18) Dish #18 (above) – Clam tempura.

19) Dish #19 (above) – Asparagus (middle portion) tempura.

20) Dish #20 (above) – Asparagus (bottom portion) tempura.

21) Dish #21 (above) – Scampi prawn tempura.

22) Dish #22 (above) – Asparagus (top portion) tempura.

  

23) Dish #23 (above) – Sea urchin tempura. And I was told April (the month which I was dining at Tempura Niitome) was the best month for sea urchin. The female customer sitting beside me shared that the one box of sea urchin cost ¥50,000. Gasp!

24) Dish #24 (above) – Shiitake mushroom tempura.

25) Dish #25 (above) – Sea eel (anago) tempura.

  

26) Dish #26 (above)

27) Dish #27 (above) – Pickled vegetables.

28) Dish #28 (above) – And there was 3 options for the rice bowl; Tendon, tenbara and tencha. I asked head chef Niitome san for recommendation and he said “Tendon”. So I went with that. But it was only later that I realised some customers actually ordered all three. Sad! Greedy me want all 3 too. But then again, I was glad I went with just tendon because my stomach was seriously bursting by then. And the portion for the rice bowls (don) were regular portion. Though if I knew I could order all, I probably would request for smaller portion. Ha! But one should definitely order the tendon and tencha. The tencha looked so good. After putting a scoop of rice into the bowl, he added a spoonful of thick green paste (think it may be the same tasty sauce used in Dish #1) which he diluted with tea. And the tencha was complete after he topped it with his sakura-shrimp-cake tempura.

29) Dish #29 (above) – Clam soup.

By the time I was served green tea (after the clam soup), it was midnight! Yes. I was shocked to realise it was that late when I checked the time. So it’s a must to spend the night at Nagoya in order to fully enjoy the meal at Tempura Niitome. I honestly couldn’t imagine how madly rushed dinner would be had anyone needed to catch the last bullet train out.

  

It was an ‘one man show’ at Tempura Niitome. He did everything with no sous chef to assist him. The other staff were present but to assist with the logistics like removing our plates, topping up our beverages, etc. And head chef Niitome san was really, really friendly. It helped that I got acquainted with the (Japanese) couple seated beside me; The lady acted as our translator. But head chef Niitome san was really friendly and smile-ly. It was amazingly coincidental that I mentioned I was at Hatsunezushi earlier in the week and head chef Niitome san said he was at Hatsunezushi just yesterday. And 10 minutes later, chef-owner Katsu Nakaji of Hatsunezushi posted the group picture of him and head chef Niitome san on instagram. It cracked us up so badly.

And as we made our way out of the restaurant after the meal, he presented us with a bag of tempura bits. A real treat because what set Tempura Niitome apart from the rest had to be his tempura batter and the way he fried the ingredients. The batter was light and airy. I would even use the word ‘fluffy’ to describe. His unique way of frying was very evident with his prawn tempura where one could see the fluff of batter gathered at the prawns’ legs. Really good. It was also after my dinner that I read his batter was made with flour that had been chilled to around -10 degree. Thus, the melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Would I recommend Tempura Niitome. FOR SURE! It’s a pity he’s in Nagoya. But hey! I guess it’s a good thing that he’s not located in Tokyo. It’s already so difficult to make reservation when he’s in Nagoya. I couldn’t imagine how worst the reservation would be if he shift to Tokyo. And because I made reservation through Tableall, I pre-paid ¥35,000 (including tax, etc) for my ¥28,000 (excluding 8% VAT). Which I felt was reasonable. Do the mathematics please!

Certainly hope I would get to return to Nagoya for Tempura Niitome. =)

Now… At the point of my dinner in April 2019, there was no Michelin Guide for Nagoya. I actually thought to myself then that if there’s one published, Tempura Niitome was worthy of at least 2 Michelin stars. And! In the first edition published in May 2019 (just 1 month after my meal at Tempura Niitome), Tempura Niitome was awarded 2 Michelin stars. Woohoo!

NIITOME にい留
Cast Building Izumi, 2-19-11 Izumi, Higashi, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan (愛知県 名古屋市東区 泉 2-19-11 キャストビル泉 2F)
+81 52 936 2077, Website, Tablelog
Overall: 9
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 10
Irregular : 18:00 – 00:00
Ambience: 8
Value: 9
Service: 9