Sunday, 26 April 2015

Hunter Valley Wine and Food Month highlights

If my recent jaunt to the Hunter Valley was presented via an Instagram filter, it would be courtesy of the social media site's Earlybird, which bathes everything in honeyed sunshine. The Hunter Valley's food and wine scene is one of the best in the land. But in a region so blessed, there are still a few places that are absolute standouts.

Now, with the region's Wine and Food Month right around the corner, there are more reasons than ever to head to the Hunter. This year's program includes a diverse array of activities that encourage visitors to tack to and fro among vineyards and restaurants that are far more than just local heroes. Following are a few of my favourite Hunter haunts that, as well as being worth a visit year-round, are highlights on this year's HVFWM calendar.

Dine with the Dynamic Duo @ Muse Restaurant
No food pilgrimage to the Hunter Valley would be complete without stopping to worship at the cathedral-sized Muse Restaurant run by husband-and-wife team Troy and Megan Rhoades-Brown. Yes, there is even more of an incentive to visit the restaurant during Hunter Valley Food and Wine Month in June with the Dine with the Dynamic Duo event on June 14 a highlight on the culinary calendar. 

Troy Rhoades-Brown and Gwyn Olson of Briar Ridge Wines team up for Dynamic Duo dinner. Photo: Courtesy of Muse.
 In 2014 Rhoades-Brown was named Young Restaurateur of the Year while Gwyn Olsen, of Briar Ridge Wines won Gourmet Traveller WINE Young Winemaker of the Year at the Gourmet Traveller awards. Together, the pedigreed pair will present a four-course menu designed by Rhoades-Brown and matched with Briar Ridge Wines hand-picked by Olsen for the fixed price of $125 per person. 

Jerusalem artichoke, forest slippery jacks, whipped brie and honeycomb.                    Photo: Courtesy of Muse.
Expect a few sighs from rubbernecking diners as the food arrives. While the cooking bears the hallmarks of Rhoades-Brown's Anglo-French training under Robert Molines, his trademark is to focus on terroir and cook with flair, with dishes so pretty the presentation often belies their substance.

Local partridge, salt-baked beetroot, horseradish and Binnorie goat's cheese.             Photo: Courtesy of Muse.

The menu features sashimi of hiramasa kingfish, Jerusalem artichoke, Malfroy's honeycomb, French brie and hazelnut butter, Hunter Valley partridge with salt-baked beetroot, black fig, Binnorie goat's cheese and the Muse coconut dessert all paired with beauties from Briar Ridge.

Diners dreaming of grand food journeys can Dine with the Dynamic Duo on Sunday June 14 as part of the month-long Hunter Valley Food and Wine Festival.
For bookings, phone 02 4998 6777.
Hello pumpkin... food plucked from the Margan Estate garden with Brokenback range in the background.

The Original 100-Metre Meal @ Margan Restaurant
The Hunter Valley's ascension to culinary stardom was cemented with the arrival of Margan 10 years ago. While wine was at the forefront of Andrew and Lisa Margan's early form in the region - they have been making wine in the district for about two decades - the food is just as celebrated as their efforts on the eco front.

The 100-Metre Margan Meal is a highlight of Hunter Valley Food and Wine Month. 
Sustainability is a core value at Margan where Andrew and Lisa Margan's commitment to the environment is embodied in its food, wine and principles.

Lisa Margan is very hands-on at Margan Estate - from managing front of house to working in the sprawling garden patch. 
On a day-to-day basis, sustainability has woven a fairly heavy thread through the restaurant. But the Margan 100-Metre Meal takes this notion up a notch with its 'farm-to-table' fare that keeps that eco-minded ethos front of mind.

The Margan Autumn garden on a plate - everything on the plate is produced onsite.

Everything for the Margan 100-Metre meal, held daily throughout the month of June, has been grown within 100m of the restaurant in Broke Fordwich, which features 100 hectares of vines, a flock of Suffolk sheep, free-range chickens, an olive grove, serious orchard and a sprawling 4000 sq. m kitchen garden, which supplies about 90 per cent of the restaurant's fruit and vegetables.

As far as sustainability initiatives go, Margan sets the bar incredibly high. Winemaker Andrew Margan says the commitment to protecting the environmental values of the property for future generations ensures they integrate environmental responsibility and accountability into all aspects of its operations.

Margan Estate takes the notion of the 'farm-to-table fare up a notch at the 100-Metre Meal.

"This ethos provides guidance for all decision-making within the business and covers areas such as operations, product selection, preferred suppliers and best practice procedures," says Margan.

This year's menu for the 100-Metre Margan Meal at Margan Estate puts the focus on environmental sustainability with a menu that  features Estate-grown Suffolk lamb served with heirloom garden vegetables and accompanied with a glass of White Label Barbera. The banquet is held in the Barrel Hall which is of course just a short sprint away from the vegetable garden and is just $50 per person.

The 100-Metre Margan Meal features vegetables grown on site.                                          Photo: Courtesy of Margan.

On Sunday June 28 Margan will also host the Salt and Pepe Roadshow which starts by showcasing Pepe Saya butter, Olsson's salt and Margan bread and follows with a five-course degustation menu ($125 per person) served with matching Margan wines.
For bookings, email or call 02 6579 1317.

Guests at the food fight will judge the performance of chefs such as Sean McConnell at the 6th Annual Food Fight.

The 6th Annual Food Fight @ Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley
Top-notch chefs will again converge on the Hunter for the sixth annual food fight presented by the Hunter Culinary Association. For hardcore food groupies, being asked to judge which chef's cooking you like better is like being asked to choose a favourite friend ... right in front of them.

Expect Troy Rhoades-Brown, of Muse Dining, to deliver a few upper-cuts with dishes such as this elegant entree. 

Hosted by celebrity chef Matt Kemp, the event will see some of the Hunter's most celebrated chefs take up on a line-up of acclaimed chefs from Canberra and the Southern Highlands.

Ben Willis, of Aubergine in Canberra will put his best foot forward for regional culinary fight.
In the blue corner, we have culinary Hunter warriors Troy Rhoades-Brown (Muse Dining), Michael Robinson (Margan) and Emerson Rodriguez. While in the red corner, James Viles (Biota Dining), Ben Willis (Aubergine) and Sean McConnell (Monster Kitchen and Bar) are more than worthy opponents.

Expect big things from Biota Dining's James Viles, of the Southern Highlands.     Eggs and curds image: Jason Loucas.

Guests at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley event will have the pleasure of sitting in judgement over this clash of the culinary titans charged with creating the best three-course lunch their respective regions have to offer.

In the blue corner... the highly accomplished Hunter gatherer, Troy Rhoades-Brown, of Muse Restaurant.
The sixth annual Food Fight luncheon costs $120 for Hunter Culinary Association members; $160 for non-members, and $70 for apprentice chefs.
To avoid missing out on this clash of the culinary titans, book early and RSVP to Kirsty on by Friday May 15. To find out more information about the event, visit

James Viles, of Biota Dining, in the Southern Highlands has his game face on ahead of annual food fight.

The Whispering Brook Olive Long Table Lunch @ Whispering Brook
This is the al fresco place to sit and sip during Hunter Valley Wine and Food Month. As the sun casts a flattering glow over the mountains, witness diners biding their time in the sprawling grounds of Whispering Brook discussing the merits of slow food and great wine.

This feast is the sort of event that connects visitors with growers, winemakers and producers.
Watch a happy smile spread across the faces of Susan Frazier and Adam Bell as they introduce their boutique wines and premium olive oils. This is the not the sort of banquet where you must nibble daintily at your food. While this feast is just a tiny taster of the gatherings for gourmands over the month of June, it's the sort of event that makes food and wine more accessible to a wider audience simply by connecting visitors with growers, winemakers and food producers.
Whispering Brook Olive Long Table Lunch will connect you to winemakers, growers and producers.
Again, provenance is duly noted as is a feast designed to befit the backdrop of those beautiful mountains. In terms of great food and wine experience in an idyllic setting, it doesn't get much better than this. The annual long table luncheon features a sumptuous Mediterranean-inspired menu prepared by chef Andrew Wright, a tutored walking tour in the olive grove and a special presentation by Australian Olive Oil show judge Peter Olson who will talk about the amazing properties of extra virgin olive oil.

Take a tour of the Whispering Brook vineyard and learn more about the terroir.

This year's menu includes dishes designed to highlight the quality of extra virgin olive oil and will be complemented with matching Whispering Brook wines. Highlights of the four-course menu include duck confit rillette with Whispering Brook extra virgin olive oil, BBQ octopus and prawns with saffron aioli, braised pepper tart with white anchovies and olives, Moroccan-braised lamb with dukkah and tahini yoghurt and chill olive oil and rum baba with Whispering Brook lemon myrtle olive oil, mint creme fraiche and muscat syrup (at $139 per person).
To book, phone 02 9818 4126 or email
The feast is designed to befit the backdrop of the mountains and showcase Whispering Brook wine and olives.

Other standout events include the Going to a Garden Party gig with George Francisco at Circa 1876, the Trust the Chef five-course feast at Twine and the seasonal menu matched with award-winning wines on offer at the Tyrrell's Winemakers Table at Restaurant Botanica. The Hunter Valley Wine and Food Month also includes a range of educational cooking classes such as The Art of Gnocchi at Hermitage Lodge and Pan to Paella at The Verandah in Pokolbin.

Check out the full program for the 2015 Hunter Valley Food and Wine Month.

Carla Grossetti was a guest of Hunter Valley Wine Tourism and the Mercure Resort Hunter Valley Gardens.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Salt Meats Cheese meets Tutti a Tavola

"Tutti a tavola" means 'everyone to the table'. It's the essence of what Massimo Mele remembers from his happy childhood growing up in Hobart. It's also the name of the one-off dining experiences he curates at the Salt Meats Cheese warehouse every few months.

The long communal tables at Tutti a Tavola encourage diners to get to know one another.
"If you have Italian heritage, hearing the words 'tutti a tavola' means 'everyone to the table' for a big communal feast where there is lots of great food, the wine is flowing, everybody is sharing and laughing and having a great time," says the friendly, affable 30-something.

Two Italian boys - Massimo Mele and Stefano Di Blasi share a love of good honest Italian food.
It's clear from the outset that Mele and Salt Meats Cheese co-director Stefano Di Blasi love orchestrating these social occasions in the 950 square metre larder. And, from a diner's perspective, part of the appeal is the theatre of watching Mele himself tacking in and around the tables, cooking, orchestrating the staff and greeting his customers as if they are family.

Guests are given a Sofi Spritz on arrival at Salt Meats Cheese. 

At the recent Roman edition of Tutti a Tavola, there were diners present who have attended every one of Mele's Sydney events. "Tutti a Tavola is a fantastic excuse for me to celebrate great regional Italian street food. These big communal feasts are so much fun and the feedback is that it inspires people to make feasting with their own family more of a tradition," he says.

Communal tables are at the core of the Tutti a Tavola concept at Salt Meats Cheese.     Photo: Saskia Mulder.

Last week, the La Scala on Jersey executive chef and owner of Catering by Massimo once again commandeered the interior of the Alexandria food emporium for a feast of epic proportions. Like the space itself, there's a refreshing unpretentiousness to the compact fixed price menu. Pair this with a convivial commotion, musicians belting out traditional Italian tunes and you have an event that is intimate, informal, relaxed and friendly.
"There are no name tags on the tables, so it's very informal and about bringing people together and having fun."

Tutti A Tavola is such a warm, intimate experience that diners arrive as strangers and leave as friends.
This month's four-course menu, which was served with wine and beer, followed a Roman Street Food theme. The feast featured time-tested recipes served on three long tables designed to replicate the colour and organised chaos of an Italian feast. Although the first event featured a table set for 40, Tutti a Tavola has, like a good Italian family, doubled in size since the first offing four years ago.

Antipasti platters to share include woodfired pizza with potatoes, garlic and rosemary, proscuitto and pickled vegetables.
Forget dainty morsels or fancy foams. Modelled on a classic Italian lunch, this pop-up on peptides began with shared plates of antipasti to pick at - house-made pizza with potatoes, garlic and rosemary, curls of prosciutto and salami, pickled carrots and Asiago cheese - baked semolina gnocchi with pecorino cheese, veal saltimbocca with crispy sage and pancetta and fresh calamari fritti with lemon and rocket.

The woodfired oven at Salt Meats Cheese sees a bit of action at the Tutti a Tavola event.
The feast also included a 20kg shoulder of lamb cooked in Salt Meats Cheese's new wood-fired oven (dubbed The Pizza Box), a whopping 10kg of strozzapretti pasta with a rich, tender oxtail and celery ragu cooked in an oversized paella pan in front of the guests; and an avalanche of salad leaves. Sweet tooths were also sated with rum baba for dessert.

Fresh circles of tender calamari fritti served with lemon and rocket.                                     Photo: Saskia Mulder.
"These events are about my idea of Italy. It's about people coming and sharing plates with strangers and leaving as friends. There are no nametags on the table, so it's very informal and about bringing people together and having fun," he says.

Meltingly tender woodfired lamb shoulder with artichoke, egg and peas was a standout dish.

Joining us at our communal table is a friendly couple from the Central Coast, two Italian-Australian sisters who live in Haberfield, a gaggle of women who have attended all of Mele's feasts and a couple celebrating their anniversary.

Strozzapretti with oxtail and celery ragu is sinfully good.
Mele has flirted with the pop-ups since 2011, when, as then executive chef of the Hugo's Group, he hosted the first Tutti a Tavola at Hugo's in King's Cross. But Mele says he feels like he has found his home at Salt Meats Cheese, a faff-free industrial space that makes for a very relaxed dining experience. As the 80 or so guests arrive, he greets each and every diner as if they were family, and looks genuinely pleased to see so many of his regular, loyal customers.

Massimo Mele says he feels like Tutti a Tavola has found its home at Salt Meats Cheese.
With his straw-blonde hair, eyes the colour of galvanized steel and accent he describes "as ocker as it gets", Mele says he doesn't fit many people's image of someone with southern Italian heritage. But the chef, who spent the first six years of his life living in Naples, says he identifies strongly with his Italian heritage and the regional cuisine he grew up with.

The Pizza Box woodfired oven comes into play during the Tutti a Tavola event.
"When I go home to Hobart, I close the front gate to my parent's house and step inside my family home and it's like being back in Italy. My parents speak Italian and they have never let go of the culture. The food I cook is as traditional as possible, but it's also my version of the food I've grown up with," says Mele, who spent his formative years working in his parent's restaurant, La Bella Napoli.

The dish of the day: the wood-fired lamb shoulder with artichoke, egg and peas

The sturdy Salt Meats Cheese warehouse is the perfect backdrop to Mele's feast, where each dish is delivered tableside and designed to share. Seeing Mele, tea towel draped over one shoulder, giving serious attention and care to the food as it goes out also makes you feel even more connected to the chef and the kitchen.

Even a simple salad is treated with great respect and seasoned just so.

The Salt Meats Cheese warehouse is the perfect backdrop to Mele's feast.
"When you are cooking in front of people around a shared table, it's very intimate. It's for people hungering for proper Italian food, who want to chat in a relaxed, friendly environment and enjoy food made to share," he says.

Rum babas all round wrap up this Roman feasts of epic proportions. 

The fact that the feast is something a team of nonnas might knock up at home on a special occasion Sunday means it is good honest seasonal food treated with the respect. That's reason enough to encourage 'everyone to the table' at Tutti a Tavola. Mangia, mangia.

The next Tutti A Tavola event will be held in July. Bookings essential: 02 9698 0595

Carla Grossetti was a guest of Salt Meats Cheese and Tutti a Tavola.  

Thursday, 23 April 2015

The Reuben: sandwiched between the past and present

The Reuben sandwich is far from being a culinary curiosity in Sydney. In fact, it seems Sydneysiders now have a rapacious appetite for the sandwich that has been a staple of culinary life in the US for nigh on a century. Regardless of the myths relating to its origins, the construction of the sandwich using rye bread as its foundation can be controversial as purists insist it must be true to the original deli-style sandwich if it is to be named after the much-revered classic.

Whether tweaked or true to tradition, the Rueben sandwich (snapped here at Hazelhurst Cafe) is a sensory pleasure. 
When New York-born Michael Shafran, of Brooklyn Boy Bagels, moved to Sydney in 2001 he declared the city a Reuben-free zone. Shafran says he first noticed a Reuben on offer at Danks St Depot about a decade ago, and credits chef Jared Ingersoll with making the sandwich a fixture on menus around the NSW capital.
These sandwiches tick all the right boxes when it comes to being sandwiches of substance.
More than a decade on, the Reuben is now a best-selling item at eateries all over Sydney. Following are a few places to enjoy a Rueben that either stays true to tradition or is based loosely on the original with the addition of a few radical tweaks. Reuben snobs be warned: there are a few Rachels masquerading as Reubens, one Rebecca in the mix and even a daring Cuban making a controversial cameo. Call them what you will, what the following options have in common is they are simply sensational sandwiches.

Ruby & Rach chef Tony Gibson raises the bar with his take on the Reuben.
Ruby & Rach
Roll up roll up for the signature Reuben sandwich filled with wagyu corned beef, Swiss cheese, a tangle of sauerkraut, pickles and Russian dressing on rye at Ruby & Rach. Chef Tony Gibson (ex Marque and Four in Hand) has raised the bar with his take on the Reuben: he cooks the wagyu beef in a sous vide for three days, brines it for five, hangs it overnight and smokes it for nine hours over cherry wood and maple. Gibson also takes liberties on behalf of vegos by presenting the mustrami (aka 'the Rebecca' mushroom pastrami sanga).
Pyrmont Growers market (first Saturday of the month) and Bondi Famers Market (all the other Saturdays)

The Bowery Lane serves a Reuben that is both rustic and refined.

Bowery Lane
Bowery Lane makes Reubens that walk a tightrope between being both rustic and refined. Bowery Lane ramped up its version of the West Coast Reuben simply by using the very best quality ingredients: exquisite UK-style salt beef, sauerkraut, high-quality Swiss cheese, mustard dressing and a welcome side of sweet potato crisps. An upscale homage to the humble sandwich indeed.
Shop 1, Level 4, 1 O'Connell St Sydney, 02 9252 8017,

The Not Reuben may not be a Reuben, but it's a revelation nonetheless.

Rueben Hills
This Surry Hills hot spot is a hub for hipsters who enjoy giving their beards a good drenching in horseradish mayo. The Not Reuben is, well, not really a Reuben at all. Thin slices of slow-cooked wagyu brisket are cut with a pickled slaw and horseradish cream and topped with Manchego cheese and horseradish cream. Michael Shafran (Brooklyn Boy Bagels) inadvertently inspired the naming of the Not Reuben after he pointed out to the owner that braised brisket breaks the Reuben rules (to serve corned or salt beef). The next time he visited the cafe, it had been rebranded as the Not Reuben.
61 Albion St, Surry Hills, 02 9211 5556.
The Rachel is not just a haircut named after actress Jennifer Aniston. It's also the sister sandwich to the Reuben.

The Reuben's little sister, The Rachel will be available at Brooklyn Boy Bagels' new Matraville store.

Brooklyn Boy Bagels
The Rachel is not just a legendary haircut named after actress Jennifer Aniston; it's also the sister sandwich to the Reuben. BBB's New York-born Michael Shafran's has looked to both the US West Coast and New York for his inspiration. The Rachel is built between his bakery's house-baked NY Deli rye, elevated with a sourdough culture and mixed with caraway seeds. Shafran also uses pastrami instead of corn beef and mustard instead of Russian dressing. Note: Brooklyn Boy Bagels' new retail outlet is nanoseconds away from opening in the Eastern Suburbs.
448 Bunnerong Rd, Matraville. 02 8540 4595.

The ridiculously good Reuben sandwich at Daisy's Milk Bar.

Daisy's Milk Bar
In Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan famously faked an orgasm while enjoying a Reuben sandwich at Katz's Deli in New York City. If you want to understand why the sandwich and the deli have an evangelical following then order one from Daisy's, which flirts with fairly faithful flavour combinations. The sandwich arrives toasted and stuffed with corned beef, pickles on rye and a Russian dressing. Daisy's vanilla and malt shake is also a sensual pleasure.
340 Stanmore Rd, Petersham, 02 8065 3466.

Cafe 2042 in Newtown says stuff it with its wagyu beef sandwich based on the Reuben.
2042 Cafe & Deli
Cafe 2042 knows how to woo us with its smoked wagyu beef sandwich, which is based on the Reuben and features sauerkraut, pickles and cheese served on rye. This darling of the King St strip celebrates all that is good about sticking certain ingredients between two pieces of bread. It's worth including on a Reuben crawl because of the smoked beef alone (made by Schulz Smokehouse, Barossa Fine Foods).
403-405 King St, Newtown 02 9550 2500,

Who cares if it's not strictly a Reuben? This construction piled high with brisket pastrami is sandwich perfection.
Lox Stock and Barrel 
This deli diner does a homemade brisket pastrami with Russian coleslaw and pickles on rye that may not adhere strictly to the Rueben rules but tastes ridiculously good all the same. Like most good deli diners in New York City, you can also get bagels and braided challah too. While Sydney's love affair with the Reuben sandwich is hardly over, brother-and-sister team Lianne and Neil Gottheiner of Lox Stock and Barrel aim to do for corned beef, pickles on rye what Dan Hong did for banh mi.
140 Glenayr Avenue, Bondi Beach, Sydney 02 9300 0368,

This is a Reuben that speaks Spanglish thanks to the influence of chef Oscar Gorosito.
Bridge St Garage
This is not a place to take a vegan on a first date. The Bridge St Garage is expat heaven as the sandwich has the Lower East Side stamp of authenticity all over it. Join the swank lines of downtown diners who declare this Reuben (which is again more of a Rachel) a decadent delight: shaved pastrami, loaded with sauerkraut and bacon, Garage sauce, coleslaw and pickles on a light rye sourdough.  Expect a few Latin-American twists courtesy of Argentina-born chef Oscar Gorosito.
17-19 Bridge St, Sydney, 02 9251 9392,

Meltingly tender pastrami is the piece de resistance of the Momo take on the Reuben.
Momo Brasserie 
Momo has made a name for itself for a repertoire that extends beyond the Reuben. The brasserie makes its own traditional New York-style pastrami, rendering its Rachel-esque rendition of the Reuben a comforting composition: warm housemade pastrami served toasted on rye slathered with slaw, pickled cucumbers and American mustard. This is a nod to the New York delis responsible for putting a simple sandwich on a pedestal.
65 Elizabeth St, Sydney, 02 9233 8838,

The Reuben at Reuben & Moore is a thing of beauty.
Reuben & Moore 
You know the Reuben has entered the mainstream when it opens dedicated eateries in shopping centre food courts. This is not such a radical interpretation of the Reuben. And there's no arguments about the attention to detail given to sangas served up at this dinky chain. The bread is first rate and the contents applied with ceremonious attention, with the rye slabs laden with sauerkraut and drizzled with mustard. Expect other American-inspired favourites on the Reuben & Moore menu.
Level 5, Food Court, 86-100 Market St, 02 8072 9777; Level 4 at The Macquarie Centre, Entrance Via Herring Rd, North Ryde, 02 9870 7608,

This sandwich that is a distant cousin of the Reuben makes cameos on the daily specials board Monty's Sandwich Shop.

Monty's Hot Sandwich Shop
The sangas at Monty's Hot Sandwich Shop have ridden the coat-tails of the Reuben renaissance. The Reubenesque successfully tweaks with tradition with this generously proportioned sandwich made using slow-roasted beef brisket, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, pickles and Russian dressing. The Boston also goes the full Monty with its nouveau Reuben with beef brisket, provolone cheese, caramelised onions and spicy tomato relish. Keep an eye out for a radicalised Rueben (wryly observed to be served on white bread, not rye) on the specials board.
141 Glenayr Avenue, Bondi Beach, 52 Spring St Bondi Junction,

The Hazelhurst Cafe has given the Reuben the flick in favour of the Cuban.
Hazelhurst Cafe
Yes Cuban rhymes with a Reuben, but that is where the similarities between the two sangas ends. The Cubano is believed to be a common lunch served to Cuban workers in the late 1800s.  So why did the Cuban make it onto a list of great Reubens when it is a decidedly different beast and has such a disparate culinary history? Because Hazelhurst Cafe executive chef James Watson has tipped a Cuban revolution. Hazelhurst Cafe recently flicked the Reuben from its menu in favour of the Cuban, which comprises citrus-baked pork shoulder, Gypsy ham, mustard, Swiss cheese and house-made pickles. The cafe's Cuban makes a cha-cha to Gymea a must.
782 Kingsway, Gymea. 02 8536 5755.

Do you have a favourite Sydney spot for a Reuben? Or even a Cuban?

Monday, 20 April 2015

The history of the Reuben

The Reuben sandwich is the stuff legends are made of. Pictured is the Bowery Lane version.

The great Reuben sandwich is defined by as a “grilled sandwich made with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on rye bread”. But as for the history of the monumental sandwich that tradition dictates must be filled with both salt beef and dairy, it’s the stuff that legends – or at least legendary items of food – are made of.

There are many claims and counter-claims surrounding the creation of the sandwich with the cult following: one of the most popular stories doing the rounds is that the first Reuben was created in 1906 at a deli on Park Avenue by German immigrant Arnold Reuben. Legend has it that the owner of the deli constructed the sandwich for an actress who came into Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in New York and demanded he make her a sandwich because she was “as hungry as a brick”.

However, according to an article in The New York Times quoting Arthur Schwartz, author of New York City Food and blogger at The Food Maven, the sandwich thought to be a New York staple is believed to have been created in Omaha in the 1920s by wholesale grocer Reuben Kulakofsky who made the sandwich for his friends after a late-night poker game.

Regardless of the Reuben’s origins, the sandwich with superstar status has been on menus in Sydney for so long now that a celebration of it seems compulsory. What else is there to do but roll up your sleeves and enjoy? Coming soon: my round-up of great Reubens around Sydney.

Subscribe to my website to receive links to my latest published stories.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Hunter haunt has the EXP. factor

Husband-and-wife team Frank and Emma Fawkner are forging their own path at EXP. Restaurant.
EXP. Restaurant's head chef Frank Fawkner is visibly proud of the ground he stands on. After spending the last four years working as head chef at Muse Restaurant, the ambitious young chef has taken some of what he has learnt from his friend and mentor Troy Rhoades-Brown and blended it with his own ambitions at the Oakvale Winery restaurant he opened with wife Emma in March.

Head chef Frank Fawkner is focused on giving diners a memorable EXP.erience at EXP.
The warmth that radiates from this happy couple seems to have been infused into the space and the reasons why the new eatery should be on the list of must-visit Hunter locales are many and varied: take the custom-made tables, the white-on-wood decor, the colour-coded crockery, whip-smart wine list, original artworks and general attitude of the warm and friendly staff led by restaurant manager Danielle Doffay.

Everything from the staff aprons to the bespoke plates, artworks and furniture has been well thought out.

"I feel that dining at a restaurant should be about everything - from fabulous food and wine, to the music, service, art, painting, crockery, aromas, furniture and fit-out," says Fawkner.

Frank Fawkner can be found fossicking in the vegetable patch ahead of service at EXP. 
Of course, great restaurants rely on more than just a fab fit-out and bespoke furnishings, and a quick glimpse of the menu, which is divided into Food from the Earth, Sea, Land and Sky, Cheese and Sweets, is a good starting point when it comes to understanding the EXP. factor.

Oakvale Winery has become even more of a destination with the addition of EXP.
Fawkner was part of the team led by Rhoades-Brown that helped the acclaimed restaurant achieve two-hat-status in The Sydney Morning Herald's Good Food Guide 2015. As with Muse, part of the EXP. theatre is watching the 27-year-old chef in the galley-style kitchen as he calmly presides over food from a menu that is totally responsive to the seasons.

Head chef Frank Fawkner prevails over the pass with a Zen-like calm. 
The key to the EXP. concept is authenticity, and the reason the place feels so real is that diners get a sense that the team - both front- and back-of-house - seem to genuinely love what they do. As fans of Fawkner's work at Muse will recognise, the chef's inspiration is rooted in regional produce, some of which is grown just metres from the entrance to the restaurant.

Diners are encouraged to pulverise their own herbs to add to the butter for house-made focaccia.
The first dish to arrive at our table is so fresh that it certainly enlivens and amuses our bouches. It's a mortar and pestle brimming with fresh herbs from the garden beds where Fawkner is seen fossicking ahead of service.

The just-picked herbs have been blasted with liquid nitrogen, which spills like a storm front over the rim of the mixing bowl before dissipating. It's a magical act one, scene one, as we are handed the pestle and invited to pulverise the herbs at the table, mix them with house-churned butter and then spread liberally over a fresh spongey cube of just-baked focaccia.

EXP. menu reads like a love letter to the land, with some ingredients grown metres from the restaurant door.
Like much of Fawkner's menu, the dishes are both innovative and earthy.  Fawkner takes his inspiration from the techniques he has learnt everywhere from the UK - where he worked as sous chef under Tom Aikens at Tom's Kitchen - to Australia. Fawkner describes working at Muse as a defining moment of his career, and says Rhoades-Brown was a great mentor, fast-tracking his career when he appointed him head chef in 2013.

From the earth: house-made haloumi, heirloom tomato, manzanillo olive and herbs.
While the chef is quick to pay tribute to his good friend, he says he is also thrilled to be at the helm of his own restaurant in the thick of NSW's most famous wine-producing region.

"Working at Muse was a great platform for me to develop as a chef. Being part of the team when Muse Restaurant reached two hats also gave me a hunger to find my own voice. I really look up to Troy. I aspire to be like him. He's cool, calm and humble and he's taught me everything I need to know. Where a lot of chefs might just wave you goodbye, Troy has been an open book when it comes to helping me set up EXP." he says.

From the land and sky: chorizo-spiced bacon, chickpeas, spiced broth and lemon. 
The philosophy behind EXP. is on the experience. While Fawkner and Rhoades-Brown both favour a similar contemporary style of cooking, EXP. embraces a more pared-back rustic approach, with less components on the plate. The chef also aims to give the freedom of choice back to the diner so there is no menu, no set order of dishes. Instead, the diner can curate their own adventure on a plate and choose from a range of exceptional dishes that read like a love letter to the land.

Chef's signature dish: black garlic risotto, cauliflower, pyengana cheddar and nasturium.
One of the dishes that most excites is the black garlic risotto with cauliflower, cheddar and nasturtium. It is black and white with nice fresh green leaves.

It's ham on toast, but not as you know it. with duck and macadamia on focaccia
From the Land and Sky section, the ham on toast with duck, focaccia, fig, macadamia and mizuna also tells a story about what Fawkner is about. Sweet tooths will also go nuts for the dark chocolate shell, basil parfait and passionfruit gel, basil jellies and caramelised chocolate, one of Fawkner's signature desserts at Muse.

Chef Frank Fawkner plating up with precision at the pass at EXP. Restaurant.
If you fail to snag a ticket to one of the wine events at the Hunter Valley Wine & Food Month, console yourself with a booking at EXP. 1596 Broke Rd, Pokolbin. + 61 4998 7264. If you would like to view the full program for the Hunter Valley Wine and Food Month in June, click here.

Warm blue cheese, brioche, honey and marigold falls under the Cheese heading.

Carla Grossetti was a guest of The Hunter Valley Wine Country.