Friday, 8 November 2013

Brisbane 2013 (Part 1) - Reviews of Eats around Eagle Street Pier

Apologies for the extended quiet.  I have just endured one of the most challenging yet simultaneously rewarding weeks of my life in an unfamiliar role (being a full-time carer to my 10-month old) in unfamiliar surroundings (the 35th floor of a random block of serviced apartments) in an unfamiliar city (Brisbane, Australia).

But when my little princess dozes off and the full moon rises, the gourmand within resurfaces, lycanthrope-like, ravenously hungry for a taste of my new surroundings.  As my movements were limited, my hunting ground was Eagle Street Pier, an expansive piece of riverfront restaurant real estate home to some of Brisbane's best-loved restaurants.  Below are some quick reviews of my meals there:

1.  Cha Cha Char (upmarket steakhouse) - A quick survey of Brisbane's dining landscape quickly led me to the conclusion that Queenslanders love their steak.  I recall the day in 1993 when the Queensland State cricket team were christened "The Bulls", and a swarthy 1000+ kg monster of a Santa Gertrudis stud bull was unveiled as the team mascot.  Names such as "The Vikings"were also bandied about, but the idea of gnawing into a Nordic warrior's thigh apparently did not appeal to the beef-loving denizens of the Sunshine State.

Cha Cha Char is, by repute, one of Brisbane's better steakhouses. It's one of those steakhouses where you can't order a piece of meat without first reading about its producer, paddock of origin, its breed, finishing (grain or grass-fed), manner of ageing (wet, dry, moist...), marbling score, and whether the animal from which it had been cut was delivered by virgins during the autumnal equinox.

T-Bone Steak at Cha Cha Char
I will start by saying that the quality of the meat here is superb.  Unfortunately, that is the only absolute positive that I can draw from the experience.  Service is rushed and overworked, and when you do manage to track your server down, be prepared for a massive up-selling effort.  A complimentary starter of tuna marinated in soy and ginger does not amuse my bouche, with the overly-salty fish utterly drowned in soy sauce.  Of course, one does not judge a steakhouse by a seafood freebie.  However, I wait for over 30 minutes before my medium-rare 400g T-Bone steak (A$44, around US$42) turns up positively medium.  To their credit, they offer a re-fire and take it off the bill when I decide to call it a night.  The Wife does not mind her Mayura Wagyu sirloin, but pronounces that is hardly worth its hefty A$95 (US$90) price tag.

Mayura Wagyu Sirloin at Cha Cha Char
Cha Cha Char is a very slick commercial operation, making sure they charge you extra for the sides you actually want with your steak (mashed potatoes $9, red wine jus $5) and faffing around with overly frilly and played-around complimentary sides that you don't (Thai son-in-law eggs with garlic chips, anyone?).  It attracts large numbers of expense account-types dressed in suits and clutching black leather binders so it undoubtedly has a decent following.  But to be honest, paying your own hard-earned here hurts in a bad way.

Shop 3/1, Eagle Street,
Brisbane QLD 4000 Australia
Tel: +61 7 3211 9944

2. Il Centro (modern Italian) - After the disappointment that was Cha Cha Char, I walked next door to Il Centro, a mainstay of Brisbane's dining scene which currently holds one hat in the Good Food Guide.  It is rather odd that Il Centro, arguably Brisbane's best and most famous Italian eatery, has never had an Italian chef in its entire existence; the kitchen was run by a French chef until August 2010, when current executive chef Catherine Anders took the helm.

And surely enough, it is not the most Italian restaurant around.  The signature sand crab lasagne has a rather French feel about it, doused as it is with a tasty, not-as-rich-as-it-looks seafood bisque sauce which has the unmistakeable umami of sea urchin roe.  The lasagne itself is delicious, balanced with only the lightest smear of bechamel so that the generous stuffing of sand crab flesh can shine through.

The lasagne aside, I do not find the Italian preparations particularly convincing.  The tortellini pastry is a little thick and clumsy, although its braised duck filling is delicious.  And as pretty as it is, the tiramisu (pictured below) lacks the coffee and liqueur kick or even the unctuousness you would expect of rich mascarpone whisked with Italian meringue.  The mocha sauce tastes as good as it looks and adds little to the dish (this is perhaps why I couldn't find a waiter willing to recommend it!).  Conversely, the classic French soufflé of the day, with a very Queensland touch of caramelised banana, is top-notch.

However, the kitchen seems to have a particular flair with seafood, sending beautifully crisp-skinned North Queensland barramundi on one visit, and perfectly moist ocean trout the next.  And let's not forget that sand crab lasagne.  The service is casual, genuinely warm and very willing to help out.  It's the kind of place where you don't just leave well-fed and well-watered, but also with a distinct feeling that you have been very well looked-after.

Shop 6/1, 1 Eagle Street
Brisbane QLD 4000 Australia
Tel: + 61 7 3221 6090

3.  Stellarossa (Café) - One of the joys of being back in Australia is a good hot breakfast.  There is nothing better than a couple of lovely, orange-yolked free-range eggs on good toast, without having to pay the premium for eggs imported from Japan or somewhere similarly exotic.  Well, the Brisbane CBD is not a cheap location, and Stellarossa, an unassuming Italianate cafe facing Eagle Street, serves an excellent Eggs Benedict with the lot for A$16.50.  With good, fresh spinach and tomatoes, as well as additional sautéed mushrooms, bacon and leg ham, it is a decent way to start the day.

(And if budget is an issue, the cheapest full hot breakfast I could find went for A$10.90 at Market Street Café and Catering).

Shop 1, 1 Eagle Street
Brisbane QLD 4000 Australia
Tel: +61 7 3229 8949 

4.  Aria Brisbane (modern Australian) - I wasn't planning on visiting Aria Brisbane, celebrity chef Matt Moran's northern outpost.  I did visit Aria on quite a few occasions when I worked in Sydney, and my Sydney-supremacist mindset patronisingly (and wrongly, as it turned out) believed that Aria Brisbane could in no way offer anything on the original.

As it turns out, one of my babysitting days was an absolute nightmare, with the little princess being hyperactively difficult throughout the afternoon and little better after sunset, culminating in an awful, awful frozen dinner eaten in what I believe was the very dimly-lit make-out corner of a skanky inner-city pub / hotel.  After the women of my household had retired for the night, I ran out into the drizzle, lost, confused and in need of succour (sucre?).  Wearing an old T-shirt and cotton trousers creased from being shoved last-minute into my suitcase, I stumbled into Aria around 9.45 pm, babbling about dessert tastings.  The maître d' took one look at me and said" Certainly, sir, would you please wait at the bar while I try to find you a table?"  He had undoubtedly sized me up as the worse sort of dodgy Asian tourist whose definition of haute cuisine probably depended on how haute the prices were.

How mistaken I was.  After 10 minutes at the bar, the maître d' returned and led me to a table directly by the riverfront window, with a magnificent vista of the city and the Brisbane River by night.  He returned a few minutes later with the most recent edition of Australian Gourmet Traveller for me to read.  I was then looked after for the rest of the evening by a most delightful and enthusiastic waiter (who resembled an intelligent and sensitive version of rugby league-turned-Aussie Rules-turned rugby union boofhead Israel Folau).  I ordered two desserts and waited for the magic to begin.

First Dessert: Hazelnut, Caramel and Popcorn Ganache with Hazelnut Ice Cream (A$21)

I love the sweet-salty combination of the ganache, along with the rather tangy little white puddles, apparently the froth of the caramel whisked with lemon juice.  My waiter did warn me that the ganache was not a particularly generous serve, but it is just right given the richness of flavour and density of texture.  Full marks also for the very effective and modern presentation; I normally detest the pretentious "soil and scatterings"-style plating, but with the organic flaring visual of the popcorn, this strikes just the right note.  The only downside is the bland and surprisingly icy ice-cream, which doesn't really taste of hazelnut and lacks the consistent creaminess you would normally get from a good homemade ice-cream.

Second Dessert: Mango and Raspberry Soufflé with Coconut Ice-Cream (A$23)

Simply faultless.  The texture of the soufflé is textbook, the seductive perfume of ripe mango wafting upwards as a fragrant steam into my nostrils, while a vibrantly acidic raspberry coulis slices through the tropical sweetness with ease.  The coconut ice-cream is also pleasant in that neutral, refreshing coconutty way, punctuated by concentrated bursts from nuggets of freeze-dried raspberry.

Complimentary Petits Fours: Chocolate Truffle, Coconut-Coated Marshmallow, Almond Tuile

An unexpected treat, given I had not worked my way through the menu nor ordered coffee (which is said on the menu to come with petits fours).  The truffle is a delicious citrus-infused ganache rolled in bitter cocoa powder (i.e. a "real" truffle), the marshmallow is lightness given substance with toasted dessicated coconut, and the tuile has a lovely, fresh snap.  I only eat one of each, and ask if the restaurant could pack the remainder for my wife.  My waiter soon returns with a little box emblazoned with the Aria logo, explaining that they couldn't fit the tuile into the box so they replaced it with a canelé instead.  A sneak inspection reveals that they packed a pair of each petit four into the box, not just my wife's single morsels.  As I walk out and thank the waiter for his solicitous care, he presses another Aria box into my hand, this one containing a pair of jaffa (chocolate-orange) flavoured macarons.  Looks like we may have a free breakfast tomorrow!

I am happy to eat my words about Aria Brisbane.  Maybe they could tell I really cared about my food, but for my time there, I felt like I was the only person in the house.  The food (albeit limited to what little I had) was as good as I've had in Aria Sydney and the service was warm, knowledgeable and friendly without being over-familiar; frankly, I doubt whether the fashion police at Aria Sydney would have even let me in,  But that is one of the charms of Brisbane in general; it is far more relaxed, laidback, and doesn't take itself too seriously.  Although in the case of Aria Brisbane, they take their customers very seriously indeed.  A true world-class effort, and a return visit is top of my list of things to do on my next Brisbane trip.

1 Eagle Street
Brisbane QLD 4000 Australia
Tel: + 61 7 3233 2555

The overall verdict?  I am reluctant to pronounce one.  Any development like Eagle Street Pier is the sum of its parts, some great, some not so.  And I am not going to pretend that this is some sort of microcosm of Brisbane dining; I didn't even get the chance to make it out to Fortitude Valley (or "the Valley", if you are a local), where it is all happening and where you can apparently find some excellent Asian food.  And if you are a star/chef's hat-hunter, I've barely scratched the surface.  

What is clear is that Brisbane does have some excellent restaurants, and while they may not proliferate to the same extent as they do in Sydney and Melbourne, there is enough here to keep a food-lover distracted for a while.

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