Travelling overseas always gives you a chance to get a bit of perspective on things – I guess being removed from your usual surroundings gets rid of the blinkers that influence your day-to-day thoughts and decisions, and gives you a bit of cognitive freedom to explore new possibilities. At the same time, travelling overseas also leads to your mind wandering really aimlessly at times – especially when you’re passing time on a train or having a couple of beers in an empty bar at midday (or earlier) - and random thoughts that would normally be reserved for Hollywood’s stoner scenes start to enter you head.
So after a few weeks of travelling through Japan earlier this year, while walking up a little mountain in Miyajima, I started thinking about ethnic foods that would be fairly commonplace back home, but that would be completely foreign to Japanese people. I think it was because almost every restaurant we’d seen over the last 21 days served traditional Japanese food (not that I’m complaining), and there didn’t seem to be much overseas influence on their cuisine.
The very first thing I thought of to start this list off was hummus. It’s something we all know and you can buy in almost any supermarket in Australia, but I can’t imagine your average Japanese person on the street having ever dipped a bit of pita bread into that chickpea-tahini-lemon-garlicky goodness. After thinking of a few other things like gozleme, peri peri sauce, and paella (by the way, I could be completely wrong with these), I realised how lucky we are in Australia to have such a diverse food culture. In the little Canberran suburb of Dickson alone, we have restaurants specialising in Chinese, Japanese, Peruvian, Korean, Italian, Malaysian, Ethiopian, Indian, Turkish, Vietnamese and Greek cuisine – and most of us would be familiar with at least two or three dishes from each of these countries.
No doubt it’s our diverse history and proximity to Asia that’s allowed us to be so well educated in ethnic cuisines, particularly through migrants introducing their traditional dishes to our communities. But I think it also takes local chefs to embrace those cuisines, and take their traditional dishes to another level by using different techniques and playing with different flavour combinations.
Sidenote: the SBS has a pretty cool interactive map that shows, for each town/suburb across Australia, where the top three birthplaces for immigrants are. Check out the map for the ACT.
Christine Manfield is one of those chefs. Known as the ‘godmother of Asian fusion cookery’, she’s owned highly acclaimed restaurants in Sydney and London, has authored numerous books, has her own range of spice pastes, and is famous for her seductive desserts. Since 2013, she’s also been running ‘pop up’ events, which has brought her to Braddon restaurant Eightysix a couple of times now.
Christine’s most recent stint at Eightysix was earlier this month, taking over the kitchen for 4 dinner and 3 lunch services. We visited on Saturday night for the last dinner service, which saw a packed house for both sittings.
The menu had an extensive selection of Asian-inspired share plates (17 amazing-sounding dishes to choose from, plus 5 desserts). Before even going into the food, I really have to take my hat off to the Eightysix kitchen for being able to learn and deliver a completely new menu (no doubt in a short period of time) and to the front of house staff for their seamless transition to it as well.
So back to the menu - the dishes could be ordered individually, or we were told that for $80pp, we could basically start ordering a few dishes and work our way through the menu until we were full. I’ll leave it to you to guess which option we went for!
After having our bottle of 2012 Eden Road Shiraz decanted, we kicked off with the hiramasa kingfish sashimi with seaweed and finger lime. The kingfish was soft and succulent as you’d expect, but it was the seaweed (sitting under the fish) that really made the dish. I’m no seaweed expert, but it was quite different to nori, wakame or kombu – looking more like the long bits of seaweed that wash up on the beach along the south coast. Delicious.
Next up was the green bean tempura, lotus stem and wasabi avocado, which was crunchy and light (and the crispiest lotus root I’ve had), and the prawn toast with yuzu mayonnaise. Not much to say about the prawn toast as you really can’t go wrong with deep fried prawn mousse on bread, although it was a cut above the prawn toast you'd get at your local Chinese takeaway, and the hint of yuzu in the mayo was a nice touch. (It reminded me of the Dan Hong version I’d cooked recently.)
Rounding out our first ‘round’ of ordering was the sichuan wallaby tartare, which our waitress had recommended to us. We’re so glad she did, because this was one of the best dishes of the night. The wallaby was so ridiculously tender that you wouldn’t believe you were eating red meat (let alone raw red meat) – in fact, it almost had the texture of raw fish. The Sichuan chilli was well pronounced, but really well balanced and restrained (meaning that my face wasn’t covered in sweat like it usually is with Sichuan food). Kudos Christine.
Moving on to round 2, and the salted duck egg and sticky rice cakes reminded us of arancini when they arrived. They were quite crispy on the outside and a little hard to bite into through the sticky rice, but had a great flavour and texture on the inside. It could have done with a bit more salted duck egg in my opinion, but then again I grew up on the stuff so maybe they were showing some restraint for the less acquainted.
Asian buns (or bao) are taking the world by storm at the moment, and when they’re done well, they always leave you wanting more. When the bulgogi beef steamed bun with kimchi pickle came out, I thought it might be lacking in flavour a little, as the beef didn’t have much colour to it. But I was sorely mistaken – it was rich and tasty, with the hot and sour kimchi providing a kick at the end. Please sir, I want some more!
The calamari, pork, pineapple, ginger and mint was just that. Slices of pork belly topped with tender pieces of calamari, and garnished with a little pineapple salsa. For me, this didn’t have the ‘wow’ factor of the other dishes – the calamari and pork were cooked well, but I felt that there needed to be something else to tie the dish together.
It was then time to roll up our sleeves and get messy with the black pepper crab. The dish had 4 pieces of blue swimmer, doused with a strong, thick peppery sauce. The crab was a joy to pick through – and was surprisingly meaty in parts.
At this point we’d finished round 2, the tables were being turned over for the next sitting, and we were getting pretty full. The only problem – we were only halfway down the menu! I’d been eyeing off dishes at the bottom of the menu like the soy braised pork, the tea smoked duck, and the spanner crab fried rice, so thankfully our lovely waitress said she could squeeze in one more main for us before dessert and so we went with the coconut prawn, clam & fish stew, which was hearty, spicy, and filling.
As I mentioned, Christine is a bit of a dessert diva so we were really looking forward to dessert (especially having seen some of the other ones come out earlier). The ‘Rice Queen’ (sticky white rice, pandan coconut, custard apple, salted caramel) was thick and sweet, with some rice puffs on top providing some lightness and texture. It reminded us of humid evenings in Bangkok, sitting on a little stool in front of a street food vendor.
However, it was the ‘Sugar Daddy’ (chocolate praline mousse, candied cumquats) that stole the show. Usually I’ll give the chocolate dessert a miss in favour of something that’s got a weird ingredient or something different – so I’m glad Mrs T picked this one. The chocolate had a really nice balance of sweetness and bitterness, and the mousse was incredibly smooth. The little pastry surrounding the mousse and the chocolate tuille added a good crunch (and an extra sugar hit) too.
The evening with Chrstine was a really memorable experience, and she made time to walk around the floor, sign cookbooks and talk to diners. We’re really lucky to have places like Eightysix doing events like this and attracting some of our best chefs to Canberra to do their thing. Hopefully we didn’t eat too much to put them off doing the $80 thing next time (#SorryNotSorry) – it’s great value!