Review: Black Penny, Surry Hills

You know you’re old when your friends invite you out for drinks and a casual late dinner and instead of feeling excited, you just think longingly of your dressing gown and your warm bed. Given that I haven’t quite hit the big three oh yet and thus have no reason to start thinking about applying for the old age pension, I forced myself to get a little bit excited, put on some real clothes, and schlep out to the small bar Black Penny in Surry Hills for a Saturday night out.

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K and I got there on time, which naturally means ‘half an hour before everyone else’, so we settled down with some drinks to wait for our friends. I just had a simple lemonade, but he spent some time perusing the beers, ciders and ginger beers menu before choosing the Northern Beaches-based Brookvale Union Ginger Beer. Despite the hefty price tag on this local brew, K was disappointed to find that it didn’t taste all that different from a simple Bundaberg Ginger Beer.

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Once others started arriving, a number of beers, wines and spirits started flowing to our table (order and pay at the bar!). One friend who was feeling a little under the weather chose to have a whiskey tasting, featuring lesser-known whiskies such as the Big Black Cock. There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I’m not quite game enough to play with it or tease it out…

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If you order something off Black Penny’s food menu, you get presented with your custom order number to place on your table for their staff to bring your food out to you. Ours was Michaelangelo and a friend had Raphael – quite the pair! It makes me wonder what happens when they have any more than four food orders at any given time – do they move onto other action figurines like He-Man? Do Doctor Barbie and Astronaut Barbie get a showing as well?

Crispy pork belly bites with burnt orange and cardamom glaze, $16
Crispy pork belly bites with burnt orange and cardamom glaze, $16

Given that we had had a little snack before we headed out for our late dinner, K and I chose to simply share an entree and a main and keep it relatively light. (Also, we wanted to go for a late dessert at Erciyes down the road, because I never spend time in the area without buying a walnut dessert pide to go!)

Our entree was the Crispy Pork Belly Bites – little squares of roasted pork belly topped with the crunchiest salty crackling. Unfortunately the rest of the pork didn’t quite live up to the promise of the crackling, as it had been overcooked and parts of it were quite dry.

Vegan stack - roasted field mushroom, eggplant, toasted brussel sprouts, bush spiced cous cous, basil, chilli and bush tomato sauce, $18
Vegan stack – roasted field mushroom, eggplant, toasted brussel sprouts, bush spiced cous cous, basil, chilli and bush tomato sauce, $18

Our healthy choice for our main was the Vegan Stack. I have a colleague who is vegan gluten-free and I often make the mistake of thinking that her diet is really boring. When you have options like this available to you though, it’s really not a terrible lifestyle choice! This was a highlight, with a thick and juicy mushroom topped with roasted eggplant and tomato, as well as an amazing spiced tomato sauce that mixed really well with the cous cous. I really enjoyed this dish – it felt really clean on the palate, and filling too.

The main highlight of Black Penny is its extensive drinks menu, something that I find hard to take advantage of as a non-drinker. If you like a cocktail or two, and don’t mind the idea of a spirits tasting, this is the place for you. If you’re solely after food, there’s probably better and cheaper alternatives available in the area.

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Review: Belly Bao, Goodgod Small Club, Sydney

Travelling for work can be really tough, especially if you’re limited to a certain per diem spend each day and staying in a tiny little hotel room that’s just bigger than a shoebox. Luckily, my work is very flexible in letting me structure my work schedule to allow for days worked out of our Melbourne office, while staying in the family home and enjoying home-cooked meals.

I feel for people who don’t have the same luxuries as myself – hence when I heard my Melbourne-based colleague Julie was going to be coming up to Sydney for a few days for a series of external stakeholder meetings, I invited her out to dinner one night so that she wouldn’t be left whiling away the hours alone in her small hotel room.

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We headed out to Belly Bao in Goodgod Small Club – my first visit ever as I’d never even made it to The Dip! It was very quiet – we arrived just past 7pm on a Wednesday night, and there were empty booths galore.

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We found a booth with a good view of the Goodgod Danceteria so that we could sneak occasional glances at the Rihanna-focused dance lesson that was happening inside. Everyone loves a little bit of “SOS” and “Only Girl In The World” action!

With a quick glance through the menu, Julie and I decided on a few sharing dishes and bao, as well as a drink each. She went up to order for us at both counters – food at one, and drinks at the other. While it was fine to do the double ordering on the quieter night as there’s no crowd to contend with, I can see how it would possibly be annoying on a busier night if you’re forced to queue up twice.

Watermelon mocktail
Watermelon mocktail

We ordered a Watermelon Mocktail each – I tried to tell Julie that she didn’t need to be a teetotaller on my behalf, but she was quite happy to have an alcohol-free evening with me. I have to say, it’s a lot easier to be alcohol-free (over a year and counting) when your friends are supportive like this! In any case, there’s really no reason to feel as though you’re missing out when mocktails are as fruity and drinkable as this refreshing Watermelon Mocktail – it’s very more-ish!

Sweet potato fries drizzled with chilli aioli, $7
Sweet potato fries drizzled with chilli aioli, $7

Now I’m not going to lie, though we technically shared this serve of Sweet Potato Fries with Chilli Aioli, I’m pretty sure that I pretty much demolished 75% of the serve myself. I just couldn’t get enough of the crispy skin fries that tasted just slightly caramelised – it’s definitely the type of snacky dish that you just keep picking away at if it’s sitting in front of you. I definitely recommend ordering this if you visit Belly Bao!

Papaya salad with carrots, fresh herbs, pickled chilli & crushed peanuts tossed in a traditional vinaigrette with black sesame crackers, $9
Papaya salad with carrots, fresh herbs, pickled chilli & crushed peanuts tossed in a traditional vinaigrette with black sesame crackers, $9

We also thought that we should try and be a little bit healthier, so we ordered a Papaya Salad to share. Vietnamese in style with shredded herbs and crackers, the salad itself wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary. The black sesame crackers on the other hand was the real highlight for me – the fragrant roasted sesame seeds really elevated the crackers and made it something that you could quite easily enjoy by itself.

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And of course, the bao! We ordered two each, and Julie chose the Pork Belly with Crackling, and the Braised Beef Short Rib – both of which blew her mind. To be honest, I think it may have been the first time that she had tried ‘bao’ – so the steamed bun concept alone may have been the factor that blew her mind!

Slow Braised Pork Belly Bao with pickled mustard greens, crushed peanuts and kewpie mayo, $6.50
Slow Braised Pork Belly Bao with pickled mustard greens, crushed peanuts and kewpie mayo, $6.50

The first bao that I ordered was the Slow Braised Pork Belly Bao, served with my favourite pickled mustard greens. In the grand scheme of traditional pork bao available in Sydney, it probably doesn’t rate in my top two – Bao Dao Taiwanese Kitchen and Ippudo take those spots. Belly Bao would be a strong contender for third place though, and it’s still definitely worth trying this bao if you’re going to visit Goodgod Small Club anyway.

Soft Shell Crab bao with watercress, chilli aioli and lemon vinaigrette, $7.50
Soft Shell Crab bao with watercress, chilli aioli and lemon vinaigrette, $7.50

My second bao is the Soft Shell Crab Bao, served with more of the chilli aioli that was used on the Sweet Potato Fries. Surprisingly, while the chilli aioli worked really on the fries, it was less effective on the crab bao as the abundance of aioli actually worked to overpower the distinct flavours of the crab. A little bit disappointing actually, and I found myself wishing that I had ordered the beef short rib bao like Julie!

Overall, while Belly Bao provides a strong food focus in Sydney’s small bar scene, its offerings a little bit hit or miss. Some dishes are really more-ish (hello, sweet potato fries), while their signature baos don’t always hit the mark. It’s quite pricey for what it is as well – $7.50 for a single small bao that you could devour in two bites.

I wouldn’t go rushing back to Belly Bao for the food alone, though I may stop in for a quick bite if I end up deciding to sign up for a Beyonce dance class at the Goodgod Danceteria…

Belly Bao on Urbanspoon

Unblogged Files: January to March 2015

Once again, I find myself months behind in my blogging – some of my latest entries are of dining experiences I had back in early February! Never mind, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will always be playing catchup on blogging. Quite simply, there’s just so many restaurants to try and recipes to share that I can hardly do justice to them all in a timely manner, unless someone was to pay me to quit my job and blog full time!

While it’s highly unlikely that someone will pay me to be a food blogger, you may know someone who needs a freelancer for a small project or ongoing work in communications. I’ve just set up my professional portfolio with an aim of growing my base of freelance clients in preparation for upcoming joblessness due to resigning from my current role to go on a six-month long trip to Europe. More on that soon, once we finally book tickets and everything is set in stone!

In the meantime, I would appreciate it if you would consider sharing my portfolio with any small business owners you know who need some communications work done!

Onto some food highlights from the past three months!

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The first – this gorgeous candy apple from Love Dem Apples in Surry Hills. The days of the stale teeth-breaking toffee apples are gone, and the many coated varieties of candy-coated apples from Love Dem Apples have taken over. This is the Bueno version, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the coating does taste exactly like a Kinder Bueno, with the sweet tartness of a fresh green apple. It’s not a cheap dessert-on-the-go (I think this was around $11 for a single candy apple), but it is actually the type of snack that you would want to share with others as a whole chocolate coated apple to yourself is actually a bit too much. Split between two or even three people would be perfect.

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I love beautifully presented lunches, and this was pretty excellent. It’s a healthy green vegan stack from Caffe Nostra in St Leonards, just around the corner from my workplace. With a few different varieties of beans on the plate, as well as chia crusted avocado slices and sautéed mushrooms, it’s extremely beautiful; and very filling.

Unfortunately, Caffe Nostra is starting to develop a black name in my workplace, due in large part to a series of negative experiences by some colleagues. One colleague received peanut butter toast three days in a row after specifically asking for Vegemite toast. Another colleague was charged an extra $4 for gluten-free toast, making her simple eggs and avocado on toast request a $21 dish. Combined with some instances of over-charging for soy lattes and other meals, I think it won’t be long until most of my colleagues move onto the next small café in St Leonards for their coffee fix!

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The dessert craze that’s had everyone raving these past few months in Sydney is Aqua S in Regent Place. I fell for it as well, and went in to try their signature sea salt soft serve, combined with a chocolate strawberry flavour. I went all out and chose to include all toppings – popcorn, fairy floss, marshmallow and popping candy. It’s a real indulgence and while I haven’t been back yet, I think it’s going to become one of those iconic Sydney institutions that I’ll take all interstate and overseas visitors to try.

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K lent his hand in the kitchen one weekend for once – an unusual occurrence as I tend to most of the cooking while he does the dishes! He spent a good amount of time cooking the perfect joint of pork in the slow cooker to create a beautiful barbecue shredded pulled pork with caramelised onion dish that lasted us for most of a week. It’s such a versatile dish – we started off using it in pulled pork sandwiches and rolls before using it as a topping on rice and pasta, and then just by itself mixed in with a bean salad as well. I’m going to have to ask him to make it again soon.

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My cousin who was my maid-of-honour at my wedding has recently moved to the UK to try and build a life there for a couple of years like millions of other young Australians who make the move. It makes a lot of sense – the UK is the perfect base from which you can take a million long weekends to explore different parts of Europe. Since moving there a month ago, she and her boyfriend have already been to the Czech Republic, Spain, Morocco…and who knows where else is on their list!

Before she went over to the UK though, she and her boyfriend came to Sydney for a few days for the Asian Cup semi-finals and finals. We took them out to Ippudo Central Park for lunch one day, where I enjoyed this Akamaru red ramen. I can’t get enough of Ippudo’s rich tonkotsu broth and tender pork slices!

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When my friend Jenny was visiting me here in Sydney for a few days, we went up to the Blue Mountains for a day trip. We stopped in at the Post Café in Leura for an afternoon tea during a freak hailstorm. I was hoping for a traditional Devonshire tea, alas, they had just ran out of scones! Not all was lost though – I had a delicious orange muffin, and Jenny ordered this piping hot bread and butter pudding that came with a scoop of creamy vanilla ice-cream. The waitress advised her to dig a well in the pudding and to drop the ice-cream in…well, what a revelation! Simply delicious, though very rich.

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Everyone knows N2 Extreme Gelato as the forerunner of the current craze for nitrogen gelato. There’s a few similar gelaterias around now, but N2 continue to make its mark as the nitrogen gelato stop of choice with their use of inventive flavour combinations.

I stopped into N2 with my friend Jenny after we dined at Gyuzou (read review), and introduced her to the concept of nitrogen gelato, which was new to her. I chose to have the Cendol flavour – a mix of pandan, coconut, grass jelly and red bean, with the N2 signature syringe shot of palm sugar syrup. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best flavour I’ve had at N2 before – the texture of the grass jelly was somewhat questionable. I’ll stick with my favourite peanut butter and chocolate combos next time!

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K and I were also invited to Bondi Hardware’s third birthday party in February, featuring a variety of cocktails (K enjoyed the watermelon cocktail) and delicious small nibbles. The pearl barley aracini was probably my pick of the night! You can check out a few additional photos of the party on my Facebook page here.

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Chinese New Year is a time for family and lots of eating! This year, our Chinese New Year celebrations were a lot smaller than they would normally be. K’s grandparents, the organisers of large family gatherings, were away in Malaysia this year, instead we had a smaller and more intimate dinner at Sambal in North Ryde for immediate family only.

Yuu sahng always makes an appearance at Malaysian Chinese New Years celebrations. It’s a raw fish salad also known as the “Prosperity Toss” and is commonly eaten at Chinese New Year as the words in Chinese can sound like a homophone for “abundance and prosperity”. When it comes out on to the table, everyone is supposed to dig in with their chopsticks and ‘toss’ the salad to mix it all up – that way everyone gets to share in the abundance!

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I also took a quick trip down to Melbourne to visit my father and brother. Dad always likes having me home. While we connect multiple times every week through regular phone calls, Facetime calls and WhatsApp messages, there’s no substitute for having me there in person. Part of it is for practical reasons – I do a lot of his household administration every time I visit as his English isn’t great. So I’ll spend time calling up companies, changing account details, filling in forms…all the little things that go into running a household that you need some English skills for.

Mostly though, he simply likes to cook all my favourite dishes and feed me up! This time, dishes included fish head noodles, tomato prawns on vermicelli noodles, fried tofu and a chicken and mushroom stir fry. I absolutely love fish head noodles, and really should learn how to cook it myself!

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Tim Ho Wan recently opened in Sydney, and with it, an entirely new dining precinct (“The District”) opened up in Chatswood Interchange, above the train station. While Tim Ho Wan is definitely the drawcard with immense queues of people lining up for the famous Baked BBQ Pork Buns (my review coming soon!), there’s heaps of other new eateries in the area that I strongly encourage people to check out!

K and I were the first customers on opening day at Cheers Cut, a Taiwanese fried chicken and seafood joint. While we only ordered the fried beef and chips as a small snack to get us through to lunch, they were so excited to have us stop by that they gave us a sampler of their fried chicken and spiced squid to try as well. The chips were incredible – salted and seasoned with mixed pepper, and the squid was equal parts sweet, tangy and spicy. I’d definitely go back the next time I wanted a quick snack – or even a full meal – in Chatswood.

Coming up in the next three months – two big meals with one at the Fat Duck Melbourne (Chef’s Table – yay!), and one at Tetsuya’s as well. What indulgence!