a new-found San Diego love: Zymology 21

We have reservations elsewhere on the day we make our way down to San Diego. However, even though we are more than 30 minutes early, we are unable to find a parking spot due to Little Italy’s weekly farmer’s market in full swing. As our reservation time draws near, I call the restaurant and inform them we are not able to join them.

Our next course of action is to head to the Gaslamp and try our luck at the new Cafe 21, but of course, when we arrive, there is a crazy line with at least an hour’s wait. No way! I ask if their new concept Zymology 21 is open and am delighted to hear it is, so we cross the street to the old Cafe 21 spot and step into Zymology 21.

The space is empty except for one table, no wait at all. On the day of our visit, the restaurant is not officially open — soft opening stage — which explains why there is no one there. The concept here is different. You are given a menu and ordering is done before you sit down. It’s a fast casual concept with a sit-down feel. I can still see hints of the old Cafe 21 here and there, but ultimately, the environment is completely revamped, with an updated, and uber cool vibe.

ZYMOLOGY 21

The definition of “zymology” is simply, “a science that deals with fermentation”, and here, you will find that this refers to the process of at least one ingredient in each dish or libation. Naturally, we begin with one of their fantastic cocktails, BloodieZ ($9) a bloody Mary that’s unrivaled, even from some of the most distinguished establishments around. It is served in a beaker, on a tray, accompanied by a test tube of beet juice. Use it or don’t, it’s up to you. A skewer of garnishes including olives, half a jalapeno, watermelon cucumber and micro carrot is very pretty.

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Whiskey Sour ($11) using Old Forester whiskeym with an egg white foam, is also presented in a beaker — you will find almost everything has that scientific approach here — but snap your photo quickly, otherwise, the lemon rind garnish will sink rapidly through the foam and end up like my photo, to be no where in sight. Surprisingly, I really enjoy this!

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None of us are real coffee drinkers, but the Syphon Coffee ($8) is too unique to resist. We order one to share. The truth is, we want to experience it more than drink it, although we enjoy the high-quality, full-bodied roast.

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The first thing which catches our eye is Shrimp N Gritz ($15), comprising grilled sweet shrimp marinated in garlic. It sits on top of home style parmesan herb, creamy grits and surrounded by fried julienned leeks. The shrimp is incredibly fresh and I couldn’t help but suck on the heads, enticing all the shrimp butter out of its shell. The grits are creamy and the leeks provides a crispy contrast.

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Chicken and Wafflez ($14) is always a good choice, but here, you will not be getting it in the traditional style you’re accustom to. I select dark meat (you can choose white) chicken, which is fried crispy on the outside and very moist on the inside. It reminds me of Indonesian-style fried chicken, although the seasonings are nothing like it. The waffle is a house-smoked gouda and herbs egg waffle — like those I remember eating from a street stall in Hong Kong as a child. The spicy lime honey glaze is unique, but only a touch is enough for me. There is a runny fried egg as well, but the waffle and chicken are enough to satiate even without.

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Our next dish is Hay Hash ($16). I am not impressed when it hits the table, however, looks are deceiving. The rosemary potatoes confit are rich in flavor, while the seared steak loin is perfectly tender. The poached egg runs into the herb scented Hollandaise sauce adding a heavenly richness all around. I can not stop eating the potatoes which is a surprise because I’m not usually a big fan of it.

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There are several open face sandwiches on the menu and I’m guessing these will rotate as the days go by. On the day of our visit, we select OpenFaceZ: Duck Rillettes ($6) braised duck topped with pickled cucumber, baby carrots, whole grain mustard sauce and pickled onion. It is decent and well-balanced.

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However, it is the Fungi Trifecta ($6), a blend of lobster mushrooms, cremini mushrooms and oyster mushrooms on top of a French beluga lentil pate, which garners the most ooos and ahhs. The natural umami of the mushrooms is enough to tantalize the palate, everything else is icing on the cake.

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While we are not in the mood for dessert, we are definitely intrigued by the PopsicleZ ($9) which are sangria popsicles. The flavors change weekly and we are presented with the two: apple with beer back and tropical (peach) with wine back. I am a fan of Cafe 21’s sangrias and to find them in a popsicle is not only whimsical, but completely calls out to my love of frozen treats.

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I am sure the next time I visit Zymology 21, the menu will be different and it will be a completely new experience. This is why my love of the “21” brand stays true because it is constantly evolving and never boring.

Zymology 21
750 5th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
Tel: 619-546-9321

Zymology 21 on Urbanspoon

Driftwood Kitchen is the whole package

I’m generally not impressed with restaurants offering a stunning a view. I find them relying on the gorgeous setting and slacking when it comes to the menu. Driftwood Kitchen is not one of those places. In fact, it exceeded my expectations when it comes to stellar cuisine. The ocean backdrop is just the icing on the cake.

We arrive a few minutes before it opened and were ushered into the waiting room. The waves were spectacular, but it was the homey room reminiscent of someone’s living room in the Hamptons, that made me love it even more. The room is cozy and the sofa so comfortable I was reluctant to get up after I had sunk my weary body into it.

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After we were led to our table at the window’s edge, I quickly took a stroll inside the restaurant and was tickled to find that the warmth extends throughout. No matter where you end up sitting, you can be sure it will be a very inviting and gratifying one.

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The cool breeze was pleasant, helping to alleviate the glare of the sun, however, it also meant none of my photos came out. Of course I was disappointed, but luckily, photographer extraordinaire, Anne Watson generously offered her photos for me to use.

** all food photographs courtesy of Anne Watson Photography**

Before anything else, I am presented with a plate of asiago monkey bread accompanied by a pat of butter dotted with black sea salt. A word of warning! It is highly addictive and you won’t want to stop — I couldn’t — however, you will regret it later when you’re too full to eat all the gorgeous dishes you have ordered.

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For example, Cluster Tomato Salad ($14), something I highly recommend ordering, is a must if it’s still on the menu when you make it there. One of the things about Driftwood Kitchen is that ingredients are seasonal and Chef Rainer Schwarz only uses what’s currently available. Therefore, once the tomato season ends, so will this dish. The best part of this salad was the grilled plums, adding another level of sweetness, while Thai basil brings hints of freshness. I especially enjoyed the plum wine vinaigrette dressing and soft mozzarella.

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I don’t know why I love panna cotta so much. Maybe it is the dreamy texture, but I was definitely a little skeptical about the goat cheese aspect of it. Goat Cheese Panna Cotta and Roasted Baby Beets Salad ($12) turned out to be one of the most delectable things I’d ever eaten. The panna cotta is smooth and creamy without the usual grassy, gamey aromas of goat cheese I tend to dislike. Lavender pumpernickel toasts exude floral hints, which, when eaten together with the panna cotta, and the absolutely addicting nature of the pistachio puree, is positively one of the best things I’ve ever eaten!

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My love for raw fish can only be rivaled, by perhaps, scallops. Therefore, Hamachi Crudo ($14) was exactly one of those dishes to whet my tastebuds. The list of accoutrements is unique, including honey dashi Texas grapefruit, avocado mousse, Fresno chili, cilantro/ and smoked sea salt. Take a bite and you’ll only find them all coming together harmoniously in what can be described as heaven on your palate.
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I’m definitely a sucker for soft-shell crabs and Buttermilk Fried Soft-shell Crab ($13) did not disappoint. Crispy on the outside and wonderfully soft on the inside, dip it into the spicy papaya seed dipping sauce and take bites of the green papaya slaw in between. So simple, yet immensely satisfying!

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And on the topic of something else I absolutely adore, New Bedford Sea Scallops ($38) with Alba truffle risotto and portabella mushroom confit is my choice for entree. The scallops are perfectly executed with a mushroom confit so voluptuous and savory you’ll want to lick the plate.

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Another respectable entree was Northern Atlantic Halibut Filet ($18) with Weiser Farm fingerling potato and a deliciously creamy corn fricasse — hidden underneath the fish — in an English pea sauce.

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If you find room to fit dessert in, my favorite was the Gluten Free Rocky Road ($9), a deconstructed Ferrer Rocher, if you will, consisting of crunch bar, marshmallow sauce, chocolate sauce, smoked almonds and chocolate ice cream. Definitely share this as it is decadent and wickedly sinful!

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Definitely a win in my book for an all-around great dining experience, especially if your’e trying to impress someone who also has a refined palate!

Driftwood Kitchen
619 Sleepy Hollow Lane
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-494-9707

Driftwood Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen is soul food and more

If you’re craving some soul food from the islands, there is no other place than Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen. The place is on PCH, but if you blink, you’ll miss it. I know because I’ve done it on more than one occasion! The restaurant is vibrantly hued, reminiscent of the islands and its tropical vibe. It is warm, inviting and filled with enticing aromas wafting through the entire dining room.

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Add to that your hostess, Eva Madray, a beautiful Guyanese lady with the warmth and heart to fill your soul, and that is even before you taste her cocktails and her incredible home-made cuisine.

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The menu consists of many choices, even for those who are not apt in consuming mouth-burning spices, but it is those dishes which hurt my mouth, that I love the most.

A piping hot bowl of Callaloo Soup ($5.50 cup/$8 bowl) is exactly the way to start your meal. Here, spinach is used together with okra, and coconut milk from Trinidad. Using a clam and lobster base, the soup is seasoned with thyme, garlic, shallot and is packed with flavor. Absolutely delicious!

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If you’re seriously into spicy food then Cajun Prawns ($11.75) is a must. These black tiger shrimp are marinated in lime, then dredged in a house-blended Cajun spice mix, then cooked to perfection. Even my high tolerance for heat found these a tad too much, but oh aren’t they so addicting. Even my son kept eating more. Take a bite of the accompanying grilled pineapple, roasted peppers, and passionfruit relish to cool your mouth down.

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For those of you less adventurous, there is Punani Shrimp ($11.75), Eva’s version of coconut shrimp. Jumbo shrimp are seasoned and breaded with coconut, then fried to perfection. Crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Served with a sweet mango chutney, this dish is definitely reminiscent of the islands.

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Aubergine Choka ($11) is right up my alley since I love eggplant in any shape or form. Here, they are flame roasted after being stuffed with garlic, then sauteed with shallots, chiles, onions and seasonings. It is served on top of toasted pita bread. So flavorful!

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When it came time for entrees, we all had our choices, but allow Eva to surprise us with a special not on the menu. Secret menu Chilean Seabass ($36) is tender and topped with a tomato-based sauce. Like everything Eva does, it is so piquant but not at all spicy. Flavors pop in your mouth and makes you want for more.

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If you’ve ever had anything prepared with jerk seasoning, then you are in for a surprise. I have never had anything prepared with jerk that isn’t spicy. Jerk Pork Loin ($25) is a boneless cut of pork loin marinated in dark Puerto Rican rum, garlic, and the other secret stuff, then grilled. The pork is tender and the best part is that the seasonings are infused all the way into the loin. The jerk here is not spicy at all but perfectly savory. Served with garlic mashed potatoes.

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Creole Stewed Fish ($24) was another pleaser. A generous New Zealand Orange Roughy fillet is marinated in Caribbean seasonings and stewed in Eva’s Creole Voodoo sauce. It sounds spicy but it isn’t. I love how there is always enough sauce to eat with the side of rice!

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You will always have a good time at Eva’s. If you love good food and enjoy a sip of something with rum, this is the place for you. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen
31732 Coast Hwy
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Tel: 949-499-6311

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ceviche festival at The Ritz Carlton

Saying I love raw fish is a bit of an understatement. Sashimi, poke, tiradito, ceviche, regardless what you call it, by adding a mixture of salty, sweet and tart, the fish is transformed into something quite mouthpuckeringly (I just made up a word) good.

So for all you raw fish aficionados out there, September is the month for you at The Ritz-Carton Laguna Niguel. The ceviche festival runs for the entire month and will see both Raya and 180blũ offering a menu packed with various “ceviches” — term is used loosely as there are several styles to choose from — to tickle your fancy. I attended a preview showcasing what you will expect should you choose to partake in this delicious offering.

If you’re a fan of island style raw fish, there is Hawaiian Ahi Tuna, a stellar interpretation of ahi poke, the jicama and red onion brings a crunch, while avocado adds a creaminess in your mouth. Of course, there has to be a source of heat and tart, and in this particular dish, it is from chile de arbol, ponzu and yuzu. Served with crispy plantain and yuca chips.

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Rock Shrimp is also a staple found on the islands, but given a Pan Latin twist here. For that kick, roasted jalapeno and Peruvian sweetie peppers are used. Yuzu, mint, cucumber and tomato marry together bringing refreshing qualities to the palate. However, it is the white soy which piqued my interest. This version of soy sauce is not aged and un-barreled, which makes it an ideal accompaniment. It is clear and does not visually compromise the final product.

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Mixto is a combination of octopus, mussel, squid, hearts of palm sweet corn, green onion and citrus aji panca. The ingredients come together to create a spicy, sweet marinade for the seafood.

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Baja Scallop is aesthetically presented — in its shell — surrounded by thinly sliced discs of cucumber, enveloped in a tomato and guajillo sauce. Reminiscent of the Mexican coctel, it is a taste I am well familiar with.

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Even though all the ceviches which came before Sea Bass are tasty, I must say, this won me over in more ways than one. Served in a coconut shell, the citrus coconut water bath the sea bass sits in is the perfect balance of tartness on my tongue. Candied yams, red onion, cilantro add a hint of sweetness and spice, while corn nuts gives a really delightful crunch. I could go on and on about this particular ceviche, but I think you should just go and try it out for yourselves.

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Remember, the ceviche festival runs until the end of the month. Make a trip out to The Ritz Carlton and try one of these delicious creations. All the ceviches are available at both Raya and 180blũ.

The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
One Ritz-Carlton Drive
Dana Point, CA 92629
Tel: 949-240-2000

esquire — Brisbane, Australia

I am searching for a restaurant to have a family get-together while in Brisbane, but I also want it to be something different, something special. I do research and think hard about it, but am not able to make a decision. One evening, I am watching TV in my parents’ living room and this food show features a segment on Chef Ryan Squires’ esquire. I make up my mind immediately when I hear The French Laundry and El Bulli, being part of Squires’ resume.

On the day of our visit, my whole family make our way into the city. I choose lunch mainly because I want good lighting for my photos, but also, my niece and nephew are younger and I am not sure they are good candidates for a relatively upscale meal during dinner time.

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We arrive to an empty spot, having the dining room pretty much all to ourselves. Our server Joanna is pleasant and patient with all of my questions and inquiries and hurries away in search of answers to those she is unable to fulfill.

Although the restaurant generally recommends the entire table partake in prix fixe menus, I ask if we are able to order from both. There are several dishes not available from the a la care and I am eager to try as many of the selections as possible. This piece will be a tad discombobulated since we order two of the 5-course prix fixe lunch menu (AUD75/$69.50) and then off the a la carte menu to complete our meal.

The set menu begins with Rye Bread, pickles and cultured butter, as well as Beef Tendon with peanut and lime. The presentation is interesting but pleasing.

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Second course is Sashimi Grade Yellow Eye with a green mustard sauce and air-dried brassica (from the turnip family which includes rutabaga and kohlrabi) leaves. I love the crispiness of the leaves!

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Holmbrea Chicken Breast, the third course, is a perfectly executed piece of meat. The chicken is first braised, then poached, making it moist, tender and very flavorful. Toasted buckwheat adds a textural dimension while the roast bone sauce is rich without being cloying. I want more of the roasted chestnut puree, as well as the preserved fig “sheet” enveloping the chicken breast. A hint of thyme finishes the dish off perfectly!

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The fourth course is Pastrami Wagyu Beef, my least favorite dish of the entire meal. The wagyu is bland even with the onion bouillon it is draped with. The mustard cream, pickles and spicy ketchup are delightful additions, as is the finely diced gherkins, however, the accoutrements are not enough to save the under-seasoned wagyu for it to be a mouth-popping experience.

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The prix fixe ends with Campari, an ice cream comprising mandarin orange segments, as well as curds and whey. It is quite delicious really, being so simple, and mouth teasing. Unfortunately, I am only afforded a bite as the kids monopolize both bowls and are not interested in giving us another taste.

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The rest of us continue on with the rest of the a la carte menu. Since I am busy taking photos, I miss out on the first course so I order Rye Bread (AUD10/$9.30) so I am able to taste it. The pickles are lackluster, but the butter is lovely — not quite the one at Walter Manzke’s Republique — but still, delicious!

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The tendon is presented as Fried Beef Puffs (AUD12/$11.15) on the a la carte which the kids gleefully chomp away on thinking it is a cracker. I don’t tell them what it is seeing they are enjoying it so very much. I absolutely adore the dusting of peanut and lime seasoning the chicharron-like crisps.

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Of course, we are not able to sit through a meal without vegetables. I order Radicchio Leaves (AUD15/$13.90) which is a bigger portion than I expect. Balsamic, olive fried onion and shredded goats cheese are tossed with the brightly hued leaves. So simple, so tasty.

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Roasted Beetroot (AUD12/$11.15) is a vision when it hits the table. While my dad is not a fan of beets, I convince him to try a piece. The goats curd, apple gastrique and hazelnut combine together nicely giving the whole composition a sweet, tart, salty and crunchy finish.

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Everyone agrees Oak Smoked Rainbow King Trout (AUD15/$13.90) is their favorite. The melt-in-your-mouth trout is perfectly smoked and comes with half a soft boiled egg and a dollop of horseradish yogurt. The other intriguing ingredient is fried dill root. It not only gives a crispy element to the dish but also, an aromatic one. Each element combines together for the perfect mouthful. Sublime!

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The next three dishes are all from the “charcoal” section of the menu meaning everything is charcoal-grilled. Being an octopus fiend, my eyes automatically hone on to Baby Octopus (AUD15/$13.90) with olive oil and parsley. My brother, son and I love this dish and order another.

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Southern Calamari (AUD22/$20.40) is embraced by all. My mother prefers this over the baby octopus as it is so very tender. A spritz of lemon and garlic are all it needs.

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Whole Side of Murray Cod (AUD32/$29.70) is smaller than expected but flaky and moist. Garlic and a sprinkling of finely chopped herbs top the fish. A lemon wedge accompanies.

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Our last dish is Buttermilk Fried Chicken (AUD18/$16.70). A ramekin of creme fraiche and chive puree accompanies for dipping. We end up ordering two of these as my brother and son want more. The chicken is juicy and moist, albeit the second order sees the skin not rendered completely. Still, the seasoning penetrates deep into the chicken which makes for an perfectly executed offering.

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At the meal’s end, each diner receives a bar of chocolate — can’t remember if they make it in-house, or if it is made especially for the restaurant by a chocolatier — but it is rich, dark, and delicious.

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I am very happy to see Brisbane’s food scene at a different level from when I left over two decades ago. Through the years, my parents have introduced me to several higher-end restaurants which have never quite hit the mark with me. We need more chefs like Ryan Squires returning home and pushing Brisbane forward, towards where it will be on par with other major cities around the world. I hope my next trip home will be even more delicious!

** Parking is a problem in the city which could be the reason why the restaurant is empty during lunch. We ended up paying AUD71 per car for three hours of parking. In the evenings, parking lots offer more reasonable flat rates. I suggest taking a cab or CityCat **

esquire
145 Eagle Street
Brisbane, QLD 4000
Tel: (07) 3220-2123

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Gerard’s Bar — Brisbane Australia

The second of three Australian restaurants I’m featuring from my trip is Gerard’s Bar. I came here with my university friends for a night out hoping to get a table at Gerard’s Bistro, but unfortunately, on a Thursday night, they were fully booked and there was not a chance for them to fit us in. So, we walked across the courtyard in the back and ventured towards Gerard’s Bar, part of the Bistro, but with its own menu.

It is a gastropub of sorts with charcuterie hanging off hooks displayed in the window. It is extremely dark inside and not a seat available, luckily, we were able to find al fresco seating out on the patio.

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I started with The Quiet Mexican (AUD14/$13) which made me chuckle because I don’t think I’ve ever met a quiet Mexican before. The cocktail was pleasant using tequila as its base. I chose this not only because I love tequila, but most of the menu comprised of absinthe or aperol — both of which I dislike.

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The charcuterie is extensive and impressive. I had ordered Guanciale (AUD8/$7.40) salumi Australia, a pepper cured pork jowl and Longanisa Roja (AUD9/$8.35) a course ground salumi described as possessing spiced with pepper and garlic and Moorish accents, although I didn’t really detect much of the latter. Served with a baguette — not crusty — it was a nice vehicle for the meats. A plate of pickled vegetables accompanied, but I was perplexed by the lack of tartness and the abundance of saltiness from each of the items.

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The thing which won me over was Quail Liver and PX Parfait (AUD16/$14.85) a creamy liver mousse which was light as air. Plated with it were the two cheeses I selected, one of which was Grandvewe Sappire Sheep’s Blue (AUD7/$6.50), the other was Cabra Pimenton (AUD6/$5.60) was possibly my favorite with lovely hints of peppers.. Crispy flatbread adds a nice component and good contrast to the baguette.

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Since I’m not able to partake in the Moonlight Flat Oysters (AUD5 each/$4.65) I can only attest to the oohs coming from my son’s lips when he ate these.

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One of my favorites of the night is Storm Clams and N’Duja (AUD9 each/$8.35). These large clams are flame grilled topped with spicy n’duja and fresh lemon. They are meaty and umami-filled that I wish I had ordered more.

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The Cheeseburger (AUD14/$13) is a double wagyu beef pattie burger topped with bacon, relish, pickles and cheese. The bun was a tad dense, but overall, the flavors were perfect. The patties were packed with flavor and seasoned well. Even though it looked small, it was a satisfactory item even if you were only having it as your meal.

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Mulloway Tartare (AUD10/$9.30) was a display of innovation. Bits of smoked lardo are placed in a sieve and held over the plate of diced mulloway (jewfish), Jerusalem artichoke chips, kimchi and shiso. A blow torch starts flaming the lardo, melting it away, allowing the unctuous pork fat drippings to drape over the fish tartare concoction. Beautiful presentation and a nice gimmicky interaction to have with the customers.

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If you’re ever in Brisbane, Queensland, take some time to check out the blossoming food scene. I was delighted to find all these new restaurants offering a level of sophistication I had not previously experienced in this town. I hope it keeps continuing in this direction.

Gerard’s Bar
13a 23 James Street
Fortitude Valley, QLD 4066
(07) 3252 2606

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