Category Archives: Eating Out

Restaurants, Cafe’s, Food Stalls. I paid for it, so I’ll comment on it.

Eastern Port Yum Cha

One thing Mackay doesn’t lack is Asian Restaurants.  Unfortunately, they mostly cater to the quick lunch trade, and are focused on pushing out a fast meal, rather than a good meal.  Sure, there are a few exceptions to this, but for the most part I have been disappointed in the quality of Chinese (and other SE Asian influenced dishes) that I have found so far.

Just looking at this makes me hungry

A new restaurant set on the perimeter of a Shopping Centre, and within a stones throw of a Sizzler, did not raise my hopes of Eastern Port being any different.

Walking into the restaurant, it ticks off most of the prerequisites for a typical Chinese restaurant.  There’s the ornamental fish tank behind the maitre ‘d stand, there’s a row of fish tanks vigorously bubbling away while lobsters, fish, and large crab peer out at diners, and there’s a rack of glossy tanned ducks hanging behind glass, just inside the kitchen.  Coupled with the rest of the modern decor, with Chinese art and cultural hints, Eastern Port actually pulls of a neat trick of providing a pleasant dining atmosphere whilst food service staff scurry busily pushing yum-cha carts around tables of hurried diners surrounded by prams, shopping carts, and plastic store bags full of groceries and department store essentials.

It’s not a real Chinese Restaurant unless it has one of these

Eastern Port also has a small curb-side dining area, as well as the tables inside the restaurant itself, which is consistent with the other cafe’s and eateries in the area.  It also makes a great place to people watch on a sunny afternoon, as you are enjoying a prolonged yum-cha session.

Jeri and I are quickly led to our seats (inside), and it is seconds before the yum-cha cart arrives, offering it’s wares for the luncheon rush.  We both decide that we want to look at the menu before deciding on what we will select.  Immediately my eyes are drawn to the laksa.  Now, there aren’t many things that I would prefer to eat than yum-cha.  I love Chinese dumplings like fat kids love chocolate.  But Curry laksa is one of those dishes.

It also shows both the good and bad in Australian Asian restaurants.  There are not too many places where you will find yum-cha sharing menu space with laksa, and your trip across Asia doesn’t end with China and Malaysia.  The menu also includes Thai tom yum , Singapore noodles, mee and nasi Goreng from Indonesia.  The menu is, however, predominantly Chinese and Malay, so I decide to give the laksa a chance.  In a shock, Jeri also orders a soup.  Wonton soup is her choice, which surprises me as she is a self proclaimed soup disliker (ok, hater would have been too strong a word, so I chose to make one up instead).

Just after the waiter scurries off to bark the order at the kitchen staff, the yum-cha chart stops at our table and we are encouraged to choose from the dozen or so offerings.  Not today, we explain…we’ve ordered from the menu.  Confused, the cart operator races off to the next table.  It seems they really want to sell yum-cha.

A good looking Laksa right there

Less than 10 minutes later, our soups arrive with a flourish of fragrant steam, and the moment of truth is upon us.

Now, as a lover of laksa I have eaten it hundreds of times, and I have had the pleasure of eating some of the best, and the misfortune of being disppointed by some of the worst, including an insipid version last week from another local noodle bar, but this laksa was actually quite good.

The good:

Well balanced, and reasonably flavourful, I would have to concede that it was the best laksa I have had in Mackay.

As a seafood laksa, the prawns were generous, and the vegetables were fresh and vibrant.

The bad:

I thought the broth could have had more flavour.  It’s really the key part of a good laksa, and it just let it down a little.

The squid and the mussels were also over cooked, which is a really difficult ask for a laksa, but I have had perfectly cooked and tender squid in a laksa in the past.  Also, the tofu was a non event, as was the fish cake (too bland and thin).

I also felt that there should have been more condiments on the side to customize the flavour.  The sambal that was included had no kick at all, and the soup really needed it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely going back to the Eastern Port, and I’m also going to recommend the laksa as a good option.  The issues I have are purely a question of degrees of flavour…the flavour was there, and the soup was good, it just lacked some key elements that could have made it great.

Crayfish, Crab, and Dumpling Steamers…maybe next time

I’m also looking forward to trying their yum-cha some day, and even exploring a little deeper into their menu of South East Asian standards.  For this visit, however, I am going to give it 3.5 little piggies.

Maria’s Donkey – Tapas Treats along the river

We live in a beautiful part of the world, and this is the time of year that the region shines.  The wet season is behind us for another year, and the warm tropical days are washed away with balmy evenings and cool nights while the rest of the country is bracing for winter snows, and chilling rains.

Maria's Donkey on the Pioneer River

This is the time of year where you can’t decide whether the week should end with a Friday evening stroll amongst the palms along the riverfront, or sipping margaritas as the sun sets, painting the mangroves in hues of amber and burnt orange.  This week we chose the latter.

Mackay is really doing some exciting things along the Riverfront, and it’s about time.  Downtown has always been a club haven, where nights are filled with echoes of dance music and peels of intoxicated laughter, but it’s not been a great place to go out for a quiet drink…or two.  This is slowly changing.

The promise of a nice quiet drink, and some great Mexican food (according to the rumour), is what took us along to Maria’s Donkey on River Street.  It’s on the Eastern side of the Forgan Bridge, just before you get to the Fish Markets, and is marked by a small swinging sign with the picture of a hatted donkey.

For a good time, enter here...

Like many of the buildings in the area, it’s built on piers over the top of the mud flats that edge the Pioneer River, and stepping onto the entryway takes you off of terra firma, as the river bank drops away beneath your feet.  This afternoon a party was enjoying exclusive access to the patio at the far end of the building, but other nice seating was available along the side patio, and inside offered cozy couch seating, as well as stools along the bar.

The first thing that caught our attention was the sign “This is not a restaurant, this is a bar” and it turns out that Maria’s Donkey is a Tapas bar, rather than a restaurant proper.  It basically means that it’s not really a place for kids, though the manager explains that weekend lunches and afternoons are not really an issue.  I actually like the Tapas Bar concept as a place where adults can gather and share a few drinks with great small appetizer portions of finger foods.  A place where you don’t have to dodge under-supervised children.  A place that doesn’t quite cater to the cashed up and testosterone fueled miner, who is two days into his five day break, and is sharing the second day of his “bender” with everyone else within earshot.  Maria’s lives up to the promise of a nice quiet drink, and gentle music plays in the background…loud enough to enjoy, but quiet enough to allow conversation to be held at a normal level.

Delicious Chorizo Hotpot

Looking over the Tapas offerings, the selection had an eclectic Mediterranean feel to it, rather than the Mexican we had hoped for, though the menu does change daily.  The specials board spruiked a range of seafood choices, including oysters, mussels, prawns and calamari, while on the menu proper Arabic, Greek, Spanish and Italian inspired dishes shared space with some Mexican offerings.  Today we honed in on the Chorizo Hot Pot, though the Empanada’s (Chicken and/or Beef) were calling my name, as was the Cherry Tomato and Chorizo skewers, with Feta and fresh Basil.

I thought the prices were quite reasonable, and the Hot Pot  was enough food for a good lunch by itself.  Essentially a tomato and Chorizo stew, it was packed with sausage and full of flavour.  It was rustic and simple, very hearty, and I thought great value at $12.  Unfortunately we weren’t that hungry, we actually shared the one hot pot, as it was only late afternoon, but I’ll update the blog with other food tastings as I visit again.

One of the other things that caught my eye, was the range of beers and cocktails available.  For a smaller bar, I thought the range carried a good mix of beer styles and flavours.  Red ales through to light lagers were all represented, and I don’t think anyone would walk away from Maria’s without finding a beer that they would enjoy.  Normally I would have been all over the ales, but this afternoon we had a thirst for something else.  Something with a lime’s sharpness, and a crust of salt around the rim of the glass.  The word “Margarita” stuck out like a sore thumb on the Cocktail list, and it reminded me that it had been an awful long time since I had had a good Margarita in a bar.  Could this be the place?

Now the view is perfect

So, also at $12 a pop, the Margarita wasn’t cheap, but it was good.  No, it was great.  Maybe we were here on a “pop-in” visit, just on a whim, but the Margarita they served actually put the wife an I on a Tequila and Triple Sec fuelled adventure that night.  We went home and broke out the blender, to perfect our own at home, and we got close to Maria’s quality…but a great Margarita is a hard thing to find, and even harder to replicate, and Maria’s was one of the best.

This is not a very detailed review of Maria’s Donkey, but I wanted to get this post out quickly, rather than wait until I had tried more of the menu, and the cocktail list.  7 weeks it’s been open, and places like Maria’s really need our support.  Not just because it’s a nice place for adults to enjoy a drink without drunken yobo’s spilling XXXX Gold on our shoes and shirts, but because it’s a place that delivers on it’s promise.  Good honest simple food, great atmosphere, an excellent selection of beverages, all reasonably priced.

I will certainly be back, and I’m giving it 4 little piggies.

Beers in Brisbane – 4 Pots at the Grand Central Hotel

It’s the weekend of the Jamie Oliver/Ministry of Food/The Good Guys event, and Jeri and I have just arrived in Brisbane courtesy of a very uncomfortable Virgin Australia flight.  We settle into the very lovely Hilton Hotel Brisbane (thank you very much, The Good Guys) and decide to burn the rest of the afternoon strolling around downtown.
In search of some amber refreshments in the late summer Brisbane heat, we find ourselves darkening the doorstep of the Grand Central Hotel, tucked up under the Grand Central Station on Ann Street, and the place is jumping.

It seems as though a Friday evening cleansing ale is quite the tradition for Brisbane City workers, and with numerous QR and QR National buildings close by, 3 in 5 imbibers are Railroaders.
After finishing a round of Fat Yaks, I decide to bring back 2 pots of something completely different, just to do a taste test.  It was then that Jeri had the brilliant idea to do a beer review.  With that light-bulb moment on the table I head back to the bar to get another Fat Yak and a 4th, more mainstream and international, choice.

Lined up on the table are: Heineken, Kosciusko Pale Ale, Fat Yak Pale Ale and James Squires Nine Tails Amber Ale.

Heineken, Kosciusko, Fat Yak, 9 Tails


First up is the Heineken.  The first thing I noticed was the head on the beer. The Heineken’s had all but disappeared.  Raising the glass to my nose, I get a sweet floral note that is the best of the four.  You could breath that in all day, and it would never get unpleasant. On a cold winter’s day, when the warmth of a long summer afternoon is just a distant memory, pour a “Heiney” into a tall glass and breath it in.  It’s very reminiscent of a sweet summer breeze.  Delivering a pleasant sweetness immediately on the palate, the Heineken also has a very mild creaminess that finishes with a moderate hit of bitterness across the back and sides of the tongue.  For me, this is the easiest of these beers to drink, and probably the best for those days where the sweat is rolling off your brow and you just have to down a quick cold one to refresh yourself.  Though milder than the other three, the mouth-feel and bitterness would mean this beer would hold up to a little spice.  With a meal, I’d serve it up along side a tandoori chicken, or a nice heavy German bratwurst. Heineken is obviously the most available beer of the three, for most people, and I think it is one of the better mass produced beers on the market.  I’ll give it 3.5 little piggies.

You can't buy my vote with gifts and baubles


Next up was the Kosciusko Pale Ale.  This one is probably the least available of the group, but was a nice change to the rest of the standards you see on tap.  The head on the Kosi was light, but longer lasting than the Heineken.  Peach and and citrus notes were delivered by the nose, and you get an immediate feeling that this is going to be a relatively light ale.  The sweetness is a little more than the Heineken also, though not overly so, and the cream punch is somewhat of a surprise.  This pale ale delivers the biggest mouth-feel of any I can remember.  Heavy, but not overly sweet, it finishes with a clarity that carries almost no bitterness at all, and is almost a beer you can swap for a chardonnay in the food matching parlance.  Definitely a good beer for a light bright pasta, say a pesto penne with a squeeze of lemon, or a nice feed of battered fish or crumbed calamari. I enjoyed it, but it is not a beer you could drink a lot of.  It’s a good cool autumn beer for times when one or two will do.  I give it 3 little piggies.

The Fat Yak is a beer I have been drinking for a while now.  If I see one on tap, I’ll usually get it, but not because it is great.  Mostly because it is better than most big brewery offerings, and it’s safe.  It’s a beer I am comfortable with…like those old sneakers in the closet that you just can’t throw away, even though you replaced them years ago.  The Yak held the best head of the four, with a full creamy top all the way to the last drop.  The light floral aroma masks the medium bitter finish that is the punchiest of these beers. Though heavier than most beers, it lacks the chewiness of the other pale ale offering, the Kosi, and the Fat Yak can be enjoyed in a hurry.  It really is a good all round beer, but can be a bit on the “tasty” side for many beer drinkers.  I rate this up with the Heineken, though for different days and different reasons.  Serve this with a big burger, or a meat lovers pizza.  The Yak will also play well with a lighter red meat, like a lamb chop or duck breast.  3.5 piggies

The James Squire Nine Tails Amber Ale certainly has the longest name of this group.  Rich caramel and chocolate notes on the nose are followed up by a hint of Shiraz on the palate and a moderate creamy mouth-feel.  I love big and bold beers, and this is one.  You will not drink a 6 pack of these, in fact you won’t drink more than 2, but they will be 2 that count.  Drink this full flavoured ale like you would a rich full bodied red.  Just the ticket on a cold winters eve with a fire in the hearth and an Osso Bucco on the dinner plate.  4 little piggies for this beer, but pick the right times to drink it.  Summer in Brisbane is not that time.

 

China City Seafood Restaurant – Brisbane

Eating at a Chinese restaurant always takes me back to my childhood.   Loud evenings with the entire family seated around a table, plates of strange and exotic food flying by as someone spun the lazy Susan like a culinary version of “Wheel of Fortune”.  From the hot towels at the start, to the fortune cookies at the end, the entire meal was a gastronomic performance that was designed to entertain and satisfy the soul, as much as it was the palate.  It was the first exposure I had to a meal being an experience, and not just sustenance, and what an experience the Chinese restaurant is.

Consider how different eating at a Chinese restaurant is, especially for an impressionable Australian kid:  Exotic looking wait staff barking orders in an undecipherable language.  Strange ingredients and menu items written in a foreign alphabet.  Glass tanks bubbling away like an esculent death row full of lobsters crab and large unsuspecting fish.   Garish coloured decor and painted wall hangings fringed with gold tassels and surreal landscapes hanging on walls with animated waterfalls that seem like actual flowing water.  Strange prawn flavoured chips that cling to your wet tongue like frozen flagpoles.  Sometimes an escalator ferrying diners to some unseen mezzanine level that you never seem to get invited to (what are they doing up there?).  Chopsticks to clumsily transport food from plate to mouth, and doubled as drumsticks while you waited for the next course to arrive.

And what is it with chopsticks anyway?  As a child I was taught that stealing was bad, but this law did not apparently apply to chopsticks, which were secretly deposited into pockets purses and even socks.  At home, our third draw was over flowing with chopsticks, and most of them had “Golden Palace” (name changed to protect myself from possible prosecution or a late night visit from a black-belted enforcer in an act of revenge Kung-Fu) printed boldly in a metallic red paint.

Oh, and Bruce Lee movies forever changed Chinese dining for me too…I can never sit down to a Chinese meal in a Chinese restaurant without secretly imagining an army of kung-fu goons bursting through flimsy walls while the favourite nephew of the owner defends his uncle against the enforcement of some protection racket, defeating at least 20 of them despite unimaginable odds, without a drop of blood being spilled.

So, through my ramblings you get the picture.  Chinese restaurants are an experience, and for me they represent some of my happiest childhood dining memories.  Often this experience can hide beige westernized versions of Chinese classics  or worse, western created cuisine passed off as Chinese.  As an adult, some of my worst dining experiences have been at the hands of Chinese restaurants.  So I am always on guard when I go out to eat Chinese.

At this point, I have a bit of a confession to make.   This is not my first visit to the China City Seafood restaurant.  In fact, whenever I am in Brisbane, I try to eat there at least once.  And now the cat is out of the bag, I obviously eat there often because I enjoy their food, and I do.  In truth, it is some of the best Chinese food I have eaten outside of Hong Kong.

Yes, they provide the full Chinese restaurant experience, and some in spades.  When the boss is on deck, it is hilarious watching him watching the younger waiters and waitresses.  A quick stern word from him barked in Chinese and the crew gets hopping.  It’s obvious he runs the show with an iron fist, and the result is some of the fastest service from any restaurant I have been too.  Tea cups are filled quickly, water glasses topped up without hesitation, and meals arriving in quick order even when the place is nearly full.

The China City is most famous for being a lunch time Yum Cha restaurant, but today I am eating at night, and it’s all traditional menu based dining.  Typically Chinese, the menu is well laid out and has large bright full colour photographs of most of the dishes, and ordering for me is always difficult.  I have tried a lot of what is on the menu, with the exception of the more expensive “seasonally priced” items (read: that means I have not been directly responsible for the dispatching of any of the death row inhabitants).

As soon as I sit down, my drinks order is taken, and the drinks arrive well before I have decided what I want to eat.  Oh, and I apologize in advance for the quality of the photo’s.  My Blackberry is not much of a camera.

Today, I chose a soup, a couple of entrees (appetizers), and a main…without rice (I am trying to reduce my carbohydrate intake, so rice and breads are out).

Hot and Sour soup. Certainly one of my favourite soups, and the example dished up by the China City is likely the reason for my loving this restaurant.  Packed full of various chunks of meat, it is the heartiest version of the soup I have ever had.  It might be that the soup is full of the leftover ingredients from the previous evenings mizz, but isn’t that what soup should be?  This Hot and Sour soup is brow sweatingly hot, but not so much as it kills your taste buds (well, not for me…but be warned.  This would be too hot for my wife and kids), and the flavour is perfectly balanced by a sharp sourness and delicate sweetness that finishes on the palate.  Certainly not “dumbed down” for western tastes, this is the best Hot and Sour soup I have ever had.  Period.

Pork and Prawn dumplings.  Now this place is famed for it’s Yum Cha, so they should do a good sui mai, and indeed they did.  I love dim sum, but sometimes it can be less than inspired.  These dumplings were slightly smaller than a golf ball, and were packed with chunks of pork and prawn meat.  Perfectly seasoned, they were texturally as good as they were delicious.  Again, some of the best sui mai I have had.

Salt and Pepper Calamari Entree.  I love the seasoning and flavour they pack into this dish.  Well garnished with chilli’s, it does pack a punch, especially if you include some of the bedding the fried calamari is sitting on.  That being said, it is not a fantastic dish, as the calamari was a bit tough, and a little oily.  It’s as though the temperature of the oil was a bit low, and it took too long to cook it, causing it to become a little bit chewy.

Duck combination with Vegetables.  This dish as just about every kind of meat they cook, tossed in some bok choy and snow peas, and served over a generous portion of roasted duck.  It becomes a bit confused, with bbq pork mixing with delicate fish, and a savoury gravy trying to bring it all together.  It’s not a terrible dish, in fact I really enjoy eating it, it’s just a little off putting.  Still, who makes these food rules up anyhow, about what should be cooked and served with what.  The mushrooms are great, the duck is great, and maybe it should have been left at that.

Pushing away my unfinished portions, the waiter collects my plates and returns with a saucer of fresh fruit.  No fortune cookies?  Oh well.

Before I finish off this review, I did a little online search for the restaurant and found some other mixed reviews.
China City Seafood Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Most of the negative seems to be around the service, and I might see why.  I have never had poor service from them, but I can sense that things can get a bit chaotic and terse.  Certainly, the boss man seems to push his staff, and throughput or table turnover is important to him, and probably more so on busy days, but I have never seen this poor service or attitude directed to a customer.

Overall, I really enjoy dining here.  I’ve never walked away from a meal unhappy, and I can attest that the offerings are very authentic.  I’m going to give the China City 3.5 piggies for today’s meal.  Now there have been times when I would rate it higher, but the calamari let it down a bit, and the Combination Duck was good, but not great.

The China City is located in the Queen Street Mall, up on the Treasury Casino (or River) side.  It is tucked into the back of the entrance to the Chifley Lennons hotel.

A dining “experience” – Grand Chancellor Hotel Brisbane “Fresco’s”

Dining is all about an experience. It’s a sum of factors, some more important than others, that equate to a perception of enjoyment. Granted, many of these are subjective in nature, and even the import of each piece of the overall package will vary from one person to another…even one day to the next.

I bring this up because it is especially important today. This evening I ate at the Fresco’s restaurant within the Grand Chancellor in Spring Hill (Brisbane).

For a start, I had a late lunch today. Couple this with a flight from Mackay, and I was just not feeling very hungry. I wasn’t even going to review this meal, given I wasn’t really “feeling it”, but here we are. And for good reason, I think.

Now, part of the overall experience, and for me a major part, is value. When you have to hand over your hard earned dollars at the end of the meal, how do you feel about it? Did you get your money’s worth? And Fresco’s sells itself as a higher end restaurant. From the hotel lobby, it has all the signs of a flash joint. Small menu with prices that don’t include cents. Fancy gourmet buzz words in the descriptions, like “champagne vinegar mignonette” and “porcini mushroom foam”. Wait staff and a maitre ‘d who wear matching uniforms and half aprons. So it was almost with trepidation that I walked into the dining room to be seated.

Now, to be fair, the waitress was teriffic. In fact, all of the staff were great. Service was spot on, no complaints, but the experience started to get a little confused when I took my seat.

Shiny white butchers paper lined the tables. Underneath was a white table cloth, to be sure, and by god it was going to stay white. Ok, you might thimk i’m being a bit persnickety, but come on. Really Grand Chancellor Hotel? If you have an entree (or appetizer for my American friends), a main course, a dessert, and 1 drink, you cannot spend less than $60 per person. It is not a paper table cloth type restaurant. I promise you there are not unruly kids squirting ketchup bottles here.

Then I noticed the shot glass candle, and the only thing tackier than a shot glass candle is…a battery powered LED shotglass candle. Which, of course, is what it was.

Placed next to the fake candle, was a small saucer separated into two halves in the shape of a ying yang. Decor by jumble sale? One half had flaked sea salt, the other coarse ground pepper. Love the salt idea, hate the pepper. Hit me with a grind or two, i love the aroma of pepper as it is ground between two ceramic wheels, but it loses that freshness in seconds, and setting it on a dish doesn’t cut it.

I wont even get started on the rest of the decor, other than to say it needed some serious updating. I love the music from the 80’s, but the decor not so much.

All that aside, let’s talk food.

Ok, first thing…great wine list. A good selection, covering a lot of styles, and a range of price points. The wine fridges sitting on the counter, not great pieces of furniture. The beer selection is OK, but they have Coopers Sparkling Ale, so I’m well pleased.

Next thing. A salad. Remember me not being hungry? All of a sudden, i’m thinking a salad is a good idea. But guess what. No salad on the menu. If you have a restaurant, please make sure you have a salad option for the main. It’s not hard to make one, and it’s a great light alternative. Plus, remove the meat and you have a vegetarian option. If you are reading this Fresco’s…GET A FRIGGIN’ SALAD.

So, i decide to order a couple of entrees (again, appetizers for my American friends).

Salmon, marinated with ginger & kaffir lime: served with shaved coconut, coriander and bean sprout salad with chilli soy dressing.

Kangaroo fillet: baby spinach, beetroot & feta salad with chilli tomato relish (except they were out of feta, so had goats cheese, and had rocket (arugula) instead of spinach).

And they were both amazing.

The chef at the Fresco’s knows his (or her) shit. All that decor crap, the tacky table settings, well they are not really the important components of the package now, are they.

The salmon was perfectly cooked. A small portion, maybe, but it was an entree only. Rare are it’s centre, still moist, and delicately seasoned, it was perfectly done. And i don’t know how he (or she) made the salmon skin cracker, but it was a knock out. Even such a simple thing as the bean sprout and coriander salad was masterfully done. Like the old game of “pick up sticks”, bean sprouts create a tangled mess of 3d architecture that adds visual interest to the plate, and the colours of the sprouts, red onion (finely sliced) and coriander really prove that one first eats with ones eyes. Of course, it tasted great too, very well dressed.

The Kangaroo was better. Rare, as roo should be, it was perfectly seasoned, still juicy, and incredibly tender. I tried to savour those 5 small slices, but they were gone too soon. Is there a better combination in the food world than beetroot and goats cheese? I don’t think so. Fresh roasted beetroot, deliciously sweet and still with a good crunch, though tender enough to run a fork through it. Contrasted against the saltiness and soft creamy texture of the cheese…it was amazing. The chilli tomato relish balanced the dish nicely, with a little piquancy and acidity. This dish will go into the memory bank for later reproduction. No greater compliment than that.

I finished a very satisfying meal off with a nice espresso…and of course it was served in a double walled bodum espresso glass, as if to make a final statement about tacky decor.

If i were to measure the meal by the meal alone, it would have been outstanding. And while the decor and accessories were truly minor issues, more comedy fodder than anything, they were still issues. Less excusable was the lack of a salad on the menu (there was a pasta).

Though the environment may have missed the mark, the food was of the highest order and i felt it was well worth the money spent. Chef, my kudos to you and your team.

Fresco’s, your dining experience, as a package, was worth 3.5 little piggies.
Fresco's on Urbanspoon

Bridges Cafe and Jazz Bar

A golden full moon rose gently behind the mouth of the Pioneer river as a cooling easterly breeze drifted across the water, chasing away the Summer heat on this balmy February Friday in Mackay.  The kind of moon that makes you stop mid conversation and draw the attention of those around you to its phoenix like rebirth.

In front of me was a schooner of Fat Yak ale, washing down half a dozen natural oysters, while behind me a singer slash guitarist was performing his folky rendition of Australian pop/rock standards.

Yes, the night was a beautiful respite from the recent sweltering heat and yes, the backdrop provided by dining above the banks of the Pioneer River with a full moon rising was as beautiful as any backdrop could be, but the first thing that struck me about the Bridges Cafe and Jazz bar was the lack of Jazz music.

Maybe it was the fact I had just finished watching the first season of Treme (pronounced Trem-ay), the post Katrina New Orleans based drama of which the Jazz music and it’s scene plays such a pivotal role, that I was really looking forward to some live Jazz music, but tonight that was not to be.  And it was a shame.

Still, the opening gambit of Oysters and beer was genius and, from a food perspective at least, the night got off on the right foot.

We had quite the table(s) to serve, as this was a dinner party to mark the departure of a long term employee.  Someone had the foresight to order enough bread for double the 30 people who were there, but thankfully the appetizers did not take too long before they started to arrive.

Across from me, a dozen “Mexican” oysters were typically laid out on a bed of rock salt.  After accepting the offer of one, I was glad I had not ordered them myself.  An insipid chili sauce (which had zero heat, by the way) and a layer of cheese sauce does not a Mexican Oyster make.  Some people can’t stomach raw Oysters, while some can’t eat cooked ones.  I can eat them both, but why bother ruining something that is so perfect in it’s raw form?  If you are going to get cooked Oysters, you’re going to get shit Oysters in my opinion.  They Oyster does not improve with the application of heat.  Anyway, on to the main.

Surf and Turf, or Reef and Beef, or whatever it was that they named this dish that now lay before me.  Now, it is possible to ruin a perfectly good piece of meat.  But it is near impossible to make a shit piece of meat good.  Unfortunately, the example on my plate showed that you could make a shit piece of steak worse.  Mind you, this was a Rib Fillet.  Not a crap cut, but when it’s sliced about the thickness of my pinkie, you’re not going to be able to cook it under medium well without a sous vide.

And the surf part of the Surf and Turf was little better.  Three overcooked prawns with 4 half scallops (if you take 2 scallops and slice them around the equator, you can pass them off as 4!  Who knew, right?) in a cream sauce decorated the top of my steak.  Normally I offer a prawn or two to my wife out of politeness, but tonight I was glad to give them away.

The veges were cooked perfectly, nice and crisp, but were sadly under seasoned and still saturated by the water they were cooked in.  A quick tip to those cooks out there…broccoli and cauliflower hold on to water.  So if you are going to boil them, give them a blitz in a salad spinner before you serve them.  It’s not rocket science, but prevents your entire meal from becoming a bland soup or stew.

Any way, this blog started off so well and ended so negatively.  A bit like my meal.  I was going to give extra points for the view and the beautiful evening, but they were really not provided by the venue, and were free.  Hell, I used to sit up here and eat Burn’s Pies for lunch.  Now that was an enjoyable meal.  A Burn’s Pie and a Pastie, with a bottle of ice cold water, watching the bait fish flee excitedly from some finned predator beneath the shallows.  That $9 meal was worth 4 and half piggies…but the offering from Bridges Cafe and Jazz Bar?

1.5 Piggies.  An $80 meal should be a thrill.  Sorry guys, Sizzler does a better steak than you, and a Jazz Bar should be playing Jazz Music.

Leaning Towers Pizza – Charters Towers

Grease is good?

So it’s been a long long time since I have eaten pizza.  I am trying to shed some weight, and the low carb thing works for me, which typically counts out the great Italian fast food contribution.

Not today.

So, needless to say, my expectations were well elevated.  To break my floury fast, the pizza better be good.  We ordered 3 large Pizza’s: a Pepperoni (for the boys), a Chicken Supreme (hold the capsicum and pineapple, thank you very much) and a House Specialty (hold the capsicum, add mushrooms).

I know this is a controversial statement, by pineapple does not a good pizza make.  I just do not like the sweet kick that interrupts the rest of the pizza.  I love pineapples, jut not on a pizza.  And Capsicum (or Bell Peppers) have a flavour that dominates everything.  I love to eat them on their own, especially roasted, but hate them with anything else.  Not in a salad, not on a sandwich, and certainly not on a pizza.

Anyhow.

3 Large Pizza’s, $41.  Not bad prices at $14 each.  The larges are bigger than the larges from the major chains, so no complaints about the price.  The quality?

NOT DISAPPOINTED!  Excellent stuff.

The pizza bases were some of the tastiest I have had in a long long time.  Hand made dough, left to rise slowly for flavour, not speed.  Thick enough to be a bit bready, thin enough to fold…sublime and perfect in every sense.

The toppings?

I am not a pepperoni fan, but this pepperoni was almost like a hard smoked chorizo.  Was delicious.  And it was a solid layer of meat, not a gap anywhere.  At least 3 times more topping than you would find at your local mass produced Pizza Chain store.  Of course the grease on the bottom of the box is a clue to the amount of the topping!

And the other two pizza’s were equally delicious and generous.

Chicken Supreme with Chicken, Onions, Olives, Herbs, Garlic,  and Cheese
House Special with Ham, Cabanosi, Fresh Tomato, Herbs, Olives, Garlic, and Cheese (and the mushrooms I added).

My only complaint, and it’s a matter of taste, is that they did not have my favourite pizza listed.  I’m a Cappriciosa fan, with the anchovies.

I grew up in Melbourne, and we pride ourselves on having great pizza places everywhere.  Lookout Lygon Street…Charters Towers is rising.

4.5 little piggies (out of 5)

Northern Suburbs Leagues Club (Mackay) – November 14th, 2011

You always get a little nervous walking into a club when it’s obviously a slow night, and the first thing that greats you is the twinkle of the heat lamp keeping the veges warm.  The specials board is garishly lit, and proudly scrawled in multi-coloured chalk are the six or so choices pretty much covering the basic spectrum of Proteins.

  • Roast Chicken, Beef or Pork
  • Honey Seeded Chicken on Rice
  • Battered Barramundi
  • 250g Teriyaki Rump Steak
  • Crumbed Lamb Cutlets

Personally, I almost NEVER order anything off the specials board (thanks Anthony Bourdain), however this time I had my wife and 2 kids with me.

What we ordered:

  • Honey Seeded Chicken (for the youngest of my sons)
  • Battered Barramundi for my Wife
  • Chicken Kiev for the Oldest Son (not the adventurous type), off the regular menu
  • Pork Chops for myself, off the regular menu

Being a club, we took our table number, and settled down to a table close enough to the Sports Screens for my sons to watch the Soccer and Rugby being broadcast.

The meals did take a little longer than I expected to come out, but it wasn’t so long a wait that you became irritated by it.  It gave us some time to engage in a little dinner time family conversation…and for the Wife and Kids to frag some Stupid Zombies on the Smartphone.

We grabbed our plates, devoid of any sides at this stage, and headed to the dreaded Salad Bar and bain-marie.  My expectations were quite low at this stage, given the afore-mentioned lack of diners, and past experiences of Sport’s Clubs Salad Bars, but this one, at least on this occasion, did surprise.

The Chips were hot and fresh, with a good crunch, as was the broccoli (I HATE overcooked veges).  The cauliflower was a bit soft, but it was au gratin which is supposed to be soft, so no issue there.  And the salads were all fresh and vibrant.  None of the lettuce was wilted, and it all looked really appetizing.  A good start to the meal.

As for the food itself…

Starting with the Pork Chops…well, I really enjoyed them.  They were well seasoned (which is very uncommon around here) and cooked perfectly.  Just cooked through, and not dried out at all.  If I had a complaint, and it might only be a complaint under different circumstances (say, in a fine dining restaurant), is that the skin on the chops was not crisped up enough.

The Barramundi was next, and it too was very good.  I normally expect Barra to be a bit muddy in a place like this, where the source may be farmed in less than ideal conditions, but this fish was clean and delicate.  And the batter was very good as well, nice and light, and a good crunch.  Remember, this was the special, and it was pretty damned good.

The Chicken Kiev hardly seems worth a mention.  It was Chicken Kiev, like you might get anywhere.  Don’t get me wrong, I really love chicken Kiev, but this did not sing “home made” to me, and it was a passable generic version of the classic.  Of course, my son loved it…”whoa, look at the butter ooze out when I cut it”.  At his age it was my favourite thing to eat, lol.

Finally, the Honey Seeded Chicken on rice.  This was essentially sliced up chicken, cooked in a honey mustard sauce, served over rice.  I am not one for sweet foods, so it was my disappointment for the evening, but it is what it said it would be.  Honey means sweet, so my complaint is really not valid.  My son, and my wife for that matter, enjoyed the dish, and that’s probably all the endorsement it needs.  I wouldn’t order it, but not because it was crap.  It delivered what it said it would deliver.  Maybe the chicken was a bit dry in the sauce, but how can you avoid that when it’s a dish sitting in a bain-marie waiting to be served.  One of the reasons I avoid specials.  If you’re a fan of sweet, say you find yourself ordering the honey chicken at a Chinese restaurant, then by all means, you’ll likely enjoy this one.

Overall, I was a decent, honest meal, that exceeded my expectations.  I am secretly glad that my first review was of a meal I enjoyed, rather than some bombastic crap that failed to live up to it’s price tag,  Here, we all ate for about $65, and none left the table hungry or dissatisfied.  With my crew, that’s a tough ask.

4 Little Piggies (out of 5)