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Fine Dining in a Food Court: Eating at Becasse

18 Jul

This week I experienced one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. And it was in a food court. OK, well not exactly in a food court; we didn’t have to forage for our own table like seagulls scavenging for chips, we didn’t have to wipe someone else’s smear of tomato sauce off our table and we weren’t eating with plastic knives and forks. It was a restaurant within a food court. A restaurant called Becasse – one of Sydney’s best fine diners, which now resides on the same level as the new Westfield Sydney (Pitt St) Food Court. As far as food courts go, it’s very glamourous – with lots of stainless steel, black marble and chrome. Still, it’s a food court and you do have to walk past lots of diners filling their faces with burgers, sushi, chips and sandwiches in order to reach the sanctuary that is Becasse. The fine dining experience starts outside the door. The vine-covered entry gate is guarded by the maitre-d’, who checks our names off a list, unlocks the gate and leads us into the secret garden. Believe me, this really is like a secret garden.
 Beyond the gate lies a long corridor which is covered floor to ceiling with leaves and branches. It’s like walking through a five metre long arbor. At the end of the corridor sit four or five barren tree trunks, sitting like a sentry point to what lies beyond. And what lies beyond is an exclusive dining enclave – an intimate space with room for 25 diners only. Seating is at curved, velvet-covered banquettes. There are little footstools upon which to place your handbag, or shopping bags given the restaurant’s location. Even the tables are soft, shaped like an ellipse and covered with ostrich skin. There are more vines around the central pillar of the room, against an exposed sandstone wall backdrop and floor-to-ceiling arched windows, looking out onto the busy Pitt St shopping mall below. It’s kind of rustic luxe. The secret garden theme continues on the menu. We plump for the five course degustation, which includes dishes like ‘forgotten’ vegetables with smoked pork jowl, yabby tails and aromas of cedar. What arrives is a slab of hot stone upon which sit a collection of delicious baked and roasted root vegetables, a morsel of tasty pork (complete with crackling), some delicate tasting yabby, and a smear of creamy and sweet veg puree underneath it all. Topping it off is a sliver of cedar, the tips of which are gently burning, sending a waft of cedar smoke across the table. It’s like having a five star camp fire dinner, except we are sitting in velvet chairs in the middle of Sydney CBD. It is refined rusticity and it’s a dinner of many thank yous. Staff are there with comfortable regularity to refill our water glasses, clear plates, explain the menu, or ask if we would like to have a little break between courses (we can’t, the babysitters are waiting). And the icing on the cake? We are given a little gift bag containing a sweet treat to enjoy on the ride home. Not that we’re hungry. After five courses (eight really if you count the amuse bouche, pre-dessert and petit fours) we are replete. I’m more than happy to pay the rather large bill. It’s that good. But it’s over. Time to leave. The waiter leads us back to the front gate, produces a key, and unlocks it. We’re hit by the chaos of the food court. No wonder they keep the gate locked. We ask the waiter for a quick way out. He leads us through the middle of the food court, and keeps on going. There clearly is no quick way out. I think he’s going to escort us home but finally he points out the lifts. They are out of service. Eventually, we catch the service lift which delivers us back to Pitt Street. So does the food court location enhance or taint the experience? On one hand, a restaurant like Becasse is a special occasion kind of place (at least it is for me). It’s the type of meal that you dress up for, take someone special to, celebrate an occasion. So, you find yourself wearing your Sunday best…and walking through a food court, trying to convince your ‘someone special’ that Becasse really is (apparently) a two chefs hatted restaurant. It’s just not quite right. On the other hand, Becasse is perhaps more memorable because it’s such a surprise. It’s hard to comprehend that such a culinary oasis can exist in the midst of a burgers and burritos food court. Maybe it’s easier to appreciate blackmore wagyu with jerusalem artichoke, burnt butter and porter ale (it’s on the menu) when you know that someone is sitting 20 metres away from you eating a ham sandwich.

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Introducing the rock star of the pastry world – Adriano Zumbo

21 Feb

It used to be that Australian audiences went crazy for real rock stars – men who could shred a guitar, or pulverize a drum kit. These days, we’re all going crazy over men who can rattle their pans in the kitchen. We are obsessed with our chefs. They are the new rock stars of the celebrity world. And the most rocking rock star of them all is Adriano Zumbo. To date, the celebrity chefs (Neil Perry, Matt Moran, George Colombaris etc) have all come from a fine dining restaurant background. But Zumbo is breaking through the toffee ceiling. Think that a patisserie is just the home of the custard tart and lamington. Well, think again. He doesn’t call his kitchen ‘the lab’ for nothing.  It’s a place of experimentation with flavours and textures, where people queue out the door and around the block to buy a slice of culinary wizardry.

Australian audiences first met Zumbo through Masterchef where he reduced contestants to quivering wrecks with his insurmountable pastry challenges such as the eight-layer vanilla cake, the croquembouche, and the macaron tower. It’s the macaron that’s made him a star. He’s risen to fame on the back of this humble concoction of two meringue discs, sandwiched together with a luscious gooey filling. Now, he’s got his own TV show (‘Zumbo’ –  Thursdays, 7:30pm on SBS) furthering shooting his rock stardom further into a stratosphere.

Think ‘master patissier’ and you might conjure up an image of a podgy, ageing French man. This is the very antithesis of who Adrian Zumbo is. For a start, he’s young – just 29 years old. He’s got tattoos and the physique of a man who spends more time in the gym than he does eating his own wares. He was born and raised in country NSW – the son of Italian migrants who operated supermarkets in Coonamble. These days, Zumbo is assembling an empire – built on eggs, butter, flour and cream – with two patisseries and a cafe in Sydney. There’s no doubt he sees himself as a modern day Willy Wonka; the Wonka tattoo on his arm is evidence enough. But you can also see it in his creations.One of Zumbo’s recent gimics was to produce five golden macarons (how you get a biscuit to glisten like a gold coin like he did, I do not know) sold randomly to customers, with the prize being a day in the Zumbo kitchen. The cameras were there to capture the excited reactions of the winning customers – and you would think they had won lotto.

What the TV series is revealing is that there are a couple of themes that drive Zumbo’s work – one of them is childhood nostalgia. He loves making cakes based on flavours we all loved as kids. A recent episode of ‘Zumbo’ showed him creating a multi-layered milo cake that you drink with a straw and ends with a yummy base of crunchy milo – the bit we all liked to eat with a spoon at the end of a milky drink of milo. The other thing he loves to do is mess with your head by making traditionally savoury flavours into sweet treats (pigs-blood macaron anyone? Or maybe you’d prefer the wasabi-pea flavoured eclair). The sight of chopped-up hamburgers swathed in cream to infuse the burger flavour is something that will stay with me for a long time – both for its slight repulsiveness – and the constant refrain in my head – ‘gee, I bet that tastes good’.

The birthplace of the macaron is France, where pastry making is steeped in history and tradition. While Zumbo honours that tradition with his technically-demanding creations, he’s also making pastry into a very modern business and capitalising on his chef-as-celebrity status. He recently launched his summer ‘collection’ of cakes with a catwalk show, where the new creations were paraded by models in clothing that kind of matched the colours of the desserts. And, at the end, Zumbo himself took a stroll down the catwalk to the rapturous applause of his many fans, who had queued down the street to take their place at the summer launch. Afterwards, Zumbo posed for photos with his fans (he’s big on facebook) and even signed autographs. But it’s not just for show. You get the sense through the TV show, that this is who Zumbo truly is. He’s the guy who plugs into his i-pod at work and cooks like a demon, interspersing his whipping, beating and folding to throw a few nightclub-worthy dance moves. He seems to employ upwards of 40 or so people – none of them look over the age of 30. It all seems like a lot for a 29 year old. But he’s a cool customer. A box of cakes gets trashed one hour before a major function and it’s clear Zumbo’s not happy – but he doesn’t rant, rave and shout about it. He gets cooking. He’s a cool dude. He’s the modern day rock star.