Friday, July 3, 2009

A Swanky Potluck, or: we all get tizzed up to eat at Press Club

Our potlucks to date have been of the early arvo, bring-a-dish, bring-a-six-pack, bring-a-puppy kind, and lovely they have been too. I usually appear wearing Converse, jeans, the dirty t-shirt I cooked in and lugging one or all of food, bag, Sam and beer.

But aha! This potluck was to see us all put on our spanglies and get all dolled up. The inestimable Craig/Clag/bringer of inventive dishes/bicycle enthusiast gamely contacted The Press Club to ask if they would be prepared to put on the potluck to end all potlucks (ie: do us a vegan sharing deal).

I have said and said and said again that to my mind a good chef is one who is interested in food - and that means preparing new things in new ways and not getting all precious about it. A good chef sees dietary requirements as an opportunity to create, not restrict. A good chef is prepared to expand their repertoire, experiment with their notions of what must go into food, and be excited to do so. So, is George Calombaris a good chef?

You betcha.

The Press Club, George's venture on Flinders Street (and I feel I can call him George because even though I don't watch MasterChef, Craig has waxed lyrical at length about him), is a modern Greek restaurant (although its website calls it 'Modern Greek with a twist", which just reminds me of a vodka soda with a twist) and it exudes the shared, finger-eating, wine-drinking ethos that I associate with Greek eatering culture. That said, I have to say that I didn't quite expect all the food to be quite so ... well ... Greek. But hey ho, I love olive oil and eggplant anyways.

So Craig was kind enough to organise 14 of us for a spectacular potluck, and well arrived dressed to the nines and thrilled to doing something so special. At $90 a head plus drinkies it was not a cheap'n'cheerfu, but over 5 courses of outstanding quality I had no doubt that this was a bargain. Combine the food with friends, a chattering and warm atmosphere, friendly and not starchy service and general lashings of booze, and this was a potluck that reminded me how lovely we all are.

Cindy has, in her speedy and admirable fashion, already blogged about this potluck and done a few more posts since. I highly recommend that you check out Where's the Beef?'s version before my own offering; Cindy and Michael are much more contemporaneous than I and much better at recording and identifying flavours!

Perhaps it was because it had the distinction of being first, but the breads and oil won a special place in a few hearts. While Buzz raved about the sundried tomato bread, I was a sucker for the light and chewy ciabatta. Top shelf olive oil and some black salt (where can I get some?) demonstrated that simple things done well can shine.

Our first round appetisers, a sort of non-alcoholic aperitif with fruity accompaniments, was delicate and demonstrated the skill of the kitchen in preparation.

Some amusingly presented skewers of canteloupe and fig stood upright whilst watermelon-on-as-stick was balanced over a tiny shot-glass sized cup of tomato consomme (known somewhat misleadingly as 'saganaki martinis' - where was the alcohol), which reminded me of a cool, clear, strained gazpacho reduction. The figs, not often a favourite of mine, had been soaked in something sweet, making them soft and less textually different from their fruit neighbours.

On our second round of appetisers, really a three-little-dishes course, a small cube of roasted smoky beetroot showed a deep dark pink hue and successfully combined the smoked flavour with the sweet, dense beetroot and a pomegranate vinaigrette.

A little crepe looking like a spring roll (and served on dishes that I myself own!) was actually filo pastry filled with zucchini and suprisingly, and wonderfully, dusted with icing sugar.

This little fellow was pretty entrancing. A little translucent wrapper, which Cindy idenitifes as daikon, homed the teeniest tiniest cubes of cucumber and tomato you ever did see. It fell apart with a gently push of the fork, but unlike most hearty Greek salads, this one reintroduced the delicacy of the watery cucmber/bitey tomato duo and reflected it in size.

Our first course proper was a delight for me, an avowed tomato fan (whereas, as Cindy writes, there were a number of avowed tomato haters around the table. Splitters!). Whole roasted truss tomatoes combined the tart tomato with a neutral cous cous and sweet sultana stuffing, which proved much more filling that I first thought. Fearing for my ability to continue, I soldiered on.

The stuffed tomatoes were served with two side dishes - a citrussy-cabbage salad which was surprisingly light and tangy (if you're like me then you feel that cabbage holds a very low position in the vegetable hierarchy. Don't think that fruit'n'veg don't have a caste system. Cabbage, like rockmelon, holds a bottomly low position in mine).

The cabbage salad was actually an excellent foil for the other side, which I think just missed the mark. Eggplants score pretty much next to High Priest in my veg caste system, if not godlike, and when combined with olive oil they are fairly well the beginning of a whole new universe. Here we were served soft, soaked eggplant from a jar, but for my taste there was more oil than flavour and the chilled temperature took away from the warmth of flavour, mouthfeel and depth I look for in an eggplant dish. I couldn't really distinguish the eggplant from the other flavours, which indicates to me that the soaking they received in the oil was too penetrating.

Our second main arrived and was a variation on a theme. Cindy has already noted that lack of protein in the courses (she's looking for some hearty chickpeas), and I must say that although I found the dishes excellent on their own terms, I did feel that two centrepieces that were effectively one vegetable accessorised with some others was a little un-imaginative.

Field mushrooms were topped with crunchy rice and slivers of red onion, along with a modern Greek salad (have a look at the cucumber - deseeded and peeled - I loved it) and lemony potatoes. I really enjoyed the textural contrast between the soft chewy mushroom and the crisp chewy rice, and the salad was a great reminder about how to reinvent old favourites with some different preparation. The potatoes, however, were a little bah-bowww. They were mildly lemony and otherwise quite oily and thick in the mouth, and my least impress-worthy item on the menu.

And finally, to dessert. At the last moment we had a scare that the kitchen may make that elementary mistake and feed us honey-laden baklava, but we should never have doubted and out came my favourite part of the night.

I have mentioned before that given my choice between crisps and chocolate, the crisps stand no chance of survival. Savouries are my babies. You might note that there is ony one photograph of the dessert, and that is because I was too busy eatering it once I took my first mouthful to consider doing anything but devoting my entire state of being to it.

A quince crumble, with toasted hazelnuts and a homemade soy vanilla sorbet, was the decidedly un-Greek fifth course. And oh my, Mr Calombaris, you excelled yourself.

I first thought that the crumble part was too separated and dry, but underneath sat a warm, sweet, soft and juicy layer of quince, which combined perfectly with the crumby, crumbly upper layer in each mouthful. Although I was literally bursting at the seams, there was no way known that I was leaving even a mousey morsel of this behind. I honestly can't fault the flavours in this dish. The quince was not overly sugary and the crumble given depth by the hazelnuts, and I loved that this childhood favourite had been re-imagined so.

I do, however, join my voice with Cindy's in complaint at the deplorably sized serve of sorbet. It was truly a masterpiece and utterly, utterly delicious - yet there was the meagrest of miserly scoops. Even a small, birdlike child would have been able to let that go through without a single chew. Please sir, I want some more!

So, at the end of the meal, Buzz and I waddled away impressed with the verve, vibe and vivaciousness of the Press Club Dining Room; enchanted with the fairy-like appetisers; and dreaming of more dessert.

Like Cindy, I also felt that the meal lacked some balance. A multi-course menu ought be either a procession of degustation-like one or two-bite demonstrations of a chef's capabilities, which leaves the diner feeling like they have sampled a huge number of tiny pieces, or be structured in a more traditional aperitif/appetiser/entree main/dessert structure. I think our meal went something like aperitif/appetiser/large entree/large entree/dessert, which left me feeling strangely like I hadn't really tucked in nor like I had been thrilled at every new nibbly offering, as I was with the saganaki martini and three-little-dishes courses.

There is so much to like about Press Club - the warm and loud surrounds, the professional but relaxed service, the willingness of the kitchen to accommodate us, and what, despite my few quibbles, was a truly excellent meal. I am thrilled that a restaurateur and chef of the calibre of George Calombaris viewed our request as an opportunity to cook great food, and cheers once again to Craig for organising such a great night with great friends and great food - very Greek really!


steph said...

I absolutely agree that a good chef should be one who is interested in food - surely a chef who is uninterested in meeting a new challenge (or one who discards the challenge as not worth their time) is not a great chef, merely a marauder.

steph said...

OMG I got distracted by my comment and my sleepiness - I wanted to say that the tomatoes look DELICIOUS.

Mandee said...

I've really enjoyed reading about this meal at the Press Club, I'm so impressed that George and his team would cater to vegans and it all looks good!