As you all would know, I love LOVE odd food. Chances are, if it’s really out there and doesn’t really sound like food at all, I’ll desperately want to try it. Which is why TAFE’s Weird Food Dinner – which is part of the Ultimo Science Festival and TAFE’s 120 year celebrations – was my PERFECT idea of dinner. There’s just something about edible creativity that really sparks my interest.
When you first walk in The Apprentice – the resident TAFE restaurant where the cookery and hospitality students get to use all the skills (and probably more) that they’ve learnt in their TAFE courses – two large television screens greet you.
These screens both show footage of what’s going on in the kitchen. The whole dinner is actually prepared by students in Year 2 of the Commercial Cookery Certificate III. The hum of conversation rises as everyone speculates what dish is being prepared in the kitchen. All the footage is live, and provides great insight to the tension, the energy, and the nerves that go on behind the scenes. I actually saw a student’s hand shake as she lifted little white beans (more about that later) from a tray of clear liquid. As a self-confessed food nerd I must admit that I watched with endless fascination like a child at the aquarium.
The dinner started out with baskets of warm bread being rolled out by the Food and Beverage Certificate IV students. Smartly dressed in monochrome tones, fragrant rolls of chewy goodness were waved temptingly under our noses, singing its siren’s song of toastiness. There were a few different varieties (I kinda scoffed them all before I remembered to take a photo. FAIL) but my absolute favourite was the Beetroot Bread (right). There was the subtle sweetness of beetroot, mixed with the amazing chewy texture of the bread. Plus, the vibrant infusion of fuchsia was absolutely stunning.
Appetizer: Diego Munoz, Bilsons. XL White bean, Kurobuta pancetta, black garlic
When the appetizer came, I actually had a really strong impression that I’ve seen this dish somewhere before. Especially the XL White Bean.
Does anyone else get food deja vu?
Anyway, the XL White Bean is actually made up of white bean that has been first poached in ham stock, pureed, then had alginate added, before careful spoonfuls were dropped into a calcium chloride solution. This process is called spherification, and the idea is that a thin skin forms on the outside of the puree, giving it its form. This large “white bean” is then delicately topped with the thinnest sliver of Kurobuta pancetta. Buta is japanese for pig, and Kurobuta refers to a specific sort of (I believe) black pig that has a good amount of fat bred into the species. Sounds exotic? Well, it’s nothing compared to the other element – the Black Garlic.
Apparently, the way you would get black garlic is to ferment it for 40 days at a specific temperature. Most methods that I’ve seen online call for a heating element (but not too hot) and low humidity. The result of all the kerfuffle? Beautiful, soft garlic the colour of inky night skies with a strong umami flavor that leaves your tastebuds tingling in excitement. If ever there was a relatable definition to “big mouth feel”, this is it for me. I was specifically instructed by the cook/chef that accompanied my waiter that I was meant to eat a full bean, the garlic and then the full bean again. It was almost as if the first “bean” was to set me up for the explosion of flavor that the garlic gives, and the second “bean” was there to bring me down gently in a cloud of white bean puree. My only gripe would be that I didn’t really taste what the pancetta brings to the party. After hearing so much about this pig – bless you, Iron Chef – I was kind of disappointed that I didn’t get to experience what this little piggy was really meant to do.
Entree: Patrick Dang, Concrete Blonde. Giant red claw yabby, bisque ice cream, bacon powder, porcini broth
About 30 minutes after the appetizer was served, the dish that I was anticipating the most came through the swinging doors of the kitchen. I have a weakness for crustaceans. There. I’ve said it.
When I first looked at it, I was pretty sure that my scoop of bisque ice cream had fallen of its yabby pedestal, but I like to think that it might have been a creative decision by the person preparing my dish because it kind of looks like an abstract melting Dali crustacean from the side. I think it’s cute. And that’s what I’m sticking with.
I think this had to be my favorite tasting dish of the night. The fresh yabby had a great spring in its flesh, the porcini broth imparted a great ‘meatiness’ to the dish, and the bisque ice cream. Oh, the bisque ice cream! It was divine. I could’ve eaten a whole tub. The shellfish flavor that I’m so addicted to came through all the creaminess like a bright light shining through a paper lantern – its potential glare was kerbed by the soft, melting creaminess that hugged the tongue. The bacon powder sounded like a great idea, but didn’t actually do much for me. The rest of the dish was so yummy that – rather than provide a contrast in texture like I think it was meant to do – it actually kind of sat there like an un-needed appendage.
Still, I feel that all the omnomnomminess outweighed any and all potential negative the dish might have had. It was just yummy. And let me state for the record that it is very difficult to try and scrape your plate clean in a fancy posh setting. Just sayin’.
Main: Alfonso Ales, Jonahs. Aylesbury duck, “Apicus” Hunter Valley
The main came out of the kitchen in a waft of gorgeous aroma. The poached and spiced pears and citrus fruit were carefully arranged in a line beside the duck, adding fresh colour to the earthy palette on the plate. I was actually quite excited by the thought of this dish – I don’t know why, it might have been a fantasy fueled by the visions of Heston Blumenthal’s Duck a L’orange. Somehow the sight of duck with citrus just triggers that fantasy for me.
I’m sad to say that this dish wasn’t exactly my favorite of the night. While the fruit hit all the right notes, the duck was a little bit…overdone for my taste. Excuse my plebeian tastebuds, but it tasted just a little bit powdery for me. Just a little. Maybe it’s an acquired taste for the texture, like liver.
The skin and the sauce however, went really well with the fruit.
Dessert: Nathan Griffiths, Ultimo College. Bistro Burger “all the trimmings”
If the Entree was my favorite flavor profile of the night, then this has to be my favorite visual. As a fan of Heston Blumenthal, I LOVE the idea of a certain food masquerading as something else. And this hit all those targets and captured my imagination. Smooth, custard-y vanilla ‘buns’ were topped with a chocolate mousse ‘patty’, raspberry ‘tomatoes’, pistachio biscuit ‘pickles’, white chocolate ‘cheese slice’, pistachio sponge ‘lettuce’ and another wobbly dome of vanilla ‘bun. And on the side, dehydrated pineapple ‘french fries’, accompanied with raspberry coulee ‘ketchup’ and mango ‘mustard.
HOW CUTE IS THAT???!!!
You can’t really go wrong with those flavors : it’s not exactly ‘out there’ but meh, who cares when it is so CUTE! It tasted good, I don’t think I really have to say anything else.
And when you think you’re done, the dinner is topped off with a white chocolate lollipop (is it scattered with cocoa nibs? I’m not sure) and a selection of chocolates.
In all, it was a fun and informative dinner, which was well worth the $75 price tag. True, it wasn’t exactly my idea of “weird”, but then again, I watch a lot of programs that feature Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria, so maybe I’m a little biased. Hey, at least I got to enjoy the creations of these great chefs, TWO of whom worked for Ferran Adrià!! I’m now only separated by 2 degrees!!! *Squeals like a fangirl*
Anyway. The food was good and the staff were absolutely lovely. I’m not sure what the menu at The Apprentice is like usually, but I wouldn’t mind going there again to find out. And a quick flick through the Ultimo Science Festival program that was given out before dinner showed me all the really cool stuff that I had missed out on this year. =(
I definitely know what I’ll be doing next year though. Any food nerds want to join me? 😀
I ate at:
The Apprentice Restaurant
Level 7, Building E
TAFE NSW Sydney Institute, Ultimo College
Harris Street, Ultimo 2007
SI.TheApprentice (AT) tafensw.edu.au