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Monday, April 06, 2009

Chefs of Merivale Gala Dinner


After delighting in a backstage tour before the Chefs of Merivale Gala Dinner--sampling the canapes and talking to the chefs in the banquet kitchen downstairs--we food bloggers fully expected to be escorted out the door once the official dinner was served. At $300 a head, the six-course dinner would not only herald the conclusion of the first March into Merivale campaign, but would also be raising money for Camp Quality.

So when we were casually asked if we would be staying for dinner, there was certainly a moment of surrealism. Were we really hearing correctly? Had she just asked us... omigod she did. Thank goodness everyone else was doing the nodding for me (vigorously, too).

The running sheet

We'd already seen the running sheet of courses on the whiteboard downstairs. Although the dinner would be served in Massimo Bianchi's Ucello restaurant, each course would be presented by a different restaurant from the Merivale group.

Soon we were taking our seats at a table that was set up just for us in the middle of the room. Anthony, our waiter for the evening, was by our side in an instant, enquiring about any allergies at the table and whether we were all happy to have our beef served medium rare.

And then, because our status as food bloggers had been noted and nay, welcomed, Anthony was again at our table to let us know that the first course was being plated, and would any of us like to head into the kitchen for photos?

The kitchen was in full-swing, the stainless steel counter laden with an army of Daniel Hong's upcoming dish. We hovered at the entrance trying not to get in the way, a row of chefs working silently but swiftly side-by-side as waitstaff stood by waiting for instructions.

I've often admired the intricacies of workflow in a commercial kitchen - there's an element of performance and theatre as each chef plays their pivotal role in a production that can only be seamless and without fault.

Course #1: Tartare of bluefin tuna
with sweetcorn, wasabi, avocado and soy-truffle dressing

Chef: Daniel Hong, Lotus

Wine: 2008 Leo Buring Riesling ‘Leonay’, Eden Valley - South Australia

I had a feeling I would love this dish, but even I wasn't prepared for the way Daniel Hong swept my off my feet. The tuna - I put a small portion in my mouth and then almost rolled my eyes to the back of my head. Softer than a baby's cheek, it simply sighed as it practically melted on my tongue, this divine morsel of tuna toro, the fattiest part of the belly that is most prized by the Japanese.

On top of the tuna was a happy splash of yellow, a puree of corn that was as sweet as it was sunny. Perched on the plate were five legumes that turned out to be wasabi paste, a pleasing hit of wasabi that was not harsh nor sinus-inflicting, but warm and sweet.

It was a revelation of tastes and textures, the yielding softness of the tuna contrasting with the creaminess of corn and the faint heat of wasabi. On the east and west corners of the plate we found a microscopic dice of green which we presumed to be unripe avocado and then suddenly - POP! the jolting briny burst of slippery swollen salmon roe.

The dish was so good I descended into an imitation of the giggling Japanese actresses on the judging panel of Iron Chef. It was like sex on a plate and I was going weak at the knees. I needed a private room with this dish. Seriously.

Massimo Bianchi, Ucello and Christopher Whitehead, Mad Cow

Making sure each plate is spotless before it leaves the kitchen

As I was photographing the plating of Massimo Bianchi's dish, I hear a psst! psst! only to see two chefs looking and ready for a quick happy snap.

Happy chefs

Course #2: Raviolo of lobster with asparagus and mushrooms

Chef: Massimo Bianchi,

Wine: 2007 Feudi di San Gregorio Greco di Tufo, Campania – Italy

Chef Massimo Bianchi is known for his exacting standards, and I'm not surprised to see that his dish is being plated only a few at a time. A moat of creamy asparagus puree surrounds a silky raviolo that holds a pillow of sweet lobster. On top lie a puddle of rich buttery mushrooms. It's not a fragile insipid dish, but one that is rustic and marked with intense flavours.

Course #3: Steamed baby snapper fillet with sand crab,
snow peas, oyster mushrooms and ginger shallot vinaigrette

Chef: Peter Doyle, est.

Wine: 2007 Moss Wood Chardonnay, Margaret River - Western Australia

Peter Doyle's steamed baby snapper fillet with sand crab is a more delicate dish, a perfectly steamed portion of fish that nestles on a medley of soft-cooked snow peas, oyster mushrooms and thin slivers of shallot. A warm vinaigrette flavoured gently with ginger further enhances the Asian flavours of this dish.

Lentils cooking on the stove

Course #4: Quail and porcini ballontine with Sicilian lentil salsa

Chef: Simun Dragicevich, bistro cbd

Wine: 2005 Curly Flat Pinot Noir, Macedon Ranges - Victoria

The elegant discs of the quail and porcini ballontine are mirrored in shape but contrasted in sophistication by the miniature potato crisps in Simun Dragicevich's offering. "Ooh look! kettle chips" says chocolatesuze jokingly, and there's a welcome playfulness in the way one alternates between using fingers to eat the crisps, and then knife and fork to carve at the delicate roll of quail stuffed with porcini.

A bed of Sicilian lentils is firm and toothsome, adding an earthy sustenance.

Salad caprese: buffalo mozzerella with tomatoes and basil
(alternative dish to cater for a diner allergy)

Chefs sealing the eye fillets of beef

Eye fillets resting

Quail butts! I was enthralled by the sight of the quail ballotine ends
collected and sitting on a plate - a Chef's Treat for the end of the evening perhaps?

Massimo Bianchi with the now evidently photo-happy chef (see above)

Course #5: Roasted eye fillet of beef
with golden shallots, creamed spinach and tarragon jus

Chef: Christopher Whitehead, Mad Cow

Wine: 2006 Clarendon Hills Syrah ‘Moritz’, Clarendon - South Australia

By the time course number five rolled around, we were expecting only a small portion of beef, but the roasted eye fillet of beef by Christopher Whitehead was not only thick and hearty, but devastatingly tender too. Although dark pink in the middle, the flesh was without blood and buttery soft.

Golden shallots had a wonderful caramelised edge but the creamed spinach was the biggest surprise, a huddle of greens that was silky and sweet.

Lauren Murdoch, Ash St Cellar, heads the brigade for the plating of dessert

Daniel Hong, Lotus

Course #6: Chocolate marquis
with caramelised hazelnuts and cinnamon cream

Chef: Lauren Murdoch, Ash St Cellar

Wine: 1995 Quinta do Noval Colheita Tawny Port – Portugal

Dessert is not for the faint-hearted either. I return from the kitchen to our table to find the others hunched protectively over their plates, with one person declaring "it's like a giant Ferrero Rocher!"

Lauren Murdoch's dessert is a tribute to sweet decadence. A trail of liquid toffee and caramelised hazelnuts leads you to a chocolate behemoth that is encrusted with the crunch of toasted hazelnuts. Tap your spoon determinedly past the hazelnuts and through the thick layer of dark chocolate ganache and finally, finally, you sink into the fluffy mound of rich chocolate mousse within.

Consume slowly and silently with occasional scrapings of the quenelle of cinnamon cream.

It was the quietest moment at our table all evening.

Fresh cream truffles and cherry liquer chocolates

We concluded our evening with coffees, teas and a plate of mignardises, the fancy word for petite desserts. The cherry liquer chocolates had a crisp snap to the dark chocolate, a puddle of cherry liquer and cherry pieces within. It was the fresh cream truffles I found extra room for, cocoa-dusted ball of cream and chocolate that were fluffy and light.

Lauren Murdoch

The Chefs of Merivale Gala Dinner was held on Tuesday March 31, 2009 at Ucello, The Ivy.

Thanks to Melissa from Merivale for the invitation, as well as all the chefs and staff on the evening for being so warmly receptive, patient and accommodating.

View Larger Map

Level 4, The Ivy Complex
320 George Street, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9240 3000

Open Tuesdays to Fridays for lunch and dinner
Saturdays dinner only
Sundays lunch only

Related GrabYourFork posts:
Chefs of Merivale Gala Dinner: Canapes and behind-the-scenes
March Into Merivale launch party

And as a quick post-script, Grab Your Fork was featured in the Weekend Australian Magazine's article Soapbox in cyberspace: best blogs. Congrats also to tomatom and abstractgourmet for their mentions in the category of best Australian food blogs.

23 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 4/06/2009 02:21:00 am


  • At 4/06/2009 2:44 am, Blogger Karen | Citrus and Candy said…

    You know I love rereading about this night because it brings back some nice memories.

    Then again it's also a bad thing because it brings back memories of the food...which I do not have in front of me!

  • At 4/06/2009 7:23 am, Anonymous Simon said…

    Private room? What would you do to the tuna plate once you were done? Cuddle and talk to it for a while? :)

    It seems like an understatement to say that it must have been a great night. I obviously can tell what your favourite was. Was there one that you felt so-so about?

    Congrats on the mention in the Australian.

  • At 4/06/2009 8:25 am, Anonymous Anita said…

    Lucky You! This looks like the most gorgeous six-course dinner ever! The Chocolate marquis
    with caramelised hazelnuts and cinnamon cream looks to die for (as does the rest of the food).

  • At 4/06/2009 9:10 am, Blogger Y said…

    Love your pictures in this post, and the cliffhanger of the previous Gala dinner post!

    Congrats on being featured in the Weekend Aust. Magazine!

  • At 4/06/2009 11:18 am, Blogger Simon Leong said…

    great blog coverage as always. at the time it made me want to help them out in the kitchen and get my hands dirty preparing the food. looked like alot of fun to me.
    s :-)

  • At 4/06/2009 3:23 pm, Blogger cupcake said…

    O wow!!! that is rather amazing and can I say muchly jealous that you could attend the event and get behind the scenes :P

    The food and event just look amazing and gastronomical ^^ and congrats on that lovely article in the Australian - love your work!

  • At 4/06/2009 6:49 pm, Anonymous Pete said…

    What can you say? Meals like this are the reason we all love food so much that we're all spending our spare time reading about it.

    Every course looks fantastic, but I have to say that the beef looks incredible. I'm a total sucker for a good fillet and that certainly fits the bill.

    I've never managed to get hold of Toro. I've wanted to ever since Jeffrey Steingarten waxed lyrical about it, but its not happened yet. Efforts are going to be redoubled :)

    Great article and great photos. Thanks.

  • At 4/06/2009 8:34 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    Amazing and I am sure seeing all the behind the scenes action made it all taste even better...

  • At 4/06/2009 9:03 pm, Blogger Forager said…

    Oh this looks like a great event! So jealous ;) The food looks so great and I love the photos of those chefs, they make the event look like it had a happy, cheeky vibe.

    Congrats on the reference in the Australian!

  • At 4/06/2009 10:15 pm, Anonymous Yas said…

    Wooooo all the food looks great!! How many people actually turned up?? It seems pretty packed from your pictures eh?

    Congrats on the mention! Yay!

  • At 4/06/2009 11:04 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ooh yuummmm! Great detailed coverage ^^!

  • At 4/07/2009 12:36 am, Blogger mimbles said…

    Oh wow, what a fantastic experience!

    You lucky, lucky bloggers :) Congrats on the mention in the Australian and also for the recognition implicit in this invite, well done!

  • At 4/07/2009 1:56 am, Anonymous divemummy said…

    as always a delight to read and a vision to behold.

    Loved the shot of the 2 chefs - it captured spontaneity and camaraderie. Top marks for making the most of a photo op(portunity).

    And congrats on yet another media mention.

  • At 4/07/2009 10:14 am, Blogger Betty @ The Hungry Girl said…

    all the food looks so good! especially that hazelnut dessert! YUM. lucky you!!
    congrats on the mention in the paper as well :)

  • At 4/07/2009 10:17 am, Anonymous Veruca Salt said…

    Wow, everything looks so good. Portions look so normal as well. How did you guys fit it all in?

    How many bloggers did Merivale generously feed?

    Why no picture of Peter Doyle? Massimo's chefs are such cuties.

    My heart skipped a beat when I saw the plate of quail butts. They look just like my fav sausage butts. Nothing like a chef's special.

  • At 4/07/2009 1:31 pm, Blogger Tina said…

    What a fantastic post! It all looks delectably amazing! It makes me hungry and very jealous at the same time.
    And I love that photo of the happy chefs - especially the cutie on the right ;)

  • At 4/07/2009 7:26 pm, Anonymous kay said…

    nice pics.. ive worked w/ one of those chefs u took a pic of.. he is mr ed's friend too.. anyways.. tuna and beef dish looks yummy!!

  • At 4/07/2009 7:28 pm, Anonymous kay said…

    ps. congrats on the mention in the australian!

  • At 4/08/2009 12:21 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Karen - lol. I agree on both counts. It was a great evening - oh to have that tuna again!

    Hi Simon - Wouldn't you like to know!

    The tuna was definitely my favourite. Surprised you could tell! I don't think I could really fault any of the dishes but the tuna was yes, my fondest memory.

    And thanks :)

    Hi Anita - The chocolate marquis was an amazing dessert - almost a meal in itself. So much going on. I really needed an extra stomach!

    Hi Y - lol. I didn't really intend to make it that much of a cliffhanger, but glad there was a sense of anticipation anyway :)

    And thanks. I didn't realise until someone tweeted it. See, it does come in handy! lol

    Hi Simon Food Favourites - Really? I was reasonably petrified standing there not wanting to get in the way. I did admire the level of speed and precision - true professionalism I can only applaud and appreciate.

    Hi cupcake - Thank you. Both events were most unexpected but welcomed. The behind-the-scenes was such a highlight, and whilst the chefs were all very focussed, you could also sense they were somewhat relaxed as well.

    Hi Pete - The beef was quite amazing and cooked to perfection. The only other time I've had toro was in Japan - I hear the Aussie dollar is slowly improving! Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks so much for your very kind words :)

    Hi Gourmet Chick - Absolutely. Something so delightfully voyeuristic about seeing the hard work behind the magic.

    Hi Forager - I think one chef was particularly cheeky :) but yes it was nice to see the chefs up-close. And thank you :)

    Hi Yas - I believe they had 120 people dining. It was quite a spectacle, especially seeing all the dishes being plated up. Thanks :) It constantly surprises me to get mentioned!

    Hi FFichiban - It was a great detailed meal. So many highlights, and the kitchen action was so much fun.

    Hi Mim - It was a very memorable experience, and I agree, it was such a refreshing change to see Merivale embracing the presence of food bloggers. And thank you :)

    Hi divemummy - Aww thanks. It was a lovely moment of mateship although methinks the chef doesn't a mind the spotlight!

    Hi Betty - I was very grateful indeed and thank you :)

    Hi Veruca Salt - Ahh you'd be surprised how much you can eat if you really try :)

    We had 8 people at our table. Very generous of Merivale indeed.

    I didn't realise I didn't have a pic of Peter until I was editing. I mis-timed my kitchen visits! And yes, I saw the quail butts and thought of you straight away! Chef's special indeed!

    Hi Tina - lol. Looks like one chef has quite the fan club! It was an amazing night - I don't think any of us stopped grinning all evening!

    Hi Kay - Ahh I did wonder about that. I had a sneaking suspicion you might have. And thank you, it's always a surprise :)

  • At 4/08/2009 12:37 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    butt butt! heh congrats on the mention in the australian dude!

  • At 4/09/2009 12:20 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Chocolatesuze - lol! And thank you! You are definitely more of a celebrity though! haha...

  • At 4/09/2009 10:32 pm, Blogger ragingyoghurt said…

    hey! gorgeous photos!

    dinner looked good too. i'm quite envious. ;)

  • At 4/19/2009 10:23 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Bowb - It was a great night indeed. Hope you're well. I think Suze really misses you :)


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