Saturday, 8 March 2014

Casual Dining - The Chelsea Bistro

I love being surprised.  I've been eating my way around Brisbane for as long as I can remember, well, I can remember a time when I didn't eat out, but I don't like to talk about it.  I'm often surprised by some of the restaurants I visit, but equally, I'm often surprised about restaurants I haven't visited.  I like to think that I pretty much know my way around Brisbane's restaurants, especially in the regular haunts that I frequent.  I was recently invited to check out the new menu at The Chelsea Bistro in Paddington's The Barracks, which I've written quite a bit about (see posts here).  The only problem was that I'd never heard of The Chelsea Bistro, even though I thought I knew every restaurant in that particular little hub.

Never one to shy away from checking out a new Bistro, albeit one that's been around for quite some time, I jumped at the chance to see what the Chelsea had to offer.  The easy part was getting to the Barracks, which is just on the CBD's border with Paddington and a very short drive from my apartment.  We could have walked, and probably would have on a weekend, but we were out on a 'school night' and had little time after work for a leisurely stroll to dinner.  After parking in the bowels of the complex, we made our way up the escalators with no real idea of where we would find the Chelsea.  Luckily, the Barracks  makes it pretty easy with signposts pointing out the location of all the dining spots nearby.  Interestingly, it was pointing me towards the Hogs Breath Cafe, past Libertine and Peasant.

I was shocked to learn that the Chelsea was actually in the same building as Libertine and Peasant, in fact it was right next door to one of my favourite Spanish tapas restaurants.  I'd walked through that space a few times and didn't even realise there was a bistro there!  The Chelsea Bistro is owned by Steve Ackerie (sometimes known as Stefan), who's been running the Chelsea for five years but has recently made some changes with a view to reinventing and transforming the little bistro.  Steve has taken on a new head chef and together they have put created a new menu that is Modern Australian with a French twist.   Chef Dallas Costello had previously worked at perennial South Bank favourite Piaf before it shut down last year and he's brought a new twist to the menu that screams simple and bold flavours with great ingredients and produce.

Once we arrived at the Chelsea, we were greeted very warmly and shown to our table at the back of the restaurant.  After visiting some of the other restaurants at the Barracks, which are quite large, it was interesting to note the petite nature of the dining room, it was a very intimate and classically bistro style.  We were given a run down on the menu, which follows the current trend of small share plates along with contemporary entrees and mains, with a couple of twists.  I'm seeing a bit of a trend here that's been around in the UK and USA for ages, the concept of the fixed price menu, or prix fixe.  The Chelsea has picked up on this trend and offers a fixed price of $35 where you get a small plate, a light meal and a glass of wine.

We started off with a couple of items to share and first up was the mushroom arancini with a caramelised onion aioli.  Three huge golden brown arancini balls were presented on a bed of the aioli, with a sprinkling of colour from some micro herbs.  The golden crust of the arancini balls coated the warm and moist mushroom and rice contents that had a distinctive earthy flavour that you get with mushrooms.  Sometimes arancini balls can be quite dry, but these didn't suffer that fate, largely because of the chunks of mushroom that had helped retain some of the moisture.  The aioli had a lovely sweetness that came from the caramelisation and worked wonderfully with the crusty arancini.

We also had a look at the tomato bruschetta with mozzarella and basil, which was on the light meals menu. This was an incredibly simple dish with heaps of fresh tomatoes in varying sizes and colours sitting atop some crusty bread with chunks of soft gooey mozzarella with some basil leaves for a bit of punch.  I found the dish to be tasty and fresh, but really hard to eat!  The ingredients were designed to be fresh and bold and had little done to them to detract from this goal, but I found that in trying to cut the bread, I kept knocking all of the ingredients off and had to put them back on after I'd cut bite sized pieces.  In hindsight, the best way to have eaten this one was by picking it up and munching away.

It was time for mains and there was one item in particular that SC was never going to pass on,  the braised duck leg with a lentil salad and orange.  Duck and orange are a classic combination and I'm increasingly seeing lentils included in that classic mix.  The duck in this dish was cooked to absolute perfection, with the flesh falling off the bone with the lightest touch.  The gamey duck was tender and full of flavour and quite wonderful on the palate, especially when combined with some of the orange segments in the salad.  The lentils added an earthy flavour to the plate and complimented the duck and orange very nicely.  As good as the duck was, there was something missing on the plate.....  A sauce.  A nice sticky Jus or an orange based sauce would have brought the whole dish together and taken it from very good to perfect.

When looking over the menu, I'd had my heart set on the confit pork belly with celeriac remoulade and apple, that was until I heard about the special...  The pan roasted lamb rack with kippler potatoes, confit heirloom tomatoes with goats cheese mouse and gramolata was just too good to pass up.  The three large lamb cutlets looked a little pink when presented on the plate but were perfectly cooked and completely delicious once I finally managed to stop taking photos and start eating.  The lamb was very sweet and the fat was rendered so it was lovely and soft and added a richness to the sweet flesh.  There were a lot of ingredients on the plate that seemed to clash upon viewing, but made so much sense when eaten together.  I especially loved the goats cheese mousse, which was light in texture but strong in flavour and extremely complimentary to the lamb.

It was time for dessert and after looking over the options, I decided that it was tart time!  The lemon curd tart with blackberry compote seemed like it would be a wonderful way to finish off a meal and once the simply presented tart was presented, I suspected I was in for a treat.  The pastry was just a little thick, but not so much that it distracted from the dessert and while it was thick, it was perfectly short and very tasty. The lemon curd had that amazing balance of sweetness and tartness that signifies a well made lemon tart. Upon first appearance, I couldn't see the compote, only some berry juice, but looking more closely, it was actually right underneath the tart.  It was interesting, the berry compote added a different level of sweetness and tartness to the plate and the two competing flavours worked nicely together.

We'd only been back from our Melbourne food safari (see posts here) for a few days, so SC was pretty stuffed by the time she finished her duck.  There was just enough room left for a sweet finish, so she went for the two scoops of handmade ice cream, choosing the vanilla and whisky chocolate.  I had a little bit of a taste of the two flavours and they were indeed creamy and in particular, the vanilla was delicious.  I'm not a fan of whisky and checked in with SC to see if I'd like the ice cream or not and in a mischievous mood, she said I would. Of course I didn't, it tasted too much of the whisky flavour, but SC loved it and laughed a lot when she saw my face after the tasting.

Considering I'd not heard of the Chelsea Bistro before and didn't even realise it was in the same building as Libertine and Peasant, I walked away wondering how this could be.  The menu had a good blend of Modern Australian and French, but it certainly had a lot of options that I'd normally eat and enjoy.  The flavours and combinations of the dishes we selected were pretty good, with only one minor change or addition we would have made.  The duck really did cry out for a sauce of some description and we were not sure if there normally was one, and it was missed, or if it just needed that extra little ingredient.

It was a Tuesday night, so the Barracks and the Chelsea were fairly quiet, but the ambiance of the restaurant was lovely, quiet and a little chic.  The staff on the night were all over it and were completely friendly and happy to be working with customers and suggesting great options, including a great wine selection for SC's main course.

I'm not too sure what the old menu looked like but the new one put together by chef Dallas Costello really it the mark.  The food is rustic and unpretentious, with bold fresh flavours that are perfect for a nice casual dinner.  While not overly 'French', there are definitely European influences on the menu, and there is pretty much something for everyone.  I'm really happy we got the opportunity to check out the Chelsea Bistro.

**We were guests of The Chelsea Bistro and The Press Garage for this meal

The mushroom arancini were huge and quite lovely - the colour was amazing
A nice crisp white was called for by SC
The lamb was very pink but was perfect and yummy
The duck needed a sauce, it was crying out for a sauce
The Chelsea just looks like a French Bistro
No mistaking there is a new menu on offer
If you're at the Barracks, keep walking by Libertine and Peasant to find the Chelsea

The Chelsea Bistro on UrbanspoonThe Chelsea Bistro

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