Saturday, 4 October 2014

Biota Dining and Urbane Restaurant - 2 Hat collaboration = 4 Hat success

Sitting at home, mucking around on my iMac (as you do), I received an email from one of my favourite restaurants letting me know about a pretty special dinner.  I'm normally pretty absent minded and disorganised and good at forgetting about such emails, but this one piqued my interest immediately, it seemed like a once in a generation deal (I may be exaggerating).  It was compelling enough to forward straight on to SC and check that she'd be as keen as I was, with an immediate reply - 'of course'. 

You might be wondering what could garner such interest from a guy that eats out all the time?

2 Chefs - 4 hats - 1 Dinner

Then I read on.  One of the country's best chefs, Alejandro Cancino from our very own Urbane was teaming up with James Viles from Biota Dining in Bowral, who just happened to be youngest ever Chef’s Hat winner at the age of 23.  James has worked alongside some of the world's best chefs including Alain Ducasse and Hans Haas, so it's no wonder that his restaurant, Biota Dining, has been recognised as regional restaurant of the year, two years running.  Alejandro and James are well known for their strong commitment to sustainability and were partnering to design a six course menu, incorporating seasonal botanicals from our own local growers.  It was a meal not to be missed!

I've written about Urbane a few times (see posts here, here and here) which is a testament to how great the restaurant is, but I really wanted to see how two such revered chefs would work together.  I was especially excited about getting along to the dinner, it was petty unlikely that I'd ever find my self in Bowral...  I have to admit, the lure of four chefs hats in the kitchen was too much for me to ignore!

Upon arrival, we were greeted with the customary welcoming greeting that diners experience at Urbane and were shown to our table.  We were the first to arrive, which is not unusual when we are dining out, but it wasn't long before most of the other diners arrived for the very special collaboration.  I've eaten at Urbane a lot, but I'd never seen a 'full house', but for the first time (that I'd seen), every seat in Urbane was filled and I'm not sure if it was my imagination, there seemed to be a couple of extra tables in the dining room!

Unusually, the first amuse bouche of the night was already sitting on our table.  A simple stone slab was home to the potato, seeds, salt and vinegar - pretty fancy salt and vinegar chips!  We didn't crack on with the dish because our waiter for the night had bought over another treat, the house brewed Illawarra plum kombucha, which was a specialty of Alejandro.  The plum flavoured mushroom tea had a sweetness that hid the sometimes pungent kombucha flavour.  I was glad I'd waited until after the tea before munching of the potato, our tastebuds were primed and the subtle vinegar on the potato really popped.

Our next little treat was a beautiful little broth with the simple title of green strawberry and tomato, which came in a little irregular shaped bowl that was intentionally deformed.  A little spoon was provided to elegantly sip the broth, and I did use the spoon to begin with....  The crisp clean flavour of the tomato, with a little bite from the green strawberry was beautiful but with the hard to describe flavour of umami on my palate, I put my spoon down and sipped directly from the bowl - it was much more efficient!

There has been a trend in recent times for house made bread to make an appearance in degustation only meals.  My gut feel is that the bread is there to act as a filler, with some degustations being so refined, there's the risk of walking away hungry at the end of the meal. James and Alejandro provided a beautiful wattleseed bread, still steaming from the oven along with a beurre noisette butter and in homage to the sustainable theme of the evening, some spent garden vegetables (like a bubble and squeak puree).

Throughout the night, each of the courses presented on the menu had really simple names, but each dish was far from simple.  Our first formal dish of the now seven course degustation was simply title carrot and wild weeds.  The dish was beautiful and as promised, did have carrots with with wild weeds surrounding, but the incredibly thin carrot slices were placed over a carrot foam to form a perfect dome.  Some carrot broth was poured in to settle under the foam and provide additional complexity and texture.  Wow, the dish was incredible, light and powerfully flavoured, I never suspected that carrot could taste so divine!  Each of the different textures presented different levels of taste and by the end of the dish, I was left wanting more - it was the best vegetarian dish I'd ever eaten...

Up next was the cabbage, asparagus and almond milk, which didn't have the same visual appeal as the previous carrot dish, which had perfect symmetry, but did have a chaotic beauty to it nonetheless.  Here the contrasting textures were more pronounced, with the cabbage providing a tougher texture compared to the soft cheese like texture of the almond milk.  The combination of flavours were OK, but I didn't enjoy this dish as much as the carrot.

We were back on a winner with the watercress, smoked cream, peas and garden herbs, which just beautiful on the plate.  The contrasting green of the watercress puree and the baby green peas was stark against the white of the tapioca like smoked cream and the mottled black of the bowl. The flavours were balanced impeccably with the sweetness of the peas and cream easily working with the subtle bite of the watercress.  With a dish like that, I could (almost) forget that the entire meal was vegetarian.

The next dish of hens egg yolk with cooked curds, chickpea and rye was right out of the normal Biota menu. I'd really looked forward to the first protein of the night.  The dish looked lovely with the hens egg at the centre and sitting atop the cooked curd (which had the texture of ribbon pasta) with mounds of rye at the edges.  I thought the flavours were nice with the dish, especially when mixing the egg yolk in with the rye, but I found the balance of the dish slightly off.  There was too much of the crunchy rye on the plate and without enough moisture, it became overly dry in the eating.  I think that an extra puree or sauce, or less rye would have really benefited - the egg yolk just got lost.

Last of the savoury dishes was the pearl barley with ciabatta, spring onion and beach herbs; it was another chaotic looking dish but was again on song with the flavours.  The pearl barley was jet black and looked much like squid ink risotto but had a very sweet taste that sat on the palate for a long time after eating.  The ciabatta was razor thin and gave the dish a nice crunch and something to scoop up the barley with.  There was a sticky little sauce made from the beach herbs that was amazing and I'd have loved a little more of it.

Onto desserts and I was quite familiar with Alejandro's penchant for pink lady apples, which appears regularly on his menus.  I thought I knew what to expect, but I was wrong.  Alejandro had kept the nice simple flavours of pink lady apples, but had completely changed the look and textures and for me, I think the best iteration of the dessert I'd seen so far.  A perfect quenelle of apple sorbet was sitting atop a large marshmallow like pillow and finished off with a sweet apple broth.  It was a case of simple flavours and complex textures working together in harmony.

Last course of the night was the chocolate, hazelnut and lemon myrtle, which was a very organic looking with chunks of chocolate and hazelnut made to look like soil, with the lemon myrtle ice cream jumping out of the mixture as the visually and texturally contrasting ingredient.  It didn't look pretty on the plate, but it was exquisite to eat.  I really like the punchy lemon myrtle combining with the earthy chocolate but again, I think I would have liked just a little more of the ice cream to balance out the dessert.

We'd finished our meal and James and Alejandro were out of the kitchen doing the rounds and checking in on everyone's experience.  We chatted to the dynamic duo about their love of sustainability and the similarities in their styles.  There was one major difference between the two, Alejandro is a vegetarian and James loves his proteins (yep, loves his meat).

I have to say, for a completely vegetarian meal, I was super impressed.  I'd never had a vegetarian degustation before and I will admit, I didn't really miss the meat.  We'd been out with vegetarian friends plenty of times and watched as they munched away on completely vego degustations - including one time at Aria where the vegetarian meal completely outshone the meat version (see post here).  That said, if I'm heading to a restaurant and there is an option of a meat or vegetarian degustation, I'm still going to choose the meat!

It was a fairly unique experience to see two chefs at the top of their game sharing the same kitchen, one which I'd definitely do again should the opportunity arise.  I'd also love to see more collaborations between top chefs, mainly because it gives an opportunity to try something different. 

As we left the restaurant, happy, there was something gnawing in the pit of my stomach which reminded me why I prefer a little more protein in my meals....  I was still a bit hungry!

The punchy flavour of tomato and green strawberry worked a treat
The carrot was a seriously good dish
As was the watercress and pea dish 
I thought there needed to be more balancing fluids in the hens egg dish

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