Monday, 6 October 2014

The Catbird Seat Bistro - sitting on top with a great view

A lot is going to be written about Chef James Culberg's new East Brisbane bistro, the Catbird Seat Bistro.  Mainly because it's really good, but also it's literary heritage screams out to be written and talked about.  A phrase coined out of the Great Depression, the catbird seat often is used to describe someone who is in an enviable position.  The phase gained notoriety in the 1940's after a short story by American novelist James Thurber, probably better known for his humorous short stories and cartoons.  The phrase peaked around the time of Peter Sellars classic film, the Battle of the Sexes, a film based on James Thurber's the Catbird Seat, but has largely faded to obscurity.

I usually keep my ear to the ground but I only found out about the Catbird Seat bistro once a twitter follower connected and asked if I'd checked it out (thanks Troy from Awickededge).  Jumping straight online to check out the menu, I wondered how I'd let that one slip by, the menu looked excellent, just the sort of food I really love.  I immediately made a mental note to get along as soon as the first opportunity presented itself, which happened to be the next available Saturday night with my usual dinner buddies, CI&TB.

You might have recognised the name of Catbird Seat Bistro owner and chef, James Culberg.  James has led some of Brisbane's coolest restaurants over the years, most notably Piaf (see post here) and Sardine Tin, which are no longer around. James was also responsible for some of the best meals around that I've eaten while in charge of The Survey Co (see post here) and Aquitine Brasserie (see post here), which are still going strong.  James as made the Catbird Seat Bistro a family affair by partnering with wife Erin, who's responsible for front of house.

The restaurant is located on Stanley Street East in a little strip of shops that is transforming, quite quickly, into an extension of the Logan Road 'Gabba food precinct.  We had arranged to meet CI&TB at the restaurant and arranged our trip to perfectly coincide with our reservation time.  We normally arrive before any of our usual dining companions, but for the second time in a row, were guzumped for the better seats by arriving second, so maybe not such perfect timing after all... There was plenty of off street parking nearby, but we did have a short walk along Stanley Street as we didn't know exactly where the restaurant was.

We had some prime seats, right in one of the bay windows that at once transformed us far away from Stanley Street Brisbane to a little bistro in the back streets of Paris. My seat gave me a superb view of the little bistro, which had the kitchen and the team of two chefs in a clear line of sight.  I was a little surprised by how compact the Catbird Seat bistro was, but true to name, the kitchen did in fact sit in a prime spot (enviable even) to watch out over the dining room.  What little space was there was used very practically, with much of the restaurant's wine stored in racks by the kitchen and bar.

While most of us looked over the food menu, TB cracked straight onto the cocktail menu, which wasn't online and seemed to be much more interesting for our resident cocktail expert.  The rest of us checked out the very European menu and decided which of the beautiful sounding dishes we would order.  Once TB had satisfied her craving for a cocktail, she was on board and unusually for once, all over her dinner choices as well.

A sucker for a good carpaccio, SC made sure I wasn't interested in the venison carpaccio with baby beetroot, juniper dressing and toasted rye.  I had my eye on something else, so it was all clear to order what turned out to be a beautifully presented starter to our meal.  The deep red of the venison was offset by a jet black plate, splashes of colour came from the baby beetroot and thin slices of radish.  The thing that stood out the most was the tenderness of the meat, which was so fragile it almost fell apart, and the strong gamey flavour.  The sweetness of the beetroot and the slightly bitter radish played a part in balancing the flavours well.

If my local cuttlefish risotto with carrot and lemon myrtle reduction hadn't been so good, I'm positive I would have experienced a pang of food envy.  It was not to be, once I laid eyes on my risotto, I was in my happy place.  There are not many things better than a great risotto and the team at the Catbird Seat bistro clearly know their way around the kitchen.  The cuttlefish pieces were cut very small and were hidden amongst the perfectly cooked rice, which led to lots of little packets of flavour as the risotto quickly disappeared.  I loved the sweetness that surrounded the dish from the carrot and lemon myrtle reduction, it was a little sticky as well and lingered on the palate for some time.  Yum!

CI&TB both took very different routes devouring their butterflied quail with green peas, house guanciale and ricotta & pine nut ravioli.  Where CI was ruthless and efficiently quartering his quail and devouring bones and all, TB was delicately picking the flesh slowly off each of the wings and then butchered the breast.  CI snuck one of the legs in my direction, slathered in the green pea puree, which was delightful, sweet and gamey at the same time.  TI on the other hand, allowed me to try a bit of her ricotta and pine nut ravioli, which was a little punchy - I missed out on combining the two, but I imagine it would have been a great pairing!

When it came time for mains, it was the turn of TB and I to pick the same dish.  The rare duck breast with brandy roasted pear, carrot and anise puree with upland cress sounded delightful.  It seems as if rare duck breast is in vogue at the moment, but both of us asked for our duck to come medium instead, which seemed a little bit of a safe option.  The duck was presented sliced in two on top of the puree and split by the roasted pear and topped with cress.  I'm not sure if I made the right call on medium, but my duck was cooked just the way I love it, hues of pink flesh, perfectly rendered fat and caramelised skin - bliss!  The pear was just the right texture and interestingly was not as sweet as I was expecting, which worked out well due to the sweet carrot puree.  Yeah, I really loved the dish.

CI went with the very manly looking option on the menu, the wagyu beef with red foo potatoes with spring onions and North Queensland green peppercorn jus.  Much to my horror, my mate asked for it to be cooked medium well and I pulled out my often used line that every time a chef gets asked to cook meat medium well or well, they die a little bit inside (yes, I know that some meat is better medium!).  Anyway, CI was happy with the result and given it was a wagyu, it had a little more tolerance and the flavour wasn't impacted too much.

The pick of the mains was clear and SC had been the winner.  The roasted pork belly with blood orange glaze with swede, crisp kale and pumpkin foam was truly remarkable.  It looked as pretty as a picture on the plate but the wonderment was with the pork belly itself, which was unbelievably good.  I mean,  we literally could not believe how good it was!  The skin was crispy and delicious, but it was the texture and flavour from the pork flesh underneath that blew us away.  It made all other pork belly I've tried before (save perhaps one time at Public) fade into the background.  I'm not going to comment on the kale and pumpkin, which I don't like anyway, it was that pork belly that was the talking point (OK, SC thought the kale crisps and pumpkin foam were pretty special too).

A lot of people love a good creme brûlée, but how about checking out a honeycomb creme brûlée?  I know, how good does that sound?  Presented in a cute little ceramic bowl with a lid that was ceremoniously removed, the creme brûlée looked the goods, with a beautifully caramelised sugary top, that made a satisfying crack, exposing the creamy custard inside.  There was a strong flavour of honeycomb, which made it just about the best dessert ever!  Pity that I'd skipped on this one and had to rely on the good will of SC to give me a little taste.

Not that I was unhappy with my 'textures of chocolate', far from it.  My dessert looked stunning on the plate and had been presented with a keen eye and some restraint, it was just right!  My textures included cake, mousse and gel along with a smear of melted chocolate underneath then finished with a white chocolate crumble.  It was superb, the bitter chocolate of the mousse was offset by the sweet white chocolate crumble and the cake provided some firmer texture.  There was a dash of colour from some vivid purple edible flowers, which were probably not necessary, but really, it was a great finish to my meal.

I love checking out new restaurants, there is something quite special when a new restaurant hits the ground running and makes it all look so effortless.  It's clear that all the hard work has been done, the blood, sweat and tears of making a new venture work:  The Catbird Seat bistro and husband and wife team James and Erin Culberg have done it, they've really done it.  What a brilliant little spot.

There was a wonderful vibe in the dining room, every one of the forty plus seats were taken and it was clear that the diners were all enjoying their meals as much as we had.  Service from the kitchen and the front of house seemed to go swimmingly, which only a little issue of not getting enough water for the non drinker at the table (me).  Everyone seemed to love their cocktails and even TB, who can be notoriously fickle, really enjoyed her cocktails, although she was a little sad that there was no decaf coffee for her customary finish to a meal - an espresso martini.

I thought the value at the Catbird Seat bistro was bang on, the prices were reasonable and the quality and quantity of the food was excellent.  It's clear that James knows his way around a kitchen and that seems to have translated well to his own business.  It seems as if James and Erin really are in the catbird seat!


Venison is particularly good for carpaccio - this one was a beauty!
Sometimes textures of chocolate can be too much, but not this version, the cake and white chocolate crumble helped.
The kitchen was visible from all seats and James had a good view of what was going on in his dining room..
Its a small restaurant, but is all the better for its size.

The Catbird Seat Bistro on UrbanspoonCatbird Seat

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