Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Alio - Pasta Making Class

        Thanks to the lovely Jen from Jenius, I won myself a spot to a pasta making class at Alio Restaurant. What better way to end my birthday weekend. When I entered the competition on the blog I was not expecting to win, I rarely win things in my life and when I saw the annnouncement I was in disbelief but excited at the same time too. All I had to do to win was "leave a comment below in 25 words or less and convince me why you should win!", Jen really liked my answer ;). As part of the Alio Restaurant ten-year anniversary celebrations in June, Head Chef Ashley Hughes was giving away a limited number of tickets to a series of interactive pasta-making masterclasses. Two spots were being given away on Jenius courtesy of Wasamedia.

        There were about 12 of us in total in the class, all from a mix of backgrounds including bloggers and competition winners. It was also nice to see a familiar face in the crowd by the name of Phuoc from Phuoc'n Delicious. I was nervous coming to the class because I didn't know anyone, it was so totally out of my comfort zone! The information sheet says that it was going to be a hands on class however, it is more of a demonstration class where Ashley shows us through a variety of hand made pastas and also his hand made foccacia. It was quite an intense two hours even without the hands on experience. At the end we get to eat what Ashley cooks in the class =D.

        Ashley shows us how to make pasta from scratch. He makes his own pasta fresh daily and has been doing so since Alio has opened. It's amazing what just a few eggs and flour can become. Some important notes I remembered: '00' italian flour will give you a better quality final product as it's a stronger/harder flour and high in gluten. I've seen this on the shelves of supermarkets before though each area varies, might have to go to specialty food stores or a deli for it. If the dough is dry, add more egg and never add olive oil to your pasta dough as it changes the consistency of the pasta.

        Ashley has also been making his own foccacia from day one. I love it when a restaurant chooses to make their bread in house though not alot do, it is easier to buy in bread but when you can smell bread freshly baking, oh it's blissful!

        He's very generous with his olive oil but only chooses to us the best quality oil so I guess it's not that bad =D. The focacia is flavoured with Murray River salt, rosemary and some other herbs. It was torturous smelling it cook during the class.

        Ashley shows us how to make his celebrated ‘Rotolo’dish, which is a roll of pasta filled with a spinach ricotta cheese mix and sauteed mushrooms. He uses field mushrooms and adds in dried porcini mushrooms to add flavour. The mushrooms are sauteed in butter.

        We watch Ashley cooking down some baby spinach with his hand! Don't do this at home kids! He explains to us that it doesn't need much cooking time and that by using his hand he can gauge it easier and as soon as the temperature is too warm for his hand the spinach is ready to be taken off the heat.

        The spinach is drained of all mositure, finely chopped and mixed through some ricotta and other hard cheeses.

       Ashley's older sister Tracey co-owns the restaurant and runs the front of house. She's also his right hand helper during the class.

        The fillings are done, then Ashley gets on with making the pasta. The dough is put through the pasta machine and turned and rolled constantly until it is even and straight on the edges.

        At the speed and precision which Ashley works you can tell he's been doing this for a long time. I bet he could do it with his eyes closed ;).

        The pasta is rolled to the right lenth and then trimmed and placed together to make a large sheet. For amatuer pasta makers they recommend that we source a quality fresh pasta seller and buy the sheets premade. The spinach and cheese filling is spread onto the sheet and a thin row of mushrooms is placed along one edge (which will become the centre of the roll).

        The pasta is then rolled up, kind of like a swiss roll, and then wrapped with a cloth and the ends tied up with some kitchen string to help hold it together during cooking.

        The roll is then placed into a kettle pot and left to boil away while the class continues.

        With the leftover pasta Ashley shows us some of the more common/easier pasta styles.

First off, ravioli.

        There is no mould or special tool that he uses here, just a simple pasta cutter or sharp knife and his hands.

He then shows us how to make tortellini's.

        Thank goodness for pasta machine attachments. He shows us the attachments to make linguini and fettucine. He suggests to us that to start off with these are the pastas that we want to perfect first before we move on to the filled pastas. The important part is in the rolling of the pasta dough, once you master that everything else will eventually fall into place.

Ashley's plates of ravioli, tortelli, fettucine and linguine.

        For lunch he throws together a Caprese style salad to go with the Rotolo. Grape tomatos, buffalo mozzarella, aged balsamic and olive oil, fresh basil, oh so simple but oh so good!

        The bread comes out of the oven and everyone goes "Oooohhhh". A little more olive oil =D.

The Rotolo is ready!

Ashley slicing up the Rotolo and dividing it up.

Tracey helps to slice up the bread.

        Another side dish, warm marinated olives, I'm not an olive lover, I still havn't quite acquired the taste yet. However, as Ashley goes to so much trouble to cook lunch for us I try a couple, they wern't too bad at all! I still can't say I like them though.

        To go with the Rotolo Ashley makes a simple butter, sage and chestnut sauce. We all help to carry plates to the dining room where a table has been set up for us for lunch. Everything on that table (apart from the Grissini) was made during the 2 hour class.

        Tracey throws together a rocket and cheese salad for us. It was suprisingly really good, shows the power of quality produce.

        The Caprese salad, simple flavours, quality ingredients, it was good! Ashley has managed to balance all the flavours well. The acidity from the tomatoes and the balsamic, the creaminess of the cheese, the freshness of the basil, I could smell it from the distance I was standing to the bench where he was working on.

        Warm marinated olives. Not overly salty, just delicious, but I'm still not an olive lover.

        Spinach, Ricotta and Mushroom Rotolo with sage and chestnut butter sauce. Yum Yum! The pasta was almost silky, the filling nice and creamy, the chestnuts sweet. I loved it.

        The foccacia was pretty good too! And dipped into the balsamic and olive oil... oh my goodness. Soft fluffy interior, and all the flavours from the olive oil, salt and herbs.

        Hand rolled grissini sticks which they also make themselved. They were good! Flavoured with parmesan I think?

        Chef Ashley Hughes posing for photos. Tracey joined us for lunch and told us a bit about how Alio started and all the stories before Alio when they were both working overseas (together and apart). She also brought up some interesting points about the internet and the impact it has on the food/restaurant industry especially such sites as eatability and it's power where people can anonymously attack restaurants and same goes for blogs. It's made me aware of alot more things and also how I will approach my reviews of restaurants in the future. We also talked about some other stuff but it's a shame I didn't really mingle too much with the others, that's me though in new environments. I enjoyed my morning immensly, even though I had to get up extra early for a Sunday morning. Thank you to Ashley and Tracey for having us and to Jen for picking me as a winner of the competition =).

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Lunch AND Tour at Aria Restaurant - Birthday Suprise Part 2

        (Continued from previous post). So we arrive at Aria Restaurant, the suprise though comes when Ryan asks the lady at the front desk if Karen (the manager) was in. She says that Karen will come see us about the restaurant tour later. Restaurant tour? Oh my what has Ryan done! 
        When making the booking Ryan thought it would be courteous to ask them if it would be okay for me to take photos of the food/restaurant, they pass him on to Karen, who says that it's perfectly fine as long as it's for personal use and not for any publications - he tells her that I'm just an amatuer food blogger *blush*. She thanks him for the courteous gesture of asking beforehand and says that people do it all the time, especially the tourists.
        Karen also offers Ryan a restaurant tour, to which he accepted, only if they wern't too busy of course. I was a little hesistant about it at first but Ryan said that it was as much for him as it was for me. I insisted that once we were done with lunch we would only ask them about it if they wern't too busy.

        We are shown to our seats and our jackets taken. The staff are highly attentive and make us feel very welcome. We decide to go for the 3 courses for $85, I did empty my stomach of all my morning's meal and Ryan was pretty much hungry by lunchtime.
        An amuse bouche is served to us to start off, it's a pumpkin veloute with parmesan foam. The veloute definitely tasted of pumpkin, but it wasn't as heavy as most pumpkin 'soups' out there. The foam was very interesting... the best way to describe it would be "cheesy frothiness". I am still feeling quite quesy and looking out over the water doesn't really help me but the view just draws my eyes out. I try and stuff myself with the bread just to stabilise myself a bit. I was also reluctant to pull my camera out to take photos but Ryan encourages me to, knowing that I would regret it if I didn't.

        Our entrees arrive, Ryan was originally going to go for the 'Goose' entree but our waiter was offering a terrine of lamb, pork and venison as an alternative. Upon hearing this, Ryan immediately took him up on his offer. He gave me a few bites. It was very meaty, slightly sweet and very savoury. The accompanying sauce, which was kind of like a jam, was very sweet, and cut the richness of the terrine very nicely.

        I chose to have the 'Consomme' - a Peking duck consomme, with duck dumplings, shaved abalone and mushrooms. The bowl comes out to the table covered and once it's placed in front of me the lid is lifted off allowing the aroma to just waft up. There were so many textures and flavours in this bowl. Smooth silky dumplings with a soft yet meaty duck filling, firm shavings of abalone, slices of shitake mushroom and strings of enoki mushroom. The consomme is pleasantly fragrant and well seasoned and obvious with the taste of peking duck. Definately felt a lot better after finishing this.

        Ryan orders some wine for us, a glass each to go with our mains. Our sommelier is very helpful in helping with wine suggestions, providing a stackload of information which I unfortunately struggle to absorb. Ryan has a glass of red - 2007 Mac Forbes Blaufränkisch, Carnuntum Austria, I have a glass of white - 2005 Baumard Clos St Yves Savennières (Chenin Blanc), Loire Valley France. All I know is that the suggested wines tasted fantastic with the food =).

        For his main, Ryan orders the 'Beef' - char grilled sirloin with roasted bone marrow, potato gratin and a watercress and pickled onion salad. The beef was well cooked, very tender, and the potato gratin being my favourite of course. I thought the bone marrow was quite interesting, never had it before, Ryan thought it was tasty but a little gimicky though, 'bone on a plate' is how he puts it.

        For my main I chose the 'Murray Cod' - seared fillet of Murray cod, fricassée of girolle mushrooms, salsify and borlotti beans. The cod was well cooked, with firm flesh and crispy skin. The flavours of the dish are very subtle, to show off the quality of the ingredients. This is a kind of dish which I struggle to appreciate as I love my bold flavours however, I am learning.

        Our desserts come and out waitress advises us that when we're ready Karen will come and show us around. Oh how exciting! It's about 3:00pm now and the restaurant has quitened down considerably so I felt a bit more at ease about taking the tour. Ryan chose the 'Pina Colada' - pineapple with piña colada sorbet and coconut tapioca. As soon as I saw this on the menu I knew he would choose it.
        The few spoonfuls which I had I quite enjoyed. The pina colada sorbet was refreshing and the coconut tapioca was creamy. I liked the ginger crumble which added some texture to the dessert. Ryan unfortunately doesn't enjoy it as much as he enjoyed tasting my dessert. He said that after a few spoonfuls it got a little 'too much' and it wasn't all that exciting to eat, he said that he felt the elements didn't quite work together in the dish - his opinion anyway. He finishes it off anyway refusing my offer to swap desserts.

        I chose to go for the 'Apple' dessert - Calvados ice cream with caramelised apple, almond crumble and apple sorbet. I was wowed when this plate came to the table, just looking at it was so inspiring to me.

        The Calvados ice cream was unusual and interesting, never tasted anything like it before. The caramelised apple pieces were not too sweet, soft but yet still firm. There's also small pieces of apple (uncaramelised) throughout the crumble. The crumble was just gorgeous, contrasting in texture with the rest of the elements on the dish. 

        Look it's apple sorbet! As good as my green apple sorbet? I thought it was good as =D, Ryan actually said he preferred my green apple sorbet, this one was alot more subtle in flavour compared to mine. I thought the green apple flavour was quite prominent in this one, but mine was definately alot punchier. My sorbet was definately lacking in finesse as this one was nice and smooth on the tongue where as mine was more of an ice slushy in comparison.

        After dessert, the same waitress comes over to our table and informs us that Karen was held up with a client. She introduces herself as 'Megan' and says that she would take us on a tour of the restaurant instead. She took us past the private dining room, explaining that the area where we were dining could also be closed off for private functions.  As we were walking along the corridor we pass the door that leads into the kitchen. Unfortunately we could not go in as they were still quite busy despite the lunch rush being over, there was still a function going on in the private dining room. She says that we will get to look at the kitchen through the kitchen table private dining room instead.

        At the end of the corridor we took a left and a left again to enter the kitchen table private dining room.  It was a small intimate space with a complete view of the kitchen. There really wasn't a lot of room to move around. The kitchen table would sit a maximum of 8 people. However a minimum of 4 people is required to make a booking. The guests at the kitchen table are treated to an 8 course meal with matching wines.

        The kitchen table comes with it's own dedicated waitstaff, only those that have been with Aria for a long time get the priviledge of doing so, we learn this from the waiter that's been serving us. When each course is served either Matt Moran (if he is present) or his executive chef would explain the concepts behind each dish. The menu is specially devised and features some of Matt Moran's signature dishes.

        The guests at the kitchen table are treated to a completely unobstructed view of the cooking kitchen.  Megan tells us that there are two kitchens in ARIA Sydney. This kitchen handles the cooking for the entire restaurant. The other kitchen, located downstairs, handles most of the prep work.

        Megan tried to open the curtains to show us what the diners would see.  However, the switch to the curtains was playing up, so we told her this view was more than adequate. I was a little hesistent to be so exposed to the kitchen staff anyway.

         I wonder if the chefs feel like zoo animals while there are diners at the kitchen table...

        After we saw the kitchen table we were lead past the bar out to the main dining room. This dining room apparently was taking bookings for May 2011. Located also in the main dining room was the wine cabinet which stored all the expensive and vintage wines, photo doesn't do it justice. It was here in this dining room that we found out that Megan was actually one of the daughters of the co-owners! (Peter Sullivan). So amazingly, she has been exposed to the business since the beginning. 
        She tells us of when the restaurant earned it's 2 chef hats, lost one of the hats, and then gained it back again. ARIA employs 70+ staff members, some of them working at ARIA for 10 or so years. Considering that ARIA has been open since 1999, that is an amazing feat of staff loyalty in an industry where that kind of staff loyalty is very absent.

        Despite it being 10+ years old, the restaurant did not look out of date at all. It had a very classy feel to it. I mean, ARIA has one of the most famous backdrops to work with. They needn't do much more than to keep the look classic and elegant, something they do achieve. I ask Megan if she's eaten all the dishes and she tells us that she actually has and has even experienced watching the dishes evolve over the years.

        We return to our table and recollect on what we had just seen and heard. Also took a few photos of the dining room we were in - this is a mirror image.

        Before the bill came, we were suprised to see our waiter coming to us with a set of petite fours, or as Ryan put it - "petite threes x 2", as we didn't order tea or coffee. It consisted of coconut macaroons, pistaccio and cranberry nougat and hazelnut truffles. We decided that we couldn't eat another bite so he very kindly packed it up for us to take home. The hazelnut truffle was the favourite for both of us.

        There is only one other table left other than us in our dining section and one of the waiters is going around with an iron, ironing all the table cloths ready for dinner service.

        Just before leaving I ask Ryan to take a photo of the Aria sign. He gets me to pose with the sign, a bit of a repeat performance from my birthday last year but this time I am completely sober =D. We both enjoyed our experience very much. Thanks to Ryan for being the best boyfriend ever =). P.S he helped me with this blog entry as I was struggling to remember so much of the information! He actually co-blogged but I've had to go through and edit so that it all flows, we're both very different in our writing styles.

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