There were so many events on at SIFF 2010 that one really had to sift through the pages of events, lunches, dinners, email and impromptu twitter announcements to keep on top of the events that most appealed to our individual tastes. On one hand I relished the opportunity to seek out the rare hidden find but on the other, I got a little overwhelmed like a wary shopper faced with a sky high mountain of clothing at warehouse sale. There might be a bargain hiding in that pile, but it’s a daunting and overwhelming prospect to find it.
Undoubtedly then I missed many opportunities. Every one I’d spoken to recounted meals and events that ranged from tongue swallowingly impressive depressingly mediocre. Thankfully, I have astute foodie friends with keen eyes to fossick through the gems that I overlooked. A long list of events, chef names and venues were rattled off to bait me and amongst them, one had my ears perking up in curiosity. “Animal Autopsy?” Pray do tell. Is it macabre that I found those words stimulating? Or is it just clever demographic targeting on the marketer’s behalf? Sensing hesitation, extra bait is offered and I’m informed that it’s offal based. A themed dinner called “Animal Autopsy” that features offal? Was there a better meal designed for me? Sold!
On the night I find myself at the Four in Hand Restaurant in Paddington, seated on a communal long table sandwiched between The Expert on my right and young distinguished chefs, Darren Robertson and Lauren Murdoch on my left. Beneath the tightly squeezed in tableware a long strip of police warning tape lies stretched down the centre. The dinner table is a crime scene in action and we are handed detailed autopsy reports of the “cases” to come, clinically dissected into an examination summary and a paired wine “toxicology” report. It toes the line between clever and kitsch but I’m not a sophisticated soul – it tickles my fancy.
When I booked the dinner I was told that it was the second evening for the event and because the first attempt was *ahem* reserved, our dinner would be a matched wine course to help stimulate the conversation. It’s no surprise then when liberal glasses of sparkling wine flow around the room! To start we’re handed a few hors d’oevres that aren’t featured on the autopsy report. Coroner’s anomalies perhaps? The first is a small steak and kidney pie with beautifully browned pastry and aptly shaped like a kidney. Inside there are meaty squares of kidney clearly visible against the melee of steak fibres and gravy. The last time I sampled kidneys was in Buenos Aires and the unpleasant ammonia flavour that can accompany kidneys was a little overwhelming then. I was happy to find no evidence of that flavour here – both texture and flavour are very rich, meaty and lifted by the bright, tangy salsa verde.
Continuing along the same vein of richness, we are served Claire de Lune oysters, freshly shucked and presented on a bed of rock salt with a wedge of lemon. This is the way I prefer my oysters – simple, natural and only slightly adulterated by a spritz of lemon juice.
The final offering in our trio of hors d’oeuvres is a salted fish veloute with salsa verde – a mere thimbleful that was at once salty, fishy, creamy and acidic.
Without delay we move onto the official offal. The first course is titled “Chicken – not as you know it” and surprisingly (or not surprisingly given the title) it contains snails. I find it hard to resist ordering snails if they appear on the menu, but whether it’s French style garlic snails, Vietnamese-style bun oc snail noodle soup or Chinese-hawker style stir fried with garlic, black bean, chilli and parilla, I always find the snails to be disappointing hard rubbery nuggets that never quite live up to the preceding excitement. As I waited for the snails in anticipation , The Expert groans in disappointment as snails are his allergic achilles heel. It’s a great shame then (although, he probably felt differently) that he can’t taste these snails because they are without a shadow of a doubt, the most tender snails I’ve ever eaten. This course is a play on textures as the tender snail meat contrasts against the crispy cracker and diced spring vegetables and the impossibly creamy chicken liver. It was absolutely delicious! The paired riesling was well matched to the subtle flavours in this dish – sweet and lightly perfumed with apricot and peach aromas.
Course or “case” 2 brings a thick square of black pudding masquerading as a brownie sitting partially hidden amongst salad leaves and courgette flowers. I’ve been lucky to sample a fair bit of morcilla through our travels through South America last year and whilst I expected a difference between the morcilla and black pudding, I was surprised at how different they were. Where the morcilla had been a very moist, meaty and fragrantly spiced mix; this blood pudding was drier and spongier – much like a brownie actually. The sweetness of the crab and corn gels nicely with the slightly minerally iron flavours of the black pudding and the corn sorbet refreshingly cool and sweet. The pairing of the Petite Chablis with its strong mineral and flint characteristics matches very well with the iron flavours in the pudding.
Moving right along and we are presented with “a lot of tripe” but curiously, the plate presented before me contained a very delectable looking fat scallop, but no tripe that I could detect. I poked and peered about it as politely as I could and wondered whether the title of this course was meant to be some sort of profound post modern statement. Thankfully once all the diners had been presented with their seared scallops, a shared tripe plate was placed on the table.
The scallop was as juicy as it looked, and the tripe was stewed and served in a mellow tomatoey bean stew accompanied by paper thin slices of prosciutto on a thick paint-like smear of olive puree. I was interested to try to the accompanying Austrian wine as other than Gewurztraminers I’ve not had any exposure to Austrian wines. The Gruner Veltliner had a strong tropical fruit nose which was immediately apparent on the palette but short lived with a very dry finish.
The kitsch factor was all saved for the 4th course, in which ear made its grand debut. The pigs ear schnitzel is a regular item on the Four in Hand Restaurant as the frequent diner requests for it ensure its permanent fixture on the menu. The confit ears are breaded and fried as schnitzels and served with ginger beer jelly and salsa verde. Using tweezers, waiters also carefully distribute each diner a latex glove as though they’re sterile implements for us to dissect the ear before us. With childish impishness, everyone immediately dons their glove with a satsifying snap but the curiosity is quickly replaced by confusion on whether we’re expected to eat the ear using the gloved hand but then eat the jelly using the fork provided. The latex glove also imparts an unpleasant, distinctive latex smell and most diners chose to abandon the glove and attack the ear with the conventional dining tools.
The confit process ensured the cartiliage on the ear was soft and tender, the jelly was light and a good likeness for ginger beer flavour and the salsa verde exquisitely tart and a lifting contrast to the fried schnitzel. It was tasty but I found it disappointing. Not because of the dish’ s preparation or flavours – but because, much to the Co-pilot’s chagrin, I find great pleasure in crunching on cartiliage. He has tried everything from ridicule and public shaming to attempt to get me to stop eating cartiliage. We have come to a compromise and now I am allowed to indulge in cartiliage, but only if I do it beyond his aural range. If I have to leave the dinner table, then that’s what has to happen for me to indulge my cartiliage habit.
A bit of tongue and cheek is the next aptly named course. We are served a delicious meaty fibrous mix of shredded beef cheek and bone marrow served in a halved, hollowed out marrow bone on a bed of salt. The accompanying square of toasted bread is just perfect to spread and savour this delicious paste. The slice of lambs tongue is very delicate and incites all sorts of quips about having tongue in one’s mouth. Or, perhaps given it was the 5th paired wine – 6th if you include the bubbles on arrival – perhaps it was the wine talking.
By this point, we’d eaten our way through 5 offal courses, and from the look of the courses remaining on the menu, I safely deduced that any opportunity to sample offal that would challenge my psyche or palette was over. I must admit, I was disappointed. I presumed all those who chose to be in attendance for this dinner would be open to trying challenging offal. I wasn’t as unrealistic to have expected a full and exhaustive offal smorgasboard but given the theme of the dinner, I had expectations that we’d move through the major organs of animal(s). Where were the heart and lung? Or brain? Or even that ubiquitous item on “offal” menus – where were the sweetbreads – or thymus if you will? Or what about other items – like reproductive organs? I felt rather underwhelmed by the challenge and quietly mentioned such to my neighbours. A big mistake in hindsight.
The next course is the most highly anticipated and the excitement amongst the guests is apparent. We’re first served the teaser to the main event – the rustic accompaniments – roast apple and spring onions, roots and all. Though the menu says whole suckling pig, we speculate whether we’ll actually be served the whole pig or whether it’ll be carved behind closed kitchen doors, sanitised and choice parts served. From the hopeful tones of the guests it’s clear we’re unanimously hoping for a whole suckling pig to be carved before us. Our prayers were answered when the french doors were thrown wide to wrestle in the whole suckling pig to the applause and cheers of the diners.
Chef Colin Fassnidge wastes no time and with deft hands starts to make light work of the pig, carving, sectioning and dismembering to the delight of diners. Given the theme and the props that appeared earlier in the night, I’m surprised he hasn’t arrived in a surgeon’s gown and mask.
A shout from our corner results in the piglet’s head delivered on a platter, accompanied by a healthy mountain of roast suckling pig meat. This sets of a flurry of photographs from all corners of the table whilst other diners salivate patiently. Once the final photo has been snapped, all formalities are thrown to the wind as the ears get torn off and crackling snatched away. I wish I had a time lapse video to share the eager demolition of this dish.
And this is where my previous comment came back to haunt me. Did I learn nothing from reading about Greek tragedies in highschool? Ah, the folly of arrogance that led to the great downfall of Oedipus Rex.. Attention squeamish readers – here’s your cue to skip over the following autopsy section to dessert.
Whilst happily crunching away on my crackling I get nudged by Darren next to me who asks conspiratorially, “want some brain?” With what I hope is an imperceptible split second hesitation, I nod and an unappetising lump of grey matter is spooned onto my plate. I eat the creamy, fatty mass without much fuss as I’ve had brain before. The Chinese believe in the theory that like-repairs-like – meaning you should ingest body parts of an animal that mirror your ailments. So young Chinese students around the world have been (force) fed poached pigs brains by their parents to aid their own education-overwhelmed brains. Chewed, swallowed, no sweat. Back to that delectable crackling..
There was another nudge from Darren – “do you want an eye?”
This time I did hesitate. I struggled to keep my composure but knew my revolt at the thought was played out all over my face. Reminding myself that this was the challenge I was seeking, that I’d just thrown out a verbal gauntlet and was well aware that a response was expected of me, I hesitantly squeaked out a “yes”. No sooner had I responded did I have an eye on my plate.
I tried to methodically rationalise my choice. It’s all in the mind – I’ve had fish eyes before – how different could it be? Knowing that the longer the hesitation the more doubt and weakening resolve I’d develop, I took a deep breath and brought the fork to my mouth. The pig’s eye is softer than expected. Squishy even. I wouldn’t describe it as a culinary revelation, but it was a personal challenge I felt compelled to take and was satisfied that I’d endured.
Perhaps it was my way of disassociating myself from the moment, but as I chewed I noted that, curiously, it was texturally distinct from a fish eye. The pig’s eye didn’t have the degree of viscous goop (aqueous humour) you normally associate with fish eyes nor the hard pebble like ball structure you find in the middle of the eye. I’ve always been curious as to what that ball is and whether we humans have one. I certainly don’t remember them from eye structure diagrams or cow eye dissections in biology classes. In the rare chance that you may have wondered the same thing – well, that ball in the fish eye happens to be the lens. We humans, like pigs have a flat lens disc at the front of the eye. Just in case you were lying awake at night wondering.. And that concludes our animal autopsy within an animal autopsy digression – back to the dinner.
This course was slowly savoured and the frenzy of animalistic action in the beginning slowly dwindled in ferocity. There were only a few ravenous diners still going strong – some were knawing on trotters with disconcerting raw abandon, others picking through the carcass of the pig to find meaty morsels to tear off. Most of the other diners were satiated, reclining in their chairs rubbing swollen bellies.
I would have been more than satisfied to end the meal on that note, but we still had dessert to come!
Dessert thankfully contains no offal. The final course named “Mother’s milk” contains sweet poached diced and whole strawberries in syrup and spongy sago balls. The goats curd is delightfully tart and as it melts, tempers each bite of sweet strawberries with that extra zing and a compulsory head shake. It’s my kind of dessert. The accompanying dessert wine also ticks the boxes for me – the sweetness is not cloying or overwhelming and it has a pleasant rose bouquet.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable, unique and challenging experience and of the few SIFF events that I attended this year – it was the standout favourite for me in value, originality and overall enjoyment. Though the Animal Autopsy event was designed specifically for SIFF, it was a great avenue to showcase the menu and offerings of the restaurant. I’d not been to Four in Hand before, but it’s now definitely on my radar.
And right now, Four in Hand is one of the many restaurants around Australia participating in this year’s Street Smart Dine Out… Help out campaign which runs from the 8th of November to 24th of December this year. Simply leave a donation with your bill to help Street Smart action their initiatives with the homeless. To find a participating restaurant near you, click here. And you can win a $150 voucher if you eat & tweet from any of the 250+ participating restaurants – for full details and entry conditions, click here.
Four in Hand
105 Sutherland Street (cnr Elizabeth Street), Paddington
Tel: +612 9362 1999; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Open Monday – Saturday from midday – 11pm; Sunday midday – 10pm
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