What’s the most adventurous, most challenging thing you’ve ever eaten? That was the question I posed to my friend, Jo, as we waited outside Ten Buck Alley – the location of Wasted, a new pop-up restaurant in Darlinghurst offering a value-packed 6 course degustation for $70 or matched wines for $120. Most pop up restaurants only have a fleeting lifespan, but even by those standards, Wasted very much epitomised blink-and-you’ll-miss-it as it ran for a mere 3 days from the 12th to the 14th of May earlier this month.
“Frog,” she replied instantly, “but only because it was intentionally masquerading as chicken. My parents had lied and told me it was chicken to get me to eat it.”
That’s pretty lame, I’d countered, it’s just frog after all it’s not like eating a leech. But she insisted that being lulled into a warm false sense of security only to have that safety blanket ripped off unceremoniously with the frigid reveal was worse psychologically than psyching yourself up to eat something challenging.
Unfortunately, I actually can relate. In that same vein, my worst unconscious daring food feat was eating pig’s uterus. The thought of it still makes me shudder involuntarily. You may have seen pig’s uterus before without knowing its identity as it can be found in many Chinese barbeque stores and mistaken as intestine as seen in my photo link here. From a young age, my parents would buy pig’s uterus (or more likely as the scientist inside me suggests: pig’s fallopian tubes – but I haven’t bothered to find out specifics) from the barbeque shop all chopped up and mixed with morsels of roast and barbeque pork. I developed an affection for the texture of the amusing squiggly tract and it became one of my favourite snacks. And as I’d tried it before I formed conscious thought, it became interwoven with my childhood I conveniently and steadfastly ignored the implications of its Chinese name, 生腸, or “birth intestine”, that is until a non-Chinese speaker pointed to it at a barbeque store asking what it was and the resounding response was “pig’s uterus!” And so I discovered that even I have a limit (I put my awkwardness down to a vague “girl thing” reason), and with that I broke up with pig’s uterus and we haven’t spoken since.
So it was this unfortunate conversation matter that our dining neighbours were forced to hear when we were ushered out of the cold and seated inside the tiny Ten Buck Alley space. Barely large enough to accommodate a dozen people and with no partition between kitchen and dining room, diners are immediately immersed into the frantic kitchen choreography. Interestingly, on the opening night it was a very young and social media friendly crowd – I spotted a few cameras and most diners were happily snapping pics on their phones and tweeting.
No sooner are we seated are we offered complementary foaming glasses of overripe dragonfruit bellinis. When placed next to the light of the tealight candles in the dimly lit room, they positively glow like blood red beacons. Like the dragonfruit itself though, the fruit flavour is subtle and plays second fiddle to the visual spectacle.
The kitchen is in full swing and whilst we wait for the onslaught of courses, we resume our conversation, much to the misfortune of the poor innocent sods that sat next to us.
“Uterus isn’t that bad”, started Jo, “Not as bad as say, large intestine or duodenum.”
“But if cleaned properly, how can that be worse than uterus? I wouldn’t think twice about eating a fried worm and that’s essentially one long poo tube..”
You see, Wasted popup’s site had thrown down the gauntlet: “Not for the faint hearted” it said, and both Jo and I had arrived with suitably high expectations to be shocked. But, we’ve both been raised on pretty standard Chinese diets and let’s face it, by Western standards, we’re hard to shock. I recall once seeing Fergus Henderson on a TV program whilst in the company of my parents and trying to explain to them the nose-to-tail phenomenon. But they didn’t understand. As they rightly pointed out, day to day Chinese cuisine is all about nose-to-tail eating so what’s the fuss? Touché.
But speaking of nose-to-tail eating, here’s where the impressive credentials of the creators of the Wasted popup concept come in. Kym Lenoble, the production muscle, having co-founded a controversial Sydney nightclub was no stranger to unique experiences; and Douglas McMaster, winner of BBC’s young chef of the year in 2009 who’d worked in many impressive restaurants including Fergus Henderson’s St John Bread and Wine, which no doubt part influenced the nose-to-tail theme inherent in Wasted. They’d met whilst working at the recent successful Sydney popup, Greenhouse by Joost, hit it off and before long, hatched up the Wasted concept.
So focusing solely on the nose-to-tail concept was perhaps where we went wrong. We’d unfairly fixated on the shock factor and had glossed over the main focus of Wasted – which like its namesake was actually putting the spotlight on wasted animal cuts and foraged plants that are by and large oft bypassed for farmed plant monocultures. We studied the menu in earnest and decided to put our preconceptions aside and allow the food to take to the stage. That, and it was not so long ago during my Animal Autopsy experience, that I arrogantly turned my nose up at what I thought was an unchallenging nose-to-tail degustation only to have my nose rubbed back in it, so in light of lessons learnt, it was best to pipe down.
A flurry of amuse bouche were handed to us: communal bowls of fried anchovy spines with aioli (someone had actually painstakingly filleted these tiny critters) provided a powerful flavour-packed and delectably crispy teaser and defied us to stop at just one; salted beef topped with cubes of crunchy light celeriac and chicken hearts with barley served in what looked suspiciously like cosmetic cream jars. With the last offering, Kym explained that Douglas gleaned inspiration from imagining the chicken still scurrying around in the barn, pecking at grains and wanted to offer that image to his diners. Boiled then fried and dumped into the jar, this was eaten by spearing the heart with a toothpick and fishing it from its shallow barley grave.
With the amuse bouche completed, the first of the 6 courses started with the one I was most intrigued with: nettle, backfat and nasturtium. I had a little frisson of excitement when I’d spotted the word nasturtium as I’d never seen it before and was hoping it was an obscure body part I’d yet to be acquainted with. It turned out to be an obscure edible cress cum lily pad doppelganger, that I’d yet to be acquainted with. And it was delicious – having not tried nettle nor nasturtium, I can’t attribute the flavour of the soup to one plant over the other, but it tasted vaguely of pea soup, partly of broccoli soup, and entirely of ‘green’ soup. The morsels of backfat suspended in the soup were the happy bonus surprise, bursting with flavour like tiny crispy porky popcorn. Boy, if this is how tasty wasted food can be, I predict that it won’t be on the wasted list for too long!
We part picked the format of the next course simply titled: “blood, brain and skin” before we saw it being plated. You can’t go wrong with the crumbed fried brain and crispy crackling formula – much less offensive than say, boiling or braising these ingredients. But where we thought it might be peppered with cubes of coagulated pig’s blood, a common ingredient in Chinese soups, stir fries and congee, it was instead a dark chocolatey smear of blood paste. To relieve the heavy flavours a light sprinkling of tart cubes of apple finished the dish and it was all served on a white ceramic tile.
Fascinated I cut through the brain and there staring back at me was the clear delineation of grey and white matter. I satisfied any Freudian-style fantasies by trying in vain to figure out what portion of the brain I was staring at. It’s fascinating that this small fat-fueled organ is capable of so much and it’s actually composed of about 60% fat (specifically fatty acids). Given its composition, unsurprisingly then it is wonderfully rich and unctuously creamy, the apple working well with it to cut through the fattyness, the crisp crackling giving the monotonous softness some texture. I’d thought that perhaps given the pork crackling and blood served, perhaps it was half a hemisphere of a pig’s brain. But Jo, a psychologist by trade, reminds me that pig’s don’t have large brains comparable to human brains in size and speculates that it’s probably a lamb’s brain – which Kym happily confirms for us.
From a wastage front, brains and blood are usually absent from Western menus, and most (the Co-pilot included) would argue that there is no reason to eat it – but I see that as an argument born from squeamish unfamiliarity. If, like the pig’s uterus for me, it was more the norm, then there wouldn’t be a reason for squeamishness. Interestingly, I noted no squeamishness in the room either – all brains were heartily hacked and devoured.
Brains aside, we launch onto the raw prawn. No, it’s not a joke, although you’d be forgiven for thinking so as this raw prawn was served on a frisbee plate.
The raw prawn was nothing less than incredibly fresh, as it had to be, the flesh bursting with tensile al dente texture. It was dressed with a mound of iced finger lime caviar, crushed dill stems, seaweed juice and a melee of wild rocket. The texture was a real highlight in this dish – those crunchy finger lime caviar pearls melding with the crunchy prawns and icy granita-like shards of pulsed dill and seaweed was very enjoyable. The flavours were subtle at first, but as the ice melted in your mouth the presence of dill was unmistakable and the pepperyness of the wild rocket giving it an extra kick in the teeth.
Though unusual and a great talking point, how the frisbee fit into the wasted theme, I’m not entirely sure – perhaps they were saved from destruction. But who in their right mind would throw away a frisbee? That is, other than someone who intends that it be caught. Ha!
But, true to the theme, those frisbees weren’t wasted – they were dutifully collected, steamed clean and used for the very next dish. Getting into the meaty end of the night, we’re now presented with the intercostals. Dredging up memories from anatomy classes I knew they were the muscle between the ribs – rib meat without the hassle of the rib bone? That could only be good and is sacrilegious to waste! Perhaps the rib theme inspired the flavours for this dish as the intercostals came with a strong dose of sweet and stickiness, with caramelised onions drenched in marsala. It was all served in hollowed out crispy potato skins with the normally discarded segments of cauliflower and beetroot foliage – very rich and flavourful but a bit too sweet for my tastes although the matched shiraz (served in a generous tumbler) did well to dampen the sweetness. Jo also pointed out a downside of using black servingware – you can see the fat congeal and turn opaque on the frisbee, a timely reminder of why it tastes so rich and a mild mental turnoff but I’d already polished my dish clean and conveniently pushed the thought away.
Continuing on with the sweetness already on our palettes, course 5 is a sweet palette cleanser of whey sorbet, feijoa and violet. I don’t like the taste of feijoa. One bad experience with feijoa flavoured 42 Below vodka has forever unfairly tainted the poor fruit for me. I only had one drink of the vodka, but found it overwhelming tasting like Dencorub and couldn’t fathom why anyone would, nay, could like it. All subsequent feijoa experiences bring back Dencorub memories now and this was no different. The delicate, subtly milky and icy cold whey sorbet was perfumed with crunchy crystals of freeze-dried violet that imparted their own delicate floral taste. And then there were the cubes of Dencorub feijoa – there’s a reason feijoa is on the wasted list! To be fair, this is my biased personal deep-seeded dislike of feijoa and nothing to do with the dish itself – Jo adamantly told me I was strange and that she quite enjoyed the feijoa. Despite my goading suggestions of menthol, she thought it tasted pleasantly similar to… kiwi fruit.
And suddenly, it was clear the hours had flown by and we were being served the final dish of the night. We watched the dessert being assembled onto those white tiles again with a flurry of quick hands and feather light sprinkles of ingredients.
The smoked wood custard was an intriguing ingredient and there was nothing delicate about it. The smoky flavour could only have been stronger had my head been in the smoking oven itself. The crumbled moist anzac biscuits and tart jewels of pomegranate seeds did their best to battle with the robust smokiness and introduce other layers but for us it was a little overwhelming. Inexplicably it made us think of smoked salmon paté and once the thought had taken root, it was hard to shake. As a dessert it didn’t work for me, but I could see it working as a savoury ingredient.
With the last plates collected and despite the many hours that had passed, it was clear none of the guests were in a hurry to leave: wines were being finished languidly and conversations droned into the night – surely a good sign when your guests are all relaxed and happy. I loved the element of surprise in the menu – I’d booked our tickets without having seen or knowing anything about the potential menu so it was exciting to see each dish and the compositional ingredients revealed to us on the night. So overall I thought it was a great concept and well executed – as a whole a very serious message about wastage successfully conveyed in a very light hearted yet effectively engaging manner, showing you don’t always need to preach zealously to get your point across. Not that it was a new concept to me as I’ve been well indoctrinated into the potential evils of wastage. As a child, my mother made a point of telling me I’d better eat everything, everything, in my bowl, particularly each last grain of precious rice because if I didn’t – I’d die before my time. I think she truly believed it too. There was no coaxing in kiddy friendly sing-song voices, no sugar coating – only the cold threat of death. So, no stranger to the perils of wastage here, you’re preaching to the converted my friends.
As it was opening night, as guests got up to leave, Kym and the other staff made the rounds, asking people for their opinions. Jo and I both were honest in that we thoroughly enjoyed it; that it rated highly on both the tasty and fun meters; that the point on Wasted food, cuts and plants had been made; but from the bold claim of “not for the faint hearted” on the website, our expectations to be shocked weren’t met. But we did put in the disclaimer that we’re Chinese, and we’re pretty hard to shock when it comes to challenging food (or wastage).
Kym nodded diplomatically and took in our feedback, then I spotted his tweet later after the 3 Sydney sessions were complete: “intercostals + chicken hearts = tame. Melbourne is going to make Sydney look like a vego picnic.”
Dammit Melbourne. I wish I could be there to see what the Wasted team conjures up for you!
The Sydney event was held over 12 – 14 May 2011, at Ten Buck Alley, corner Bourke and William Street, Darlinghurst.
Melbourne dates and locations have just been announced:
Thursday 30th June – Sunday 3rd of July 2011 at Essential Ingredients Cooking School Prahan Markets Melbourne.
Prices and bookings available via their website soon.