Outside the comfort zone

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Sri Lankan feasts and a fancy burger restaurant are not my usual weekly dining experiences or blog topics. It has been a long while since my last post, so my apologies if you were hanging out for a review of something sweet and pink! At the moment I’m all about expanding horizons (and planning a move to London!), with surprisingly delicious results.

On Friday night I had a great girls’ night out with cocktails and Sri Lankan food at Araliya in St Kilda. The restaurant was quiet but had a really nice feel to it, with friendly staff and delicious slightly spiced smells wafting occasionally from the kitchen. We shared a stack of lentil based pancakes layered with fragrant vegetables to start. After that we ordered a whole range of dishes to share – red rice, lentil and spinach dahl, green beans in a warm and creamy coconut sauce, crusted fish with tamarind and cucumber, kipfler potatoes cooked with a tonne of spices and spring onions and vegetarian kothu roti. We also had an absolutely delicious shredded brussels sprouts dish which was extra impressive because I don’t normally like brussels sprouts. The only dish I didn’t love was a twice cooked eggplant and date dish which was actually far too sweet for me (again a surprise for this sweet-tooth). My tastebuds haven’t gone completely crazy though – we did of course order a dessert to share, mostly because they sounded so interesting and we wanted to try one even though at that stage we were pretty full. We had the baked coconut custard with banana sorbet. I was expecting something quite traditional, but what we got was a very modern looking plate with three slices of rich sweet coconut custard. The custard had obviously been cooked low and slow for a very long time until it turned a great dark caramelly-colour. These slices were separated on the plate by two quenelles of banana sorbet which tasted really fresh and clean and worked beautifully with the rich coconut custard. Including drinks the whole meal was about $60 each. I am normally a total sook when it comes to spicy food, but all the dishes were a manageable level of spiciness and the mains were served with cooling yoghurt which I made use of. In all, it was a lovely and new experience for someone who knows next to nothing about Sri Lankan food (but is now keen to find out more…)

On the Saturday night, I had dinner with a couple of friends at Rockwell & Sons in hipster-central Smith street, Fitzroy. Now this is not my normal vegetarian-friendly hang-out. I mean, the place has a cut up kind of pig as its logo and their signature dishes are burgers. Big, over-the-top, old-school burgers. But, even as a vegetarian, I could appreciate that the double pattie smash with bacon and special sauce that my partner ordered (don’t tell his PT) was epic. Yes, that, I believe, is the correct language to use for this kind of ‘dude food’.

Anyway, despite it being meat-central in there, I actually had a really great meal. It started off with a 70s classic – devilled eggs! They were smooth and creamy and really tangy and just a great way to start a meal. Then I had hand-cut french fries with home-made mayo, crispy broccoli (kind of like tempura broccoli) with a jalapeño sauce and parmesan cheese (such a good combination!) and a beetroot and savoury granola salad. The savoury granola was definitely a winner – it was like eating grown-up spicy cereal for dinner. Nom.

Of course, being on Smith street mere metres from Messina did necessitate a stop there on the way home. It was so cold that night that, I think for the first time ever, there was no line outside Messina. We waltzed right in and ordered a tub of gelato to takeaway. Messina has put their prices up a little since last time I was there (now $22.80 for a litre) but it was still completely worth it. We ordered half Uber Bueno (hazelnut gelato with white chocolate fudge, chocolate chips and cream-filled crispy wafers) and Agentasian (dulche de leche gelato with pear and ginger sauce and chunky coconut biscuit crumbs). Double nom.

Melbourne has such incredible diversity in its food offerings. It’s part of what makes it so special and so much fun. I stepped outside my usual brunch/cupcakes/veggie/yuppie comfort zone and it paid off! And now…I’m moving to London with my partner in 2 weeks (eeeek)! Another adventure (or twenty) awaits my tastebuds. I will be blogging about English restaurants, travel in Europe and London’s terrible rental market from my new personal site: hannahbfoster.com. It also has links to a whole lot of articles I’ve written in the last year or so (somewhat explaining my neglect of this blog), so check it out!

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The Highs and Lows of Tea

Those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know I’m a bit of a high tea aficionado. I definitely do my fair share of sconning around (he he) at five star hotels and well known bakeries and, as well as this blog, I also write reviews of high teas for highteasociety.com

The best high tea I’ve ever experienced was at The Dorchester, in London (of course!), where the waitstaff wore tails, the tea menu resembled War and Peace and the stawberry jam, I was assured, was made fresh on the premises that morning using locally sourced English strawberries (none of those nasty wastrel Continental strawberries here, thank you very much…) And, happily, Melbourne is also home to some stellar high tea options, from the classic pomp of The Windsor, to the cutesy nostaglia of The Hopetoun Tearooms, to the chocolate extravaganza that is The Langham on weekends and the modern high tea at The Sheraton, Melbourne does it extremely well. 

   

However…and here is where the slightly ranty writer takes over… I think there are some extremely substandard high teas in Melbourne. Teas that do not deserve the prefix of ‘high’ at all. Not mentioning any names (ahem Intercontinental Melbourne) but I recently booked for what was advertised as a Sound of Music themed high tea with a group of my closest girlfriends. Weeks before the high tea, we joyfully compared notes on how we thought The Sound of Music, a much-beloved film by all attending, would be incorporated into the high tea. Would there be crisp apple strudel (probably…)? Would there be gifts for guests in brown paper tied up with string (maybe…)? Would there be schnitzel with noodles (hmmm less likely…)?

I can tell you now that there were precisely zero of these things, with the only weak attempt at ‘theming’ being to play The Sound of Music soundtrack in the restaurant instead of their normal background music. The food was variously bland, blah and bleh, with only the scones and a singular macaron managing good scores from me. At one point we ordered cups of English Breakfast tea (memo to hotel: that is kind of a standard order for guests at a high tea) and were presented with a teapot but no teacups. We waited at least fifteen minutes, trying to flag down service, before I eventually got up from the table and chased down a staff member who seemed thoroughly confused by my request for teacups, milk and teaspoons.

Some important additional memos for this establishment include:

– Just because you have made something in miniature does not mean it is delicious. It needs to be both delicious and miniature to make it on to the high tea stand.

– Train your staff in basic etiquette, like not laughing when a guest enquires as to whether they serve chai lattes.

– Also train your staff to inform guests on what delights have been placed in front of them. A quick run though of what’s on each tier of the stand is generally helpful, but not when items are variously described as ‘a sushi looking cake’ (it was a miniature circluar black forest cake) and ‘um sorbet’ (it was a palate cleanser of raspberry sorbet).

– When you do serve sorbet in tiny shot glasses, try to fill those glasses evenly, so there’s not an unseemly scramble at the table for the ones that are not only half full. 

– Reconsider charging approx. $14 for a glass of second-rate Australian bubbles.

– Miniature apple crumbles should ideally contain apple, not some kind of kindergarten paste. 

Sadly that was not the only somewhat disappointing high tea I’ve had in Melbourne lately. At another five-star establishment (*cough* The Sofitel) I was disappointed to find the entire high tea was served buffet style. Don’t get me wrong, I love a buffet, but no matter how nice it is, it lacks the refinement of having a beautiful tiered stand and a glass of champagne arrive promptly at your table. I believe they serve tiered stands of afternoon tea during the week, so why no tiers on the weekend? Seriously, why? It brings me to tears…okay that was lame, sorry.

And, while the food at The Sofitel was actually of a very good standard, with delicious cakes and a flashy crepe station, the service was again disappointingly disorganised. There were no instructions on how the high tea was organised  or when or where to start on the buffet. My special order of vegetarian sandwiches arrived at the table 45 minutes into the high tea without explanation, long after I’d already eaten what vegetarian options I could find on the savouries table and moved on to sweets. And the tea itself again (what is it with serving tea?) took absolutely ages to make it to our table. Sigh. First world problems, I know.  

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This Easter: The Non Choc Shop

So I don’t want to stir anyone into a panic and/or food and gift buying frenzy, but it is officially ONE SLEEP until Easter! Last year I wrote a little wrap up of some of the nicest Easter chocolate gifts available in Melbourne at places like Koko Black and Haigh’s (check it out here: http://northmelbournelife.com/2014/04/07/eatster-i-mean-easter/

 But I have a dark and terrible secret in my family, which plagues us each Easter, and it is this: a certain unnamed member of my family (ahem little sister), who normally has impeccable foodie taste, does not like chocolate! Yes, you heard right, someone closely related to me eschews all things gloriously cocoa. I have checked, she’s not adopted. 

 The list below is for you, baby sis, and all the people out there who are not as addicted to the brown stuff as me. It’s a list of my top 10 non-chocolate gifts in Melbourne this Easter.

 1. Marshmallows: Yes they are great in hot chocolates, but they can also be a gourmet treat on their own and a fun addition to baking. Mork (Errol Street, North Melbourne) makes packs of 12 perfectly cubed vanilla bean infused ‘mallows for $10 a pack. 

2. Honey: For the chocolate-hating hipster or conservationist in your life, Rooftop Honey brings bees back into cities and produces small batch honey from different suburbs, so it’s possible to buy a jar of South Yarra honey or a jar of Degraves Street (CBD) honey. The Melbourne chapter sells online or at a whole bunch of fine food outlets across the city. 

 3. Macarons: Aparently these are ‘so over’ and have ‘reached saturation point’ in Melbourne, but I obviously didn’t get that memo. They’re brightly coloured, light and delicious, perfect for Easter. I’d recommend a box from La Belle Miette who are doing special gold, yellow and cream Easter pacakging and, wait for it, a limited edition hot cross bun flavour macaron! Boxes of 6 start at $15.90. 

4. Oxfam Unwrapped: Give someone who really needs it a chicken ($10) or a bunch of carrots ($52 for a whole veggie garden) this Easter. Cards can be purchased and downloaded online as e-cards, or you can buy them in store (Carlton, Chadstone and the CBD). 

 5. Hot cross buns: A total classic. They don’t really last more than a day or two fresh, but then, you’ll probably eat them all by then anyway! Vegans will appreciate the buns at Crumbs Organic Bakeouse in North Melbourne and Ascot Vale and gluten intolerant peeps might like the gluten free (also vegan) ones at Fatto a Mano (Fitzroy). 

 6. Jelly beans: Not the most sophisticated treat, but super fun, colourful and nostalgic. I still love Jelly Belly beans, available at David Jones and candy stores like The Original Lolly Store. Just avoid those cherry flavoured ones…gross! 

7. Caramelized coconut truffle: Koko Black does a super delicious white chocolate truffle filled with a caramelised coconut cream. They are about $2.10 each. Since it’s white chocolate and not technically ‘chocolate’ I think it qualifies for this list. My prediction is there will be zero elbow room in any Koko Black store this afternoon, but it might be worth the crowds for this delicious treat!

 8. Salted caramel spread: Pure decadence…possibly to be eaten with a spoon from the jar. Really good options for this are Lux Bite’s salted caramel spread ($10 for 190g jar), Burch & Purchese’s Famous Salted Caramel Spread ($14 for 300g jar) and Bonne Maman’s caramel spread, available at various supermarkets (approx. $8 for 380g jar). And don’t ask me why I know so much about jars of salted caramel…you know why (*hides empty jar behind back*). 

 9. Caramel kisses: More caramel, in biscuit form this time. These crazy good little biscuits are basically two small shortbread biscuits sandwiched together with caramel and cream icing. Available at David Jones’ Food Hall’s cookie counter. Yes, they have a cookie counter. Yes, I do go there a lot. 

 10. Baklava: Bring a little Greek Easter to your gift giving – head to a local Greek or Turkish bakery for a container of this gorgeous little slice of honey-nut-pastry heaven. And then attempt to refrain from eating it all before you manage to give it to your loved ones.

Have a happy and safe Easter everyone! Whatever you’re doing or however you’re celebrating, I hope it’s with great people and delicious food. 

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Over The Moon

There are a lot of good dining experiences to be had in Melbourne, but it’s pretty rare for me to have one that, for the occasion/price/company/hunger level and every other variable, I could honestly say was a perfect experience. Last Saturday night my partner and I went out with his parents for dinner at Moon Under Water (Gertrude Street, Fitzroy). And I have to say, it was pretty damn near perfect. 

Moon Under Water is the higher-end dining section of Builders Arms Hotel, a lovely white-on-white dining room tucked away at the back of the building. The decor is a little bit French, a little bit Melbourne and very me, with crisp white tablecloths paired with edgy arrangements of gin bottles and autumn leaves on the dining room’s buffet table and side boards. The service was professional, yet still warm – happy to get us extra bread (which came in a very cute enamel lunchbox) with a smile and recommend anything from a Belgian or British beer to a great Pinot from the Mornington Peninsula. 

  

I knew I was really on to a good thing at this restaurant though when, on letting the waitress know I was a vegetarian, she took away my menu and returned with a dedicated vegetarian menu. At Moon Under Water you can opt for 3, 4 or 6 courses, with non-vegetarians having a choice of two different items for each course. We all opted for four courses, with my partner and his dad choosing to have the matched wines. You can also add in a cheese course, which, of course, we had to do!

For the first course three of us had a tomato salad with a sheep’s curd yoghurt. It was really zingy and fresh. The tomatoes and curd were quite sweet and the taragon and tiny crumbs of black olive balanced it out with savouriness and saltiness. My partner braved it with a cured bonito dish which was really well done and not overpowering. For the second course I had a fennel dish with crispy quinoa. I’m normally not a huge fan of either of these ingredients, but the fennel was super soft and creamy, served with a tasty vegetable broth, and the quinoa was just a nice garnish that added crunch. There were a lot of nods and happy faces from the non-vegetarians too, who were tucking into a pretty little duck and lentil dish for their second course which was matched with a very popular pinot. 

   

 

For the third course I had pan fried gnocchi with heirloom carrots. Good gnocchi always makes me happy and this was no exception. My dining companions’ pork with lovage and anchovy was not my thing obviously, but was reported to be very well cooked and a highlight of the meal. Finally, dessert arrived and happily, even after a multi-course dinner we still had room for these little treasures. My partner and I had the chocolate parfait with spiced oats and milk sorbet and his parents had the almond cake with a lemon verbena custard and fresh raspberries. The chocolate parfait was, well, perfect. It was basically like a fancy icecream sandwich with dark rich parfait squeezed between two thin chocolate oat cookies, topped with a dollop of salted caramel and a quenelle of smooth milk sorbet which just tased like a nice chilled cream. 

  

Each course was relatively small, but very satisfying, plus there’s complimentary starters, bread and butter served throughout and the course before dessert (the ‘main’ I guess) is served with green salad and absolutely delicious whole roasted baby potatoes. For $75 a head (plus drinks) for four courses, we were very happy customers. We left feeling quite full (and maybe a little tipsy) but not stuffed, appreciating the meal for its balance, great ingredients and thoughtful presentation. 

  

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Review: A European Sandwich

Last weekend was a European sandwich, in dining terms that is, with my weekend sandwiched between two awesome Euro-dining experiences. 

First up, on Friday night, was dinner at Epocha. This is an intimately lit on-trend restaurant tucked away on the edge of the city opposite Carlton Gardens. The back of the menu features a reproduction of a historic map of Melbourne, including Carlton Gardens and Epocha’s location, but it was what was on the front of the menu that really captured my attention. It’s a lovely mix of classic French techniques, hearty German inspired dishes and a few summery Italian style salads and sides. That sounds like a confused menu, but actually it all works well together. 

We started off with a few lighter dishes that I’d class as Italian: polenta chips and a fig and buffalo mozzerella salad. The salad was really special – sweet and creamy and tangy, with just a little crunch. I probably could have just had a big plate of that for dinnner and been more than happy! Then we went a little bit French with duck-fat roasted  potatoes (minus the duck fat for me) and an heirloom carrot salad. Finally, my friend and I shared a big plate of spaetzle, which is sort of like a mini German dumpling-cross-gnocchi. That was served with a summery topping of roasted and creamed corn, tomatoes and zucchini. Being vegetarian, I opted for a lot of vegetable based dishes, but non-veggies are well catered for in traditional European style – you can start with three different varieties of oysters and back it up with anything from quail to crispy pigs’ ears to beef ribs or confit duck. 



We were too full for dessert that night, but I have experienced their extremely tempting dessert trolley in the past – it won’t disappoint, the Europeans know what they are doing when it comes to cake! You can also opt for a sharing menu, which includes dessert and will leave you feeling about the size of Europe, but very satisfied. With a bar upstairs (not always open), the wine list is extensive and on the expensive side of things and the cocktails are excellent, if not a bit limited in range. 

This dinner was followed, on Sunday afternoon, by a trip to Paris. Not an actual trip (I wish), just a short visit for my tastebuds in the form of ‘High Tea in Paris’ at The Waiting Room at Crown Towers. The high tea is part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival calendar and is offered until mid March. I hadn’t been to The Waiting Room before and I have to say the ambience wasn’t really 5-star in that you do sort of feel that you’re half sitting in Crown’s lobby, with a lot of people passing through. The food and service though were excellent and definitely made the high tea worthwhile. The menu starts with champagne and finger sandwiches, which is pretty much the most delightful way a menu can start! The finger sandwhiches, served on individual wooden boards, included smoked salmon, a mini toasted croque monsieur (ham and cheese) and rock lobster and caviar. For vegetarians the selection included more classic cucumber and cream cheese, egg salad and brie with fig and quince paste. The brie/quince one was not a winner at my table, as it was weirdly sweet and kind of dry, but the cucumber sandwiches were a standout. 



Following sandwiches, you get to choose three showcase cakes each from a beautiful selection in glass cabinets at the front of the restaurant. I went with a hazelnut chocolate mousse cake, a raspberry creme brulee slice and a macaron and amaretto sponge cake. The cakes are glossy, multi-coloured and many layered creations which look almost too good to eat. Somehow we managed though! They were all very nice, though probably too large and rich considering they were part of a high tea and I did see a few guests take away elements of their high tea in boxes provided by the staff. In addition to these cakes, you are also served a small square of nougat, mini madelines, chocolate fudge and a mini fruit gel. Finally, you get a choice of three chocolates each, again selected from a glass cabinet at the front of the restaurant. For the chocolates, which I ended up taking home with me, I selected a rocher au lait, a cassis violet and chocolate rose praline. Yuuuuum. Seriously yum. We were both in a sugar coma by the end, but a happy one. Considering the high tea includes hot drinks and a glass of Laurent Perrier champagne, I think it is good value for $65. 





Ten Healthy Food Trends I Will Not Be Adopting

A new cafe, called Code Black, recently opened up in North Melbourne (sister to Code Black in Brunswick) and my partner and I naturally had to try out its brunch, multiple times. The brunch was good, not mind-blowing, but very tasty with a nice range of options. They even did a good chai latte and over cooked my eggs, as per my request.

Feeling confident with the menu after a couple of visits, I decided to branch out and have a smoothie with my breakfast. There were no flavours listed – just a daily special. Great, I thought, they must pick seasonal fruits for their smoothie, so maybe it will be a berry one, or even mango and banana (my favourite). Luckily I asked what the daily flavour was before ordering, because it turned out to be a goji berry and almond milk smoothie.

Sorry what? I mean, WTF? Does anyone actually want to drink a goji berry and almond milk smoothie?? Ever?

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Avocado, beetroot and seeds all in their proper place, not hiding in cakes.

Code Black is definitely not alone in their use of slightly oddly placed ‘super foods’ on their menu. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of plenty of healthy foods. I have fully embraced kale, I am pro-quinoa, I am a paid up member of the organic-vegetables-of-Australia party. However, there are some healthy food trends I just can’t wrap my head, or my tongue, around. My top (or bottom) ten healthy food trends that cafes should just stop trying to sell me are:

1. Avocado as butter or cream: I very much enjoy avocado, but please don’t sneak it into my banana cake, or even worse, try to sell me something called ‘avocado cheesecake’. I may consider taking a claim to the ACCC for false advertising if you do.
2. ‘Surprise’ ingredients in smoothies: see above, I don’t take kindly to weird ingredients in my smoothies, especially in the mornings and doubly if they’re lumpy.
3. Spirulina powder: the super green colour is pretty awesome looking, sadly the taste does not reflect this. It tastes and smells like a combination of industrial waste, sunscreen and seaweed.
4. Goji berries: see above, these things taste like sweaty arse. Sorry, but they do. Don’t bother coating them in yoghurt or chocolate either, then it’s just sweaty-arse-flavour-covered-in-chocolate. While that actually potentially sounds very ‘in’ and Fifty Shades of Grey-esque, it’s really not worth the calories.
5. Chia seeds in drinks: nothing against chia, but once you put those little seeds in liquid they puff up and get slimy and it’s like drinking frog spawn. Not that I have had frog spawn recently, but you get the idea. Shudder.
6. Seaweed: fine at a Japanese restaurant for dinner, definitely not fine sprinkled all over my avocado and toast in the morning. Seriously.
7. Oat milk: this is the loser of the milk family, even rice milk refuses to play with oat milk in the school yard. And I’m calling it – enough with the new ‘milks’ please! You can’t just soak anything in water, sieve it and call it a ‘milk’. What is next? Reclaimed floorboard milk? Handpicked dandelion milk? Recycled plastic bag milk? Gahhhh!
8. Quorn: if you’re not vegetarian you might not know this one, but it’s basically a healthy meat substitute. It’s made from a micro fungus or something like that…which says it all really. Avoid.
9. Beetroot chocolate cake: I like beetroot. I definitely like chocolate. But I cannot get behind this one, I’ve tried it so many times and every time I just think ‘oh great, now my perfectly nice chocolate cake has a weird aftertaste of dirt.’
10. Green tea flavour: green tea is not delicious, it tastes like grass clippings. Why would you want to impose this grass flavour on perfectly nice things like cupcakes, KitKats and ice-cream? Wheatgrass also falls into this category (the ‘I actually taste like your lawn’ category). So no, I do not want a wheatgrass shot with that, thank you!

PS – should dandelion milk take off as a ‘thing’, you heard it here first. Or Fifty Shades themed goji-berry treats…that one could actually be a winner.

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Actually delicious ‘super’ foods: fresh fruit and berries.

Review: The Grain Store

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So it’s that quiet time of year (apparently) when cafes close for a few weeks of resting and menu revamping, which is perfectly fine, except that it does rather disrupt my brunching habits. Auction Rooms and Di Bella, my two brunch spot stalwarts, were closed for well over a week for Christmas. What is a girl to do? Certainly not poach her own eggs! Oh no!

Instead the great north melbourne brunch drought of 2015 (as I’m now naming it) motivated my partner and I to walk into the city for brunch on Sunday morning. Being a beautiful sunny morning we happily trotted down to The Grain Store on Flinders Lane. With a buzzy vibe, almost no wait and a truly excellent brunch, I was reminded how much I like The Grain Store. The service is professional, the coffee is excellent and their chefs accommodate my annoying request for very well poached eggs, since an oozy yellow yolk kind of makes me want to vomit, which, incidentally, is not a good look at a nice cafe like The Grain Store.

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I say cafe but really it’s more of a restaurant. I’m not sure how you delineate the difference exactly, but I think it’s something to do with them serving dinner and wine in the evening and having nice cutlery and glassware for all three meals of the day. Plus the staff there are professional waiters, not sleepy eyed party girls wearing onesies and under their aprons. Ouch – apparently 2015 has prematurely turned me into a grumpy old lady type! But you know what I mean, there’s a slick-but-friendly feel at The Grain Store that makes you confident your order will be correct and the coffee will arrive promptly.

The decor at The Grain Store is lovely and light – kinda Scandi and kinda French provincial style, with lots of pale wood and funky lighting. Tables are mostly designed to seat four, plus there’s a large communal table along one edge of the room, right next to the big buffet where they have chunky cookies, small cakes and savoury quiches, plus the odd baguette, on display.

The menu has just been reviewed and includes some really nice light summer options. I had a great polenta fritter with smashed greens, avocado, gazpacho dressing, hazelnut dukkah and a poached egg. The polenta was beautifully creamy and the smashed greens were delicious and comfortingly healthy looking (considering my cake-centric diet these last few weeks over Christmas…) There’s still plenty of classics on the menu though and The Grain Store does ensure its classics are really good – the toast is crisp and buttery, the eggs are cooked to order and salads taste fresh and well seasoned. Plus they still have on their new menu their crispy haloumi, which goes really well with eggs and avocado. I’m not sure what they do to the haloumi (I suspect a deep frier is involved), but it tastes a-maz-ing!

Plus if you’re still hungry after brunch, you can order cookies and milk, baked to order. I indulged in this treat a few weeks ago with a very good friend of mine. Four big warm buttery chocolate chip cookies arrive at your table on a wooden board, accompanied by a glass of cold milk. If you have room, do it. You will feel like a child again, in a good way.

So, while my Errol Street favourites are back in business this week, I dare say that I’ll still occasionally be making the longer but highly rewarding trip into the city for my brunching requirements this year.

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