"This plate tastes delicious!" I say, as I snap off another piece and savour every crumb. It's just another surreal moment in an evening that veers between playful and extreme yet is always sincere.
The event is the 9th edition of the wildly successful TOYS Collective, a series of one-off collaborations by local young and inspirational chefs, commencing in Sydney and expanding to Melbourne late last year. The first event for 2012 - Blood, Bones & Butter - is an all female affair, inspired by American chef Gabrielle Hamilton's autobiography of the same name.
Porky pig with edible flowers
TOYS Collective events are notorious for selling out within hours, even at $160 a head. My interest was piqued by the idea of an all-female event, particularly in an industry still plagued by pockets of a boys club mentality and hostility towards women.
We arrive at Otto Ristorante at Woolloomooloo to find two rows of tables decked out with moss, edible flowers, bunches of baby radishes and a series of pig heads, roasted until the skin had turned into cracking and their ears had become all kinds of crispy.
Pig, bone marrow butter, radishes and moss
Shin bones act as little pots for bone marrow butter. The table setting is an impressive spectacle, elegant but bad-ass, and ultimately still all about the food.
Table setting at Otto Ristorante
After cocktails and canapes upstairs, we're instructed to descend and choose our own seats at the communal tables. The pigs heads make a great conversation starter with strangers who will be our dining companions for the evening.
Brown butter brioche with whipped bone marrow butter
We start with the loaves of brown butter brioche, cute parcels wrapped in greaseproof paper and tied with twine. The loaves are easily pulled apart into slices, and we slather them with whipped bone marrow butter. Yu-Ching Lee, one of the pastry chefs participating that evening, has details of the brioche recipe on her blog lemonpi.
The arrival of entrees causes quite a stir, as we spy a tray of claws reaching forth as though they were digging their way out of a grave.
Fungus, claw and brain
Wine match: 2009 Christine De Mianville Jasnieres, Loire Valley, France
A length of hollowed out bone holds a trio titled fungus, claw and brain. The spectacle becomes even more eerie when the waitresses suddenly break out into opera, as though we really are in the scene of a horror film.
The entree is nothing but delicious however, a fungus dumpling and vine leaf-wrapped brain escorting a pistachio-crusted squab spiked with a squab claw. I do try eating the claw, chicken feet style, but despite my best efforts there isn't much to be eaten.
Traditional brik glass water pitchers are used to pour a heady lobster consomme into each of our glasses. Tiny manicure scissors are placed along the table and we are encouraged to snip what we like of the table foliage as a garnish for our soup.
The consomme is rich and sweet, and the interactive fun of adding sprigs of fennel flowers and other edibles only adds to its pleasure.
There's a loud crack as waitstaff plunge knives into the pigs' heads. Finally we're given free rein to attack the pigs heads on our tables, its presence noted from the start of the night with its tantalising aromas of salt, crackling and pig fat.
We go to town, heading straight for the fatty pigs cheek. There's no cutlery provided - just a knife and the liberty of using our fingers.
It's a crackling feast of epic proportions. The pigs heads have been allocated at one between six people, and there is enough crackling to make everyone deliriously giddy.
What's probably more inspiring is the joviality behind the communal pig-out, as everyone hacks into the crackling and passes around bits and pieces to those who can't quite reach.
The pig stripped bare
We like pig. Oh yes we do. Our pigs head is decimated, stripped bare by cackling hyenas of the porcine-loving kind. Whilst some people on other tables are a little affronted by the sight of the pigs skull, I'm morbidly fascinated, touching the molars to see how sharp they are. I end up eating both pigs eye sockets because noone wanted them, the flesh soft and fatty although I pass on the eyeball which usually tends to be quite chalky (if fish eyes are any reference).
Smoked rainbow trout with smoked eel, miso and tamari butter
Wine match: 2010 Occhipinti 'SP68', Sicily Italy
After an overdose of crackling, we're pretty much done and ready for naptime, but the schedule of feasting continues unabated. Whole smoked rainbow trout have glistening skins, cooked to fork-flaking perfection and served with a rich smoked eel, miso and tamari butter.
Side salad of blood and onion puree, black pudding olive chocolate crumb,
blood vein sorrel and baby beetroot; lamb bits - rack, tongue and bone marrow
Wine match: 2008 Cave De Clairmont Crozes - Hermitage, Rhone Valley, France
A chopping board of "lamb bits" tips our dinner into Roman-style gluttony, covered in lamb cutlets, lamb shank, tongue and bone marrow. The blood-themed side salad combines blood vein sorrel and baby beetroot with blood sauce and a black pudding, olive and chocolate crumb.
Wine match: 2006 Alice Bonaccorsi Etna Rosso, Sicily, Italy
There's a stir among the crowd as waitstaff start plucking small baubles from a tree which is soon revealed to be a quail croquembouche. The concept is ludicrous and yet somehow endearing, creating a wild sort of vibe that might come from one of Heston Blumenthal's feasts.
And because style should never come over substance, the quail is reassuringly moist and succulent.
Unravelling a new tablecloth
A roll of butchers paper is ceremoniously unravelled down the length of the table, presumably in an effort to cover the evidence of our porcine ravaging.
Edible cracker plate made with organic rice syrup
It all becomes clear when we're distributed edible plates, pricked with a fork and indented with a visible rim, for our upcoming cheese course.
Tuscan pecorino aged with honey and hay with apple shiso paste and
paradise pears pickled in sake, rice vinegar and brown sugar
The cheese course includes wedges of a Tuscan pecorino aged with honey and hay accompanied by quenelles of apple shiso paste and tiny paradise pears pickled in sake, rice vinegar and brown sugar.
Pecorino, apple shiso paste, cumin candied carrot and pickled paradise pear
Wine match: 2010 Moriki Shuzo 'Suppin Rumiko no Sake', Mie, Japan
Miniature copper pots are vessels for malt barley and cumin candied carrots. All the sides, Yu-Ching explains, were "selected to echo the flavours of the sake", a 2010 Moriki Shuzo "Suppin Rumiko no Sake" made by a female sake brewer. This is a premium and pure junmai ginjo sake made from rice that has been polished at least 40 per cent. "Suppin" means without make-up, reflecting the natural qualities of this sake, which is unpasteurised, undiluted and free from charcoal filtration.
All of our wines tonight have been organic and biodynamic, and made by female winemakers or brewers. The attention of detail is commendable.
The pecorino cheese is satisfyingly sharp and crumbly and I'm particularly fond of the apple shiso paste. And eating the plate is so much fun. And tasty too!
The mystery of the pails
All night we'd wondered what sat inside the pails that were hanging precariously above our heads. Even from the balcony upstairs all we could spy was something brown, quashing my theory that it was going to be a deluge of pigs blood, just like Stephen King's horror novel Carrie.
Melissa Leong, co-creator of TOYS untying the ribbons
Things get even more ominous when everyone is handed out a disposable plastic apron, just in case, we're warned, as all around us people start to lament wearing white to dinner. The ribbons are untied and everyone is given their own ribbon to pull. There's plenty of nervous tension as the entire kitchen crew come out to watch.
Art installation self-plating dessert of black Zokoko cocoa powdered chocolate shell,
smoked chocolate mousse and blood plum gel
SPLAT! There's nothing but shrieks and squeals as chocolate bombs are tipped out from the pails, exploding on impact with the table. We later find out it was a orb of Zokoko 65% dark chocolate holding a core of smoked chocolate mousse with blood plum gel. Later we're handed brown paper bags of chocolate soil for us to sprinkle on our dessert. Scoops of a super smooth raspberry sorbet, presented on Chinese spoons, provide palate-cleansing refreshment.
The interactive art installation was specifically made for this event, a collaboration between artist Jordana Maisie and pastry chefs Yu-Ching Lee, Jaclyn Nichols, Jun Chen and Julie Niland.
Christine Mansfield, guest mentor
It's a brilliantly whimsical end to an evening that Melissa Leong, TOYS co-founder, described edition nine as different to prior TOYS events. "It hasn't necessarily been better, just a different atmosphere. Working with all women, everyone wants to listen to everyone else. Everyone wanted to incorporate everyone else's ideas. There were a lot of emails!"
Much fun and well worth the $160 spent. To get updates on the next TOYS Collective, check the website or follow them on twitter.
TOYS Collective Issue #9
Chefs: Analiese Gregory, Claire Van Vuuren, Annemarie Rodrigo, Sharon Salloum, Jaclyn Nichols, Yu-Ching Lee, Jun Chen and Julie Niland
Front of House: Kylie Javier, Louse Tomayo, Carol Salloum, Megan Sullivan, Penny Vine, Shanteh Wong and Melissa Leong
Sommelliers, Cocktail: Gabrielle Webster, Katrina Birchmeier and Jess Arnott
Guest Mentors: Christine Mansfield and Alex Herbert
FREEBIE FRIDAY WINNER
Congratulations to Sneh - you have won the twenty piece Marc Newson by Noritake dinner set worth $595. Thank you everyone for your entries!
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3/05/2012 02:59:00 a.m.