Fancy Valentine’s dinner

For Valentine’s Day, Raquel and I went out for dinner at one of the finest restaurants in Melbourne. People we know keep on gushing about this Italian restaurant so our expectations were a bit high. Personally, I would have preferred to have gone to a fancy Chinese or Japanese restaurant instead but I thought it was worth eating there once, specially since I have a $350 voucher for that restaurant, hand-signed by the owner/chef, as prize for winning an art competition a few months ago.

The restaurant itself wasn’t large but it was still quite obvious that it was a fine-dining restaurant. They had a headwaiter (or is it called maitre d’hotel?) wearing formal wear plus several more employees waiting on us, ready to serve. At the lobby, there was a whole wall with photos of the owner with various celebrities and hand-written letters of personal praise for the establishment. The toilet even had those stacks of folded hand towels which you dispose of in a basket after one use. We totally felt out of our element.

When we sat down, the maitre d’ offered (more like insisted) to take my blue backpack for safe keeping in their office. They probably just don’t want me to strap my backpack behind my seat or leave it lying on the floor. Raquel left her bag on the floor but soon, one of the waitresses came over with a small old-world upholstered stool where Raquel’s bag could sit. Very fancy.

While discussing what we should be ordering, they brought us what looked like breadsticks in a tall silver cylindrical container along with four slices of bread in a metal basket plus two varieties of butter: salted (which tasted like wonderful creamy cheese) and unsalted (which tasted like, uh, butter). We weren’t sure if the “breadsticks” were indeed breadsticks or some decorative plant with no leaves. In the end, we didn’t touch those. We did eat the bread in the basket but I found it really tough to bite. I even tried ripping it to pieces but still found it very tough. Anyway, the butter tasted great so it wasn’t so bad.

We had a difficult time deciding what to get. We basically have $350 to burn there but after looking at the prices of the dishes, the money probably won’t go a long way. We ordered two appetizers to begin with and the portions were smaller than an entire cheeseburger at McDonald’s. It tasted okay but for $40 each, I would have expected it to have tasted like something that fell out of heaven! Or at the very least, the portion should have been bigger. Ah, well, it’s free anyway, we justified to ourselves.

After the waiters got our empty plates, one of them approached us with a plate. On the plate were two very small salmon-topped pastries. Apparently, those were also complimentary. I didn’t realise you get a lot of free food eating in fancy restaurants. Although I don’t personally like salmon, I wasn’t about to let a freebie get away so I took one anyway.

Anyway, due to the small food portions, we were far from being full. So, we ordered our next meal. We both got entree-sized risottos. These were about $48 each if I remember correctly. The portion of the risotto wasn’t big either. We weren’t surprised at this point. We did get an extra side dish which the waiter suggested: a small bowl of spinach with a bit of parmessan cheese for added flavour. It actually tasted quite nice. But again, we couldn’t stop thinking about the cost and portion size of what we had just eaten. For that much money, we expected more or something that was delicious by far.

Still not full after the risotto. I had wanted to eat something with meat this time. When I looked at the menu, I saw an entry called Wagyu beef and was immediately drawn to it but then saw the word carpaccio after it and thought to myself, “oh no, you don’t!” I recently went to an office lunch where I ordered an angus beef carpaccio and when the dish finally came, it was a thin shaved piece of beef which looked raw. In fact, it was raw! There wasn’t much meat there and there was a bit of a salad and all that for a whopping $20! I won’t fall for that again.

Okay, so no beef carpaccio. But there was a 1kg rib steak in the menu for about $160. That would probably be good. Although I’m sure I won’t have problems eating meat, I felt like the 1kg steak might just be too much for both of us. We might end up being too full.

In the end, the waiter suggested the 500g lobster they had on special for that day. I can’t remember having ever eaten lobster before so that was a good time to give it a go even if it did cost $120 (as far as I can recall). We have a $350 voucher anyway.

The lobster finally arrived. It was nice of them to split the lobster to go into two plates for us. They also set aside the bulk of the lobster flesh aside for convenience but still left much of the lobster’s carapace and limbs for us to slurp clean, I assume. What I didn’t expect was to be slightly grossed out by the sight of the lobster itself. It reminded me of an oversized insect and taking it apart with my cutlery and nutcracker silverware only added to the gross factor, for me. In the end, I only ate the lobster meat that was already set aside and that tasted good. It certainly went well with the extra bowl of spinach that came with the lobster.

That must have been the only time I’ve eaten that much spinach in one single day. I asked Raquel if they had a dedicated “kangkongan” (place where you grow spinach-like vegies in the Philippines) out in the back of their restaurant. At least, the spinach tasted good.

After the waiter took our plates away, one of them placed on our table two bowls of what looked like hot water with a lemon in the middle. We looked at each other, wondering whether this was another free dish or was it for washing one’s hands with. If it was for washing hands and we sipped it, that would have been gross. If it was actually some kind of broth and we washed our hands in it, that would have been embarassing. We ended up just ignoring the two bowls. They soon took the bowls away which sort of proved that those were for hand washing.

To finish off, we decided to have some gelato for dessert. Each order was about $24 and what we got was a plate with four scoops of sorbet/ice cream, each one a different flavour: mocha, lemon, apple and licorice. I admit that I’m not a fan of the actual licorice lolly but I found that the licorice-flavoured gelato was the best tasting of the four. The mocha probably comes in second. The lemon was too sour for my taste and the apple was a bit too sweet.

After that, Raquel had a cup of coffee and that came with 3 small treats. A small cube of lamington, a small piece of nougat and a small heart-shaped biscuit with jelly in the middle. I was too full to even take more than a few bites from these treats.

Finally, we asked for the bill. The total cost of our dinner was $380. Since we only have a $350 voucher, we had to still pay an additional $30 out of pocket. Ah, well. It was a good experience. At almost three hours, it was the longest time we had to sit down for dinner. At $380, it was the most expensive dinner we’ve ever had. Would I eat at such a fine-dining restaurant again? Not if I can help it. If I ever win a voucher for such a restaurant again, this time around, I’ll try to sell it off to my friends first.

The food, while it tasted nice, wasn’t the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. I could get food that is a lot tastier and has a bigger serving size for less money. I just don’t get the point of eating in such a place. I’ll probably be more willing to spend the same amount at a very fancy Japanese or Chinese restaurant than at a Eurpoean restaurant (well, maybe except Spanish or Portugese). At least in a fancy Asian restaurant, chances are, we can order lots of rice and whatever fancy dish we wanted. I also don’t have to worry about all the fancy European table etiquette.

In conclusion, we’re not going to try that again unless it’s free and we can’t absolutely help it.

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Published in: on February 15, 2008 at 12:53 am  Comments (2)  

Cost of living in Australia?

I found that the most common question asked by people I know who are thinking of migrating to Australia is how much does it cost to live in Australia. Well, I don’t have official statistics or anything so the only way I can answer this is to draw from my personal experience living in Melbourne.

Back when we didn’t pack home-cooked lunch to the work, we spend around $250 per week on groceries with the cost of eating out for lunch included. A lunch meal will generally cost about $10. It’ll probably cheaper at McDonald’s or Hungry Jack’s (aka Burger King) with their $6 burger meals that include chips (French fries) and drink. At selected Hungry Jack’s branches, you even get to refill your drink again and again. In the end, it will always be a lot cheaper to cook your own food than to eat out.

To save even more, instead of shopping at Safeway (called Woolworths outside Victoria, I don’t know why) or Coles, shop at Aldi instead. Sure, the selection of products is a bit limited at Aldi but those you can get there, you’ll get there a lot cheaper than the major supermarket chains. We would first buy our groceries at Aldi then go to the nearby Safeway to buy the rest of the things on our grocery list that we didn’t get at Aldi.

This $250 does not include transportation costs, clothing and utilities. We take the train so that’s $158 for a monthly full-fare Zone 1+2 ticket each. That ticket allows us to take any public transportation within Greater Melbourne. If you live closer to the city (within the Zone 1 boundary), you get to pay less. We only use the car on weekends and it costs us about $30 per week to have it filled with petrol (gasoline).

As for our utilities, our latest water quarterly bill was about $90. During winter time, our gas bill can reach up to $100 per month. Gas (gaas) is usually necessary not only for cooking but for heating homes, you see. Electricity bills tend to rise during winter too due to our need to turn on electric heaters and less daylight. Our winter electricity bill can reach up to $200 in a quarter. However, we are still aiming to lower our electricity, water and gas usage so hopefully, we’ll need to pay less in the future. We are doing this not only to save money but of course to help out the environment. Yeah, I just had to throw that in there.

If you are renting an apartment, you probably won’t need to worry about the water bill as the owner of the property usually pays for the water. So that’s one advantage of renting. Speaking of renting, a two bedroom apartment we rented in St Kilda East (an inner Melbourne suburb, about 15 minutes away from the city by train) cost about $1,200 per month (they will quote the rent in dollars per week though). Apartments will cost more if furnished.

If you are just starting out and you need furniture, go see Fantastic Furniture. They have the cheapest furniture packages that I know of. It’s not exactly the classiest furniture around but they definitely aren’t shoddy either. For $2000, you get a double-sized bed and matress, a dining table plus chairs, living room tables, bedsides (drawers), and a 51cm TV! You’ll probably need to assemble some of the furniture yourself though but I’m sure you’ll be able to handle it. That’s partly how they can sell it for cheaper. I bought my first furniture suite from them and I found the furniture to be sturdy and durable. And they don’t look too shabby either.

For the clothes and other spendings, you will get a better idea of how much things cost here by looking at the various department store chains’ catalogues online. Here are a few of the more popular chains of shops:
Myer
Target
Big W
Kmart

Now, you have to do the math (or as they say here, maths) and figure out how much money you need to bring with you when you fly to Australia. Be sure to bring enough money with you to last you six months here without a job just to be sure. Note that the cost I quoted above was for two persons living together. Utility bills might be cheaper if you are by yourself living in a one bedroom apartment, for example. It could be more expensive if you are a family of four, of course.

I hope this helps anybody wanting to know how much things cost here.

Published in: on November 21, 2007 at 12:01 am  Comments (5)  

Jolly Meatballs at Ikea

Are you originally from the Philippines but now live in Australia? Do you miss the taste of Jollibee burgers? Well, there is a place where you can eat something close to Jollibee‘s burger steak meal minus the rice plus fries.

If you live in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane, then you’re in luck because there should be an Ikea store near you. For those of you who don’t know, Ikea is a Swedish furniture megastore that sells inexpensive household items that has branched out around the world, including Australia.

They don’t only sell furniture and household knickknacks, though. They also have a restaurant that serves really cheap meals, too, to feed all the busy and tired shoppers. Our favourite meal from Ikea’s restaurant/cafeteria is the Swedish meatballs meal. It’s basically a dish with 10 pieces of meatballs served with gravy, some berry sauce and chips (French fries) all for $6.50.

I love the meatballs all by themselves but what is a bonus for me is that the taste of it reminds me of Jollibee’s burger steak meal (burger patty with gravy and rice), only better. So, for someone like me who misses the taste of homegrown fastfood, the meatballs meal was a welcome treat.

Published in: on November 9, 2007 at 12:53 am  Comments (8)  

Free snacks

I admit, I love my current job. I love the work and I love the other opportunities the Company is providing (such as the recent Artist of the Year competition). But there is one more thing I like about the Company (albeit a bit on the shallow side): free snacks.

That’s right. Each floor has a pantry and the pantry has these two wells, if you will, full of snacks free for the taking. There are individually wrapped Arnott’s bikkies of different types, crackers, tiny boxes of sultanas and fruit bars. The wells get refilled at least once a week.

Apart from the snack well, each pantry also has two crates sitting on the counter filled with different fruits. These boxes get emptied very quickly. Bananas seem to be the all time favourite because those disappear from the box the fastest. The trick is that once you see bananas there, take a couple immediately. Don’t wait till you feel like going for a banana as there probably won’t be any in the fruit box by the time you want to have one.

To help wash down all the free snacks, there’s free espresso from the espresso machine, free milk and free tea that comes in four flavours.

Apart from these standard free goodies, there’s the occasional free gourmet sandwiches or muffins sitting on the pantry counter. Whenever a group holds a big meeting, they will usually order sandwiches or muffins from the Company’s catering service to feed the attendees. As is usually the case, there would be a lot of left-overs from these meetings and the excess food get moved to the nearby pantry.

Lastly, there is the rare times when a visiting client from abroad decides to bring some goodies from their home country. Like this week, our client friends from the US brought back Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Nestle’s Butterfingers. How I missed those. The only time I can get these is if we buy them at USA Foods at Bentleigh.

I have recently decided to lose weight but as you can see, it is very very challenging to do so while working for this company with all these temptations. Not that I’m complaining though.

Published in: on October 25, 2007 at 12:00 pm  Comments (3)  

Lunch ideas

We’ve started bringing our own lunch to work again in an attempt to cut food costs. Most of our packed lunches were left-overs from the night before and it has worked out so far. However, I’ve been scouring the web for other lunch box ideas.

Since we’re avid fans of having rice for lunch, the best ones I’ve found involves Japanese bento boxes that typically features rice. My search also led me to a new craze called Laptop Lunches, which is like the west’s answer to the bento box. I love that it looks like the food tray you get on airplanes, only with all the goodies that you pack yourself. If images of me flying to a far-off place is not motivation enough for me to bring my own lunch so that I could save for our next trip, at least I would be nourished by food that I’ve prepared myself. I also found a Flickr pool of other people’s laptop lunches that are really inspiring!

Check out the links below to see what I’m raving about.

Published in: on September 12, 2007 at 9:19 pm  Comments (3)  

Three misses: Japanese eats 2

In our quest to find the best Japanese restaurants and take-away shops around Melbourne, we were bound to have a few hits and some misses. The following were some of the places we’ve been to in the past couple of weeks that didn’t exactly meet our expectations.

First up is Iseya at Crown Casino’s food court. We didn’t specifically seek this place out but since we found ourselves at the vicinity during lunch hour last week, we decided to give this place a try. Aside from the croquette (korokke) from the bain-marie, we ordered the Beef Teriyakidon and Chicken Oyakodon.

Hubby had to wait about ten minutes to get our food, which looked like it wasn’t prepared fresh at all. The food look like it has been sitting in a pot all day and was just microwaved. You’d think that they would have at least made sure that the egg on the Oyakodon was partially cooked but it was served to me raw with the lukewarm rice and meat. The croquette was too starchy and only mildly tasted of potato (methinks maybe it has more flour than potato?), the Teriyakidon was too sweet and the Oyakodon was just so-so. Definitely won’t be eating there again.

Next is Teppansan Japanese Cafe (179 Russell Street, Melbourne). We’ve read positive reviews about the tasty Japanese Pizza and everyone who’d previously reviewed it has been amazed at how cheap the food here is. Our lunch-time experience there started well enough, I liked their calligraphy-inspired drawings on the wall and we were served our soup and drinks promptly after sitting. We were given the main menu (which consisted of almost 150 items, including drinks) and the lunch set menu. I ordered the Beef Pizza set with the takoyaki while hubby had the Chicken Pizza set with California rolls. Half an hour later and after watching the people beside us eat, we were still waiting for our food. Hubby asked the waitress about our order and a couple of minutes later was served our pizzas. It took several more prodding from Gj for us to get our spring rolls, California rolls and finally the takoyaki. I think the servers need a reminder that appetizers should come before the mains and not the other way around.

The food was good but nothing spectacular and certainly not authentic (I guess it should be expected when their menu is in Chinese rather than Japanese and their set meals are called bendon instead of bento). The final bill wasn’t so bad ($11.50 each for the set meal plus softdrinks) and would be great for the budget-conscious but the terrible service and lack of attention to detail ruined the experience for us. This could be a good place to dine if they could address their haphazard ordering system (pieces of paper placed everywhere on a table) and hiring more hands during the busy lunch hour would be a good idea as well.

Lastly, there’s Yu-U (137 Flinders Lane, Melbourne). Again, everyone seems to be raving about this difficult-to-find place so we finally booked a table for today. We found their nondescript door easily enough and noticed that a sign posted on the door warned would-be customers that they only serve set meals during lunch time, today it’s pork hamburger with tonkatsu sauce (click on third photo below for a schedule of set meals for this month). We walked down the flight of stairs and were immediately impressed with the simple but elegant interior. The lights were strategically placed and dimmed, creating an intimate atmosphere. We were seated at the bar and immediately served our green tea, with our set lunches arriving soon after. I was about to take a photo of my lunch when the server came up to me and informed me that taking photos is not allowed. I apologised and quickly pocketed my phone, wondering why they don’t put up a “No photography” sign outside if they don’t want guests taking photos. Needless to say, it sort of put me off the dining experience.

The set meal turned out to be cold soba noodles for starters, a small serving of pickled vegetables, tasty broth, steamed rice topped with burger steak in sauce and a small piece of pineapple. The meal was okay but nothing to write home about. We’re not big fans of cold soba noodles so that kind of detracted from the whole meal and the burger steak was average and the BBQ sauce a bit too tangy for my taste. At $15 a pop, this is one of the more expensive lunches we’ve had. Hubby and I agree, this place is way overrated and we probably won’t be dining there again.

Published in: on June 7, 2007 at 1:14 pm  Comments (3)  

Three of a kind: Japanese eats

We have been fans of Japanese cuisine even before we even set foot on the Land of the Rising Sun. Since coming back from our holiday there, we have a better appreciation of Japanese food and have been trying some of the fast food shops and restaurants serving Japanese food around Melbourne.

First off is Ajisen Ramen (130 Bourke Street, Melbourne). A well-known Japanese franchise serving up ramen and other donburi dishes, the pork broth they use for the ramen is tasty and would warm you up on any cold day. I had high hopes for their ramen but the noodles itself was nothing out of the ordinary. They serve ramen with some seaweed, hard boiled egg and vegetables with whatever meat you choose. I recommend the Paiku Ramen. If you like lots of garlic with your ramen, a lavish sprinkling from the bottle of red garlic powder at your table should do the trick.

Other than ramen, we have also tried the Omu-raisu (Omelette Rice), which was massive. The rice stuffing turned out to be fried rice, it was okay but not spectacular. Hubby’s favourite is their Sizzling Chicken, which is buttery chicken served on a sizzling plate with some vegetables in soy sauce and rice. Prices are reasonable ($10-12 for mains) and the service fast, if not hurried. The decor is sparse and I think they could benefit from adding more lighting inside. But hey, if you want some comfort food on a rainy day, the decor certainly shouldn’t stop you.
Garlic PowderPaiku RamenSizzling ChickenOmu Rice

Another great place tucked along the Causeway lane is Sushi Monger (Shop 17, 309 Bourke Street, Melbourne, (03) 9663 0899). Serving mostly bento boxes and sushi, the place has always been crowded everytime we wanted to try it. We went in for some early lunch one day and were lucky to get some seats. Staffed by a Japanese family, the service was quick and polite. Prices were very affordable too, with rice dishes ranging from $7.50-$9.80 and bento boxes at $8.80-$9.80.

I had the Ebi Fry Bento with a choice of two sushi while hubby had the Sukiyaki Bento with rice. Both were quite good and we finished off everything, including the seaweed salad and fish cakes! If you’re very hungry and feel like a spot of Japanese curry, they do a very good katsu curry. Arrive early if you plan to have lunch here as they only have limited seating in their small space.
Sushi Monger menuEbi Fry bentoSukiyaki bentoSushi monger shop front

Last but certainly not the least is Horoki (19 Liverpool Street, Melbourne, (03) 9663 2227). Although I wouldn’t classify this restaurant as strictly Japanese since they also feature Western inspired dishes, it’s Japanese fusion at its best. Their limited lunch menu offers the diner a lunch platter consisting of 3 dishes of your choice to be served with either bread or rice. We love their Hamburg steak with mashed potatoes as well as their lightly crumbed chicken schnitzel (katsu).

Although each serving look like it’s small, it’s well presented and would fill you up quite nicely. Dishes are made-to-order so they are served to you fresh and warm, although it may mean several minutes of waiting. It’s well worth the wait though and the service is quick. The interiors are modern and relaxing, with the big, disc-shaped ceiling lights illuminating the cosy space. You would have to book a table or just sit at the bar if you’d like to just walk in and have lunch. The lunch platter would set you back $12.90, a bit pricier than what we’d normally spend for lunch but hits just the right spot when we feel like treating ourselves to very good food.
Horoki shop frontHoroki menuCroquette, Fritto and Hamburg steak setSukiyaki, Hamburg steak and teriyaki chicken set

Published in: on May 29, 2007 at 12:08 pm  Comments (7)  

Lunch at Geelong

After spending the whole of Saturday outside (played badminton, went shopping, attended Elmer’s and Greg’s birthday party — Happy Birthday, guys!), me and Raquel planned to just stay in the house last Sunday. Didn’t happen that way though.

Around noon, we didn’t have any food to eat so we decided to eat out. Then we remembered Smorgy’s, the all-you-can-eat restaurant we saw the past weekend in Geelong. I was in a mood to drive to see the ocean anyway so Geelong it was.

It was surprisingly good value, actually, at only $14.95 each for the buffet lunch. I liked best the honey chicken, fried rice, rissoles, lasagna and the stir-fry vegies. Here’s the rest of their menu: Click here.

As expected from having eaten all we can, we were feeling very guilty. We definitely needed to walk off some of that food we’ve taken in. Fortunately, we have yet to see the remaining bollards we’ve missed from the weekend before. According to the tourism literature, the rest of the bollards are on the other side of the beach going to Rippleside Park.

I think we got all of the bollards this time though.

Published in: on April 16, 2007 at 9:50 pm  Comments (4)  

What’s Cooking, Doc?

I promise that I’ll be writing about our trip home to the Philippines soon. Meanwhile, Raquel and I decided to try something different. That is, instead of her doing the cooking and me doing the cleanup after meals, I’ll take a stab at doing the cooking chores. And I admit that I’m actually liking this new arrangement. I always wanted to do something constructive and creative which I sort of get when I cooked.

Being a complete beginner, I made mistakes, I found it difficult to estimate the amount of seasoning needed in the dish I’m preparing and I prepare the food real slowly (to Raquel’s consternation). However, I’m very confident that, in time, my proficiency at cooking would improve.

As the new resident cook, I took the opprotunity to cook dishes that I love. To date, I’ve done the following dishes: Picadillo (with additional shredded cabbage), Beef Stroganoff, Chicken and Sundried Tomato Pasta Bake (with the help of a prepackaged pasta sauce), Chicken Longganisa and a batch of fudge cookies (see photo).

Up next this week is Bistek Pilipino (Filipino-style Beef Steak) followed by another variant of the pasta bake. I’ll try something with more vegetables next week though. I didn’t realise that most of the dishes I’ve done (and will do) don’t have much in terms of veggies.

Published in: on January 28, 2007 at 11:17 pm  Comments (3)  

Nuggets

What’s white inside but golden brown, breaded and crispy on the outside and goes well with tomato sauce? Nuggets, of course. We had some nice nuggets with last night for dinner along with some rice and tinned soup. What’s different about these nuggets though is that there is no meat in sight.

We first had our taste of Beer Tofu when we were invited for a homecooked meal by a vegetarian friend. I’ve been making it occasionally since then and had enjoyed having it each time. It’s easy, simple, cheap and delicious. Definitely a keeper!

Published in: on December 5, 2006 at 1:13 pm  Leave a Comment