I keep a list at the back of my mind of things that I won’t even TRY cooking at home. ‘Sashimi (fugu)’ tops the list, followed by ‘sashimi (normal)’ and ‘croissants’. I recently added ‘cocktails’ to the list, after an enraging series of failures to get even a basic mojito right – much to the detriment of my duty-free stash of oversized bottles of spirits. I don’t try making cocktails because they’re very hard to do well. Thing is, I can’t make ’em, but nor can half the supposed cocktail barmen I’ve ordered from here in Brisvegas. Getting a cocktail just right requires a lot of skill in balancing complementary flavours, and I only know a couple of places in town (like Bowery) that you can reliably get a good cocktail irrespective of what and when you order.
Thus, I was interested – and a bit apprehensive – when I heard that both Super Whatnot and Laneway had released new winter cocktail menus recently. I love good bars like a one-eyed cat loves its kittens, and I so wanted these two to get it right. Winter’s a great reason to come up with new ways to get drunk, and I’ve already seen mixed results in the beer scene, with Stone and Wood pushing their very hyped, very average ‘Jasper Ale’, and Two Birds releasing a vastly superior ‘Sunset Ale’ just in time for the chilly weather. Those two releases had a clear winner, but I wondered: which of the new menus would be better in the cocktail scene?
In these situations, the only sensible thing to do is put as much of each menu in your belly as you can handle, and let them fight it out. So I did.
I started with Super Whatnot, ordering what looked to be their most interesting menu item – the ‘Cobianchi Treacle’. $20 gets you a mix of rum and two kinds of bitters, mixed through a spiced pineapple reduction. I really should’ve taken a hint from the name…
Cobianchi treacle is served in a glass like the kind that your parents got as a wedding present, which is still around thirty years later both because of its sheer battleship-like construction and your mum’s propensity to actively hide it when guests come around. This also describes the vibe of the cocktail – formidable and about three generations back in flavour. It’s a dad-tastic mix that leads with rich, treacly sugariness but offers no acidity or lightness to ease things up a bit. Instead it continues into a mix of spice and marmalade, and finishes thus, leaving the drinker feeling like they have had had, in our dear departed Kevin07’s words, a fair suck of the syrup bottle. Or something.
I finished the drink slowly, feeling like SW had brought a rusty shiv to a culinary shotgun fight. This saddened me: not only is this an awesome bar, their bathrooms are, like, the best thing in at least Queensland. LOOK AT THIS CRAZY SINK.
I left, wallet hurting, vowing to return and cough up for the next best thing on the list.
I scurried onward to Laneway (linked to culinary heavyweights Urbane and the pleasant Euro bar), which was kind enough to treat me to a sampling of their new menu. Mysteriously, they decided to theme their range around train stations in Brisbane. I’m baffled. Trains are awesome, and they let me get around and drink far more delicious things every night than cars ever did, but they are the LEAST SEXY THING. Here is an actual train station; note the quality art and sensual signage.
Fortuately they do make rail travel feel cooler than it actually is in their smartly-designed menu. The cocktails are quite memorable, albeit definitely not designed to please the daquiri crowd. I sampled three and was happy with two, and respectfully fearful of the other, mainly because of its maritime sparseness and potent abundance of Plymouth Gin. The ‘Eagle Junction’ is a Gimlet-style cocktail, which means it’s essentially a mix of gin and cordial. I’m told this relatively old style of cocktail was traditionally taken by naval officers to ward off scurvy. The use of in-house pineapple and sage cordial certainly makes things interesting, but with the only other ingredient being (abundant) gin, this drop is a rough lover that will kiss you with walrus-like captain’s bristles before handing you the edible flower that nestles at the bottom of each glass. Not quite my thing, but its companions ‘Windsor’ and ‘Ferny Grove’ had far more depth and subtlety.
‘Windsor’ sparkles like sherbet on the lips before blossoming into elderflower on the palate, and finishes like a good home-made lemonade. Complex stuff, and very drinkable. I don’t recall similar experiences at Windsor station though. Ferny Grove was perhaps the most interesting – a ‘Terra Rossa’ cocktail that is apparently bottled. It smells like peaches but is only very subtly fruity and sparkling; the finish is extremely dry and earthy, almost like the smell of raw cinnamon. Must be the Quandong liquer.
I left Laneway feeling happy that most punters would find something on the list to enjoy, at least after a couple of hits and misses. It was time to hit up Super Whatnot again, and hope that round two would be a bit less of a grandpa experience. The ‘Smokin’ Paloma’ jumped out at me, promising a very creative twist on the traditional paloma – they use smoked salt, as well as orange liquer and grapefruit juice in addition to the usual lime and tequila.
This was just the ending to my night that I needed – it had bite, the salt worked well and the addition of complex citrus didn’t disappoint. It’s quite likely that this will beat any margarita you’ve ever sampled, but not because it’s flashy – the salt’s smokiness is very subtle and while the citrus goes down a treat, it doesn’t blow you away with novelty. Instead it’s just a solid, well-balanced cocktail that you won’t regret purchasing.
If you like new and clever things, go for Laneway’s menu – you might struggle through some of the drinks, but you won’t be bored. For me, they were the night’s winner, and definitely worth the trek down Mary street.
With that said, if you like safe and delicious things, go for Super Whatnot, but give serious thought to the (awesome) beer taps unless you’re a hardcore cocktail fundi, and remember: if a drink says ‘treacle’, know that they mean it.
Guzman Y Gomez
In the world of Mexican food, Guzman and his amigo are like Barack Obama – talented, but also the victim of ridiculously high expectations. Since the franchise first gave signs of interest in Queensland, this place has been talked up as ‘only like totally The Most Amazing Mexican Food Place EVER’, especially by anyone that’s spent time in Sydney. Thanks metros, I’m sure Guzman really loves you dudes.
The result of this incredible reputation is that when you actually go there, you’ll probably be surprised to find a fast food joint. I’m not sure what I was actually expecting to find – maybe mariachis, an outdoor barbeque, drug battles – but I clearly had some pretty vaunted ideas of how authentic this place is. Instead, the setup is a neat, well-lit operation with clever branding and that kinda ‘brushed steel’ look that perfectly complements its setting in the yuppie paradise that is Emporium. Now, I ain’t hatin’ – in some ways it was pretty good to see a place that could serve up decent food without pandering to the standard tired cliches (like the ones I dropped earlier in this paragraph).
In spite of my disappointment that this place is not, in fact, an Aztec food palace, it made for a pretty gratifying experience. It’s just slightly more upmarket than similar operators like Mad Mex and Tuckeria, but not ludicruosly so – you can still get a decent meal for two for around $25, excluding drinks. And on the topic of drinks, they have a frozen margarita machine: crucial. I’m sure those come standard in all Aztec Food Palaces.
Like its competitors, Guzman lets you customise your meal a fair bit. I went for the chipotle steak burrito, lured by the promise of spiciness and smokey flavours. I made the error of getting guacamole too though, which I’m increasingly sure is a bum steer in the world of burritos. My chipotle steak was pretty tasty – not life-changing, but good – and the burrito itself was generous but the double whammy of guac and sour cream makes for a squishy mouthful and you can really miss the steak flavours sometimes. The Mistress had similar views on her chicken burrito, which had really excellent meat but sometimes got drowned out a bit by squishy cold things.
The Australian palate is a mild thing, having developed largely on sauces that come in ‘red’ and ‘brown’ flavour, and I think many places cater to this by not loading up the chillies too much. Even the purported spiciness of the chipotle steak was kinda in line with the Geelong definition of ‘spicy’. Guzman kinda makes up for this by offering free jalapenos and three kinds of tabasco. Fire eaters need not fear total boredom (though Mad Mex is still the best if you like it brutal – their habanero salsa brings the pain in a way that might last into your Sunday morning).
Like our BFF over in the White House, Guzman wins the Philistine seal of approval, but only because we’ve gotten over the hype. If you don’t mind making a slight detour in your valley plans tonight, check this place out. If you close your eyes, you’ll still hear Kelly Clarkson but you might just be able to conjure up that Aztec Food Palace in your mind’s eye.
PS- While you’re on your way through Emporium, be sure to have a chuckle at the dudes eating in Wagamama for me – their ‘Asian’ food is twice the price of your coming burrito and probably made by a guy from Glasgow.