There’s a sense of awe that comes over me when we approach the tables at Otto Ristorante. I’ve ventured over to the dark side of town (i.e. the East) with Astroboy and Helen for the first TOYS Collective event of the year, Blood, Bones & Butter.
It’s an all girl show today going from the produce suppliers up to the chef’s, and if to prove they’re no shrinking violets the first thing to greet us is the sight of 10 pig’s heads lined up on the tables.
Bring it on.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the TOYS Collective, they’ve grouped together the up and coming young chefs of Sydney (and Melbourne!) and proceeded to put together some of the fast-selling dinners in town. At $160 a head, it’s not your casual dinner but despite this it only takes 5 minutes to gather together my posse and make our booking.
The dinner has gone native with the decorations, the cutlery nowhere to be seen, raw radishes sit on a bed of moss and are adorned with edible flowers. It’s hard not to look silly while munching on a sprig of flowers, but in all honesty my eyes are drawn towards the bone marrow butter and brioche scattered along the tables.
There’s a moment of complaint from Helen, ‘Yours is bigger than mine!’. Oh Helen, it’s how you use it.
It’s all talk and conversation at the tables when the waitresses come out with our first course, simultaneously breaking into a harmonising Aria, they send both tables into silence. Bone fingers are placed in front of us, and each halved out bone fragment contains a Mushroom Pastry, pistachio Squab and claw as well as a Vine-wrapped portion of brain. Fungus, Claw and Brain indeed!
The claws standing proudly on the bones are a little confronting, but to any Yum-Cha regular it’s just another day in the office and I proceed to use mine in a mock fight with Helen.
However the moment we’ve been waiting for has arrived! We’ve been not so subtly eyeing up the Pig’s Head sitting in front of us and I’ve actually started reaching out for the ear when the staff come past thrusting knives directly into each of the heads (this is actually harder than it seems when I try to duplicate the moment later in the night).
It’s all hands on deck at this stage as we begin to systematically break down the pig, it’s one head between six people and it’s the work of mere moments to pass on pieces of crackling and fatty meats. Of even more fun are the small glasses of Lobster consomme which have been passed around to each of us, the Pig in the Pond course becomes a self-foraged soup of pork, crackling, consomme garnished with herbs and flowers.
It’s an intoxicating experience and I suddenly begin to understand the fascination behind the process of breaking down an animal. Helen and I have an equal appreciation of nose to tail dining and we take the opportunity to examine parts such as the tongue, ears and eyes while they’re still attached to the bone.
For the more squeamish at our table the experience is a little too confronting (and despite what I say I had to draw the line at eyeballs lol), in the end I can’t help but sit back and admire the butchery. It seemed like the work of only minutes but somehow we’ve been eating long enough for the sun to go down!
Even as we demolish the Pig in the Pond course I know that we’re going to suffer when the next course arrives. Tagged simply as ‘The Banquet’, it turns out to be a three course meat extravaganza of Rainbow Trout, Lamb and Quail. It’s enough to make any vegetarian throw in the towel.
Served smoked and already de-boned, there’s a moment where I think that the Rainbow Trout could have simply been delivered from the markets to our tables the skin seems so pristinely perfect. All of the work has been taken out of eating the fish and it’s just a matter of transferring the perfectly cooked fish flakes from our plates to our mouths.
The sight of the Lamb Bits makes my heart lurch a little, easily the length of my arm the board contains almost every cut of Lamb you could think of, shanks, cutlets, marrow and pieces of tongue that have me in raptures that I may have stolen more than my fair share of.
The most fascinating aspect of the banquet is the Quail Croquembouche, a miniature tree of quails which are literally plucked and placed on our plates moves too quickly around the table for me to get a photo. It’s a plump little package of joy, unfortunately my stomach is calling it quits tonight and after a few bites I have to tap out.
It’s a veritable mountain of meat in front of us, and I feel like a bit of a caveman diving into the food!
The previous courses have caused havoc with the table settings, there’s meat, oil and other unmentionables all over the table. An ingenious solution has been pre-thought out though, and rolls of butchers paper comes flying down the table effectively re-setting the tables back to scratch. Just in time for cheeeeese.
Cheese is almost always the favourite part of any meal for me. I’ll be the first to admit that I would take savory over sweet any day of the week and the nutty almost dry texture of the Tuscany Pecorino reminded me so much of Gruyère, my favourite variety of cheese. Of equal pleasure was the brilliant 2010 Moriki Shuzo ‘Suppin Rumiko no Sake’ which was served as a matching wine, and a clear example of the preparation in the event as even the wines were sourced from female brewers.
Served with carrots, apple, pears and shiso paste, it’s an earthy experience made all the more fun with the edible plates that we’ve been presented with. Once again the cutlery has disappeared from the tables and it’s a hands on experience. Lemonpi is in the kitchen tonight, much to my pleasure and has a great story about the cheese course on her blog.
But of course, there’s one final reveal to be had! The tables have been set up with a unique art structure installed just above our heads, we’ve been taunted with pictures of its construction on twitter and have been itching to find out just what is inside. As a final tease we’re all suddenly being instructed to put on plastic aprons, and I suddenly have flashbacks to Helen’s easier whisper, ‘Maybe it’s pig’s blood…’.
The tension is thick enough to cut through, the kitchen staff, all of the servers and even the curious punters from the nearby restaurants have all started gathering to watch the show.
A pull of the silken cord sees and hears splats of Chocolate shell with smoked chocolate mousse and blood plum gel hitting the tables all around us. Precariously close to the edge of the table in places,it’s ridiculously fun to suddenly be confronted with a delicious smattering of mousse falling literally from the sky in front of you. Even better are the bags of Chocolate Soil, earthy and crunchy like milo it’s a finger-scooping adventure as the laughter continues around the table. A spoonful of ice-cold Raspberry Sorbet is simply the icing on the cake.
What a way to end the night.
Is there a big male/female divide in the kitchen? Without having experience in professional kitchens I’m not going to even try to answer that question, but with this dinner the girls have proven they’re a force to be reckoned with. When’s the next TOYS dinner? Sign me up now!
TOYS Collective Issue #9 was held at Otto Ristorante on the February 27th 2012