Ten-thirty in the morning and I’ve already lost count of the mohawks and hairy armpits, and that’s just the women. Most men were sporting their personal interpretation of a man bun and pants that doubled as a denim tourniquet. I fear for the bloodflow to their brain. Welcome to West End, one of Brisbane’s most popular cultural, entertainment and food hubs. A place where a butcher can operate across the road from a vegan restaurant and both can survive in harmony. Even before I get my bearings I know that one day in West End isn’t going to do it justice. The amount of things to see, eat, drink and do here cannot be experienced in a twelve hour timeframe. There’s something to cater to nearly all tastes in West End, so if somebody can point me in the direction of the nitro coffee that I have been dying to try let’s get started…
The nitro coffee is dispensed from a small hole in the wall called Who Shot The Barista. On hearing the name I imagined sirens, police tape and forensics looking down from every vantage point investigating a grizzly crimescene. These guys take their coffee seriously and thankfully the customers don’t take the name literally. That was until I was informed that the nitro coffees were not available today. I am assuming somebody forgot to order the nitrogen gas? As far as I can piece together, nitro coffee is based on similar science behind Guinness beer, the nitrogen is supposed to make the black coffee taste creamier and sweeter. No nitrogen!?… if it happens again they may need the crew from ballistics. I settled for a cold brew and after a couple of glugs I had forgotten that nitro coffee was even a thing.
There’s a few seats outside Who Shot The Barista where you experience the start of a Brisbane spring but it’s not a mecca for people watching, unless you have a thing for watching soon-to-be customers show off their parallel parking skills. I found out that people don’t take too kindly to randoms giving advice on their parking deficiencies while waiting for their morning pick me up. The key here – don’t drive angry.
Morning After is a cafe that was included in every paragraph of my research about West End. One of the articles had crowned their Breakfast Carbonara “iconic” so that was enough to pique my interest. Carbonara for breakfast was something that I hadn’t tried but it was pasta and I was breathing so that meant it was a suitable time to order it. With the name “Morning After” I imagine this place has served as West End’s primary hangover cure. The place where the greasy eggs and bacon can mop up the regret from the night before. My carbonara had mushrooms, bacon lardons, a healthy dusting of cheese and an egg – happiness on my tongue. The egg was like the drunk Aunty at a wedding privy to a family secret, go anywhere near and things were going to get messy. This dish being named carbonara would get a puzzled looks from Italian Nonnas worldwide – I can’t vouch for its authenticity but if they had a plate of this they would be pleading for the recipe.
It wasn’t until I was waiting for my meal, enjoying my coffee that I realised how I would stand out in West End for all the wrong reasons. Even though my band t-shirt, semi-stylish pants and handmade shoes screamed “understated cool” they counted for little due to my lack of tattoos/hair product/dog named after a famous dead European poet. Realisations such as this are enough to drive a man to drink and fortunately there was no shortage of bars down West End way. The Catchment Brewing Co was where I took stock of my poor fashion sense and standing in society. I had a ninety minute window until I met a friend for drinks/dinner and this seemed as good an option as any – a bar that brewed their own beer. The barkeep said I should head out the back and find a seat (was he having a go at my attire as well?)
There I found a rather subdued buck’s party. The buck spent more time questioning the upcoming nuptials than enjoying himself. Adrian* and Sally** if you read this, best to end it before it starts (Sally, you can do better!) An arcade machine on free play was the perfect respite from this mob of sad sacks. If only they sat on the other side of the table and played a game or two of Galaga, they would have forgotten about their receding hairlines and lack of muscle definition. The Cow Tipper Stout comes with my strong recommendation.
Met my friend for a few cheeky drinks at The End before dinner at Billykart, a restaurant part owned by Australian chef Ben O’Donoghue. He was half of the on-screen talent on the earliest incarnation of Surfing The Menu and one third of the enjoyable The Best In Australia. He spent four seasons carrying Curtis Stone’s talentless corpse on Surfing before they went their separate ways. Curtis is now infecting our televisions flogging shit for Coles. Thankfully Ben has taken the high road and settled in Brisbane, setting up a couple of different eateries around the city that are garnering quite the reputation. The kind of food you wouldn’t cook for yourself at home because sourcing fresh Noosa scallops is near impossible when compared to opening up a tin of refried beans and drowning it in your favourite tomato sauce.
Luckily we were able to score a table somewhere in a dark corner. Though pitch black the wait staff were still able to find us via an impromptu game of Marco-Polo. Scallops and a double baked cheese souffle for starters. The second stint in the oven is supposed to give the souffle a bullet-proof exterior, ensuring that it doesn’t sag before it hits the table. It’s a way to reduce anxiety in the kitchen by eliminating performance pressure. Souffle dysfunction is a real thing people and can be treated, so please see a doctor.
I wasn’t able to snaffle a scallop from across the table but growing up away from the coast on a farm the humble potato scallop is my pick when it comes to “Battle Of The Scallops”.
Slow roasted lamb shoulder was next thing to hit my belly. Two from two winners so far for me but my friend’s crab and chilli spaghetti probably read better on the menu that it tasted on the plate.
Dessert was a pistachio tart and an unpictured affogato. Believe it or not this was the first time I had ever tried creme fraiche. Here I was thinking it was cream on my plate but my mouth puckered up when I realised it was something a bit tarter.
I was contemplating having a second helping of tart by doing so you are basically telling the world “I AM A FAT BASTARD WITH NO SELF CONTROL” so I finished my wine and paid the bill. It was another ten minutes before we left because I got lost finding my way back from the toilet. An imbroglio of corridors and doors messed with my sense of direction and I found myself pushing through the door leading into the kitchen. Staff were winding down after a big day’s service so I kept my thoughts on creme fraiche to myself. Second attempt back from the kitchen had me standing in the lobby of the hotel next door waving at my friend through a locked glass door. Several more attempts later we were eventually reunited. Enjoyable food, enjoyable company, I would pay Billykart another visit. For the people that are on the western side of Brisbane there is also a second Billykart in Annerley.
After dinner as I tried to remember where the car was parked my friend who hadn’t been to West End in a while commented that it reminds her of where she lives but “with a bit less polish”. Got me thinking on the way home – does the polish wipe away some of the character? I guess that’s the question that urban planners have been wrestling with for years. I’m all for a bet less polish in exchange for a bit less armpit hair. We passed a butcher whose electronic shopfront sign declared, “A Free Bone With Every Purchase”. Given the high concentration of dogs in the area the savvy butcher would be increasing patronage. It was the same slogan I employed when I embarked on my ill fated gigolo career. Without going through the graphic detail, know it wasn’t long before I was back moving numbers around a spreadsheet in the confines of an office.
It’s a week later, I said I’d be back and am a man of my word. Unfortunately my words are all in English and today I will be having my first experience with Eritrean food. Mu’ooz is the name of the restaurant and translates to “tasty and healthy” according to the blurb on the website. It’s a not-for-profit venture which assists African refugees with employment and support. Not that I need an excuse to eat, but that seems a very worthy cause and I am more than willing to do my bit for society today. A quick geography lesson – Eritrea is located on the north-eastern coast of Africa, bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Red Sea to the east. This promises to be educational and tasty. I was planning on this being part of the first trip to West End but my companion had heard a rumour that there is no cutlery and thought that this may not bode well with her light coloured wardrobe. Today I am dining solo.
As I venture in I am greeted by a warm friendly smile and shown to my seat. I am the only “diner” here but there is a large party that is in the middle of a cooking lesson at their tables. An array of unfamiliar but pleasant smells fill the air and I am given some menus to look over. All the options look viable so I chose an quartet of dips and something that I can’t pronounce as well as balls containing chickpeas which I hazard a guess are close friends of the falafel family. The walls are colourful with various painting of women cooking, providing for family and an array of articles from various news outlets spruiking the wonders of Mu’ooz. As my entrees come out the cooking students head into the kitchen, one of which is a New Zealand gentlemen who tells me that I won’t be disappointed.
The first plate comes out and is a selection of four dips and enjera. The dips range from a rich red one (shiro), to a fruity chutney, a slightly sour sauce and a more creamy one (yoghurt, cucumber and garlic). By this stage I was paying close attention to the cutlery situation and there wasn’t any. Time to roll up the sleeves and get those hands dirty. The hand sanitiser got an extra squirt for good luck/hygiene. The star of the show was the enjera. It looks like a thin crumpet with these little bubble holes throughout. A fermented flatbread the likes of which I have never seen made with an ancient type of flour most likely predates fire. It’s nutty, malty, slightly chewy and an absolute revelation. Cancel my other dishes and give me twenty of these. The enjera when unfurled were the same size as a tablecloth. Having the fine motor skills of a drunken octopus, my biggest issue is getting the ratio of bread to dip whilst not staining my fingers/their white tablecloth with red sauce.
By the time my second entree came out the students had rejoined me in the dining area having plied their new found skills in the kitchen. I was concerned that my new New Zealand friend may had been messing with my upcoming dishes. I’m here for the authentic Eritean experience, not one that has been tampered with by a guy with a pair of jangles. He assured me that he was kept well away and he was a bit envious. Tamia came out next. A mixture of chickpeas, garlic, herbs and spices rolled into a ball and dunked in a deep fryer and served with some more of that yoghurt dip. I didn’t think African cuisine was so condiment heavy and I am happy that it is. My only problem with these is that they should have come with a warning label bout the steam inside that would leave scars on my tongue.
The main dish came out, bierai, a traditional beef dish with spices served on an enjera. For the same reason you don’t make sandwiches out of crumpets, the enjera is not made to roll like a burrito, meaning that I needed to had to attack this strategically. The job was made that bit easier when a fork appeared. A nice level of spice, tender meat, a fresh salad – all boxes ticked. More people need to try this style of food because it’s damn good. I for one feel slightly disappointed that I have only had my first bierai now. The others in the restaurant were taking part in a traditional coffee (jebena) ceremony and I sat and watched the tail end. This was the perfect opportunity for me to have a break because the enjera are more filling than a box full of Weetbix and six litres of milk.
A lady roasted the coffee beans in a traditional way and the whole place starting filling with smoke and the coffee beans starting making these cracking, hissing and popping noises. I was caught between wanting to get on my knees under the smoke and crawl to the door in case the whole place went up but in the end that fresh coffee smell was enough for me to order my own brew. And I couldn’t leave a semi eaten bierai and miss out on dessert.
There were no shortage of dessert options with the three most popular being semolina cake, a pumpkin and coconut cake and African doughnuts. I chose the pumpkin cake because it sounded a bit different and after the previous dishes it looked as if was going to be the smallest serving of the three. Note the fork is back for its second appearance of the afternoon. The cake was had a thin crunchy crust but was pillowy in the middle.
When coffee comes out it with a bucket of sugar it’s never a good sign. With the coffee came a bowl of popcorn, while unusual for most of us it makes sense due to the prevalence of corn in many parts of Africa. My look of surprise was greeted with, “Traditional” and a big proud smile. There was no need for the sugar, the coffee was really good and super strong. There will be no micronaps on the way home this afternoon (or anyday for the next six weeks). Sipping coffee and munching on some popcorn. West End would continue to surprise Next time I am back at Mu’ooz I am bringing a small army, this secret is too good to keep to oneself.
Coffee: Who Shot The Barista, West End (Cold Brew Coffee)
Brunch: Morning After, West End (Cafe)
Pre-Pre-Dinner Drinks: The Catchment Brewing Co, West End (Craft Beer)
Pre-Dinner Drinks: The End, West End (Bar)
Dinner: Billykart, West End (Australian Contemporary)
Lunch (Day 2): Mu’ooz, West End (Africian/Traditional Eritrean)
* Not his real name;
** Not her real name (to protect the unlucky women)