Brooklyn vs. Left Coast: The Battle of the Burgers

When I first came to Korea, I vowed to only blog about Korean food. Not for patriotic reasons, but because I firmly believed that foreign food in Korea sucked and was barely worth spending money on, let along blogging about.

In the almost-year that I’ve been here, I’ve had plenty of sloppy Tex-Mex, crappy Thai curry, bland Vietnamese pho, brunches with soggy bread and hard-boiled “poached” eggs, and a really really poor excuse for a kebab. But, to be fair, there have been some surprising exceptions. A Spanish restaurant in Itaewon served me the best paella I’ve ever tasted, and at an Italian restaurant in Apgujeong had a caprese salad that rivaled Cafe Sopra’s.

Another genre of food that Seoul does pretty well is “American.” Unsurprising, because the majority of foreigners in this country are from the States, and compared to people from other countries, I think Americans find it harder to adapt to foreign cuisines and more sorely miss the food of their homeland.  I mean, I miss kebabs, grainy bread and yum cha a lot, but Americans will actually salivate and get a bit teary as they talk to you about In-and-Out Burger.

So naturally, burgers are a big deal amongst the expat community. To cater to demand, a few very impressive burger joints have popped up around town. From the Americans I have spoken to, the current people’s favorite is Brooklyn the Burger Joint. Though recently, a new entrant has arrived with the potential to upset this east-coast dominance. Today, I will be reviewing my experience with both.

Brooklyn Burger has three locations in Seoul, including one in the hallowed halls of Apgujeong Galleria’s Gourmet 494. 494 is a luxury food hall in the basement of the Galleria department store that has been designed to gather all of Seoul’s hottest eateries in one place. It is a foodie paradise.

Legend has it that the owner’s love for burgers was so obsessive that he spent his honeymoon traveling the world with his wife to find the perfect burger. Brooklyn the Burger Joint was born out of that international search. Some of my American friends even go so far as to say that Brooklyn’s burgers are the best they’ve ever had. That is high praise coming from people who were raised in the nation responsible for McDonalds, Burger King, and the global obesity epidemic.

The signature burger at Brooklyn is the “C.R.E.A.M.” which stands for “Cheddar Rules Everything Around Meat.” The name first seems like another awkward Konglish acronym, akin to “High Five of Teenager” or “Ubiquitous Korean International Idol Super Star“, but is actually a play on a Wu Tang Clan song. The burger is a beef patty with sharp cheddar, bacon, horseradish mayo, and a slice of fresh tomato.

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Here’s a cross-sectional view.

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It’s sloppycheesysaltycreamymeaty all at once. It’s no doubt delicious but also kind of one-dimensional. And no, I don’t expect burgers to be complex gastronomical creations with layers and layers of different flavors and textures. But eating this did make me realize that Americans and Australians do burgers very differently.

This is going to sound mean, but this tasted like kind of like high-class McDonalds. It makes sense though, because McDonalds is just the fast, cheap, mass-produced version of the type of burgers Americans love to eat.

Australians however, have a somewhat different approach to burgers.  The one thing that distinguishes Australian burgers from other burgers worldwide is our inclusion of a slice of canned beetroot – which tells you something about our tastebuds. Beetroot adds a crunch, sweetness and tang that gives more variety of flavor and texture to the burger. We also like to use fancy bread like sourdough or brioche, add plenty of fresh vegetables like raw red onion and more than a single leaf of lettuce, care a lot about the quality of beef in the meat patty (we love our Angus and Wagyu) and most of the time, cheese is an optional extra rather than an essential ingredient. These are the burgers of my homeland.

So I’m not so crazy about the C.R.E.A.M., but there are plenty of other burgers on the menu. Such as:

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THE CHEESE SKIRT!!

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Be still my beating heart. OH FRIED CHEESE. The guiltiest pleasure of my former fat kid days!!

You know, for a while I really thought fried cheese was my own original invention. I may have not been the first to do it, but I discovered fried cheese as a result of my own fat kid ingenuity. I used to come home from school every day and make myself a grilled cheese sandwich on the frypan. I would use two slices of tasty cheese, not only because that’s how fatties roll, but because this increased the chance of cheese oozing out of the sides of the bread and getting browned and crisp from the pan. The crunchy cheese bits were my favourite part of the sandwich so one day I thought “I wonder what would happen if I put the cheese straight onto the pan?” It sounds like craziness but it totally works – the cheese sizzles and bubbles but retains its shape, and once the bottom gets golden brown you slide it off the pan and let it cool. The result: BEST SNACK EVER.

The “cheese skirt” is not a Brooklyn Burger original either, a Google search will show you that many kindred fatties have had the same idea.

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By the size of the skirt, it looks like it might be made up of 3-4 cheese slices melted together. When you eat it, you can either eat the edges of the cheese skirt first, break them off to save them for last, or fold them into the burger to get a double-whammy of fried cheese with every bite.

The melted cheese fat solids are still dripping off the skirt so this is a very greasy burger – it is probably a million calories and half a pound of fat but WHO CARES IT’S A CHEESE SKIRT!!!!! You only live once and cheese skirt makes that one life so much more delicious!!!

(BTW these photos come from two separate visits to Brooklyn Burger. I did not eat both the C.R.E.A.M. and Cheese Skirt in one sitting. My power level is not that high.)

If you want to further increase your risk of lifestyle diseases, you can order a side of chilli cheese fries.

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Thick cut fries smothered in bright-orange American “cheese” sauce and sloppy, spicy chilli on top. I actually like my chilli cheese with shoestring fries, but these aren’t bad at all. The All-American cheese sauce is an acquired taste, but I’m starting to love it – especially with corn chips!

Brooklyn burger is also famous for its milkshakes, but unfortunately the Gourmet 494 branch doesn’t sell them. Some would argue that a review of Brooklyn Burger is not complete without the milkshakes, but as someone who is not really a fan of milkshakes, I don’t think it would have added much for me personally. And I don’t think I could have handled more than a few sips after pigging out so hard on my burger and fries.

Moving on now to new entrant Left Coast Artisan Burgers, a hip burger restaurant/bar in Itaewon owned by Korean-Americans from California.

When you go to a restaurant with the word “Artisan” in the name, your expectations are automatically raised. It’s easy for burgers to be “gourmet” – all you need are some fancy ingredients like Wagyu beef or camembert cheese. But “artisan” burgers? Is it even possible for ground beef and veg inside two halves of a bun to be “artisanal”?

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Left Coast has its own signature burger called the “Juicy Lucy.” It is lettuce, grilled onion, Left Coast’s house-made sauce and cheese-stuffed patty. Yes. CHEESE STUFFED PATTY. It looks unassuming from the outside but when you cut it in half…

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This crazy idea was obviously conceived by some cheese-obsessed genius who wanted to get as much melty cheese in the burger as possible without having it run down the sizes. It appears to be American cheese as opposed to cheddar, so it’s quite creamy and the overall taste with the sloppy onions and sauce is similar to the C.R.E.A.M. Lesson learnt: Americans like sloppy burgers. I’m not such a huge fan… the next time I went to Left Coast I tried something different.

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This is the “Hot Stuff” burger with pickled onion, hot pepper and garlic spread. Unlike many, I love pickles and spice in my burgers because it cuts through the grease of the beef patty and this was so good!! No cheese and didn’t feel heavy at all, just a really juicy, perfectly seasoned and grilled burger with great flavours coming from the pickle, peppers and garlic sauce.

I think Left Coast takes more care with its burger patties than Brooklyn. Their patties are a lot fatter and seasoned so well that you could eat it by itself like a steak, without any garnishes or condiments, and it would still be delicious. It might be great quality beef, or it might just be salt or MSG but whatever it is, it works really well. I guess this is whey mean by “artisan” – perfectly hand-crafted beef patties, made with love.

The burgers all come with a few potato chips (crisps) on the side. You can pay bit extra and get a side of fries, or if you’re feeling a bit gluttonous, you can order the Kalbi Fries.

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Hand cut fries with pulled marinated Korean-style beef ribs,  pickled peppers and onions, scallions and sour cream. Strongly reminiscent of the famous Kimchi Fries at Vatos Urban Tacos (a Korean/Mexican fusion restaurant), but not quite as good due to the lack of the key ingredient: kimchi. The combination of soft pulled beef rib with fries and crunchy pickles is still delicious, and a much classier version of your typical chilli fries.

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They also have deep fried mac’n’cheese – which sounds awesome, but is just okay.

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Too much mac (that’s not even mac actually… it’s seashell pasta) and not enough cheese in my opinion.

And then if you still have room, you can order the only dessert on their menu.

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What is that? Is it a pudding? A tart? A cake? No. It’s  GIANT COOKIE. A massive, fresh out of the oven, barely even baked cookie. I don’t think you could even call this a cookie… it’s more like… warm, gooey, caramelised cookie dough a la mode. It comes with two boulder-sized scoops of vanilla ice cream and some whipped cream to ensure that the fat to sugar ratio is just right! You gotta be a pretty hardcore sweet tooth to stomach more than two spoonfuls of this – but it’s a lot of fun.

FINAL VERDICT

For me, Left Coast wins. The Californian influence on the food appeals to my Australian sensibilities: freshness, respect for high quality ingredients, and a dessert that appeals to the inner child. And I’m not sure if I’ve ever tasted a better burger patty before.

Left Coast also has delicious pulled pork sliders (failed to take a photo, sorry) and Momofuku-style buns which I have not tried yet, but look like a pretty decent imitation.

I will be back to Brooklyn, however, for the cheese skirt. Though I feel like I should only let myself eat that burger once every six months… I don’t want to end up as one of those people who dies of a sudden heart-attack at 30, shocking the whole world because “She was SO young!”

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Ginseng Chicken Soup @ Tosokchon (토속촌)

If you Google “Best things to eat in Korea,” you will find that one name appears consistently across all travel websites, food blogs and review sites. That name is “TOSOKCHON.”

This place has been blogged to death but I still want to dedicate a post to it because in the eight months that I’ve been here, this is still one of the best things I’ve eaten. And I’ve eaten a lot, believe me. I have about five kilograms of weight gain to prove it.

Tosokchon is a restaurant that specialises in “Samgyetang” (삼계탕) or ginseng chicken soup. It’s always been one of my favorite Korean dishes and it’s something that Korean restaurants in Sydney don’t really do, so it was the one thing I was most looking forward to eating in Korea.

The restaurant is conveniently located right next to Gyeongbokgung Palace, which makes it very easy to add to your Seoul sightseeing itinerary. But best to go on a weekday outside peak lunch/dinner times because the lines on the weekend are CRAY. I went once on a Saturday, at around 11:30 am, and there was already a 50-person line. I mean, it’s worth the wait, but try to avoid it.

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We visited Tosokchon on a cold night in winter, after a day trip to the ski fields. To me, Samgyetang seems like the perfect winter comfort food but Koreans prefer to eat it in the summer. It is traditionally eaten on the hottest days of the year to replenish your body with all the nutrients that you lose sweating under the summer heat.

The restaurant looks like a traditional Korean “hanok” style house, but on the inside it opens up into several spacious dining rooms. My guess is that the restaurant has been through a number of expansions due to its ridiculous popularity with tourists.

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The menu has three items, but people come here for one thing only. The classic Samgyetang is the second item and costs 15,000 won. The other two are souped-up versions of the dish (pun not intended ho ho ho). They both include some sort of exotic mountain ginseng, and the third item uses the silkie fowl instead of regular chicken, which means black meat!!! Worth a try if you’re feeling adventurous.

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In Sydney I would often judge a restaurant by the quality of its bread. In Korea, you judge a restaurant by the quality of its kimchi, which is always the first thing to come out. And dang, this was some of the best kimchi I’ve ever had. I could have just eaten this with a bowl of rice for dinner and walked away happy.

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Us kimchi-loving Koreans fall into one of two camps: those who prefer fresh kimchi, and those who prefer ripe, well fermented kimchi. I am of the former camp because the cabbage in fresh kimchi still has its crunch, and you can more distinctly taste the salt and red pepper flakes that it is seasoned with. I much prefer this to the vinegary, pickled flavor of ripe kimchi. But the best kimchi is just on the cusp of ripeness, bringing together the best of both worlds. Maybe it depends on the day and the batch, but the kimchi I had at Tosokchon was of that rare and delicious variety. The radish kimchi (gakdugi) was very good too.

Now moving on to the main event. So what exactly is Samgyetang and what’s the big deal?

Think about it like this. Let’s pretend that chickens have their own social system and hierarchy. The poor, peasant chickens end up as processed deli meat and frozen chicken nuggets. The working class chickens end up battered and deep fried, or on a rotisserie. The high-earning, professional chickens end up stuffed with lemon and sage, and roasted for Christmas dinner. The exotic, ethnic chickens end up as steamed chicken feet or hainanese chicken rice. The mega-rich, millionaire chickens end up as a ballontine or a mousse at a fine dining restaurant. But the highest class of chicken, chicken royalty, the demi-gods of the chicken kingdom – they will meet their final destiny in a glorious, steaming hot-stone bowl of Samgyetang.

The beauty of Samgyetang lies in its simplicity. The dish is designed to allow the chicken to reach its fullest potential, taking nothing away and adding only what will enhance it’s natural God-given flavour. A whole chicken is used, so that no flesh or bone is wasted. It is then stuffed with glutinous rice that soaks up all the chicken flavors from the inside and is cooked in a broth of ginseng, dried jujube, garlic and ginger; ingredients that not only draw out and highlight the flavors of the chicken, but also have their own medicinal properties. This is why Samgyetang is considered by Koreans as a sort of “cure for everything” superfood. There is also usually a chestnut involved, but I’m not sure whether it adds any flavour or is just intended as hidden treasure to be found amidst your stuffing.

Anyone who reads this blog would know how obsessed with chicken I am, and as much as I LOVE fried chicken, roast chicken and hainanese chicken rice, I think Samgyetang takes the coveted crown as “Heather’s all-time favourite chicken dish in the whole wide word.” That is a very, very high honour.

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The Samgyetang is served and it is breathtaking. The broth is miky white and bubbling in its stone pot, exposing a few glossy curves of naked chicken flesh and topped with chopped spring onion and an assortment of seeds.

Is it inappropriate and creepy to describe a chicken as “sexy”? It may be, but I can’t think of another word that more accurately describes the look of this dish.

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The stock is perfectly seasoned, but I always like adding some extra pepper to my chicken soup. If you tear away a bit of the flesh, you’ll find the cavity stuffed to the edges with rice. I like to scoop it out into the soup, so that it soaks up even more of the broth. A spoonful of rice soaked in tasty soup is one of my, and the entire nation of Korea’s, favourite things.

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Because the chicken is boiled whole and slow in a rich broth, the meat is incredibly tender and easily falls off even the trickier bones, like the wing. The soup stays very very hot because of the pot, so the trick is to use one of your side bowls and spoon out a bit of rice, soup and chicken meat to let it cool before you eat it. Your table should also have some salt and pepper that you can dip your chicken into if you would like some extra seasoning.

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If you are truly hardcore, you can eat the ginseng once you find it. I personally can’t handle it… I don’t care how good it is for you, ginseng is gross. It is, however, a crime to leave any meat on your chicken – have some respect!!

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Tosokchon’s location and popularity may make you suspicious of its legitimacy because it does has all the warning signs of a tourist trap. But take my word for it, this place is worth the hype. I am a Samgyetang enthusiast and I haven’t found a restaurant anywhere in Seoul that does it as well as Tosokchon. Whether you’re living in Korea or just visiting, this place is a must-visit. Your life will be better for it.

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Last Supper in Sydney @ Bills, Surry Hills

It’s August now, which means it’s been more than six months since I left Sydney and moved to Seoul. This is the second last Sydney restaurant I have left to blog about, and I’ve deliberately procrastinated posting these last two because even though it breaks all the rules of food blogging to leave a six month gap between dining and writing, I’m dreading the sadness of typing the last word on my final Sydney food post.

But I can’t drag this out forever. It’ll be about a year before I’m back in Sydney, even for a visit, so I should learn to embrace my new identity as a Seoul food blogger. Though, for some reason, the food here doesn’t inspire me to blog as much as it did in Sydney. I’m not sure why. It may have something to do with the fact that every man and his dog is a food blogger in Korea. Even the most obscure, nameless, back-alley neighbourhood restaurant will have a blog post dedicated to it, complete with photos and a map. It’s a bit intimidating, but don’t worry, I’ll find my foodspiration and keep doing my thing.

For now, wind back the clock to Sydney, circa December 2013.

I planned my final meals in Australia very carefully. I held so many “farewell” dinners it got a bit ridiculous and people started to realise that this was just an excuse for me to tick off as many restaurants on my list as possible before I left the country,

For the farewell dinner I organised with my dear work friends, I wanted to eat somewhere iconic. I couldn’t afford Tetsuya’s or Quay, so I settled on Bills.

In recent years, Bills has been overshadowed by the hundreds of hipster cafes that have popped up all over the city, but I don’t think any of those cafes would even exist now if Bills hadn’t paved the way and envisioned a cafe breakfast that was more sophisticated than a bacon and egg muffin.

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Did you know that Bills on Crown Street is open for dinner? It might seem a bit silly to have dinner at a restaurant that is famous for breakfast, but their signature ricotta hotcakes are actually on the dinner menu as a dessert option. There was also something else on the dinner menu that intrigued me and I was eager to check out: kimchi fried rice.

I LOVE kimchi fried rice. When you have over-fermented kimchi that is starting to smell alcoholic and week-old rice in the fridge, you would be justified in throwing both those things in the bin. But the smarter, less wasteful, more delicious thing to do would be to throw then in a frypan instead and make some kimchi fried rice. It is something people rarely pay money for, so I was very curious about whether Bills could pull it off as a proper restaurant-appropriate dish.

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The restaurant’s interior is clean, simple and unaffected by the trends that dictate most other restaurants and bars in the area.

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There is not a mason jar, clipboard menu or decorative heirloom in sight.

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They do, however, serve wine in a small glass pitcher, with a stem-less wine glass. I’d never seen this before but I kind of loved it – it felt really retro, like I was drinking hard liquor in one of the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

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Everyone was coming from their respective offices, so we ordered an appetiser as we waited for late arrivals. This is the semolina-crusted calamari with lemon, parsley, green beans and fennel – $19.50

The dinner menu at Bills is quite multicultural, which would usually raise some red flags, but I think Bill Granger is one of the few Australian chefs you could trust with a variety of international cuisines. He was one of Australia’s first celebrity chefs, has more than ten cookbooks to his name and has had a long partnership with the awesome Kylie Kwong, which is the thing that gives him the most street creed. The above appetiser was a very light, aussie-fied version of the Chinese classic.

The mains we ordered were from all over the world.

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From Italy, we enjoyed prawn and chilli linguine with garlic and rocket ($26.50)…

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and also a really lovely, rich ragu with seashell pasta and a few handfuls of parmesan shavings. I think this was a special – and one of the best dishes of the night.

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From Thailand, I chose the yellow fish curry with spiced pumpkin, peanuts, brown rice and cucumber relish ($28.50) – not something I would usually order, but I wanted something rich and full of flavour. The curry was a bit mild for my liking, but I love how soft, white fish soaks up the flavours of a curry.

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There are, of course, some Australian classics on the dish like this massive parmesan crumbed chicken schnitzel, with creamed corn, coriander and fennel salad ($27.50). Good for hungry meat-lovers who want something a bit more substantial than typical cafe fare.

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This is meant to be a a wagyu beef burger – but my health-conscious friend replaced the bun, cheese and fries with a salad. Not a life choice I could ever understand, but each to their own.

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And finally, from Korea, the kimchi fried rice.

Or so we thought.

This is listed on the menu as “crab, chorizo and house kim chee fried brown rice” ($22.50.) Normal kimchi fried rice can be made with just kimchi and rice, but you can also add some protein in the form of canned tuna or diced spam. So when we saw this on the menu we were all like “Oh! Crab! Chorizo! This is going to be the fanciest, most delicious kimchi fried rice evvvveeerrrr!”

In hindsight, this was foolish and we should have known that we were setting ourselves up for disappointment.

First, but kind of a side note, Bills is OBSESSED with coriander. Seriously, coriander appeared on almost every single dish. The stuff must be growing like weeds in Granger’s backyard.

Second – doesn’t the way the the dish is described on the menu give the impression that all these delicious ingredients would be mixed together and fried with the brown rice? That’s what we thought too, so we were really surprised to see the dish come out with the kimchi served mainly on the side (covered by the giant heap of coriander in the photo).

The rice tasted like run-of-the-mill fried rice, with vague hints of chilli, crab and chorizo… and almost none of the spicy fermented cabbage flavor you should be getting from kimchi fried rice.

The kimchi on the side tasted just like … regular kimchi. Thinking about it, it’s pretty arrogant for a Western restaurant to boast “house made” kimchi on the menu, when there is perfectly fresh, perfectly delicious kimchi available from Korean grocers everywhere. Like, if you’re going to take advantage of the Korean food-trend by including a kimchi dish on your menu, it would be nice if you supported Korean producers and small businesses by using their high-quality, authentic products.

The yellow egg ribbons, I think, were meant to be a play on the fried egg you usually get on top of your kimchi fried rice, or the thin sheet of scrambled eggs that sometimes covers the whole plate omurice-style. But even egg could not save this sad, bland imitation of kimchi bokkumbap.

One disappointment led to another when I excitedly asked for the ricotta hotcakes for dessert and the waitress informed me that they had run out.

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Erm. There are a few things I don’t quite understand about “running out” of ricotta hotcakes.

1. They are your signature dish. I don’t care if it’s dinnertime; it’s on your dessert menu, if you consider yourself a professional establishment you should have BUCKETS of ricotta in your cool room to deal with demand.

2. Even if you run out of ricotta… just send one of the kitchen hands down to the freaking Thomas Dux and buy some more!!!! Do you not realise that 90% of the people who walk through your doors are only there for the ricotta hotcakes?

3. THEY’RE PANCAKES FOR GOODNESS SAKE. This is not the type of thing you should run out of. A rare vintage wine, I understand. A whole suckling pig, also understand. Pancakes? No. Pancakes are something that you can still make even when you’re dirt broke and have less than five things in your fridge.

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So here are the desserts we got instead of Bill Granger’s famous ricotta hotcakes.

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Strawberry pavlova with yoghurt cream.

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Chocolate pudding.

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Some berry mousse thing.

All pleasant. All unspectacular. All NOT ricotta hotcakes.

Putting the hotcakes debacle to one side, Bills is quite a nice place to have dinner with friends. It’s quiet and comfortable, and the food is well-made and uncontroversial, in that there is something to please everyone.

The kimchi fried rice is still on the menu but please, don’t bother with it. Buy a small bag of kimchi from your Korean grocer and follow any one of these recipes and you’ll be better off.

Bills 
359 Crown St 
Surry Hills, NSW

Bills on Urbanspoon

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