December Dining

The holiday season is upon us and December dining deals are popping up faster than Christmas window displays at David Jones, meaning the time for pre-festive restaurant sampling is now.

Via Alta on Willoughby’s High Street is the bambino of Alessandro Pavoni (Ormeggio at the Spit), his chef Alex Keene and business partner Bill Drakopoulos, of the Sydney Restaurant Group and the Aqua Dining Group. In honour of this festive season they are offering patrons a main course, glass of wine and tea or coffee for $28. Yes, that’s less then your green smoothie and ricotta hotcakes at Bills.

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Alessandro Pavoni with Head Chef and Co-Owner Alex Keene

There is a choice of three mains: a pasta dish of orecchiette with vongole (clams), cherry tomatoes, asparagus, majaram and bottarga; a poultry classic – ‘chicken alla diavola’ (deviled chicken), which traditionally consists of chicken barbecued over coals and flames (resembling the devils humble abode) and finally a Tasmanian ocean trout that is cooked ‘cartoccio’ (in a paper cone).

I order the trout, which arrives perfectly cooked in its paper parcel, packaged with broccolini ribbons and potato buttons, and topped with a generous star bow of canary yellow dill and saffron mayonnaise. It is simple and pure cooking that allows the fish to be the hero. This delectable pre-Christmas gift pairs nicely with the white wine offering – a crisp La Delizia Vignal Pinot Grigio from Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Northeast Italy.

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Agnolotti is a type of pasta typical of the Piedmont region of Italy. It features regularly on the menu with diverse seasonal fillings and sauces.

If you would like to fork-out a little extra, you can start with the Ormeggio Bakery organic sourdough. Don’t even think twice. This is a must.  A mighty wedge of fresh sourdough is accompanied by two shallow dishes of light, fluffy homemade ricotta and olive oil, both begging to be slathered across the doughy folds of the bread. It is an indulgent and deeply satisfying experience.

Via Alta is a smart operation without a speck of pretence. The swift service, fantastic food and dignified dining room make for a lovely meal in December…or any other time of the year.

Sami-Jo Adelman

The Order of the Phoenix

Sisters Anita Yuen and Alice Lee are the founding members of the Phoenix Group, whose symbol of the regal female phoenix bird hails from Chinese mythology.  The phoenix or ‘fenghuang’ embodies high virtue, grace and the union of yin and yang. It is an apt reflection of the dynamic duo and well suited to their enterprise.

After arriving in Australia over 15 years ago, and settling into the hospitality realm working at local pubs, the girls quickly realised a gap in Sydney’s food scene. No restaurant offered the traditional Yum Cha experience they had grown up with in Hong Kong. Accordingly, the sisters quickly set about opening an eatery where the family tradition of Yum Cha would be honoured and experienced in all its weekend bunfight glory. In 1999 they opened Hilltop Phoenix in Castle Hill and since then they have added outlets in Sydney CBD, Rhodes, Parramatta and, most recently, Zetland.

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The East Phoenix outpost in Zetland’s East Village complex comes with a polished fit-out that is chopstick chic.  The large restaurant space, which can accommodate up to 450 patrons, boasts sleek two-toned leather dining chairs, white linen-draped tables and a large window-wall that overlooks industrial Zetland, a peculiar pocket of inner-east Sydney that is undergoing significant gentrification.

Weekend Yum Cha is all hustle-bustle with ravenous families and beady-eyed couples queuing fervently in the waiting lounge. Once seated the customary pandemonium commences as feuding family tables wait for new arrivals of pillowy char sieu bau (steamed pork buns), delicate pork and prawn siu mai and supple prawn and chive gow gee, which arrive swiftly on trolleys.

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Envious table peering sees crispy bbq pork and duck, accompanied by a mustard and plum sauce respectively, arrive on our plates with surprising speed. The rectangular pork pieces are wonderfully tender owing to the layer of juicy fat under the cracker-crisp skin. There desert dry duck brings a slight ping of disappointment, but a simple side of Chinese broccoli swimming in oyster sauce lifts our spirits, as does a good swig of Chinese tea.

As tables turn over by the dozen, it would seem the order of the phoenix have the magic touch.

Sami-Jo Adelman

Happy to Pei

Guillaume has restaurants in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, while Shaun Presland’s Sake has outposts in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Matt Moran has Aria in both Sydney and Brisbane and, of course, Mark Best has Pei Modern in Melbourne, Marque in Surry Hills and now Pei Modern in the CBD. Running multiple restaurants interstate has got to be tough. How do you ensure your high-standards are upheld when you’re sitting in a Business Class lounge waiting for your next flight? Well, I’m told that, yes, it is possible, thanks to two words. Loyal staff.

Milly Hill lamb shoulder

Milly Hill lamb shoulder

The head Chef at Pei Modern Melbourne, Matt Germanchis, has jumped across the border to take the lead at Best’s Four Season outpost. The 180-seater boasts an entirely open kitchen, giving sticky beaks (like myself) an opportunity to gawk at the chefs hard at work while well-oiled waiters float around the space with an ease and professionalism that only comes from years of experience. On reading the menu, rustic dishes such as the Milly Hill lamb shoulder and O’Connor T-bone steak seem a far-cry from the foams and mousses of Marque but don’t be deceived by its apparent simplicity, these are technique-driven dishes. Fresh burrata is served with an egg yolk jam and fried artichoke while the ‘ham of the sea’ is a smoky mackerel dish with slivers of fresh pear. Leading ‘the sweet spot’ is a duck egg sauternes custard with Italian crostoli and a sorrel sorbet with honeycomb, created by former MasterChef contestant Kylie Millar.

Pei Modern Sydney is open for lunch, Monday to Friday including the “Eat.Pei.Quick” express offer, and dinner Monday to Saturday.

Anna Lisle

Pei Modern

Keeping it local

Last week the Best Restaurants team were invited to tour the Sydney Fish Markets under the guidance of celebrity chef Matt Moran (of Aria and CHISWICK fame) to learn about where our food comes from. As a vocal advocate of locally-sourced ingredients, Moran was the perfect man for the job.

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Anthony Puharich and Matt Moran at Vic’s Meat Market

We began the day by learning how to select fresh seafood from Peter’s Fish Market, where one must look for “bright, clear eyes and shimmery scales”.  From there we popped over to the newly opened Vic’s Meat Market, where Anthony Puharich, CEO of Vic’s Premium Quality Meat, chatted with Matt about providing customers with the culinary know-how to select the best quality meats from their butcher.  We were advised to look for light cherry coloured meat that is firm and finely textured as well as cut’s with marbling (fat doesn’t have to be a bad thing)! The best meats have fat weaved throughout to ensure the meat stays juicy after cooking.  Vic’s is also home to a Wagyu tasting bar  where you can sample some of the world’s finest such as the Rangers Valley BMS9+ Emperor’s Cut. Whilst there you must also try a slow-cooked pulled pork roll, fresh from the custom built BBQ smoker (by Yoder Smokers in Kansas City) that has been affectionately named Kong.

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Matt Moran cooks up a feast at Sydney Seafood School

After the tour we were invited back to the Sydney Seafood School kitchen where the bounty of the day was expertly prepared by Moran himself. Fresh scallops and delicately spiced mussels were a highlight. We also got to sample a selection of both grass fed and grain fed meat from Vic’s to see if we could quell the age-old question…grass or grain? Alas, no luck, we foodies remained divided.

The event celebrated the launch of LG’s newest Door-in-Door Refrigerators.

The Governor’s Table

The new restaurant at The Museum of Sydney is a collaboration of passionate hospitality and design heavyweights. There are no egos fighting for attention, merely a partnership of like-minded individuals who have pulled together to create a special venue and a welcome addition to the CBD dining and drinking scene.

The first restaurant for Fresh Catering, Managing Director Peter McCloskey is excited to venture into unknown territory. With a range of venues including Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney Theatre Company and Vaucluse House Tearooms to name a few, you’d think a restaurant like The Governor’s Table would be a nonchalant affair for Fresh. However, McCloskey’s warm demeanour and diligent attention to detail can be seen everywhere – from the staff’s genuine interest in the success of the new restaurant, to the design and menu.

Asparagus with panko crumbed soft boiled egg. Photo credit: Chris Court

Asparagus with panko crumbed soft boiled egg. Photo credit: Chris Court

The all- Australian wine list is the work of sommelier Samantha Payne, who includes 4Fourteen, China Doll and China Diner as part of her portfolio. Samantha focuses on local, young producers, with a Nick O’Leary 2013 Riesling from Canberra and Athletes of Wine 2004 Pinot Noir from Macedon Ranges. The space, which includes both indoor and outdoor seating, has been created by inochi DesignLife Director Kristie Paul, who drew inspiration from the history and architecture of the site. Like the entire team at The Governor’s Table, Kristie’s passion is infectious, as she explains the process of creating this warm and hospitable space.

Cep scented pork, butternut squash, caramelised endive, lavendar jus. Photo credit: Chris Court

Photo credit: Chris Court

Working closely with the Museum of Sydney, The Governor’s Table has a resident gastronomer, Jacqui Newling. As a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Masters in gastronomy, Jacqui looks at Australia’s food heritage, from the type of food that was served in historic houses, from the horrible hominy (cooked maize) served to the convicts at Hyde Park Barracks to the feasts found on the finer tables of Sydney’s elite. Thankfully, there’s no hominy on the menu, only an expansive menu of rustic Modern Australian dishes, created by ex- Bridge Room chef Andrew Barkham. Sitting at a 16 seat French oak banquet table, we feast on share plates of grilled asparagus, parmesan custard, nettle and shiso dressing and roast mulloway with a sweet onion puree, crunchy morsels of purple cauliflower and a hazelnut brown butter. Confit salmon, soy bean and blood orange is not only instagram-worthy but a delicious combination of texture and flavour while a lemon myrtle burnt custard with granita and fresh berries is an impressive showcase of native Australian ingredients.

Anna Lisle

The Governor’s Table

Leading the pack

There was so much hype around The Wolf of Wall Street that by the time I actually saw the film, I was really underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, I can see why Leonardo was nominated for “Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role” but, for me, it just wasn’t as entertaining as all the reviews purported. Nomad was my Wolf of Wall Street. It was nominated for Best New Restaurant in the 2015 SMH awards and almost everyone I respect in the hospitality industry has given glowing reports.

The star dishes come via the wood fire oven

Nomad is co-owned and operated by Al Yazbek and Rebecca Littlemore

Dinner at Nomad was a family affair; Mum, Dad, my husband and I landed a last-minute mid-week booking. Dad, being a sheep farmer, isn’t really into big plates and small dishes. He prefers value-for-money dining, as do I. He also loves when you read a menu and know exactly where your dishes are coming from. And, in the case of Nomad, most of the ingredients come from the 200 square metre former furniture showroom in which Nomad now resides.

Chef Nathan Sasi is quite the nomad himself, having trained at Rockpool and, most recently, worked at London’s Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, and he doesn’t just cook. Sasi is part of a new superbreed of chefs who also cure, smoke, churn, bake, ferment and forage. The fruit of this restaurant’s loins sits on the kitchen shelves, jars of pickles and chutneys are just as much aesthetic as practical, with the housemade produce featuring in many dishes.

The star dishes come via the wood fire oven

The menu changes regularly, in tune with the seasons

The open grill and wood fire oven deliver the goods with wood-roasted bone marrow, Moreton bay bugs with chilli smoked pork jowl and fillets of sweet sand whiting, served with a nutty yet fresh tahini dressing. A generous serve of barbecued lamb rump, still pink in the middle, is melodiously served with a Moroccan eggplant salad and dollops of runny sheeps yoghurt. Interestingly, the wine list is entirely made up of Australian drops, which may have been a concern a decade ago but is appropriate given the focus of today’s restaurants on sourcing local-produce.

Walking out of Nomad, I felt nothing but deep regret. I wish I had reserved my pessimism and visited sooner, especially with the untimely news that Chef Nathan Sasi has resigned.

Anna Lisle

Nomad

Room for one more?

For every souvenir shop selling kangaroo magnets at Circular Quay, there’s a host of chefs delivering some of Australia’s best produce at our finest restaurants. From Matt Moran’s ARIA and Ross Lusted’s The Bridge Room to Peter Gilmore’s Quay and newcomer The Spice Room, this tourist mecca is an equally attractive foodie destination.

For some reason Indian restaurants have a certain sameness in Sydney, few beyond The Spice Room have broken out of the mould. If you’ve seen The Lunchbox, or, better yet, spent time in India, you’ll recognise a dabbawallah’s bike, laden with metal tiffin boxes welcoming diners into the Spice Room. Instantly, you think street food. Walk up the stairs, each of which are labelled with key Indian spices such as turmeric, cardarmon, fenugreek, bay leaves and panch phora; and an elegant, almost lavish restaurant space is revealed. A mix of imported wooden furniture, which I’m told are over 150 years old, gold tableware, gilt framed Maharaja paintings and the alluring smell of spices; hints of refined Indian dishes. As the décor suggests; there’s a mix of casual street food like onion bhaji, samosa chaat and pani puri shots, tandoor delights and also upmarket Indian dishes. Often when restaurants try to achieve too much, a menu becomes confused but The Spice Room manages to do it all; and do it all very well.

The restaurant's furnishings have been imported from India

The restaurant’s furnishings have been imported from India

As a keen cook, I like getting involved at a restaurant. As a starter, a DIY dish, dahi batata sev puri involves filled crispy hollow semolina puffs with a rather unglamorous looking cubed potato mix before being filled with a shot-glass of tangy tamarind water and popped whole in the mouth. The best dishes at The Spice Room come via the tandoor oven. Heated to between 200 and 300°C, this oven cooks everything from naan to lamb kebab. For indecisive diners, the mixed grill is a great way to taste it all; tandoori king prawns, chicken tikka and tandoori lamb cutlets. A dish of ling fillets, marinated in yoghurt and pickling spices before being grilled to create a smoky crust, is again a great showcase of Indian flavours. From the north of India to the south, the spiced seafood treasure takes you all the way to the beaches of Kerala with its richly spiced garam masala coconut sauce, coating a generous serve of prawn, scallop and calamari.

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Peshawari style spiced chicken fried rice

A cedar dowry chest at the bar delivers Indian bent cocktails such as a tamarind margarita, Goan martini and, my favourite, the anar pom-pomtini; a vodka based martini with fresh pomegranate juice. An Indian meal wouldn’t be complete without a lassi (traditional Indian yoghurt drink) and The Spice Room’s mango and cardamom lassi is a revelation, the subtle spice cutting through the sweetness of the fruit.

Anna Lisle
The Spice Room

The food of Italy

There is no other cuisine like it, it is served everywhere and its taste is such that it satisfies the rich and the poor; it is the food of Italy. Wherever you go, to all the four corners of the earth, you will find an Italian restaurant. It may be just a simple nook in a wall in the centre of Sicily or in a grand signature restauant in an international hotel, such as the Shangri-La in Jakarta, in Indonesia. Italian restaurants have turned the preparation of food into an art form, to romance gourmands and bonvivants. The skill to turn produce into seductive succulent dishes was a gift from God to the people of Italy…Italians were born lucky!

Most people identify Italian food with its main protagonists…pasta and pizza, with the latter being one of the best examples of food ‘on the go’. What started as a simple snack for the people on the streets of Naples has now become a culinary superstar…you can find it anywhere, you can even see Chinese people in Shanghai eating pizza with chopsticks. Italian cuisine however, owes its largest favour to Spain, as it was its Conquistadors who introduced a plant from South America to Europe. The tomato became a fundamental staple in the preparation of food in Italy. The people regarded the fruit with such esteem that they called it ‘Pomodoro’, which translates into ‘golden apple’…how appropriate to name a fruit after a famous seduction.

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The preparation of food in Italy became an endeavour for the nation as a whole, starting with the Bacchanalian orgies of the Roman gentry through to the magical cuisine of Bartolomeo Scappi, the grand chef to kings and popes of the 16th century. What is perceived to be food of a whole nation is actually many different types of regional cuisines. Different climates and locations offer different produce. The dry lands of Calabria, that entertain the growth of olives and wine are very different to the rice fields that surround the river Po in the Veneto region. The hills of Tuscany are renowned for the raffia wrapped bottles of Chianti, a red wine that is synonymous with the very identity of the country.

The food of the country is as varied as the colours of the rainbow. The red hues of tomatoes, the colour of the golden corn that makes the pasta in some 80 different shapes and the rice that is grown, such as Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano, that  is fundamental to the making of risotto, makes the country’s cuisine unique. The variety of dishes are a true representation of the colourful people that inhabit the boot of Europe. The invasion of the country, through many centuries, has seen great influences in what people ate then and what is now being eaten all over the world. The Middle Eastern influence and the bountiful sea has seen the southern part of the country produce dishes of allure and temptation. Spaghettini with bottarga and the stuffed veal roasts are all enhanced by bright red little peppers…peppers that were made to rush you towards a fire extinguisher for your throat. Walking north, along the Appian way introduces you to the lands of the region of Lazio, that part of the country that has been the centre of the world…that eternal city…Rome. That city forged by pagans, then taken over by God, has it it’s own distinct cuisine. Saltainbocca Alla Romana, the artichokes of the Jewish community are all there to contribute to the daily table, to make your mouth water.

Keep travelling north to further enhance the pleasure of the palate. The food of Florence is unique, it is a response to that everlasting request to make men and women happy…to satiate their hunger…to give pleasure to the olfactory glands..The food of Tuscany is renowned…the region is in itself a cooking school of envy…it’s food is bliss! It is not a unique dish, it is not even a gastronomic mind bender…it is not just a steak! Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is a vegetarian’s nightmare! It is just a huge slab of meat! Gigantic steaks from specially bred white oxen from Chianina near Arezzo, is the fundamental beef for this famous meat dish that is synonymous with Florentine cuisine. The piece of meat, a cut that just barely fits onto a large plate, is cooked simply, so as to enhance the flavour. It is not one of those small cuts of meat that are barbecued in so many backyard gardens in the Antipodes, cooked and turned into veritable charcoal, where the only solace of flavour is found in a sauce bottle.

But let us get back to the meat of the matter. Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is as iconic as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Pyramids of Giza and the Sydney Opera House….the main thing is that ‘La Bistecca’ is arguably more recognisable. This carnivor’s delight is cooked quickly and served very rare, with the cooking done on a steel grate above charcoal, the timing purely depending on the thickness of the meat. The cut is Porterhouse, the meat dressing a wedge of lemon, the side dish or ‘contorni’ is usually a simple salad. No other tastes are proffered with this dish…the meat is what it is all about. This dish is the star attraction of the many restaurants in Florence.

Would you line up for hours to see Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia or Bellini’s Birth Of Venus at the Uffizi, or would you really prefer to attack ‘La Bistecca’ with gusto? I will leave that decision to the reader. You may regret making the wrong decision as Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is not just a steak!

Paolo Tavuzzi, International Food Writer

Florence, 12 September 2014
Paul

 

The Percuoco Dining Dynasty

Mario Percuoco comes from a family of chefs, nay a dynasty. His great grandfather was a chef, his grandfather (whom he is named after) was a chef, his father is a chef (Armando Percuoco of the Paddington landmark Buon Ricordo), and he, too, is a chef. Although predestined to join the family trade, “Did I have a choice?” he laughs half-joking, Mario is passionate about what he does, and more importantly, like his father and father’s father, is very good at it.

Fronting the open kitchen at Janus in Chifley Square, Mario is your stereotypical Neapolitan chef; loud, exuberant and charming. He greets his corporate clientele, or “business bludgers” as he has affectionately coined them, with a mighty “Ciao! Come stai?” before chatting away about family, work and the like, all while simultaneously cooking pasta and dishing out orders to the rest of his team.

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Whilst he brings his dishes into the modern age with sophisticated presentation and pricing, Mario continues to pay homage to his Italian roots. His food is strongly grounded in the traditions of his forefathers (quite literally), and such classicism is a real treat when perfectly executed.
A more traditional dish of linguini marinated in a light, peppery sugo di pomodoro, buttoned with parsley and topped with two perfectly cooked scampi is a wholesome and satisfying pranzo (lunch) that pairs agreeably with a glass of Fattoria Zerbina Ceregio Sangiovese from Northern Italy’s Emilia Romagna. A salad of organic beetroot, quinoa, pistachios and goats cheese hailing from Liguria is Modern Australian in its essence, but plated with a passion that is only afforded by a real Italian. “See how I am plating this dish?” Mario remarks in his Neapolitan accent, “I let the vegetables fall onto the plate naturally, letting them grow into the space as though they were in a garden”. It’s true, a burgundy Eden has blossomed, and it too is divine.

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If you have time to linger in true Italian style or ‘business bludger’ fashion, take a seat at one of the intimate wooden booths inside the restaurant and revel in a long lunch. If time is not your friend, there is always the Janus Kiosk out front, which offers a well-rounded selection of indulgent piadine, panini and insalate to eat-in or take-away.

Sami-Jo Adelman

Janus Chifley Square 

Booze, Burgers and Beards

What do booze, burgers and bearded men have in common? They all reside at Rupert & Ruby’s in Darlinghurst of course, and each is a sight for sore eyes.

Let’s start with the beards. A good-looking troop of bearded boys fronts the kitchen with Canadian head chef Eli Challenger at the helm (okay, he’s not bearded…but he wears great specs). They maintain cool composure behind the pass, despite the fact that the 90-seat restaurant is always buzzing with boisterous youths boozing up stairs and a wall of sweetheart wooers below.  The team works together effortlessly allowing time for banter and collective humming to the sweet classic rock tunes pumping from the speakers.  If you are perched at the bar, feel free to join in. Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ makes for a great sing-a-long.

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Vancouver born chef Eli Challenger with his fabulous spectacles

The team began at the IconPark venue in August, taking over from the popular Stanley Street Merchants. The venue is the world’s first crowd-funded restaurant and bar, which supplies budding restauranteurs with a ready-to-trade, licensed location to showcase unique and temporary dining concepts that the public have ultimately chosen.

Ruby’s BBQ, a Deep South barbecue joint, was the original idea proposed by Eli, his wife Ruby and friend/great-bearded business partner Aaron Pearce (from Fat Rupert’s in Bondi). The concept was so popular at the Taste of Sydney festival that the talented team was invited to take up the second residency. This time round, the trio combined the best of Ruby’s BBQ and Fat Rupert’s to create a traditional American meets modern Australian dining experience that operates from breakfast through to dinner.

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The famous Big Poppa Burger filled with spiced smoked brisket

The food is rustic, honest dude-food that is not for the calorie conscious. Think Big Poppa burgers filled with 12-hour smoked brisket, oozing cheese, lettuce, onions, and pickles paired with a bowl of crunchy rosemary and lavender salted shoestring fries. Crispy fried chicken (prepared and soaked in buttermilk for two days prior to cooking) is another house specialty, owing to the batters blend of secret spices. Vegetarians may find the menu harder to navigate, but a colourful salad of grilled witlof, cauliflower, apple and toasted walnuts with pleasant charry undertones is a good option. The food tangos nicely with the punchy cocktail list, but it’s the Stone & Wood Pacific Ale with its big fruity aromas that will truly steal your heart.

Although Rupert & Ruby won’t be around for a long time, they can definitely promise a good time. This Thursday night the venue hosts an extravagant Halloween party with neighbouring Kubrick’s and the Hazy Rose, followed by Melbourne Cup shenanigans, and finally a traditional Thanksgiving feast on November 27th that will give Aussies a taste of the much-loved American celebration, and of course more booze, burgers and beards.

Sami-Jo Adelman

Rupert & Ruby