Over the years, there have been some interesting trends when it comes to dining with friends, the progressive dinner (each course served at a different home) and fondue parties (lots of cheese) among them.
But COVID lockdown has seen the emergence of a new culinary concept, the virtual dinner party – where a group of friends cook the same thing and share the meal together(ish) via video conference. There are pros and cons to the VDP. Among the pros:
- Position the camera at a high enough angle and you can ‘attend’ your dinner party wearing your pyjamas or animal-themed onesie
- There’s no need to do a frantic, last-minute house clean before everyone arrives (sweep those dirty pots and pans off the bench and into the sink, and fling a tea towel over the top, because nobody’s going to see).
- There will be no arguments over who’s going to be the designated driver as you simply need to stagger from the kitchen table to the bedroom once it’s all over.
Among the cons?
- Eating on camera is NEVER a good look
- The slight delay and tinny sound quality of computer audio means you may be shouting over each other before you even get the first glass of wine down
- Everybody has to cook, not just the host.
This Saturday, we’ve lined up another VDP with a group of mates we dine with regularly at restaurants or in each other’s homes. Nine of us will be preparing (and eating) the same dishes and logging on to Zoom to share them.
This will require frenzied activity in four kitchens across Canberra and one in Sydney (see cons). But there IS another way to share a virtual dinner party with friends, each enjoying the same meal, without all the work, and that’s to call in the professionals.
Here are three upmarket Canberra restaurants delivering stunning pre-prepared meals, ensuring that your next big night in with your mates is a virtual hit.
There will be no tense discussions among guests about what dishes to include in your virtual dinner party. No decisions on whether to have starters instead of desserts, or if chicken’s more amenable than fish for that annoying flexitarian among you.
XO’s Friday and Saturday Love Package takeaways comprise a fixed menu for $50 a head, with booze available too. We took this package on a test run on its first weekend of operation. You simply place your order (by 2:00 pm on the day you want to eat, or make a booking further in advance if you like) and are given a designated pickup time to ensure COVID social distancing restrictions are adhered to.
While my other half picked up the takeaway from XO’s Narrabundah restaurant, I set the table and prepared for lift-off. Sexy squid with sweet chilli salt was the first cab off the rank, followed by gnocchi with salsa and gremolata.
A deeply flavoursome pork neck curry with chilli masala and cashews (accompanied by smoked cucumber raita, pickled achar and saffron raisin rice) was the star main, and dessert was chocolate mousse with blueberry and honeycomb.
Not a single piece of squid had to be crumbed and fried in my kitchen, nor herbs bought (and thrown out three weeks later) for the gremolata. There was none of the usual agonising over whether the oven temperature was sufficient to render the pork neck fall-apart tender, nor the use of every pot in the house involving hours of clearing up later. We simply plated up and ate … then dealt with the precious few dishes involved in the exercise the next morning.
XO co-owner Kent Nhan says the takeaway dining offer, available on Fridays and Saturdays only, is an opportunity to share the love between XO and sister restaurant ILY in NewActon, with the two restaurants combining their styles to create appealing menus.
“Our first menu, with the squid and chettinad varuval pork neck, was very ‘XO’. The next menu is much more ILY but with an XO entrée,” he says. The response from the community has been “overwhelming”, he adds, with XO catering to enthusiastic diners in the south, and ILY to those in the north.
City centre Temporada is another favourite dining spot that has always delivered when it comes to elegant, beautifully crafted dishes – the stuff you generally don’t have the time (or the team of professional chefs on standby) to prepare at home.
But owner Dave Young and his crew have taken delivery to a whole new level.
The Temporada Rapido Weekend Special package, an assemble-at-home range of gourmet goodies, is available on Fridays and Saturdays, and takeaway never looked so good.
At $95 per person (minimum two people), the launch menu comprises a selection of hors d’oeuvres, including Sydney rock oysters with mignonette dressing, baked Noosa sea scallop thermidor, salami and taleggio croquette; followed by Stracciatella with quince, vadouvan and lavosh. Finding my way around a mud crab in my kitchen is not something I’ve ever aspired to, but I can now tuck my paper serviette into my T-shirt at home and get stuck into crab with pasta, herb butter and Jerusalem artichoke, followed by braised wagyu short rib with mushrooms, potato puree, Yorkshire pudding and salad. A black sesame custard with yuzu and kumquat completes the line-up.
There’s a bit of assembly and warming required, but instructions are included in the kit for those who don’t know their spatulas from their speculaas. Orders open every Monday so you (and your mates) can book your dinner party meals in advance. The Weekend Special menu will change weekly.
There’s something a little clandestine about hanging around your car in the evening, waiting for someone to deliver a package before hightailing it back from whence they came. But when that package contains an intricately constructed strawberry cheesecake with basil mousse, strawberry cremeux, vanilla sponge and almonds, the risk of attracting disapproving stares is worth taking. The award-winning Boat House restaurant is taking contactless pick-up very seriously, with meals delivered to the boots of diners’ cars so they don’t have to enter the restaurant during these times of social distancing.
The Barton venue’s Dine at Home range comprises options to suit all appetites, from comfort meals (shepherd’s pie with roasted garlic and chilli mushroom hommous and duck-fat Brussels sprouts among other dishes); to vegetarian (cauliflower and blue cheese soup; Jerusalem artichoke agnolotti; potato dauphinoise and charcoal eggplant with whipped tahini and sumac, and more), to meat lovers (swap out the agnolotti for spatchcock roasted with lemon myrtle, and replace the soup with French onion and gruyère brioche).
Desserts are not included in the set menu, and I can see why. These babies deserve a list all of their own.
While I pride myself on being able to whip up a mean panna cotta or chocolate pud, my sweets repertoire is not a patch on the desserts being assembled for The Boat House by JC Lua of Formulab online dessert company, a fine-dining pastry chef with a background in industrial and graphic design. A multi-layered blackberry cremeux with whipped chocolate ganache, almond sponge and hazelnut, or a creamy espresso tiramisu with whipped vanilla ganache, mascarpone mousse and spiced pear leave my meagre offerings for dust. There’s also a recommended weekly wine match from Boat House sommelier Kate Hibberson. Set menus that feed two are available Thursday to Saturday and cost $95 (desserts are an additional $15 per serve).