Ooh those jammers were good last night" said one friend.
"What's a jammer?" came the response from another.
"Like a slider" we chimed.
"What are sliders?"
"Soft, mini-hamburger buns filled with yummy stuff" I explained.
"Why don't they just call them that then?"
At Tin Soldier, the newly opened eatery and bar on Ponsonby Rd, they do "soldier boy jammers" two ways: filled with smoked ham hock and gouda or battered mussels with iceberg lettuce and tartare. Does it look like a mini hamburger. Yes? Does it taste like it? Not even close. I'm not sure how they came up with "jammers" as a name. When I put it through Google, my screen was filled with images of male swimmers in lycra outfits so I gave up caring. Jammers it is.
Tin Soldier has the look and feel of some of the best casual, in-vogue eateries you'll find in Melbourne (Huxtable, daytime Cumulus, Golden Fields etc) and I have no problem with that. In fact my guess is we'll see a proliferation of similar eateries over the next five years as restaurateurs drive, or respond to, a demand for more casual style dining that feels like "our place". The challenge will be for the Tin Soldiers of this world, to differentiate themselves enough in food and design, so as not to become formulaic. We never want to risk diminishing the ceremony and the delight of "dining out", even as we seek to lessen the formality of it. If we do, you'll be longing for an experience that you haven't had a dozen times before.
The owners of Tin Soldier made a good decision when they selected young chef Steve Smith to head up their kitchen. He appears well-capable of stamping his mark and standing out from the crowd. His menu jumps with dishes that easily tempt the taste buds and he also manages to tap into a certain "New Zealandness" which appeals. Here's an example: his "flavours of Milo" dessert stirs up nothing but the happiest of childhood memories. Served in a tin cup, he captures perfectly the glass of ice-cold milk, complete with lumps of milo which burst with gritty sweetness, but in a form that is like eating a soft, chocolatey cloud. The only things missing were the puddles left on the bench, the result of a typical 10-year-old's over-zealous stirring. It struck me as a truly original, world famous in NZ, dessert and I lapped it up like a happy kitten.
Seated downstairs, at high tables (where the designer has thought of everything including bag hooks - yay!), we tore through a selection of the small plates like hungry lions and it was mostly terrific, fun food, that didn't require too much thinking or demand too much of our attention.
A grilled silvery sardine was moist, oily and delicious and served on char-grilled sourdough, which held the smokiness of bread cooked over a camp fire. The accompanying, marinated tomato salad was half good (that would be the local, ripe, sweet cherry tomatoes) and half bad (that would be the pink, pasty, mushy variety of tomatoes that I call "Aussie toms", that should have been left out). Fish pies were niftily prepared with potato skins stuffed with a smooth and creamy veloute of smoked fish and crowned with a light dollop of potato puree. Marvellous.
More smoke came with the beetroot salad, while small lamb hotdogs, spiked with cumin and served on a stick, were cute but a bit lazy. Chicken wings, coated with a crispy buttermilk batter, slid away from the bones, into the homemade chilli sauce and into my mouth at an alarming rate.
Aside from the magical Milo, we risked more cavities with desserts of rhubarb mess and s'mores as well as the peanut truffles, which frankly put us over the edge.
I call this new style of eating out "sound bite dining". It's short, punchy and designed to create an immediate impact and it doesn't care as much about the lasting impression as it does about leaving you wanting more. Though I didn't exactly wake up dreaming about Tin Soldier, I nonetheless found myself back there a few days later when I needed a late, speedy lunch. I wolfed a plate of poussin that had been poached, then cooked over charcoal, and the explosion of fresh ginger, chilli and a salty-sweet coconut cream was quite the best thing I'd eaten all week.
From the menu: Crispy wings $14, soldier boy jammers $16, lamb hotdogs $12, fish pie $16, sardines $14, smoked beetroot $16, flavours of milo $14, s'mores $6, rhubarb mess $14, salted peanut truffles $5, poached poussin $24.
Drinks: Fully licensed