How to host a Big Night In isolation with these restaurant-quality tips, tricks and playlists

Go all out with Adam Liaw's champagne-poached lobster and prawns.
Go all out with Adam Liaw's champagne-poached lobster and prawns. Photo: William Meppem

Does someone in your household have a birthday coming up? Is there an anniversary around the corner? Have you cooked your way through every page in Fifty Ways With Mince and found yourself thinking "what next?" during home isolation?

If "yes" to any of the above, a Big Night In could well be in order.

Before COVID-19 turned the world on its head and caused restaurants to close, a Big Night Out was one of the most enjoyable things you could do with shoes on. It could have been an evening of champagne-fuelled romance at a restaurant where you are not allowed to wear shorts, or an extended-family bash at a local Chinese. "I think we're going to need three lots of honey prawns tonight – you know how your Uncle Greg likes to eat."

Similarly, a Big Night In can be just as relaxed, fancy, loud, quiet, high-rolling or budget-friendly as you need it to be. Social distancing is essential, but it's also tough, and even the healing properties of fresh-baked sourdough have their limits. It's time to break out your good wine glasses and break your routine. Here's our guide to a night out at home.

The best advice first

As you embark on this, the key thing to understand is that this is about having fun. Free-pour cocktails. Set off the smoke alarm. Eat too much brie. Warm your plates. Warm your olives. Chill Campari. Fail at making souffle. Succeed at baking sourdough. Improvise. Dance. Talk. Tell stories. Now for the detailed advice.

10/07/19 The mini Martini at Bar Margaux , Londsdale Street. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

The mini Martini at Bar Margaux, Melbourne. Photo: Chris Hopkins

Bottoms up

"There's no better way to begin a meal than with a martini," says Jordan Toft, executive chef at sense-of-occasion restaurants Mimi's and Bert's in Sydney. "Gin, vermouth and a twist. Done. It sets the tone and says 'OK, this is the kind of night we're going to have." (Click here for classic cocktail recipes.)

Toft prefers a bone-dry martini, where vermouth is only used to rinse the glass, however such a spirit-forward cocktail might not be everybody's cup of tea, says Michael Ryan, owner-chef at two-hatted Provenance in Beechworth.

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"Non-seasoned drinkers could make a mini-martini [a half-serve] instead, or perhaps a cocktail with more vermouth."

Of course, champagne is another way to kick things off with panache.

"Just make sure it's cold and ready to go when you are," says Shanteh Wong, head sommelier at Quay, Sydney. Wong prefers to drink fizz from a standard wine glass rather than a champagne flute, as it allows more aromas to escape through the top.

"I have one type of glass I drink pretty much everything out of at home and that's the red glass from Riedel's Degustazione line. But if the flute gives you a sense of occasion, then go for it, I say."

Consider your customers

A day or two before that first aperitivo, you should work out what type of experience you want your "customers" to have.

"That's how chefs design menus," says Toft. "We think about what our customers want. In this instance, the customer might be yourself, or you could be cooking for your partner or a household with seven kids."

"Think about what you want the dinner to achieve. Is it to hark back to a holiday to Spain? To replicate the vibe of your favourite restaurant? Once you've worked that out, it can inform everything from the menu to the lighting, table setting and flowers. It will help you decide things like whether to use candles or not. Is it the kind of dinner that calls for a tablecloth?"

Toft also suggests looking for inspiration in treasured or forgotten items around the house. A burnt-orange fruit bowl that was most likely a wedding gift, perhaps, or a tagine that rarely sees the light of day.

"Say you own a ceramic plate bought while holidaying on the Amalfi Coast. You could dust it off, make it the table centrepiece, and build a special night around what you ate on that trip."

Julia Busuttil Nishimura's burrata with roasted cherry tomato and basil.

Break out the 'nanna' plates and start with burrata with roasted cherry tomatoes and basil (recipe here). Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Write a menu

With the season and the experience you want to achieve in mind, you can begin to build the menu, says Toft.

"Consider serving things that are not going to make you flustered in the kitchen. If you go the Italian route, then for antipasti you might consider fresh bread, burrata and beautiful anchovies. Perhaps a bowl of sliced cherry tomatoes mixed with oregano. This can all be prepared beforehand, so you're only cooking one course on the night if dessert is pre-made too."

Produce usually sold to restaurants is now widely available on the retail market, often at wholesale prices to help keep suppliers in business during the current pandemic. Great Ocean Ducks, Nichols Poultry and Burraduc Buffalo Dairy are only a few of the stellar producers to increase their public offerings and inspire menu ideas. It's also a heck of a time to be alive for fish fans.

"Seafood is at the top of its game at the moment," says Stephen Hodges, former executive chef of Fish Face in Sydney. "I've never seen better fish available for retail sale."

Sydneysiders can browse Joto Fresh Fish and Martin's Seafoods online to have premium seafood home delivered. Melbourne Seafood lovers can look to Red Coral and The Fish Shoppe for a similar service.

Hodges recommends capitalising on "unbelievable" Australian lobster prices due to the coronavirus impact on seafood exports. (Go all out with Adam liaw's champagne poached lobster and prawns, pictured top.)

With many restaurants becoming pop-up grocers, produce boxes heaving with top-quality fruit and vegetables could also provide menu ideas.

"Perhaps your Big Night In event could be to order a produce box and turn as much of it as you can into dinner," says Jo Barrett, co-executive chef at Oakridge Wines in the Yarra Valley with her partner Matt Stone.

"When we cook special dinners at home, they're not extravagant, but we will make all the components ourselves, such as pasta or the pastry for a pie. Taking the time to make everything from scratch, like a restaurant would do, is a nice way to experience the reward of cooking."

Toft recommends considering how each recipe component will be cooked when designing a menu, whether it's a steak and two sides or lavish five-course affair.

"For example, try to have something in the oven, something on the stovetop and something grilling on the barbecue if you feel like firing it up," he says. "Different methods of cooking will naturally lead to a balanced menu of different flavours and textures. It also means you won't need six saucepans when you only own three."

Splash out on something new

"Try and buy just one new thing to enhance your restaurant-at-home experience" says Mike Eggert, executive chef at Totti's in Bondi and the Sydney CBD.

"It could be new cutlery, nice linen, a fancy plate, it doesn't matter. It's your money to spend how you like. If music is your thing, then a new vinyl record could be all you need to make the night special."

Toft suggests sourcing great "nanna" plates from any second-hand retailers still open, or hunting for vintage dinner sets online. "It can be fun to create the atmosphere of a time gone by," he says. In Victoria, Barrett buys her special occasion dinnerware from independent artisans such as Pom-me-granite Studios, where Emma Jimson makes ceramics for consumers and chefs.

At Oakridge, Barrett sources dinnerware from Robert Gordon (pictured, right) while Mimi's commissioned Studio Enti to punctuate its luxe Mediterranean-inspired design. Both potters sell to the public and many other restaurants listed in the Good Food Guide. Reliable (albeit less boutique) dinnerware used by Australian restaurants can also be found online and instore at Lumas and QCC Hospitality Supplies.

Don't stop the music

"Every now and then, I want people in the restaurant to stop and ask 'what's that playing?'," says Ryan. "There's nothing worse than 'background' music – that soft Ibiza crap made purely for restaurants. You want something people can tune into if there's a lull in conversation."

Like many venues including Momofuku and Mary's, Ryan's Provenance playlists can be accessed by anyone with a Spotify account and feature artists such as Martha Wainwright, Bob Dylan and Hot Chip. "If you're going to play older artists, always good to mix the big hits with a couple of B-sides" he says.

But if "soft Ibiza crap" is your jam, that's fine too. Big Night In music should be representative of your personal taste and the vibe you want to create. It could be Las Vegas-style glamour (the Rat Pack seems right), analog comfort (hello Neil Young) or "hidden trattoria in Naples backstreet" (Andrea Bocelli trumps Joe Dolce).

"If Matt and I are cooking an Italian dinner at home, we'll always try and find music to match the food," says Barrett.

For anyone really longing for the buzz of dining out, YouTube aims to please with long-players such as One Hour of Restaurant Background Noise and the classic Sounds of a Busy Paris Bistro on a Rainy Day, Ambient.

A chic evening soiree.

Enlist the kids to help set the table. Meanwhile, Barrett suggests making pasta or pastry from scratch, just as a restaurant would. Photo: Maree Homer; Styling: Sarah Wormwell

Set a time and keep things simple

"You don't want to overstretch and find yourself stuck in the kitchen all night," says Ryan. "Depending on how many people you have in the house, you could create restaurant roles for everyone, such as one person on front-of-house duties."

If kids are involved, a 10-year-old could make an excellent floor manager by setting tables and printing menus while younger children can become professional herb-pickers.

Attica chef Ben Shewry recommends preparing as much as you can the day before, so cooking isn't a massive stress when it's time to eat.

"If you try to do everything on the day, you'll end up with a very big mess," he says. "That's always the bummer part of cooking a special dinner at home – having to clean up. You want to leave time to wash a few pots and pans before dinner, have a shower and change into your nice clothes."

Barrett says she likes to set a time for dinner. "If you say dinner is going to begin at 7pm and you stick to that, I find it makes things a little bit nicer and the evening more of an event."

Takeaway is totally an option

If cooking is still too stressful to contemplate, remember takeaway options have never been better as restaurants look for ways to keep staff employed while dining rooms remain closed. At the pointiest end of the market, Sydney's Catalina will home deliver a seafood platter featuring dressed lobster and mud crab for a cool $627 while an order of black truffle risotto (pictured) at Melbourne's Vue de Monde can be bolstered by $595 worth of oscietra caviar.

Eggert says you don't need to spend that kind of money to have a memorable evening, however. "You can have a beaut time ordering from your favourite local and using fancy bowls. Maybe you're celebrating an anniversary and your first date was at a suburban Chinese restaurant – it could be nice to order from the same place."

It's time to open that bottle

Do you have a wine bottle that has spent the past 20 years next to a fondue set under the stairs? Is there something old and nice collecting dust in the cellar? There's no time like a self-isolation party to open that special-occasion drop.

Aged bottles have potential to be contaminated by cork taint, mind, something professional sommeliers will always taste and sniff for.

"It can be confusing to know how something is supposed to smell and taste if you're not drinking 30-year-old wine all the time," says Wong. "Corked wine will possess off-smelling aromas like old cardboard or musky clothing. On the palate, it has a muted taste sensation. Like someone has put their hand over the flavour."

Decanting rich wines is also worthwhile, says the Quay sommelier, but there's no need to buy a high-end decanter for the occasion. "I've decanted in everything – saucepans, vases, it doesn't really matter. It's about getting aeration going to open the wine up. You don't want to decant for too long either; an hour or two is fine."

A selection on cheeses at Milk the Cow, Melbourne.

A selection on cheeses from Milk the Cow, Melbourne. Photo: Supplied

Say it with cheese

Your main course can be Vegemite served on a Uno card, but when there's great cheese to finish, a meal becomes an event. Just make sure your cheeses have been removed from the fridge to come to room temperature before you serve them.

"I somewhat liken cheeses to lobsters," says Laura Lown, head cheesemonger at Milk the Cow in St Kilda and Carlton. "I know it seems like a silly analogy, but when you place lobsters on ice it puts them into a sleep hypnosis and it's kind of the same with cheese. When cheeses are too cold, the flavours and textures are dormant, and in order to awaken them you must take the 'chill' off."

Storing cheeses in separate containers so they are not affecting the food around them (and vice versa) is also recommended. "Blue mould, for instance, has been known to jump ship to other items," says Lown. "It's also a good idea to put a damp, clean cloth in the container, but don't let it touch the cheeses. The cloth will act as a humidifier and keep cheese from drying out in the harsh fridge climate."

Finally ...

As Ben Shewry says, remember that whatever mess is left afterwards can be left for the morning.

Enjoy your Big Night In isolation.