31 December, 2007

'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' - Alexander McCall Smith

McCall Smith achieves a rare thing in modern literature: a writing style that is both intellectual and diverting. The Ladies' Detective Agency has moments of extraordinary, deadpan humour but also philosophises on the nature of what makes us happy and contented. Death and abuse are also encountered, but with reality rather than sensationalism. That reality is also applied to the imagery of Botswana, which threads through the novel as an extra character.

There is a notable rhythm to the words in the novel which allow the reader to hear them with the undulations of an African accent. There are also interesting perspective switches: the novel is primarily told through the eyes and thoughts of Mme Ramotswe but every so often, when necessary, a different character is given the first person, or the third person focus. This isn't cumbersome, rather it simply provides the reader with the imagery and information they need to fully appreciate the story. There is an insousiance to the chapter headings (for example, 'Mma Ramotswe Thinks about the Land while Driving her Tiny White Van to Francistown) that puts me in mind of A.A.Milne. Similarly, when discussing the novel with a friend, we came up with the word 'comfy' to describe the writing style: it is not only accessible, but particularly welcoming and comforting.

29 December, 2007

Christmas Lunch

The Regan family dining room

Ah Christmas. Family, holidays, good weather (sometimes!), presents and, of course, copious amounts of food. A time for indulgence in some of the very best of cold and cooked dishes to grace a dining table. At Chez Regán this year we all pitched in, and here is a sample of the results:The requisite ham is yet to be brought to the table (I'm not someone who progresses from ham lover to groaning 'no more' a couple of days after Christmas - I love the stuff and miss it throughout the year!). Foregrounded is a surprisingly successful stuffed turkey breast. The plan was to butterfly it, stuff it, then roll up it up in a roulade, courtesy of a Terry Durack recipe. The carving didn't go to plan, however, so instead I made the ultimate club sandwich, sans bread. The stuffing was a milieu of what took my fancy: breadcrumbs, an egg, grilled apple, apricots, parsley, rosemary, oregano and onion. Roasted for an hour it came up an absolute treat.

Immediately behind is the pasta salad, based on last year's recipe: penne, avocado, sundried toms, rocket, red caps and lashings of basil pesto. To the left, superb homemade (from scratch) bread courtesy of my sister. She also did wonderful things for dessert, with her signature lemon meringue pie. Behind the carafe of de Bortoli red are roasted spuds and pumpkins and the roast pork with excellent crackling, impressively prepared by my brother-in-law. There's also tabouleh, carrots marinated with lemon and cumin, and beans with almonds, lemon and fetta. For condiments, homemade apple sauce and gravy. Here's my first course:

As with all good celebratory meals it didn't stop there. SG's contribution came with dessert. He's a dab hand with meringues and this year branched out to go the full pavlova.

Merry Christmas! How good does that look? And it tasted as divine, with wonderful meringue crispiness surrounding a gooey interior. To end the day, there was happily some port to hand, as well as the port glasses gifted to my parents at their wedding, and which once held my first ever approved alcoholic drink.
Afterwards, as tradition dictates, it was time to turn in, contentedly stuffed, at an unreasonably early hour and get up on Boxing Day to do it all again.

Pie in the Sky

1296 (Old) Pacific Hwy, Cowan, NSW; 02 9985 7018

A diversion to avoid the clogged pre-Christmas traffic heading up the Pacific Highway turned into a culinary and visual delight. Pie in the Sky, a modest cream building squatting high above the Hawkesbury River is a favourite stop-off with many of the motorbike riders who relish the rises and corners of the Old Pacific Highway. Beef, lamb, vegetarian and sweet pies, as well as sausage rolls, are all available to take-away. If you're travelling at a more languorous pace and are keen to savour the view as well as the pastry, you can have them served on a plate with a choice of sides, such as mushy peas.

With SG already claiming the beef burgundy (my first choice), I went for the more exotic lamb, honey, chilli and garlic. All of the pies feature dream pastry: flaky and buttery on the top, firm enough on the bottom to retain structural integrity, but never too heavy. As you can see, there's no doubt that it's real meat on the inside. I wasn't overwhelmed by the sauce, however: the flavours weren't particularly distinct, so despite its ingredient list it wasn't notably hot, sweet or garlicky. The plain steak and the beef burgundy were, however, exactly what one would hope for in an exemplary meat pie.

22 December, 2007

Gingerlee II

117 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9380 4430

Gingerlee has taken the minimalist cafe aesthetic as far as it will go, without asking patrons to sit in an open warehouse. That's no criticism of the cafe: as long as the proprietors are serving quality food off a thoughtful menu and put some effort into their coffee, then artful interior design is just an optional, generally unnecessary expense. In the case of Gingerlee, bare concrete floor, unadorned walls and functional tables and chairs are more than sufficient.

Where the interior kitout follows the style of Small Block, the menu echoes Rumi (all three cafes/restaurant being within a block of one other). While eggs are available in various forms on the breakfast menu, they may come with persian fetta; their baked eggs are accompanied by Israeli tomato casserole. I believe, however, that it would be a rare table that wasn't served one of their signature, innovative breakfast dishes: the moroccan tagine style baked eggs with coriander, yoghurt and lemon; or the syrian french toast with orange blossom water, honey labne, rhubarb and pistachio.

As extraordinary a combination as the first of those two dishes sounded, my heart (well, stomach really) was set on something sweet, so the Syrian toast it was.
For visual presentation, what a way to start the day! The sourdough is almost too crunchy for cutting, but going in with fingers reveals a stickiness to the sweetness. The best method is to immerse it in the rhubarb-stained orange blossom until it moistens. While the flavours of the dish universally salute the sweet end of the scale, its textures provide variety: crispy toast, crunchy pistachios, smooth labne (an utter delight for breakfast) and the fibrous rhubarb. A wonderful reinvention of a cafe classic.
SG was in more of lunch mood, so his choice was the steak sandwich, with celeriac slaw, caramelised onion and tomato chutneyThe minute steak is seared on both sides, leaving a thin strip of pink meat in the middle. Nice to see such care being taken even on the sandwich meat, and the reward for the customer is a tender filling, offset by the crunch of the slaw and some bite from the chutney. At $14, and as a lunch dish, something on the side might have been expected, but any disappointment is assuaged by the quality sandwiched between the slices of bread.
(See earlier review from Gingerlee's opening week)

21 December, 2007

Land of Siam

121 Lygon St, Carlton; 03 9349 1999 77 Inkerman St, St Kilda; (03) 9534 9909

It's always nice to go to Lygon St for something other than Italian. Land of Siam provides an authentic Asian taste experience and on this Thursday was buzzing with three separate Christmas party groups as well as a handful of dining duos.

The restaurant fitout draws strongly on stone: the walls are a dark grey, the floor is bare and with a large urn water feature there's almost a cave-like effect. A bigger effect of all those exposed hard surfaces, however, was a problematic noise level. Some wall hangings or other soft furnishings could go a long way to helping facilitate lunchtime conversation.

Lunch is fabulous value at Land of Siam. 15 or so dishes from their more extensive dinner menu are offered at the bargain price of $9.90 including jasmine rice. I was thrilled, as it meant I didn't have to limit myself to a noodle dish. Happily my dining partner opted nonetheless for the Pad Thai: the yardstick of Thai dining and the quickest way to determine restaurant quality.

In this case the verdict was better than average. The dish came liberally sprinkled with nuts and the peanut sauce was not too cloying. Most importantly there was some subtly of flavour - lime, tamarind and onion all came through.

My choice was the Wok Basil Beef, with snake beans, red capsicum, chilli-garlic puree and Thai basil sauce.

It was hot! Luckily I had a Singha beer to quench some of the heat. The chilli didn't overpower the dish, however, as all the ingredients had been well-prepared and made a contribution to the overall effect. There was ample sauce, its dark colour mirroring the aniseed flavour from the basil, the vegies were fresh and al dente and the beef was tender.

An excellent value, satisfying lunchtime meal.

19 December, 2007

Flavour combo

My sage plant was looking a little stretched, a little dry towards the roots and definitely in need of a trim. What to use the trimmed leaves for? A risotto recipe happily cropped up that also gave me the opportunity of using up some sweet potato that had been loitering in the crisper.

Sweet potato is a favourite veg of mine. It's filling and versatile like potato, but has two great advantages over its cousin: it's quicker to cook and has a sweetness that lifts a savoury dish.

For the risotto I lavishly poured olive oil into the pan (we don't want the rice drying out!) along with some butter, and fried up an onion. Arborio rice was next, with plenty of stirring to make sure it was coated by the oil. Next, mushrooms and sweet pot. I'd held back on the mushrooms so they didn't soak up all the butter before the rice was added. Sweet pot's first advantage came to the fore here: it could just be added for a quick fry and then boil up as the stock was being ladled in, rather than having to be cooked separately. Pre-prepared, homemade stock was added regularly, along with a splash of verjuice (in the absence of any open white wine). When the stock was exhausted I added a good handful of torn sage leaves. For serving, I sprinkled chopped bacon, fried to crispiness, over the top, along with a couple of whole sage leaves.
How does one describe the taste of sage? It's a sweet herb; its furry leaves make me think of a peach and its that kind of sweetness it exhibits: sweet like a peach, rather than an apple or a mango. It has quite a heady, perfumed smell as well, that rises from the food. So in this dish, the heady sage marries with the starchy sweet potato and the two are countered and lifted by the salty bacon. Delish!

17 December, 2007

'31 Songs' - Nick Hornby

When you've set the benchmark for a modern genre, it seems reasonable to publish a book of your personal digressions on a topic integral to your novelistic style. In Nick Hornby's case, that topic is popular culture, or more specifically in this case, pop music. Here are 31 songs that mean more than just a bit, songs that have defined moments but, more than that, have stayed with Hornby over time and have often transformed to take on new meanings. His musical knowledge is aptly demonstrated. He is a man who listens on many levels, hearing the subtlety in pop music that one reads into literature or looks for in art.

Right from the start, this isn't a concept that is going to please everyone. In 'High Fidelity' each of Rob's Top 5 lists is laid out there in a fictional context: just like his record-shop mates the reader is free to criticise or nod sagely in agreement. Here though, Hornby is putting his favourites out in the real world. There's no fantasy or other characters to hide behind. And, if you have never had a relationship with a song that lasted longer than its three-and-a-half minute duration, then the book's appeal would be lost to you by the time you're halfway through the introduction.

If, however, your record collection has played a significant role in your emotional development, then there's always the problem of personal taste. I hit my first taste obstacle with just the third song of the book and my immediate response was, momentarily, to wonder how I could go further and trust the taste of a man publicly proclaiming his satisfaction with this particular songstress (granted, with only one specific song of hers). Such disagreements are inevitable, but are also in fact part of the point that Hornby is trying to make. These songs are about him: he is relating his inner self and experiences through what these songs mean to him, rather than using up his, his publisher's and the reader's time simply expounding on what he likes. It's not the choice of songs that are most relevant, it's what Hornby reveals about himself in describing why each song is included. That level of honesty and philosophy, combined with his music knowledge, make this a worthwhile exploration.

15 December, 2007

Pappa's Fish and Chips

79 Holmes St, Brunswick; 03 9383 4331

What's a hot summer Friday night without fish and chips? When you've no mood to cook and, let's face it, the house is already too hot without turning on the stove and oven (there's nothing in the house that could be prepared via use of the microwave alone) the local fish and chippery is a happy haven.

We're blessed to have some of the best value fried seafood and starch in Melbourne very close to hand. How much would you expect the serving shown below to set you back? To help you guess, included is a piece of fish too large to fit the box, two potato cakes, a dim sim, and more chips than we could ever eat and retain healthy heart function.$7.70*. That's right. And if that makes you shake your head in wonder let me add to your incredulity: this is what they call the Single Pack! (Oh yes, and it comes with a can of soft drink as well).

The fish is plentiful. As you can see from the picture it comes in a pale batter and probably tastes best immediately out of the oil: it doesn't tend to be particularly crispy by the time you get it home. That's OK though because the ratio of fish to batter is very much in favour of the flesh. The potato cakes are hefty as well, with a wonderful crunch to the batter. And the chips are good enough that I always eat way more than I needed to, normally at the expense of the poor dim sim (excellent with soy sauce).

*The 2008 price is $9. Still good value :)

13 December, 2007

'Once While Travelling' - Tony and Maureen Wheeler

This is the history of the publishing giant that is Lonely Planet. Now over 30 years old, the company progressed slowly enough towards its current status that this book is primarily concerned with developments, experiments, trial and error: their global success was not cemented until the last third of their history.

Its strength lies in its multi-level appeal. Nearly anyone who has travelled has used a Lonely Planet guide and it's fascinating to learn both how the company grew and to get to know the people who started it. There is a strong business element to the book: it is both inspiring and informative as for the first 15 years or so this was a very small, personal operation. There are also a lot of travel tales, from the Wheeler's utterly exhaustive trips around the world, with descriptions and anecdotes from every continent. Furthermore, Tony and Maureen Wheeler are extremely endearing people so the biography element of the book is just as engaging as the business and travel aspects.

Having read multiple large-print-run works of literature of late with typos and inconsistencies it was a relief to read something so well edited. This is not entirely surprising, since Tony managed the publishing side of Lonely Planet for many years and is an experienced editor. That's not to say it's flawless - there are some overly colloquial sentences that are hard to interpret on the first read and hence appear as mistakes, and the chronology does jump a little bit. This is inevitable though and does not lessen the reading experience: in business the consequences of one decision may not be felt for several years, so on various occasions an event is initially summarised and then explained more fully at the appropriate stage later in the book.

What is so endearing about this book is its truth. The Wheelers must have been asked thousands of times how Lonely Planet started and grew, and here they have a reference that allows them to say 'If you really want to know, read this!'. Importantly it gives a clear idea of how the business grew (and at times retreated), without miring in too much detail, rather than leapfrogging from success to success. It doesn't skirt around hard times or bad decisions. Having bought my first Lonely Planet in 2003 I was intrigued to learn that it was at this time, with profits in eight figures, that the company went through some of its hardest times.

The account is neither verbose, self-indulgent, nor contrarily self-effacing. The company is a global brand and it would ring falsely if the authors pretended it was anything other than that. While not ignoring the extent of their success, the more detailed chapters focus on the development of the company, during which the Wheeler's knew everyone who worked for them and celebrated every staff member's birthday, a tradition I have no doubt they would carry on if their size allowed.

11 December, 2007

Animal Orchestra

163 Grattan St, Carlton; 03 9349 4944

Located close to Melbourne University, Animal Orchestra does a good service to its staff and students, serving up a variety of pides, daily specials and all-day breakfast.

Handy too, at this time of year, that it's ample footpath seating gives options of sunny or shady, in addition to the tables inside. For those avoiding both sun and wind there is an extremely cosy interior: low lighting is offset by brightly collaged walls and lots of mirrors.

The all-day breakfast features a range of baked eggs, with meaty and vegie options. There are also three daily soups ($9.90). The cafe is licenced and offers a range of teas, including their own mint tea.

The best student fare are the pides, priced between $8.80 and $9.90. There are seven on offer, including chicken with bacon, thyme and pesto mayo and cheese, as well as Viet-pork with veg and hoi-sin sauce. The mushroom pide comes with chilli, garlic (great start to an ingredients list), roast almonds and fontina cheese. (For the sake of customer expectation I would call this a focaccia, or even toasted sandwich, but I'm assuming they're using Turkish bread, and hence the 'pide' moniker). The mushroom pide had visible chopped chilli but its flavour came overwhelmingly from the funghi, rather than the accompaniments.

Animal Orchestra is in a great spot: relatively quiet, although within a spit of Swanston St, and is guaranteed a good passing trade from the Uni. It's also a far preferable alternative to the two franchise outlets visible from its footpath seating. For a post-lecture drink, or quiet study inside over freshly-brewed tea it achieves good marks.

Sunlit dust

"If you're fortunate, the thread of meaning that is said to run through personal existence eventually breaks and the coherent story of a life that might have looked good in a book or newspaper obituary becomes instead the floating of glowing dust particles in a beautiful shaft of sunlight called consciousness.

I'm beginning to think that a good life has a very pleasing lack of story line and a lot of sunlit dust particles"

Michael Leunig

10 December, 2007

Pizza Farro II

608 High St, Thornbury; 03 9484 2040

What to do when a multi-page menu has no dull bits, no sections to skip over before you get to the good stuff? Pizza Farro's current menu is temptation from the off, with the front page pasta specials - such as spicy pork sausage in a carbonara sauce - almost luring me away from my dining intention: their excellent, spelt-flour pizzas.

As described in a previous post, the menu is divided into pastas, antipasti and meat, non-meat and fish pizzas. We managed to delve into three of these subsections between us. First out was garlic bread, which was moister than on our first visit and glowing with garlic flavour. Four arancini balls came with a pert, minty yoghurt sauce (handy I guess after all that garlic!) The rice balls were suitably crispy on the outside and held their filling well.

The pizzas were, again, delicious. The spelt dough base is very giving and perhaps a little nuttier than a standard flour one. And it's just not as heavy, so even after bread and a starter you can really hoe into the laden pizzas. First up was the ricotta, with olive tapenade, spinach, pine nuts, garlic and artichokes. What a list! It's a superb flavour and texture combination, as the salty tapenade layering the pizza base is perfectly countered by the sweet, fluffy ricotta. The pine nuts add a tiny bit of crunch and the artichokes give some roughage, in a good way, against the downy cheese.

The salsicce - spicy pork sausage, roast capsicum, spring onion, bocconcini and parmesan - flies the Italian tri-colour flag and looks as tempting and fulfilling as a pizza can. It delivers on the flavour promise, though all that meat, dough, greenery and cheese shaved on post-oven had my mind tricked into thinking focaccia rather than pizza.

Pizza Farro has made a name out of its rustic charm. BYO wine is served in the same type of tumblers as the water. The waitstaff are keen to help you with the menu, make recommendations and ensure you're aware of any updates since your last visit. A word on corkage though - we were last there in May and the corkage was $3.50 and in our case was actually $0, as they waived it since we hadn't finished the bottle. Last night corkage was $7 a bottle, about the same price as their cheapest by-the-glass. It seems out of keeping with the rustic atmosphere.

06 December, 2007

Rathdowne Tavern

184 Rathdowne St, Carlton; 03 9348 1133

Peeling paint, faded signage, scrawled writing on chalkboards. That's the exterior of the Rathdowne Tavern. One of those chalkboards advertised the $10 Tuesday bar special - a particular dish each week plus a pot of beer. And hence we discovered the interior: fresh, bright paint, oodles of sunlight, friendly bar staff and a turnover of happy patrons.

The selected dish was roast chicken:
Half a bird in fact, squashing an ample pile of very sharp (endive?) greens, and dwarfing a handful of fries. The chicken was marinated with thyme and lemon and was impressively moist throughout, with a bit of crisp on the bits of skin closest to the cooking element. The flesh was still quite pink, perhaps inevitable if you're going to turn out a hundred or so birds in a night in quick time - given it was of ample size, juicy and had been looked after with a decent marinade, something had to be cut short, and presumably its cooking time.
For $10, including a pot, a convivial atmosphere of customers happy with quality food at a great price, and friendly bar staff, it represents excellent value.

05 December, 2007

Home satisfaction

I've got the hang of remembering to, firstly, take my camera to restaurants and, secondly, to then photograph the food (preferably before I start eating, but this isn't always the case!) I need to train myself now in the same skills for home cooking, just in case it turns out to be newsworthy.

Saturday night's veal saltimbocca was a case in point: two strips of veal, pummelled to tenderness, wrapped around sage and proscuitto and fried each side were ladled with our best garlic, butter and white wine sauce to date. They disappeared way too quickly for photography to have come into the equation, however!

Today's lunch tasted almost impossibly good, given the ease of preparation. I just toasted a bun, grabbed some basil from the plant and smushed it with garlic, pinenuts, oil, S&P to make my signature pesto, then mixed in some whole egg mayo and smothered that all over said toasted bread with a fried chicken breast. It was su-poib.

04 December, 2007

'The Secret River', Kate Grenville

Of recently-released fiction, this was the novel I was most keen to read. It was Australian, it dealt with history, it was from an admired publishing house (Text) and it had been decorated with multiple awards. Such a build-up can lead to disappointment, but I don't think it was my expectations that gave me a confused response to this book.

The first part of the book is concerned with the London life of William Thornhill: his childhood, marriage to Sal and the lead-up to when a robbery, necessary to keep his young family in food, goes wrong and he is sentenced to transportation to Australia. After some time in the new colony the Thornhills settle upriver on the Hawkesbury and the core of the book is concerned with their struggle and that of other 'emancipists' to establish themselves on the land that they were encouraged to claim and work in order to help the colony prosper.

This land, of course, contrary to British decree, was not unoccupied. The relationship between the settlers and the indigenous inhabitants was never peaceful and from the beginning showed the worst in white culture. Some of the conversations in the book about the 'natives' are sickening. Not because of any graphic detail, however, but for the undisguised ignorance and unforgivable presumption being shown on the part of the settlers.

It was with this theme that I struggled. The novel has no real narrative voice: it is historical fiction that has come down on the fiction side of the fence, in that it purely retells a story as it is presumed to have happened. Therefore there is no moderator when the settlers accuse the Aborigines of 'thieving' their land, when they declare that as the natives have never worked the land, never broken a sweat over it, they therefore have absolutely no entitlement to it.

For the most part these were simple men that settled on the Hawkesbury. The majority came from poor stock in England and they were all there because of an unjust legal system that cared little for the non-gentry. To a man they acted unconscionably to the indigenous population. I can postulate it was due to the power rush of having a class beneath them, but that is flawed since firstly nothing should excuse their actions, and secondly the native race was in fact far advanced.

But all of this did happen - native land was stolen, vital crops were destroyed and many, many indigenous people were savagely killed. I struggled with this not being commented on, with it simply being presented as the historical fact. Which, unless Grenville had written a textbook, was the mode in which it needed to be presented. I was further disturbed by how little removed the Australian descendants, or modern citizens of the Empire, are from these people and that while the purveyors of such ignorance and presumption have gone on to 'prosper', a culture with so much respect for and knowledge of our brutal, beautiful land, has been all but destroyed.

The writing itself is very fluid, the story ebbing and flowing as do the waters of the Thames and Hawkesbury Rivers. There are some rudimentary metaphors employed: Sydney Harbour is described at one point with 'shafts of sunlight sen[ding] pale fingers into its glassy green depths'. The metaphor is straightforward, but there is balance in the sentence. Oftentimes a metaphor is given - once they are living off the land these tend to feature darkness and the air - then a literal explanation immediately follows. Some descriptions are repeated, for example as the settlers and their slaves get used to their new life they more than once approach a confronting subject with a tone that is described as deliberately light and commonplace. I felt there were one or two continuity issues towards the end of the book as well.

This lightness of style was the crux of the contradictions I felt while reading it: it stopped me from feeling the force of the book's dedication to a cultural tragedy. The story was of too great import for the tone, for the casual way atrocities were planned, said and done. But this was the reality of the situation and, disturbingly, that reality is not far enough into the past.

03 December, 2007

La Bussola

319 Lygon St, Brunswick; 03 9387 6779

In an earlier post I commented on Il Nostro Posto's attempts to create a genuine Italian trattoria feel, which I didn't feel were a 100% successful. In part, that was probably because I was subconsciously comparing it with La Bussola, the first restaurant we ventured to in the area and have since returned to probably more than any other. Why? Because this family-run establishment turns out well-priced, generously-portioned, authentically-prepared Italian food. Furthermore, the interior makes me feel like I'm in Italy: elaborate wrought iron contrasts with laminex tables and plastic chairs. The walls at the front of the restaurant are exposed brick; at the back they're a colour-wall of various warm hues being tried on for size.

Their main business is pizza, and they do a nightly, bustling trade in takeaway. The menu, deftly held together on a clipboard at each table, also has a pick-and-mix pasta selection: you select the noodle and sauce of your choice, all at around $10. From this part of the menu I can highly recommend their amatriciana sauce. They offer various other plated dishes, with lots of seafood on offer, a saltimbocca, and a decent schnitzel.

La Bussola also does good things on their drinks list. They offer house red and white at just $4 a glass, as well as several beers at good prices. Even Peroni comes in at $5 a bottle, I think.

On our most recent visit the item of choice was a shared chicken pizza, with ham and mushrooms.It arrives steaming from the pizza oven and is suitably laden with toppings. While I'd never use it at home, I love a trattoria pizza strewn with diced ham. The pizzas are only lightly cooked, but the dough still achieves the crispiness you want to complement the toppings moored in the melted cheese. Excellent value, fresh, quality stuff.

29 November, 2007

Mark's Pizza

Corner of Grattan and Swanston Sts; 03 9347 0474

Mark's is a great option for a cheap feed, close to the CBD. Most of the pizzas are around $8-9 for a medium size (example below). There's a set menu of course (with selected extras, including chilli and parmesan, at no extra charge), the option to create your own, as well as blackboard specials. The set menu is quite generic - margherita, capricciosa, that curious entity that is the 'Aussie' pizza - but the specials branch out a lot more, with options such as tangy satay chicken. There is also a limited range of pasta dishes, and gelato is available for dessert. The wine list is brief and cheap - mainly Rosemount and Lindeman style wines.

The pizzas have quite a thick base, which was a little on the doughy side. It could just be because I'm so used to the thinner style, but with the cheese cooked almost to crispiness, it was a bit of an inbalance. The toppings are generous, but the heavier dough overwhelms them a bit so each doesn't stand out individually. Regardless, the pizzas are freshly and attentively made; are far, far superior to franchise pizza; and they are served by genuinely cheery staff.

28 November, 2007

'On Chesil Beach', Ian McEwan

Much has been written about Ian McEwan's latest, published this year, principally that it is a) very short (in my version 166 pages), b) that it didn't win the Booker Prize and c) whether or not its premise and resolution are plausible.

Briefly, the novella commences with a virginal British couple in their early twenties, Edward and Florence, at a hotel in Dorset on their wedding night. It is 1962, 'a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible'. The book recounts how they met, touches on their families' backgrounds and returns between each digression to their awkward hotel suite. It is not a plot of action, rather a dual character study, irremovable from the time period. As Edward says, as they finally reach the pure white bed, the only things standing in their way are 'the tail end of religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all'.

The book is short on dialogue, long on description, characterisation and observation. With its length, it is best appreciated in a single sitting - set aside a time and go cover to cover, allowing a cohesive reading that gels the key events, telling background and unforeseen outcome.

Sex is of course a key theme of the novella, but it is played out around the main characters, rather than by them. An extraordinary paragraph on just the third page involves the Dorset flora in a dumbplay of consummation. Florence, as a violinist, is given her passionate outlet through performance. The bias of perspective in the novella falls to Edward, which I found a little isolating, until on second read I noticed more closely the language used to describe Florence's playing.

There is an enormous amount squeezed into these 160-odd pages: two lifetimes and an entire conservative national culture at its cusp before the sexual revolution. The sweep of emotions and concepts is contrasted with the sharpness of the couple's final conversation in Part Five. It's a dramatic change and I think that making the jump with the author is the hardest task for the reader. Previously the novel has relied almost entirely on observation; the majority of that in hindsight. Now we face a conversation where the participants say none of the things they mean, but inform the audience through their interior monologues of what their counterpart cannot know. This exchange is the early 1960s: an educated man and woman unable to express themselves about intimacies, when they can, and are expected to, comment on the Soviet Union or identify birds by their song.

26 November, 2007

"How many store loyalty cards can you possess before you are actually, ironically, guilty of disloyalty?"
Rohan Candappa, "Rules Britannia"

22 November, 2007

Lyrical romantic

"Let's just drive until we've found somewhere there's more headstones in the cemetery than houses in the town, and never leave"
Marty Donald, The Lucksmiths

21 November, 2007

il Nostro Posto

60 Hardware Lane, Melbourne; 03 9670 9939

Hardware Lane is an unusual part of Melbourne. Diners accustomed to blithely opening unmarked doors, scurrying down hidden staircases and striding fearlessly along laneways to reach fabled restaraunts are, in this part of town, suddenly confronted by maitre d's making themselves, and the restuarant, as conspicuous as possible. There are some pretty extensive menus being proffered, but we elected to go with a restaurant that, with a more succinct menu, could perhaps dedicate themselves to turning out a selection of very good dishes, rather than pages' worth of OK ones.

Housed in an old warehouse, il Nostro Posto aims for an authentic trattoria feel: framed 'Roman Holiday' prints on the wall; banter in Italian between the staff; and a specials board with Fileto di Manzo and Cotoletta di Vitello. Something in the bright lighting, or the dark wood finish meant the effect didn't quite hit the mark for me.

The wine list is certainly a helper towards the authentic Italian vibe. On our waiter's advice we drank a newly-arrived Sicilian white from the Rallo vineyard. Very dry mouth feel, but with an equally fruity palate.

My main was risotto di carciofi e prosciutto, interestingly presented:

After my recent wranglings with whole artichokes I had great admiration for this well-sized, entirely intact and deliciously steamed/boiled specimen. I was also able to mix the leaves in or savour their nutty flavour alone as it pleased me. The risotto had good consistency and wasn't over-salted. I'd seen a cook carrying tubs of stock through the restaurant, which in my imagination had been ladled out of an ancient, hundred-litre bubbling copper vat in the cellar!

The 'burning finger' lamb cutlets are named from the Italian term indicating that they're eaten hot from the pan with your hands.
Again, very visually pleasing. The lamb was thick- cut and well-cooked - juicy pink in the middle. Crisp beans, creamy mash and plenty of soaking gravy...our location may not have epitomised Melbourne but the weather, which had dropped 15 or so degrees in the day and brought plenty of cold rain, certainly did and this dish - part BBQ favourite, part winter-warmer - fitted the conditions perfectly.

Dessert featured a housemade tiramisu, a dish in which the total should be greater than the sum of its parts. The parts were fine: rich cream, studded with coffee beans, and lots of moist sponge fingers. Unfortunately most of the coffee drenching had dropped to the bottom of the cup, so it was a bit like attacking a drink that you haven't stirred with spoon, and hitting all the gunk at the bottom. Regardless, it was undoubtedly fresh and very enjoyable.Lastly, a picture-perfect fruits of the forest semi-freddo brought together sweet and creamy wedges with a delightfully tart coulis - sensational flavour combinations.

20 November, 2007

'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time', Mark Haddon

Published in 2003, this book received very positive reviews from many sources, as well as the Whitbread Book of the Year (which disturbingly is now the Costa Book Award, as in the British coffee chain). It is principally an interior monologue of a 15-year-old boy with Aspergers Syndrome, Christopher Boone. The power of the book is in the factual way Christopher relates all of his story: from his genius level understanding of mathematics, his determination to solve the 'curious incident' of the title, and most strikingly the disintegration of his parents' relationship.

Conventionally society regards people with a mental disability as hindered in pursuing an ephemerally 'normal' life. Here however, entirely without preaching or didactic effort to educate, the people who aren't succeeding are the able-minded and able-bodied adults that Christopher encounters. In their version of the world everything is confused by emotions and expectations. In Christopher's as long as the different foods on his plate don't touch and he can avoid brown and yellow then life can progress quite adequately.

There are several provoking observations, which form the substance of the novel, rather than an intriguing story. I was most taken with the following digression on the notion of time:

"Because time is not like space. And when you put something down somewhere...you can have a map in your head to tell you where you have left it...And a timetable is a map of time, except that if you don't have a timetable time is not there...Because time is only the relationship between the way different thing change...and it isn't a fixed relationship."

Positive growth

"They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure."

Ernest Hemingway

18 November, 2007

Pierogi, Polish Festival

Would you spend an hour in a queue for these tasty morsels?

In the normal run of things I wouldn't, but in homage to the way Melbourne embraces her cultural events, I was happy to get my dose of 30+C sun hanging about at the Polish Festival at Fed Square in the line for the only stall dishing up the pierogi (Polish dumplings).

And they did live up to expectation. The dough was quite thick, but very giving, and slightly salty. This was a good seasoning match to the meat filling, made a little bit peppery by shredded cabbage. On top are some caramelised onions contrasting all the mushy stuff with some crunch. Especially given the Albion Polish Association must have sold several thousand of these on the day, they were a quality, fresh product.

There was also plenty of this fine Polish pilsener, Okocim, to be had!


164 Rathdowne St, Carlton; 9348 2808 now closed

Sippers specialises in stocking wines and beers from smaller producers, as well as sourcing the ingredients for their extensive tapas menu from local suppliers. It's a very commendable aim (though for the drinks 'small' doesn't necessarily equate to 'local'). The downstairs bar space features lots of dark wood panelling, red velvet couches, gilt mirrors and barrels with stools. Footpath and upstairs dining are also available.

The Sippers menu is divided into tapas and tascas. The latter actually means 'bar' in Spanish, but as Sippers explain on their website, their tascas are their smaller portions (though prices are fairly similar), so perhaps they mean them as bar snacks. In any case, tapas actually derives from the Spanish for 'lid', and there are few venues outside Spain (indeed, outside Andalucia) that actually serve genuine tapas, rather than just small portions of 'themed' food.

There are some great beers on offer - St Arnou on tap, Hargreaves Hill, Red Hill and a raspberry ale. I tried a Yarra Valley Gewurztraminer, which was a little on the straightforward, fruity side. Excited by the food menu, we picked our top four plates, but decided to stagger the order, to save over-ordering. First up was calamari and octopus in besan flour and tomato jam (not sure why they use the Indian name for chickpea flour, rather than the Spanish, gabanzo).
The octopus was particularly tasty and had retained good texture and the calamari was giving rather than chewy. I thought the chutneyish tomato jam was the wrong flavour match for seafood.
Just as well the food tasted good, since we had waited an hour for it to come out. We were regretting our decision to stagger, and were quite bemused that tapas - ie small, lightly cooked portions - could possibly take that long to prepare.
The second dish we'd ordered was pork sausage with chimichurra (a South American sauce of oil, parsley, garlic and lemon). Points for innovation with this dish: I love a make-your-own restaurant dish. In this case one puts some chimichurra in the hollowed-out breadroll, sprinkles some parmesan around, then wedges the sausage on top. The pork sausages were dense and meaty and while parmesan may seem an odd addition the whole combination worked very well.
During our interminable wait for food we'd decided not to order Round 2 in protest, however we were quite impressed with what was eventually served up. So we ordered again, this time lamb and rosemary meatballs and patatas bravas.

They hadn't been shy with the rosemary and it complemented the softly cooked lamb wonderfully to make a richly flavoured dish. The potatoes were spot on, crispy and salty with a curiously green, gratifyingly garlicky aioli.
There were many other dishes we could have chosen, and they do have banquet options that would satiate a fierce hunger. The wait on the food though was really inexcusable and removed the option for us to pace our way through a tantalising menu, which is how good sharing food should be enjoyed.

15 November, 2007

Risi e bisi

This is a big favourite to cook at the moment - I want to say very springy, but by that I'm referring to the season, not the texture!

It's loosely based on the Venetian dish that falls halfway between a risotto and a soup. My version is simply to fry onion and bacon in olive oil, then add arborio rice and a bay leaf and get the rice well covered with the oil. Add stock (or just water) and bubble away until the rice is cooked - you can have it as moist as you like. Then throw in frozen (or fresh) peas and, because I'm addicted to them, some broad beans and cook for a couple more minutes. Season and add parmesan and head to the balcony to enjoy!

A variation is to cook whichever legume you've chosen (sugar snap pea, broad bean etc) separately and then puree half, with some cooking liquid, and stir that in with the rice. A bit of mint goes nicely as well.

13 November, 2007

Spuntino Bar, T'Gallant Winery

1385 Mornington Flinders Rd, Main Ridge; 03 5989 6565

If you had to pick a day to head down the Peninsula, purely to augment one's wine supply, this was the day to go. Flooded with sunshine, but too early in the season for the un-ac'ed Pulsar to get uncomfortably hot. Definitely the weather for sundresses, suncream, and sun-drenched lunches!

T'Gallant has an excellent cellar door, with a lot of wines on tasting (including four of their white pinots: makes for a great comparison between the French and Italian styles) and two eating establishments on site: La Barracca Trattoria and Spuntino Bar, which does a simple line of finger food and desserts.

Spuntino has three pizzas on offer, served as half or full. 'Half' refers neither to a semicircle of pizza, nor a mini-disc, rather 12 squares served on a wooden board - a tidy snack for two, whereas a full pizza would provide a more than adequate meal. We went for the salsiccia, with salami, sugo and pecorino.
Foregrounded is a bowl of roasted, herbed potatoes, that we ordered assuming half a pizza wouldn't be enough. Phew, that's a whole lot of carb! And oil - the pizza was smothered with it, pooled into the curled-up salamis. Once the oil was sponged off the salami provided the chewiness, while the base and pecorino where a soft, giving counterpoint. Very moist and very moreish. The spuds were flecked with sea salt and had been scored for extra crispiness.
There's a great view too, over pinot vines that run up and down sloping hills. Next to the wooden trestle tables is part of the winemaking facility, which gives a nice visual flowchart from vine, processing, to the finished product ready to be tasted at the cellar door.

12 November, 2007

'Spain by the Horns', Tim Elliott

This example has been on my 'to read' list for years - although I don't remember the original source, given my predisposition for all things Spanish it wasn't a surprising entry - but I was so disappointed by it. It had the feel of a book written as an afterthought - the author went travelling, recorded their notable experiences, then decided to write a book about it. This one, however, was pre-planned and the author has a writing background as well, so I was surprised at how it came together.

Tim Elliott's interest was piqued by tales of Jesulín, a hugely famous Spanish bullfighter. Elliott travels to Spain to track him down, leaving a wife and two-month-old baby behind. His search is routinely thwarted and the book records his issues from Madrid to various towns in Andalucia.

My big, big problem with this book was similes. They were frequent, and frequently terrible, if not nonsensical. Some standouts were: horses with "satiny flanks glowing like copper" (apples and oranges, anyone?), "bald as bathing caps" and sweaty armpits like "burning swamps". They littered the text as if by decree - add more similes! To wander Madrid shortly after arrival "like a jetlagged zombie" doesn't need literary trickery to get across the meaning. Stars that shone "pincer sharp" sounded more like primary-school writing. And when some elderly people were "leaking sadnes like invisible ink", I confess I didn't even know what the imagery was meant to add to the description.

Further, I often found notes of condescension in the book: sardonically referring to the bullfighting publications of a Spanish academic as "a bit of light reading", or to the translators of a thousand years ago as "bookish little men". The second adjective there is really uncalled for.

The author is fluent in Spanish, which opens up a lot more interviewing opportunities for him. There are some frustratingly banal translations included, however. For example, a bar called Casa Alberto is superfluously translated as "Albert's House". Commendably, Elliott does make a genuine effort to include historical details, not only of bullfighting but also the towns he visits, as well as informative excerpts on Spanish history. It is in these factual sections where the better writing is to be found, perhaps reflecting Elliott's past in journalism. And he does give an evocative and accurate rendition of Andalucia, while acknowledging that it is its own stereotype, rather than that for all of Spain.

09 November, 2007

Golden Pizza

500 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9383 1386

Despite its proximity, it's taken me almost two years to get around to sampling Golden Pizza. It's further away than il Carusi and, while closer, doesn't have the trattoria ambience of La Bussola.

They have a blackboard range of standards - variations on ham, olives, salami, mushroom, starting from around $7 for a small or $9-10 for a medium. More exciting are their specials, revolving around more tantalising ingredients such as basil, artichokes and sundried tomatoes. These start at $11 for a medium.

I went for Julie's Margherita:Lots of big torn basil leaves, heavy with luminous white ricotta and dotted around with halved cherry tomatoes. Good, fresh flavours, though perhaps slightly cloying on the ricotta - combined with the thicker base - and mainly because I've eaten so many wafer thin, crispy bases of late - it was a little chewy. The dough was excellent though: firm, but came apart well and ever so slightly sweet.

Update: Golden Pizza have moved across the road to 465 Lygon St, Brunswick East. Their phone number is the same.