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.