28 January, 2008

Australia Day BBQ

Hm, now this is a food and book blog, so it's not the forum for me to discuss my opinions on Australia Day. However I feel that I have to clarify that this was not an 'Australia Day BBQ', rather a BBQ that happened to be held on that day, which was significant and worth naming in order to set the tone - that long weekend vibe that often gives rise to urges to grill. Spectacular weather along with excellent, fresh, well-priced food seemed as good a thing as any about Australia to celebrate.

But to the food. For me, when it comes to barbecueing, I concur that meat is an essential, and that it can be provided from a range of animals and in a range of colours and formations, however what I consider a given on any barbie where I'll be holding the tongs is potatoes. Very finely sliced, liberally oiled and with generous amounts of sea salt and rosemary distributed atop. They're normally my BBQ vegetable staple, but since we were going all out, I even prepared a wee salad, of spinach, red capsicum, snow peas, avocado and cashews.

Something had to balance out the three types of meat! The grill hosted chicken skewers with mushroom and capsicum, beef sausages, and tres skinny BBQ steaks, which took about as long to cook as it did to devour the potatoes!

Served up with a glass of Polish Hill Riesling from Randalls, bread baked that morning, and with Laharum Grove aioli as condiment of choice (it went with everything), it had me wondering momentarily why we ever cook any other way!

23 January, 2008

The Press Club

72 Flinders St, CBD; 03 9677 9677

George Calombaris has had nothing but praise and accolades since opening The Press Club in 2006. The menu is modern Greek, taking traditional ingredients and flavours of his home country but serving them in an updated style that is unique, even in this most Hellenic of cities. Where innovation is the key word in the kitchen, flexibility takes charge on the menu and in the overall setup. The venue includes a restaurant, private function room and bar. In the restaurant, diners have the choice of a la carte, kerasma - a Greek style of sharing menu - or degustation. Before being faced with that range of options, however, there is also the choice to turn right rather than left after stepping into the foyer of the former Herald building, and instead select the smaller, cheaper Bar.

The bar menu is as user-friendly as the restaurant's is expansive. The 20 or so dishes are grouped as one of three types of mezedes (which are suggested as accompaniments to wine, beer or ouzo) larger dishes or glyka (desserts). A refined list of wines by the glass is included on the bar menu, although behind the counter an enormous range of beers, spirits, ouzo and wines (including several Greek varieties) awaits. We drank a crisp, appley Chapel Hill 'Il Vescovo' Pinot Grigio at $9 a glass.

Of the 11 larger dishes on offer, I think all three of us could happily have ordered any one. Tempting as it was to sample Calombaris' take on some Greek favourites, neither the open souvlaki of the day, nor the calamari got an invite to our table. We were determined, however, that the Greek 'Parma' should get a run.Tender thigh meat, in lightly-seasoned crumb, was topped with zucchini and eggplant. Kefalograviera cheese is melted on top, giving the dish a robust saltiness, which allowed the schnitzel to be more delicately flavoured than in a more pub-style parma. It comes with fresh lemon potato.

A salad of cucumber and braised lamb perches on a bed of (lightly) minted yoghurt.The lamb neck was charred on the outside but pink and moist inside. It is perhaps one of the more traditionally Greek dishes on the menu: the triumverate of Greek flavours enhanced simply through freshness, rather than added flair.

The dark horse of the night was the pumpkin and almond bougatsa, with Byzantine grape dressing.Bougatsa is normally a sweet dish of custard served in filo pastry. Here, the custard was replaced with mashed pumpkin in a bechamel sauce, dotted with slivers of almond and a smattering of fennel. A sprinkling of icing sugar nodded to the dish's more traditional incarnation.

The bar menu is an excellent way to introduce yourself to the fine dining of The Press Club, whether you're yet to sample the main restaurant because you're short on money, or time (it's currently booked out 2 weeks in advance, up to a month on weekends). It is a bar, however: a little crowded, with lots of suits sampling the multinational drinks menu and a plasma TV in one corner. Some exact calculations have been done to match the accessible dish prices with their size: they are not stingy, but the focus is very much on quality rather than quantity, which I think is a reasonable decision when it allows you to sample The Age's Chef of the Year for as little as $15 a dish.


20 January, 2008

Antz in the Kitchen

901 High St, Thornbury; 0407 413 948

A food review without photos is like a coffee without sugar, or pasta without parmesan: the substance is there, but you're missing the extra kick that makes it memorable. It was my fault that I'd forgotten my camera, but after reluctantly employing the illogical cross-technology that is the phone camera, the accompanying software decided to 'cut' the photos off my phone, without then 'pasting' them onto my computer. Gone to the ether. Oh, the joys of technology.

Had it been a terrible cafe experience I perhaps would have cared less. But the relatively new Antz (at the Preston end of High St), while not taking any new culinary directions, is handling itself well in its chosen niche: breakfast and lunch staples, fresh juice and commendable coffee. The cafe fitout is strong on natural sunlight and primary colours. The deep blue pressed metal ceiling and red velvet bar stools give it the feel of a miniature ballroom.

The menu dances a steady waltz. Eggs - bendedict, florentine, scrambled or poached - take the floor first. Muesli and pancakes are quick to follow and shortly afterwards everyone has the chance to sit down to a range of sandwiches. The range of Antz burgers up the pace a little bit: there's the straight 'Antz' (beef pattie, lettuce and sauce), 'chickant' and 'vegant'. The ants go marching down the 'Refreshmants' board as well.

The food keeps its respectability and doesn't go off jiving to tunes it can't quite pull off. A BLT is served on a white bun with strips of iceberg, loads of bacon, a sweet mayonnaise and some unfortunately soggy tomato. The Antz burger is a thick pattie with a relish-style sauce. Most promisingly, the coffee served is of high quality, with a little-finger-thick crema and smooth taste that shows well-controlled roasting.

This is a small-scale, suburban cafe playing familiar tunes but showing good skill with its instruments.

18 January, 2008

A Minor Place

103 Albion St, Brunswick East; 03 9384 3131

One of Brunswick's shopfront cafes (cf Ray's, Small Block, La Paloma), A Minor Place offers guests milk crates and fold-out tables outside. Inside, an easterly window welcomes plenty of sunlight over the wooden communal tables as well as a few smaller seating options. It's a minimalist fitout that is netting reward: on a Wednesday lunchtime at least 20 people are seated amongst the tables. Isabelle Lucas, former Neighbours star, notes it as one of her favourite spots in an interview with the age(melbourne) magazine.

Their menu features plenty of organic produce and an imaginative take on breakfast. My menu highlight is the french toast: casalinga bread dipped in free-range eggs, served with stewed rhubarb, quality maple syrup and moreish pistachio ricotta.

Their coffee is carefully made and strong. This mocha looked too well-decorated to drink, so I photographed it to allow it to be preserved on the web, then vigorously stirred and took my time enjoying the blended tastes of bitter coffee and rich, sweet chocolate.

14 January, 2008

'The Unknown Terrorist' - Richard Flanagan

This is a novel that opens brilliantly and provokingly, then maintains a compelling level of dramatic and intellectual tension. At every plot development the reader is affronted simultaneously by the idiocy of Flanagan's public, as well as the fact that in the very recognisable and believable world that Flanagan has created, such idiocy is entirely plausible.

The novel is set in Sydney, slightly into the future, but within this decade. Flanagan writes Sydney in a way few Australian authors do. In American and British fiction it is common to feature a globally-known city such as New York or London as another character, with its own moods and by giving locales by name only, rather than swerving from the story to explain their significance. This is how Sydney is presented in The Unknown Terrorist: Kings Cross and its Coke sign, Mardi Gras, street names and landmarks. So too recent Australian events, such as the Cronulla riots and the Beaconsfield miners.

Such familiarity creates authenticity. Flanagan brings it down to even finer detail, introducing thinly-disguised media and political figures to push along the furore and bloodlust around a nationwide obsession with the search for the eponymous figure, who in reality is a 25-year-old female victim of circumstance. Most prominent is the character of Richard Cody, a very nasty Ray Martin clone. His boss is Mr Frith, head of media conglomerate Six. The cloning act is so recognisable that Cody is at one point mistaken by a character for Ray Martin. Therefore, Martin himself exists as part of the fictional world, although we know him to be real. Does this make the real Australia more imaginary or this fictional representation more real?

This constant blurring of identity is consistent throughout the novel. Nearly every character has multiple names, the main character being endowed with three: her nickname the Doll (shortened from Russian Doll due to her layers of character); her pole-dancing name of Krystal; and her real name, Gina Davies, itself a smooth blend of Euro-Anglo descent. The whole premise of the novel spins around a case of mistaken identity and the media's ability to convince the public to believe in a truth through bludgeoning repetition and insinuation, rather than through any element of truth.

Truth, in Flanagan's Australia, is as bendable as identity. Cody sees the "art" of journalism as "to use the truths you could discover to tell the story you believed to matter". There was a time when belief could mean truth, at least a personal one, but in this world those with enough media power feel comfortable turning their beliefs not only into an accepted truth, but one that actively incites racial hatred and a mass cry for vilification. The Doll is at one point actually confronted when she finds out someone hasn't lied: "It now seemed too stupid to be true - that who someone said they were, was, more or less, who they were".

Amongst all this hate, dishonesty, xenophobia and greed is an ongoing theme of love. The novel's first line - "The idea that love is not enough is a particularly painful one" - is a preface to an extraordinary, contemporary religious statement. Each of the main characters learns the truth of this opening salvo. Love is not enough to save a marriage, a life or an ideal. Rather than believing in and loving our country, we prefer to be swayed to believe in terrorism, to validate what we have by believing someone would want to destroy it.

This is absolutely the best Australian novel I have read. Flanagan gives Australia the respect denied to it by the novel's characters by representing it with such unashamed familiarity. The novel is extremely pertinent, placed utterly within the context of the ongoing period that will come to define the War on Terror. That war is being fought within the pages of this book, but not by soldiers of democracy against radical fundamentalists. Instead our fear has inculcated a country to believe the worst, to prostrate ourself for both information and redemption in front of a media who created the context for our fear in the first place. The novel is bold, confronting, incredibly revealing and almost faultlessly crafted.

11 January, 2008

Kake di Hatti

128 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9387 7771

It's 42C outside. It's after 8 o'clock at night. Your favourite Italian place is still on holidays. Where to eat? I admit not everyone would immediately think 'curry' in these circumstances, but plenty of people obviously had, since Kake di Hatti was pumping when we gratefully stepped into its air-conned dining room.

Kake di Hatti is one of the best-value eateries in town. The vast majority of its curries are served for under $10, the only exceptions being the Goa and Garlic Prawns. And you can order extras to your heart's content, with rice for $1.50, roti for $1.00 and naan for $1.20. It's BYO, but if you haven't brought anything with you Indian Kingfisher lager is $4 a bottle and astonishingly they sell their Australian house wine for $2.50 a glass.

The Hatti prides itself on speedy service and it's a certainly a close race between two bottles of beer and two plates of curry to get to the table. The lamb degchi comes in a tomato-based sauce of spices, onion, ginger, garlic and capsicum.The meat has obviously been stewing for a suitable period of time, perhaps since the mercury peaked at 5pm or so. The sauce too has the balance and subtlety of flavour that shows it was prepared freshly but with time to mull over its contents.

The chicken korma lives up to its reputation as an entry-level curry, light on the spice but rich in creaminess and flavour.The garlic naan is exceptional: crispy bubbles from the oven, soft and chewy dough and lathered with minced garlic. Just fantastic.

08 January, 2008

'In My Skin' - Kate Holden

Kate Holden writes a fortnightly column for The Age's A2 weekend supplement, in which her perceptiveness, intelligence and alluring grasp of English are always apparent. Her subject matter is observational, whether of Melbourne culture or affairs of the heart, and regularly provides an uplifting start to a Saturday morning. Personally, she is even more inspiring as a graduate of the writing course I'm currently undertaking, the Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing.

In My Skin, her memoir, is an account of her journey from a reserved, innocent University graduate of literature and anthropology, to a heroin addict of five years, who entered into prostitution to support her habit. There are two critical, inescapable elements to the book: its beauty, and its honesty. Her writing style is extraordinarily eloquent. Smells, colours, emotions and people come alive for the reader as she writes about them. For a very large part of the book the people she is writing about are her fellow sex workers and the men paying them. Her honesty in relating stories from the sex industry, as well as the decisions and actions she took to lead her to drug addiction, is confronting and unrelenting.

Significantly, this is not a memoir of regret, seeking pity. Rather it is an explanation, even a vindication, of one woman's choices and how the industry she chose to be a part of should be regarded. I thought of Frank Bascombe, in The Sportswriter, who pondered often about what a $100 hooker would do for his situation. That is how prostitutes are most commonly represented in literature: as a commodity, an ignominious salve for men; an inexcusable career choice for women. Holden, however, is adamant in casting it as a profession, of which the better members will always conduct themselves honourably. It is a paying job, one she takes as seriously as anything conducted in daylight hours, in suits, in offices. The women who choose this role - and this itself is a key point, that not every prostitute is forced into it, for some it is a conscious, informed decision as to a means to earn the money they need - are not to be pitied nor, even worse, vilified. As with any supply and demand business, prostitution cannot exist without custom, and it is the men who go to brothels to treat women deploringly who are to be looked down upon.

The memoir can be graphic and, if sex work is an area the reader is uncomfortable with, it can become suffocating as Holden describes her role. She mentions that she never felt fear as a sex worker and recounts some of her worst customers. It is a demonstration of the hard inner self that this journey allowed her to find that she is able to describe some of the worst clients as just part of her job.

Especially touching in the memoir is the role of her family: not only in their stoicism in remaining in their daughter's life, but also their strength at the times when they had to cut her loose. Their humour and grace as Holden gradually climbs out of her darker self is heartbreakingly commendable.

This memoir is not only brave, it is insightful, proud and beautiful.

03 January, 2008

'The Sportswriter' - Richard Ford

The eloquence and dreamy philosophising of Independence Day had led me to seek out the two other novels that bookend Ford's trilogy of the musing Frank Bascombe. The Sportswriter, the earliest, was hailed at its release as a masterly and remarkable work, significant to the future of American literature. Which indeed it is, but it is a testament to Ford's ongoing development that the second novel is in fact superior to this earlier, worthwhile and intelligently written work.
Very early in the novel Ford displays his skill for beautiful turns of phrase: discussing his routines with his recently divorced wife he indicates he sought only "the normal applauseless life of us all". Meeting his ex-wife in a graveyard on their deceased son's birthday, she asks if he plans to re-marry. Frank immediately notes in response that he smells the chlorine of a suburban swimming pool. Rather than digress on the mental makeup of his character, this note from Ford reveals what we need to know about the character's attitude: the details he notices tell us that he will treat any relationship intellectually, immediately putting him at odds with the notion of marriage, an irony heightened by the fact that it is his estranged wife asking him the question.

Two of the key themes of the novel and Frank's musings are love and mystery. Many women feature in the novel: his ex-wife, current lover and other interests, and past girlfriends. He considers and discusses at length the "love" he feels for Vicki, his current girlfriend. This is not stomach-butterfly love, however. It is the love of having that person in his life, the love of what she would contribute and what it would mean he had achieved. There is indeed a yawning gap between the first feelings of interest for a person, and that of being truly in love, and for many of us it is difficult to pinpoint or verbalise where we lie on that spectrum. Ford is brave enough to take his protagonist there and try to locate him within that scale.

He muses as well on the difference between realism and factualism: on the one hand accepting things as they are and on the other over-analysing the circumstances leading to an event. The latter morphs into the notion of mystery, something Frank is at pains to preserve. To that end he cannot retain a college teaching position as the lecturers inevitably remove mystery from literature by dissecting and defining it. As Frank moves through a thinking man's version of Nick Hornby's About a Boy - calling up several old girlfriends for their comfort and familiarity - we realise that love - for people dead and alive, for lovers past and present, for places and possessions ordered from catalogues - is the most mysterious of entities, too shrouded to be simplified as a consequence of romance.

For all the philosophising on relationships and Frank's ability to commit to them in various guises, the attitude to women in this 20-year-old novel is not always welcome. Their arses are commented on in preference to their personalities and in relationships they can be disenfranchised, serving only Frank's purposes. It's interesting that when talking to his 83-year-old lady neighbour, he feels compelled to "watch his age", to not appear too immature, when he has just spent a weekend in Detroit comfortable in his superiority in age and education over Vicki.

Frank Bascombe is written as a man intensely aware of his relationships with men and women around him, and is a character placed irretrievably in a certain circumference on the American East Coast. His openness of philosophy, however, allows readers of diverse background, location age and of both genders to share his intellectual journey.

02 January, 2008

Lena's Lakeside Cafe - Newcastle

444 The Esplanade, Warners Bay; 02 4965 7171

My Christmas holiday thus far had not involved nearly enough excess. Even sunbaking had been kept to a minimum, thanks to unseasonably cool New South Wales temperatures. When the sun did once again blaze, however, we immediately moved to the planned mode of excess...except of exercise, rather than consumption! After the morning's ride to the city and back we headed lakeside for a walk that became far longer than intended, since my father and I became so engrossed in our favourite topic - comparing the moods and tenses of Latin and German - that we neglected to turn around and head back towards our dinner destination until we were quite a way around the lake!

No matter. It was a stunning summer holiday evening, and our vantage point from a footpath table outside Lena's Lakeside Cafe was superb.Similarly, our BYO-ed Two Rivers Verdelho proved an excellent choice: dry with plenty of green aroma of apples, grass and pears.

Lena's menu is ambitious, with a mainly Italian focus and several meat dishes. They also had five or six specials on, of which one curious combination caught my eye: chicken in a cream and prawn sauce with cashews and asparagus. Seemed to be a little bit too much going on there! There was a lot going on with the service as well: our waitress was excellent, offering extra information about our dishes (was I happy that mine came with sweet chilli sauce as well - definitely!) and asking attentive questions.

We started with some excellent herbed bread, positively melting with butter but still wonderfully crispy. My main was the scallop and prawn linguine, with cherry tomatoes, zucchini and a white wine sauce. The seafood was admirably fresh and there was plenty of it. The tomatoes and zucchini added yet more to the evening's summery style.I was glad of the sweet chilli sauce to add some zing to an otherwise straightforward sauce. The serving was far more than I could comfortably tackle, and I was impressed that the waitress checked if I'd been satisfied with it before she cleared the plates. One minor point - is the pasta not fettucine, rather than linguine?

SG had the pork, with roasted sweet potato, pumpkin and beans.Our helpful waitress pointed out an unhelpful change to the menu: there was no more roasted sweet potato, only sweet potato mash. The shortfall was made up with extra pumpkin and spuds, but I'm always suspicious when a single ingredient is available in one form and not the other. The vegetables were, in any case, roasted to an enticing crisp, but the meat had been inexpertly handled so was too pink on the inside (especially for pork) and over-seared on the outside.

It was an enjoyable dining experience, however, far better than the morning's efforts at Twist and sent us home ready for sleep at about 9pm, surely a sign of successful excess!

Twist Cafe Bar

The Boardwalk, Honeysuckle Drive, Newcastle

Breakfast at Twist was more about the journey than the destination. SG and I made the journey in by bike, taking a route my Dad was keen for us to see: along the bike path in Adamstown to the Gully Line, down past the ISC, through the TAFE, then along the delightful bike path beside Throsby Creek, under the Cowper St Bridge and down Wharf Rd to Honeysuckle.

The Honeysuckle development has been in the planning stages for seemingly decades. In the last three years it has progressed far more quickly, however, and now, along with a Crowne Plaza and several waterside residential developments, there is a burgeoning restaurant precinct, which Twist Cafe and Bar is a part of.The waitstaff didn't get off to a good start. We sat at a recently-vacated table, which still bore the remnants of its previous occupants: water and coffee cups and unfinished plates of eggs. Neither of the two floorstaff made a move to clear the table after we sat down and, astonishingly, one came to take our order before any such offer was made (nor had any menus been proffered: we'd been persuing the single copy left behind). After I requested more time and for the dirty dishes to be removed, we looked more closely.

It was already a warm day and with a 10k return ride in front of us we all ended up picking the same dish: pancakes with strawberries, maple syrup and pistachio butter. We also asked for a coffee, a juice and a frappe. The cafe was less than half-full and operating with three floorstaff, one who rarely left the point-of-sale and another permanently behind the coffee machine. What exactly the latter was achieving through this dedication I'm unsure, since our drinks arrived after our meals. My pineapple passion frappe had a very exotic fruit flavour, something like lychee or feijoa. As it turned out, I could have checked an ingredients list to exactly identify the flavour, since I discovered later it came out of a bottle.

The pancakes, regrettably, did not improve my (at that point) only impression of current Newcastle dining. They were chewy rather than fluffy and baking-sodaey rather than sweet. The serving size was generous, with four pancakes each, but as they showed no sign of the batter having been aerated they sat heavily and were actually more than needed. The strawberries, amazingly given the season, added little flavour and the pistachio butter just melted to obscurity.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to sample any different plates to see if the kitchen was performing more admirably on the grills. The saving grace of the morning, which made the meal itself a quite inconsequential element, was the beautiful ride in and this stunning outlook as we ate: