30 June, 2008

Each Peach

506 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9383 4529 Now closed

The minimalist refit is a favourite of many inner north cafes. At Each Peach, the walls display a little more flare than somewhere such as Small Block or Julio, and the reserve is saved for the menu. This is a cafe to stop in on a rainy day, when you want to feel at home but have someone bring warm things to you on a plate or in a glass; or somewhere to bask on a sunny day with light filling the front room as you ponder between paninis and their biscuit selection.

The walls here are decorated with tea towels stitched into quilts; the front room is dominated by a hefty communal table perfect for spreading a newspaper on or resting your elbows as you become immersed in a novel (perhaps a book picked up from the cafe's bookshelf). Out the back there's a fire and subdued lighting, giving the room the feel of the loungeroom of a country relative. It's a good place for kids too, with toys and play area in both rooms.
All this atmosphere would be wasted if the produce on offer didn't stand up to scrutiny. There's no problems there. The staff at Each Peach know their way around a coffee machine and deliver a well-tempered drink. Just about everything served is organic (see right). Choose from one slice or two of sourdough raisin toast or cinnamon toast with fig apple jam; or ask them to heat up one of the paninis on display, perhaps filled with goats cheese and olive tapenade, or biodynamic proscuitto, tomato and fetta; or tuck into a bowl of nourishing toasted muesli.

Addendum: Having walked past Each Peach several times since they opened, I've been impressed to note how frequently they update their menu (a simple affair, chalked up on a blackboard on the wall). The panini fillings change regularly - there was a pork sausage and quince one last week, which I didn't act quickly enough to sample - as does a simple, cooked meal option. It's a great attitude to fresh produce and will keep curious palates sated.

Curiousity will no doubt increase following Matt Preston's glowing review in Epicure, 12.08.08.

28 June, 2008

Markov Place

350 Drummond St, Carlton; 03 9347 7113

A laneway entrance; leather banquette seating interspersed with tall tables and bar stools; giant-size posters spruiking revolutions; Melbourne's funkiest light fittings (large, rectangular shades pasted with newspaper cuttings); and extremely fine food and wine service. Carlton's Markov Place has got it going on.

The bar/restaurant is a cross between a gallery and a cellar: it's only one room, so the whole atmosphere, in part set by the poster'art around the walls, is appreciable in the way of a suburban artspace. The tall ceilings and stone floor, as well as the fact that it's downstairs from the adjoining (recommended) cleanskin shop that faces onto Drummond St, gives its patrons the feeling of being underground.

Amongst all that atmosphere is the chance to sample a succinct, thoughtful menu and a very sophisticated drinks list. The menu extends from sides such as fries and aioli for $8, through to snacks around the $15 mark and mains in the mid-$20s. Late on a Friday, our order, to share, served our post-pub pre-gig hunger well: aforementioned stringy fries with a serviceable aioli; pan-fried scallops with chorizo, lemon thyme and chilli, served on sourdough bread; and autumn mushroom bruschetta with manchego.

The scallop and chorizo dish was every bit as good as its description sounded. The bread - soft and pliant in the extreme, with a knife-challenging crust - could only have been made that morning. It soaked up the oil running from the sliced chorizo and bulked up each bite of scallop, an annoyingly bite-sized type of seafood (in that it tends to disappear all too quickly!)

The mushroom bruschetta was a triumph - a mound of seasonal fungi spilling off yet more sourdough (we'd had two complimentary slices with oil as well), out of which also tumbled some spinach. Slippery jack, shiitake, swiss brown and pine mushrooms had all soaked up a generous amount of oil and butter and the variety lent a wonderful delicacy to the flavour, set off by the creamy Spanish cheese.

Along with the food menu came a list of today's drink specials. Conveniently divided into 'before', 'during' and 'after', they offered an intriguing diversion from the usual. Cocktails are all too often out of reach of the frugal consumer, but many of these drink specials were well under $10. While a mojito with vanilla and aniseed was hard to turn down, a mix of cacha├ža, ginger, lime and chilli won the day. Each ingredient was immediately distinguishable in every mouthful, yet at the same time it delivered one, united flavour.

Particular notice needs to be made of the service at Markov Place. The waitstaff were knowledgeable, friendly and interested. They were keen to talk about the specials and offer recommendations. Not long after we'd been served a waiter came over to let us know the kitchen was closing in five minutes and ask if we wanted any more food or desserts - it wasn't pushy, only helpful. A curious inquiry as to the range of mushrooms had the waiter, unprecedently, offering of his free will to check the list with the kitchen. They were receptive to feedback and generally looked happy to be there; as were we.

www.markov.com.au

25 June, 2008

'The Graduate' - Charles Webb

Before Dustin Hoffman ogled Anne Bancroft, before Simon and Garfunkel wrote one of the sixties' catchiest choruses, and long before Abe Simpson pounded the glass and cried 'Mrs Bouvier!', The Graduate existed only as a slender, debut novel by Charles Webb.

When Benjamin Braddock returns to his commodious family home after finishing college with exceptional results, he finds himself entirely disaffected with his situation. His parents are suffocatingly proud of his achievements, but also excruciatingly out of touch with the thoughts Ben foments over days on the sunlounge and nights in front of the TV. Only two characters in this novel - Ben and Elaine Robinson - are of college age. All others are adults of his parents' age. His mother and father organise dinners and parties where Ben is exhibited in a fashion similar to what they expect him to do with his new sportscar (a graduation gift). Ben labours under a claustrophobic lack of options. For his parents and their friends there is no choice to be made: he will of course take up a teaching scholarship. For Ben, his choices are limited to acquiescence or rebellion. In his narrow cultural corridor of upstanding, upper-class West-coast American citizens of the 1960s, that rebellion needs to be overblown to be effective.

It begins with a concerted effort at doing nothing - sleeping til afternoon, sunbathing for hours, drinking lashings of beer and bourbon while watching random TV shows. Then, enter Mrs Robinson.

The affair between them makes up but a short part of the novel: the crux of the story is really not about their relationship but instead about the challenges of identity that Webb found in his post-college situation. Given that this is a mid-sixties novel, and the relationship is between a 21-year-old man and a much older, married woman, the lack of sordidness in the description of the affair is as good an indication as any of the crispness of Webb's style. Lack is in fact the defining motif of his writing. The majority of questions posed in dialogue, for example, lack a question mark: the speakers lack either enthusiasm or any genuine interest in the answer.

There is a very high proportion of dialogue throughout the novel, and little exposition. Within the conversations one speaker's turn rarely extends beyond a line. The novel maintains a rapidity that lends an urgency to what are often banal, unfulfilled exchanges. This sustained technique tells the reader a lot about Ben's outlook and attitude to the future. So much about his character is revealed through conversation, yet all of his interactions are filled with miscommunications and a lack of understanding. When Ben pursues Elaine, Mrs Robinson's daughter, to Berkeley, their unlikely affection for one another - never presented in any truly romantic setting - is plausible since every other interaction has been so falsified.

Ben is not a particularly likeable character; his redeeming features are few. However, his apathy and disaffection are presented against some particularly loathsome, self-interested adult characters. This doesn't necessarily absolve him of the effects of his behavious, but it does emphasise the assumptions made by many about what makes one successful or even worthy. Ben wants to take a better path; for him the 'road less travelled'. We aren't taken far enough along that road to know if he succeeds but wherever he ends up at least he is taking self-awareness, rather than purely self-interest, along with him.

24 June, 2008

Grace Darling II

114 Smith St, Collingwood; 03 9416 0055
Collingwood's Grace Darling may use a bit of a daggy name for their discount food night - Tightarse Tuesdays - but their meals are all class. Diners hit the jackpot when an establishment offers dishes off their regular menu at a bargain price. At the Grace the same menu services the bar and restaurant, so you can choose your level of ambience and whether you want someone to take your order (including for drinks) or you want to take it to the bar yourself. The dining area at the back of the building is hardly pretentious, and its downstairs 'atrium area', with a glass roof and decorated with ferns and straw partitions, feels more like a beer garden. The main meal prices range from $10-15.
The Grace runs a dedicated steak night on Thursdays, but a red-meat-fix is also available for $14 as part of the Tightarse Tuesday menu. Alternatively, their steak sandwich with fries is also a winner. The chicken burger with avocado, brie and hollandaise sauce is a standout.
Feeling cosy, warm, buoyed by socialising on a Tuesday and liberated by the range of great food at a good price, I went left of my usual field and ordered the corned beef, with mash, cabbage, bacon and mustard sauce. It looked a treat on the plate: several slices of meat, not too thick, positively glowing with pinkness, but looking firm and fresh; no sign of that glossy sheen on cured meat that indicates it's past its best. On reflection I was a little surprised at the inclusion of bacon with the meal: corned beef tends to be a fairly salty serve on its own. Fortunately this sample didn't taste like it had been sitting in brine since the pub's namesake rescued the survivors of a shipwreck in 1883! Each of the meal's components contributed to make a whole that was more than the sum of its parts. The mash was particularly straightforward - not overly creamy nor buttery nor herby, it tasted pretty much like, well, potatoes that had been mashed! - and the mustard sauce was more of a mayonnaise. But piled up in a forkful with with the crunchy cabbage and pliable meat it made for an enjoyable home-style meal.
SG chose the beer-battered fish and chips. How cute is the spoonful of tartare sauce? Rather than one great slab of fish with a puffy batter, the Grace serves up three smaller, firm fillets, each more dusted than dunked in the batter. I've never found fault with their fries, and these steak-cut chips were just as crunchy and irresistible as ever.
If you haven't overdone it on fries and still have room a range of desserts - such as orange bread and butter pudding ($7.50) - is available.
What is most notable about the Grace's Tightarse Tuesday is that it's only the prices that are cut back. There's still a good choice of food - the range extends beyond traditional pub grub to include restuarant-style dishes (such as prawn risotto) - and the serving sizes are generous. There is also ample seating and the service is friendly and attentive.
Click here for an earlier Grace Darling review

22 June, 2008

The Point

Aquatic Drive, Albert Park Lake; 03 9682 5566

A birthday dinner took us south of the river and north of our normal price limit. The Point is a renowned meat restaurant, with sample cuts of their pasture- and grain-fed, eye fillet and porterhouse cuts at the entrance to the restaurant. On this occasion, stopping to peruse these potential meal choices, or heading to the toilets, left diners a little over-exposed to a business function that was pumping out some truly awful sounds: 80s pop (not all of which is bad, I know, but we're talking Whitney Houston) and, even worse, 30-something corporate types belting out hits from their teenage years after a few too many glasses of sparkling. So much for ambience!

It was quieter in the restaurant, thankfully. Things remained very quiet around our table. We were in one of the three tables against the back wall and for the first half of our rather elongated stay (3.5 hours) received very little attention from any of the waitstaff. This poor service raised two questions: 1) what is it about certain demeanours - and this happens in hospitality and retail - that say to the staff 'I'm fine, just ignore me and carry on serving everyone else'? and 2) just how much do you have to pay for a meal to ensure that the corollary quality of service comes with it?

I could digress at length on the menu, since we were given at least 20 minutes to peruse it, before a waiter remembered us and came over to tell us the specials and belatedly, on request, bring a wine list. I was very tempted by the artichoke baragoule (braised artichokes in white wine and 'aromates') with tomatoes, olives and shallots, but just wasn't convinced it would be a satisfying dinner. The Point Parma - with besan fries, tomato fondue and tarragon jus - was also very tempting. Not to mention the veal blanquette with sauce albufera, which features stock, foie gras, cream, truffle, port Cognac and Madeira!

But had there ever been any real chance of me not ordering wagyu? I didn't get the porterhouse ($55) but instead went for the braised wagyu beef cheek, with poached quince and macaroni gratin. The cheek, not surprisingly, doesn't feature the famed wagyu marble, but it's an incredibly soft, tender cut of meat. Here it was served in a rich, sweet sauce that was almost a syrup. The meat itself had caramelised around the edges. The poached quince had just enough grain and firmness to add an quasi steak-like complement to the melting meat. A pillow of extremely buttery, almost liquid potato mash sat to one side. The combination was delicious when first served but became just a tad too sweet after several mouthfuls. As the meat cooled its texture also became slightly stewy. I did like the balance of colour on the plate: the lone 'macaroni' matching the potatoes and the quince and meat nestling their dark, moon shapes into one another.

The Point's menu reserves a separate page for Beef, with most steak dishes accompanied by The Point Garnish of bone marrow and shallot bouchee and a selection of mustards and sauces. SG chose the 120-day-aged, grain-fed eye fillet. It's a mountainous piece of meat, merrily topped by a whole roasted garlic clove. It was ever so slightly over-seared on the edges, but on the inside, it glowed a rich pink that, in the candlelight, rivalled the glow of red from the wine glass. When one tastes meat handled this reverently, one does wonder why they'd ever touch anything less.

We also ordered three side dishes. The roast pumpkin with feta, pinenuts and sage came very attractively served:The pumpkin was extremely sweet and the contrast against the goaty feta was quite stark. Chat potatoes, rosemary oil and confit garlic, served in a small La Creuset dish, are definitely worth the $8. The honey glazed carrots we ordered arrived as the broccolini side instead, which we sent back, and had to call over the maitre'd after we'd finished eating everything else to tell him not to worry about bringing that extra dish out.

Throwing monetary caution to the wind, we pressed on with a dessert each. A vanilla bean creme brulee was quite custardy, but the accompanying 'minestrone of autumn fruits' was fine and delicate. The pain perdu was superb. A take on French toast, it featured custard-soaked brioche, caramelised banana, glass biscuits and, most wondrously, Pedro Ximenex and bitter chocolate sorbet. Despite its richness, I couldn't waste a drop of that extraordinary sorbet and used every bit of brioche, banana and biscuit to capture it.

Towards the end of the meal our waiter spent some time at the table, apologising about the missing side dish and our long wait for desserts, explaining that early-comers eating slowly and late-comers eating quickly had left the chef in a dither. Particularly with the carrots, I am flabbergasted that a restaurant charging $38 a main, plus sides, could make such a junior-level error, and that the waiter thought we would be appeased by the explanation - if I pay a restaurant that much to cook my meat, the kitchen and floorstaff should be more than adept at getting everything out on time.

More positively, we did have a clear view of The Point's famed view over Albert Park Lake and back to the city. Our wine selections were also thoroughly enjoyable: an Italian and Spanish red respectively with the mains and a McWilliams botrytis and PX Cardenal with dessert.

www.thepointalbertpark.com.au

19 June, 2008

Laksa Me

16 Liverpool St; 03 9639 9885

Laksa Me opened to great acclaim just over a year ago. It's an excellent city lunchtime option. While you can spend more, a lot of their lunch options, including the laksas, are $10 or under. One menu item definitely worth digging around to find some extra change for is their Thai chilli calamari ($14) - strips are 'flame tossed' and served with chillies, roasted peanut, red capsicum, Thai chilli paste and soybean oil, accompanied by rice. It reads as well as it looks and tastes.

The lunch menu offers three laksas - a lemak with fish cake and dumplings, prawns and tofu; the 'skinny' laksa with mushroom, spinach, tofu and eggplant; and the signature My Mum's Laksa, with pho noodles, pork, chicken and prawns. I had the latter on my last visit and I think managed to score their one off-day in the kitchen! That presented a dilemma: ordering the same meal again seemed too narrow, but I was still keen to finally sample such a well-rated dish.

Compromise won the day, by going for a different type of broth dish. The duck broth wonton noodles comes as a steaming bowl of pork and prawn wontons in duck broth with choi sum (chinese cabbage), egg noodles and a side bowl of pickled green chillies.Although broth is water-based, when it's been well done - that is, started with quality ingredients and given time to cook properly - it gives the impression of being more of a soup, thick and rich with flavour. This duck broth had that quality and was not overly salty. The wontons looked like little comets, with 'ruffled' edges and long 'tails'. They were quite hefty and hard to miss (it's always nice to find an extra wonton at the bottom of the bowl!). As the chillies were served on the side the dish itself wasn't too hot, unlike other plates at the table, which came with sweat-inducing chilli levels. That reaction was probably exacerbated by our proximity to a powerful bar heater - concrete floors and plate glass windows do not a warm restaurant make, but no one wants to eat in a sauna.

One of the big talking points about Laksa Me when it opened was that it didn't have a wine list - owner Allen Woo insisted that beer was a better match for the type of food being served. And fair enough too, but from the presence of a wine list on our table it looks like enough diners didn't agree!

If a craving for any combination of chilli, soup or dumplings hits you while you're in the city, Laksa Me is handily placed, slightly south and east of centre, and offers high quality, well-priced 'modern Asian cuisine', filled with fresh ingredients rather than MSG.

www.laksame.com

Tiamo 2

303-5 Lygon St, Carlton; 03 9347 0911

Tiamo 2 has recently undergone an extensive renovation and their downstairs dining area is now a lot more spacious, in the main part due to the fact that they have taken over the shop space next door. While a range of antipasto is still on display, diners no longer have to squeeze quite so tightly behind its late-night perusers to get to a table. The new interior features a lot of dark wood and red tones - the red being mainly employed in the various subtle ways they have incorporated their heart logo into the fitout.

They've refined the choice of main dishes, but also now have a dedicated pizza-making area in the reclaimed space. There were some tempting pizza specials on offer, but it's a dish that had featured a few too many times in recent days to make it feel 'special' enough to order. Instead maccheroni della zia got the nod: pasta with mini meatballs, eggplant, napoli sauce & basil. The eggplant was not a particularly strong presence; the napoli sauce was delicate and clung to the pasta, which I was particularly impressed with.
A quick aside: For any pasta afficionados amongst the readers, would you agree it's fair to say that 'maccherone' refers to any small tubular pasta, and that food cultures outside Italy have popularised one particular form - elbow maccheroni - as part of the dish maccaroni and cheese?)

The basil and meatballs partnered one another well, the sweetness of the herb contrasting against the slightly peppery rounds of meat. It's always pleasant to experience a carb-and-meat dish that doesn't sit too heavily.

SG's choice was the chicken florentino special.Fillets of chicken, bracketed by bacon, had been rolled around ricotta and spinach and baked in a white wine sauce. The chicken had retained plenty of moisture, so was quite succulent and against the softness of the cheese and saltiness of the bacon a mouthful became quite decadent. It was accompanied by a fine range of al dente vegetables and some suitably oily, seasoned sliced potatoes.

We experienced very helpful service, the staff perhaps being spurred on to offer friendliness to the diners by the fact that there was quite a loud, vocal, bell-slamming conflict going on between them and the kitchen staff! One minor point: the restaurant also features an interesting toilet arrangement - one door, three cubicles, two marked for women and one for men.

Green Refectory II

115 Sydney Rd, Brunswick; 03 9387 1150

I think this must be the quickest return visit in Words and Flavours history. Being prepared for the range of deliciousness on offer at the Green didn't make the meal choice any easier. As is often the case, the dish I had been dreaming about all week - the Summer Chicken Burger - wasn't what my palate was after when I stepped in this time. It was still early enough in the day that I was drawn again to the breakfast menu, but I'd been up and meandering along Sydney Road long enough to have quelled my usual desire for a sweet cafe breakfast. The compromise decision was for homemade baked beans with mushrooms, on sourdough - savoury, but undeniably breakfastesque.

And undeniably delicious. The beans were marvellously textured. Undercooking can leave beans hard and knobby; overcooking turns them to a grainy mush. These instead were soft, chewy and wonderfully complemented by their tomatoey sauce. Sometimes homemade beans come out too peppery, or tasting too much like vegetable soup, but in this case the beans were the stars and the extra ingredients remained effective but subtle in the background. The mushrooms were expectedly fresh and earthy.

My dining partner eschewed the menu and went for two excellent baked options: a steak and cheese pie and a raspberry and pear muffin. I can't speak for the latter item, as it was in the most part consumed later in the day, but I can attest to its attractiveness. I think their muffins are $2.80 and when I think of some of the baking-soda-loaded crap I've eaten for a good deal more than that I can only tip my hat again to the Green's quality and value.

The pie was bursting with shredded meat pieces, each of which truly tasted like a little bite of steak.

And that pastry! You can envision it melting on your tongue like a flake of chocolate. The tomato and onion chutney went a treat with my beans, too.

Sighs of contentment all round, and eager anticipation of the next visit...

Pappa's Fish and Chips II

79 Holmes St, Brunswick; 03 9383 4331

After posting about Pappa's Fish and Chips last year I received a couple of suggestions in the Comments to go beyond their namesake offerings and try the burgers.

Firstly, let me say that we are blessed in Melbourne with accessibility to cheap burgers (eg Fishbone and Danny's) that aren't unrecognisable as food . I'm happy to add Pappa's to that list. The burger was not extraordinary, but given it was less than $6 it's an achievement.

The good news starts with the condiments. There are two types of sauce: mayonnaise on the top bun and BBQ on the bottom. The pattie looked interesting (that's not a euphemism, it tasted fine!) - it looked like it had been chargrilled and blackened, but I think it was just some rogue onion or sauce that had spent a while near the hotplate. As is so often the case, the tomato left something to be desired, starting out soft and progressing to mushy. More good news: there's smoky bacon, there's non-plastic cheese and there's crisp lettuce.

The single pack now has competition!

Shanghai Village

112-4 Little Bourke St, CBD; (03) 9663 1878

The glory of yum cha is the chance to say to the waiter: 'I'll have that, and that, and that, and that...' and so on, giving one a feeling of decadence that lasts until the bill comes, when it is replaced by a feeling of satisfaction for wangling so much for so little. That satisfaction can veer close to smugness if, at Shanghai Village, you've also availed yourself of enough cups of free green tea from the communal urn at the front of the restaurant.

This restaurant suits the lackadaisical approach. The waitstaff are pretty casual - both in dress and attention to service. But that's OK because you know the food will be speedy and filling. While the dining area is hardly gawdy, the colours employed - on the bright pink feature wall or the disturbingly bright orange chopsticks - are certainly not casual.


The first dish to reach us was a chinese pancake.
It fared well with the addition of soy sauce. Looking a bit like a hollow omelet, and consisting of a very straightforward, fried batter, it served as a great raging-hunger-queller before we got into the meatier dishes.

There is no yum cha without pork buns, but this restaurant's offering are not the large sweet-doughed-savoury-filled variety. They're 'mini pork buns' and are more of a dumpling to be honest. The filling is quite respectable, but it's a shame not to have that unique casing, akin to a chewier, more floury meringue texture, to go with it.

Three spring rolls are suitably crisp, but their accompanying sauce - perhaps plum - is quite bland, and without a killer filling it leaves the dish as a bit rudimentary.
More exciting are the steamed beef dumplings. There's just so much meat and dough goodness on the plate! They are utterly impossible to eat with chopsticks: the dough slipping around and the globe of meat inside inevitably escaping to be eaten solo.

Overall the meal was entirely satisfying, particularly as we'd brought voracious appetites to the table. I left with a fairly voracious thirst however, which I doubt was entirely due to my liberal splashings of soy sauce, but rather to some heavy-handed salting in the kitchen.

08 June, 2008

'Slaughterhouse Five' - Kurt Vonnegut

An American man, Billy Pilgrim, who experienced the Dresden fire bombing of 1945 while a prisoner of war (incarcerated at the town's abbatoir in Slaughterhouse 5) is taken by aliens from the planet of Tralfamadore, who explain to him the infinity of time and allow him to travel back and forth through the events of his life. So it goes. This is the premise of Kurt Vonnegut's extraordinary, seminal novel from 1965.

Vonnegut himself witnessed the firestorm in Dresden. Tellingly, the first few pages of this novel are from a different narrator's perspective. It is clear that this work is in many ways autobiographical, notwithstanding the fact that so many of its strengths come from fictional techniques, most notably those borrowed from science fiction: time travel and alien life. The novel even features a character, Kilgore Trout, who is a frustrated science fiction writer, read almost exclusively by one of the casualties Billy meets in a war hospital.

The novel is extremely satirical, evoking the kind of black humour at the human condition and our preoccupations that is often only created through experience of war (cf Heller's Catch 22). When Billy meets the Tralfamadorians they explain that the human way of looking at time and events is the same as looking at the world through a tiny peephole. They understand that all things that will happen have happened, and when a Tralfamadorian sees a dead creature they know they have simply seen it at a bad moment, since it is simultaneously being born and living every moment of its life.

This concept forms a compelling contrast when it is set against the Dresden fire bombing. (Current historians put the death toll from this event at around 40,000, whereas Vonnegut reports it, as many did in the years after the event, at around 135,000.) Vonnegut employs the refrain 'so it goes' after every mention of someone's death. With World War II as a background for the story it is repeated often. It is most effective for the reader when they have read the refrain before they even realise that the narrator has just described a death: at such moments the Tralfamadorians' belief seems apt indeed.

Humour is slotted into the novel at various levels. The meetings and connections between many of the characters are improbable in our consciousness, but entirely likely to the Tralfamadorians. Having to explain notions in the book through the two perspectives provides ample opportunity to look at human pre-occupations and assumptions with a humourous intent. The zoo set up on the Tralfamdorian planet to house Billy and a porn-star imported from earth as his companion is a less-than-subtle poke at our race's obsession with superiority. One of Kilgour Trout's novels reinvents Jesus as a far less likeable guy, with fewer friends in 'high places', to prove the point that 'before you kill somebody' you should 'make absolutely sure he isn't well connected'.

Frequently, the action or purpose of a passage is filtered through several voices before it reaches the reader. In the above example the novel's narrator recounts what a character tells Billy about what he has read in a book. This technique could be interpreted in any number of ways. It invokes the mess of noise that surrounds so many people in their urban living; it reflects the crassness of the media and their distance from the purity of a story; it enunciates the difficulty in obtaining the truth of an event when every witness carries a different perspective. It is also the technique of someone unable to deal with an event in their past: many characters suspect this is Billy's problem when he pontificates on the existence of aliens, and many have paralleled this with Vonnegut and his difficulty in dealing with what he witnessed in the war.

The plot, with its multiple narrative voices, occasional full page illustrations, and science fiction techniques, is quite implausible. Yet it is set against a true event that, 60 years after taking place, has never been unequivocally explained. The themes of existence and meaning that permeate the book, however, are entirely relevant. These heavy themes are not buried beneath inaccessible prose, though there are undoubtedly many readers who find the novel too fractured to elicit any coherent message. Alternatively, however, one can see this as a novel devoid of artifice; one that, without becoming crass or overblown, disregards niceties and proprieties to tell a pure story.

Green Refectory

115 Sydney Road, Brunswick; 03 9387 1150

A sunny long-weekend afternoon. A lazy bike ride, the fresh air clearing out the last of the fugginess from a red wine indulgence the night before. The ride leads us to Green Refectory at the Brunswick end of Sydney Rd. The cafe's rustic interior is buzzing. Groups and couples arrange themselves at mismatched chairs around communal and smaller tables. Counter staff take orders from those dining in as well as those wanting salads, cakes or coffee to take away. A grill behind the counter is on incessant duty warming up homemade sausage rolls. Overlooking all of this activity is a trustworthily smudged menu announcing yet more choice from their hot kitchen dishes or breakfast menu (offered all day every day). At the till, enormous fresh muffins - such as raspberry, pear and choc chip - almost steal the menu's thunder as a lunch selection.

I draw my eyes back to the blackboard and instead of homemade baked beans with mushrooms on sourdough, or a roast sweet potato, fetta and spinach focaccia, my lunch choice comes from out of the blue: when I read 'oat porridge, served with stewed prunes and apricots, scattered almonds and a jug of milk' I know absolutely that it's all I want to eat. This is despite its proximity on the menu to french toast, served with pear poached with white wine and vanilla bean, served with ice cream.

We settle into a reclaimed timber table in the window and admire the surrounding furniture and fittings. The cafe is awash with retro chic, down to the saucers for our hot drinks.

The porridge when it arrives looks just as nourishing as I'd hoped:
It is, unfortunately, lacking the promised jug of milk but for moisture content I make do with the stewed juices. The fruit is superb, stewed to softness and oozing flavour. There may have been some orange blossom water in the mix as overlaying the sweet cinnamon scent is an aroma of citrus. The dish is a progression of texture from the soft fruit, to the hearty oats, to the crunch of nuts.

My oaty contentment doesn't stop me noticing how fine SG's choice of the summer chicken burger looks.A chalk sign just next to our table informs diners that all of Green's chicken is free range. This particular sample has been beautifully seasoned and expertly prepared. Rather than a bun it sits between toasted bread, atop layers of crisp spinach leaves, cushioned by crescents of avocado and rounds of tomato, topped with thickishly-cut, unfatty bacon, dotted with sun-dried tomatoes and forming a wondrous partnership with a homemade mayonnaise. It is an utterly delicious lunch.

Homemade comes up a lot on the Green's menu. The atmosphere here is very much of using the best of what's on offer, to greatest effect. There's no gimmickery, no need for fancy fit-outs. Their menu is full of sensible and delicious food combinations and their kitchen is to be commended for so aptly handling baked goods, pastries and desserts as well as plated dishes. I do believe I've found my new favourite cafe.

Journal Cafe

253 Flinders Lane; 03 9650 4399

Enjoy playing with your food? At Journal cafe, a simple request for a pot of chai tea produces a tray's worth of gadgets to entertain. One can swirl the tea in its pot, infusing as much of the cardamon, clove, star anise and cinnamon flavour as possible into the milk. Rest the tea strainer over the tall, clear glass as you pour, then nestle it back into its holder. A pot of honey is provided for the drinker to manage the tea's sweetness at their discretion. There's an additional jug of milk, with a sprinkle of cinnamon on top, perhaps to top up the original pot, which is crammed with tea mix. It's a good chai mix; all the better for settling in with your gadgets at hand to savour a fine cup of tea.

04 June, 2008

Tasos II

695 High St, Thornbury; 03 9480 6222

My waking thought had been of spreading something sweet onto toast. It was closely followed by the happy realisation that that waking dream could come true by popping into Tasos en route to the grocery shop at Psarakos.

$4.50 at this Thornbury cafe buys two pieces of white toast, a tub of marscarpone and a tub of jam. The jam is not of the chunky nor pithy type; it's a smoothly blended strawberry variety. Being currently overrun with the chunkier-style jam, thanks to our Tasmanian trip and an unmissable bargain from St Dalfour at the Good Food and Wine Show (four, I repeat four, jars for $10!) I would have considered this a less 'artisanal' jam variety. However, while wikiing the distinctions between jams, conserves and the like, I came across this (American) description of the jam-making process:

Jams are usually made from pulp and juice of one fruit, rather than a combination of several fruits. Berries and other small fruits are most frequently used, though larger fruits such as apricots, peaches, or plums cut into small pieces or crushed are also used for jams. Good jam has a soft even consistency without distinct pieces of fruit, a bright color, a good fruit flavor and a semi-jellied texture that is easy to spread but has no free liquid.

And that sounds exactly like what I was eating.

It's a low-tech breakfast, but a satisfying one. You can control the sweetness by loading up on jam, or moderate by favouring the more subtle marscarpone. You can keep it light with a smattering of each, or heap on the creamy cheese.