29 July, 2008

'Monkey Grip' - Helen Garner

Rathdowne St, Studley Park, St Georges Rd, Queen Vic Markets. Helen Garner's novel turns Carlton and its surrounds into a significant character, one within a melange of personalities, all of whom drift, meet, collide and separate in her chaotic, rambling novel of 1977. The chaos does not apply to Garner's language, which even in this, her first novel, already shows the level of control that allowed her to almost invent a genre with Joe Cinque's Consolation close to 20 years later. Instead it invades the lives of her characters. Drugs, alcohol, sex and relationships are their preoccupations. Children are regarded in the same manner as adults and the grown-ups act with the recklessness of kids. Much of the novel deals with notions of love: of how much is enough to hold together a disastrous relationship; of how hard it is to let go of something that was once wonderful.

The novel focuses on Nora, a 30-something mother to primary-school-age Grace (at the time of publication Garner was 35 and her daughter, Alice Garner, 8) and her volatile relationship with Javo, a heroin addict. The storytelling is purely linear, tracing a period of just over a year, often taking note of the seasons and effects of the weather; however, it jumps, or flits, from scene to scene. Often the location or content of a conversation is seemingly insignificant, yet it is part of a bigger composition: the very deliberate rendering of a lifestyle and a community intrinsically attached to its part of the city and the earth. Garner has said that a lot of the content grew directly from her diaries from the time (and it is often noted, and grieved, by those who have interviewed her about her latest novel, The Spare Room, that she later burnt many of her diaries). It absolutely has that feel of snippets of information scribbled down about what felt important at the time, often under the influence of drugs, alcohol, friendship or emotion.

It is warming to read something so local, something so reverent about a small patch of a much bigger town. Further, it is prudent to bear in mind that this novel is thirty years old, written by a woman, and makes no effort to pretty-up its origins, nor the free-spirited lifestyle of its characters. From a contemporary perspective, it is also fascinating to go back to the beginning of the career of someone who has altered the shape of Australian literature.

20 July, 2008

George ventures north II

Update: 6 Dec - It's open! Check out the review

Exciting developments on George Calombaris' venture into Brunswick East. From John Lethlean's original mention of it being 'along Lygon St from Rumi', I picked out a shop being renovated near the corner with Edward St as my predicted location.

But no! Excitingly, he's venturing further north than that. The folks at Republic of Moreland were onto this last month and there is now signage on the site to confirm it: Calombaris will be opening his Hellenic Republic taverna on the corner of Stewart St, at the site of the old cheesecake shop. There's a lot happening on that strip: Each Peach and Vege2Go are two of the newer proponents, and with the traffic a new Calombaris venture will guarantee it will be interesting to see where we go from here.

In other local news, Artisan Espresso, which opened in April and had caffeinatics abuzz with its dedicated coffee cafe and accessible roasters, has closed for now, but my understanding is that one of the owners intends to re-open on the same site.

Update: The Brunswick East Project is now open (Tues-Sun) at the Artisan Espresso site.

18 July, 2008

Bar Lourinha

37 Lt Collins St, Melbourne; 03 9663 7890

Bar Lourinha isn't a big space, yet for its narrowness it can squeeze in a lot of lively patrons on a Thursday night. The kitchen takes up almost as space as the dining/drinking area. It's a valid split, since this bar takes its unmistakably Spanish- and Portuguese-influenced food very seriously. What open space there is has been designed and decorated effectivelyto ensure a convivial drinking setting, with low lounges in the front window and bar and bench seating.

The menu here is not tapas - serving sizes go beyond what one would cover the top of a glass with. In fact, both pricing and serving size sit somewhere between snack and main meal. Most dishes are $12-17, (the specials were a little pricier), and while our chosen two looked a little on the small side I left full enough to last through 'Hamlet' without craving a snack.

Octopus stifado takes its inspiration from the other side of the Mediterranean, a Greek cooking method involving slow stweing in a tomato sauce, usually with garlic and cinnamon. The sweet spice in this case, however, was allspice berry: tiny caviar-like spheres. A much stronger flavour came from the thyme that had rested with the tomato and adorned the dish. This wasn't baby octopus , but instead the 'big' variety, as the waitress put it. Despite imagining a serving plate the length of our shared bench table, our allotted portions of the eight-legged creature fitted into a modest bowl. Octopus is a bit challenging: it not only easily turns tough if not handled correctly, but the suckers and head cavity present quite different textures. Here they had managed it quite well - the suckers had that lovely, slightly resistant feel of squid, whereas the head was closer to the texture of a long-stewed meat like rabbit. The stew was well-balanced too between tomato sweetness and inevitable saltiness from the aquatic animal.

The second dish was the housemade chorizo, with red wine and nicola potatoes. As you'll see from the pic, 'potatoes' was a little generous! The chorizo was softer and moister than what one normally picks up from the deli. Underneath its taut skin the meat fell away in little pieces like a meatball might. It had the unmistakable cured flavour of the Spanish sausage, however, and plenty of garlic had stuck through the curing process.

The bread that accompanied the meal came in a smoothly turned wooden bowl, and could only be described as a hunk: a big wodge of sourdough for us to tear and share between us. It served well for mopping up the oily, salty cooking juice that accompanied the chorizo.

15 July, 2008

Hotel Lincoln II

91 Cardigan St, Carlton; 03 9347 4666

Bernard: 'What did you order?'
Manny: 'Ah, a pint of lager'
Bernard: 'I got you....creme de menthe'

Our evening at Hotel Lincoln didn't feature quite so much imbibing of alcohol as in the average episode of Black Books, but, like Manny in the extract above, we were a little surprised at what was served up.

The Lincoln has two eating options: the bar menu or a high-end restaurant menu. It has two eating locations as well - the bar and a fine-dining room - and in between the two is an extra space that accommodates diners from both. On Monday nights the bar menu is reduced to $12, and by booking you find yourself with table service, good cutlery, bread and imaginative food at a budget price.

Beef involtini - normally $18 and hence one of the better-value dishes on a Monday - comes with a buttery parmesan and polenta mash. The meat is cooked to softness but holds its rolled shape well.
My meal order was for the whole grilled silver whiting, with fennel and avocado (normally $17). When our plates arrived, the involtini was served, then the waitress turned to me, plate in hand, and said 'I'm really sorry, but we were out of the whiting, so the chef has prepared the whitebait for you.'


There's a pause there to represent my momentary speechlessness. I still struggle to believe that a chef just decided to whip up a completely different dish (yes, they're both seafood, and indeed even share a similar name, but a whitebait pattie with chilli jam is a long way from a whole whiting). Disappointment was added to my shock, since this was a dish I'd already eaten. I won't write it up again - it was very much the same, but this time stuck a little on the way down as I kept harrumphing with incredulity. The photo did come out rather nicely, however:
I don't discredit the Lincoln's food at all: both bar and restaurant menu offer excellent meals, the latter in particular making great use of seasonal food (how good does chestnut and mascarpone ravioli with sherry mushrooms sound?). Having eaten there twice before I know this was an aberration in service, but one I've never heard of before and still has me shaking my head, asking 'what were they thinking?'

12 July, 2008

Julio's doughnuts

Julio is a wondrous neighbourhood cafe in North Fitzroy. It's set on a corner, only a couple of hundred metres from St Georges Rd, but infinitely quieter. It features a brief menu of very decent breakfast and lunch dishes, but much of its fame owes to its doughnuts.
(Handy that they make it easy to tell which is the jam and which is the custard!)

In the city the other day I saw a sizeable lorry outside a Krispy Kreme, bearing the name of that particular chain. When I considered the size of a doughnut, I wondered how they could ever require vehicular transporation of that size, unless, as is likely, they are manufactured on such a scale and with such disregard to quality that such a vast number of them could be shipped at the one time.

Julio's doughnuts could not be more contrasting to that concept. These sugary delights are so fresh they need to be eaten the morning of purchase - don't pick some up thinking 'ooh, I'll have that later'! As with any fresh-made doughnut, they are at the prime when consumed as soon as possible after the union between dough and oil. At this time, the outer layer retains a crispness that is ever so slightly teeth-resistant, before you plunge through to soft, soft dough.

Their custard doughnuts are the stars. The filling is just astonishing: you know that someone stood over a stove, stirring the egg and milk and sugar until it was exactly right. The flavours of the thick, creamy yellow filling split apart in your mouth, allowing you to savour vanilla and a distinctive lemony taste, reminiscent of an especially creamy lemon meringue filling.

The jam-filled doughnuts are not to be disregarded: filled with a deep, dark red raspberry jam, they combine the fruit's tartness with all that tongue-tingling dipped sugar.

Now I understand what all the fuss is about.

11 July, 2008

Satay Anika

140 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9380 9702
There are a considerable number of Asian-food restaurants along the Brunswick stretch of Lygon St. Gingerlee, the Alderman and Rumi might be getting all the press, but Thaila Thai and Kake di Hatti are serving up crazily well-priced meals, and on the other side of the road Singhs and My2K, to name but two, go big on dining space and menu choice.

Amongst all of this is Satay Anika, a Malaysian restaurant. In the middle is a fitting place to be: Malay food takes a mix of Indian, Chinese and Singaporean cuisine to create its own strand of spiced dishes and sauces.

The eat-in menu here doesn't extrapolate much on the dishes (the takeaway menu is more informative), but help is at hand from the floor staff (the chef gets out and serves as well so there's plenty of information available). An entree of plump vegetarian spring rolls was increased to four portions from the normal three, so that we could have two each. The rolls were super hot and crispy and came with an acceptable plum sauce.
Although not elaborated on the menu, our effusive waiter informed us that the Anika chicken involved deep fried chicken pieces with a plum sauce. Which it did - certainly no artifice in description but some veg would have been a welcome distraction in addition to the sesame seeds. It delievered more than expected, however. The batter was thick and crunchy and teamed up happily with the sweet, sticky plum sauce.
Char kuey teow, a Malaysian favourite, had a longer ingredients list. Wide rice noodles coiled amongst baby prawns, beef, egg, tofu and bean sprouts, along with a mixture of oyster, mushroom and kecap manis sauces. It was a satisfying meal, but again, some wok-fried capsicum or baby corn - something adding colour to the dish as well as flavour and texture - would have lifted it further.

Serving sizes weren't huge, and with the WYSIWYG approach to assembling the dishes I felt slightly let-down. The high turnover of takeaways on this Friday night and the steady filling of the small dining space, however, demonstrated that straightforward and reliable meals are often just the ticket to bring in the locals. The service is extremely friendly and welcoming and it's a comfortable setting in which to eat. The quality of the food is fine and the prices are more than acceptable: most of the menu standards hover around the $12 mark.

'The Day We Had Hitler Home' - Rodney Hall

Odd title; odd premise. The launching pad of this novel is the imagined tale of a twenty-year-old Adolf Hitler, blinded from gas bombs, stumbling into the wrong queue at the end of World War I and thereby arriving by steamer in 1919 to a welcome-home function for returning soldiers in remote, coastal NSW. This does not extrapolate into a novel encompassing a dreamt-up history for the German dictator, however. Rather, Hitler's presence sets into motion life-changing events for the story's main character, Audrey McNeil.

The story commences with Audrey half-naked and half-asleep but fully aware that she is being filmed by her brother-in-law, Immanuel. Her concern over his motives is kept alive throughout the novel's ten-year timespan. In McEwanesque style, the first chapters deal with Audrey awakening to an adult, but crippingly naive, sexuality over the course of a morning. Just as Shakespeare's Titania fell for the ass-headed Bottom under the influence of a love-potion, Audrey's compulsion to manifest her womanhood fixates her upon the bandaged Hitler. With her brother-in-law's help, she spirits him away in a plane to prevent his detection, and the family's punishment for harbouring a German.

The pages describing this plane-ride are laden with metaphor, description and multiple meanings. Immanuel, Audrey and Adolf fly squeezed into a open-air biplane; the tension in the air is as tight as cockpit space and, while verbal communication would be impossible, so much passes between the three characters - while their lifepaths will be utterly distinct, each is set in motion through this adventure. Audrey plays off these two unlikely suitors in her first dalliance with flirting; Hitler suddenly awakes to his situation; and Immanuel grapples with demons that are not revealed until many years later. As they fly north to German New Guinea, landing frequently along the Australian coast, all manner of traditional, ephemeral journeys are evoked - the personal journey from childhood to adulthood; a nation's development from colony to country; the progression of attraction to love. When they land at Rabaul, the evocation of the forest and natives is pure Conrad. Audrey's journey continues even further as she escapes to Munich; the novel jumps soon after to her life ten years hence and the rise of national socialism.

Such is the scope of this novel that every theme is multi-faceted. Life as it can be visualised and recorded is represented through the visual medium of the camera. Audrey is gifted the Aeroscope camera on which Immanuel had filmed her sleeping and she records her world through its lens ceaselessly. The entire novel is a verbal iteration of the film Audrey splices together from this footage: each chapter begins with staging directions before shifting to Audrey's first person perspective (effectively functioning as a voiceover). Her story encapsulates the history of two nations - Australia and Germany - at critical stages of development, as well as eternal problems of love and origin. Both history and origin, by virtue of being in the past, can only be retold. Perspectives in the retelling can be limitless, however, and although in this novel we view events through the eyes of just one protagonist, our focus is inevitably split as we are invited to witness it through the dual medium of words and jumpy, silent footage.

It would seem an unlikely fit with the themes already discussed, but much of this novel is in fact about integration and race. In the 1960s, Rodney Hall was extremely active in campaigning for the rights of indigenous Australians to choose or reject assimilation. Particularly in the closing passages of this novel, the truth of the colonists' treatment of indigenous inhabitants of Australia is expressed bluntly: 'We pushed them off it and just about wiped them out, we British...Was there ever any race so nearly exterminated?' Throughout the novel characters are treated according to their origins: rich or poor; legitimate or bastard; native or foreign; fascist or socialist; black or white. Hall's work has been described as creating a 'metaphysical history' of Australia and, in this novel in particular, he places Australia, with great effect, in the context of the world it grew up in. Much is made of Billy Hughes being a signatory to the Versailles Peace Treaty - many countries felt Australia was not yet 'mature' enough to take part in such a significant event (America was a key opponent, an interesting parallel to national and international views of our current involvement in Iraq). Audrey leaves Germany, unable to cope with the danger of a tragic relationship with a Senegalese man as much as with her own disgust at political developments, as Hitler is coming to power. Society-wide intolerance has been an inexcusable feature of too many governments and cultures.

Hall is phenomenally accomplished as a writer. One critic compares him favourably to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. While Hall has twice won the Miles Franklin award, his work is better known overseas than in Australia. He is a meticulous wordsmith, never taking the easy option with a description, but instead consistently finding astonishing metaphors to evoke his meaning. His narrative is not without quirks, however. Consider these two samples: 'One night I dreamed that I had my tonsils out...and that it wasn't the first time' (to close a chapter) and 'The harbour, tilted for the ocean to flow over its lip, is a drumskin of twilight'. The first is an example of his ability to craft sentences and scenes through words too slippery to pin them down to a meaning. The second is not an isolated case of capturing a beautiful landscape with words arguably more picturesque than that which they describe.