23 September, 2008

'Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim' - David Sedaris

David Sedaris' work poses a conundrum for those keen to categorise what they read. His writing is of a style that needs a new, multi-hyphenated name to sum it up. Let's start, instead, with what it isn't.

It's not fiction. Sedaris is very clear that his writing comes from real events in his life. His family are his key characters: his four sisters and younger brother have learnt that their idiosyncrasies are fodder for their brother's embellishment, whether it be the over-the-top southerner in his male sibling approaching fatherhood, or his sister's curious phone habits. His parents - those who would choose the fabrics of the title for their brood - flesh out stories of family holidays at the coast, with plans to buy their rented house that are as spontaneously scuppered as they were hatched. His partner of twenty years, Hugh, features sporadically as well, often provoking Sedaris' deeper musings.

It's not short story. While Sedaris is an excellent story teller - building drama, intrigue, suspense and twists that stop short of being outrageous as we trust they are grounded (shallowly or not) in some truth - this is not a collection of short stories in the ilk of Robert Drewe, Nam Le or similar. One piece about a truly bizarre appointment when working as an apartment cleaner would surely be struck out of a fictional collection as too ridiculous.

Nor are they essays (although this is often the preferred label). This often drier, more formal style of writing presents pieces formulated on argument, research and persuasion. Sedaris does on occasion push an agenda - musing on love or on some of our less-spoken-about peccadilloes (such as the need he has on occasion to touch the back of a person's head) - but his writing is anything but academic.

What about biography or memoir? These suggest a linear telling of someone's life, whereas Sedaris' pieces instead sit aside one another like fallen cards, recounting events from childhood (a sleepover involving strip poker), his current life in France (and a busload of lost tourists coming across him drowning a mouse at 3 am), teenagehood and early adulthood.

Humour? Well, he's funny. He has the skill to invoke out-loud laughs through words on a page, a rare gift. But his social observation takes him far beyond the reach of most comedians who swap talking for typing.

So let's create a new label for him. But who else could carry the same label in order to flesh out the genre, make it worth a whole shelf and having new placemarkers printed?

Enough questions. A quick glance at Dymocks' web page sees the words 'memoir', 'essay' and 'biography' used for just one of Sedaris' volume, so that doesn't quite clear things up.

What is does mean is that reading Sedaris can remind us that words can be manipulated infinitely. We don't have to keep re-inventing the one story, to stick with formulas, to pick a style and confine our writing within it. Instead, there are those among us who never switch off their capacity to be intrigued, their ability to see something profound in the ordinary and, to the great good luck of their audience, can then transpose that event into words that engage, interest and amuse.

10 September, 2008

Gill's Diner

Gills Alley (nr 360 Lt Collins St), Melbourne; 03 9670 7214

What are the essential ingredients of a successful restaurant? For a good answer, Con Christopoulos is the man to ask. The man with the sauciest fingers in the business - so many pies does he have them in - mixes magic ingredients to make his myriad ventures successful. Part of the magic is that said successful ventures are never niche. European, City Wine Bar, Self Preservation, Journal (Canteen): they don't pigeon-hole neatly into a standard restaurant definition, of an outlet simply offering well-cooked fare for lunch and dinner. Therein lies the greatest difficulty in summing up the Christopoulos empire: it would be lovely to bunch them all together, but each venue is unique; the main factor linking them is their aptness for the overall Melbourne dining scene.

Gill's Diner, opened in 2007, is a great example of a Christopoulos venture that is not only innovative but also definitively 'Melbournian' example. A restaurant with a flair for cross-European cuisine (albeit rooted strongly in French and Italian), in a laneway, with a wood and concrete fitout that feels rustic and 'now' at the same time. The decor is marvellous: wooden door frames; squat, square, hefty dining tables; schoolhouse chairs; tiles on the walls. It's up-market bistro but all the menu items are on a blackboard (note to establishment: great effect; not so handy for the vision-impaired), and specials lists are dotted around the restaurant. As for music, from cafe to bar to this restaurant, vinyl is in vogue.

Luckily the wine list comes to the table in printed form. It's superb, and requires more consideration than would be comfortable with a blackboard at squinting distance. Most excitingly, they stock Henry of Harcourts cider. Wines by the glass start at $7.50 and some excellent local drops (for example, Geppettos from Crittenden) come in under $40 for a bottle. We drank Chestnut Hill 2005 Sauvignon Blanc: far more caramelly than is common for the varietal, with a huge mouthfeel but enough delicacy to match a range of food.

The food too somehow manages to nail classic bistro dining, as well as modern Australian, the best of the Iberian and Mediterranean, and stay seasonal and, where possible, local to boot.

A farmhouse terrine arrives as a slab of pink tenderness, wrapped in bacon fat and with a curious dark bullseye. The centre feature reveals itself as a drunken prune, doused with sherry, a fabulous sweet foil to the saltier meat. The chutney, too, was curranty and ever so slightly piquant.

Seafood is handled adeptly. Fresh gamberetti with lemon and aioli are served in a low-key basket, resembling a catch of whitebait as much as their fleshier cousins. There are oodles of them, crisp with a dusting of batter. The aioli is strong on creaminess and light on tartness, the emulsification having been handled expertly.

The chalkboard menu heralds the calamari as coming with chorizo and broad beans, an irrestible combination. It was somewhat disappointing that green beans were far more in evidence. The waiter described the broad beans as a 'smattering', on a 'light, entree dish'. The richness of the garlic sauce pooled on the plate lifted it up a weight level and perhaps just a description of 'beans' would have resulted in better-met expectations. The calamari itself, however, was delicious.

Not to be outdone, the meat portions are also wonderful. Porterhouse steak, with dauphinoise potatoes (served here at room temperature - accidental or intentional? We didn't ask), sits in a blissful reduction of its juices.
The menu item of 'roast duck breast' was ever so much more - five plump pink carvings plus a leg. They sat on carrots and lentils in a sauce that could have been ladled from an urn marked 'Gluhwein' at a Weihnachtsmarkt.

The service, decor and approachable yet succinct menu combine to make this an eminently comfortable and rewarding dining experience.

08 September, 2008

Taste of Melbourne

Royal Exhibition Building, Carlton; 21-24 August 2008

To attend a progressive dinner at The Botanical, Circa the Prince and Interlude would present a variety of hindrances, not least being the awkward distances to travel between the three restaurants. Taste of Melbourne presented the opportunity to achieve just that, with no further impediment than navigating a crowd of foodies (some of whom I think were only moonlighting as food buffs) within the finite and fantastic surrounds of the Royal Exhibition Building.

The Taste Festival comes to Melbourne via London, having spread its wings through several cities in the UK, to Johannesburg, and landing in Amsterdam, Brussels, Melbourne and Sydney in 2008. On paper, the setup distinguishes it from other, more familiar food festivals: a select range of restaurants offer three signature dishes, in reduced portions. The Festival operates its own currency of Crowns - $1 buys one Crown, and most of the dishes are between eight and ten Crowns. A $50 ticket gets you the $30 entry fee, plus thirty Crowns - a saving of five dollars.

Therein lies another distinction - it's not the cheapest food event on the calendar! Once inside though, things became a little more familiar. Just as one would expect at the Good Food and Wine Festival, or any number of events at Fed Sq, the festival space was filled with exhibitors offering samples of their produce, so the fiscally savvy visitor could easily garner three reduced-sized dishes with their thirty Crowns and satisfy any residual hunger with tastes of Bultarra lamb, puddings, brownies, Jalna yoghurt, or vincotto from Enoteca Sileno.

But what of those signature dishes? I gave careful consideration to the menu, ensuring I picked from restaurants that were of interest, but perhaps in a price bracket that made an imminent visit unlikely.

First up was a dish from the Botanical, which had grabbed my attention from the moment I perused the dishes on offer: Macleay Valley rabbit and chorizo terrine with quince aioli. It's those two words at the end that turn my head.As with several of the dishes on offer, the presentation wasn't going to win any prizes for aesthetics - paper plates don't help, and these were 'sample size', so morsels, smears and smidgins were the order of the day!

Secondly was an intriguing mix from Circa, the Prince: slow-cooked sher wagyu, braised meat pie, truffled coleslaw and licorice-spiced pumpkin.This plate served up more than a morsel of meat. The too-cute pumpkin pie was only ever-so-slightly tinged with the licorice spice, but just as well since there was also the unmistakable kapow of truffle in the coleslaw, and all that nutty fattiness in the wagyu. Something I was quite pleased to eat such a delicate amount of, giving its constituent parts.

Lastly, I was thrilled to be able to try Interlude's bacon and eggs.Your first thought is understandable - that bowl of darkish liquid looks more like miso than a breakfast fry up. This is true. What this version of bacon and eggs actually involves is an egg baked in its shell for hours at 63C. When it comes out it has a silky texture and a still-runny yolk. The egg sits in a consomme with dehydrated pancetta and puffed wild rice. It is certainly a texture journey as much as a flavour trip.

The Brunswick Model; Palomino

236 High St, Northcote; 03 9481 0699

Sitting in Northcote's Palomino cafe I found a certain uniformity in its kitout that brought lots of useful descriptors to minds. It's interior is slabby (note, not shabby!): rectangles and right angles make up the bulk of the fittings. Tucked in the back corner is a large, solid communal table with benches on three sides; around the sides of the cafe sharply right-angled laminated tables jut from the walls. Even the front door is recessed in a blocky square.

Crowning the front door is a potted fern. Touches like that, as well as the curved, fan-print-wallpapered bar, break up the blockiness. Similarly, geometric shelves house cute ceramics and far less linear samples of bottled drinks for sale. A deep navy feature wall behind the counter absorbs some of the light from the windows stretching across the full shop width.

Palomino does a strong line in pides (of the foccacia style, rather than than turkish pizza style), mixing and matching classic ingredients like salami, spinach leaves, pumpkin, feta, etc. They've also made a subtle but effective change to the BLT: here it's a PLT, with prosciutto standing in for the bacon. It arrives looking deceptively straightforward, all too readily dispaying its fillings as the top piece of bread toppled onto the plate. But taken slowly, it had a lot to give. Proscuitto offers a sweeter filling than bacon, with that caramelly flavour reminiscent of onions on a steak sandwich. Closer inspection of the bread's inner-side revealed a judicious smear of mayonnaise, though a thinner, darker sauce also dripped during consumption - perhaps a little hit of chutney?

And take it slowly I did, as I wanted time to ponder the entity that is the inner-north Melbourne cafe. Having visited Small Block the previous day, and La Paloma the week before, I'd spent some time pondering adjectives, and found myself re-living the process of writing about any number of local places, commenting on the exposed concrete floors; walls either shabbily unpainted or touched up with kooky decoration; mismatched, reclaimed furniture. Each cafe strives for some individuality, normally through their menu (Palomino, for example, offers 'eggs in their shell' - ie boiled), and while they are removed from mainstream homogeneity, there are marked similarities between so many of the venues in the Brunswick-North Carlton-Northcote rectangle.

Is that a bad thing? The model is one that many cafe devotees thrive on, and the ubiquitous success of every cafe that's opened on Lygon St just in the time I've lived here is testament to the fact that there's a call for it. Are we on the cusp, however, of alternative becoming mainstream? Or, are we blessed to have so many places in easy reach who save money on aesthetics so that they can offer their clientele better coffee and produce?

I'm inclined to think that it's more the latter than the former, but every market has a saturation point, and for purists it's better to back away and think about innovation before that point is reached.

07 September, 2008

Small Block

130 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9381 2244

Small Block was the first of its kind in Brunswick East, the forerunner of the cafe explosion that is still reverberating in a suburb previously more notable for being 'north of North Carlton'. Small Block is still a trendy place, but these days it can be hard to know who's setting and who's following the trends. Amongst their in-vogue offerings are coffee cups stamped with the cafe logo (as at North and Baba, whereas The Press Club stamps their paper overlays), a Thai-style breakfast dish (Tom Phat) and service that can veer to the brusquer side of cool (A Minor Place).

Speaking of trends, as the first weekend of spring managed to maintain a temperature over 15C, some of Brunswick's best fashionistas were out and about: how about a super-short denim dress with socks and school shoes? This blogger pushes no fashion boundaries, but is happy to buck the trend when it comes to menu choice.

The chosen dish fell squarely into the 'I'm never going to cook that at home' category: herb and mascarpone polenta with mushroom ragout and pecorino. Doing its best to impersonate a baked cheesecake in looks, the polenta delivered on texture and flavour. The outsides were crispy - an important texture contrast to the mushrooms. It's a bland grain on its own but the herbs added enough interest and it was subtly bulked by the mascarpone (presumably stirred through as one might parmaggiano). The mushrooms took their cue from the polenta and, with their deeply dark hue, impersonated a chocolate-cherry sauce to top the 'cheesecake'. The ragout had cooked down to a thick sauce, so it clung to the polenta, rather than letting rogue mushrooms escape around the plate. The sprinkle of shaved pecorino added some bite; I would argue for the sharper cheese to be mixed into the polenta instead of the mascarpone and to bulk out the ragout, rather than just topping up with rocket.

SG's choice came out looking ready to attack! Sitting alone on a dinner plate, it represented another trend, followed/set by Gingerlee across the road: the ungarnished, unaccompanied steak sarnie. In other dishes (such as the herbed polenta), rocket regularly shows up unbidden and unannounced. Why not throw some next to the sandwich, or at least serve it on a smaller plate so the customer doesn't notice all the empty space? A gristle-free piece of steak was ably accompanied by sweet beetroot and a not-too-powerful aioli. While there was no salad to pick at, the packed sandwich gratifyingly dripped morsels of food and sauce onto the plate to mop up with the ends of the soft ciabatta.

01 September, 2008

La Paloma

259 Albert Street, Brunswick; 9380 8520

It's tiny. A modest four tables inside and two outside. A few stools offer up-close vantage points to watch the vinyl spin or the milk steam. Mottled blue walls flout various images of the eponymous bird; sharp black and white tiles contrast against raw wood frames. It all adds up to a cosy place to be, especially when sitting back with a damn fine, single-bean coffee.

As for food, La Paloma is happy doing its own thing. During the week the cafe sticks with lunches - filled sandwiches, soups - from noon. In the AM, the role of satisfying the breakfast munchies falls to a tray of irresistibly alluring Spanish doughnuts lying in wait on the counter.Like the very-in churros, these doughnuts are of the long and ridged, rather than round, variety. Instead of dipping them in a chocolate sauce, however, they have been loaded with a squirt of caramel. Like Julio's filled doughnuts, they need to be consumed as soon as possible after they're made, so it's just as well there are no other menu items distracting the punters from downing these fresh, crisp-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside, sweet morsels (and at $2 a pop, don't stop at one).

On weekends, breakfast options include shashuka, a tomatoey, Middle Eastern breakfast stew with onion, capsicum, coriander, egg and toast. Given the cafe's diminutive size, weekend diners would be well advised to have a second choice in mind. In this part of Brunswick, however, picking a second choice (Green, Cafe 3A, Ray, Small Block, Gingerlee) could be as hard as stopping at one doughnut.