26 November, 2008

Birdman Eating

238 Gertrude St, Fitzroy; 03 9416 4747

Birdman Eating defines itself with its own font, featured in its logo and on the menu, which can at first glance look like hieroglyphics, until one focuses and discerns many brunch and lunch options. Similarly, from the outside this is 'just another cafe' - wooden tables and padded stools out the front, with a perving bench visible just inside the front window - whereas venturing inside reveals a different story. Chic diners lean against a patterned banquette, resting glasses of wine on darkwood furniture that is definitely not reclaimed.

Both menus, however, keep things a bit out of the box. The brunch signature is baked eggs, with four or so variations on the specials board each day (such as caponata, or pumpkin, feta and rocket). Claire over at Melbourne Gastronome has good reports (and links to other reviews) on that dish, as well as photos proving that they actually manage to serve them with still-runny yolks. On our visit, the day may have been sunny and our outdoor table rapidly become excessively warm, but I couldn't go past that winter comfort food - welsh rarebit - for my morning tea (a great way to slip in a drink in pre-lunch!).
It was enjoyable: with thick-cut bread, crusty but soft inside, and plenty of onion-flecked cheese, but there was a teaspoon or so too much mustard in the mix on each piece.

Much more interesting, exciting and refreshing, was the dish served up to my dining partner (cushioned by an old piece of sheet music, no less). A slab of baked vanilla ricotta perched on a jumble of juicy, delicious fruit: watermelon, rockmelon and pineapple. The ricotta was stunning - firm, incredibly creamy and redolent with vanilla. What a great way to match cleansing and decadence.

23 November, 2008

'A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius' - Dave Eggers

What does it mean for an author to give their work such an audacious title? Dave Eggers was in no doubt as to the range of responses it could evoke:

Yes, [the title] caught your eye. First you took it at face value, and then picked it up immediately. "This is just the sort of book for which I have been looking!"...But then you thought, Hey, can these two elements work together?...If the book is, indeed heartbreaking, then why spoil the mood with the puffery? Or, if the title is some elaborate joke, then why make an attempt a sentiment? Which is to say nothing of the faux (real? No, you beg, please no) boastfulness of the whole title put together.
Self-awareness - a feeling that rarely deserts a writer, but which is just as rarely allowed to influence a work, even one as personal as a memoir - is never far from the surface in this work. The memoir may run to more than 400 pages, but the title essentially sums up the joke/irony/conundrum in just six words.

The book is heartbreaking due to two specific events in Eggers' past: the deaths of both of his parents, three months apart, from cancer. Eggers and his two older siblings were in their twenties; his younger brother Toph was eight. After his parents' death, Eggers took on guardianship of his younger brother and they, along with his sister Beth, moved from Chicago to San Francisco. This background, ostensibly, validates the book's existence; validates Eggers' entitlement to publishing his memoir.

It's not what the memoir is about, however. Eggers touches only briefly on the emotional outcomes of the two deaths; its effect on Toph is all but invisible. Instead the book comprises the derisive recollections of a twenty-something bloke setting up Might Magazine in west-coast America in the nineties. Not so staggering.

It's honest, that is undeniable. But have you ever had a friend so aware of their faults that self-awareness became their biggest fault of all, and it actually conversely led them to think they could do/think/say anything and get away with it because they were being honest about it? That's how I felt about Eggers. I didn't find his life particularly interesting. I kept reading because I had heard so much about how this book 'redefined its genre': it certainly uses some pithy techniques, but in most cases they are used to present that honesty in some unexpected way, which left me feeling that Eggers wasn't as comfortable with his actions and history as he was trying to make out, and that the innovative writing style was in fact more about trickery than honesty.

The line between the two is both fine and relevant. Not long after moving to SF, Eggers taunts a friend at a bar, telling her that Toph took a gun to school, shot someone, and has been on the run for weeks. He admits it's cruel, but also explains that what has already happened is so unbelievable that people don't know what else is reasonable to believe about his family. That sums up his approach: everything has a genuine basis, but through faked interviews, invented conversations with his brother, mixing up chronologies and imagined thought exchanges he takes that basis and twists it into something much more akin to fiction. Therein lie the book's claims to groundbreaking, genre-bending literature.

Eggers is honest about his feelings (outside of what he feels about his family): discussing the second edition of 'Might Magazine' he says: 'We have to avoid that kind of cruelly ironic fate - that we, the loudmouths who so cloyingly espouse the unshackling of one's ideas about work and life themselves become slaves to something'. It's not only honest, it's also an example of Eggers' ability to finely turn a sentence (except for the change of perspective).

Contrast that with an example of Eggers' at-times-excruciating self-awareness. For several pages he runs an imaginary interview. The interviewer is the producer of reality TV show The Real World, for which Eggers did audition and was interviewed. He takes the 'real' interview and invents questions and his own lengthy, articulate answers to ruminate on many of his life philosophies. At one point he says he pretends to be the kind of person '...who thinks their personality is so strong, their story so interesting, that others must know it and learn from it'. Did he also 'pretend' to write the book that fully matches that description?

Eggers recounts the story of a colleague who falls off a balcony and is seriously injured. While she's in a coma, he has a date with a sexologist and after they return to the sexologist's flat, he goes through a process of convincing himself that his behaviour is OK, despite his friend's situation: 'Shalini would be wanting us all to be enjoying ourselves, even with - especially with a sexologist in from New York...I'll be adding joy to the world, not depriving it'. It's not the thought process I have a problem with, it's the lack of admission of how stunningly self-centred including it in his book is. Eggers has already muddled around with time and chronology in the memoir - we don't even need to know that the events are closely related in time. Did he talk to Shalini about those thoughts after she came out of the coma? Did he think of the fact that his having sex with a sexologist would not have been a key preoccupation for Shalini whether she was conscious or not? But again, there's that honesty: he did think that, so why not include it?

And therein lies part of the book's distinction. It utilises a technique popular in fiction, particularly in hysterical realism, but unusual for this genre: rather than recounting just events, Eggers will include the minutiae of his thought processes - the crazed things one might think when rushing to a friend's house after a call indicating they're about to commit suicide. Surprisingly or not, Eggers has a cavalier attitude to death. He wonders on the way over 'Do I want a dead friend? Maybe I want a dead friend. There could be so many uses...' Most surprising is when 'Might Magazine' convinces a minor celebrity to fake his own death and Eggers explains the idea to his young brother. For the reader, their parents' death is more prescient (it's perhaps three years later in their time) and presenting such a playful attitude to death comes across as especially callous.

His style is very much of his generation. It's rock 'n' roll stuff, with a grunge riff - the book swings along through its chapters, embracing the multi-page paragraph, crazy streams of consciousness and rhetoric, and that style works with the content. But then there's the conclusion, where Eggers castigates the world as motherfuckers who won't listen to him. There are many who would choose not to, but they are not the ones who have done him the honour of reading through 437 pages of biography, to be told he wants us to sleep and never wake up. I'm sure that in the mire of writing this story, of reliving everything that happened, Eggers would have felt insular in a fashion that only an immersed writer can. The world would have seemed a long way away, isolation a far closer companion. I understand him writing and thinking it; I don't understand its eventual inclusion.

For all that, Eggers' commitment to writing and helping others is genuine. He is a founder of 826 Valencia, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to helping 6-18 year olds develop their writing skills; he also founded McSweeneys, an independent publishing house; and in 2006 published What is the What? (reviewed here), a 'novelised autobiography' of a Sudanese Lost Boy.

22 November, 2008

McLaren Vale: Market 190; Settlement Wines

Market 190: 190 Main Rd, McLaren Vale; 08 8323 8558
Settlement Wines: Seaview Rd, McLaren Vale; 08 8323 7344

A day in the vineyards can be as good as tourism gets. Trestled hills entice you to explore, roses nodding their approval at the end of wine rows as you pass by. Picking the right cellar doors to visit allows you to not only indulge in sampling wines to your taste but also converse with people who tended the grapes, filled the machines at harvest, and nurtured the wine through tanks and testings to the finished product.

Happily, across the world wine and food appreciation go hand in hand, so on top of the oenological experience one can more often than not eat exceptionally well too. It's important that the two go together: it exercises your full taste palate, but, more than that, you also need that sustenance from top-quality produce to get yourself through the tiring business that is wine touring!

The town of McLaren Vale offers a range of food outlets along its Main Street. Set back from the road, Market 190 would be easy to miss, or mistake for a household setting up for a party. As you cross the porch, however, a specials board confirms that this is more than a residence: pancakes with caramelised apple, maple syrup and ice-cream. It was a sign on the footpath, however, that had led us to investigate further: Barista of the Year.

It's a title well-deserved: their coffee is superb. Light brown with a finger-width crema, perfectly roasted and extracted to give a drink bitter with caffeine, but sweet enough to need only a touch of sugar. A very happy start to the day.

The pancakes themselves were excellent: fluffy and, as the picture shows, firm enough to hold their shape. The apple was a great flavour addition, but it would have been better peeled - with the flesh so soft after the cooking process the peel retained some sharp edges! It was an amazing contrast with the pancakes we encountered in Glenelg.

The conundrum of a vineyard trip is volume. Three vineyards is enough in a day if you don't want to exhaust your palate. When one of those vineyards is d'Arenberg, you could retire, sated, to your B&B after visiting just one - they have around thirty wines on tasting, from entry level Stump Jump to the sumptuous Dead Arm shiraz. Exhibiting admirable restraint, we were able to visit Maxwell Wines (also pouring a fine range of mead); Coriole (who have planted the rare Roman Fiano grape; make a booking for their lunch platter); Fox Creek (try the Vixen - sparkling shiraz cab franc); and Pennys Hill (also the cellar door for Mr Riggs and Black Chook - tough place to visit last!).

Lunch was at Settlement Wines, and was as happy an affair as breakfast. They offer four or five pizzas, with all the best of toppings, and sell their wines by the glass, starting at just $5. Our basil, proscuitto and bocconcini pizza was a perfect bracket to the day, enhanced no end by our outlook (above), and buoyed by a glass of Red Dingo, a semi-sweet red wine.

16 November, 2008

Enzo, Adelaide

308 Port Road, Hindmarsh; 08 8346 2786

John Lethlean wrote this restaurant up a year ago, saying, among other things: 'It's the sort of restaurant we don't see much of any more in Melbourne, and if we do, it's probably in Brunswick or Thornbury. It's daggy; it also has incredible soul...[it's] about rustic authenticity and generosity.'

We almost didn't get there - I rang on Saturday afternoon to book for that night. They were full, and not open on Sunday, the last night of our trip. There were almost tears....but I rang again at 6:30 and they were happy to fit us in after 8pm. Entering the brick-walled, dark-tiled restaurant, we waited a few minutes while they got our table ready in their enclosed porch area, entertained by three strapping young Italian lads with accordion and tambourines, and getting more excited by the second at the aforementioned authenticity. The generosity was evident too, then and later: they apologised about the wait as we were seated and again when we paid our bill - totally unnecessary since they'd fitted us in last minute - and the biggest downer of the night was that the servings were too enormous to feel we could do them justice.

In the normal run of things, a mixed antipasti plate of cured meats and pickled veg would have made a perfect starter. But hey, you can get that anywhere. Instead we got one each: olive ascolane for me, and capesante al lardo for SG.

Olive ascolane consists of green olives, stuffed with pork mince, crumbed and fried. They were an intriguing blend of textures: a gentle crunch from the crumbed outside, the juicy meat interior and, in between, that peculiarly fibrous yet gone-before-you've-savoured-it texture of the olive flesh. Suprisingly, given that combination, it wasn't overly salty or oily; I think quite a bit of care had been taken in putting them together and it almost seemed that the flavours balanced each other out too well: I was expecting more of a flavour hit.

Perhaps it was just because I'd already sampled the capesante: scallops wrapped in pork fat. They were awesome: four fat scallops were enveloped in a shawl of meat, each sitting proudly atop a toasted square of bread. In the centre, spinach topped with labne rounded out the plate with a vegetable and dairy component, to add the fish, carbohydrates and fat on the outside. A balanced, and thoroughly delectable, dish.

We quickly settled on the coniglio cacciatora as one of our mains - rabbit done 'hunter-style'. The fettucine dell'umbria just got the nod over lamb chops cooked over coals. Even in hindsight the latter sounds tantalising, but no more so than housemade pasta with pancetta, mushrooms and a truffle cream sauce.

The coniglio came awash in its own cooking stew: shallots, carrots and whole mushrooms fought to stay afloat.
The best part of a whole bunny was sliced in amongst them, extraordinarily tender and so wonderfully flavoured by all that goodness around it. If that's how hunters ate...how did we develop an office culture?

Enzo's fettucine was perfectly pliant, and did a fine job of holding the truffle cream sauce.
The sauce showed far more restraint than I, as I chowed down pasta in an attempt to make a dent in the serving before fullness got the better of me.

It's a restaurant to fast for: firstly, so that you can do justice to the servings, and secondly, to treat your palate by reintroducing it to the best produce, prepared simply and traditionally. The experience is made all the more worthwhile by Enzo himself, a man so comfortable working the floor that he knows what his customers need before they ask, sometimes even before they know themselves.

11 November, 2008

'Plenty' - Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon

Around Melbourne, the term 100-Mile is readily associated with Paul Mathis and his soon-to-close cafe in Melbourne Central. But it wasn't really a cafe; it was a high-end restaurant, incongruously placed in the midst of a student entertainment hub (comprising a bar with almost-constant happy hour; a huge cinema; ten-pin bowling with bar; pinball parlour (or whatever they're called these days!); food court with wi-fi) and notoriously hard to spot, with the concealed entrance carried over from the site's previous incarnation as SOS, Mathis' vegaquarian restaurant.

In 2005, two Canadians embarked on a smaller-scale, more personal project, which, while grounded in the same principles, was arguably more successful. And they wrote a book about it. Often, when people decide post-experience to turn a meaningful journey into a book it becomes a sappy, frustrating vessel. Happily, Alisa Smith and James Mackinnon were already writers, so they relate their challenge with skill and beauty. James in particular has a wonderful knack for descriptive writing, whether with reference to food and flavours, landscape or emotion.

Their book carries a measured weight of facts of figures, recounting initially the fact that inspired the project: that food frequently travels between 2400 and 4800 kms from farm to plate. Not only is this massively environmentally damaging, it also means we lose touch with the nature around us, with the seasons, with the joy of eating produce at its best and varying our diet according to what we can pluck from the ground.

From their first, princely meal at a cost of $US121, to potatoes done every way known, to the baking frenzy that ensues when finally, after seven months, they find a local source of flour, this book continues to exude the authors' enthusiasm, belief and determination for what they're doing, and keep the reader engaged in the same quest.

It would be a tough call, taking on the same diet. But it can only be beneficial to pay more attention to where your food is coming from. Farmers markets and independent butchers are a great place to start.


10 November, 2008

Adelaide breakfast: Drift; The Big Table; Central Market

Drift: 20 Jetty Road; 08 8294 0055
The Big Table: Stall 39 & 40, Adelaide Central Market; 08 8212 3899

In a couple of recent conversations, friends have lamented the lack of innovative breakfast options in Melbourne. Cafes have all jumped on the well-stocked bandwagon of baked eggs, dukkah, savoury french toast, labne etc etc.

It's all relative, however. A stroll along Glenelg's Jetty Road revealed just how limited a breakfast menu can be, and how homogenous cafes can become. It was a sunny Sunday, so there was no shortage of diners, but their breakfast choices didn't extend much further than poached eggs done hollandaise- or benedict-style; muesli or fruit salad; or pancakes with nothing more adventurous than maple syrup and ice cream. Some venues were even charging extra for eggs to be scrambled.

The standard 'gimmick' dish was a breakfast bruschetta, which was the most appealing option to me on Drift's menu. The dish was fine in theory, though suffered a little in execution. The ciabatta's crust was too hard to cut easily, and the bread itself was so fluffy and holey that there wasn't a lot of it! The bacon was the best part of the dish - cut thick and well-cooked without being too crispy. They were generous with the sliced tomato, but it was all a bit much for the bread and a plate of sliced tomato - while no doubt delicious for some - was for me a bit below expectation.

Not being an egg man, SG had little choice other than the pancake, and it was ordinary, to say the least. Thin, dinner-plate sized, not particularly sweet, very doughy, with supermarket maple syrup. Wholly unsatisfying.

Rather more impressive was the breakfast we stumbled upon at Central Market, after landing at 7:20 am (that is, arriving, not when we left Melbourne, when we landed). Adelaide's Central Market is on a more manageable scale than the monolithic Queen Vic Markets in Melbourne. There are a lot more bakers and some shops, such as Grind (teas and coffees), have their main outlets within the markets.

The Big Table has been there for years and is known for its takeaway baguettes, which were being prepared with admirable efficiency in the teeny space ringed by counter space on three sides and a kitchen on the fourth.

For breakfast I had mushrooms lathered in Big Table's own pesto, on a fresh, crusty baguette. It was just delicious - the mushrooms so earthy and springy, and the pesto creamy enough that it clung to the funghi, but basilly enough that it didn't feel over indulgent.

SG chose a winner with a Magic Strawberry Milkshake - it was, indeed, magical. My beverage was chai from nearby Grind - brewed on water, not milk, but spicy enough to still deliver a kick.

Not sure if this was the source of the mushrooms on my breakfast dish, but, oh, for one of these at our local shops (that is, a dedicated Mushroom Shop).
Returning to the markets later that afternoon for provisions, we visited the Euroasian foodstore, selling both Russian- and Chinese-style dumplings. Run by perhaps the sweetest counterhand in the city, we rested our walked-out feet while they steamed up a fresh batch of beef and onion dumplings. They tasted more interesting than this photo looks, with a winning dough around an acceptable meat filling.

The rest of the weekend saw me returning again and again to a market-sourced snack of brioche-style croissant smeared with an extraordinary White Pearl camembert from Tasmanian Heritage, and an astounding caramelised fig paste, flavoured with star anise and fennel.