29 March, 2009


102 High St Northcote; (03) 9482 1168

When I mentioned to a couple of Westgarthians that I'd been to 'that new Turkish place' on High St, their responses seemed strangely understated. That may have been because my description of Najla was a little skewed by the wine I'd been drinking across the road at Bar Nancy (Crittenden Pinot Gris - lovely to see by the glass). Najla has in fact been on High St for about four years, and before that had a ten-year stint on Brunswick St. Its cuisine has been described as Moroccan, Lebanese and East Mediterranean, and it's now most firmly rooted as Syrian, since a stint on SBS' Food Safari.

In that excerpt, chef Najla Atmaja prepares Syrian national dish kibbeh, based on bulghur wheat and finely ground lamb mince, served in multitudinous ways. The Najla menu features several similar highlights from Atmaja's native cuisine.

The menu breaks down into dips and bread, mezze, entrees and mains (most also available in an entree size). Some prices might look like a bit much individually, but I think there's enough choice there to order astutely. Remember, too, that this is a cuisine big on protein and carb - beans, rice, cous cous etc - so you'll fill up.

Ful medames was a non-negotiable choice, a north-African dish eaten by riders at dawn to sustain them through a day in the desert. In our case we only required enough sustenance to carry us through another drink at the bar, so we were there for the flavours more than the fillingness!

Traditionally, dried fava (broad) beans are cooked slowly and then set awash in a mix of lemon juice, olive oil and cumin. Broad beans are, of course, a particular favourite of mine, but ful is traditionally made with dried beans. The result is a nuttier flavour. Using the fresh variety would produce something more in line with a risi e bisi, since they wouldn't hold their shape during the long cooking time. At Najla, the ful also includes tomato, radish, spring onion and a yoghurt dressing. Pita bread soaks up the liquid and cups the beans, soft but still holding their shape. Restorative food indeed.

A similar mix of beans and liquid - this time wonderfully pliant chickpeas in a lemon-yoghurt sauce - was the highlight dish of the evening.
Less of a standout was the babaganoush - although rich and creamy it was altogether too smoky. I know that when cooked authentically it should retain that charred flavour - when making baba I cook each eggplant for 10 minutes over the open flame on a gas stove - but in this case the smokiness was too dominant.

The only main we tried was lamb kebabs. Three skewers of sumptiously spiced meat atop a pilaf style rice with almonds, and a dipping sauce topped with pomegranate seeds. At around $25, this was perhaps a little pricey. It is available in an entree size, however, and one skewer less would be sufficient after you've worked your way through a dip or two, bread and some mezze.

Pomegranate features strongly on the menu, either with its seeds scatted jewel-like over dishes, or with the wonderful sweet tang of pomegranate molasses enriching marinades and dips.

Almost as jewel-like in colour was the mint cordial with mineral water I chose as beverage: Very mentholly, but far less irradiating on the palate than it looks!

Credit to the kitchen and floor staff on this occasion too, for taking in three hungry wanderers at 10pm and feeding them promptly and cheerily.

Pubs not so grubby: Union Hotel and Prince Patrick

Prince Patrick: 135 Victoria St, Collingwood; 03 9416 1455
Union Hotel: 109 Union St, Brunswick; 03 9388 2235

Pubs are known for re-inventing themselves. It seems the desire to drink in a particular locality is fairly constant, but our taste for the surroundings in which we drink needs to be regularly updated. As a rule, these re-inventions shift the pub away from the seedy end of the scale and towards the classy end. Sometimes a few clues as to the pub's lewder past are left behind, something for the refined, classier crowd to chuckle about as they congratulate themselves on picking out the diamond in the rough.

Collingwood's Prince Patrick Hotel has retained its distressed concrete interior, but contrasted it against the plush banquettes and soft carpeting of the interior. A large, well-lit bar divides the 'pub' area - with big screen - from the 'dining' area - with tables, booths and cosy stool and table arrangements. The resulting atmosphere is more Sydney chic than Melbourne grunge. This is a pub that offers a $25 steak sandwich on their menu, and doesn't baulk at charging $7.50 for a pot of beer. Having said that, the bar staff are friendly, the food is well prepared and the portions generous. As always, however, I would vastly prefer to have $5-10 knocked off the price of a plate and receive half as much food, so that it's a serving size I could actually finish. But cheap pub food isn't the look we're going for here.

A calamari and chorizo salad promises a protein charge. It's enormous, littered with curled and scored pieces of calamari, no dearth of moist chorizo, and, just when you thought it was filling enough, thinly-sliced potato. I've no issue with the execution, but I prefer a salad to be under $20, and I don't feel good leaving that kind of decent produce behind after I've eaten more than my fill.

The chicken parma perhaps presents a better ratioed serving - certainly in the photo above it almost looks wee. In reality it was a good-sized serve, but at least one doesn't have to feel as bad leaving fried, sliced potato behind. Avoiding the oily decadence of the salad's chorizo, or the Union's pasta (see below), the parma is straightforward; better than de Biers' $5 version (don't go there), but not particularly imaginative.

The Union Hotel in Brunswick West has taken a running leap up the class scale, leaving behind its repuation as one of the last gentlemen's pubs, replete with strippers, to be reborn as a bright, airy, diverse, family-friendly establishment with a long list of restaurant winners on the menu.

They've done astonishingly well revamping the space: there's a small section of pubby bar in view of the television, demur tables around a small stage, an even more refined dining room at the back of the building, and outside a partially covered beer garden big enough for the non-smokers and smokers to still have their own space.

The main menu starts down the path of list of pub staples - parmas, steak sandwich, pie and veg, pasta - then veers off into interesting territory: duck lasagne, anyone? The specials board is almost as long as the menu again, and shows similar adventurism, drawing on cuisines from the Mediterranean - zucchini fritters - to the Oriental - duck featuring again, this time wrapped in wontons.

Their pasta is aptly handled. A pasta special with prawns, asparagus and eggplant would be at home in a well-heeled Italian restaurant - plump, juicy butterflied prawns perch jauntily between a generous serve of fettucine and chargrilled eggplant. The dish was quite oily; richness perhaps being a trait common to their pasta dishes: at Where's the Beef they also review the pumpkin ravioli, along with several other worthwhile vegetarian dishes.

Their steak sandwich is suitably ample and flanked by thick-cut chips. Plenty of meat nestles between the toasted turkish bread, smeared with a quality aioli and decent Swiss cheese. The steak sarnie sits on the specials board rather than the main menu (and is about half the price of the Prince Patricks'), but the main menu does feature a beef burger, distinguished with pickle and tomato relish.

The Union also has a commitment to local beers, with Mountain Goat on tap, and an imaginative wine list, also with plenty of local options.

16 March, 2009

'The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow' - A J McKinnon

A J (Sandy) McKinnon presents us with a travel narrative more Thor Heyerdahl than Frances Mayes (as a man who can survive a whole day on one sandwich, it's hardly a food journal!) With a couple of interruptions, McKinnon rowed a Mirror dinghy (christened Jack de Crow) from Shropshire (near the Welsh border) to the Black Sea in Romania. He mostly traversed canals, but it was not all placid sailing, as the trip included encounters with enormous barges, unnavigable rapids, and a crossing of the distinctly unplacid English Channel.

McKinnon, an Australian raised on P&O liners who was teaching in Britain before embarking on his nautical jaunt, is an erudite man. Each chapter is prefaced with a quote from literary masters such as Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and to while away the hours rowing French canals in summer he learns Keats' Eve of St Agnes by heart. He demonstrates his ability with words by coming up with so many ways to describe the surface of water in Europe's inland waterways.

McKinnon writes in a Brysonesque style, but where Bill Bryson has clearly done reams of research (although he is adept at presenting his adventures as entirely spontaneous) McKinnon really did set out as a clueless adventurer. He is surprisingly unprepared for many aspects of his expedition- making a major navigational error when crossing the English Channel, not knowing how the locks on the French canals work - and yet, fortune seems to favour him throughout the journey.

His editor also seemed to come to the task unprepared, particularly in the second half of the book. Tense is inconsistent throughout: sometimes McKinnon describes the adventure in the simple past tense, sometimes the present. Initially the shifts are between large sections: the Channel crossing, for example, is in the present ('The wind is perfect'), switching to the simple past when he reaches France ('I ate a baguette'). Later in the book it starts to shift within sentences. In these later passages information is sometimes retold in consecutive sentences, a further sign that it needed another read-through (some of his samples of foreign language could have used a better check as well - the German 'and' is 'und', not 'unt'!)

McKinnon has the happy fortune to repeatedly encounter local folk who insist on having him to dinner, or are happy to help build a new centreboard for his boat, and just happen to have the right tools to hand to do so. Perhaps we do all meet such folk when we travel, and if we sat down to write out how we got from our starting point to our destination we would find our story more littered with such acts of kindness than expected. I think it does befall a certain type of traveller more often than not, however, and it is as much about their eccentric circumstances as the inherent goodness of humanity. I've sat in hostel rooms with a dozen other people of similar age and aim, for example, where no conversation has sprung up beyond 'Is this bed taken?'. By doing something as random as sailing a dinghy from Shropshire to Romania, McKinnon has thrown himself in the path of interesting encounters (and a higher-than-usual proportion of people with interest in, and knowledge of, Mirror dinghies).

It's a travel story worth the telling, though it does fall into some traps of the genre (the occasional arrogance of an English speaker, mixing up journal-style writing with narrative). Where so much travel writing is escapism, however, McKinnon's is an extraordinary story, an audacious feat for one at pains to present themselves as normal and unassuming.

15 March, 2009

The order of things; Hellenic Republic II

434 Lygon St, Brunswick East; 03 9381 1222

8.30. Tuesday night. A quiet time for many a restaurant, but at Hellenic Republic it may as well be Cup Day. Our dinner at Hellenic was long overdue, an unexpected move (within the suburb, thankfully) having thrown a few unlaid plans into confusion. Since its birth last December, Hellenic has not wanted for custom. We chose a Tuesday evening in an attempt to bolster our chances of getting in. The place was rammed, with plenty of fresh diners arriving after our 8.30 allocation. There's no surprise in this. George Calombaris is one of Melbourne's most vaunted chefs, and the opportunity to eat his creations in the burbs and in budget is pretty irresistible.

His restaurant is not without resistance, however. On the day we dined Epicure mentioned that nearby residents are applying to Moreland Council to re-zone parking in the area. With all these greekophiles flocking to the northern end of Lygon St, residents of Stewart St are suddenly having to circle the block to find somewhere to park. It's the precise problem experienced by residents of nearby Mitchell St, on the corner of which sits the unassuming shopfront of i Carusi. I have a very simple solution to both problems: equidistant from the two restaurants lies a McDonalds. Bulldoze it, lay the turf with any leftover burger meat, and bingo, there's a carpark.

To digress momentarily into municipal issues, the residents have a pertinent point. I'm thrilled to have Calombaris in the neighbourhood, but I ride and walk everywhere. If I wasn't a food fan, and never intended to visit Hellenic, it would be galling to suddenly lose a fundamental aspect of my home. Having grown up near an ever-expanding shopping centre in Newcastle, I've known for a long time that increased traffic flow rarely seems to stop council approval of projects that bring in as much dosh as cars.

Back to our visit. We successfully resisted the banquet (for which there are three options, and the cheapest, at $49, can seem tempting), all reports being that it's simply way too much food. Our ordering was not adventurous; we stuck with the dishes raved about on blogs and in newspaper articles all over the city: lamb from the spit, beetroot with yoghurt and cumin, kalamari, hand-cut chips and the famous kefalograviera, served with peppered figs.
Our dishes were a straightforward representation of Calombaris' commitment to the staples of Greek cuisine: the meats, the cooking styles and the flavourings. Let's talk about two other staples, bread and water, which, despite being fundamental to most dining experiences, are so often mishandled.

We had two breads at the table - we ordered pita bread off the menu ($3.50), and a basket of leavened bread arrived with the first two plates. I find that peculiar, when a diner orders bread they need to pay for and is then brought the house bread regardless. While the pita bread was particularly pliant and a perfect wrap for the lamb, I couldn't believe that it was the fifth item brought to the table, after the beetroot, saganaki, lamb and potatoes. You wouldn't expect a curry to arrive minutes before rice, and it's the same with bread. Particularly in a restaurant that follows the trend of having a 'bread station': just slice it, get it in the basket, and the waiter picks one up on the way through with the first round of cooked dishes. We also weren't offered any water, which to my mind should happen without the waitstaff even realising they're reaching for the (in this case cutely raffia-twined) bottle.

Minor points? Maybe. But Calombaris is clearly riding a huge word-of-mouth swing at the moment. I'm enthusiastic about the place, but it does take some canny consideration to come out with a well-priced dinner (ours, with two glasses of wine and an ouzo, was just under $100. We were very full, so I think we got it pretty right.) Others are far less so, and still regard this as jazzed-up Greek - every post, whether for or against, produces a range of comments protesting one way or the other. I remain a fan of Calombaris' cooking - one could eat well on the lamb and saganaki for a long time - but no matter who's behind the pans, nor what genre of dishes they're producing and what price lies against them on the menu, I'll always give credit to a restaurant that remembers the basics, and when we're talking food, you can't get much more basic than bread and water.

03 March, 2009

'Divisadero' - Michael Ondaatje

Divisadero is a Spanish word, and in Ondaatje's 2007 novel it has a brief presence as the name of a street a character lives on for a time. Its meaning - either to divide or to make something out (from a distance) - encapsulates the whole structure and modulation of the book. The narrative is fractured, keeping the reader at arm's distance from the inner sanctum of the characters. It shifts point of view from chapter to chapter, dipping back into the past, changing the narrative voice from first person to third person, and changing tense from past to present. It also follows two distinct paths: a story of three characters in a modern, rural American community, and the background of an early-twentieth-century French poet and author, Lucien Segura, whose work is being translated by one of the modern characters, Anna.

That link between the two time periods is played out only briefly, however. Throughout the book, pairs of characters who significantly affect each other often spend only snatches of time together. In the modern thread, Anna and Claire are false sisters (born in the same week, one is adopted by the other's father) and often confused with one another, not in a 'look-alike' fashion, but instead in terms of mistaken identity. They embody the notion a single spirit divided at birth and shared between two people. Due to the tumultuous events of their past, however, they spend most of their lives apart. Segura, the writer, is ultimately able to admit and express his greatest love only when that woman is, in fact, not there.

Ondaatje's take on the distant past, as an informant or precedent to our current predilections, as well as the power of events in one's own life, is McEwanesque in its take on cause and effect. Ondaatje is perhaps more open about that theme than McEwan: he stresses that we need '...to accept the flawed barrier between cause and effect, how to see that the present continually altered the past, just as the past was a strange inheritance that fell upside down into one's life like an image through a camera obscura.'

With gentle beauty Ondaatje expresses how atuned we can become to the world: 'It was when he felt...most clearly that there was no distinction between himself and what was beyond him - a tree's sigh or his mother's song, could, it seemed, have been generated by his body. Just as whatever gesture he made was an act performed by the world around him.' Hence, while superficially the two story threads have little connection, we know that Anna is channeling this entire, unknown past belonging to Segura as she sits in the places where he thought, felt, watched and wrote.

Divisadero is reminiscent too of A.S. Byatt's Possession, as both books not only present parallel stories in different times, but also offer them equal space, development and importance in the narrative, rather than one buoying or merely supplementing the other. As Divisadero progresses, the time-shifting intensifies, moving forward and back several years within the one segment, sometimes within the one recollection of a character. Again, Ondaatje is aware of the effect he is creating, using a comparison of photos of characters from each timescape to simultaneously remind us of their link, but also to separate them: 'We are much closer to the subject in this [later] picture. Photography has moved in from the middle distance as the century progressed, eliminating vistas, the great forests, the ranging hills.'

To end, Ondaatje presents us with an image of birds over a lake 'flying as close to their reflections as possible'. The whole novel has presented us with these dualities: of the two timescapes, of two cultures, and within each pairing of characters. Anna can only understand what she is reading through the prism of her experience; hence, a current perspective informs the past. We can only re-live our memories and others' from the present: the notion of cause and effect moves both backwards and forwards in what we only imagine to be a linear progression of time.

02 March, 2009

Hungary in the suburbs; North Fitzroy Arms & 'Prague' - Arthur Phillips

296 Rae St, North Fitzroy; 03 9489 8519

Recently, I've been working through a novel called Prague, set thus far entirely in Budapest. I felt a similar, though far more rewarding, disconnection with expectations this week when I ate a fine goulash at a pub with the distinctly local name of the North Fitzroy Arms. Perhaps both the novel and the pub are living in another time: the former in the tumult of 1989, when capitalism flooded the Danube, and the latter when Fitzroy Lions + Brisbane Bears did not equal one team north of the border.

(A third, related disconnect cropped up coincidentally this afternoon, when I spotted a white Mercedes M-class with the number plate PRAGUE.)

Goulash is Hungary's version of the slow-cooked dish every nation worth its sea salt lays claim to as a national cuisine. The Hungarian offering - a stew of beef and onions in a rich gravy sometimes thick enough to submerge optional dumplings - has a vermillion vibrancy thanks to the addition of paprika. In this North Fitzroy interpretation, the meat, almost melted in its slow cooking, is cuddled around a wodge of creamy mash flecked with spring onion. It was simply divine. The pub's proprietors are named on its website as Volbi and Zorka and they've clearly brought home-learnt skills to spoil those in the inner north lucky enough to stumble upon them.

SG stuck with something a bit more nationalistic, the kangaroo fillets with mushroom risotto and beetroot. The pub is also known as Haskins Restaurant and the folk behind the stove certainly know how to treat their meat, serving up several slabs of pink, seared, juicy roo fillets. The food and wine prices are generous; customers are welcome to order from both bar and restaurant menu in either area of the pub; and they offer a varied, non-Fosters list of wines by the glass.

Arthur Phillips, Prague's author, is an American who lived in Budapest for two years immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The novel features five North American characters, each of whom has found themselves in Budapest for different reasons, although all are unified in feeling it's a place of opportunity thanks to the monumental economic and political changes underway. The perspective, however, is one of an outsider, although it does attempt to engage with locals and deliver, through character histories, an extensive history of Hungary through two World Wars and multiple revolutions. However, with all but one of the protagonists ignorant of Hungarian it is necessary for them to meet English-educated Hungarians in order to progress the story, which to me limits the efficacy of the native perspective (particularly as Russian was far more common as a second language than English in the eastern bloc).

To write such a story with an actual insider's perspective, however, would place it within the Hungarian canon and therefore immediately hinder its entry and acceptability to the readership of Western countries. Think of recent Nobel prize winners - such as Frenchman Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (last year's winner) and most pertinently Hungarian Imre Kertész (2002), who are virtually unknown outside Europe, despite decades of reputable work. There is, therefore, an inherent dichotomy in a foreigner trying to tell the story, no matter how vital, of a land not his own.

As for the title, it is perhaps an ironic device (the blurb explains that the five American expats 'harbour the vague suspicion that their couterparts in Prague have it better'). Perhaps naming the novel outside its setting represents the cultures that have been imposed - forcefully through war or unwittingly through the embrace of capitalism - upon these small, confused eastern European countries. A simple name is not enough of an identity in the face of such change. However, as when one of the characters questions a Serb as to why he finds it so important to insist he's not Yugoslavian, since 'they're all the same', it is a device that belies its own effectiveness by what it denies: the importance and weight of these countries' centuries of history.