27 September, 2010

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

So the saying goes. I had to question that theory yesterday, however, as we once again navigated the seating, ordering and paying chaos that is Green Refectory.

I love the place - as an eating establishment it has a helluva lot going for it. The salad plates alone are worth elbowing your way to a distressed timber table - pick any three salads for an assemblage of more veg than most can put away comfortably in one sitting, and it's about $8.

But on a day like post-GF-Sunday (or actually, any weekend around mealtime) it's an absolute bunfight. The cafe has a couple of small tables and a big communal one in the front room, in front of the counter. It's prime position for ordering, since the menu is only available via a blackboard behind the counter, and the aforementioned salads, along with a plethora of sweet and savoury baked goods, are only perusable visually. It's also bloody hot out up front, as staff heat up pies, sausage rolls and pasties, and you're definitely going to be crowded out by the throng ordering at the counter, since there's no table service.

A smaller room is past the counter, with another room out the back, which is sometimes quieter, but you do wonder how anyone will find you! The Green has one of the longest backyards in Brunswick, rammed with rickety ironwork tables and narrow benches that are fine for coffee but too narrow for food. If you do score a table at the back, schlepping back in one by one to check the menu and then order doesn't make for a great start to the visit.

Yet, it works, and I can only assume that the ongoing level of patronage means the owners see no need to make adjustments. Sticking with counter service is their prerogative, as is saving money by not printing menus, but...it's a cafe, it makes and serves food, so giving customers access to choose from what's on offer is a pretty important overhead.

Thankfully, the latest rash of newly opened Brunswick cafes haven't copied their ordering method. New Day Rising, at 221d Blyth St, can probably get away without one since it may be the smallest cafe in the inner north. It's so small you need to go with someone you're happy to talk to, as there's no guarantee you'll fit in a book and food! They do offer a Toast feast, however, with a range of toppings that you may not have on hand at home, such as Persian fetta, quince paste and tahini.

Just around the corner at 120 Nicholson St, Milkwood (owned by the same folk as Cafe Rosamond on Smith St Collingwood) have printed up a nice three-pager, offering delicious breakfasts such as porridge with rhubarb, roasted macadamias and brown sugar crumble, as well as baguettes for lunch. Their housemade lamingtons are awesome - first bite barely gets you past the chocolate coating, but persevere for the moist sponge, smeared with just a hint of jam. Milkwood fills the Sunday void when Piano is closed.

On Glenlyon Road, Kitchen Kultcha have taken the Brunswick Model perhaps a little too seriously - their front room is a mess of reclaimed furniture, looking on to the back of the prep area. It's much nicer sitting at the back, in the 'takeaway area', where you get the heads up that the sandwiches, offered on both printed and blackboard menu - come from a display. Try their pumpkin bread with passionfruit curd for a morning tea with a twist.

Looking at this latest crop, it seems another saying is just as true of the Greater Brunswick Area: if you build it, they will come.

'A Fraction of the Whole' - Steve Toltz

It's a big book. It's one of those hardcovers you can't help but heave rather than lift off the counter. But thank goodness it's big, because it is so darn good.

In this novel, Toltz has combined humour and insight with rare skill. His writing style is Franzenesque, with bizarre developments such as a character building a house in a labyrinth, or deciding to make everyone in Australia a millionaire. My response to the book reminded me of how I felt about David Sedaris, with his similar combination of provocative philosophy and laughs.

A big distinction for Toltz, however, is that he's Australian. Like Richard Flanagan in The Unknown Terrorist, he unashamedly uses Australia as his landscape and backdrop. Events from Australian history are dropped knowingly into the story, without self-conscious explanation.

The book oscillates between the points of view of father and son Martin and Jasper Dean. Their lives are irrevocably affected by Terry Dean, Martin's brother and Jasper's uncle. The setting ranges from country town, to Sydney, to Paris, to Thailand, but the control of language and scene never changes.

Toltz knows how to build a sentence, and perhaps even more importantly, he knows when to start a new one. His style is both punchy and fluid, immensely readable, making the book's many-hundred-page extent manageable. His themes in this book touch on family and ambition, and revolve around legacy, of what we want to make for ourselves while alive and how we want that remembered once we're dead.

Much of the early part of the book is set around a prison, offering opportunity for plenty of great characterisation ('He scratched at his tattoo. It wouldn't come off.'). Nestled among the humour and hysterics, however, are aphorisms to live by: 'Choosing between the available options is not the same as thinking for yourself'.

A Fraction the Whole was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008, and it is certainly deserving of accolade and attention.