Archive for the ‘Australia’ Category

The glory of breakfast in Sydney

May 27, 2009

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I found this poster in an alley in Redfern, an arty part of town that’s on the up and up from its grungy past.  My friend Bianca laughed for a good five minutes after I showed it to her.  At breakfast yesterday, after our 6:30 a.m. yoga class, I said offhandedly that Sydney is like that super-nice boyfriend, the one who’s so good to you and good-looking too, who drives you crazy because he’s so perfect.  She agreed, “Sydney has no dark side!”  And if it does, it hides it very, very well.

It does rain here, especially when it’s late fall, like it is now.  But it doesn’t stop Sydney’s inhabitants from its happy, healthy life.  Yesterday, I took the ferry in the rain to Manly, one of the northern beaches that got its name when Arthur Phillips, the first governor of New South Wales, saw a bunch of manly aborigines on that jut of land.  The story is almost too good to be true, but so right on target.  The beach was still full of surfers, the path to Shelley beach still populated with runners.

This last morning in Sydney, I know I’ve had a wonderful time.  I got my photo taken with sleepy koalas at the Taronga Zoo.  I went on a cool, forest walk in the Blue Mountains outside the city.   The Sydney Opera House is almost more impressive from the inside than outside, and the view of the city at night when you’re on the ferry coming back is almost psychedelic.

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But Sydney is the kind of city that makes me miss home.  So it doesn’t surprise me that one of my favorite moments was the breakfast Bianca and I had at Appetite Cafe in Redfern.

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Sitting in that dark café, with its uneven art and mismatched chairs, I had one of the best breakfasts of my life.  (Maybe almost as good was my breakfast at famous Bills, where the ricotta banana hotcakes were all eggy light glory.)

It’s a “halloumi hash,” a hockey puck of shredded potato mixed lightly with cheese, stacked with dark, salty bacon, toasted sourdough, a poached egg, and something they call “tomato jam,” which is sweet and salty and tart all at once.  My favorite kind of food, so many textures and flavors all running together.  Halloumi is pretty rare in NY, but it’s offhandedly on so many menus here.  The combinations are different from New American, and I think not quite even Modern Oz, which is what they say.  It’s artful but not self-conscious, even at the almost angst-y Appetite Cafe.

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Appetite Café also serves Campos coffee, which is their shorthand for “serious coffee.”  Delicious, especially as I have a weakness for silly things like dorky souvenir spoons.

Bianca, who used to live in the East Village, says she can’t wait to come visit New York and roll around in its grittiness.  She says Appetite Cafe is practically the only cafe of its kind in Sydney (though she also says Melbourne is a completely different story).  It’s true that I can think of half a dozen cafes we could go sit and write in.  But the Aussie spin on the café—the carefree, creative food—I don’t think I could find quite so easily.

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A bowl of chicken laksa

May 26, 2009
Roti telur, or roti with egg, and incredible sauces.

Roti telur, or roti with egg, and incredible sauces.

Despite its beef pie history, Sydney is truly a Pacific city. Like Vancouver, or San Francisco, it wears its Asianness pretty nonchalantly.

Great Vietnamese food isn’t trapped in some hard-to-reach ethnic neighborhood; you can find it right in Darlinghurst at Phamish, which is as spiffy and cute as its Vietnamized spelling implies.

Fish Face, with its incredible seafood, serves up a menu that lists fish and chips side by side with nigiri without any self-consciousness. Why should it be self-conscious, when Australian kingfish on rice melts like butter in your mouth?

Mamak, a new Malaysian darling in Chinatown, is a long, skinny space with a short, sweet menu, heavy on rotis.  It’s as cheap as a first-generation restaurant, but so obviously with the assuredness of a second-generation one. Also, there is a guy swinging roti dough in the front, more thrilling than any pizza throwing I’ve ever seen.

Of course, there’s also Japanese, Thai, even Nepalese, and Korean. (I would try the Korean food except I’m pretty sure of what I would find, good-enough food to satisfy the hungry Korean students, and not much more.)

Food court chicken laksa!

Food court chicken laksa!

But I think the moment I was most impressed by Sydney’s Asian food was when I had this bowl of chicken laksa at a food court. I’d been working on my day job at the Customs House, it was damp and rainy, and all I wanted was an easy, cheap lunch before I went back to work.  I chose the food court of a random office building; I’m not even sure I could find it again. There weren’t any recognizable franchises, just clearly marked sections for “sandwiches,” “coffee,” and “Asian.”

“Asian” in American food courts usually means something called Panda Wok or Great Wall, and it always serves very sweet orange chicken, sometimes with some steamed broccoli if you are lucky. At this food court, there was Hainanese chicken, dim sum, barbecued pork, and Singapore noodles. The dim sum looked like plastic in the display case, and to me, pan-Asian normally means nothing in particular is very good.

But the woman next to me was ordering a bowl of laksa, and it looked incredible. The menu said it was “a spicy, coconut milk broth,” and it looked as rich and oily as all good coconut broths do. When I sat down with my chicken laksa, I initially just stirred the soup, amazed at what was in it. The red-specked soup kept shifting color as I stirred, turning up big chunks of dark chicken meat and such a bounty of skinny egg noodles. The noodles tasted as good as they looked. My nose was so congested but I could still smell it!

It cost AUS$9, about US$7. A good value anywhere, but especially so in Sydney, which feels expensive to this New Yorker. And in a food court! I’ve had Asian food this good in food courts, but in places like Seoul and Richmond just outside Vancouver, which is almost as Chinese as Hong Kong. To me, the quality of food in a food court says more to me about a country’s culinary values than the food at a five-star restaurant. And to have chicken laksa this good in a non-Asian city…Sydney should be proud.

Coffee and a croissant

May 23, 2009

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It’s been a very mellow trip.  It rained for five days straight, but the monsoon seems to have passed and I think, I hope, I have five days of sun left before I leave.  Last night, Bianca and I went to hear Kazuo Ishiguro as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and even though he was beamed in from who-knows-where, we left so inspired and full of anticipation for what we might make happen in our lives.   Now we’re in a café in arty Redfern, Bianca working on her novel, me on this never-ending blog.  That’s the kind of trip it’s been, lots of coffee, quiet delicious meals, and literary hopefulness.

Though there is a whole new vocabulary I’ve had to learn for Australian coffee culture.  There is no such thing as straight drip coffee.  Plenty of espressos, and cappuccinos, macchiatos, lattes.  But on top of that, Australians order a “flat white,” or a “long black,” sometimes even a “short black.”  I’ve been told that a “long black” is like an americano, a shot of espresso with hot water.  The kindly Australians who are trying to give the poor American her coffee fix usually offer that to me with a little glass of warm milk.  Similarly, a “flat white,” what you see here, is like a cappuccino.  But clearly, both are not actually americanos or cappuccinos, because then that’s what they would be called.

And the croissant pictured here, sold by an Argentine named Alejandra at a placed called Café Bariloche, is neither a French croissant nor an Argentine medialuna.  It’s a little doughy and a little sweet like the croissants I had in Madrid, not totally unlike a medialuna de dulce, but giant-like, Australian-sized.  Still super buttery and totally satisfying.

I have so many of these photos, a cup of coffee and often a pastry, usually a croissant, from all over the world.  Here’s one from Santiago de Compostela, one from Madrid, one from Oaxaca, and of course, tres medialunas y un café cortado en Buenos Aires.  Some of them have blown my mind—the nuttiness of a tarta de Santiago, the cinnamon in a café de olla.  But I don’t think I keep taking these photos to record how different life is wherever I am than at home.  It’s the constancy I love, that desire to drink a cup of coffee and eat a pastry almost anywhere I am.

UPDATE: Has anyone else noticed that the posts WordPress generates for “possibly related posts” includes this: “Obama to Ahmadinejad: Let’s have coffee with croissants and talk”!?!?!  I love it.

Beef pie, mushy peas

May 20, 2009
Trying to keep the tourists from being run over.

Sydney tries hard to keep the tourists from being run over.

The light here is different.  It’s hard to take photos because it’s so bright, it makes the edges of the buildings disappear before my camera.  Buenos Aires was strange and bright and upside-down, too, with its blistering heat at Christmas, but not like this.  A sweet guy at a convenience store yesterday asked me where I was from and whether I liked Sydney, and I totally confused him by talking deliriously about how shiny the city is.  If Buenos Aires is buildings crumbling under the weight of their history and kids in dark mullets looking like they could start protesting any moment, Sydney is sunlight so blinding, I don’t see how anyone could dress all in black.  Their clothes would fade too fast.

I know what I see is incomplete. (And it does rain, as it is now, in short, intense spurts.)  Peter Carey, in his book 30 Days in Sydney, reminds me that for all its good looks, Sydney is a city with blood and violence in its history.  On Monday, I went to look for some evidence of that in the Rocks, the oldest part of Sydney and where the convicts first made their home.

The view from Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The view from Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I saw quiet streets lined with Victorian houses.  I saw the view from the Sydney Observatory, wharf and bridge and Opera House.  I walked halfway across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, looked down, and suddenly realized I have a fear of heights.  I skipped the museums other than the Museum of Contemporary Art, so maybe it is my fault that I couldn’t find the convicts.

The only sign I found of Sydney’s past was in my lunch, and in a way that only highlighted how much Sydney has changed.

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Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel is the oldest pub in Sydney.  My TimeOut had recommended a lunch of beef pies and a pint of ale, and I walked in expecting to be handed a pair of pies in a greasy paper bag over the bar.  Given its status, no one would be surprised if it were a tourist trap with crap food.  Instead, I found a menu so full of coconut broth and wild rocket, it took me awhile to find the “beef pie, mushy peas, mash and gravy.”

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Like my snapper pie on Saturday, it was a joke, a hilarious joke.  The “mushy peas” were bright green, fresh and flavorful.  Mashed but not “mushy.”  I don’t even like mashed potatoes, but I spun my fork around and around the plate, trying to soak up as much as possible of that incredible gravy.  And the beef pie, if not as ethereally buttery and flaky as my snapper pie, was substantial and satisfying.  I ate it all.

The Quayle Ale, a prize-winning beer, was quite good, too, light and easy to drink but with personality and character.  It matched its setting, this old pub so proud of it history as well as its modern, quiet gleam.  What scenes this pub must have witnessed over the years!  I know that the violence isn’t completely gone—Bianca says you can go out to a bar and suddenly find yourself in the middle of a brawl very easily.  And there is a part of me that is distrustful of pubs that are so clean.  But I can’t help but be impressed by a country that can take a legacy of beef pies and mushy peas and turn it into what I ate that day.

P.S.  Don’t tell the Australian authorities, but I have a scratchy throat and a slight cough, and the hypochondriac in me is terrifying me by whispering, “Swine flu! Swine flu!”  But I think Bianca would be secretly pleased if we were quarantined and she couldn’t go into work.

First 48 hours in Sydney

May 17, 2009
The surfers at Bondi Beach

The surfers at Bondi Beach

I’ve been in Sydney, Australia, for about 48 hours.  I feel like I’ve fallen into a rabbit hole.

I arrived at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning.  My friend Bianca picked me up, and after I showered and changed, whisked me off to lunch at The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay, a swank and beautiful restaurant with an incredible view of the water, and surprisingly, food to match.  Then we walked from Coogee Beach all the way to Bondi Beach on a curving trail that goes through about five of the 80 beaches in Sydney.  We had dinner at Govinda’s, a vegetarian restaurant run by Hare Krishnas, finishing right before I almost fell asleep into my soup.  The next morning, I woke up completely refreshed and ready to go to 9 a.m. yoga class at Bianca’s favorite yoga studio, after which we went to yet another breathtaking beach for lunch with some of her friends.

I don’t live a particularly unhealthy life in New York, but so far, Sydney makes me feel like I might as well be that woman in black chain-smoking outside a bar at 4 a.m.  As we walked along the coast of eastern Sydney, we were constantly passed by runners with torsos so chiseled, you could see every muscle rippling as they ran.  The members of the Icebergs swimming pool by Bondi Beach swim everyday of the year, rain or shine.  Even the Central Business District, which is a lot of corporate sparkle and glass, has Olympic-size pools filled with bionic men in tiny Speedos.  Two of Bianca’s friends, who work in finance and are not at all New Age-y, offhandedly told me they had completed the 40-Day Revolution, a course of yoga and meditation that is supposed to change your life.

I could never live here.  I eat too much bacon, and even though I like yoga, I like sleeping in after a late night even more.  I know I’m an incorrigible New Yorker because I can look at the gorgeousness of Sydney, its greenery and its unending coastline, and sigh, “I miss grit.”  But for two weeks?  Sydney life is the life I want to live.

If you’re wondering what I’m going to write about on this blog when I’m eating Hare Krishna food, don’t worry, I’ve been eating very, very well.  Sydney is so healthy, it’s balanced.  It’s not like New York, where the macrobiotic restaurants seem to be full of diners competing about how much they can deny themselves.  The Hare Krishnas are eating delicious food with plenty of heat and spice, and my pizza at the Bathers Pavilion was topped with duck confit, beets, and ricotta.

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And The Boathouse serves the best oysters I have ever had in my entire life.

Eating an oyster always feels like a minor miracle to me.  The idea that someone years ago picked up what looked like a rock, pried it open, found something essentially slimy and decided to eat it!  Thank you, unknown ancestor, for discovering how good it feels to eat something so cold, soft and slippery.  I love oysters, whether I’m standing on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx at the sidewalk shellfish bars, or whether I’m on Hog Island doing that Northern Californian thing of drinking white wine while wearing a fleece jacket.

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But now I know I really really love oysters when they’re served on a large platter, each oyster in the circle representing a different region of Australia.

We worked backwards because Bianca likes the Claire de Lunes best, and she is not the kind of girl who gobbles up first what she likes best.  I didn’t mind, especially because the Moonlight Angasi literally turned to butter in my mouth.  How can saltwater end up tasting like butter?  That is the more-than-minor miracle of the Moonlight Angasi oyster.

Each oyster had its own particular flavor.  There was minerality in one, a sharper citrus note in another.  Even the En Surface, which I didn’t like at first, left a flavor in my mouth so good I wasn’t sure I could move on.  I wanted to take notes, but I’d left my pen at the apartment and Bianca thought I was crazy anyway for slurping the juice of each oyster as well the meat.

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I could have happily left that restaurant with just the taste of oysters in my mouth, but I’d ordered the signature dish, a red snapper pie.  It was a joke in a way, a classic English pot pie, and a funny one because it was so much better than a doughy pie normally is.  The waitress broke open the lid to reveal snapper fillets in a slightly sweet, creamy sauce.  It should have been overwhelmingly rich, but it wasn’t.  It was just perfect, as perfect as the buttery crust.

I’m in a different world, an upside down world where everyone is fit and buttery pastry tastes like it might actually be good for you.  I will not be surprised if suddenly, at our next yoga class, I find my inflexible body in some impossible pose.