Sunday, May 27, 2012

Killing time at Shucked, Newstead

Cold drip coffee
Cold Drip Coffee @ Shucked

It's the wallpaper. Geometric and floral patterns in olive greens, browns and tans. Jumpers, too. A couple of chunky patterned knits amongst the serving staff. Yes, the wallpaper and jumpers make me feel like I'm on the set of The Killing. Actually, more like I'm in the sort of room we'd normally find Detective Wallander sprawled on the floor, with a shrill phone rousing our hero from drunken slumber. There's a Scandinavian crime thriller vibe going on here at Shucked, the glacial pace and melancholy of those TV shows reflected by the cold coffee drip and forlorn looking ornaments on the large shared refectory table that dominates the space. 

Happily, that's where most of the similarity ends at this actually quite cheerful coffee shop / cafe. The location, amongst the industrial units and building sites of soon to be trendy apartments might be reminiscent of a crime scene, but it's a cracking little spot for brunch of a weekend and I imagine crammed by local business for lunch during the week.

A deceptively simple menu and a coffee list that shows they care (including a house blend called Shuck'n'Awe) coupled with relaxed trendy youngsters manning the coffee machines and serving makes for a rather good destination for a Saturday morning stroll. Order green eggs and ham.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Blood, Sweat and Sharing Plates

Tough Mudder Melbourne

At first sight it looks like something has gone terribly wrong. Hundreds of mud caked, exhausted and fraught looking people hurling themselves over an enormous curving wall. Some at the top heroically  help others over, still more slide limply to the bottom after yet another failed attempt. What terrible event could have caused this to happen? A breakdown in the social order? Earthquakes? The Sun stopping to shine? The Earth's core ceasing to rotate? The promise of an orange headband, half a banana and a can of meat stew?

The Melbourne Tough Mudder, the very first event of it's kind in Australia looks to all intents like a school cross country run designed by a cabal of the most twisted P.E. teachers in the world (I'm looking at you Mr Cleverly). What it actually is, is a globe spanning series of mud runs/obstacle courses designed by British Special Forces and backed up by some rather good marketing. Thousands of people are participating today, mostly teams of steely, determined looking lycra-clad hard bodies with a smattering of Roman Centurions and fair few who look like they've accidentally wandered onto the course and would rather be at home with a cup of tea and a Hobnob.

Given that I was in Melbourne on the promise of a slew of decent restaurants and the chance to wear a nice wooly coat, something I haven't been able to do in Brisbane for the past two years, I was a bit bemused by the turn of events that led to me standing on the Moto GP track on Phillip Island a full two hours from the nearest of the promised eateries. The meat stew didn't look like it was going to cut it either. 

There are cities that you automatically feel at home in and others that feel wrong, like wearing a shoe on the wrong foot. Whilst I've been away from London I find myself missing misty rain, steel grey skies and the collision between slightly shabby grandeur and the increasingly Gibson-esque modern towers of the City . The light, space and heat of Brisbane are a world away. Melbourne feel's like a chunk of home. Just the right mix of odd weather, studied grubbiness and arrogance which marks it out against it's easier, sunnier, showier second cousin up in Queensland (and it's estranged rather stately matron aunt in NSW with whom only the tercest of Christmas cards are exchanged). 

Australian cities are mongrels to a degree. Clever, resilient children of British and American cities. Seeded in the mould of London and Manchester, grown with a eye on US cities and now increasingly absorbing DNA from Singapore and Beijing. Canberra feels like twenty blocks of suburban Washington D.C. has been stolen by town planning aliens and dumped in the outback. Brisbane like a razor edged miniature Chicago laser etched onto banks of the Brisbane river and Melbourne like the progeny of a one night stand between London and Seattle.

Given I had 48 hours to sample Melbourne I needed guidance. To my mind the barista has replaced the barman in the helpful advice and sympathetic ear whilst drying a glass department. In this case I had a two lists of restaurants from two different baristas. One from Jamie of Jamie's Espresso in Brisbane written on a brown paper bag (fitting if you pop along and meet the lovely man) and another from a bloke manning a stunning Slayer espresso machine at the super hero sounding League of Honest Coffee on Little Lonsdale Street in Melbourne. The lists nearly matched. This formed the basis of a gruelling schedule of eating over the next 48 hours. 

Every meal we had in the city over the course of the weekend featured a sharing plate of some description. I find this difficult on the whole having been raised in a household where dinner time was a combat sport. Where "You cut, I choose" could descend into a knife fight. At The Aylesbury in the Melbourne CBD this found it's truest expression from amongst the places we sampled. A modern Spanish eatery, that goes well beyond Spain in it's thinking, that was so good we ended up going two nights in a row. A tranche of blow torched mackerel, softly fondant with a drizzle of pea gazpacho the colour of a beetle's wing. Pig off cuts of brawn and crispy ears and some bone suckingly tender lamb ribs.

From tapas to dim sum at Hu Tong Dumpling Bar opposite the darkly gleaming glamour of Melbourne institution The Flower Drum, a restaurant straight out of Blade Runner. "No, Two, Two, Four". Sharing a plate of Szechuan wontons dripping with chilli oil and an unctuous melange of scallops and egg plant. From the dark wood bar at The Aylesbury to the clinical gleam of Cumulus Inc. Being a massive fan of St John I'm not above eating at a restaurant that feels like they were hosing down the last of the carcasses an hour before the sitting but at this bar I was jammed in between ladies lunching and a middle aged man with a very large watch eating nothing but protein, so it felt a bit like being in a veal pen. A starter of pimientos de Padron looked like medical specimens but were tasty enough. The real treat was a grilled pork chop the size of my head with a stunning mix of white beans with mustard and tarragon as was the acidic bite of an apple sorbet that came with my dessert.

It wasn't all sharing plates and elbow to elbow dining. In the midst of Greek town I tried Stalactites, a place that seemed to elicit much debate about the quality of souvlaki available there vs a couple of dozen other locations in one of those typical local arguments. Like getting three Londoners to agree on the best curry house. I have to say it was pretty good, the meat coming off an impressive looking grill  and fresh tasting. I ventured it would have been amazing if it had been three in the morning and I was hammered to general approval.

On the flight back to Brisbane I spy a few orange head bands and keep sake t-shirts from Tough Mudder. Given my own marathon food binge I think I'd better sign up for the Brisbane run in 2013. Here's hoping they've improved the meat stew.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Palazzo Versace, Surfer's Paradise

Walking into the foyer the first thing to hit you is the smell. Mugged by the combination of rosemary and floor cleaner they seem to be pumping into the place, you don't have much of chance to take in the surroundings . "It's our signature fragrance", the concierge helpfully informs me, as I splutter onto the immaculate marble floor. That the Palazzo Versace has a signature fragrance is no real surprise, that it smells like what you'd imagine the Sloth scene in Seven smells like is something of a shocker. You soon realise that the whole enterprise, like the smell, is somewhat shocking.

The foyer itself is the fever dream of a menopausal Italian suburban housewife. A vast chandelier looms like the mother ship in Close Encounters, the floor is a shining expanse dotted here and there with the sort of furniture you would expect to find in Silvio Berlusconi's sex dungeon. Walking through the hallways the walls are dripping with cheap looking reproductions of Versace fashion photos, all seemingly from the the early '90's and mostly involving super models and Jon Bon Jovi modelling soft furnishings. You soon realise they've only licensed a handful so the images are repeated again and again. As constantly assaulted as you are with the apparent trappings of luxury, you feel a bit guilty noticing the cost cutting.

Palazzo VersaceThe room is certainly palatial. A sort of grown up version of one of those rooms they fill with balls for kids to vanish into. Instead of balls, it's cushions. There a mind boggling array of them covering the bed and chairs. There are twin double beds, which at first I mistake as a homage to the sort of misplaced Catholic prudishness you can find in family run hotels in Italy but then realise they've basically screwed up the reservation. This is not to say I'm not having a good time. I'm loving it, it's crass and silly and bombastic which is what you actually want from a place called the Palazzo Versace. This is not the sort of place to be subdued, quietly classy or softly and subtly luxurious. This place is on brand.

The Gold Coast is not the first place you would expect to find this hotel. The high rises of Surfers Paradise at first glance are more Malaga than Milan. Yet The Palazzo sits snuggly butted up against a shopping mall sporting luxury brands and an 80 berth marina for yachts of all sizes and is  full of Chinese tour parties either checking in or checking out the signature fragrance.

Sometime later we've sneaked our way onto the beach through the bedlam that is the Sheraton Mirage foyer across the road from the hotel. Both hotels are a little ways up the beach from Surfer's Paradise and it's surprisingly empty. In the middle distance are the gleaming, futuristic towers of Surfers. On a hazy day, like today, they seem to float above the sand like a city from a William Gibson novel, a near future metropolis of neon, designer drugs and violence. By happenstance this turns out to be an accurate description of the town, minus any glamourous aspects that being in a novel might bring. I had my wallet stolen from the car up the road from the hotel and whilst the theft of my wallet might not seem to presage a crime wave, the 57 armed robberies in the last six months probably do.

Which brings me to the buffet. I'm not a fan of the buffet. There's probably another post in that statement. This buffet was akin to something at a Russian mafia wedding. A host of mismatched cuisines and a colosal display of seafood, so big as to shame the guys from Biggest Catch. I'm sure Sea Shepard should probably be informed. It was big, it was impressive and it was a bit mushy by all accounts. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Osprey Reef

Grey Reef Sharks

The boat has been pitching all night, my berth at the front of the twin hulled dive boat Spoilsport rising and slamming back down as it crests a wave with a thunderous boom against each hull. One second I'm pressed into my bunk, a second later a microsecond of freefall and then the room shakes with the noise of the impact. I'm not sleeping well. My bunk mate is snoring gently. We'd been told the crossing would be a rough one or that we'd not even make it and have to turn back. At this point it's three in the morning and we are still steaming onwards towards one of the furthest outlier reefs of the Coral Sea, out past the calm and protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

Osprey Reef is a submerged coral atoll some 25km long and  around 100km off the coast of Queensland, just south of the 14th parallel and is only visited by dive boats, the Australian Navy and the odd meteorologist and so, it is probably one of the best spots in Eastern Australia to see sharks. A whole bunch of sharks. In it's 30m deep water lagoon dive boats, for better or worse, have been feeding sharks for years and so they congregate here in the relative shallows when they hear engines on the surface. White Tipped Reef Sharks, Grey Reef Sharks, Black Tips, Silver Tips, Hammerheads and Silkies swarm through the water waiting to get fed.

Swimming with sharks is something special. Anyone who dives falls in love with them. The special delicately poised moment when you see your first shark underwater, usually a lone white tipped reef shark less than a meter long is to start a life long connection to the one of the most maligned animals on earth and unfortunately some of the most endangered.

Grey Reef with feed bin visible. The bin contains tuna heads
This feed is something new to me. I've only ever seen sharks in the water that were there of their own volition. I've seen Oceanic White Tips tracking dive boats in the Red Sea, circling them at night for scraps but never intentionally jumped in after the fish heads. Not that it's particularly courageous. Overweight gentlemen covered in neoprene breathing masses of bubbles into the water are not high on the average sharks repertoire of prey items. They will basically be ignoring me. Ignoring me in ways I've never imagined, sharks acute electro-sense zeroing in on the magnetic fields surrounding my body , down to my very heartbeat and marking me for shark social death.

Mike from New York is in full swing over breakfast. "Oh My God. I was thrown out of my bunk, onto the floor, can you fucking believe that, I'm getting off this ship, checking into a hotel. This shit is crazy." Mike's not been on a live-aboard before only having dived in more benign waters in the Bahamas, "...out of my bunk, onto the floor, I didn't sleep, not one minute", he explains. A couple from Austin, Texas, he taciturn and dry and she a Southern Belle though and through, watch Mike's kvetching with no small measure of amusement. That's the beauty of a dive boat, the sudden intimacy it thrusts upon you and a group of strangers. Diving is not very glamorous. It's heavy lifting, smelly neoprene and surfacing covered in snot. That and more often than not your relying on each other to cover your back if something goes wrong. And, at my end of the market, it means sharing very small cabins with someone you don't know. It's a delicate balance that can be tipped very badly if even one person doesn't mix well with the others. Twelve or fifteen people in close proximity basically trapped with each other for a week or ten days can be like being in the Big Brother house apart from the fact that no one's watching.

Sharks frenzy once the lid of the bin is released
The first animals to appear are a gang of white tip reef sharks, they hustle and bustle over the reef like boisterous teenagers. The first "proper" sharks, Grey Reefs, look more purposeful, more of a threat, more like the caricature of a shark, their lines thicker and more powerful than the serpentine white tips. Soon the water above me is a swirl of fins, black tipped, silver tipped and the huge bulk of a potato cod, bigger than a great many of the sharks. They group together and break, cruise for a while and then turn. Occasionally some imperceptible rule of the game is broken and you see pectoral fins dip in aggression and a brief chase ensues. A metal trash can is hauled down onto a rock outcrop by one of the dive leaders wearing chainmail gloves in case of misplaced attention. The sharks begin swirling in great arcs, the scent of tuna heads inside the can focusing their attention. The heads are attached to a chain with a buoy on top and once the lid is released the chain unfurls and the animals begin to frenzy, pulling at the heads with trashing twists of their bodies. One becomes entangled in the chain briefly but refuses to let go of the bait and eventually spins itself free tearing a chunk of meat with it. The display lasts less than a minute and the heads are all torn free, the sharks and accompanying remoras and pilot fish mopping up the scraps and then as if by some agreed upon signal they slowly disperse cruising in ever greater circles until they vanish into the blue leaving a few glittering scales and a scatter of teeth on the rocky reef outcrop.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Here be Dragons...

Komodo National Park
The zodiac slows to a stop and we jump out, grabbing the sides we start hauling the inflatable up onto the beach. In the shade of a makeshift gazebo three men watch as we heave the boat up through the gentle surf and the skipper secures the anchor into the sand. He raises a hand, waddles up and sits with them. Another zodiac pulls up along side and assorted cabin boys, deck hands and a couple of kids from the galley jump out, football boots tied together by the laces swinging from their necks. A football is punted onto the beach and an enthusiastic and surprisingly skilful game of four a side breaks out. The skipped looks on ruefully. A torn Achilles tendon from another game on the beach a few months ago had ended his playing career. He smiles as I pass him and the welcoming committee. "No dragons here", he says playfully, "you'll not have to run" and gestures to my knee and the livid scar from surgery a few months prior, "..hopefully". "I'll out run you", I say, and he laughs translating for the three men of the welcoming committee, who smirk. One of the men, describing himself as the harbour master and sporting a rather natty uniform poses for a photo and another who must be in his 70's shimmies up a tree to pick fruit for the boat. We leave them to lengthy negotiations for the fruit and a prodigious, if mysterious, bag of green leaves and walk the kilometre or so up hill to the water filled volcanic caldera that crowns Satonda, tiny offerings of bleached coral and stones hanging from trees by twine marking the way. Wishes and prayers to the spirits of the still waters that fill the volcano.

Tambora wreathed in clouds
In 1816 the skies went dark across the world. The Year Without A Summer saw global temperatures plummet with crop failures and famine following. There were food riots across Europe and New York's Upper Bay froze over. Mary Shelley was so bored by the torrential rain and chill of that non-existent summer that she wrote Frankenstein and Joseph Smith so hungry that he moved to Palmyra, New York and ended up founding the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints. The cause of this mayhem was Mount Tambora, a neighbour to Satonda in the volcanic chain, scene of the largest volcanic eruption in modern times, an explosion with the force of an 800 megatonne nuclear blast. The violence of that day is wreathed in cloud and jungle vegetation today, with calm seas and twisting clouds over the summit but you can feel the threat in the mountain. Like nowhere else I've been these volcanic islands feel like they are out of time. A glance into the sky and pterodactyls might fly past, squinting into the tree line along the beach you might meet the eye of a raptor or T-Rex himself. There are still dinosaurs here and not just in the imagination.

Komodo Dragon
The visitor centre on the island of Komodo is a solid wooden structure with a raised verandah where you can order a thick powdery Balinese coffee and hang out with the national park rangers. The rest of the dive boat have gone up the trail with a guide, a young guy armed with a forked stick for fending off any inquisitive  dragons. I'd been warned that the trail was hard going in the heat and that I was better off staying with the crew given my knee was still healing. In a whispered aside I was told that I probably stood a better chance of spotting a dragon that way anyway as the resident population were quite used to humans and often lumbered past the coffee stand. Drinking the bitter dusty coffee and sharing a smoke with the skipper and one of the dive guides, an irascible Brummie by the name of John, we didn't have to wait too long for a two metre female to stroll past the verandah.

It's a very singular moment, your first encounter with a Komodo dragon. Some small part of your brain, a tiny shard of genetic memory screams, "Dinosaur!" and there's a nagging feeling you should climb the nearest tree. The largest of the monitor lizards, the dragon has been unchanged for 4 million years. Not quite a dinosaur but it looks old, looks, like the landscape, like it's materialised from another age and that the gulf of time that separates it  from you is vast, cold and alien. An off duty guide grabs his forked stick and gestures for me to follow him.  He places a hand gently on my shoulder as we approach, indicating we've got close enough. It's mating season and  so everyone is a bit frisky and given the startling turn of speed that the animal can turn on  when called for, discretion is the greater part of valour in this instance. Up close the animal is untroubled by our appearance, flicking it's vast forked tongue backwards and forwards, teasing an appraisal of us out of the air. Later on the island of Rinca we learn that the animals there are no so tame and are told the story of a sunbathing German tourist dragged away for lunch, a tale so layered with the  patina of retelling that I'm pretty sure it's not true. Why are they always German in these sorts of stories? And naked?

Back on Komodo, true to form the rest of the passengers on the boat turned up drenched in sweat not having seen a single dragon. I cheerfully point out one for them that's just appeared by the gift shop. I was not popular.