Sunday, October 31, 2010

Walking on Sunshine

The only thing better than meeting new friends is catching up with old ones. When I first decided to runaway from home and head to Oceania, one of the first plans that formed solidly in my mind was reuniting with my wonderful friends from ecfans. A large group of us had met in person four years ago on the occasion of my first visit to Australia, and I was excited to have the chance to see my Aussie girls once again.

Shortly after arriving in Sydney, my friend LoJo, a lifelong Sydneysider, took it upon herself to show me the hidden secrets and beauty of the area she calls home. During our first three days, we covered hundreds of kilometers, countless breathtaking vistas, a dozen beaches, and shared innumerable stories on our way there.

At promptly 10:30 each morning, LoJo picked me up in front of my flat and we would start off on our adventure for the day. Since I had just been to Bondi the day before, Monday kicked off with a drive to Sydney’s other famous beach – Manly. Australian summer had not yet officially begun, so there weren’t many surfers in the chilly waters but those that were seemed to be enjoying the relative quiet to be found in the water on the first day of the workweek.

Although LoJo didn’t say as much, our next beach, Cronulla, felt less touristy than either of its better-known cousins. The boardwalk in Bondi is replete with shops selling everything from surf gear to Bondi branded t-shirts. Cronulla, on the other hand, seemed quieter and less exploited by the locals who seemed to love its more natural charms.

I never truly appreciated just how large Sydney really is until I unfolded myself from LoJo’s car at North Head. The city stretched before me in literally every direction. The Harbour Bridge peeked over a ridge to my right while the local ferries passed across the water in front of me carrying tourists and locals alike. LoJo pointed out the best places to watch the city’s world famous New Year’s pyrotechnics show, as I soaked in the sights before me.

Since my own beloved home and native land recently hosted the Winter Olympics, I was keen to see our next stop: the grounds where Sydney hosted the Summer Games in 2000. The extensive area we drove through was home to enough stadiums and sports complexes to have any top-rated American college salivating.

Although the crown jewel in this Olympic park is certainly the newly named ANZ Stadium, I was far more taken with the newer installations: specifically the tribute to the thousands of volunteers that helped make the Games such a success. I don’t know if such a tribute is traditional at all Olympic sites but it should be.

LoJo and I wandered around posing for photos, and she told me about what it was like to actually attend live Olympic and Paralympic events. Ten years ago, the street where we parked was wall-to-wall people as fans from around the world poured into the city for a chance to witness sports history. Canada, it should be noted, walked away with a whopping 14 medals that year.

The next day I went home.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Ballet in the Sky

Sundays always seem to arrive too early for the hungover among us. A late night of drinking and dancing is a sure fire cure for even the most faithful early bird. You can then likely imagine my shock when my roommates all woke up early after a late night of imbibing with the news they were headed to Bondi Beach for a day of sun worshipping and relaxation. Since I was without any good reasons to do otherwise, I took my flatmates up on their offer and joined them a day at the beach.

After years of living in conservative countries, I don’t actually own any shorts so I was the only one of our group wearing jeans in spite of the warm weather. At the door, I donned sandals for the first time in almost a year and found it odd not to have socks on. Our group walked a short distance to Hyde Park and then hopped on an already full bus for the 30-minute ride to Bondi Junction.

We arrived in the midst of the Festival of the Winds and the sky above us was dotted with every colour of the rainbow. Kites of all shapes and sizes danced along the length of beach. The fliers ranged in age from young children to senior citizens and the one thing they all had in common was the look of joy on their faces as they watched their kites cut across the blue sky above them.

I’m not sure what I was expecting but the kilometer-long stretch of beach in front of me wasn’t it. I always thought the famous beach would be miles long, with huge breaking waves, and hordes of gorgeous surfers. Although there were easily two-dozen hopefuls out in the water, the waves were not terribly impressive that day and most of the wetsuit-clad surfers seemed to be chatting amongst themselves whilst straddling their boards out in the water.

Surf-happy tourists who fail to come prepared can rent a board from one of the local surf shops. Many newbies avail themselves of the group lessons that are available for approximately $65 to $100 for two hours, during which they learn everything from how to paddle out to meet the waves to standing on the boards to greet them properly. During our brief afternoon, we saw at least three groups of eager wannabes carry their boards into the water for presumably the first time.

Considering I arrived still mildly drunk from the night before, I had a great time sinking my toes into the soft sand at Bondi. We watched cute boys literally take flying leaps off a ledge and giggled at the little girl with her homemade kite complete with neon pink string and nylon stocking tail. I may not have taken a dip in the chilly waters, but I can sincerely say that my first trip to Bondi Beach won’t be my last.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Insert Title Here

More than once, I have found myself wandering around a strange city thinking out my next blog post. I’ll notice something interesting across the street and begin to compose a few paragraphs in my head. Blog Think, as I call it, is always brilliant and witty, the prose never needs work, there are no comma splices, and were Pulitzer Prizes awarded for inspirational blog perfection, I would have won a dozen by now. Sadly, the problem with Blog Think is that it doesn’t have a recording device.

I started carrying around a leather bound notebook for those moments when I had finally created the perfect turn of phrase but ended up with pages of disjointed thoughts and no memory of what inspired them or how I could use them again. I briefly contemplated sticking a tape recorder in my purse for those moments but dismissed the notion because there was no space in my already bursting Roots bag. Despite several successful ventures, carrying around my laptop day after day became an exercise in masochism due to its weight and my now sore back.

Thus, I have been left with only the brief memory of genius to keep my blog warm at night. Mind readers on the street all know I was capable of fits of Kafka-esque brilliance but they were the only ones. Unless someone invents a way of recording my inner musings and transferring them to paper without any interference from me, I’m pretty much buggered in the writing department.

Writer’s block hounded me for months in New Zealand. I composed post after post while I wandered the damp streets of Auckland but was unable to command the words again when seated before my computer. I spent more time staring into space than I did tapping the keys.

In Sydney, I thought I had tracked down my muse and convinced her to stick around when she abandoned me at a typically inconvenient moment. I had dozens of stories to tell but was incapable of getting past the first sentence. I stared for hours at photos and remembered the wonderful memories behind each picture yet the second I thought to turn my musings into something more purposeful the words mocked me and disappeared like wraiths into the ether.

So instead of a witty tale about how Australia is a land of beaches I’m left with yet another post about writer’s block. Rather than sharing the rollicking good times I had with Sophie the Giraffe at Bondi Beach I am left contemplating why no one has invented a mind reading, self-typing computer to be sold at an affordable price at the local Mac store. Unfortunately, it looks like Blog Think and brilliance will only go hand in hand when there’s a telepathic shorthand expert around.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Around Sydney in 500 Words

I realize I’m verbose which is why I’ve set myself the goal of sharing the following photos without explaining or talking them to death like I usually do.

I don’t have much to say about this photo. Sydney is a beautiful city that stretches for miles in virtually every direction. One of the best ways to appreciate the city is by water. So hop on one of the many ferries to Manly, Bondi, or points in between and soak in the breathtaking scenery.

I crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge twice one day with my friend LoJo. While I’m not brave enough to walk along its exterior, the option is there for those with steady nerves and deep pockets.

Unlike the CN Tower in Toronto or Eiffel Tower in Paris, Sydney Tower doesn’t dominate the skyline or mental image of Sydney. At 305 meters high it can be seen throughout the CBD peeking out from behind newer office buildings downtown yet remains a must-see for tourists. For the truly daring there is even a Skywalk to tour the outer perimeter at a scary 268 meters up.

I have always been a fan of random sculpture art and Sydney doesn’t disappoint in this area. A brief tour of The Rocks finds a new sample of modern art behind and attached to buildings where you least expect them.

BBS and I visited the Sydney Fish Market with our wonderful cousin and his wife. Anyone who likes seafood even a little must visit the Fish Market where the fresh fish and seafood are beyond tempting. Freshly sliced sashimi, huge freshly shucked oysters, massive prawns, prehistorically large crab legs, and every fish you’ve never heard of are on display and ready to be brought home and popped “on the barbie.” No kitchen in your hotel? No problem! There are dozens of restaurants small and large with the fresh catch of the day on the board ready for a quick snack or a sizeable meal.

In much the same way that visitors to Kenya insisted on buying six foot tall giraffe’s that never fit the in overhead, many people who come to Australia feel the need to buy a didgeridoo. Most days, buskers along Circular Quay can be heard playing the Aboriginal instrument. I understand from a friend who sells them in her shop that they are surprisingly difficult to play.

The ten-year anniversary of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games was on September 15th of this year. Olympic Park is still well maintained and worth a visit out to its grounds. LoJo told me about the exhilaration of being there during the Games to watch the events unfold in person. She described the chill and pride she felt hearing 120,000 people yell, “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!” and reply, “Oy! Oy! Oy!” in the stands of Stadium Australia ten years ago.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pitch Perfect

I have always celebrated my birthday with a great meal. At home in Toronto, I would always ask my mother to make roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, and all the veggie fixings. The Ex and I would go out for a meal at whatever my favourite restaurant of the day was: Il Pizzico in Maryland, Radio Maria in Illinois, Tonino in Delhi, or About Thyme in Nairobi. Just because I was on my own in Sydney for the big day this year, I saw no reason to break with the tradition of having a “Big Deal Meal.”

After much research, I narrowed down my choices to two Circular Harbour- area restaurants, both of which had recently received top honours from Australian Gourmet Traveller. I reviewed the menus of both establishments and finally decided upon lunch at Aria, which is located next door to the Sydney Opera House. Named one of the top 20 best restaurants in the country, I was excited to see if Chef Matt Moran could impress me.

I showed up without a reservation at half past one and was seated by a window with a lovely view of the Opera House. Despite the decidedly high prices, I was intrigued to note that most of the other diners were obviously businessmen on expense account lunches.

I perused the menu and tried to decide what to order. After a great deal of internal debate, I opted for the Seven Course Spring Tasting Menu. Sure I would be stuck eating Ramen Noodles for a month, but instinct told me the meal I was about to enjoy would be more than worth it.

My passion fruit martini arrived prompted and left me greatly enamored of the bartender. Unlike many restaurant cocktails, my martini had not been watered down. The lovely presentation was complimented by delicate scent of passion fruit, which wafted up with each sip. Since matching wines with my meal was beyond my budget, I opted for a lovely Viognier to accompany my meal. The wine was light with little nose to speak of, thus ensuring it did not interfere with any of the flavours the chef had lying in wait for me.

The amuse bouche was a cold vichyssoise shot with salmon mousse. The tasty soup slid down my throat with little fanfare. The soup was neither too salty nor fishy tasting, creating a perfect balance between the textures of the fluffy mouse and the silky soup; all combining for a creaminess that hit my taste buds and made me smile almost instantly. My amuse bouche arrived rather quickly after I placed my order so I politely informed my waiter that despite all the paraphernalia I had strewn about the table (my kindle, camera, note book, and a pen), it was my birthday and I was not in a rush.

The reason I like tasting menus so much is that they give me a chance to try things I might not otherwise order. Despite my culinary fears, whenever I delve into the unknown flavours of a tasting menu I’m never disappointed and am left wondering why I don’t order outside of my comfort zone more often.

So it was with my first course of tuna sashimi served with shaved fennel and radish, octopus, spicy puffed rice, and yuzu purée. The only course I forgot to photograph, it set the bar high for what was to follow in both flavour and presentation. I am not normally a fan of tuna but the contrast between the yuzu purée and the sharp bite the wasabi on the fish raised this dish from a typical plate of seared tuna to a truly unique experience. The light crunch of the puffed rice and shaved vegetables provided the perfect contrast to the soft bite of the tuna.

Perhaps my favourite course of the entire meal was the cured goose breast with chicken liver parfait, poached rhubarb, black pepper, and ginger bread. The almost Carpaccio-like goose meat provided the perfect foil to what I felt was the star of the dish – the chicken liver cigar whose texture melted on my tongue and made me long for seconds even before I finished eating.

It finally struck me as I enjoyed a bite of the eye-opening poached rhubarb that my meal wasn’t supposed to be about strong flavours or knocking me over with the marvels of meats prepared sous-vide with a side of foam. No, Chef Moran had created a menu designed to impress all aspects of my palate with a contrast of textures and mouthfeel. Mouthfeel is that elusive element that makes people cringe when they eat the sucker of an octopus or sigh with pleasure when they first taste a perfectly whipped chocolate mouse. Texture is exactly what Moran has perfected with this tasting menu – the crunch of the pastry shell around the cigar, contrasted with the sinfully smooth chicken liver, and solid bite of the goose. Each bite was pure perfection – a trend that would continue during each subsequent course.

My waiter presented me with the next course: roasted Nova Scotia scallops with a shaved Brussels sprout salad, pumpkin purée, and a raisin and caper dressing. Too many restaurants lately have become lazy about scallops and tend to serve them overcooked – not so at Aria. The caper dressing was a nice surprise of tartness with each bite of perfectly prepared scallop. The distinct and unusual raisin flavour was a revelation but not more so than the Brussels sprout salad that almost had me liking the dreaded vegetable despite myself.

The well trained and efficient wait staff never failed to impress me during my meal. Each course was explained in detail and any questions I had about what I was eating were answered patiently and knowledgeably. When I was presented with the Peking Duck Consommé with dumplings, shaved abalone, and mushrooms, for example, my waiter explained the complex techniques used to create the delicious and aromatic soup. Once again, subtle flavours seemed to be the order of the day and each spoonful of soup was gentle reminder that gluttony was one of the seven deadly sins. The mushrooms still had a nice bite to them and complimented the tasty dumplings perfectly.

The course I was most looking forward to was the Kurobuta sweet pork belly with pickled watermelon and crackling. The pork belly was tender and flavorful without being overpowered by the salt cure. The pork was, sadly, not only slightly greasy on the plate but also on my palate. When eaten in conjunction with the watermelon, however, the greasiness was countered with the natural sweetness of the fruit and formed a perfect union my mouth. I often complain about saltiness yet that was what I liked most about the crackling as I snapped each bite. As this was one of the courses I would have ordered a la carte, I was somewhat disappointed by the overall dish.

My final savory course was roasted lamb fillet with confit belly, eggplant purée, tomato and basil fondue, and a black olive sauce. My lamb was slightly overdone due in part, I believe, to my late arrival and the fact that by this time, it was nearly four o’clock. The cucumber crème cut the natural saltiness of the lamb’s jus and left me with an arrangement of flavours and textures battling for supremacy as they burst across my tongue. The brightly flavoured tomato fondue was really more of a mushy bruchetta and nicely complimented the eggplant purée, which itself was the perfect accompaniment to the lamb. This final course was truly a tour de force and demonstrated Chef Moran’s talents to their utmost.

Before I could ready myself for dessert, my palate cleanser arrived: a pineapple Piña Colada sorbet with coconut tapiocoa. It was crunchy, soft, and cold all at the same time. The vivid flavours were eclipsed only by the incredibly unique tapioca bubbles that exploded like small bombs in my mouth.

To accompany my dessert, I ordered a glass of Domaine de l’Arjolle Lyre muscato. The not overly sweet dessert wine had a strong nose and although not overly sweet reminded me of Ethiopian t’ej with its honey-like colour.

When my dessert arrived, I was appropriately amused and touched to see the chocolate “happy birthday” message on the plate complete with a candle to make my birthday wish. The Calvados ice cream, caramelized apple, almond crumble, and apple sorbet was an interesting take on the now popular “Apple Four Ways”. This was the ultimate dénouement to a meal of textures as the creaminess of the ice cream, smooth tart sorbet, biting apple, and crunchy crumble united to present a sweet assault on my taste buds.

Little did I realize as I savored the last bites of apple crumble that my meal wasn’t actually done yet. A tray bearing six petit fours with two pieces each of nougat, Turkish delight truffles, and coffee lamington was laid before me alongside a piping hot macchiato. I found the sticky nougat a little too chewy for my personal tastes. The truffle, on the other hand, was a pleasant combination of a crunchy chocolate outside with a squishy middle that made me wish I could roam around to the tables that had foolishly left their truffles behind. Finally, the small pieces of cake were delightful snatches of the lightest sponge.

Despite my short-term future as a backpacker, I talked myself into buying Matt Moran’s cookbook eponymous first cookbook. One of my pet peeves when I dine at “celebrity chef” restaurants is a lack of signed cookbooks. Even though I own them all, I would have willingly bought an extra Mario Batali or Jamie Oliver cookbook if it were signed. Yet every time I visit these chefs’ establishments, I have been told that the chefs never leave signed copies available for the public. When I discovered Chef Moran’s cookbooks were signed, I felt it was a sign and added one to my bill.

Ruth Reichl, like most great critics, believed it took multiple visits to a restaurant in order to truly gauge its weaknesses and strengths. As the critic for the New York Times, she famously visited restaurants in different disguises as part of her testing process. As an overweight tourist on her birthday, I can safely say the service and food at Aria is top notch. The lunchtime fare was exquisite from beginning to end and the service was attentive without becoming overbearing. Even when I was the only person left in the restaurant, I was assured I should linger to enjoy my coffee.

Normally, the biggest insult I can offer is the word “nice.” The Ex used to joke that “nice” was the death knell of many meals in subpar restaurants around the world. Yet at Aria, I found myself uttering the word over and over without disdain. Flavours and textures melted in my mouth and left me unable to utter anything other than the incoherent babbling of someone utterly happy and sated. The perfection of the ten courses presented to me should not be lumped as merely nice – they were sublime.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

China in Three Parts

While by no means the largest or even most impressive Chinatown I’ve ever visited, Sydney’s Chinatown is a definite must see for visitors to the area. Of course, to get the full experience it will take more than one visit, a pair of comfortable walking shoes, a sense of fun, and a hearty appetite.

After our disappointing visit to Paddy’s Market, BBS and I headed across the street for what would be my initial tour of Chinatown. The touristy pedestrian mall area of the Asian quarter is two blocks long although the neighbourhood proper is much larger. From the ubiquitous pink cat store to the myriad of hole in the wall eateries, one could be forgiven for wondering if there was a do it yourself ChinaTown™ kit that cities purchased and erected to lure tourists.

Despite the tasty steamed buns at The Emperor’s Garden Cakes and Bakery, I must admit that I was initially disappointed by my first visit to the rather generic Chinatown. Luckily for me, I was dragged back twice more.

My return visit found me in Darling Harbour at the Chinese Garden of Friendship with my then roommate, a girl from Ottawa, and two guys from our hostel. The Gardens are located a short walk across the pedestrian bridge at the foot of Liverpool Street in Chinatown. After some debate we each paid the $6.00 entrance fee and quickly decided it was the best money any of us had spent in Sydney.

Built in 1988 to commemorate Sydney’s bicentennial, the Chinese Gardens are fashioned after a typical Ming Dynasty private garden. The Gardens were designed by Chinese architects and landscape designers in the city of Guangzhou in China, Sydney’s sister city, to demonstrate the perfect balance of the four elements of water, plants, stone, and architecture.

It seems almost trite to call Chinese gardens Zen, relaxing, or calming but that’s what they are. I don’t know if they sell season’s passes to this 10,000 square meter space but if they did I would snap one up in a minute.

Although the price is not as well advertised as I might like, the most entertaining part of the Chinese Gardens appeals to the child in everyone. For $10 anyone can don traditional Ming and Ching dynasty garb and wander the Gardens at will. Men are dressed as Samurai Warriors complete with swords and the ladies are transformed into fan waving princesses. For those shy folks out there, it should be noted that most of the people I saw in costume that day were adults rather than children.

Natural granite formations, waterfalls, koi ponds, hidden nooks and crannies, a miniature bamboo forest, stairs to hidden spots perfect for lover’s trysts, bridges, and creative landscaping are just a few of the wonderful features of the Gardens. If you can avoid looking up, it would be easy to forget for a few hours that you were in the middle of a huge city.

I find it difficult to explain my fascination with the Gardens except to say that I felt at peace there. With hidden niches perfect for stolen kisses, Ottawa Girl and I both remarked that it would be the perfect place for a first date. Of course, for that same reason, it would make a horrible destination for a high school field trip. Yet, I found myself sitting on its stone benches more than once during my time in Sydney: it was peace in the middle of a bustling and noisy city.

My final visit to China Town was under cover of dark on a clear Friday evening. The Chinatown Night Market occurs every Friday night regardless of holidays or weather. This excursion found me with another roommate, Opera, as we wandered the stalls of discounted jewelry and other various wares from IPad accessories to adorable slippers.

I naturally bargained for everything I purchased, much to Opera’s horror, and paid only $15 for my $25 slippers. Opera insisted that nobody bargains at the Night Markets whilst I countered that anyone who has a stand has to expect a little give and take. Simply being in an outdoor market brought back all my happy Maasai Market memories and stood strong by my prices and walked away when necessary.

To top off our night we even got tattoos! Or, as close as I’m ever going to get to breaking down and finally getting inked. In honour of the Year of the Rabbit (due to start in February) I had a small bunny air painted on the base of my thumb. More daring, Opera opted for one at the base of her spine. That night when we returned to the hostel we told everyone they were real. Unfortunately, no one believed us for very long.

The best part of the Chinatown Night Markets is definitely the food, so be sure to bring your appetite. The scents from the freshly cooked food assaulted us the moment we arrived at the markets and tantalized us until we finally gave in and tasted what was on offer. From “meat rugs” and steamed buns, to black rice and dumplings I don’t think there was a single food vendor that disappointed. On our way out, Opera tried some Dragon Beard Candy that she declared scrumptious.

Three visits on three separate days allowed me to see different sides of Sydney’s Chinatown and each was unique in its own way. From the excitement of the Night Markets to the tranquility of the Gardens, there is far more to see than first meets the eye and none of Chinatown’s many facets should be missed on a trip to Sydney.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why I Now Drink Cider

Most universities (and some high schools, I know) have a tradition of locking their students in a room with a great deal of alcohol and allowing them to get drunk, content in the knowledge that they are in a safe place, have a sober ride home, and people to watch over them. In the dorms where I lived during university, it was called a “Brewery Tour” and was a greatly anticipated event. We had some sort of alcohol themed event every few weekends but Free Beer Night was just that – free beer. Are there any sweeter words to broke college students?

The tour was hosted by Moosehead, a local brewery, and involved our House heading across the bridge in a school bus and being locked in a room with a bartender and all the Moosehead we could consume in three hours. It was on that occasion that one of the more embarrassing events from my university days occurred. And those of you who knew me back then (or now for that matter) can certainly understand that embarrassing events involving alcohol were plentiful in those days.

The following is my recollection of those events…

First some background: the brewery that footed the bill for this annual bacchanal is famous for a beer with a green label and, at least in those days, it was common to go to the bar and simply ask for “a bottle of Green.” Being a “snooty Upper Canadian” from Toronto, I instead preferred a nice cold bottle of Labatt’s Blue. Although it is considered good form to drink the local brew when travelling, ordering “a bottle of Blue” was always my own private rebellion.

The night of the Brewery Tour, I had enjoyed several bottles of Green when I, in a beer induced haze, decided to grab the next round for my table. To this day, I remember walking up to the bar and consciously thinking I would ask for “a bottle of Green” rather than simply asking for a Moosehead like a normal drunk person.

You know those moments when an entire room goes unexpectedly silent and only your voice can be heard?

“Ask for green. Ask for green. Ask for green.” The words kept swimming through my mind on waves of free beer. “I’ll take three Blues, please.” Even as the words came out of my mouth, I knew they were wrong but I was incapable of taking them back or correcting them midbreath.

I never knew what the saying “deafening silence” meant until that moment and it was horrible. For several seconds, the din of the room had died and even the music seemed to have screeched to a halt. People behind me whispered in loud drunken tones if they had actually heard me correctly.

The bartender stared at me; the indulgent smirk that had been present for most of the evening was gone. I had just dissed his employers – my free beer benefactors - in the worst possible way. All around me, people fell into one of two categories: drunken outrage at my faux pas, or drunken mirth at my folly. It was awful.

The remainder of the evening consisted of me trying to get someone to remove the invisible spotlight I felt pounding directly into my eyes. “I meant to say green!” I tried to explain to anyone who would listen. “GREEN!!!”

Those friends who weren’t on the floor laughing uproariously at me kept asking me to identify different colours in the room. “What colour are my jeans? Very good. Now what colour is the beer?”

By the next day, the incident had become legend throughout Residence Hall. Mocking Blue Girl had evidently been made an official sport while I slept and everyone was eager to play.

The whole incident came to a head several months later, long after I thought my humiliation had been forgotten. By then, I had participated in a House Free Beer Party where I chugged at least one (or two) straight bottles in our House President’s room to offset the number of free beers I had been swiping for my friends hiding in my room. I had served flaming Sambukas during a Room Crawl, and provided my world famous “’Caper Water” to more than my fair share of drunken friends during the wee hours of the morning. I had made amends for my sins – or so I thought.

During the last week of classes, each House hosted an awards dinner. It was a way to avoid the usual cafeteria food; the various House League teams were given prizes, and the old Presidents could make speeches that everyone would ignore. Although I always joined interleague teams in September with the best of intentions, I was never that good at remembering to attend games so I knew I wasn’t about to win any MVP prizes.

“Next up, we have the award for House Beer Rep,” the outgoing president announced. In theory, the Beer Rep was the liaison between Moosehead and the House. “This year’s Beer Rep is Typ0!!” I was shocked, embarrassed, and giddy with pleasure as my friends and Housemates applauded and laughed at the announcement. The gag award was the cherry on my Blue/Green moment of drunkenness months before.

The Beer Rep award was a wonderful way to end my years of living in residence. I would not be returning in the fall as my friends and I had already secured a house not far from campus for the new school year. Best of all, I had learned my lesson: always order the local beer and when in doubt get someone else to order.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

They Got the Salt Part Right

Back when The Ex and I lived in Kenya, we used to watch this wonderful Australian reality show called My Restaurant Rules. The show, which only went two seasons, had its contestants create, start-up, and run actual restaurants. The restaurants were not simple fronts for a reality show – they were real functioning businesses with employees and a clientele who would hopefully vote for them each week. In addition to the public, the couples had to deal with the show’s fabulous (in all its connotations) judges who reviewed everything from the food and kitchen to the washrooms and staff.

Over two mouthwatering seasons, our favourite couple and by extension restaurant, were Evan Hansimlkall and Bella Serventi of Pink Salt in Sydney. Despite not winning the show’s second season, the pair re-launched their restaurant in the Double Bay suburb of Sydney. With my well-known obsession with the Food Network, it should come as no surprise that along with my decision to visit Sydney came the desire to seek out sample the wares at Pink Salt (version 2.0).

Filled with high hopes, I took the ferry from Central Quay to Double Bay for a midweek lunch. The first thing that hits any visitor to Pink Salt is the word PINK – in all caps. From the walls to the eclectic variety of throw pillows, every shade of the pink spectrum is present and accounted for. Although the slightly shabby interior could use a good dusting and some TLC, the décor was not unattractive or overly distracting. The theme went so far, I observed, that other than myself, most people seemed to be dressed for the occasion in shades of pink.

Immediately after being seated, I ordered a Watermelon and Rose Petal Martini. The delicate scent from the drink immediately spoke of the watermelon but the taste was, it seemed to me, oddly of lychees. The admittedly tasty aperitif was an alcoholic precursor to a middling Pinot Grigio and a rather too sweet house muscato.

After much internal debate, I ordered the Tempura Zucchini Flowers filled with blue swimmer crab and ricotta as my starter. As someone who admits to not salting her food at all, I found my initial bite somewhat salty despite the rather tasty saffron aioli accompaniment. Although slightly greasy, the zucchini flowers boasted a delicate crab flavor that didn’t overwhelm my palate.

My second course of Gruyere Cheese and Black Olive Ravioli arrived indecently fast for my sensibilities. Despite winning a Top Service Award in 2008, this was just another nail in the coffin of uneven service during my meal. By the time I had ordered and finally eaten both these courses, only thirty minutes had passed and that, by my standards, is simply unacceptable. I was obviously not there to eat a quick business lunch, and to serve my courses back to back because the chef was anxious for a break was unacceptable.

The excessively hot plate and melted cheese spoke loudly of a chef aching for a breather rather than one looking to impress his diners. The three large ravioli were once again salty for my tastes and immediately brought to mind the numerous comments on My Restaurant Rules that food was not salty enough. Perhaps Australians like their food with excessive amounts sodium, I reasoned.

Sitting on a bed of perfectly wilted greens, the ravioli tasted bitingly of olive without being overpowering. Considering they are out of season in the area, the delightful cherry tomatoes and Parmesan oil that topped the dish provided the perfect natural sauce and took the dish from nyeh to interesting.

Next up was an Apple and Fennel Crumble my waiter recommended on the strength that it, like him, was “very British.” The first course all afternoon long that wasn’t too salty, I found the crumble disappointingly lacking in flavour. The pastry chef’s choice to shred the apple rather than dice it was interesting but not one I would recommend to home cooks as the result was a rather mushy filling with little to recommend it other than a bland crumble topping. The sorbet, on the other hand, was a delightful treat for the taste buds: neither too tart nor too sweet. It was the perfect foil for my flavourless crumble.

In a town obsessed with cupcakes, it should come as no surprise that Pink Salt offered this small treat on their dessert menu to either consume in house or take home. I chose the latter and was well pleased with my decision as it helped me end my day on high note. The moist cake was topped with an icing that wasn’t too sweet and didn’t have that grainy texture I have come to associate with the genre.

When I first arrived at Pink Salt, an older woman next to me noticed me taking notes and asked if I was reviewing the restaurant. I nodded and she shared that she felt the eatery deserved no more than 2.5 stars out of five. I went in with high hopes and initially felt she was being a tad bitter. Three and a half courses later, I think she may have been generous. Even with credit given for the caliber of the wait staff, perfectly sized portions, and tasty cocktails, I find myself unable to overlook the excessively salty food, rushed service, vaguely shabby décor, and an overall sense that despite a solid business plan Pink Salt was still trying to get by on fame earned years ago.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

From Hotels to Hostels

After BBS left Australia, I was relegated once again to living on the cheap. Despite my best (i.e. barest minimum) efforts, I was unable to find a new and affordable flat in Sydney prior to his departure. The thought of leaving the comforts of the Circular Quay-area hotel, with its amazing views, comfy duvets, and lovely business lounge did not sit well with me. Since my quest to go local was meeting with only limited success and few prospective flatmates had rung me back, I cringed and prepared to bite the proverbial bullet.

My housing slump left me with the unenviable choice of living on the streets, staying in an overpriced hotel, or moving into a hostel. I am far too spoiled to live on the streets and far, far too broke for the hotel lifestyle, so I pulled up my big girl panties and accustomed myself to hostel living.

As you can expect, I did a great deal of research into my choice of hostel and eventually settled on the one closest to the hotel where BBS and I stayed. Since I made my decision to stay there at the last minute, I was relegated to bunking in a room with five other girls for a sum slightly greater than one might expect of a hostel.

I have to admit, the newly opened Sydney Harbour Hostel impressed me from the moment I entered its airy reception area. The large comfortable living area features plenty of natural light and fronts the impressive cooking area with its six professional-style ranges.

What surprised me most, however, were the residents of this particular hostel. With rooms to serve 354, the clientele run the gamut from grandparents in their 70’s to children on their first overnight field trip. The 20-something backpackers certainly make up the bulk of the visitors but the contemporary furnishings, banks of computers, and quiet efficiency of its staff are a reminder that this hostel has more than stoned kids on gap year vacations in mind.

The YHA tends to nickel and dime its guests with charges for everything from post checkout luggage storage to overpriced barista coffee in the mornings. The hostel does, however, do its best to entertain the masses. Every night, there is a themed meal people can sign up for. The first night I stayed, I enjoyed ’Roo Burgers on the roof for $6.00 AUD. The following night found me flipping pancakes with other residents while we made a mess and enjoyed the surprisingly free prepare-it-yourself meal.

Located over an archeological site, the best feature of this family-friendly hostel is the roof deck. The views from BBS’s pricey hotel are easily eclipsed by these panoramic offerings. The unimpeded view of the Opera House with the Harbour Bridge to the left is a popular feature here and people can often be found on the roof snapping photos or simply enjoying the fine Australian weather. Best of all, they also have an unimpeded view of the Canadian High Commission!

Lest you think this effusive post is a sign that I have become less spoiled and am suddenly willing to live like a proper backpacker, I wish to assure you that I am still the expat princess you all know and love. That said, if I had known that hostels could be this nice I probably could have saved myself a bundle by now.