Book Review: Ian Young’s London Skin and Bones: The Finsbury Park Stories

London Skin & Bones: The Finsbury Park StoriesLondon Skin & Bones: The Finsbury Park Stories by Ian Young
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I met Ian decades ago when I was at university, but I never knew the stories of his years in London, living in Finsbury Park with a colourful cast of friends and lovers. These stories are very charming and engaging, and I remembered right away that he was a poet as the stories are crafted in a short and concise way and end beautifully. It is a visit to another world and time, and I think anyone interested in gay counterculture and working class London in the 80s, would be as charmed to read this as I was.

To expand on our meeting, while at university, at the tail end of the 80s, I was an aspiring writer and had published my very first poems in our university’s literary magazine. I had mentioned in my bio that I was gay. Somehow, Ian came across the magazine and sent me his anthology of gay poetry, Son of Male Muse. The thing is: I was away that year, the whole year, overseas on an exchange. So, I was lucky that my college simply left the envelope in a stack near the communal mailboxes, maybe for a whole year, and that one of my friends mentioned it to me when I returned to university that fall.

I was surprised and happy, but then: I recognised the name. For, as a much younger boy, perhaps 13 or 14, I had gone to my city library in Vancouver, and rather than search for some ‘how to’ manual about being gay, or to accept myself, what I was really interested in was who I was as a gay person, what was my shared culture. So, I looked up in the card catalogue, back then certainly not electronic, ‘gay poetry’, and found Ian’s first anthology of gay poetry, Male Muse (1973). One of the poems, simple and straightforward, about affection between two men, I liked so much, I photocopied and kept it with me in a journal for a time.

So many years after its publication, and another few years after I’d first found it (back then four or five years did seem like a long time!), the editor had personally sent me a letter. And about gay poetry!

Later, after meeting Ian in his home in Scarborough in Toronto, for a special issue of gay writing for the literary journal ARC, I did a profile of Ian and his poetry, including this same anecdote that I’ve written above. And, as another coincidence, when I worked at the Canadian Pavilion at Expo ’92 in Seville, one of my best friends was a Trinidadian-Canadian, Alana, who I found out not only lived in Scarborough but lived in the HOUSE NEXT DOOR to Ian’s.

Connections, connections. These day, people talk about the world being interconnected, and generally, I think they are referring to the way that we are receiving the same information and entertainment, simultaneously, around the world, and how COVID-19 or climate change is affecting us all because of our connections.

But what I’ve marvelled at in the last decades is the way that Facebook and email has allowed us to remain connected with people in our past lives so easily. When I was at university, we drifted off from each other, perhaps after a few letters. Now, though a few purposely stay disconnected, many of us are back in touch with enduring connections with people we may have crossed paths with only a few times.

So yes, how lovely to receive Skin and Bones in the post a few weeks ago, sent by Ian from Canada to Australia, after so many years. I hope this peaks your interest to track down a copy and read it!

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Product review: Nanobag (reusable shopping bags)

When I shop, particularly for something new, or from a source that I’m unfamiliar with, I usually try to find reviews. What I want is to read a convincing voice that says: yes, you are making the right decision. Or: no, don’t buy it. And so that’s why I occasionally put up product reviews too, in case this finds its way to someone like me, wondering if they should buy a Nanobag.

So, what are Nanobags? They are reusable shopping bags, but collapsible into the tiniest package so you can tuck them into your pocket or purse or manbag. I’m a bit obsessed with this type of shopping bag. I really HATE using plastic, non-reusable shopping bags, and I’m glad that they are being phased out in some stores and in some countries. They are just terrible for the environment. And while the big green bags (they’re mostly green here in Australia) are useful and sturdy for regular groceries, I really like the option of ones that you can easily carry around with you.

When we lived in Paris a few years ago, most of the grocery stores offered different varieties of them, some nicer than others. What I really want out of these bags is that the pouch is attached to the bag, rather than being separate (because I would worry about losing the pouch, and also find it fussy when it’s separate). A few years ago, I found a Chico Bag, and had a few delivered to my brother’s US home, where I picked them up one Christmas (since at the time, they were ridiculously expensive to be shipped to Australia). This was fine, and the little carabiner clip seemed, at the time, useful to attach to a belt loop. And the pirate design amused me. Arrh matey.

When I lost one of the Chico Bags, I searched for what was new, and discovered Nanobags on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, there is a listing up on both. Obviously made my reusable shopping bag obsessives like me, they decided to make the smallest ones possible, by using parachute material, I believe, and the tiny drawstrings on the bag are like tiny soft but tough ribbons. Based in Hong Kong, the inventors, have, I think struck the jackpot. You can see from the photo that the bags are probably less than half the size of my Chico Bag.

The shape can be a tiny bit awkward if the bag is too full, but then I’d recommend just using two of them. They fit perfectly on the shoulder. And, as promised, they are ridiculously light, super tough (no tears or holes yet after 9 months), and come in many attractive and amusing designs. I got four of them for US$39 (AUD 54), and while I wondered if they were a little expensive, I think they’re well worth the cost. My only problem is that they are so small that I worry about losing them (and often forget which pocket I’ve left one in). I’ve lost one so far.

All in all, if you’ve stumbled on this blog post because you’re searching for a review of the Nanobag (and even if you aren’t), I highly recommend these. Save the planet! I think this link should work to get you to their Indiegogo page. I believe they deliver worldwide.

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A minor history of food blogging

Super tasty kingfish sashimi at Chin Chin.

I just scrolled through my oldest blog entries, here on my website, to trace a little history of my food blogging adventures.

While I started my website, way back in January 2005, it was a static website, used to promote my writing (and a bit of my music). I kept a separate blog, on blogger.com, but I didn’t make any posts about restaurants. It was as much an experiment as anything else, with occasional musings on life, travels and writing.

Cucina Povera (Peasant Food) in Puglia, Italy.

I made a first posting about restaurants in Mexico City in August 2008, and after that there were occasional restaurant reviews and mentions from my travels. The food blogging really started in earnest in March 2011, on a trip to Paris, where I thought, having hit my 40s and in a loving and stable relationship, that my overseas travels should have a different focus than hitting the bars and nightclubs (which, ahem, was a theme for a decade or more). The focus of my trip was on eating at some really good restaurants, and I thought it would be fun to record the visits in photos and words. It was a way of sharing information with others, and also the type of information that I wanted to read when trying to find great restaurants.

A tasty appetizer at Mekong restaurant in Chippendale

That kicked things off and I started writing about meals in Sydney, as well as while on holidays. Two other things amped up the reviews. I changed my website to WordPress, which not only integrated the blog with my website, but it made the blog the main feature. I learned if anyone was to visit the website, I needed to do some regular writing. And why not about food?

I also discovered the website, eatability.com.au., which ran from 2003 until it was bought out in July 2012. While there were restaurant reviews on Tripadvisor.com and Yelp (which never had as big a presence in Australia as the USA), I liked this website, that focused soley on restaurants and cafes. I found it fun to read other people’s reviews and share my own opinions. I posted up many reviews there.

After Eatability got bought out, and went downhill, and I switched to Urban Spoon, which had the revelatory feature where I could add a widget to my blog reviews, and everything connected up nicely. Folks could find my reviews on their website and click through to my blog.

This corn at Kid Kyoto: divine!

Urban Spoon was bought out by Zomato in January 2015, and for a few years, I found this loads of fun. They gamefied reviews, where you earned points for the more you posted, to work your way up the rankings of top reviewers. I knew it was silly, but it gave me a mostly harmless dopamine hit to post regularly, and it encouraged me to get out and try more of Sydney’s amazing restaurants. I do admit that I got a little too caught up in it, sometimes just posting lame reviews (of say, just having a coffee) to count as a review.

It was also an interesting time to be a food blogger. I discovered that there were many food bloggers in Sydney. Zomato and Yelp hired ‘community liaison people’ and I got invited to some fun events and met other bloggers. I also started getting invited to restaurants for complimentary meals, in the hopes of a good review. And while I wasn’t blogging to get free food, I like free food.

But now, in 2020, especially after a three-month lockdown period from COVID where restaurants and cafes were shut down, the world of food blogging has become much quieter. The yearly Christmas parties organised for food bloggers went down in numbers from over a hundred to just a handful. Food instagrammers have arisen on mass, and most people find images of food more appealing than words. I have mixed feelings about this, as I’ve seen instagrammers who are much more interested in how food looks than how it tastes and their IG accounts seem to be a way to get followers rather than based on a real passion for food.

Monkfish medallions wrapped in bacon, New Year’s Day lunch at the Pavillon Henri IV, just outside Paris.

The free offers have dried up, which I think is a good thing: while I did try to repay the kindness (by going to the restaurants again, by posting positive reviews on different sites), I think there are probably only a handful of bloggers and instagrammers who would actually have some influence in terms of getting folks to go a restaurant or cafe.

And worst of all, Zomato, which made it so easy and appealing for me to be a food blogger, has updated their application, and it’s just not easy to use. Most of my reviews are not automatically linked and I have to go through a tedious process to get them posted. The rankings and points system don’t update properly. There are other problems too. It makes food blogging seem like a chore instead of a pleasure.

I also saw a note from Does My Bomb Look Big in This? who I consider Sydney’s finest food blogger (beautifully written blogs, details about the restaurant and owners which really honour their work, a passion for and understanding of good food) that reflected on not food blogging after 14 years of it during the lockdown. She’s now moving her reviews to Instagram (and maybe Facebook too). This has made me reflect also on my food blogging.

Octopus at Atoboy, NoMad, NYC. A great dish.

I do have an Instagram account, but it doesn’t really work for me. Perhaps my interests (cats, cooking, cocktails) are too diverse, but I don’t have many followers, which blunts the pleasure in sharing a food review, since I like the idea that there are people who will find it and find it useful! Similarly, while I have many friends on Facebook, most of them are not from Sydney, so I don’t like the idea of taking up Facebook Real Estate with restaurant reviews that aren’t useful for most people.

So, I guess I’ll still write reviews for restaurants that I really, really like, and the meals that I want to capture. But I think for now I’ll let go the more regular food blogging of restaurants and cafes, good, bad and mediocre. It is quite nice actually to eat meals and not think about taking photos of them or remembering exactly what I had. It’s basically what I do for wines in restaurants, even if I like them a lot, as I figure it’s often not easy for others to find them so why try to record them and my descriptive powers for wine are not that strong.

So, yes, enjoy the food and the moment for a while and not worry about recording the enjoyment: we’ll see if something new will emerge – or not.

Homemade mozzarella. Seriously. I made this. The next two times I tried to do it, I failed! Beginner’s luck, I guess.

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Book Review: Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors

Sharks in the Time of SaviorsSharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I spent summers in Hawaii as a child, while we were visiting my grandmother. It took me many years to realise that the Hawaiian culture had been coopted to promote tourism, while the Hawaiian people were often in pretty desperate situations, suffering from the same issues as Indigenous communities around the world. So, I was definitely interested in reading about a Hawaiian family in what advanced reviews called magic realism and many, many strong reviews (which seem much more positive overall than the reviews on Goodreads).

While I was pleased to recognise the local language (we were fascinated as kids with the pidgin dialect) and references to local stores and cultures, I went back and forth on this. There are wonderful, luminous poetic passages, and while the earthy scenes of sex seem to have put off some other readers, I thought they had an energy about them. But I did find that the characters fluctuated between elevated, poetic language and the local dialect, in a way that didn’t quite work for me. And the brother who spoke in the most vernacular and was least book smart (but perhaps most street smart): I didn’t find it all that compelling to spend time with him. The sister was smarter, but as a gay man, I didn’t find her struggles with her sexuality and identity to go very deep. And perhaps a purposeful weakness of the characters but I found they referred back nostalgically too often to their ‘hanabata’, ‘small kid’ days.

I won’t spoil the structure of the book for those who haven’t read it, but I did like the way that it subverted expectations, expanding a story focused on one family member to all of his family members. And I think the sense of the healing power of a culture, of old gods, of tuning into one’s heritage did work.

So, I found it OK in all, not great (for me) but I’m glad that the book seems to be finding an audience and has gotten some great reviews. It’s good to hear from new voices.

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2020 in lists: concerts & shows, theatre, books, movies, TV

(A work in progress…)

Movies (seen in the cinema)

  • Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Enjoyable enough and hit the mark, I thought. I would have liked to see Rose get more screentime. I enjoyed seeing Carrie Fisher. I got mixed up and expected to see Baby Yoda in this film.
  • Jojo Rabbit: Whoah. I don’t even know what to think of this one. A superb performance by the lead and the director playing Adolf Hitler was hilarious and charismatic. But I’m still kind of taking it in.
  • Joker: Joaquin Phoenix is so intriguing and compelling, I was really drawn into the film, even though the main plot seemed to be ‘How did the Joker become who he is?’, basically a set-up for the Batman myth. So, not much of a movie in the end, but a performance. Interesting to read the reviews: critics seemed to hate this (or at least the hype or huge praise it got). 
  • Tenet: Watchable and even enjoyable, but does it make sense? No. 
  • The New Mutants: I was such an X-men fan as a teenager and I *thought* I remembered the New Mutants, but so many years later, I didn’t remember any of these characters or the storyline. I found it a bit flat and badly written and wasn’t drawn into any of the characters, so this would be a *meh* for me. 

Movies (seen on TV, like on Netflix)

  • Frozen II: How could I be bored during the world’s highest grossing animated film? I guess I’m not the target audience (though I liked Frozen).
  • The Marriage Story: Meh. I think I read too much of the hype and was distracted by it. I thought it was fine, but didn’t love it.
  • The Irishman: Uh oh. Again, the critics have been raving about this. I think the acting is magnificent but in one of the longest films I’ve seen in recent memory, the storytelling wasn’t exactly tight, and the dramatic hooks took a long time to come.
  • Judy: I quite liked this one. Amazing performance by Zellweger and I liked the story enough: a look behind the legend.
  • Fyre: The Greatest Music Festival that Never Happened: They sort of make this out like this is a particular sign of the times, instagram influencers combining with the young wealthy and technology, but compulsive liars and fantasists have been the subject of literature and art throughout history. Some surprising similarities with Tiger King (see below).
  • Michelle Obama’s Becoming: Loved it. What an incredible woman.
  • Snowpiercer: Inspired by watching the current TV series, this movie, the first English-language film by Oscar-winning Bong Joon-Ho, was great. Gripping and suspenseful but makes a point too (like Parasite). Tilda Swinton was unrecognisable!
  • Circus of Books: I found this character study, of the filmmaker’s parents, a conventional Jewish couple, one of them devout, who happen to own a famous gay porn store and get into producing gay porn, to be fascinating.
  • Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas: What an interesting mind Gadsby has, and this show is a perfectly constructed look inside her brain, with unusual connections, some discomfort, some outrage and some deep laughter. I really liked it.
  • Tickled (documentary): I thought this was going to be a comic exploration of a sexual fetish, and it turned out to be much, much darker. Recommended.
  • Boy, Erased: Some very beautiful moments and made with hearts in the right place. But I could never forget that the parents were Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, instead of believing they were Baptist parents in … wherever it was set. 
  • Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen: Interesting and engaging and powerful, I’m glad to have watched this. 
  • I’m thinking of ending things: Umm. It’s not like I don’t like to be challenged and I did appreciate the way the film drew you in during different parts of it just because of the narrative, the story, the way we tell stories. But parts of this really dragged for me.
  • The Half of It: Oh, I was charmed by this. The writing in the second half was not as good as it could have been, but great characters and yup, if someone had told this gay middle-aged Chinese-Canadian that in 2020, there would be a movie, available to be seen by millions of people, with a Chinese-American lesbian as the protagonist, I would NOT have believed them. 

Reality television

  • Flirty Dancing UK, Season 2. We were utterly charmed by this show, that seemed to be sincere about trying to match up couples and set them up for a first date where they dance together, a routine they’ve practised all week with trainers. They don’t even know each other’s names. It’s sweet and romantic.
  • Queer Eye, Season 3. For some reason, this season didn’t grab me as much. Was it that there were no standout heroes? Or am I getting bored of the boys? It’s still good TV but we weren’t as into it this time around.
  • Queer Eye in Japan. Wow, was this weird. I do enjoy the show in general, but there were so many moments that I cringed at, well-meaning Westerners walking into another culture and giving advice that probably is inappropriate. Here’s a really interesting commentary on the show.
  • Project Runway, Season 18. I am loving that this show is back with its original production team. The focus is on talent and skills and that is here in abundance. Of course there was drama, inevitably, but it doesn’t feel manufactured as in some previous seasons. Christian Siriano has really hit his stride, and I like Karlie Kloss and the judges too. Happy with the decision on who won!
  • Don’t F#ck With Cats: Netflix is making crazy documentaries these days, and this was so compelling, engaging and disturbing. I couldn’t look away.
  • Next in Fashion: We’re huge fans of Project Runway so wanted to watch its competitor. There were drawbacks: like the Chef’s Table competition, pairing randoms together and eliminating these teams of two seems unfair and brutal. Yet the quality of talent was so much higher that it was great to watch, and the focus was all on the talent and skills, rather than interpersonal drama (though the current Project Runway is doing a good job of this as well). With a truly international cast, it felt a whole step up from Project Runway in terms of diversity. On Project Runway, German blonde supermodel host Heidi Klum has been replaced by American blonde model host Karlie Kloss. Here, South Asian Tan France and part-Chinese Alexa Chung are refreshingly short and non-blonde. All in all, we loved it. Good television!
  • Australian Survivor All Stars (Season 5): So much Survivor. So much TV. So much time in my life that I’ll never get back. And really, half the cast aren’t really ‘All Stars’. They didn’t make it far in their own seasons or were very good at the game. It’s just that viewers seemed to like them. But I can’t stop watching. In the end, I was happy enough with the winner (though would have preferred Moana to win).
  • Survivor Season 40: Winners at War: Bringing back winners from 20 seasons. OMG. Am loving this season. Every player is interesting and knows how to play. I don’t love the Extinction Island thing. But it’s a great theme for one of our favourite shows. In the end, it was one of the best seasons ever with a worthy winner. Why did no one take him out earlier, knowing how good he is?
  • Tiger King: Like it seems everyone else in lockdown, I watched this. Oh my god, this was good TV. A trainwreck that you could not look away from.
  • Making the Cut: The long awaited return of Tim and Heidi features Amazon’s plumped up budget, and a set of designers with more experience than in Project Runway. The producers still love their drama though; I’d rather just enjoy the fashion, which teaches me what’s in style and what works and doesn’t. There are little interludes during the show of Tim and Heidi hanging out in Paris which are completely bizarre and not very enjoyable. But in the end, enjoyed watching the designers and see their (generally) beautiful creations.
  • Googlebox Australia, Season 11: I dipped into this here and there, and missed some of the cast that had left (or are taking a break because of the COVID). But it’s still great TV. Much more enjoyable than watching the shows themselves to instead see the commentary. ‘We watched it so you don’t have to.’ And it confirms my belief that Aussies are really some of the most naturally funny people, ever. I dipped into the Celebrity Googlebox USA that they started showing in June, and am bemused that they are so less interesting and funny than the Gogglebox Australia cast.
  • Masterchef Australia, Winners at War: Oh, was that the name of this season of Survivor? It’s pretty much the same. Super enjoyable. Love the new hosts. Enjoy people being celebrated for their talents and they are supportive of each other. The producers don’t stir up any interpersonal drama. Am not as inspired to cook the dishes, as I have been in the past: they’re too complicated. But yup, we were hooked on this.
  • More Rupaul: Mama Ru just churns out more and more of these. The celebrity four-parter was a bit odd, and not that engaging. The idea of anyone doing drag is great (including women and men and folks of different shapes and sizes) but something about this mostly didn’t work for me. Uh, we got through the last regular season (12) which was interesting for some wrong reasons (the Sherry Pie scandal, the finale under lockdown) and while I respect Jaida, the winner, and understand that the other two finalists were too similar to recent winners, I did like them a bit better. Also finished the latest All Stars season (5) and felt oversaturated. And now onto Canada’s Drag Race, which also is not catching me, even though I’m Canadian.
  • Queer Eye Season 4: A little better than the last, for me, and I find it raises really interesting cultural questions.
  • Survivor South Africa Season 7: Channel Ten here has started showing foreign Survivors. Hurrah. I love this show and it’s fun seeing it in a different cultural context.

Other television

  • The Good Place, Season 4. I really did love this show. I thought it was so funny and witty. I fell in love with the characters. I loved that it offered wit and intelligence as well as a lot of silliness. The finale was lovely.
  • Crashing: OK. Who’s watched Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s predecessor to Fleabag? I loved Fleabag so it was fascinating to see a first draft. Instead of the uptight contrasting character to Fleabag being her sister, in this case, it’s Phoebe’s childhood best friend (and unrequited love)’s fiance. Waller-Bridge’s character is wild and shocking and sexual. But what doesn’t work is that, unlike Fleabag, where there’s a rationale for the protagonist’s coldness, fucked-up-edness and wild behaviour, here, there is none. It’s pure id. Scenes often end in a mass fight verging on an orgy involving liquid (food, wine, paint, bodily fluids). They often go too far, because the sake of it seems to be to go too far. It was watchable and has some great bits, but all in all, is a promise of what’s to come.
  • El Camino: Six years since Breaking Bad. I remember being obsessed with it, captivated by it, and yet I’m surprised now how much I’d forgotten. I read a catch-up summary online and here we were: ready to watch El Camino, which basically tells us what happened to Jesse Pinkman after the final episode. As before, the filming, the angles, the storytelling: all top-notch and the characters were always uniformly fascinating. So, I’m glad they made it! And I’m glad we watched it.
  • Killing Eve, Season 3: Oh boy is this ever good.
  • Schitt’s Creek, all seasons: I found this show just got better and better after an uneven first season. Funny, heartwarming, amazing. 
  • Hollywood: There was something about Ryan Murphy’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace that I found both compelling but just a bit too tawdry. It was so dark. The pace was all over the place. So, I worried about Hollywood, which was pilloried in every review I found in major newspapers. But I found it like cotton candy. I couldn’t eat it more than once in a blue moon, but it was sweet and it sure was pretty.
  • The Politican, Season 2: I have to report I’m bowing out of this one. I loved Ben Platt in Evan Hansen. And pretty much on that basis watched Season 1. But by the second episode of season 2, I found the whole thing so cartoonish and so lacking in some emotional grounding or reality, it’s unpleasant. The story, the characters: everything just seems to be begging for attention.
  • Snowpiercer: The reports on this series, a variation rather than based on the movie, were really mediocre, but I really enjoyed the vibe and was completely willing to suspend my disbelief.
  • Normal People: I find this just a really, really beautifully filmed and acted story with two compelling lead actors. Loved it. 
  • Alias Grace: As a Margaret Atwood fan, who read this book years ago when it came out, I’m surprised it took me this long to get around to seeing the mini-series adapted from the novel. It was a pleasure to hear Atwood’s voice coming through loud and strong (as I understand much text came verbatim from the book). The acting is beautiful, the leads charismatic, and the style of storytelling is engaging. Also: good to see a bit of Canadian history portrayed on screen, that’s not too usual. 
  • Years and Years: Art is not only meant to entertain, and this show I found harrowing, a scary look into the near-future, which is not that different than today. Great characters, great ideas, and as I said: harrowing. 
  • My Brilliant Friend, Season 2: I loved the books so was mostly interesting in seeing how they were brought to life. I’m not sure how compelling the series would be to those who haven’t read the books!

Books

  • André Aciman’s Find Me (fiction). Boy did I hate this book. Here’s my review.
  • David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames (humour). Here’s my review.
  • Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (novel). Here’s my review.
  • Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (a ‘pictorial work’). Here’s my review.
  • David Lebovitz’s Drinking French (recipes and more). Here’s my review.
  • Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story (fiction). Here’s my review.
  • Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors (fiction). Here’s my review.
  • Ian Young’s London Skin & Bones (memoir).

Concerts, Shows, Theatre, Exhibitions & Words

  • Dodecalis Luminarium. This art installation apparently took six months to make. It really is beautiful and I love how it engages people (especially kids). By the Architects of Air, this was part of the Sydney Festival.
  • The Life of Us, Hayes Theatre. A homegrown Australian musical, where the two young leads were the writers and are partners (in a musical about the trials of a long-distance relationship). Such great talent. Amazing songwriting. I think the book might need a little adjustment if it’s going to make it to bigger stages, but we were really impressed.
  • Conchita Wurst & Trevor Ashley in Concert, for Mardi Gras 2020. A rainbow sparkly evening with not two but three amazing performers (Kate Miller-Heidke was a guest).
  • Hamilton (television). I might have seen this on TV but have to count this as a show, for what a show it was. Finally, after reading about it all these years, I got to see it and it was perhaps even better than I expected. Wonderful.

Posted in Australia, Book, Books, Concert, Exhibition, Film, Music, Review, Sydney, Theatre/Concert Review, Theatre/Show | Leave a comment

Hurricane warnings

There’s a hurricane warning for Hawaii at the moment. My brother, Tom, who lives in Kaneohe, with his family, says there’s never been a Hurricane Level 1 Warning since he’s lived there, which is now over 30 years. It’s scheduled to hit tonight Oahu, at the least with bad weather, but are any of the islands in the direct path of the hurricane? It’s hard to know.

It brings back a memory from about 10 years ago. I was on a work trip overseas when I’d received word that there was a tsunami warning for Hawaii. Tom had said that it could bring waves that could flood where he lived, grandma’s old house, built high up on a small peninsula, below it a beachfront, a lawn, and the basement of the house. The waves would have to be very high to wash up so high on Kaneohe Bay. But it was worrying.

In the hotel we were staying at, there was only access to public wireless in the common area. I found a link to a camera, a night view, of Waikiki. The image was a blueish colour and it was windy and rough, and the beach empty. But nothing happened, in the end. The catastrophe didn’t eventuate.

It’s strange how memory works. I am a meticulous record-keeper but I can’t get my travel records to match up to tsunami warnings in Hawaii. I remember it as a difficult time. In a fog of grief from losing my father at the end of January that year. Work was falling apart. There was a complicated management structure, where the founder had passed on power to a new executive director, but was still meddling. I seemed to be caught in the middle. While the staff I managed liked me and respected my work, and I was carrying it out to the best of my abilities, these two took turns questioning my work, playing games.

I think neither of them really knew what they were doing either, and I became a sort of scapegoat. And the founder and I had completely fallen out. I found him chaotic and a bully. He played favourites, and I found him subtly racist: the two of us who were Asian-American on staff were definitely treated worse than the Latinx and African-American staff members. I remember, from that same meeting, the comical image of him literally stepping behind a large potted plant, to avoid being seen by me and having to breakfast together (or making it obvious that we didn’t want to do so).

But my hurricane passed too, though it took months and months, stretching to a year. My contract wasn’t renewed. I was dispirited but stayed in the sector perhaps half a year more, before leaving what I thought would be the area in which I thought I would work for my working career. I grieved for my father. I recovered. I built a new career, which turned out to be wonderful.

I think these days, being older, about what it means to be older, and how I could never predicted as a young man how my life would turn out, nor how it would feel to be in this phase of my life: slower, quieter, more filled with sickness and death than I might have thought, and yet more acceptance and calm.

I can look back at the weather and stand apart, knowing sometimes there are forces at work which are larger than us, which we can’t control, which may end up less destructive than we were warned, that we will get through.

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Sydney Food Diary: Chin Chin, Surry Hills

There’s sticky pork under this delicious salad.

For my birthday, I wanted to go somewhere special, and it’s been almost three years since I went to Chin Chin for lunch with my friend Lai Heng and meant to come back (here’s the review from then). This time, my husband and I were seated in the GoGo section (to the left as you enter). Everything is bathed in a pink light, the music was specifically early 80s, and I was amused by the very large photo art, two large separate images of women in fetish gear.

Chin Chin has a storied reputation: hard to get into in Melbourne, also in Sydney. As I’ve mentioned before, I find it interesting that in Australia, white Australian male chefs become experts in Asian food, and open fine-dining modern Asian restaurants. When I grew up in Vancouver, they were all Chinese chefs in the kitchen of every restaurant, whether at a hotel or ethnic food; this changed to a focus on authenticity where the chefs were from the culture of the cuisine presented, so this Australian model is interesting.

I didn’t quite know what to think with season Ben Cooper, the white executive chef of Chin Chin, on Masterchef this seasion, in a challenge where contestants (many of them Asian-Australian) had to recreate his dish, a Thai jungle curry, without a recipe. It felt jarring.

Yet there’s no denying that the flavours at Chin Chin, whether they are learned or are an authentic presentation of a particular culture, are absolutely delicious. Rather than the much-talked about umami flavour (the sort of savoury combo of other flavours), I found the flavours of most of the dishes quite distinct: a beautiful combo of spicy, sour, salty and sweet. Although tempted by one of the ‘feed me’ menus, I thought I would have more control by choosing dishes myself and that’s what I did, and was rather pleased with myself.

Our menu:

Kingfish Sashimi with Lime, Chilli, Coconut and Thai Basil
Caramelised Sticky Pork with Sour Herb Salad
Twice Cooked Beef Short Rib with Shaved Coconut Salad and Prik Nahm Pla
Roast Pumpkin with Curry Spiced Coconut Cream
Roti
Pannacotta

Oh, and some dee-licious cocktails to start with and a glass of wine each. Slighty too much food so the leftovers made a nice lunch the next day. We loved each dish. All hits no misses. Well, the dessert wasn’t a standout, but that was fine after such great food.

I worried that the kingfish sashimi was too typical a dish, but the flavours on that sauce were incredible. The sticky pork was an interesting combo of meltingly tender and a crispy chewy crust. The salads that came with the proteins had such beautiful flavour I’ve been trying to recreate them ever since: same with the roast pumpkin, which could be a simple dish but was not just a vegetable on the side!

Finally, it was an interesting mixed crowd: some young women on one side of us, a larger family with young children on the other side, a few couples like us who looked like they are local to Surry Hills: I think restaurants as good as this attract a wide base of customers. I’ll make sure we return in a shorter amount of time than my last interval!

Chin Chin Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chin Chin Sydney
69 Commonwealth St, Surry Hills NSW 2010
https://www.chinchin.sydney/

Posted in Asian, Food n' Grog, Modern Australian, Sydney | 2 Comments

Sydney Food Diary: The Colonial, Darlinghurst

Almost four years since I’ve been to the Colonial, and I’m impressed they’ve kept it open. As I’ve said many times on this blog, the restaurant business is hard in Sydney! And getting through the COVID lockdown: these are hardworking folks who have been making sacrifices!

We ended up here as we couldn’t get into Lankan Filling Station. A two hour wait on a Saturday night. We’ll have to try again another (less busy?) night.

We also couldn’t get into another two or three restaurants. On a Saturday night, just after the COVID lockdown is opening up, it’s not easy to get in anywhere.

So we were happy to have simple, tasty food at the Colonial from cheery wait staff, ours in a amusing Union Jack bowtie.

The food is tasty and simple. The British fish curry, tofu mango and cucumber salad were all fine. I thought the eggplant was the standout, bhaigan barta, and the naan were good: I always like getting the one with raisins and coconut in it. We also had a seafood platter to start with which was tastier than it looked.

And the wine was a reasonable price. All good. It was basically $50 a head, including grog.

img_5919 Indian food like you’d get in Blighty (18 Nov 2016)

So, my better half tells me he went to this weird Indian restaurant on Crown Street that serves kebabs, a roadie truckstop diner, but made into a hip Eastern Suburbs location. He didn’t love it, but I was sufficiently intrigued to suggest it to my pal, A, for an easy meal. I also noticed that there was a coupon in the Entertainment book.

img_5920So, here’s the thing. I meant to try out Trunk Road… (which looks cool and was packed with people when we walked by)… and we ended up at the Colonial. Oops. Next time. The idea behind it is that England has its own kind of Indian food, a mixture and melding and adaptation from so many Indian migrants. And I remember this from when I lived in London: the restaurants around Kings Cross, the ones near Brick Lane. There were many different areas each with its own twist, as well as British-only dishes, like Balti curries.

img_5923In any case, we opted for two starters: a delicate fried fish, and a tandoori sort of chicken which was supposed to be spicy, and wasn’t too spicy (both pictured above). We had a goat curry with a thick gravy. I like goat since it’s unusual. Two different kinds of naan bread, very crisp and tasty.

img_5924Washed it down with an unusual natural sparkling wine from across the road, a bit strange but not bad with Indian food.

There was a big group of Indian folks in the back of the restaurant; they’d organised a buffet, and I wanted to but was too shy to ask them their more expert opinion of what they thought of the food.

img_5922I thought it was fine. Good, friendly service. Tasty. Nothing special (to me, though the naan bread was exceptional) but if I was from the UK, in search of British Indian food, perhaps I’d have been very excited.

The Colonial Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Coffee in Sydney: Take Coffee, Marrickville

We were looking for coffee, perhaps Vietnamese coffee, after our amazing pork rolls at Alex ‘N’ Rolls. On that little strip of Illawarra Road, we couldn’t find anything. Lots of small restaurants, but nothing that looked like it served Vietnamese coffee. Until we saw Take Coffee. Hurrah!

We split a mango pudding as well, and each had a Vietnamese coffee, though mine was salted! Strong coffee. Condensed milk. And a pinch of salt. It was a bit like salted caramel. Absolutely delicious and a change from your regular Aussie latte!

Try it out! They also seem to have lots of other interesting tasty treats and unusual drinks.

Take Coffee Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Posted in Cafe, Food n' Grog, Sydney | Leave a comment

Cocktails with Cynar

I always liked cocktails, and got into a regular negroni habit, but the cocktail making really kicked off with the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s been fun to explore new drinks and treat ourselves to a covid cocktail. My strategy is to find an interesting liqueur (or possibly spirit) and then try a whole bunch of different drinks made with it!

Cynar interested me, made from artichoke, and being similar to the Italian sweet red vermouths that are a part of the negroni. I was calling it Sigh-Nar, embarrassingly, until I figured out it’s Chee-Nar, and I see that it’s distributed by Campari, who describes it as such on their website:

Cynar is an artichoke based bittersweet liqueur known for its versatility and distinctive flavour; its taste is enriched by an infusion of 13 herbs and plants. The name of the drink derives from Cynar scolymus, the botanical name for artichoke, as artichoke leaves lend the distinctive flavour.

The secret recipe, which has remained the same since its creation, is based on some of the natural substances found in the artichokes, including ‘cynarine’.

Created by Angelo Dalle Molle, a Venetian entrepreneur and philanthropist, Cynar was launched in Italy in 1952. Since then, the brand has grown and is now distributed internationally.

I’m loving it. It is similar to an ordinary sweet red vermouth but there’s something a bit more complex about it: I can’t quite describe it!

Here’s what we’re making with it:

Food and Wine provided this easy recipe for a refreshing Cynar and Soda. It was refreshing and light and a good introduction to the flavour of Cynar, a bit like a Pimm’s without the cucumber! I bought new highballs (from Orrefors) just for the occasion!

David Lebovitz is a baker extraordinaire who also knows his drinks! I was happy to find his recipe for the Chin Up!, which mixes gin, cynar and dry vermouth with cucumber muddled with a hit of salt. I found it bracing, and really interesting: super dry. Husband thought that the salt and cucumber mellowed the dry qualities of the cynar and gin and made it interesting and complex. The Australian dry vermouth, Maidenii, might have helped it all along!

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try cynar in a negroni, just substituting the regular vermouth for the cynar, as recommended by Steve the Bartender. It did provide an interesting variation on the negroni, which I liked: maybe a little more herbaceous and sweet? Though we also used premium gin in this one, Roku.

Finally, back to Food and Wine, for the amusingly named Presbyterian’s Revenge. I didn’t have any blended Scotch so used Bourbon, and then thinking how well Peychaud’s Bitters goes with bourbon, used that instead of Orange Bitters. So, whiskey plus Cynar plus lemon plus simple syrup, a grapefruit twist and a dash of soda. This was on the heavy side, but I liked it.

Have you got a favourite Cynar cocktail? Or do you like drinking it straight? Share your comments!

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