Saturday, 20 February 2010

Hobart: On the Trail of Epicurus

This week's guest blogger is fantasy novelist Narrelle M Harris, author of the acclaimed vampire novel The Opposite of Life.

I’ve just spent a week in Hobart, Tasmania, trying to live the life that Epicurus would have been proud of.

The ancient Greek philosopher, who lived from 341 BC to 270 BC, believed the secret of life lay in combining an independent existence with contemplation, good food and the company of friends.

Rather than a hedonist gorging himself on gourmet food, his philosophy was actually centred on simplicity. His idea of a feast might involve little more than a pot of cheese and a really nice loaf of bread.

Could I follow in his footsteps in the capital of Australia’s island state, Tasmania? Here’s the answer…

Good drink

When not on vacation I live in the Melbourne city centre, with the city’s best baristas operating within five minutes of my front door. Which means I’m used to going on holiday knowing I won’t have a decent cup of coffee until my return.

I never suspected that my caffeine habit could be successfully sustained by the cafes of Hobart. However… at Salamanca Place and adjoining Salamanca Square, a charming 19th century collection of shops and galleries by the Derwent River, excellent coffee could be had at several establishments.

Plum, for one, served a fine caffe latte in a cunning Bodum receptacle, made of double-layered plastic with a vacuum within, so that the cup was comfortable to hold but the excellent coffee remained hot.

Good food

But it wasn’t just the coffee that was superb. Tasmania is obviously flush with fine produce, and plenty of it trickles down south to Hobart. From a simple chickpea and chorizo salad at Tricycle to an indulgent seafood lunch at Catch, I was in culinary heaven.

The latter was an especially excellent meal – a dozen of the local oysters, served on a bed of rock salt with a squeeze of lemon, followed by the most perfectly prepared salmon nicoise salad, with a wee, warm cob loaf and a bottle of Tasmanian spring water. Simple. Perfect.

Also superb was the damper and dukkah, and the rich, earthy beef and stout pie served at the Cascade Brewery’s restaurant, followed by stout-flavoured ice cream, accompanied by the establishment’s own sparkling apple and raspberry juice. And the cool, creamy almond-topped custard pie (with more excellent coffee) at bakery-cafe Pane Cucina at 366 Elizabeth Street in North Hobart.

Home preparation

There were also the simple pleasures of local breads, excellent cured meats, tasty vine-ripened tomatoes, tangy fetta cheese and a curiously mild wasabi mustard. We bought these at the Salamanca Place greengrocer Fresh Fruit Market as ingredients for no-fuss lunches and dinners in our self-catering apartment at Salamanca Terraces.

Living the good life isn’t necessarily about fancy-pants restaurants and gourmet recipes. But good produce, simply prepared is most definitely one of life’s great pleasures, and Hobart delivered fabulous and welcome surprises on this score.

So that’s food sorted. But what about Epicurus’ other elements of the good life? Join me next week as I seek freedom, friends and contemplation in the Tasmanian capital…

Find details of Narrelle's vampire novel The Opposite of Life at her website, along with details of her other published work.

[read part two of Narrelle's Hobart experience here]

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Cafes of Melbourne 1: Caffeine and the City

A few years ago I wrote a set of Melbourne cafe reviews for an online city directory, but cannily retained the copyright.

The reviews seem to have vanished from that site now, but most of the fine cafes I covered are still doing a roaring trade.

So let me share the favourite haunts of Melbourne's coffee-drinking set once more. This week - cafes of the city's central business district...

253 Flinders La, Melbourne
+61 3 9650 4399

Every library should have a good cafe nearby – books and caffeine just belong together. Melbourne's City Library has Journal. Suspended bookcases hang over large communal tables, often occupied by students from the nearby adult education college.

With its wooden floors and panels, and earthy colours, Journal is as comfortable as an old leather armchair; but the modern touches in the illumination and decor create a pleasing blend of old and new.

As it's just around the corner from busy Flinders Street Station, Journal attracts more than a student crowd, with commuters and city residents also dropping by for its vibrant atmosphere. And the coffee is made nice and strong too. Just the thing for a rush session on that overdue essay.

Summary: Books, students and strong coffee form a stimulating blend at this café in the buzzing Flinders Quarter.

Degraves Espresso
23 Degraves St, Melbourne
+61 3 9654 1245

If there’s a quintessential downtown Melbourne café, it must be Degraves Espresso. Situated in a laneway off Flinders Street, Degraves is the centre of gravity to this coffee-rich section of the city’s Flinders Quarter.

It doesn’t seem like much at first glance – old cinema seats and sometimes rickety wooden chairs fronting up to scuffed table-tops, all of it crammed together in a squeezy space. But somehow, the dressed down feel of the place puts everyone in a good mood, perhaps reflecting that life is too short to get uptight.

As a result, Degraves has a relaxed vibe, helped by the fact that you always seem to bump into someone you know when sitting at an outside table. The menu is simple, anchored by the simple but excellent paninis that sit invitingly in the window. Like nearby Flinders Street Station, Degraves Espresso is much-photographed, much-liked and much-visited.

Summary: It may look downbeat and weathered, but this Degraves St café is a classic place to chill out and watch the passers-by.

Koko Black
Royal Arcade, 335 Bourke St, Melbourne
+61 3 9639 8911

As a chocolate emporium, Koko Black puts forward a convincing argument for a different kind of bean. Its upstairs rooms have some of the ambience of a classic Continental coffee house, albeit in a snug setting reached by passing up a flight of stairs from the ground floor chocolate shop.

Patrons are seated on comfortable chocolate-coloured lounges and armchairs, while sipping Koko Black’s spectacular hot chocolate. A gilt mirror hanging on the wall near large fan windows completes the period effect.

There are made-on-the-premises Belgian-style chocolates on the menu, along with liqueurs and the usual range of teas and coffees. It’s a good place to rest after browsing through the wares of the eclectic shops within the beautifully restored Victorian-era arcade, including jewellery, fashion, games, new age items and Russian handcrafts.

Summary: If you fancy a touch of elegance, some excellent chocolate and a little quality shopping, this chocolate establishment is your destination.

445 Little Collins St, Melbourne
+61 3 9670 5347

Benito’s is an old-fashioned fragment of Italy within the Victorian facades of the city’s west end. A few steps up from the narrow footpath of Little Collins Street, it’s a pleasant high-ceilinged space with a cool tiled floor, dominated by the comfortable brown tones of wood and leather.

A long marble-topped bar runs the length of one wall, from which the friendly staff dispense good coffee and classy Italian-inspired meals such as the daily lasagne which may be stuffed with something like pork ragout and topped with fresh pesto, accompanied by bread and home-made mayonnaise.

Breakfast is also memorable, including out-of-the-ordinary fare like mushroom and rosemary bruschetta, sausage frittata, and ciabatta fried in egg with ricotta and honey. Beer is on tap and the cafe also sells bottles of wine to take away. With its distinctive cuisine, this is a memorable place to grab a coffee or a bite at the corporate end of town.

Summary: Italian inspiration leads to some excellent dishes at this wood-and-tile venue in the city’s corporate zone.

The European
161 Spring St, Melbourne
+61 3 9654 0811

It could be Paris, it could be Rome… no, I think it’s definitely Paris. Whichever city you opt for, this flash establishment across the road from Parliament feels like a drop-in from the Continent.

Wood-panelled walls and discreet prints of northern hemisphere subjects reinforce the sensation, as does the murmur of barely-suppressed gossip among the chatting diners. Perhaps, if you concentrate hard enough, you might catch a hint of a scandalous affaire de coeur.

Well-made coffee and excellent hot chocolate are complemented by moist cakes of the day, perhaps banana and ginger, perhaps a decadently rich chocolate.

At lunch and dinner, dishes with European sensibilities are served, including the likes of chateaubriand, a two-person dish of beef roasted with mushroooms, potato puree and sauce poivrade. As you may have gathered, this is not a natural haunt of vegetarians, with salmon, veal, ham, pork, duck and even spatchcock taking starring roles in the menu.

Summary: It’s not the cheapest place in town, but the European-style food and wine is excellent, as is its cake and coffee. 

Note: As this article was researched some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current coffee situation before travelling to Melbourne.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Screen to Stage: A Cinema Odyssey

I've been working on a little undertaking lately that I'm referring to as Project X (more later!). Last week it required me to take photos of some of Melbourne's grandest old theatres.

As I looked up their history I discovered an interesting thing - nearly all of them used to be cinemas.

That's interesting because we think of popular entertainment as following a process of evolution, in which cinema supplanted theatre in popularity among the masses.

As a result of the new medium's mass following, the 1920s and 1930s saw vast new picture palaces being erected, with enormous screens, vast seating and elaborate architecture.

We had our share of these great movie houses in Australia as well, but it turns out that the survivors have become venues for live theatre, reverting to the previous form of mass culture as cinema moved on out to the suburban multiplexes (which now boast screens just larger than a big plasma TV!).

It's an interesting development to ponder; but in the meantime, here are some images of four of the city centre's great cinemas-become-theatres for you to enjoy...

1. Capitol Theatre. Designed by American architect Walter Burley Griffin (who also designed Canberra), it started life in 1924 as a vast cinema but had the stalls pulled out from under it when they were transformed into a shopping arcade in the 1960s. The smaller remnant is now used for live shows during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, though it is still equipped as a cinema. I took these photos a few years ago when the Capitol's new owners, RMIT University, were renovating previously concealed areas.

2. Melbourne Athenaeum. The main auditorium of this 1839 Melbourne institution starting out as a live theatre venue. It hosted the screening of the first film shown in Australia in 1896, then the first feature length film in the world, The Story of the Kelly Gang, in 1906. Between the 1930s and 1970s it operated as a cinema showing mainly British films. Now its ornate theatre, which curiously resembles that of The Muppet Show, is home to live comedy and theatre once again. In the image on the left, you can just about make out the statue of Athena that sits high above the entrance...

3. The Regent Theatre. Across the road from the Athenaeum, this vast 1929 picture palace was threatened with demolition in the 1970s after it ceased operation as a cinema. It remained a derelict for over 20 years before being restored and reopened as a grand theatre, usually hosting large-scale musicals. Strangely, although I review theatre productions for local newspaper The Age, I've not yet been inside the Regent! In the pics below, check out the original box office at street level...

4. Finally, the Forum Theatre on Flinders Street, opposite Federation Square. Originally opened in 1929 as the State Theatre, it's packed with frankly strangely clashing features, including Roman statues, fake trees and Moorish design elements. The original 3000+ seating space was split in two some years ago; the upper bit is still used as a cinema by the Melbourne International Film Festival, while the larger lower section usually hosts live bands. How cool are the gargoyles on the right?

Ah Melbourne... cinema one day, theatre the next.