Sunday, 31 May 2009

HOT: Avenue Q, Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition St, Melbourne

A comedy musical with puppets? Don’t start groaning – the Tony Award winning Avenue Q is cheesy, cheeky, a little bit dirty and it’s certainly not for kids. Admittedly it doesn’t try too hard for laughs (who’s not going to laugh at puppets having wild sex?), the songs are catchy without being memorable and there was a bizarre pseudo-cameo involving Gary Coleman from Diff’rent Strokes, but all in all the most impressive part of the show was the ability of the on-stage puppeteers to draw the focus away from themselves and project human gestures and emotions on a bunch of floppy, googley-eyed muppets.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

HOT: Australia’s Top 100: Competition Session 3, St Kilda Film Festival, Palace George Cinemas, 135 Fitzroy St, St Kilda

Another diverse collection of drama, action, animation and documentary short films.
All interesting but overall not as strong as some of the films in Session 2.

Of note was the cute plasticised animated style used in Mutt, a story about a farmer, his cow and his dog who just wants to play fetch, and the suburban menace of a Jewish assault victim’s dad in Close Distance.

HOT: Australia’s Top 100: Competition Session 2, St Kilda Film Festival, Palace George Cinemas, 135 Fitzroy St, St Kilda

My pick from the five films on show in competition session 2 was the elegiac Trampoline. The story was about a little girl, a silent social outcast who harbours a dream to fly. Through her tentative friendship with the new kid at school, who also doesn’t quite fit in, she discovers that she really can fly. The blue-eyed girl was adorable and perfectly cast as the wistful and dreamy child and the film was obviously a project of love.

A close second was Hell’s Gates, a dramatisation of the true story of eight convicts who escape from Macquarie Harbour only to find themselves at the mercy of the Tasmanian wilderness. The cinematography, especially the saturations of forest greens, really stood out for me as it gave an already gruesome story a terrible eeriness.

The one film which literally had me falling asleep was Royboys, about the Fitzroy football club. I admit I don’t like football, but I don’t think that automatically prejudiced me against the 27 minutes of loosely cobbled-together scenes of fans cheering, fans singing, footballers cheering and footballers singing. With the exception of a couple of black and white photos and some facile fan voxpops, I don’t think it differed from anything you’d see on an average Saturday afternoon on Channel 7 (but thankfully a lot shorter).

HOT: Cacao Fine Chocolates and Patisserie, 52 Fitzroy St, St Kilda

St Kilda's favourite artisan chocolate shop Cacao has sprouted more branches since I was last in town, which is a happy indicator of Melbourne's ever-expanding appetite for beautiful handmade chocolate treats - even at $1.95 a mouthful.

Cacao's chocolates are made with the finest Belgium couverture (naturelement) and I like their brightly decorated avant-garde designs. The photo of my personal selection through the crinkly bag doesn't do the bright hues justice, but I can vouch for the amazing flavours of the Safran - a pop of citrus caramel ganache and milk chocolate ganache infused with saffron, then dipped in dark chocolate.

HOT: Baker D Chirico, 149 Fitzroy St, St Kilda

Daniel Chirico's small brightly-lit bakery/cafe has been producing quality sourdough for Melbournians for many years, but today was my first visit. The apron-clad staff looked happy, healthy and like they were in love with bread. After a bit of discussion, I decided on the $6 raisin loaf (light, white, organic sourdough packed with juicy fruit) rather than the fruit loaf (a denser sourdough with raisins as well as figs, dates and apricots). I personally preferred it to the loaf produced at the Natural Tucker Bakery, whereas RM came to the opposite conclusion. Potatoes, potartoes.

HOT: Armed & Dangerous, St Kilda Film Festival, Palace George Cinemas, 135 Fitzroy St, St Kilda

Thanks to my MIFF membership, I won a mid-week pass to the St Kilda Film Festival, which allowed me to delve into a veritable smorgasbord of short films over two days.

Unbeknownst to me initially, the first session I chose to attended was a schools session of twelve short films made by various secondary schools and TAFEs. As expected, the standard varied from yawn-inducingly amateurish to surprisingly sophisticated. I particularly liked the music video RUN – I thought the sharp jumpy editing of the hand drawn images and photographs was very well suited to the repetitive and racy techno.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

HOT: My Year Without Sex, Classic Cinema, 9 Gordon St, Elsternwick

Wow. In all my blogging history, I've never received such angry comments as those received in response to my NOT for Samson and Delilah. But if I'm going to open up HOT or NOT to anonymous commentators, then I know I have to be ready to receive (and post) dissenting views. Hey, even the Cannes International Film Festival jury disagreed with me!

However, I must admit I'm feeling a little defensive so I can't resist giving a teeny jab to my violently dissenting readers by saying that I really enjoyed My Year Without Sex, a new film by Australian director Sarah Watt. Yes, I managed to enjoy the story and relate to the characters even though I'm not Anglo Australian, married, don't live in the Western suburbs of Melbourne, didn't grow up playing or watching footy and I don't have kids, a mortgage or a brain aneurysm.

The film is a low-key, charming and funny film about the year in the life of a suburban, middle-class family. When the mother, Natalie (brilliant Sacha Horler), is diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, her husband Ross (still fresh-faced Matt Day) and two kids bravely continue living out the dramas and humour of the everyday - whether it's organising a makeover birthday party, the tooth fairy tipsily depositing her pokie winnings one night and conducting a pet funeral over the Western Bulldogs team song. The characters are likeable and believable and you come out of the cinema with a wonderfully warm feeling in your heart. A real pleasure.

HOT: Time4Fitness, 2/131-135 Johnston St, Fitzroy

The first time I visited Time4Fitness I was struck by the gym's sweaty smelliness. Well, the smell seems to have dissipated, but I still wouldn't shower there. Oh well, for $12.95 a week I can't be expecting too much glamour and its basic setup and proximity to my house will do the trick. They have the usual cardio and weights equipment, magazines to read, a smattering of morning and evening classes and service is super-friendly.

Monday, 25 May 2009

HOT: Action School of Yoga, 1st floor, 275 Smith St, Collingwood

Continued unemployment means that my diary is starting to become more and more akin to that of my retired parents. So Monday, Tuesday, Thursday = yoga.

Luckily for me, Action School of Yoga is based only a short walk away from my house. The single room has high ceilings, a large window looking out over Smith Street and the usual accroutements of Iyengar practice - wall rings, blocks, bolsters, mats, chairs and ropes. There have not been more than eight people in the daytime classes ($16 for 1.5 hrs prepaid) so both of the excellent teachers Joel and Robin have been able to provide regular adjustments for my yoga-lapsed body. Oh, the sweaty effort of rediscovering the shoulder stand!

Sunday, 24 May 2009

HOT: Panama Dining Room, Level 3/231 Smith St, Fitzroy

When I first dreamt of living in Collingwood, I dreamt of living in a huge warehouse apartment with lofty ceilings and huge windows like those in the Panama Dining Room.

This dimly lit and palm-fronded dining room was buzzy on a Sunday night as we settled down for a low-key dinner with friends. The menu was an eclectic Mod Oz mix - from wagyu beef steaks with mash, crisp pheasant pie to a wet, spongy spinach and yoghurt souffle with subtly Indian spiced vegetables. The food was pleasant but not outstanding, but combined with the ambience it worked as a great local restaurant.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

NOT: Optimism, Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt St, Southbank

Optimism is the Malthouse's new reworking of Voltaire's seminal satiral work, Candide. A quick read-up on wikipedia at least gave us a bit of a framework as to what to expect, but the production failed to turn the famously ludicrous story into something that make it easy for me to discern the deeper messages of the work. I certainly didn't sense that it was 'a cutting commentary on the ‘no-worries’ bravura of the Australian swagger'.

Also, I don't know whether it was because our session was only the second preview and of course the Malthouse is not the MTC in terms of budget, but it really felt like I was watching amateur hour. Mildly enjoyable, but not recommended.

HOT: Slow Food Farmers' Market, Abbotsford Convent, 1 St Heliers St, Abbotsford

In the grounds of what was once a home for pregnant 'wayward girls', the foundation of Abbotsford Convent now holds a slow food farmers' market on the fourth Saturday of every month.
The market was humming by 10am and after a thorough investigation of the stalls, my grocery budget bought:
- a shoulder of Bultarra Saltbush lamb, slow roasted with garlic, rosemary and potatoes;
- free range pork mince from The Gypsy Pig transformed into wontons and ants climbing trees;
- super-fresh broccoli transformed into oriechette with broccoli, anchovies and parmesan; and
- some dried fruit from Happy Fruit for my muesli mix (cheaper than cranberries, with a taste of chocolate!).

Friday, 22 May 2009

HOT: Corner Store Cafe, 100 Scotchmer Rd, Fitzroy North

The gaudy plastic strips hanging over the door, mismatched formica tables and the stream of regulars trailing kids and dogs really do make the Corner Store Cafe feel like the low-fi neighbourhood hangout. Our large lunch plate ($13.50) contained one of the day’s specials (our choice was the large red capsicum stuffed with risotto) served with salad and an unfortunately oily potato dauphinois. Sitting on the miniature pavement table, listening to the local patter and soaking in the sunshine – a perfect way to spend a Friday afternoon.

HOT: Loafer Bread, 146 Scotchmer St, Fitzroy North

If you’re going to visit two bakeries in the same area, then it’s only right that you should conduct a comparison visit of the third bakery.

Cheerful Loafer Bread seemed to specialise more in cakes, pastries and pies than bread, and their window display of delectable pastries convinced me to try a walnut scroll ($3.50). Absolutely delicious – the right amount of nuts, not too sweet and reminiscent of the orgasmic pastries from Baker and Spice in London.

HOT: Dench Bakers, 109 Scotchmer St, Fitzroy North

Midday at Dench Bakers, and their fruit loaf was already sold out! Undeterred, I decided to taste-test one of the fruit buns instead and it was the kind of sticky-glazed bun pressed with buttons of fruit that I’d imagine featuring in an Enid Blyton book. Personally I thought it was nice but not particularly memorable.

Too much bread doesn’t usually make my tummy very happy, and as I’d also read that their spelt bread ($6.70) was worth a try, I took home a loaf to have later. It was a little bit too sour for my taste, and no tilsit cheese, pea and ham soup or praline spread could hide it.

HOT: Milawa Cheese Shop, 665 Nicholson Street, Carlton North

A little bit of regional Victoria can be found in North Carlton at the Milawa Cheese Shop. The knowledgeable staff will talk you through flavours, textures, ripeness and storage of their huge range of cheese. They are all as far away from insipid rubbery Kraft singles as you can imagine so of course none of it is cheap - but my view is that when you don't even very much cheap, buy a little and the best. My question: the best cheese for a toasted sandwich. Their answer: the Heidi Farm tilsit, a firm cow's milk cheese which melts but won't bubble under heat like a cheddar.

HOT: Maria’s Pasta, 677 Nicholson St, Carlton North

Making fresh filled pasta (other than using wonton skins) is such an intricate and time-consuming process that for me it crosses into a task which provides low culinary return on investment. Thank God for places like Maria's Pasta, with its upright wall-to-wall freezers bulging with a wide assortment of frozen tortellini, ravioli, agnolotti and cannelloni. At $5.90 for 500g, it's only a little bit more expensive than Latino Fresh, and it's guaranteed to be a lot more tasty and better for you.

HOT: Canals Seafood Appreciation Centre, 703 Nicholson St, Carlton North

Other than in the major Melbourne markets, fishmongers appear to be dying breed on the high street. Canals is Melbourne's oldest 'seafood appreciation centre' and I think the reason for its longevity is good old-fashioned service. If you’re at a fishmongers, I think the quality of the seafood should be a given, so the staff’s willingness to help and advise me on purchasing morwong for a Chinese style steamed fish ($8 a kilo) and fresh vs frozen prawns ($32.95 a kilo), is what will make me return.

HOT: Natural Tucker Bakery, 809 Nicholson Street, Carlton North

RM loves scones, but he is also deeply suspicious of anything organic, vegetarian or heaven forbid, vegan. When I spied the fruit-packed vegan scones lovely stacked at counter of the Natural Tucker Bakery ($1.50), I thought I’d take an epicurial risk anyway - and let me tell you, we agree that they are possibly some of the best scones we have ever had. We haven't been able to work out what ingredients they've replaced for the eggs, milk and butter, but they were so good that RM contemplated a 30 minute walk up to Nicholson Village to stock up on some more.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

HOT: Old Kingdom, 197 Smith St, Fitzroy

Another day without a fridge meant another chance to explore our local takeaway establishments. This time, Old Kingdom, a slightly shabby (and thus authentic) Chinese restaurant which serves up well-priced Cantonese dishes. On a Sunday night they were bustling with large tables of Chinese families digging into the restaurant's speciality - Peking duck. You have to pre-order but from my quick glance of the dining room, everyone had planned their trip to Old Kingdom just for the duck.

Our meal-on-the-lounge-room-floor consisted of a nice salt and pepper crispy skinned chicken and a slightly oily vegetable and tofu stirfry, with white rice, all for around $25.

Friday, 15 May 2009

HOT: Hutong Dumpling Bar, 16 Market Lane, Melbourne

Hectic Hutong Dumpling Bar is probably the hottest joint in Chinatown right now, with strong word of mouth and a glowing review in The Age. Plus, no one can afford to eat at its neighbour Flower Drum anymore (as evidenced by rumours of financial problems at the esteemed establishment).

We tried to get in at 6:30pm on a Thursday night, only to be told there would be a long wait. Second attempt on a Friday night was more successful, because the secret is that they actually take bookings – so no need to line up in the frozen laneway.

The wait was worth it. My tip for deciphering the menu is to follow the advice of the waiter who told me in Chinese to “just order from the first page”, which is basically all dumplings. They’re justifiable famous for their xiao long bao – little pouches of delicate dumpling skin housing meat and hot broth. I also recommend their chilli dumplings for a contrast in flavour. As you slurp down your food, you can watch the controlled chaos of dumpling-making activity through the steaming glass window and be assured that everything is made fresh.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

HOT: Rafael Bonachela's 360, Sydney Dance Company, Arts Centre, 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne

Sydney Dance Company has always been synonymous with Graeme Murphy for me, so I was interested to see what their new Barcelona-born artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, had in store for their latest work.

360 degrees is an abstract hour-long piece which is all about the kinetic force of physical movement. Sitting in the very front row meant that we had no choice but to admire the sinewy strength, flexibility and forceful dynamism of the dancers' barely-clad bodies as they jumped, twisted and balanced in front of a silver wall which reflected every move.

I have to admit that I don't know much about modern dance, and all that abstractness can just go over my head. However, the one thing that I find exciting about it (and really all forms of dance) is that professional dancers can express spark, tension and meaning in every part of their body, right down to their fingertips. Combine that with a pumping techno beat, a dizzying video of freeway driving and precision-timed movements in some sections of 360, and the effect was very exciting.

HOT: Flora, 238A Flinders St, Melbourne

Flora is a no-nonsense Indian cafe which has long been serving Indian people, international students and moi with its cheap and filling food. The decor is spray-wiped spartan and the stark flourescent lights don't encourage lingering, so there's a high turnover of diners day or night. This also means that the curries in the bain-maries will not have been stewing in the steam for long.

Even if you have a large appetite like me, don't try to eat more than the small plate ($9) which comes with a large mound of basmati rice (or roti/naan for an extra 50c) and your choice of one meat curry, one non-meat curry, dahl and pappadum. I've never been able to finish the stainless steel platter of food and the night's meal of chicken 'medium' curry and pumpkin curry was no exception.

HOT: Bread Top, 200 Bourke St, Melbourne

Oh, lovely, fragrant and sweet Bread Top. You tempt me every time I walk down Bourke Street with your self-serve glass cupboards piled with pillowy, wonder-white bread products and pastries. Don't pretend that any of your bread is actually nutritious, but who cares when you get a sweetened roll filled with 'pineapple' or 'milk de crunch', topped off with a sugary coating, for only $1.80.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

NOT: Ajisen Ramen, 130 Bourke St, Melbourne

I am slowly trying to convince RM that tofu, beans and fish are hearty and nutritious foods that contain a lot of protein, but he remains convinced that any little bout of exercise must be followed by a recuperating dose of 'man-protein' meat.

Well, you don't get much meat for your $11 'extra char siu' miso ramen at Ajisen Ramen, and in fact, the slices of rubbery grey processed matter was like no other Chinese BBQ pork I've ever seen. My $16 salmon miso ramen wasn't much better, with the solid tasteless fillet obviously having been cooked or boiled straight out of the freezer. The miso soup was super-salty and there were not enough noodles, although admittedly the noodle texture was very nice.

Next time RM needs meaty noodle soup, I'm dragging him to half-the-price Laughing Cow Laughing Chicken instead.

HOT: Carmen, World Opera and Ballet, Kino Cinemas, 45 Collins St, Melbourne

In my fabulous former life, I was able to attend many opera performances at my all-time-favourite London landmark, the Royal Opera House. However, I'm now a million miles away from Covent Garden, so I can only get my dose of world-class opera via World Opera and Ballet.

Initially, I was uncertain as to how much I would enjoy opera on the big screen. Now, I have to admit that watching the performance in high definition and with surround sound is really not a bad compromise to the real thing. The camera can capture every flicker of emotion in the singers' faces, which I would never be able to see from my ampitheatre seats. Bizet's sumptious melodies, comprising many of opera's greatest hits, obviously helped the experience.

The ROH's 2007 production of Carmen was superb - vibrant, earthy and perfectly cast. Dark-haired Anna Caterina Antonacci was utterly believable as the sultry and volatile Carmen who uses her sensual charms to entrap the hapless Don Jose. As well as singing beautifully, Antonacci was a fantastic actress who never hammed up her emotions and was able to convey her disdain for Don Jose with a mere sideways glance. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, astride on his (live) horse, was proud and authorative as the toreador Escamillo. My favourite tenor, handsome Jonas Kaufmann, sang poor bewitched Don Jose, tortured with unrequited love and reduced to rags and pleading with Carmen not to leave him. Their last scene, full of tense drama and passionate physicality, had me holding my breath.

The only problem with not being at the ROH was that I wasn't able to yell Bravo! as the curtain went down.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

NOT: Nicholson Street Baker, 706 Nicholson St, Carlton North

I love a good neighbourhood bakery, so I was disappointed with my taste-test of Nicholson Street Baker. On the basis of its cheerful orange awning, RM and I had a brief morning tea there and sampled a dry chocolate cupcake and a sturdy apple and walnut muffin containing minimal fruit and nuts. The best of the bunch was 'Kylie's famous' Hummingbird cake - it was the right texture and was smothered in a nice cream cheese icing, but it wasn't so good that it deserved any sort of fame.

Friday, 8 May 2009

NOT: Tenderness, Kino Cinema, 45 Collins St, Melbourne

Tenderness explores the different possible tenets of tenderness, as played out by a cast of isolated, disturbed characters whose lives intersect briefly. There is Detective Cristofuoro (Russell Crowe), a cop whose wife is in hospital, and his loving care for her wellbeing is how we'd consider the usual conception of tenderness. He is trailing the recently released teenage murderer Eric Poole (Jon Foster), who is addicted to the tenderness of witnessing his helpless victims' last breaths. Then there is Lori (Sophie Traub), a young girl who has been sexually molested and who craves another sort of tenderness - the kind that Eric administers.

It's a strange premise for a film. At the end of an intense and disturbing two hours, RM and I both agreed that the film's oddness made it intringuing - but it's just odd enough for me not to recommend it.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

HOT: Closed for Winter, Cinema Nova, 380 Lygon St, Carlton

Closed for Winter is a story is told from the eyes of Elise Silverton (Natalie Imbruglia), who has grown up in the shadow of a childhood family tragedy. It affects the way she interacts with her stiff, closed-off mother (Deborah Kennedy), her boring but caring boyfriend (Daniel Frederiksen) and she trudges through her life as if in a slow fog. Imbruglia's big eyes convey all the pain, blame and bewilderment of Elise's life, especially when the family doctor (Tony Martin) brings to the surface an unspoken but suspected event.

This poised Australian film is cinemographically beautiful, subtle and speaks of the secrets of suburbia - I think it deserves more of an audience than it has received.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

HOT: The Sartorialist at Cutler & Co, 55-57 Gertrude St, Fitzroy

The Sartorialist's blog is so famous that even my mum follows him. So you can imagine the tsunami of anticipation that engulfed Melbourne's fashionistas when Time Magazine's top 1oo design influencers announced that he was holding a party to meet his Melbourne readers.

Oh dear, what to wear???

Given that most of my wardrobe was still in shipping boxes, I didn't have much of a choice of outfit. Never mind, I briefly practised my model posing, then skipped off excitedly to the hot new Andrew McConnell restaurant, Cutler & Co.

Never have I seen so many zany hats, colourful pocket squares and androgynous men in such a small area. Everyone was trying to be cool and nonchalant, while clearly eyeing everyone else's outfit. RM and I claimed a spot at the bar and entrenched our position by ordering a couple of tapas. The food at Cutler & Co was not cheap, but it was impressive. We had a delicious squid escabeche, some neanderthal cutlets of extremely tender duck confit and narrow wafers balancing shreds of crabmeat.

And then ....there he was, Scott Schumann in the flesh. People started jostling to get near him (in a cool, nonchalant way) and at one stage there was even a queue of admirers waiting to talk to him. To his credit, there was no diva attitude - he seemed quite at ease with the crowd, freely answering questions and talking about his experiences in Australia. I didn't push to get closer to him because I discovered that I didn't have any intelligent thoughts other than 'OMG, he's really really short!''. But I do wish I'd elbowed aside some of the groupies so I could have gotten a photo with me towering over him - probably the only time I'm ever going to look like a model.

Friday, 1 May 2009

HOT: Eurodore, 271 Bay St, Port Melbourne

I adore Eurodore. This is the European food and produce store that I wish I owned, with floor to ceiling shelves of prettily decorated condiment jars, bottles of oils and vinegars from Australia and overseas, good quality chocolate and enormous wheels of French cheese. What fun I'd have jaunting around Europe, sampling all the wares to bring back to my shop.

It's clear that whoever runs this shop/cafe loves food. I was particularly impressed that some of their olive oils and vinegars can be purchased in cleanskin bottles. That means you can buy Fattorie Giacobazzi Italian balsamic vinegar in their labelled official bottles at around $12, or an equally stylish (recycleable) Eurodore bottle for $8.50. I also bought some white wine vinegar by Limoges vinegar and mustard producers Delouis Fils, bottled by Eurodore for only $8.50.