Is Australia Day. Is Good.

With Australia Day imminent, the tiresome culture wars over whether it should really be called “Invasion Day” or if there is in fact anything worthwhile being proud of in one of the world’s most prosperous and tolerant democracies is once again in full swing. For those so inclined, I had a few words in the Telegraph yesterday analyzing our bizarre relationship with our national day:

LIKE Christmas carols played in October and hot cross buns hitting the shelves in January, it seems people start hating Australia Day earlier and earlier each year.

This year, Australians had barely shaken off the cobwebs from New Year’s Eve before the annual festival of self-flagellation around our national day began. For weeks now legions of academics, pundits, and comment thread trolls have been stalking the landscape, looking to stamp out any sign of pride in Australia’s post-settlement heritage with all the enthusiasm of Queenslanders going after cane toads with a six-pack and a nine iron.

 The Prick was also on The Project last night sticking up for Australia Day against Peter FitzSimons and Waleed Aly … click here, the segment starts around the 24 minute mark.

Back on deck in a few days with full reports on Noosa and other points north. 

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Point/Counterpoint

So the Prick’s back in the Telegraph today, speaking truth to the various neo-prohibitionist killjoys who would use a bunch of ‘roided-up lunatics as an excuse to shut down everyone else’s good time:

The fact is Australia is something of a middleweight when it comes to alcohol consumption. Our drinking is well off its peak, and each year we show a greater preference for wine over beer and spirits. This trend reflects our increasing sophistication and interest in food, and suggests a growing European-style drinking culture, which should be applauded.

But to the new nannies and secular Methodists of today’s temperance movement, there is little difference between mums and dads having a few wines on a Sunday afternoon or a couple kicking on for a nightcap after a romantic dinner on one hand and the criminally violent, amped up on booze as well as drugs or steroids on the other.

According to NSW’s own statistics, booze-related assaults and hospital admissions are heading down – and have been since 2008.

Those allegedly responsible for fights and bashings are often already on bail or parole or have serious criminal records, suggesting the problem isn’t so much licensees letting thugs in as magistrates letting them out.

By way of comparison I’m in the paper next to one such nanny, a gent who (amongst other things) seems to reckon that we could learn a thing or two from sharia in our current panic over grog:

Reduction and regulation of advertising has been effective in countries such as France, Norway, Ukraine, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Sweden, Kenya, Hong Kong and most Muslim countries.

Personally, I’m happy to live in a country where 150 Lashes is a brand of beer, and not a punishment.

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Ode on a Former Titty Bar: John Keats, Negative Capability, and the New Oxford Tavern

“This isn’t a faux-dive. This is a dive!” – The Simpsons

One does not often think of English Romantic poets in the context of refurbished titty bars. But when it comes to John Keats and the new-look Oxford Tavern in Petersham, the two might just have more in common than one would first imagine.

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Dive right in — ironically, of course

Keats, because while the poet may be best known for his various odes (hands up if you had to memorise “Grecian Urn” in school) his most important contribution to the life of the mind may be his notion of “negative capability.” Keats described this phenomenon in a letter as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.

Or as writer Maria Popova succinctly interprets it, negative capability means a “willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity.”

What does this have to do with the Oxford? Well, because while there is a great deal about the place which – as we shall see – the Pricks should find ridiculous, silly, inauthentic, ersatz, or simply just-not-our-scene, we have also all but declared it our new local.

For us, it may as well be called the Negative Capability Arms.

The Oxford, old and new, sits at the corner of Petersham’s New Canterbury Road and Crystal Street, a neglected, unsalubrious pocket of the inner-west dominated by no-hoper junkie rooming houses and the Supreme Politburo of Marrickville Council; in the bar’s previous incarnation employees of the latter would juice away their lunch hours ogling topless residents of the former over schooners of Resch’s and Carlton.

Or so the Prick is given to understand.

In its renaissance the Oxford has become a creature of the hipster nightlife impresarios at Drink’n’Dine Group who spent several months and what one imagines was a fair amount of money on cladding and kitsch and untreated timber turning a real Australian dive into a fake American one. The Prick has always wondered how Irishmen feel seeking cookie-cutter pubs promising the craic in every corner of the globe from Ushuaia to Ulaanbaatar. Now, just a ten minute stagger up the hill, is a joint which owes a lot to the deliberately dowdy post-collegiate bars of Upper East Side Manhattan – specifically those which sprung up along Second Avenue in the mid-1990s. The Prick’s cultural capital is being exploited by capitalists!

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Your day’s recommended intake of fruit in one convenient $25 jug of cocktails

But seriously even if not deliberate it is a little eerie, frankly, to see the misspent Friday evenings of early adulthood reproduced with such a vengeance 10,000 miles and nearly twenty years away. All that’s missing is the pints of Coors Light and former frat boys spending their first pay packets from the banks. Instead the Oxford is lousy with off-the-rack hipsters, all beards and body art and craft beers and cocktails and American-style bar food, which seems to be the Next Big Thing for 2014. (Drink’n’Dine is also installing what look to be some fairly impressive smokers out the back which promises at least a decent simulacrum of American barbeque, though confusingly they seem want to keep a foot in 2013 with a big mural promising “salsas” and “comidas” and other Mexican fare along with the ribs and so on. It will be interesting to see how their pulled pork stacks up to what is turned out at Stately Prick Manor.)

And yet, despite the fake redneck routine and the poseur crowds (it threatens to become the Grounds of Alexandria with more booze and fewer children, which, come to think of it might make the Grounds that much more tolerable as well) and the queues for drinks (though kudos to the bespectacled young lady in the front bar who always tests her product with a straw and then makes adjustments as required, showing an admirable commitment to craft over, like too many other barkeeps, just slowly getting pissed on the job) and the food which can range from the brilliant (nachos as well as anything little and fried, but could we have some proper Buffalo wings with lots of heat and blue cheese dressing, please?) to the bizarre (a Mexican schnitzel is not a good idea) to the overwhelming (the “double dawg” is a helluva thing), all served in those universal plastic burrito baskets or in aluminum foil rather than on anything as daggy as plates, we like it.

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“I see you’ve played knifey-hot dog before!”

Because it is close, and our only other locals are either too well-meaning and suburban or too legitimately dive-dive to let us feel at home, and because they put on a good feed and make a good drink (though if we’re going down this road could we get some Pabst Blue Ribbon in, and not at $9 a can either?) and are starting to get to know us, and because America is an idea as much as a place and as such her culinary spirit can live anywhere, even in a mini-chain’s refurbished titty bar, we will keep holding up the bar whenever we are feeling too lazy to cook and have a night off from the Three Little Pricks.

While we’re on the subject of refurbishment, it is worth noting that the management has not beaten the old sword completely into a ploughshare and that there are still reminders of the original inhabitants, so to speak, all over the place. It is not quite Pope Sixtus hauling up an obelisk in St Peter’s to remind the faithful of what came before, but from the old neon signs to the menu art to the lubricious paintings leading to the front bar toilets which make “Dogs Playing Poker” look like a Dutch master, management is still keen to trade on the bar’s seedier past. There’s even a dessert that’s an ode to jelly wrestling (no, we haven’t, nor will we).

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We will proudly be first through the picket line at the inevitable “Take Misogyny Off the Menu” protest

Which is fine, and we Pricks get the joke, but we also wonder just how long the Oxford’s motif will survive in the current climate of hair-trigger offense. After all, this is an age when a restaurant can get in trouble for “sexist” urinals – despite their having been designed by a woman – or a burger joint can find a bad visual pun of an ad censored by the Advertising Standards Board on similar grounds. The owners and investors behind the Oxford surely have to deal with plenty of unsavoury characters in their time in the bar and nightclub business, but here’s hoping they don’t ever have to endure a Van Badham-led Twitter-storm, or even worse, a drive-by cheese-sandwiching.

Though come to think of it, that could be a pretty tasty menu item …

The Oxford Tavern on Urbanspoon

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Freedom With a Side of Fries

In the fight between a bunch of freedom-hating nannies who’d impose their grey aesthetic on the world and the fast food giants, there’s really no question whose side to take. The Prick in the Telegraph today:

Putting aside the creepy implication that our lives only have value insofar as our impact on the government’s bottom line, it tends to be only those who do not have the platform of a position in academia, the media, or politics who find their lifestyles’ under fire.

A few years ago the Australian Medical Association suggested that obesity cost the healthcare system $1.2 billion a year. But that wasn’t headline-making enough, so they instead declared that “Factoring in lost productivity, obesity cost Australian society and governments $21 billion”.

Oddly, no one ever counts up the “billions” in lost productivity from inner-city workers ducking out for a coffee once or twice a day. Add it up and your typical office worker might spend a week each year on the boss’s time enjoying a product that can cause everything from increased blood pressure to anxiety to anaemia.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for a scare story about how the Big Barista industry is wreaking havoc with health and productivity.

Naturally, you should read the whole thing.

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Chippendale Review: Reading the Book of ester

Ever since Trollope wrote his indictment of late-Victorian England, the phrase “the way we live now” has been used to label any panoramic novel which captures a moment in time and becomes required reading for literate people of the day – even if the work itself is pretty crap. Think Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (entertaining in parts with the best set pieces all but stolen from David Foster Wallace). Or, closer to home, Chris Tsiolkas’ The Slap, that coke-fueled romp through Melbourne suburbia later turned into an all-but-unwatchable ABC series and sent up with aplomb by The Hamster Wheel.

But if a book can limn the essence of a time, what about a restaurant? A recent night at ester in Chippendale suggests that yes, a restaurant can capture a time and place every bit as much as a novel, and be enjoyed more quickly than an 800-page doorstop to boot.

Thus to the Prick’s way of thinking a meal at ester needs to be seen on a couple of levels: Yes, it is a very good, fun, hip, laid-back place to go for a high-end, low-key, sit-down meal with friends. But ester is also a fine-grained portrait of a certain sort of very echt Sydney dining (and living) circa 2013.

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Flintstones! Meet the Flintstones!

The food at ester (no reactionary capital letters here, please) is almost uniformly very good tending toward the excellent, turned out of a big open kitchen dominated by a wood-fired oven and led by Mat Lindsay with, as a waiter tells us, “everything designed to be shared”.

That’s at least two or three zeitgeist boxes ticked right there.

The menu, with its flights of five or six items offered in a series of courses of escalating size, each listed elliptically simply as a verbless triumvirate of ingredients (cauliflower/almond/mint, squid/ink/corn, you get the idea) is perfect for double dates as everyone will be able to try just about everything they are interested in over any given course. (Add a third couple and things could get a bit less Franzen and a bit more Updike, if you catch the Prick’s drift.) Very 4Fourteen, very Nomad, very now.

Marrow – an ingredient of the moment whose time has happily damn well come – at ester is much talked-about among the fooderati, and deservedly so, served as it is in massive split, roasted bones right out of The Flintstones and drizzled with XO chili sauce. The quivering contents are scooped in great hunks reminiscent in texture and jiggle of pan-seared foie gras  onto slabs of hearty woodfired bread.

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Raw, y’all

Raw fish, mulloway on our night, is presented simply and needs little in the way of garnish, though mustard seeds simmered in soy are a touch astringent and distracting. Oven-popped oysters are an exception to the the Prick’s never-cook-‘em rule and are accentuated rather than overwhelmed by a tart horseradish dressing.  Veal tartare is more of a carpaccio affair, pulling apart between forks and foiled by blobs of “oyster sauce” – a bright, verdant blend of bivalves and herbs, not the cloying Chinese stuff one gets out of a bottle – though the promised bottarga is hard to detect.

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Big plates! Dive in!

The only real fall-down among the smaller plates is the asparagus. Roasted with a beautiful char, the poor spears are overwhelmed and difficult to eat under a blanket of nasturtium and flowers and powders. Somewhere hidden beneath the foliage is a 62-degree egg whose yolk ought to work as a sauce but cannot quite get to the job because of all the competing traffic on the plate.

Happily, and in contrast to some other kitchens that spend so much time fiddling around with starters that mains come off second best, the big “woodfired” plates are just as good, if not superior to what comes before. And further reflecting the present paddock-to-plate simplicity-loving zeitgeist, the dishes are each about one preparation, one process (perhaps two or three if you count steps like brining, but it is all heading in the same direction). What one does not see is some jumped-up chef trying to show off by cooking some protein three different ways: This ain’t Come Dine With Me Australia after all.

Pork hock is stunning, spicy, roasted, gelatinous, and fall-apart, a mainline to the id of any pig-lover, with a garnish of pickled carrots to clean the palate. A piece of fish (blue eye, from memory) is fine as it is but really serves as a foil for a deep, rich burnt onion broth. Duck is slightly too fiddly, though who knew sticking a cauliflower into a wood oven was such a good idea? We became such a fan of the method some minor consideration was given to building such a contraption out the back of Stately Prick Manor, which is just proximate enough to Leichhardt to get away with.

The Prick is not much of a dessert person, but the “three milks” is a departure from the post-progressive mood of the place, with three different “milks” done three different ways (order it, they’ll explain). Much ooh-ing and ah-ing was pronounced over the other items, but a simple salted caramel semifreddo was perhaps the simplest and best, washed down with a slug of Calvados.

In sum ester may be a pitch-perfect, almost alarming in its lack of dissonance, reflection of the way we live – or at least eat – now. The place feels calculated right down to the slightly uncomfortable chairs and even the name. Our table nearly came to blows over whether the owners named the place after the Biblical queen who headed off a planned Persian genocide of the Jews (this story may bear re-reading in light of current events) or Esther Rolle, who played the matriarch of the ‘70s Jimmie “Dy-no-mite!” Walker vehicle Good Times.

Turns out the name ester comes from the world of chemistry and is defined on the business cards as “an organic compound”. Digging further, the Prick finds that “many naturally occurring fats and essential oils are esters of fatty acids”, which all but defines the kitchen’s tightrope walk between the heavy and rich and the light and zingy. Well played, guys.

Still, the unexamined meal is not worth eating and it is worth asking if the way we are doing things now is really the best way. Sydney’s fine dining crisis is well-rehearsed. Anything that is new and not a burger joint or taco shack is to be celebrated in the same way that sophisticated writing needs to be cheered against the tide of PowerPoint presentations and Buzzfeed listicles which, click by procrastinatory click, are pushing our society back towards the pre-literate.

But is this the way we want to live? Is this where sit-down dining is heading? Take shared dishes. Please. One gets the point but it often as if, like those automatic check-outs in the supermarket, such plates are an innovation designed to benefit the company as much as the consumer. Expediting must be easier for the kitchen: Four different plates don’t need to hit the table at the same time, but can come out in quick succession. Yes, we all get to try everything, but sometimes the Prick feels like the joke about WASPs at a Chinese restaurant: Can’t I just have my own damn plate of food?

On the other hand, if ester suggests that we are swinging back towards grown-up food and dining out, the Prick approves. Plus, it’s a lot more fun than Franzen, especially his recent stuff. What the hell was Freedom about anyway?

Ester on Urbanspoon

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Take your kids to the pub, or, Why children and alcohol do mix even if they always put too much vermouth in the martinis

Eighty years ago this week America’s long national nightmare of prohibition ended, but that doesn’t mean prohibitionists have abandoned the cause.

One of the current terrors of the public health police, who have taken up the mantle of the late Carrie Nation in both spirit and form, is that children might see adults having a few beers and socializing and having a laugh and not glassing each other and think this is a perfectly normal thing for adults to do. Because everyone knows that adults cannot crack a beer without engaging in “alcohol-fueled violence” and costing the taxpayer $25 billion a year.

So far, so predictably neo-prohibitionist. And, just as the Prohibition of old was promoted by a coalition of Baptists and bootleggers, todays’ bluenoses are joined by their opposite number, namely grown-ups who want to have a few beers without ever having to see a child.  

Examples abound of these twin worries expressing themselves: Think of those silly ads portraying suburban barbeques where there was food on the table and beer in the fridge as a sinister form of inter-generational child abuse.

More recently Monica Dux weighed in with equally silly thumb-sucker at the Drum worrying deeply about beer or wine served at school fetes.

And now we have Sarah Harris’s salvo in the Telegraph this week suggesting that kids should be banned, full stop, from pubs, because she and her mates want to be able to have a big session in peace, and anyway, a for-profit prohibitionist named Paul Dillon told her the whole idea was abhorrent because drinking is evil and kids shouldn’t learn about it anyway.

It’s all a bit confusing but let’s try and puzzle it out.

There’s a big push on in the public health industry – the neo-prohibitionists – to “denormalise” the consumption of alcohol. The strategy is to incrementally, via a sort of secular sharia, make more and more spaces in the culture booze-free, ring-fencing drinking into smaller and smaller zones while. The theory is that as occurs happens more and more people will enjoy socializing over caffeine-free herbal tea and going to bed at 9:30 after an amusing evening making shadow hand animals.

As a subtext to all this, it is mandatory that children not see adults drinking lest they realize that it’s actually not as big a deal as those who don’t like drinking think it is. If children are allowed in the beer garden or wines are served at the school fundraiser, this agenda is threatened.

Because after all, P&C mums and dads have a few wines after the working bee are not likely to punch on after building the canteen herb garden.

Hipster dads aren’t going to glass each other in front of little Atticus and Phoebe-Bijou at the local Sunday afternoon beer garden over the last order of pulled pork sliders.

But Harris is not a neo-prohibitionist, she likes a drink – even if she relies on the likes of Dillon to support her argument. And she pulls out other arguments, to be sure.  Yes, there are some awful kids and awful parents out there who behave badly, but that’s because responsible parents have been told that they should stay home, leaving only those who don’t care to come out and colonize public spaces.

Even OH&S, that last refuge of a scoundrel, a statist, or in this case the army of Kants for whom no personal aesthetic cannot be made into categorical imperative to be imposed on society, enforced by another few hundred pages of regulation, gets a look in in Harris’s argument.

But most peculiar is that in her desire for a peaceful drink, she finds common cause with those who would ultimately deny her that freedom. With a few throwaway phrases she endorses the notion that somehow Australia is a nation of soaks in need of a church basement and 22 million folding metal chairs is a popular one, pushed by a helpful rent-a-quote academic “expert” whose livelihood depends on creating a panic that will lead to more “calls for action” in the press and more grant money from politicians.

Yet on any league table Australia is a middle-weight power, well below lots of Western European countries, and by all accounts we’re drinking more wines than beers or the hard stuff.

In any case, there is one good reason to bring young people not just to the pub but to restaurants, museums, and plenty of other places they will have to negotiate as grown-ups.

Children are nothing more than adults in training, and if they never see, they will never learn to do.

This is not about the tyranny of children, or inflicting howling brats on the world.

Rather, properly deployed, it means exposing children to the world and saying, See this? This is how it’s done. It’s about socialization.

And children are also, paradoxically, a civilizing influence. Go to Europe if you don’t believe me. Mrs Prick and I recently undertook a four-week intensive field research program looking at (among other things) issues surrounding wine and food and found children everywhere. Dogs, too. Is someone going to seriously argue that Italy hasn’t got it figured out?

Pubs such as the Henson Park in Marrickville are great examples of pubs that can be family friendly. At the same time, pubs should also be allowed to ban all under-18s, full stop, if that is their wish – a half-point, at least, of agreement with Harris.  

Harris and her mates might like to go have a massive mid-afternoon sesh without any little ones around, and that’s perfectly alright.

But it’s a big world and there’s space enough for all. And one’s personal preferences should not be inflicted universally – especially when they provide aid and comfort to the enemy.

 

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Prickonomics!

Me in the Daily Telegraph again, today talking about Joe Hockey’s populist economics:

THREE months after an election that has delivered us a new government, Australians could be forgiven for thinking that for all that has changed, not much has changed at all.

In office sits a government that seems overly fond of intervening in the market and increasing tax takings. In opposition, meanwhile, shadow ministers thunder about the need for reform and for the state to get out of the way.

Yesterday, Treasurer Joe Hockey knocked back US agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland’s bid to buy east coast grain distributor GrainCorp.

Earlier in the week, he met with state and territory treasurers to discuss imposing GST on overseas internet purchases worth less than $1000. And in an attempt to shore up Qantas, Hockey also floated the idea of buying back – with taxpayer money – up to 10 per cent of the airline’s shares to help it compete with competitors like Virgin Australia.

Read on

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