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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fouling the Nest

During my Australian life (realUniverse#1990s) I was employed as a journalist for Cumberland Newspapers and worked at many of their titles in Sydney and on the NSW Central Coast. One of my gigs was at the North Shore Times where, as well as being general office shitkicker, I served as the resident restaurant reviewer. I didn't understand why all of my colleagues thought it was a shit job, I myself assumed it would be something of a prized position, and definitely a lurk... anyway, as soon as I lobbed up at their office in Chatswood, one of the first things I got asked was: "Can you do the restaurant reviews?" Some female reporter there had been doing it but she was more than happy to let me take over if I didn't mind, and anyway she was going to be far too busy from now on with her new brief (which was writing about real estate, or something like that). Being the new guy, I was kind of obligated to oblige, and help her out. Being the new guy, I was expected to take on the tasks that others didn't want; I had to be a shitkicker, at least temporarily. I shifted in my seat, smiled, said, "Yes, of course I can!" and then the job was mine, just like that. Possibly the other journalists there regarded it as a waste of time, not "serious" enough for them, or an impediment to their career... but while the guy I sat next might have dreamed of being a Rugby League reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald, I was after nothing more than a free feed! And nothing is better than getting free food, than being paid to eat it! Of course, nothing is really free in this world, and I had to work for those meals, I had to fawn and flatter for them, and write nice things in print. I had to spend the odd evening in a drafty restaurant somewhere with the staff photographer mopping up curry with naan and making small talk, when I could have been at home. Naturally, I wasn't allowed to write anything negative should the food disappoint because the restaurants were also advertisers, and advertising was the name of the game at Cumberland Newspapers, it was their bread and butter you might say. In any case, even if the food was good, and it usually was, the restaurant review system didn't seem like a fair way to go: as the establishment in question always knew I was coming, they naturally laid on a good spread, waiters buzzing around like moons and all the rest. Had I visited incognito, guerrilla-style, it might have been a different story, a more honest story! That's why websites like urbanspoon are so much more honest, and so much more candid... they're democratic, and tell it how it is. I wasn't allowed to do that in my reviews (or in any of my "harder" stories, to tell you the truth.) And maybe that's why, in their wisdom, my fellow journalists at The Times hated writing the reviews... they knew it was just glorified copywriting. They had places to go, and bigger fishes to fry. They were aiming for the top, which left me the bottom to colonize.

The United Colors of Crows Nest, near North Sydney (Australia, 2011)
Journalistic ethics aside, I was on a roll at the North Shore Times, and as well as scoring lunches at French and Swiss bistros that I would not ordinarily be able to afford, I scoffed Korean bulgogi, bowls of pasta, gourmet hamburgers, and plenty of good Chinese. It was mighty convenient that I was living a 10 minute walk away, across the highway from the Royal North Shore Hospital, just past St Leonard's railway station near Crows Nest. I had a Hong Kong girlfriend and a leafy backyard... what could be better than that? Okay, my Trekkie flatmates were kind of anal, and they had a psycho cat to boot (and boot it I did, from time to time, when they weren't watching!) I split up with my Hong Kong girlfriend after just a month or two together, and the sea monkeys she gave me when we started out together died, dissolving into a milky cloud. But anyway, I had Crows Nest, just a matter of blocks away! Back then, before I had moved to Japan, I used to think Crows Nest was kind of sophisticated, exotic even, but not really that edgy. There were gorgeous multicultural treats in easy walking range, Italian pizzerias run by guys with names like Vince, or Dino (or Pino), and Thai takeouts with humorous/sarcastic names. In due course, I reviewed many of these establishments for the North Shore Times. I was totally spoiled for choice: North Indian, Japanese, Korean, there was even a Mongolian place in which I lunched with the Cumberland crew (I had to pay for this one). When I was off-duty, there were two bottleshops in roaming range, and for harder fare, my mate Jimmy (of Pablo Velasquez Shoeboarding fame) lived up the road, on Ernest Street. Whatever you needed, he could supply. The majesty of Sydney Harbour was also just a short stroll away, anyway really... whichever way you headed, you were destined to run into it. The water seems to be all around you, in this part of the world.

Last month I jetted down to Australia on Vietnam Airlines, and had the opportunity to revisit some of my roots. Two days after Christmas, a somewhat overcast day, I met up with Chris Mae, my old partner in crime from Japan, and his brother Garnet, the renegade film-maker, and cruised around the lower North Shore for a while, looking for mischief. Chris had just got a new skateboard for Christmas, and he was very pleased with himself.

After a nice round of lawn bowls we went over to Cremorne to eat some Mickey D's, and then Garnet suggested we drop in to have a chat with Jimmy, who still lived in his original crib, on Ernest. Back in the day Jimmy's was the place to hang, and if you were lucky he might get out his projector and show you Bladerunner on the big screen, or something from the Star Wars saga. Unfortunately Jimmy was out, but he told us to hang tight, and wait an hour or two. We decided to go for a walk, and look for some good grub. This was Crows Nest, after all: there ought to be plenty of fine dining selections at hand! 

Mumu, a grill joint, on Alexander Street, Crows Nest (Australia, 2009)
So, we went for a walk, looking for something promising. The sun came out, birds were flapping around, and all was well with the world. We walked up the road, to Alexander Street. Church was in session, and all the faithful were dressed up for the occasion. Looking around, it seemed like every second restaurant was a grill joint. MUMU (70 Alexander Street) was a case in point, and promised "grill,  tapas and bar"... who could imagine a better combination? According to my beloved North Shore Times, this place has the largest al fresco dining space in Crows Nest. It might have been nice, but Garnet is a vegetarian, so it wasn't really appropriate. Damn!

Grill'd, another grill joint, on Willoughby Road, Crows Nest (Australia, 2009)
We moved on, to Willoughby Road, to pass another grill joint, Grill'd (49 Willoughby Road). Nobody out to eat yet; perhaps it was too early. According to Menufest: "The Grill'd concept was born when Simon Crowe, the company founder, decided to do something about the lack of a decent, healthy hamburger in the Australian market." Lamb, chicken, beef and vegie burgers are on the menu here, which should have pleased Garnet. But, for some reason, he wasn't going for it. We walked on, passing Wrapido, and a Commonwealth Bank branch. Then we stumbled upon a place which is apparently renowned in this part of town: Pino's Pizzeria. We all agreed we could do with a good pizza, so we pulled up a seat outside.

Garnet Mae at the Pinos Pizzeria in Crows Nest -- the one that gave me Bombay Belly!
Garnet Mae prepares to dine, at Pino's Pizzeria (Australia, 2009)
Postscript: who would have thought that I would go all the way to Australia to get a dose of the runs? I have been to Vietnam six times in the last three years and even though I often dine on the streets there, I hardly ever get an upset stomach... nothing too bad anyway, maybe an overdose of fibre. I have lived in Japan for nine years and eaten raw chicken, raw horse and canned whale meat and felt none the worse for wear, accrued bad karma notwithstanding. It took returning to my native Australia to get a really intense case of diarrhea, one that lasted for nearly a week, and followed me all the way to my love nest in Ho Chi Minh City... and I believe it all started at Pino's Pizzeria. Mind you they were good pizzas that we quoffed there, me and the Mae brothers and their two halfJapanese descendents... mine were heavy on the anchovies. It was probably the anchovies that unsettled me. If I had been like Garnet and limited myself to the Vegetariana (artichokes, mushroom, onion, olives and capsicum) I would probably have been okay. Probably. Anyway, at least I have a chance to provide a really honest Sydney restaurant review, after faking it for so long. Incidentally, urbanspoon rank Pino's as one of the top restaurants in Crows Nest. Don't listen to my sad gripe; the majority can't be wrong!

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