Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Blood, Sweat and Sharing Plates

Tough Mudder Melbourne

At first sight it looks like something has gone terribly wrong. Hundreds of mud caked, exhausted and fraught looking people hurling themselves over an enormous curving wall. Some at the top heroically  help others over, still more slide limply to the bottom after yet another failed attempt. What terrible event could have caused this to happen? A breakdown in the social order? Earthquakes? The Sun stopping to shine? The Earth's core ceasing to rotate? The promise of an orange headband, half a banana and a can of meat stew?

The Melbourne Tough Mudder, the very first event of it's kind in Australia looks to all intents like a school cross country run designed by a cabal of the most twisted P.E. teachers in the world (I'm looking at you Mr Cleverly). What it actually is, is a globe spanning series of mud runs/obstacle courses designed by British Special Forces and backed up by some rather good marketing. Thousands of people are participating today, mostly teams of steely, determined looking lycra-clad hard bodies with a smattering of Roman Centurions and fair few who look like they've accidentally wandered onto the course and would rather be at home with a cup of tea and a Hobnob.

Given that I was in Melbourne on the promise of a slew of decent restaurants and the chance to wear a nice wooly coat, something I haven't been able to do in Brisbane for the past two years, I was a bit bemused by the turn of events that led to me standing on the Moto GP track on Phillip Island a full two hours from the nearest of the promised eateries. The meat stew didn't look like it was going to cut it either. 

There are cities that you automatically feel at home in and others that feel wrong, like wearing a shoe on the wrong foot. Whilst I've been away from London I find myself missing misty rain, steel grey skies and the collision between slightly shabby grandeur and the increasingly Gibson-esque modern towers of the City . The light, space and heat of Brisbane are a world away. Melbourne feel's like a chunk of home. Just the right mix of odd weather, studied grubbiness and arrogance which marks it out against it's easier, sunnier, showier second cousin up in Queensland (and it's estranged rather stately matron aunt in NSW with whom only the tercest of Christmas cards are exchanged). 

Australian cities are mongrels to a degree. Clever, resilient children of British and American cities. Seeded in the mould of London and Manchester, grown with a eye on US cities and now increasingly absorbing DNA from Singapore and Beijing. Canberra feels like twenty blocks of suburban Washington D.C. has been stolen by town planning aliens and dumped in the outback. Brisbane like a razor edged miniature Chicago laser etched onto banks of the Brisbane river and Melbourne like the progeny of a one night stand between London and Seattle.

Given I had 48 hours to sample Melbourne I needed guidance. To my mind the barista has replaced the barman in the helpful advice and sympathetic ear whilst drying a glass department. In this case I had a two lists of restaurants from two different baristas. One from Jamie of Jamie's Espresso in Brisbane written on a brown paper bag (fitting if you pop along and meet the lovely man) and another from a bloke manning a stunning Slayer espresso machine at the super hero sounding League of Honest Coffee on Little Lonsdale Street in Melbourne. The lists nearly matched. This formed the basis of a gruelling schedule of eating over the next 48 hours. 

Every meal we had in the city over the course of the weekend featured a sharing plate of some description. I find this difficult on the whole having been raised in a household where dinner time was a combat sport. Where "You cut, I choose" could descend into a knife fight. At The Aylesbury in the Melbourne CBD this found it's truest expression from amongst the places we sampled. A modern Spanish eatery, that goes well beyond Spain in it's thinking, that was so good we ended up going two nights in a row. A tranche of blow torched mackerel, softly fondant with a drizzle of pea gazpacho the colour of a beetle's wing. Pig off cuts of brawn and crispy ears and some bone suckingly tender lamb ribs.

From tapas to dim sum at Hu Tong Dumpling Bar opposite the darkly gleaming glamour of Melbourne institution The Flower Drum, a restaurant straight out of Blade Runner. "No, Two, Two, Four". Sharing a plate of Szechuan wontons dripping with chilli oil and an unctuous melange of scallops and egg plant. From the dark wood bar at The Aylesbury to the clinical gleam of Cumulus Inc. Being a massive fan of St John I'm not above eating at a restaurant that feels like they were hosing down the last of the carcasses an hour before the sitting but at this bar I was jammed in between ladies lunching and a middle aged man with a very large watch eating nothing but protein, so it felt a bit like being in a veal pen. A starter of pimientos de Padron looked like medical specimens but were tasty enough. The real treat was a grilled pork chop the size of my head with a stunning mix of white beans with mustard and tarragon as was the acidic bite of an apple sorbet that came with my dessert.

It wasn't all sharing plates and elbow to elbow dining. In the midst of Greek town I tried Stalactites, a place that seemed to elicit much debate about the quality of souvlaki available there vs a couple of dozen other locations in one of those typical local arguments. Like getting three Londoners to agree on the best curry house. I have to say it was pretty good, the meat coming off an impressive looking grill  and fresh tasting. I ventured it would have been amazing if it had been three in the morning and I was hammered to general approval.

On the flight back to Brisbane I spy a few orange head bands and keep sake t-shirts from Tough Mudder. Given my own marathon food binge I think I'd better sign up for the Brisbane run in 2013. Here's hoping they've improved the meat stew.

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