Funky, cold, & Medina
Chilling out in Sydney
by Thor Iverson
Lost in the matrix
It has actually come to this? So many great experiences, so many wonderful people (except for that one), so many unforgettable memories. And yet, New Zealand’s final farewell for us is this: for the second time in three opportunities, Air New Zealand has failed to put our bags on the same plane as us. Even with a three-hour layover in Auckland. How does that happen? Have they employed tuatara to handle luggage and cargo? Three hours is usually enough even for Heathrow, for heaven’s sake, and Auckland’s not exactly the world’s biggest airport.
“They’ll be on the next flight,” assures the man clicking away at a computer with the sleek lines and processing power of the eighties. The early eighties. It’s got a green screen, it’s slower than Air NZ baggage handling, and the printer issuing my lost luggage report is a noisy old dot matrix model. Dot matrix. And yes, the paper is the appropriate relic, which I wasn’t even aware was still produced: alternating green and white stripes with perforated holes down the sides. What sort of bizarre time warp have we entered? Have all the country’s IT consultants gone walkabout?
A taxi takes us through some pretty dismal areas, graffiti-ridden and dirty, then into a somewhat nicer but still edgy Chinatown, and finally to a thoroughly anonymous building between a clean, albeit boring, commercial district and a busy, flashy wharf area. This is where we’re staying?
First impressions aside, the Medina Grand Harbourside is exactly what it claims to be: a tower of serviced all-business apartments for all-business travelers. Its unassuming exterior gives way to a peaceful, modern hotel-like interior, and our suite has a pleasant double balcony with views of Darling Harbour and Cockle Bay. A few frayings and signs of age are visible if one looks closely enough, but overall it’s a comfortable place in which to spend our last antipodal week, and seems centrally-located enough. (In retrospect, this is a judgment that’s not quite accurate, but given the amount of exploring we’ll do, there’s no one perfect place to stay.)
Theresa naps while I wander the streets, trying to keep warm – fresh from Nelson’s balmy shores, I’m wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt – and taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of a new city. Those streets are full of youthful energy (the over-40 set must either be in hiding or in cars) and the post-work rush, and one of the first things I notice is that the people are, as a whole, rather shockingly attractive. It’s also strange to see people in business suits, something we haven’t been in the vicinity of for many, many weeks. Amusingly, every third business seems to be a café. In about two hours of strolling, I count no fewer than 92 of them. That’s ninety-two. New Zealand may have excellent coffee, but Sydneysiders are clearly coffee-obsessed. Is it as good? We’ll never get around to exerting the effort necessary to find out.
Edna, queen of the city
The customers at Edna’s Table (NB: the restaurant has since closed and become a catering business), a “native food” restaurant (that I’ve selected because the one most recommended to me is closed for renovations) are as be-suited as the post-work crowd, and I feel terribly underdressed, not to mention more than a little chilly. Jennice, the owner-slash-diva who welcomes us at the front door, is flamboyantly hospitable and over-the-top-fabulous, as she pooh-poohs my apologies for not having anything else to wear and leads us to a lovely table right in front of the window. I feel as if I’ve stepped into a Priscilla post-party…though as far as I can tell, she’s actually a woman. At least she doesn’t cradle me to her bosom, though I have a feeling it wouldn’t be entirely out of the question.
Alas, the restaurant’s service doesn’t quite measure up to her example. Four different people take our initial drink orders, but it takes almost a half-hour for them (and our requested water) to arrive. Simply identifying the food we wish to eat seems to take forever, and its delivery takes even longer. Eventually, matters straighten out somewhat, but it’s a rough beginning.
Bread is served with a series of interesting condiments (native pepper, bush tomato, and so forth), but unfortunately those are the best examples all night of what I’ve come here to taste: pan-Western cooking utilizing native and “bush” Australian ingredients. The dishes that arrive are spirited, but kind of mushy in their execution, and the native flavors and ingredients aren’t really featured as much as I’d prefer. Except in one dish: Sydney Rock oysters, served with wasabi and wild lime. I’ve never eaten oysters like this…oysters that taste less of bivalve flesh and more like a chilled, oyster-flavored cream. They’re stupendous, and the wild lime provides a slightly tarter, more acerbic counterpoint than the standard fruit. Grilled octopus and crocodile (two different first courses) are actually the best dishes, overall, with great sensitivity paid to their optimum points of doneness, but other than the simple fact of eating crocodile – which, as dedicated carnivores, we’ve done before – there’s nothing about them that’s unlike what any coastal Italian chef would attempt, given the same ingredients.
I move on to wallaby-encircled enoki mushrooms. The dish if fine, if a bit overcooked for the meat’s lack of tenderizing fat, but Theresa’s thicker filets of its big brother (kangaroo) are better and more succulent. Both, however, are laden with a confusing dark brown sauce that adds nothing to either presentation or flavor.
Overall, it’s a good meal, but certainly not a great one…which I would be fine with were the native exotica better highlighted. But are kangaroo or wallaby really all that exotic to an Australian? I doubt it.
From a fairly long but somewhat blasé wine list, I choose a glass and then a bottle.
Margan 2003 Semillon (Hunter Valley) – Herbs and grass, with a semi-hollow middle but surprising length. Tingly, especially late. It seems insufficient, but I’ve learned the value of humility when it comes to assessing young Hunter semillon; I’m not aware of any other wine that blossoms out of its youthful ugly-ducklingness to such an extent.
Leeuwin “Prelude Vineyards” 2000 Cabernet/Merlot (Margaret River) – Red pepper, dark cherry, and cassis, with a dash of eucalyptus. Good weight and balance. Admittedly a little green (not altogether unpleasantly so, but it’s right on the edge), and already showing some early signs of development. Somewhere between OK and good. Probably not much of an ager, though.
We hurry “home” in a deepening chill, but thankfully it’s not as cold as it could be. Despite huge crowds of twenty-somethings (or perhaps they’re a bit younger; it’s hard to tell) flowing towards the restaurants, bars, and clubs of Darling Harbor – it’s like there’s a football match or something, given that the people seem to number in the thousands, and they never stop coming – our apartment is well-insulated and quiet. And we have a newly-arrived guest, too: our luggage, which despite promises to the contrary obviously didn’t get to Sydney until several flights after the “next” one, or it would have arrived before we left for dinner. Well, at least it’s here. Sydney’s restaurants will be happy to have us properly dressed for a change.
Big wheel keep on turning
Thanks to the time-change, we’re up very early the next morning, which gives us an opportunity to unpack and settle in. We spend a little too much time settling, however, and we end up having to take a quick taxi ride to Circular Quay, one of Sydney’s central hubs for public transportation. Which, here, means boats, and a lot of them.
(An aside: how many ways are there to pronounce “quay,” anyway? There’s “kway,” there’s “kay,” and here…no followers of stodgy European tradition, the Aussies…it’s “key.” Which leads to some amusement on the part of the taxi driver when we tell him our destination, because we’ve arrived with no idea of this third, unknown-to-us pronunciation.)
On a boat bound for Parramatta, we get our first views of some Sydney landmarks: the Opera House (“small,” comments Theresa), the Harbour Bridge (which does, as its detractors claim, look at least a little bit like a coat-hanger…but we still like it), and the striking panorama of the waterfront itself. We’re joined by a rather rowdy crowd of suited young men headed for a day of gambling at the track.. They guzzle wine from water bottles and put on a nonstop performance of testosterone-driven braggadocio that masquerades as a conversation; they’re loud, but entertaining, and they keep us laughing despite our minor irritation at the din. As the ferry chugs along, we move through waterslide hills patterned with striking and spacious houses, unattractive industrial areas, and peaceful, low forests and swamps. At one point, we pass a weed-overgrown dock that looks forlorn and forgotten; it’s an Olympic facility stop, already falling into disrepair and decay. So soon?
At last, we reach our destination, and disembark onto the sedate pier of a peaceful suburban neighborhood. On the dock, there’s a couple, roughly our age, eyeing the passengers as they walk past. As soon as they see us, one of them approaches, a questioning tilt to his eyebrow.
“Thor and Theresa?”
Copyright © Thor Iverson.