Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Another Saturday night.

I parked in Franklin and walked four blocks through the city. It was Saturday night and early queues were gathering outside the nightspots in Queen Street.

Around the corner into quieter Collins Street and up the hill. The entrance to the club was between two columns almost the size of the ones holding up the Parthenon. I expected a guy with gold braid on his shoulders to greet me but instead two glass doors slid apart with a soft humming sound.

I walked on carpet through to a plush timber-lined room with display cabinets around the walls containing ceramic artefacts. The room was half-filled with people wearing dinner suits and black dresses. A waiter was weaving around them with a drinks tray. Yes, thank you.

More people arrived and after about half an hour, waiters opened a curtain and started the seating process, which is not too far away from how a kelpie rounds up merino lambs. They circle and make shooing gestures with their arms. Nicely, of course. It is a club.

By now it was close to 8.30 p.m. The first announcement after we were seated was that the bar would close at 10.30, the music would stop at 11 and all out at 11.15. Well, let's get on with it then.

It was the annual awards night for the university athletics club. Clubs attached to universities always like to celebrate their occasions with a kind of bohemian formality, in a slightly eccentric and even raffish air. The next nhalf-hour was spent getting up and down from the table and drinking toasts to absent friends, deceased members and assorted persons no-one had ever heard of. It's called tradition.

The first course came out during the toasts. It was a scrabble of peppered calamari pieces all going one way, scattered through with ribbons of lettuce all going the other. It looked like a snakes and ladders board. It was fine if you like calamari with lettuce.

The first actual speech after the toasts was given by a spectacled old-timer in a dinner suit and an out of shape bowtie who had been a sprinter of some note in the '60s. His subject was how great the athletes were in that decade. The speech sounded like he made it to himself every night, but it was over in five minutes, so he received thunderous applause anyway.

Then he climbed radiantly off the stage, like an Olympic medallist descending the dais; and as he returned to his chair, waiters with plates up their arms started dealing the main courses around the tables.

It was a set menu and the main course was roast beef. Each plate bore a circle of meat of compact disc diameter and about half an inch thick. On closer inspection there appeared to be vegetables on the plate, but the chefs had cleverly tucked them underneath the beef, as if to comfort them or keep them warm or something. The habit of placing the meat on top of the vegetables is one chefs just can't seem to shake, like Gordon Ramsay's speech problem.

The beef was fine. I would have preferred it rarer, but then others would have sent it back. They weren't cooking them to individual order of done-ness. Over the beef and dripping down past the hidden vegetables (a split kipfler, some sticks of zucchini and a few shards of mushroom) was a gravy known in the trade as a red wine jus reduction, which is three words too many.

More speeches followed with a background of clink-clinking cutlery: the sound of a hundred people eating. A restaurant never sounds like this because the meals never come out all at once. Then the trophies were handed out in record time; either because of inferior performances over the past year or because time was running out. I'm not sure which. It was just after ten.

Dessert followed. There was only one choice: a triangular slab of chocolate pudding with an almost fudge-like density and that bitter-sweet flavour that characterises very good chocolate. There was a curl of real cream and a strawberry on the side. Only a few diners swooned.

Coffee was percolated. At $70 a head, there probably should have been an espresso machine, but what the hell. Half of Asia is under water or blown away and I'm complaining about coffee. Get a grip.

The younger members were champing at the bit to get to the afterparty at a dive in Flinders Lane. What is it with afterparties? The very concept is some kind of weird entertaining attention deficit disorder. You've just paid $70 a head. Wouldn't you prefer to stay where you are for an hour or two and talk about the year gone by with a quiet drink in the comfort of leather, timber, compliant waiters and ceramic artefacts? Obviously not. They want crowds, vodka shots and unintelligible music in some concrete basement bunker.

I walked back up Queen Street to Franklin. The queues outside the nightclubs were longer. Near the corner of Little Collins, two police horses stood at the ready, their riders in riot gear.

No comments: