Friday, 9 July 2010

Sydney - Day 2 - Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb

Hanging around the Coat Hanger

overcast 18 °C
Doing Bridge Climb on the Sydney Harbour Bridge (nicknamed The Coat Hanger by Sydneysider) is popular for birthday parties. Many climbers - some from the countryside - come to climb it to mark the special occasion. My first climb was 5 years ago for Stephen's 15th birthday. And today's occasion is for Atta's dad's big Eight Zero's birthday. We need to do something special to mark the occasion.

Apart from birthday party, the bridge climb seems to be the must-do things for tourists, going by the mug shots in the lobby of the many big time celebs from Hollywood heavies (Pierce '007' Brosnan, and Will 'MIB' Smith) to ace-list athletes (don't know any1 of them. Not a particular sport fan).
Since this isn't my first time, the novelty factor had gone, but I can still look forward to the great vista of the Sydney Harbour in the rarefied air on top of the Coat Hanger and the exercise (was told by the guide that there're 1500 steps in the whole bridge climb. Most of it are stair steps). The Sydney Harbour's panorama are one of the world's best 5 port cities (the other 4 being Victoria Harbour of HK, Bosphorous Strait of Istanbul, harbours of Cape Town, and Rio De Janeiro. Been to 3 out of 5. I consider myself lucky).

The iconic bridge is the world's 5th longest arch bridge. The 3rd, and 4th belongs to New Gorge Bridge in W. Virginia(1977), and Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey, NY (1931); both are in USA. The 1st and 2nd are the Chaotienmen Bridge in Chongqing (2009), and Lupu Bridge in Shanghai (2003); both are in China. Like Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Lupu Bridge also provides sightseeing tour. But the climbing are more limited (only 300+ steps along the bow after a speedy transparent elevator trip). If I'm not wrong, the Bayonne Bridge was featured in the remake War of the Worlds, starring Tom Cruise. It looks like the Sydney Harbour Bridge without the pylons, which by the way, doesn't provide any structural function. It's just a decoration. Hell Gate Bridge, built in 1916, in New York also has stone pylons like the Sydney Harbour Bridge. With the modern cost conscious mentality and the pursuit of pure functional sleek designs, such gargoyle type extraneous decorative elements no longer appear in modern constructions. Every nuts and brick should only be there if it serves to hold up the bridge.

The climb isn't cheap (cost over $250 AUD for "the Bridge Climb" package. The guide told us this is the best climb of the three. The other two being "The Express Climb", and "The Discovery Climb"). Now you understand why people can only afford to do this on special occasions (the big time celebs of course can do it everyday. Time, however, is what they don't have). A family of 4 would set you back by a grand.

During orientation when we were explained the safety procedures and put on blue overall smocks with zippers in the back, and as many things were hung on our waist belt as a cop, we then realised where the money goes. Don't expect to bring the camera along for photos. For safety purposes, you aren't allowed to bring anything with you into the climb. They advised us to keep even our wallets, lose change and jewelleries in the lockers. You will be photographed in two set places on the bridge with their cameras.

A good guide - and Ben was - provided us with many historical titbits about the bridge and a few good yarns to get the climb even more memorable.

There're many climbs throughout the day, I believe we picked one of the best time slot, which extends from 3:15 to 7:15pm. At this time of the year, the sun sets about 6pm. So we get to see the changing sky hues of afternoon, dusk, and nightfall in this official 4 hours slot. Actually, we finished about 8pm. I believe prices vary with different time slots. As this is the best time slot, I imagine it's also the most expensive. The dawn time slot also provides good views, but you have to wake up before dawn in winter. Not an attractive proposition.

Afterwards, we went to the Blue Angel Restaurant in Paddington for dinner, which is famous for seafood, especially lobster. Not my first visit (nor last). Their lobsters sashimi is priced reasonably, but once we asked to add some spaghetti to it, we were charged an extra $10/head. The waiter pitched their famous Wagyu beef, and costs more than the lobster by weight. Since this is special occasion, we ordered 200g per head of these famed Japanese beef. Maybe I just have cheap taste, can't say I dug those beef. There's such thing as being too tender, and too fatty. Too fatty and sated rich for my taste. Give me an average Aussie lean beef any day. They also served us some complimentary ox tongues, which I'm sure is a delicacy in any cuisine. Atta didn't hear that these were ox-tongue and swore that they were Wagyu beef. In her defence, I have to say their texture and taste are oddly similar. I'll take the Laotian grilled ox-tongues over this Blue Angel's one any day. To mark this special occasion, Andy broke open a bottle of Penfold Grange - probably the only Aussie vino that was deserving to go with these foods and occasion. Since its reputation precedes it, I had high expectation of it. I'm no wine connoisseur, what a lovely drop of red! It wasn't wasted on me (for once. Maybe I just have expensive taste for red wine (and cheap taste for red meat)). None of us asked how much this bottle cost, we were afraid of the answer, and seemed down right inappropriate on the occasion.

This place is very popular with Japanese tourists, and it isn't hard to see why.

I checked off 3 items from my bucket list today - Wagyu beef, Penfold Grange, and Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. Well, the last one was already checked off 5 years ago. Still two items in one day (actually one evening) is dynamite. I still have egg nog in my bucket list remains unchecked. Believe it or nog!!!

We put back on more calories than what we lost in our bridge climb. Several times more.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Sydney - Day 1 - Touch Down & the Dining List of Restaurants

Up, Upper Deck and Away! Eat, and Eateries Await!

overcast 15 °C

We popped back to Sydney to visit our folks and friends, and tend to some personal beeswax. One of those beeswax includes going back to our fave restaurants in Sydney. After 1.5 years away, We sorely missed the authentic multicultural food of Sydney, not foreign food cooked by Singaporeans, for Singaporeans, but by people originated from those countries for their fellow country men (more in my diary entry "Quests for Authenticity" dated 15-07-2009).

My nostalgic food list is long, and too long to visit them all in our short visit of less than 2 weeks. So we came up with a short list, representing the best of their national cuisine that we had tried and tested (never mind being a guinea pig in the name of science - ok, food. I'm refused to be patted. I take cash, and don't take traveller's cheques. Do they still exist?):
---> Arthur's Pizza on Oxford St in Paddington. You can walk off the heavy Italian carbo of dough and pastas by roving the Victorian terraces around the area. Keep your eyes peeled for the cast-iron lacework on the balconies. For something more racy and less lacy, head south west toward CBD on Oxford St, and you might have a gay time (if that's your thang) exploring the (sub/counter) culture of people with different sexual orientations coming out on Oxford Street in the southern end (so to speak). Leave your gaydar at home. And glance at men who really take care of themselves. Eye-popping, in-your-face homoerotica abounds (books of men in latex wrapped in plastics inside glass windows. You won't find riddles wrapped in mystery inside an enigma. Leave your imagination at home). I frequented a couple of coffee shops here.
---> Mancini's Pizza and pastas in Summerhills near the railway station. I frequented it as it was only 7 mins drive from my Burwood home.
---> Portuguese charcoal chicken on Canterbury Rd in Petersham (usually there's a queue on the weekend). Finished it off with desert across the street in Sweet Belem cafe with a strong European cappuccino (not the weak Asian and Yank version) and what else but Portuguese tarts, made by the award winning pastry chef (check out the accolades on the wall). I also adore their variety of palmiers. I'm big sucker for palmiers - a love affair lasting since my childhood in Vietnam.
I better put on a bib before continuing. I don't want my saliva to short circuit my keyboard.
---> En Casa's Spanish tapas and paella on Pitt St near Chinatown (backpacker central near Central Station), and wash it down with a swill of sangria. Their tapas impressed me so much, I add them to my cooking repertoires. Their pizzas ain't too shabby, either. Better book ahead on weekend. It gets very crowded. There had been several changes of managements, but their standard haven't slipped. Maybe they change the owners, but not the chefs? The wait staff also change frequently as they're probably backpackers from the hood moving onto another destinations. I had stayed in one of these backpacker inns once, no individual rooms or separate showers or toilets, just beds across one big rooms. Can't remember why I ended up there. But it was quite a memorable experience. Yeah...why?
---> Chicken kabab from Safari next to Westfield Burwood and washed it down with a - you've guessed it - a real strong cuppa. It's a Turkish management. Next door is a proper restaurant with belly dancing at weekend nights from time to time.
---> Yum cha - too many to mention. The most convenient for tourists would be the East Ocean in Chinatown.
---> For Cantonese styled cuisine you can try the House of Guangzhou near Chinatown. An old-timer and you can dine while enjoy photos on the wall of local celebs who posed with the lady boss when they dined here. As tourists, you won't know any of them, but surely you recognise Julio Iglesias from a distant?
---> Seafood au naturale or sashimi in the Sydney Fish Market, eating the way nature intended - with your hands, outdoor, salty sea breezes, fighting with the seagulls - and wash it down with your fave bevvies. Try out the Aussie cuisine of local fish and chips. It's a truly relaxing experience that epitomises Aussie life - its pace and its watery environs, and the oil sleek from the bobbing fishing boats.
---> For non-Cantonese Chinese food, the Inner West suburbs of Ashfield and Burwood are filled with them. Since I lived in Burwood for 8 years, and going there during this visit, I'll re-awake my sensory memory of Beijing Station just opposite Burwood Station. After get off Burwood Station, turn left, cross the street at the intersection, turn left and walk about 4 to 5 shops. It' a small joint with lousy service (lousy because it's under-staffed), but the Chinese north-eastern style food is much better than their north-eastern style services. I like and have tried 70% of their menu - a rare occurrence.
---> Strathfield the neighbouring suburb of Burwood is where you find most Korean live, and hence where you would find the largest concentration of Korean eateries there. We regularly walked over there from my apartment in Burwood to forage for Korean food. One of our regular is Alisan. The owner speaks both Korean and Mandarin (likely to be someone who lived near the Korean border in China), and is now living in our Burwood apartment block one floor up (before we left Sydney). And another tenant of note is the former Mayor of Burwood Mr. Wong who lived directly above our apartment unit. I visited his apartment unit a few times due to leakage issues. I regularly bumped into him in the lift, and whined to him about local issue and demanded satisfactions. He probably wished the lift could move faster.
--->The Indians and Sri Lankans have also moved into Strathfield in the last 3 to 4 years, thus Indian eating places also sprung up (along with Indian super marts with Bollywood CD/DVD rentals. As you walk past, you are almost certain to be stared at by the Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan from his large movie poster). There're very few Burmese restaurants in Sydney. I used to work part-time while in high school in one and only Burmese restaurant called Nay-Pe-Daws in Sydney (actually the whole of Australia). It had shut shop for some time. My Burmese cook Mr. Chang told me that there were only 35 Burmese nationals living in Australia at the time. Mr. Chang spoke to me in Mandarin, but his soft spoken, sarong wearing, fair-skinned wife, however are native Burmese, and didn't understand Chinese nor much of English. Her hubby did most of the interpreting when we spoke. I don't know how many Burmese restaurants there're now. But one is located in Strathfield. Not surprisingly because of the growth of the Indian population here. I had checked it out. It's ok. Worth trying out if you have never had Burmese (or is it Myanmarish?) food. If you like either Indian or Thai food, you want to hop onto a car/cab and get there. As Myanmar is sandwiched (can't take my head out of food yet) between India and Thailand, if you think Burmese cooking is a cross between the two, you ain't too far off the mark.
---> If you want the best, at least the most authentic Vietnamese food in Australia, naturally you need to go to the largest Vietnamese ethnic enclave in Australia, Cabramatta (affectionately nee Cabra) where I'd lived for more than 15 years. Thanh Binh and Lemongrass (used to call Saigon) in Cabra are the two of my haunts I frequented when I'm hungry while I visited my folks. You would also find many Cantonese restaurants here because most of the Vietnamese refos or boat people like yours truly who arrived in Sydney are also Cantonese speakers (depending how old we were). It's an interesting place that in stark contrast with most of Australia and if you have time, you should pop down this Outer West suburb to feel the ambiance - colours, smells, and tastes.
---> To find Laotian food (I bet majority of you haven't even heard about it), you can venture two suburbs away from Cabra in Fairfield. One of my fave joint is actually in Canley Heights - a neighbouring burb - a 5 mins drive from Cabra. Christine (HK TVB's Ada Choi lookalike both in facial bone structures as well as expressions, and reminiscent of the Old Christine in "The New Adventure of Old Christine"), took us there. Well, we put our trust in someone who came from that country. Just as Laos is neighbouring to Vietnam, their ethnic enclaves in Sydney is mirroring that like a parallel universe. I really miss their grilled ox-tongues, chili raw prawns, and spicy coleslaw. These are just 3 of my fave dishes. Like Thai, Laotians relish spicy food. But not all Laotian (nor Thai) dishes are spicy. Grilled ox-tongues, for example, isn't spicy at all (but you supposed to dip it in chili sauce. Your call). Christine eats many meals at home with chili. Canley Vale (the shopping proper of Canley Heights) also has quite a few authentic Laotian restaurants (and some look reasonably upmarket too, designed to capture the wider dining market outside the Indochinese community). You eat these small dishes with sticky rice that contains in a small, round rattan basket. You roll the - hot and steamy - sticky rice into a ball with your bare hand before eating it (if you can't stand the heat, get out of the Laotian restaurant). It's the only cuisine where playing with your food is encouraged, in fact, proper table manner. Chris's kid, Jono, is the only one not playing with the rice. Kids! They just don't do as they're told.
---> Oh, don't forget to check out the pork rolls in the many Vietnamese bread bakeries dotting around Sydney. This is as much a feature, dare I say icon, of Sydney as milk bar once was (now extinct, unfortunately, replaced by the trendier café). Some Vietnamese restaurants in Asia like HK, Singapore, Shanghai sell them in Vietnamese restaurants, and naturally at restaurant prices (In Singapore as much as $6 SGD. I winced when I saw the price). You can get the same pork rolls - with more variety (and tastier) - for fraction of the cost in Sydney Vietnamese bakeries. Don't know how much it costs now. Before I left Sydney, they cost $2.30 AUD a pop, which supplied me with a constant source of cheap, and delectable lunch. Perfect for summer or eat on the go. A far more nutritious, if not tastier alternative to hamburgers. Some now provide siumai (meatball), as well as chicken as fillings for the 'pork roll'. Their baguettes are good, legacy of the French colonial rule. But those Vietnamese bakeries are also now Australianised, selling True Blue Aussie iconic foods like Lamingtons, ANZAC biscuits, sausage rolls, meat pies, etc (at least in the Burwood's Vietnamese bakery near our apartment mentioned above. Located 2nd door from the corner of Belmore St and Burwood Rd). During Easter, they also sell cross buns. I did enjoy them. They - the Asian - tend to be light-handed when it comes to sprinkling sugar in their cake making. I also tried out their apple straddles, Danishes (aka snails - the name I ordered with), croissants, and I haven't forgotten palmiers (of course, their palmiers can't measure up to the award winning Sweet Belem's, but in terms of price and convenience, they make very good stop-gap measure). Most of their pastries/buns/cakes passed my taste tests with flying colours. Some flied higher than others. I guess it's unfair to call it a Vietnamese bakery shop. The only thing Vietnamese about it is the owner operator. The name international bakery shop to reflect its diversity of cultural foods would be more deserving. They're cultural microcosms.

Th next time when you strut down the John Street of Cabra, munch down a pork roll, as you down yourself a sugarcane juice while you watch the locals going about their business, you may forget you're in Cabra, and think you're in Saigon. This is the kinda thing that gets Pauline 'Please Explain' Hanson's knickers in a twist or panties in a knot (whichever she happened to be wearing. I don't want to visualise her in knickers/panties - but Pauline Pantsdown would love to visualise her in any kinda fashion im order to parody her). One of my open minded, and lovers of foreign culture Aussie friend spoke about Cabra in glee, "isn't it wonderful such a place exists in Sydney! We're so lucky". She's of course always a very happy and cheerful person, seeing only the bright side of life.

Yes, Australia is a Lucky Country. Many people commented to me times again and again that the same dishes with the same ingredients were cooked elsewhere, they somehow tasted different. One of Atta's uncle - who runs a chain of sushi shops in HK - had a meal in Pepper Lunch in Sydney. He said that somehow the same dishes here tasted much better. If all things are considered equal, then I guess the quality of raw ingredients make the difference. Some of the best beef, lobsters and seafood in HK is likely to be imported from Australia (Australia isn't just one on exporting ores to Asia, but also everything on the ground from high quality dairy products to meat).

He isn't the first one to make such observation (nor the last, I imagine). And by the way, the other who make such comment is also another one of Atta's uncle, who has been working in HK and Los Angeles restaurants for some 30 odd years. These are people who have sharp and discerning palate. It's their jobs. They know what they're talking about. And of course, Atta's dad, who has been working in the food import/export and restaurants business for more than 60 years (including as a chef in a 5-star Tokyo hotel's restaurant when he was young) make similar observations. He's still working. he's not a retiring kind. Well, he can out run, out swim me (someone about half his age) any day. Of course, it isn't just the meat, but the veggie here are so large and fresh. Compare to those I saw in Europe and Asia, they look so sickly and small. And so when I say it isn't easy to cook for Atta, I think you now know why - being the kid who grew up in a family of chefs and restaurateurs.
I remember vividly the first time I saw some of the veggie here just coming from Vietnam, I thought to meself that everything in Australia is reflecting the size of this land - BIG: the veggies, the fruits, the people, the serving sizes in restaurants, the cars, the soft drink bottles and the houses. Australians also have penchant for building big icons - the Big Banana, the Big Merino, Big Pineapple, etc scattering around Australia in a big way.

Ok, this short list is not so short, and I would consider mission accomplished if I manage to fulfilled (my stomach) with 1/3 of the places on the list. This is just a slice/slide show of Sydney's food scenes. Let me just take off my heavy, saliva soaked bib now that I've finished my imaginary gourmet tour de Sydney. It was quite heavy hanging on my neck. There're only a few French restaurants in Sydney, and none of them are any good (but then, I have the same impression about their food in Paris. Very odd). In terms of popularity of ethnic cooking, going by the number of restaurants (in Sydney anyway. Totally my own observations not backed by any official numbers), I would say, from the most popular to least - Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Lebanese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and Indian. To put thing in perspective, Italian is the largest ethnic group in Australia, Greek the 2nd, and Chinese 3rd. Yes, Asian cuisines are very popular in Australia, and scale a high standard in tastes and authenticity. The raw materials are fresh and top notched. The Yanks can relate to this as Mexican and Latino food is quite popular at least in California. Of course, you can also find all kinda ethnic food imaginable outside the ones above that grab all the limelights - Egyptian, Moroccan, Greek, French, German, Singaporean, Malaysian, Nepalese, Balinese, etc. You name it, it's likely to be available. Did I mention, by George, British food (if you fancy that)? Sorry to disappoint the Brits, there're not as many Indian restaurants in Sydney as there're in London. Not bad for a country with such a small populations. What it lacks in numbers is more than made up by its diversity.

We flew with Singapore Airline for our trip back to Sydney. This is my virgin flight - not to be confused with Virgin Blues flight - on an A380-800 jumbo jet. Although it was a maiden flight for me, the A380 have been flying between Singapore and Sydney since 2007. In fact the very first flight route for A380-800 jumbo jet in the world is none other than the very flight we were on - flight SQ380 between Singapore and Sydney. Singapore Airline has been for sometimes leader in airline services (sort of explains by the fact that Changi Airport is voted the best airport in the world several years running - competing neck to neck with HKIA).

Before I left Sydney in '08, 1 time when I looked up the sky while I drove around Sydney, I saw something ginormous flying overhead. I asked myself, "Is it a plane? No, too big to be a plane. Is it a King Kong? No, not hairy enough. It's a Godzilla!" Until of course when I spotted the logo on the tail that I knew I made a poo poo; it wasn't Godzilla after all. It was in fact an A380 in motion. This big monster looked as if it was too heavy to fly. But somehow it managed to defy gravity. It was a sight to behold the first time.

Both the leg rooms, and butt rooms are slightly more than the SIA's B747 - about 10% more. A cabin right next to the seat just below the window is convenient for stowing away stuff that you need to get at during the flight (like the laptop I used to type this diary entry, extolling the virtues of this side stowage). Love it.

We marked our seats for the Upper Deck, which had far fewer seats than the Main Deck. This leads to less waiting time for food, passengers in the aisles during boarding, and most important of all, the latrines. When you've got to go, you don't need long queues. Reduce pressure mentally and bladder wise.

Behind the loos is a spiral staircase leading down to the Main Deck. For some weird reason, I imagine there's a piano at the bottom of the staircase. Maybe the piano is played by the diamonds studded fingers of Liberace. I bet very few humble jet setters like myself have seen that (the staircase, not the Liberace piano concert) in a passenger jet, until now. Chances are, it leads to the loos of the Main Deck.