Friday, February 27, 2009

Strawberry Fare

I can't stand restaurant reviews. I don't have much time for cookbooks either, or cooking shows for that matter. I'm a big Anthony Bourdain fan, but mostly as a travel writer and memoirist who happens to be really into food. For the most part, food writing is pretentious drivel, one attempt after another to out-"scrumptious" or out-"salivate" a competing review.

So this is not a restaurant review. It is a story about a somewhat legendary Christchurch eatery that gave me a mild case of food poisoning.

Problem number one - the name, Strawberry Fare. It reminds of those silly 70s band names that put three completely unrelated words together, like Grand Funk Railroad or Three Dog Night. If Strawberry Fare, why not Apple Ticket, or Grape Season Pass?

I had duck. My wife had groper. She won. Hers was a beautiful layer of oily (in a good way) fish on a block of perfectly formed mashed potatoes. My duck was cooked reasonably well, its tenderness evidenced by the way it slid off the bone with one slight poke of my fork. The problem, and I realize this is not Strawberry Fare's fault, was that the dish tasted just like the preserved duck-in-a-bag I ate twice on a 36 hour train journey across China. The food choices on that train were instant noodles and duck-in-a-bag. An entire duck. In a bag. Vacuum packed, yes, but a bag still. I will no longer order duck. Ever. Again.

At Strawberry Fare we were seated at a window table; as soon as the duck touched my tongue I half expected the window to start moving. It's a wonder it didn't.

The menu at Strawberry Fare has one page of mains, and two pages of desserts. I don't generally order dessert in restaurants, as I strongly believe the perfect dessert time to be between one and half and two hours after the evening meal is complete. But Strawberry Fare is known for dessert, so much so that at least half the diners on this particular Tuesday (Fat Tuesday in fact), were there solely for dessert. My wife got some raspberry oriented chocolate cake plate, and I ordered the Ultimate Chocolate Dessert, described as something along the lines of shitloads of chocolate ultimately served on a large plate made of chocolate, to be eaten with a chocolate fork.

All of this I washed down with a bottle of Central Otago Pinot Noir.

I've been sick ever since (it's now Friday). I don't know if I contracted some kind of food poisoning per se, but perhaps one can poison oneself with an inappropriate combination of food and drink. The wine swirling around with the duck and all that chocolate, not to mention the appetizer of fresh bread and 12 year old balsamic vinegar, resulted in a chemistry experiment that I wish had taken place in a beaker instead of my stomach.

Is any of this the restaurant's fault? Probably not. But the fact remains that Stawberry Fare's very well prepared duck conjured up memories of licking glutinous duck jelly off my fingertips in the middle of China. Then the ultimate glutton's dessert mixed with some red wine (that I brought from home!) that kicked off my self flush response, and in hindsight my wife's main tasted a hell of a lot better than mine.

So, my apologies to the chef, but I'll never go back. To hell with that place.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Maiden Christchurch

"Scream for me, Christchurch," belted Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson and enthusiastically if not predictably, Christchurch screamed. That it was the first time Dickinson had ever uttered his trademark exultation in the South Island was not lost on this recent immigrant to New Zealand. Having seen Iron Maiden play in what was once an American basketball arena but is now a Pentecostal church (don't ask), the Nippon Buddhokan (yes, that Buddhokan of Cheap Trick and Bob Dylan live albums), and a state of the art performance hall in Yokohama, I had to wonder: Could the galloping beast of a Maiden show possibly translate to the concrete barn that is Christchurch's Westpac Arena?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer with a question: How could I have ever doubted the masters of arena rock, the high point of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (yes, a rather old wave at this point), on a tour promoting the first third of their 30 year career?

We got the oft-played Maiden classics that everyone expected to hear - Two Minutes to Midnight, Number of the Beast, Run to the Hills, The Trooper; along with a couple of very well received surprises - The Phantom of the Opera, Children of the Damned; and one really long song, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Heavy metal's best bass player (yes, like saying "world's sexiest conjoined twin" or "Invercargill Beauty Queen" except that he really is that good) Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain kept the gallop steady while NWOBHM guitar heroes Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, along with relative newcomer Jannick Gers (he's been in the band since 1990) soloed, harmonied, and power chorded their way through two hours of the best that the metal genre has to offer.

And so it is too that Iron Maiden's Christchurch debut (there can't possibly be that many places that Maiden debuts anymore) coincides with yet another twinge of newfound Kiwiana for John the Robert. "Scream for me, Christchurch" might just go down with the first time I ever saw a haka. Whenever I do actually see a haka, that is.

Set List:

Aces High, Wrathchild, Two Minutes to Midnight, Children of the Damned, Phantom of the Opera, The Trooper, Wasted Years, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Powerslave, Run to the Hills, Fear of the Dark, Hallowed Be Thy Name, Iron Maiden ; Encore - Number of the Best, The Evil That Men Do, Sanctuary

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Last Day on the Job

As the economic clusterfuck of unemployment, falling property values, crashing interest rates, doom and gloom, and labour market "liquidity" (the economy is soup and our jobs are chickpeas that have been boiled too long) all intersect to create this most global of recessions, it seems a good time to ruminate on perhaps one of the clearest markers of change in life - The Last Day on the Job. Appropriately enough, I write this while at "work" on the "last day" of the "job" I have been doing for that past eight months.

Yes, I too am a victim of the financial shitstorm. Now I don't really believe that for a second, but I am sure as hell going to spin in that way on my resume! I've been a temping at the phone company, New Zealand's largest employer, for about 7-8 months, and had pretty much no chance of getting a permanent job (reasons forthcoming in a separate post which will summarize a cultural and linguistic, uh, misunderstanding). A couple of weeks ago, my team had a deep and meaningful meeting with our boss, the boss's boss, and the boss's boss's boss. One could cut a doughnut out of the anticipation in the air (just like Shaggy and Scooby Doo did with fog) as we (or at least I) had never before spoken to the boss cubed (boss to the third power? grandmother boss? or should it be great-grandmother boss?) In what was honestly a professional although slightly condescending presentation, the boss (to the first power) told us that the outsourcing project to the Philippines is ongoing and our team is likely to be moved. Boss #3 reminded us of our "ownership" over our own careers, and calmly suggested that right about now is the time to investigate one's options. So I did, or continued to do so; I hadn't stopped looking for a job ever since landing in New Zealand 8 months ago. But instead of applying for jobs I had no hope in hell of getting (drama teacher at prestigious girls' college, travelling Lotto salesman, plant operator at orange juice factory, life skills tutor in a freaking PRISON), I started to take things more seriously and applied for jobs I was actually qualified to do, which in my case are teaching English and fronting a rock and roll band without hair.

I start teaching tomorrow.

By my calculations, today marks the 15th time I've had a last day on the job. Of the 15, I only remember five, and that includes today. And yes, they are the last four jobs I've had, plus one I had during my teenage years at the British Market, a wee store in the Rice University Village (cozy outdoor mall type area in Houston) where I worked with partner in crime and BFF Ashley (who, despite being someone's BFF and being named Ashley, is a dude). This last day on the job was memorable only for its "going out in a blaze of glory" denoument - as a rather fat woman nervously fired Ashley and I for confusing shifts and leaving the store unattended the previous Sunday, I told her to "suck my ass" as we left the back room. Suffice it to say that burning bridges wasn't something I was all too worried about in those days.

My last day at Jishukan School (two years of my professional life wasted on spoiled rich Japanese kids) was typically anti-climactic, but I do vividly remember the chairman of the English department, a Mr. Suzuki (nicknamed Lizard King because of his resemblance to Jim Morrison) coming over to me and apologizing for how bad the third year students had been. It was the first time he had spoken to me in months. Lizard King, like most of the teachers at Jishukan, avoided Mike (the other white man at the school) and I like the plague. I'll never forget saying, "Happy New Year," only to have the Lizard stare back at me to respond, "It's too late." This was on my first day back at school after the New Year holiday, on January 12.

The longest job I ever had, a six year stint at a language school in Japan, ended sometime in March 2006, but I have no recollection of the last day at all. My in-laws were visiting at the time, and I all I can remember is the excitement of starting the new job at Jishukan (I hadn't met the Lizard yet). I was a history teacher for two years back in Houston, but don't even remember the last semester, much less the last day. I worked in my university's writing lab for three years or so, and I don't work there currently, so clearly there was a last day, but I'll be damned if I can remember any of it, and likewise with the job at the pizza parlour, the art gallery, the library, and the office supply deliveries.

Moral of the story? The last day of the job is textbook positive psychology. We don't remember the last day on the job because the last day on the job is the really the first day of whatever comes next. Our memories of the last day are intrinsically intertwined with what came next, even if the "next" was a period of unemployed, self loathing, self-medicated promiscuity (or at least attempted promiscuity). So ask me a year from now, and I won't remember a thing about my last day at the phone company.

Unless I tell the lady in the next cubicle to suck my ass.