Sharing the love — little heart warmers

2016 has been a bit shit in a lot of ways, hasn’t it? Loss and meanness and downright ugliness. But, as Heart would say, or sing, rather, what about love?*

Well, recently my writerly community was gathered in Melbourne** celebrating their love of the written word, in various literary and visual forms, and my wife and I were off at the other end of Ballarat taking a quiet anniversary weekend out. Here’s a picture: let’s call it Love 1.

Worldmark Ballarat resort

If you like willows and lake reflections and red bricks against blue sky, you’ll find more pictures here.

On day 1 of the weekend, we ate dumplings at our favourite dumpling house (Fu Man Lou) and then went on a ghost tour***, the tickets for which had been given to me for my birthday. That’s love right there — a gift from someone who “gets” you. For the record, the tour started out pretty well, in a haunted Victorian-era bakery subject to flooding, but kind of went off the boil as the night wore on and the cold set it. Too much sauce, not enough substance — unlike the dumplings. Nom nom nom. Funnily enough, the site of the dumpling house was also the setting for one of the ghost stories. What the hell, Love 2.

The second night, we went to Catfish Thai. Oh my, times a bunch. Seven courses, each one delectable. We had a window seat looking over this old brick place and next to it a wall covered in winter ivy — noice. Wonderful restaurant, great service, divine tucker, with a bill best suited to special occasions. Love 3.

And then, as there are on anniversaries, wee small gifts of affection: a Plague Doctor Bird! My beloved secured this months ago, a fabulous work by KJ Bishop, a damn fine writer who also is a dab hand at gardening and sculpture. Round it out with a Batman mug: Love 4!****

Plague Doctor Bird

The weekend wasn’t entirely without its “literature”, of course. We slummed for a day and watched Anomalisa, a disappointing film from Charlie Kaufman about a dude not coping with his decisions in life and hurting everyone; the well-constructed and quite engaging, and infuriating, The Big Short; and a surprisingly entertaining Trainwreck. Claymation annoyance, effective rom com and political statement: Love 5. The wine and cheese gets the movie marathon over the line. Also, do check out a card game called Sushi Go! Great for pairs or groups, quick and easy but not without its strategy. It’s Australian, and, I’ve just found out, was the subject of an Indiegogo campaign: more love!

And, as readers of this blog might realise, I finished off that weekend by sharing that other love of mine: my vampires. But that’s enough about that.

As shit as it all gets, we’ve got nature, and art, and each other. It’s worth taking the time out sometimes to remember that. Love out.

* New album out next month! (New versions, a couple of new tunes *drums finger* still no Oz tour, but.)
** We missed youse all!
*** We did their Ararat ghost tour a few years ago and it was brilliant.
**** In return, there were poppets. We love poppets 🙂

Words Out Loud – what a state we’re in!

Amber Wilson

Amber Wilson

Our first Thursday night Words Out Loud spoken word event, “state of the heart”, at Babushka went quite well last night! Lovely to see so many, and to have such a large audience of, well, audience, to support the readers.

I also had my first Babushka pizza and it was damn fine, thanks.

It was very chilled, hanging back in the beer garden after the event and then listening to Troy knock out some tunes — looking forward to the album, man.

Troy, singing us out

Troy, singing us out

The next spoken word night will be on Thursday, March 17, from 7pm, with  a theme of “falling” (autumnal or otherwise, broad themes are good themes, eh), again at Babushka.

The Facebook event site

Ballarat by the share plate: three great restaurants

The month-long Ballarat food festival is half over, but it’s a worthy occasion on which to suggest these restaurants at which a share plate is the way to go.

fu man lou restaurant in ballarat
Fu Man Lou is a dumpling palace in Camp St, close to the city centre, and parking’s not usually too bad. We go there a fair bit. It can be pretty busy; a couple of times we’ve landed about 8pm and pulled up a stool at the bar to snack away while we’ve waited for a table. I’m holding out for them to put pork buns on the regular menu, but the fare is wunnerful: a variety of dumplings plus other plates, suitable for fingers or chopsticks, and cider, too. They do takeaway as well. Friendly staff and attentive service.
>> Get the background at The Courier.

Cafe Meigas is a cosy Spanish restaurant tucked away in a lane near the Bridge St Mall (so plenty of parking nearby in the shopping centre), and it’s awesome. We’re repeat visitors here. The food is prepared according to family recipes, the staff are friendly and happy to give advice on the dishes; they do a mean sangria, too. Probably pay to book late in the week.
>> Read more at The Courier.

Cafe Merkama specialises in Ethiopian. We’ve only been there the once — it’s a little out of the way on Doveton St, opposite a swanky steak place, and it’s another labour of love. The tasting plate we had with selection of curries served with bread was damn tasty, and came with a nice tea, too. Service was very friendly but a little slow and far from pushy, so probably not the spot if you’re in a hurry; easy parking, though, and well worth a visit.
>> Get the skinny at The Courier

Dining Ballarat: more to Asahi than meets the eye

tuna tataki at Ashai Ballarat

Tuna tataki. Picture: Asahi

We had a voucher, given as a present, to put towards a meal at a range of restaurants, of which there were two in Ballaratia. We went with the Japanese option, Asahi. We’ve now been there three times. Yes, it’s that good.

The restaurant is attached to a motel and, through the window, looks pleasant but unremarkable — the chopsticks on the white-clothed tables are the main giveaway that this isn’t your usual guests’ eatery.

The food is as good as any I’ve had in Melbourne, the service usually top rate and always friendly, the wine list to my liking.

They do monthly specials to keep the menu ticking over — popular dishes may end up on the regular — and have a birthday club offering a generous discount in one’s birthday month. The tuna tataki ($14) is amazing. Teriyaki pork belly ($29): noms! And the tempura banana with ice cream ($12) the ideal dessert finish. Hell, even the coffee’s good!

Headstones and lake reflections in Ballaratia

Ballaarat Old Cemetery, Ballarat

Ballaarat Old Cemetery

Friday was sunshine and fluffy clouds, little breeze, the typical Ballaratian winter’s day, we are told, but the first we’ve been able to enjoy. So Kirstyn and I took the day off and went to the Ballaarat Old Cemetery.

The city fathers were indeed wise to commission a second, with the city being a boom gold town and all, and the cemetery quite compact — population, about 25,000 (according to a sign board at the graveyard).

Here a lawn of unmarked pioneer era graves, here the Jews, here the Irish, the Germans … here the Chinese with the only oven I’ve seen outside of Mt Morgan.

Diggers' Eureka memorial, Ballaarat Old Cemetery, Ballarat

Diggers’ Eureka memorial, Ballaarat Old Cemetery

Probably the boneyard’s greatest claim to fame is the Eureka rebellion, with separate monuments for soldiers and rebels who died in the uprising, the insurgents so popular a jury would not convict them for treason. Interesting wording on the monuments, too. Fascinating insight.

We were struck by the number of children and infants mentioned on the stones, a sign of the harsh conditions in the late 19th century, no doubt. Those simple engravings conveyed so much sorrow.

Others blustered with Christian piety or simple resignation and hope; some struck more affecting messages: my beloved has gone down into the garden to gather lilies in the garden.

More cemetery pictures

The cemetery is well tended, sparkling with wafting strands of cobweb glistening like fishing line. An information building offers some insights. There are few grand monuments, defying expectation of a wealthy town’s significant departures; maybe the toffs have got their pillars out at the ‘new’ cemetery … We will investigate!

Eclectic Tastes Cafe, Ballarat

Eclectic Tastes Cafe, Ballarat

Next to the cemetery is the Eclectic Tastes Cafe. This converted home is one of those cafes that is welcoming as soon as you walk through the door — eclectic in decoration through its various rooms, a proudly parma-free zone, and a darn tasty menu with good coffee. I knocked back a sensational skillet of kidney beans and cheese and stuff, gently spiced, served with sourdough for sopping up the sauce. Kirstyn had a vegetarian pizza that even tempted me, thanks to nuts and blue cheese sauce. It’s the favourite eatery we’ve come across here so far.

Boathouse Restaurant, Lake Wendouree, Ballarat

Boathouse Restaurant, Lake Wendouree

Later in the afternoon, we headed for Ballarat’s defining geographical feature: Lake Wendouree. It’s been a site for rowers since 1864; now it’s dotted with boatsheds and cafes and parkland. We’ve yet to do a proper tour of the lake, and on Friday were content to just hover around one part where the Lake View Hotel enticed with its second-storey balcony … but we opted for cake and coffee on the deck at the tad pricey Boathouse Restaurant, right on the water, with a wonderful willow tree for extra scenery. There we could take in the water birds and joggers, rowers and paddlers and anglers as the sun sank and chill came down. One couple in a canoe pulled up at the cafe for coffee.

We snapped off a bunch of photos and retreated to home in the gloaming, appetites whetted for further exploration of Ballaratia.

More sunset pictures

Lake Wendouree sunset, Ballarat

Sunset, Lake Wendouree

Hungarian Chimney Cakes … nom, nom, nom

hungarian chimney cakeFor six months, the sign tantalised: there on the side of the highway on Ballarat’s eastern approach, “Hungarian Chimney Cakes’.

Oh, the mystery! The exotic appeal — why Hungarian? What chimney? Just … what?!
Well, the answer is tasty indeed, with the pastries being dispensed at Ozzie Creations, right next to the remarkable Mill Markets.

The cylindrical pastries, harking from Transylvania and baked on a rod, have the texture of doughnut under a hard crust. Sayest the blurb: ‘a handmade pastry with a crunchy caramel coating wrapped in sweet spices and nuts’. They unroll in a long tendril that’s not only noms but damn fun to munch. They take 6-7 minutes to bake, but there’s enough pretty — gem stones and gewgaws and clothes, personalised jigsaws made from photographs — in the shop to occupy your attention, as well as tables and chairs if you can’t wait to get home to tuck in. They make other snacks, and coffee, too.

The adjacent Ballarat branch of the Mill Markets is well worth a visit for antique hunters and gift buyers: the sprawling complex is divided into bays where shops range from artisans selling glassware, handmade soaps and paintings, to business offshoots hocking old toys, antique and funky furniture, and all manner of stuff — even suits of armour. If you’re into old stuff, allow two hours at least to peruse, and take heart that there are clean loos and a cafe on site … plus a seriously large fireplace with sofas.

Yes, it’s getting cold in Ballaratia, with the morning mists a’lingering. Thank goodness for the chimney (cakes)!

Mill Markets, Ballarat

Note the mobile rocket launcher, one of two we’ve seen around Ballaratia. Something to do with the Great Bendigo Putsch of ’03, we believe… NEVER AGAIN!

Out and about in Ballaratia: books, wine, Thai, movies!

Friday. Yesterday. Was it really only yesterday? The two-legged occupants of the-house-not-quite-in-the-shadow-of-Wendouree-Tor* took the arvo off. Yee-hah!

First, the almost mythic Ballaratian bookshop, The Known World. What a fascinating haven this shop is, with shelves filled with old books and bits ‘n’ pieces of memorabilia. Old postcards, a suitcase of Golden Books, cameras. There is a coffee machine and some tables, too, and we saw evidence that coffee IS served. The only sadness was the paucity of speculative fiction, the Stephen Kings tucked away in a horror/thriller nook on the bottom shelf under the cookbooks.

simply shiraz ballarat brochureFrom there, to the wonderful space — stone walls, corrugated iron roof, these little nooks in the walls perfect for vendors — that is the Mining Exchange where, bless them, a posse of Grampians wine producers had set up a tasting. Simply Shiraz wasn’t true to label — some had the white stuff there, too, and there was a bit of cab sauv in the mix — and oh my, the range of tastes under that shiraz label! From cordial to enticing dusty to something altogether strange and alluring. Grampians Estate had a topaque (that’d be a tokay if the copyright lawyers don’t get ya) to die for. It was shiraz all the way from there, though; others we took home were from Kimbarra Wines, Clarnette & Ludvigsen, Montara and Clayfield. Add in the enticement of a recommendation for Great Western pinot noir and next road trip: sorted. There was also a blue cheese from Campana’s Stockade Cellars to die for — these guys are a Ballaratian institution, we’re told: so good, they don’t need a website.

We also met Amie Brulee, who has possibly the best PhD thesis ever: comparing attitudes to wine in Australian and France. She also throws period French cabaret shows. Win!

After about two hours, we staggered up the street to busy Thai Fusion. Mixed results here, with KMcD not as taken as I was with the dishes — pinky in a blanket (prawn in a cocoon of deep-fried stuff) and two stir fries, one of seafood and the other of chicken. Lots of ginger in the chicken made it noms. I have yet to find an Asian-themed restaurant that serves decent coffee, but I will keep looking. Normally I would’ve got a green tea or, surprise, booze, but y’know, two hours of wine tasting …

To finish the sobriety trip, we ducked into the Regent, a grand ol’ theatre with a cafe — bless the espresso! — and generous members club discounts. We saw Trance, which was a mess — far from entrancing, indeed: my one thought coming out was, there should be more women named Tuppence! — but by night’s end, we’d ticked off a bunch of our Ballaratian ‘must do’s’, with pretty fair success.

Ballaratia, we are in you!

* Wendouree Tor is not the mount’s real name, but it SHOULD be! Also, you’d think two writers could think up a half-decent name for the house, wouldn’t you? Mayhaps it must grow into one…

Dining Ballart: Irish Murphy’s — and a detour via Death at the comic shop

dinner at irish murphy's ballarat

Dinner at Irish Murphy’s Ballarat

We ducked into Irish Murphy’s to escape the antarctic gale sweeping down Ballarat’s Sturt Street last night, and what a warm encounter it turned out to be.

Through the swinging doors of the airlock, through the public bar and into the restaurant, where the staff were welcoming indeed. Tucked into a cosy booth, we enjoyed an early dinner: lamb shanks ($25), bangers and mash ($20), and for me, roast beef with veg ($21).

Massive serves — dessert was just never going to happen. Tasty tucker. And while the strips of beef were a little chewy, the roast taters were the best I’ve had in eons. I was only half joking when I said next time I’d be ordering just a plate of them! Washed down with a glass of Pepperjack shiraz: spot on for a blustery day.

Old signs and display windows of bottles add to the brick-n-timber ambience. Getting there early was a bonus.

Another keeper!

Death figurine from SandmanEarlier, guided by a friend, our trip to town netted a joint housewarming present to ourselves: an absolutely stunning figure of Death, from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books. Safe to say, we’ll be back to visit the wonderfully laid out Heroes HQ comic shop, occupying the rooms of a building forming part of a former military base.

So far, Ballaratia: all good!

Dining Ballarat: Blue Bell Hotel

blue bell bistro steakLured by a shopping docket discount of 50 per cent off meals, last night we had our first dinner out since moving to Ballarat: at the bistro of the Blue Bell Hotel, probably the closest eatery to the Tor that doesn’t serve tucker in a cardboard box. (My god, you should’ve seen the length of the line-up at McDonald’s drive through down the corner …)

The Blue Bell’s bistro is on two levels further divided by a low wall: the lower section has television screens with captions and gambling, the other just a wall. The wall was preferable, though it was further from the bar, and mercifully further from the top 40 muzak. Ambience-wise, better than a roadhouse, but not exactly homely.

Still, we weren’t expecting fireplaces and shagpile, and the menu is a solid order-at-the-counter pub outing: Thursday nights are parma night and many of the tables were taken. There were three steaks on offer, plus a reef ‘n’ beef special, a variety of pastas, lamb shanks, salads, seniors and kids meals … they have the bases covered with pork belly and Greek lamb pizza adding interest.

I went for a 400g rump steak with pepper sauce, Kirstyn tried the special with garlic sauce — both under $30 — and we were both well satisfied. Both cuts came cooked an accurate medium, with a handful of innocuous salad and a handful of tasty chips.

We washed it down with a glass of Oomoo shiraz ($8 a glass), but a bottle change mid-pour meant a surprising difference in taste and I didn’t go back for a second. Don’t know what happened to the normally dependable drop, there.

ballarat blue bell hotel dessertWe forced ourselves to sample dessert from the display case: an, um, interesting take on black forest cake for me and a vanilla slice for her; not disappointing, just lacklustre, and quite surplus to requirements, really. I mentioned the 400g steak, right? The coffee, however, was pretty damn fine.

Add in friendly, efficient staff and the verdict was: the Blue Bell hits its target, and we’ll be back — I reckon the place would register high on the Dad scale with the cut of those steaks — but might give the dessert a miss and go straight for the coffee.

Extra points for off-street parking and an excellent website, complete with PDFs of the menu.