Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Press Club

Nicola and I had arrived in Melbourne at mid-afternoon, after a leisurely drive up from Mornington, taking in the Moonlit Sanctuary on the way. It’s more of a zoo really, with Australian wildlife in enclosures including koalas, kangaroos and wallabies which roam freely, wombats, dingoes, a Tasmanian devil, and an emu. There are also various birds in enclosures, some of which you can enter to get a closer look; and “experiences” which you can pay for, such as walking the dingoes, having a python wrap itself around you, and cuddling a koala. We decided to do the cute koala thing, but also met one of the snakes, Charlie (they also have one called Noodles and one, inevitably, named Monty), who had beautiful coloration.

We stopped for lunch at Frankston, which is a bit of a “…meh” place, and then drove up to the big city. This entailed navigating our way to the correct carpark for our apartment hotel, which we managed on the third go. We then had a bit of time to ourselves to explore and walk down to the river, and on the way locate the restaurant for the evening. We also discovered the Little Press Club, now renamed Gazi Restaurant, which is the casual dining sister of the Press Club. We formulated a cunning plan to go back there later for a cocktail before dinner, a plan which was executed with ruthless efficiency.

We arrived at the restaurant at 6:00pm, as we were in for an early sitting of their dégustation menu. Jason, Elissa and Nellie showed up shortly afterwards, and we got stuck in.

The wait staff explained the menu and brought wine matches for each course as we went through the individual plates. Unfortunately I neglected to take a pic of the menu, so you’ll just have to take a look and see what my somewhat fuzzy recollection of the descriptions were:

Hors d'oeuvres, including carrot crisps

Crab raviolo with bisque

Octopus tentacle! Yum!

Baked onion

Trout with fennel

Porterhouse steak

"Pre-dessert" - lemon curd, honey ice cream, yoghurt foam and fennel pollen 

Table decoration with dessert to give a whiff of pine

Chocolate and, er, stuff 

Petits fours

Friday, October 28, 2016

Wine Country

Mornington peninsula is known for its boutique wineries. I called around the wine tour companies listed on the visit Mornington website. The first had either gone out of business, or put the wrong phone number up. The second one rang, but didn’t answer. I left a message. He called back to tell me he only operated at weekends “because he worked during the week”.

I finally managed to find an operator who could take us out to the wineries. His name was Paul, and his company Amour Of The Grape would take us on a tour, including lunch. Woohoo!

Paul picked us up at 10:25, and we then drove to Rye to collect another couple – French Canadians Simon and Annick, currently working in Melbourne. That constituted the whole of our tour party, and we set off to the first winery, The Cups Estate. This is right next door to the Peninsula Hot Springs that we visited yesterday. We tasted pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot noir and shiraz. The area is now mostly known for pinot noir and chardonnay, although all the vineyards we visited were all offering at least one wine that the others weren’t doing. At Cups this was the sparkling shiraz, and moscato.

Next stop was a bit of a drive to Montalto, the largest single estate on the peninsula. We tasted similar wines there. They also have an olive grove and produce oils – both EV and flavoured.

Third up was Tuck’s Ridge, where we were entertained by Ash, their cellar door manager and assistant winemaker. He is a minefield of information, and talked long and hard about the wines, while also being sidetracked onto pretty well any subject under the sun. Here we tasted an award-winning pinot noir as well as pinot gris, chardonnay and shiraz. We stopped here for lunch, which was a confit duck with kale and mashed potato, and either a starter or dessert, and a glass of wine. I had the shiraz.

After lunch, we went to an unusual tasting room at Polperro. Named after the Cornwall town, their tasting room is a small library-like room lined with wine bottles. In here we tasted the usual suspects, and chatted to the cellar door manager, who was a Peninsula girl going back several generations – she explained how her great-great-grandfather had built some of the buildings we were looking at in the national park yesterday.

Final stop was at what is now the largest vineyard in Mornington, Port Philip Estate. They’ve built a new cellar door, venue, restaurant and apartment complex, which makes a slight difference to the shed where I’d tasted wine last time I was here – 1998 I think. I asked if they remembered me but, no, they didn’t. As we were looking out over the vineyard a movement caught my eye – it was a wedge-tailed eagle, apparently a resident of the area.

We tasted a good variety of wines, including some very good pinot noir. Leoni the manager asked how it compared to New Zealand pinots which put me on the spot somewhat! I Said that I’d need to taste them side by side to compare…phew! Got out of that one!

On our way back to the hotel we stopped at Arthur’s Seat, the highest point on the peninsula. They’re building a new gondola there to replace the ageing chair lift that’s been there for donkey’s years.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Mornington Crescent

OK, maybe that’s overstating the case somewhat. Whatever, we were up before dawn to get aboard our 6:05am flight to Melbourne. I managed to catch some zeds on the way over, so wasn’t too frazzled by the time we got our bags and picked up our hire car.

The next adventure was to find our way out of Melbourne and down south to Mornington Peninsula. The traffic! My god! So much traffic! This was after 9:00am, so presumably everyone who drives to work is comfortably ensconced at their desks by now…who are all these people? Anyway, at least it seemed to be moving, and we muddled and kept heading hopefully in what we thought was the right direction, following signs to SE Suburbs as that was generally the direction we wanted to be travelling in. We eventually picked up signs to Frankston, and we were on our way.

Our hotel is in Mornington, and we spent the first day exploring the town, beach and waterfront walkway. We got some lunch at Dr. Fox, and in the evening we headed out to a wine bar we’d spotted earlier in the day, Brass Razu. There we had some local wine and a decent-sized grazing platter with hot and cold hors d’oeuvres. Still a bit knackered, we headed back for an early night.

Next day the weather wasn’t brilliant, but we’d already made plans to go down to the end of the peninsula, Point Nepean National Park. We set out on the coast road, stopping for some coffee in the town of Rosebud. Rosebud sounds like it ought to be a picturesque spot, but it doesn’t live up to its billing. We continued down through to the national park, driving until we could drive no further, then continuing on foot. As we approached Cheviot Hill it started to drizzle. We saw a couple of echidnas by the side of the road (one I named Ecky, and the other Kiddy), but most of the bird life appeared to be in hiding. There were the inevitable crows, magpies and hippity-hoppity birds (mynahs to you) but nothing more exotic around. As the drizzle was turning into fully-fledged rain we turned around before reaching the tip of the peninsula, and returned to the car. I’m sure it’s lovely on a nice day, but we weren’t going to see any further than we had at Cheviot Hill.

We drove back to Sorrento and stopped there at the Continental Hotel for some lunch. Then we drove to our planned afternoon activity – the baths at Peninsula Hot Springs. These are heated geothermally as they sit on the Nepean Fault – a rare example of geological activity in Australia. There are various pools and other water-related activities there – sauna, Turkish baths, cold plunges – and we took a tour around a lot of these.

In the evening, we went out to the restaurant down on the pier, The Rocks – a seafood restaurant that prides itself on sustainability. I had the prawns, from the barbecue. Yes, really. I managed to order with a straight face. Nicola had the baby snapper cooked in oriental spices. Both dishes were fairly substantial so we skipped dessert and had a quick coffee before coming back to the hotel.

Larks In Transit

Bill Bailey

The troll is back in town. Yes, Bill Bailey has returned to New Zealand, kicking off his Larks In Transit tour here (OK, in the South Island to begin with), then Australia and then, presumably, the world. 

We’d arranged with Gavin and Tor to go out to dinner at Hede first. We arrived there and had possibly the worst dining experience I’ve had in Wellington since we moved here. For details, read this. You might note the other reviews as well.

We got out of the restaurant, and walked across the road to the Michael Fowler centre to take our seats. We’d booked somewhat late (unusual for me) as we weren’t sure what dates we’d be going to Australia for our holidays, so didn’t know if we were going to make it or not. I do wish these comedians and rock stars would consult me first before going ahead and announcing their dates! Sometimes it’s so inconvenient! Anyway, we decided to delay our flights for a couple of days so we could fit Bill in. 

The format of a Bill Bailey show is pretty standard by now. He does some funny stuff, he does some musical interludes, he does some audience participation. He started off his show with a 20-minute rant about Brexit. To be fair, he did warn us pretty much straight away when he arrived on stage that that was his plan for the next 20 minutes. After that though he got off the politics and more into the stage show, which involved some new songs and poetry he’d written. He also asserted that any song would sound better when performed in the death metal style. He demonstrated this with a few choice songs supplied to him at random by audience members. Now, I know that people often think that the people shouting these out from the audience are “plants” to provide him with pre-arranged songs. But I can vouch for the fact that they aren’t, as I shouted out one song title, and he played it…so now I, and a whole bunch of other Wellingtonians, know what the death metal version of Dancing Queen sounds like. He also did Bohemian Rhapsody and Lady In Red, but steadfastly refused to do Justin Bieber.

I’ll look out for the DVD when it comes out and we’ll see what songs were picked by the audience members on it. I’ll also look out for his next tour in New Zealand as he’s always entertaining.

Next day, we were up with the lark to fly to Australia.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


Nicola’s niece, Eli, is visiting New Zealand on a working visa at the moment. She’s currently staying in Auckland but has been visiting us in Wellington over the weekend. We decided to show her the main points of Wellington, and this involved, on Saturday evening, a trip to top Wellington restaurant and handily placed local establishment, The Larder.

The Larder are putting on a Sicilian menu at the moment, and we’d booked ourselves in to try it some weeks ago. A quick phone call upped the table to 3 people, and we were in. We arrived at 7:00pm to be greeted by Sarah, who has just won the Cuisine Restaurant Personality of the Year award, and the rest of the staff, who know us on sight by now.

OK, straight in to the food. First course was a chickpea and fennel soup. The broth was clear and enticing, with whole chickpeas in it. Served with a catarratto inzolia – a typical Sicilian dry white wine.

 Next was arancini with braised beef cheek and caponata – a spicy, tomatoey mix with olives and eggplant. This was served with a red Nero d’Avola Syrah blend.

Third course was the fish course, and, almost inevitably, sardines – a classic mainstay of Sicilian cuisine. We had these in a pasta sauce with pine nuts, parsley, fennel, lemon and olive oil. The wine accompaniment took us back to the whites with a pinot grigio.

The main meat course was roasted pork jowl, with dried figs, served with a powerful red russo Etna Rosso. It needed the big flavours to counteract the richness of the pork and sweetness of the figs.

The final course was cannoli – a pastry tube stuffed with ricotta and lemons, and served with blood orange and almond. This was accompanied with a Pellegrino Zibibbo sweet (but not too sweet) dessert wine.

All in all a delicious meal once again. None of the courses was large – enough for a taste, and with the pork a more substantial serving, so you left feeling satisfied but not stuffed, which is good. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m pleased that Jacob & Sarah are getting so much media attention for their excellent restaurant at the moment – they seem to be everywhere! Dom Post, Kiwibank adverts, you name it!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Table Topics

Toastmasters International is a non-profit educational organisation that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs. ANZ set up a club in 2015, and I joined up. In June 2016, I was appointed president of our club, and I started to get involved in the wider Toastmasters organisation outside our club.

As part of this, we held our first Table Topics contest in August. Table Topics is a regular part of a Toastmasters meeting, where members are given a subject title with no prior notice, and have to speak for between one and two minutes on the subject. The challenge with Table Topics is to speak in an organised way, with some structure, on the subject. At this competition I was placed first. The first and second placed contestants were then eligible to go forward to the area contest, which was held on 13th September. At this competition I was placed third, and my colleague, Olivia, was first.

“That’s that” I thought, so far as my continued participation in contests was concerned for the year…at least, as a participant. I had volunteered to judge at other clubs’ contests, and was called on to do so at two clubs in the following weeks. Judging gives a good insight into the quality of competition at other clubs, and I was fortunate to judge both a Table Topics and a humorous contest.  

However, there was a further twist; Olivia was in Auckland for work reasons on the weekend that the divisional contest would take place. The division is the whole of Wellington, so it’s getting quite serious by this time. A week later, I received an email from our Area Director: the second placed contestant was also unable, or unwilling, to compete further, and could I step in to represent Area E6? By all means, I replied.

So it was that I found myself competing in my first divisional Table Topics contest. The contest is part of the divisional conference, which is held twice a year. The other competition held on the day is the humorous speaking contest. There are also various awards handed out, recognition of clubs and individuals, and also a workshop and a warm-up act for the humorous speaking contest.

The conference started at 10am. The contestants briefing, however, was at 9:30am. And there’s only limited parking at the venue, which was the Royal Society of New Zealand. I made a plan: we drove into town for breakfast at Vista café, before heading up to Thorndon and, luckily, nabbing the last free parking spot. With plenty of time for the briefing, to boot. We collected our name badges and Nicola took the opportunity to visit New World, there to expend enough spondulicks to qualify for another Little Garden pot. Not that I’m saying that that was her sole motivation, oh no, no, no…yes.

The conference got under way and pretty soon I was escorted from the hall to the waiting area, where we are held until it’s our turn to speak. This is because all contestants are given the same topic, and they mustn’t hear what it is before their turn. I had drawn number 5, so didn’t hear the first 4 contestants speak. This was an improvement on the area contest, where I’d drawn 8th out of 8, so hadn’t heard any of the others.

When it was my turn, I was escorted to the hall, and mic’d up. Then I was introduced, and the contest chair gave me the subject: “Can money buy you happiness?” And I was off.

In some ways, doing a Table Topics speech is the longest minute of your life. In others, it’s the shortest. You’ve got to organise what you’re going to say in a matter of seconds. Open with an arresting statement or quotation; dispense the honorifics (“Mr. Chairman, fellow Toastmasters, distinguished guests”); give your speech, and get to that crucial one-minute mark (speaking for less than a minute gets you disqualified); then wrap it up in a good way, returning to the original question. It doesn’t matter if you say “yes it can” or “no, it can’t” or even if you sit on the fence and offer both sides of the argument; what the judges are looking for is how you deliver, vocal variety, engagement with the audience, body language, speech structure, and use of language; all that kind of thing.

At the end, I walked to the back of the hall to be de-mic’d, then took my seat again to hear the final three contestants. And…relax!

I’d originally planned to sneak off and miss the afternoon session, but the results of the Table Topics competition wouldn’t be announced until the very end of the meeting (I guess to stop people doing just that), so we stayed for the humorous speaking contest in the afternoon. And it was a good job we did! Not only was the warm—up guy very funny (he is, in fact, a stand-up comedian by trade), but the speeches were well-crafted, and very enjoyable.

After a bit more award-giving, the results of both competitions were announced. Whilst the scoring is not made public, there was, according to Nicola, one very clear winner of the Table Topics contest. Unfortunately, it wasn’t me. As the results were announced, it became obvious that I’d come fourth…along with four other contestants. Places are only announced for the top three, so the remaining contestants can all kid themselves that they just missed out. Results for the humorous speaking contest gave top spot to another clear winner, who stood out from the others. Both winners now go on to represent Wellington at the national convention, held in Invercargill in November.

That was my first foray into competing in Toastmasters. There will be further opportunities to compete in the international and evaluation contests next year. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Last Legs

Blimey, Circa Theatre is putting on a lot of good stuff this year! The latest offering, starring Ray Henwood, is called Last Legs, and is the story about growing old disgracefully…something we have every intention of emulating! Ray Henwood is a grand old man of the Wellington theatre scene – we last saw him as King Lear in…umm…what was that play called?

But first, inevitably, dinner. Pravda Café has revamped its menu, so I thought we’d better get ourselves down there to see how it’s changed. Yeah, any excuse! Pravda is part of the Nourish group of restaurants, that include Crab Shack and Shed 5 in Wellington, as well as various other restaurants in Auckland and Queenstown. They serve tasty grub and I don’t think we’ve ever been disappointed there. I had a scallop ravioli followed by wagyu bavette steak, whilst Nicola had zucchini fritters and chilli shrimp linguine.

We hurried out of the restaurant and down the road thinking we were cutting it fine; but when we got to Circa, a quick look at the tickets revealed…the show didn’t start until 8:00pm. So we needn’t have rushed away from Pravda and hassled the staff for the bill (they were also hosting a lot of “ladies who dine” for a pre-WoW dinner, so there was a bit of a scrum at the till).

We sat down and had an ice cream and a glass of wine whilst waiting for the show to start, and chatted to a lady down from Auckland to see the show, largely because her sister had a starring role in it. She played Kitty, who is the femme fatale of the piece.

The theatre was packed – a sell-out – which I put down to the Henwood factor. The play is coming to the end of its run, and the remaining nights are completely sold out. As it is, we were up in the back seats, far from the more usual row B or C that we get when I book these things.

The play is set in an upmarket retirement home, and concerns the goings-on of some of the residents, notably those on “ResCom”, the resident’s committee. A new resident is co-opted onto the committee to fight the stranglehold which retired (disgraced) estate agents Gary and Trish seem to have. The four female characters also play a gang of older residents, who meet up and argue over games starting with bridge, with all four of them, and moving through scrabble for three, mah-jong for two, and finally, patience. You’re not allowed to mention the D-word, but you can figure out what’s happened to the participants.

The play is really a series of vignettes and character studies; the plot is a bit thin, and leads more to characters explaining about their pasts, rather than the “incident and example” to illustrate their personalities. It made the whole thing a bit disjointed. Yes, the two estate agents are venal and petty; we needed to see more of their venality and pettiness, not just be told about it.

It was light and fluffy. I doubt they’ll be performing it in 400 years’ time, though.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Sweeney Todd

Sunday afternoon saw us going to the matinee performance of NZ Opera’s production of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, at the St James theatre. As the show started at 2pm, we decided to get some lunch first at Noble Rot wine bar, which is fast becoming a favourite haunt in that part of town. Looking around the bar, it appeared that I was the only male patron of the place. Of course, the All Blacks were playing (in fact, had just finished by the time we sat down) the Pumas in Argentina at the time, so all the "ladies who lunch"’s menfolk may have been down the pub watching the rugby instead. Even so…odd. Never mind, we made our way through the cured salmon, venison tartare, duck liver parfait and littleneck clams, washed down with a glass of Pegasus Bay riesling. Very tasty it all was.

A quick trot round the corner, and we ensconced ourselves in row O. Clearly we were in the first row of the cheap seats, as the next five rows in front of us were empty. As soon as the lights started to dim, there was a rustling and a tumult…people in the seats behinds us all rushed forward to grab the empty seats nearer the stage. We took the opportunity to shuffle up the row one seat, so I had room to man-spread.

The story, you’ll know, is about how Sweeney Todd, a barber, supplies meat in the form of dead people to Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, downstairs from his barber shop. This production is based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical version, which was also filmed in 2007 with Johnny Depp in the lead, with Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett.

The production was very slick, with a  revolving stage to accommodate the shop and the barber’s above it. The singing was of course very good. The Beadle seemed to have modelled his character on someone…I couldn’t recall the name. “He’s like that bearded annoying bloke” I said. “You’ll have to give me more clues” replied Nicola. “Bearded, annoying, tall and thin, gaunt face…” “Oh, Russell Brand!” “That’s the fella!”

The show was nearly three hours long, so we emerged blinking into the sunlight of Courtenay Place at almost 5 o’clock.