A freelance writer and father of two, I am interested in almost anything the ever-changing city of Brisbane has to offer. When I am not seeking the kid-friendly and affordable, I am tracking the home-grown and the unique... Come and discover with me!
Published February 3rd 2012
A Friday evening in Brisneyland
I ran into my dear old friend Ms Feather at the Woodford Folk Festival on New Year's Day. As is often the case at Woodford - particularly if both parties involved are volunteering - we had just enough time for a brief exchange of news and email addresses before our next Festival forays took us elsewhere. However, we agreed that at some point soon, both the arrival of 2012 and our renewed association would have to be celebrated in fine style.
The opportunity to do so came one recent rainy Friday. I'd already booked two tickets to see that fabulous band of gypsies, Mzaza, play at the Powerhouse Arts Centre in New Farm. Ms Feather readily accepted my offer of the second ticket to this exciting event, which we proceeded to use as the fixed point around which to plan an evening of further treats. At Ms Feather's suggestion - an astute one, as it turned out - we decided to start from Scratch (Beer Bar that is) which both of us had walked past and read about but never visited. Having agreed upon the rendezvous, we then added to our itinerary a CityCat journey from the Regatta in Toowong to Sydney Street in New Farm. Keen strollers both, we decided that a brisk walk through New Farm at this point would be just the thing to whet our appetites for a hearty repast at one of the many fine victualling stations to be found en route to the Powerhouse.
The plan, we thought, was elegant in its simplicity. Beer, food, show—all of them promising from the outset to be of fine quality. If this sounds at all like your idea of a good Friday night, dear reader, then do please come along for the first of what I hope may be a series of combo articles covering a broad variety of excursion options - night, day, kid-friendly and adults-only - in the magical realm of Brisneyland and its environs.
If you're looking for a place in Milton in which to relax over some quality brews of a Friday afternoon—and haven't already been enticed there either by Laura Marshall's introductory article on Weekend Notes, or by the promise on The Scratch's Facebook page of "No pretension, no dress code and no pub cover bands, just damn good drinkin'"—then chances are the sign pictured above will be enough to snag you from street level anyway. Perhaps a place which proudly advertises itself as a "Craft Beer Dive" might not appeal to everyone, but my first encounter with The Scratch's laid-back atmosphere and comfortable decor instantly aroused in me the desire to do as the by-line suggests and dive straight in.
No sooner had I expressed my appreciation of The Scratch's unique style to bartender (and, rumour has it, resident pianist) Daniel than he was pouring me a thimbleful or seven of Bacchus Bohemian Pilsner whilst simultaneously - and yes, unpretentiously - giving me a comprehensive run-down on the history, ingredients and salient attributes of the brew in question. This was the first of four delicious and unique draught beers which I was to sample over the course of the next twenty minutes or so, having at no stage actually asked for a taste-test. Daniel's simple assumption that I would of course want to try them all, and the undemanding manner in which he dispensed both his knowledge and generous bursts of these tasty frothy liquids, bestowed the seal of sincerity on The Scratch's self-professed devotion to independent brands of superb quality. And while the passage of each beverage down my eager gullet was doubtless smoothed by the friendliness of the welcome, there can be no question that The Scratch is indeed pouring some superior beer.
Having thoroughly appreciated the blonde Bohemian—a fruity but not-too-sweet drop created exclusively for The Scratch by Capalaba's Bacchus Brewery - I was then treated to a lashing of Sunshine Coast Best Bitter. This was a real malty mouthful in the Old English style which nevertheless glided across the palate leaving only the merest trace of caramel behind, and it was probably just as well that Daniel was already moving onto Victorian brewer Holgate's offering for the day—a chocolate stout appropriately named Temptress - as there is every chance that the Bitter might have drowned my spirit of inquiry right then and there. The Temptress tasted exactly like its name. Virtually a dessert in a glass, this cocoa-infused twist on the classic porter would be the rainy-day ruin of any true sweet-tooth, and yet retained sufficient hints of vanilla and coffee to avoid the sickly finish which turns some stouts into heavy going.
The Scratch's Bar, featuring a Temptress in the foreground
My encounter with the day's biggest beer coincided with the arrival of Ms Feather, who took one sip of the super-hoppy Marlborough Pale Ale—a Double India Pale Ale from New Zealand brewer Renaissance - and promptly ordered a full glass. At 8.5% alcohol volume, the MPA is a brew to be treated with caution if you have to drive (or indeed walk) anywhere after your next visit. A pale which could easily be mistaken visually for a bitter, MPA is an eye-popping showcase for the recently-developed Rakau hop, and is ridiculously easy to drink despite its initial pungent assault on the tongue. Perhaps the best accolade I can award the MPA is to state that, a mere third of the way through the first glass, Ms Feather and I dove for the quirky antique corner-lounge at the rear of the venue and ordered a cheese platter to go with it.
Owner Patrick smacking his lips at the sight of the MPA
Served with generous portions of Leavain sourdough, The Scratch's cheese platters feature such gourmet delights as Milawa Blue and Whitestone Totara cheddar, and range in price from $12 for a single variety through to $35 for four. At this juncture we began to enjoy ourselves so much that I temporarily forgot about the fact-finding part of my mission, and so learnt nothing more about the brie except that it was a double packed with creamy goodness. However, this failing on my part only serves to further complement The Scratch's relaxing ambience, in which the next hour slid past as effortlessly as the various beverages on offer slid down the throats of the rapidly-gathering crowd.
Despite a fierce commitment to brand-independence and superior quality, the "no-bullshit" philosophy upon which The Scratch was founded resonates through every fibre of the recycled-timber interior. Part-owner Patrick, though busily serving behind the bar, cheerfully responded to my questions for as long as I cared to ask them, and his passion for every product on offer at his establishment could be clearly felt throughout our easy-going conversation. He was visibly proud of what The Scratch has come to represent in the few short months of its existence, and in my opinion, rightly so. An extensive range of bottled boutique delights coupled with a constantly-rotating showcase draught selection—updated daily on their website - already makes The Scratch a connoisseur's fantasy. But if they come for the beer, they will surely stay - perhaps much longer than first intended - for the relaxing, unpretentious atmosphere.
Prices start at $5 for a glass of some daily draughts, or for a platter of Leavain sourdough with balsamic dip. Begin an all-day session at 10am, or stroll in after work to while the evening away over some fine beverages until close at midnight. The Scratch is situated on Park Road, across the street and half a block away from the Milton train station, and is also within easy reach of dinner options at Park Road, Centro Milton or Rosalie Village. As Ms Feather and I discovered, it is a delightful place to welcome in the weekend.
A to B in Brisneyland - from the Regatta to New Farm
As befits the next part of our excursion—a period of transit—this page contains a variety of links. Where possible, these will direct the reader to other Weekend Notes articles which have covered the areas we passed through and some of the main attractions to be found there. Where I have not been able to source a relevant Weekend Notes article, I have endeavoured to link to some of the more interesting and comprehensive sites available, in order that the reader might not only be perhaps inspired to follow in our footsteps, but also assisted in personalising their own outings.
From The Scratch Ms Feather and I took a pleasant if somewhat damp stroll past the well-known restaurants and cafes of Park Road. From the crossing at the corner of Park Road and Coronation Drive, only a ten-minute walk remained along the Bicentennial Bikeway before we reached the Regatta CityCat stop. Along the way we took in the view of Davies Park across the River at West End, while on the near bank a long row of drowned mangroves sparked some lively reminiscences about last year's floods—as it happened, Ms Feather and I had both been living in close proximity to the Western Creek when it swamped much of Milton and Rosalie. Ms Feather pointed out to me her favourite meditation bench, which forms a key stop on her regular strolls around the area; the spot was currently occupied by a skittish water dragon which seemed almost as surprised to be there as we were to see it, skipping through the small puddles on the Bikeway's surface at this odd hour.
The Regatta Hotel as it was - and will be again
In no more than twenty minutes we reached the Regatta CityCat stop, so-named for the Heritage-listed Hotel whose three-storey bulk dominates the Riverbank at that location. Our flood stories were accentuated by the sight of the security fences and scaffolding which more than a year after those damp days still skirt the grand old dame, as the owners continue to rebuild the Regatta's Boatshed Restaurant, Street Cafe and Public Bar—where, in 1965, Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bognor famously chained themselves to the footrest in protest at the men-only entry policy of the day. However, we did not have long to speculate upon when these attractions might open to the public once more (later research suggests around mid-2012), as the UQ to Apollo Road CityCats arrive roughly every twenty minutes, and we soon spotted ours powering into view from the south-west, around the River reach which used to be known as Short Pocket.
Due to their stability, fore and aft viewing decks, and comfortable seating, a ride on a City Cat is as much a river cruise as it is a workaday form of public transportation—at least if you are in no particular hurry. The trip from Regatta to Sydney Street in New Farm passes under the Go-Between, Merivale, William Jolly, Kurilpa, Victoria, Goodwill, Captain Cook and Storey Bridges, and at night is also special for the view it affords of mellow electric fairylands such as the Cultural Precinct, Wheel of Brisbane, Southbank Parklands, and Riverside. Perhaps I am not the most practical soul in this town, but I must confess that two decades after taking up permanent residence here I still derive a sense of wonder from any form of travel along the Brisbane River. Those wide brown waters are the lifeblood of my home-town's history, and as was clearly demonstrated last January, will continue to shape its future in unforeseeable ways. Yet there is no place in this city which feels more timeless. Before even the Turrbal and Yugera people arrived here and began to harvest its bounty from dugout canoes with net and spear, the River was; and no matter what takes place on the surrounding land, the River will in all likelihood continue to be—long after we and our daily cares are forgotten.
The bigger picture
Our arrival at the Sydney Street terminal in New Farm marked the end of such philosophical musings, as we pushed into the genteel streets and realised that we were not going to have enough time to eat before the show. Had we bothered to look at the time during our CityCat journey, we almost certainly would have stayed on board another two stops and disembarked at New Farm Park, which not only is much closer to the Powerhouse Arts Centre, but is linked to it by a broad and well-lit pavement alongside the River. Ms Feather and I had agreed, however, that rushing was out of the question, and so still found moments to gawp at some of the stately mansions and cute cottages which give Sydney Street—and indeed, much of the River end of the suburb—a sleepy colonial-esque charm; and once we had entered New Farm Park itself, took the time to pick our way between large patches of glistening slush and talk about literature.
For those who are a tad more organised, the area surrounding New Farm Park is simply awash with options for drinking and dining, from the Fish Cafe on the corner of Sydney and Brunswick, through the bustling hub of Merthyr Village, and down to the assortment of food and beverage experiences to be found on James Street. If your itinerary includes one of the dazzling variety of performances to be enjoyed at the Powerhouse, you may well be tempted by the convenience of their two on-site restaurants, Bar Alto and Watts. Whatever else you decide to do in the area, a stroll through New Farm Park is always pleasant, although you may want to stick to the paved areas during rainy periods.
By the time Ms Feather and I entered the Visy Theatre, the two hundred-seat venue was already vibrating with the anticipation of loyal followers and first-timers alike for Mzaza's trademark fusion of poetic jazz, chanson, and folk music from Europe and the Near East. From the intimate confines of Fortitude Valley's Press Club to the broad stages of the Woodford and National Folk Festivals, Mzaza performances are always special. However, as two causes for celebration were tonight combined—the band's much-anticipated home-coming after a highly-successful Stolen Hearts Tasmanian tour, and the first home-town gig of 2012—this show promised to be even more special than most. To add to the fun, Mzaza was to be joined on stage by four mystery guests who would surely augment the energetic six-piece's rich sound with new and exotic inflections.
No sooner had Ms Feather and I taken two of the few remaining seats when the first of these guests to appear, Malindi Morris and Matt de Boer, announced the coming fulfilment of this promise in spectacular fashion. From backstage, the rousing sounds of the traditional Turkish Tapan (drum) and Tulum (Turkish bagpipe) cut through the pre-show chatter and united the audience into one giant electrified ear. By the time Malindi and Matt had finished their joyous procession around the audience walkway, Mzaza had taken the stage. Once launched, they soared, and brought us all along for the ride.
Like the traditional ensembles from whom they derive much of their inspiration, Mzaza is a group best experienced live. In concert, the diversity of their set acts cumulatively; something like a slow-spiralling whirlwind gathering the listener up and transporting them across a dizzying series of ethnic, linguistic and stylistic borders. But although their music is grounded in traditions from around the Mediterranean, and although their instrumentalists are entirely capable of producing regionally-authentic sounds, Mzaza is not in the business of simple replication. A generous infusion of contemporary jazz elements, for example, seems natural for an ensemble which builds its chordal arrangements on a platform of lush, sonorous double-bass (Gwen Warnick) and crisp, deliciously-clean guitar (John Robertson)—a fact which was highlighted on this particular occasion by the band's readiness to integrate saxophone (Toby Gifford), trombone (David Ferrari) and clarinet (Matt de Boer) into their set. Lead singer Pauline Maudy has replaced many of the traditional lyrics with her own French poetry, an artistic choice which not only refreshes songs which have the status of anthems in their regions of origin, but which also lends an intimate edge to her sultry, ultra-feminine vocal style. Likewise, violinist Greta Kelly is seldom content to remain within the traditional melodic boundaries, but lets her fingers run wild down paths of virtuosic improvisation which are exhilarating to follow.
Soaring - Pauline Maudy in full flight
But if these two glamorous women are the apparent soloists of the group, eliciting spontaneous whoops of delight from the audience with their flights of musical fancy, they are granted safe take-offs and landings by the tireless hands of accordionist and flautist Stephen Cuttriss, and by the rhythmic bedrock of percussionist Jordan Stamos. Cuttriss is faultless in providing the melodic core for most of Mzaza's songs—and I do mean faultless; calmly cranking or blowing out a bewildering variety of tunes note-perfectly while nine other major talents explode with passion around him. Stamos, for his part, somehow manages to keep his companions glued to fiendish time signatures without ever losing his smile, or descending into the blurry "faff" which is the dreaded nemesis of the hand-percussionist.
Jordan Stamos - Rhythmic Bedrock
The effect of all this talent working in close combination is compelling, and there were many moments throughout the performance when Mzaza's promise to "transport" the audience was, for me at least, entirely fulfilled. In the interest of balanced reporting, however, I must here state that there were also moments when I felt that the core six-piece struggled to integrate their four guests into some of the more ambitious numbers which they attempted together. Although there were no glaring errors, and although these periods of musical looseness were balanced by the "taverna" atmosphere created as ten happy musicians played their hearts out - and definitely included their audience in the fun. I felt that perhaps the band might have begun with some simpler arrangements when approaching the massed-jam parts of their set. Such talented guests would surely have found opportunities to shine regardless, and the incongruity between the seemingly-effortless cohesion of the six-piece and the boisterous improvisation of the ten-piece might not have been as pronounced as it occasionally was.
Greta Kelly - Gypsy Fiddler Extraordinaire
Another major feature of Mzaza's performances which can only be properly savoured in a live setting is the infectious joy with which they play. These are serious musicians, and the blend of elements in their songs generate intricacies to which each of them must rigorously commit. Yet there are no pretensions in their manner, no studied pseudo-mystical facades. Mzaza is a band comprised not only of skilled instrumentalists but of consummate and generous performers, who truly relish a direct and celebratory connection with their audience. Pauline Maudy—a mighty talent, capable of raising the roof in four languages—could easily have assumed a primadonna role at the front of such a group, but such an idea clearly could not be further from her mind. After introducing the band and the first few numbers with a charming lack of affectation, she then proceeded to pass the mike around between songs, with the result that we not only met each of Mzaza's musicians over the course of the set, but were also regaled with jokes, background stories to various tunes, and quirky anecdotes from the band's recent travels.
Stephen Cuttriss - Wanderer in a Wide World of Exotic Tunes
Impressive to me also was the way in which Maudy managed the Visy's "thrust" configuration, in which the seating wraps closely around three sides of the stage. Such a design can be intimidating to the performer, and all too often leads to a chamber-music atmosphere in which those on stage unwittingly neglect or even consciously ignore more than half their audience. Maudy, by contrast, made sure to include each of the three main seating areas in her performance, while the band itself assumed a semi-circular configuration which enabled them to see, and be seen by, all the audience members. Despite these efforts, however, I came away feeling that the Visy was perhaps not the ideal place to have experiencedMzaza from a strictly acoustic point of view. Equalising more than a dozen diverse instruments and a powerful female vocalist for the thrust configuration must be a sound engineer's nightmare, and it is a testament to the skill of the unfortunate soul whose task this was that there were only a few obvious periods of sonic muddiness and unevenness. However, if I were to pay for a similar gig at the Visy again, I would arrive a lot earlier in order to secure a seat in the central seating bank, which undoubtedly receives a higher-quality sound than the banks on either side of the stage.
Both Ms Feather and I agreed, however, that by far the greatest disappointment of the evening was the simple lack of a dance floor - and perhaps a few poorly-lit corners in which to loudly toast the band with some suitably-fiery Mediterranean liquor. Both of us emerged from what was, overall, a superb performance twitching with the unexpressed urge to link arms with as many fellow audience members as we could, and joyfully risk serious hamstring injuries performing some kind of high-kicking Greek-style circle-dance. If you get a chance to see Mzaza—in any venue—be sure to utterly ignore the minor quibbles expressed in this review and just go. If you emerge without sore cheeks from grinning the entire time, and without at least one of their songs running on repeat through your head for the next fortnight, please contact me via Weekend Notes so I can refer you to professional help.
The Visy Theatre is the smallest of three major venues at the Powerhouse, which over the past decade has earned a reputation as the most versatile and exciting arts centre in Brisbane. In addition to major venues The Powerhouse Theatre, Turbine Platform and Visy, the Powerhouse also boasts no less than five conference and seminar venues, two rehearsal spaces, two restaurants, a bar, and a range of outdoor performance and function venues including a Rooftop Terrace and a lush secret Lawn. Once a fully-operational power station, the Powerhouse is a visually-stunning example of industrial art-deco architecture in itself, retaining both the graffiti and the ambience of its derelict days, when it was used by the homeless as a shelter and as an unofficial venue by underground artists. Today, the Powerhouse is unequalled in Queensland for the sheer variety of its programming, and for the calibre of the local and touring artists who have made it their preferred Brisbane stage and gallery. In the next few months alone, this unique space will host such diverse events as the Nikon Walkley Photography Awards, the Festival of Tibet, Britney Spears: The Cabaret, The Twelfth World Theatre Festival, the SonicLines trio, the Brisbane Comedy Festival, The Unexpected Variety Show with Jenny Wynter, and The Worm Society Book Club for Kids. Interested? Quite frankly, one would hope so.
As someone wise once said, (wo)man shall not live by fabulous world-music vibes alone, but also needs to eat occasionally. As energised as Ms Feather and I were from our exotic journey with Mzaza, a sense of urgency now found its way into our foot-steps as we turned once more for Brunswick Street in search of a place to dine. From Park-side, Merthyr Village looked disquietingly deserted, and both of us began to steel our nerves and shush our complaining bellies in anticipation of the hike back towards Fortitude Valley which we felt sure lay ahead.
Rounding the corner of Merthyr Road and Brunswick Street, however, we were much relieved to see the lights still cheerily burning at the Big Fortune Chinese restaurant. The interior was spotless and yet cosy, the streetside tables dry and comfortable-looking, and a brief inquiry revealed that closing time was still another hour away. Our mouths already watering at the sight of the menu - which includes not only a wide variety of Chinese favourites, but also a healthy smattering of such popular choices from other Asian traditions as Satay Chicken and Tom Yum Soup - we immediately ordered a four-piece entree of Crumbed Prawn Cutlets each ($8) and two main dishes to share: the Szechuan Chicken ($16.90), and the Duck with Plum Sauce ($21.90), along with a small serve of Steamed Rice ($3).
Granted, Merthyr Road at this hour of a wet Friday night was quiet. However as Big Fortune's staff swung into action I had the distinct impression that the cheerful and efficient service was habitual here, rather than merely the fortunate side-effect of a slow trading evening. Within two minutes of us taking our seats at one of the streetside tables, the air was filled with the aroma of our impending feast, and the smiles we received, both from restaurateur Daniel and from the staff who fetched our drinks with a speed that bordered on eerie, were broad and unforced. The drinks list seemed surprisingly extensive until I looked more closely within and realised that Big Fortune actually boasts a dedicated bar area, which later research revealed to have been only recently installed after the restaurant's twelfth year of operation. This new strength is one which Daniel and his wife Alice seem fully-prepared to play to with the introduction of Drunken Buddha Saturdays, when from 5pm onwards the price of all alcoholic beverages descends to a flat $5 each. Ms Feather and I, having been spoilt rotten earlier that evening at The Scratch, found it impossible to pass up the Mountain Goat Organic Steam Ale.
At $7 a stubbie this was one of the pricier beers available, but proved to be an excellent complement to the poultry dishes which were not only packed with fresh ingredients and authentic flavours, but generously-portioned enough to necessitate a request for takeaway containers despite the appetite which we had brought with us. The humble crumbed exterior belied the moist freshness of the perfectly-cooked prawn cutlets beneath, and though we devoured these with astonishing rapidity, they only served to awaken our taste-buds for the main events still to come.The Szechuan Chicken came still sizzling on an iron plate, and was a superb balance of sweet soy and piquant rather than fiery spice. The Duck, served on a bed of black-bean sprouts, was also delicious. The plum sauce was rich, but still zesty enough to prime the tongue marvellously for the dark and delicate flavour of the duck, which itself remained appetisingly light and non-greasy despite the wonderfully-decadent strips of crispy skin in which it came encased.
Yes, we stuffed ourselves. Those first two ales, moreover, turned into four—an unplanned expense which we found ourselves happy to incur. Throughout, Daniel and his staff remained unobtrusively attentive, stopping at polite intervals to check that we were happy and lingering occasionally to share a few laughs. Eleven o'clock came and went; at a quarter past the hour we were quietly alerted to the fact that we had feasted and chatted right through closing time, and still another quarter of an hour then passed, without resentment or fuss on the part of the Big Fortune crew, before we remembered that the custom of exchanging money for food is still fashionable in most restaurants. We were grateful for this most gentle end to what had been a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and would most certainly recommend a similar finish to anyone who enjoys wholesome, well-balanced Asian flavours and excellent service in a low-key and genuinely friendly atmosphere.
Restauranteur Daniel looking deservedly pleased with his Big Fortune
As a final grace note in what had turned out to be a veritable symphony of Friday-evening delights, we then had no further than five metres to walk to the nearby taxi rank. Our hearts, minds and bellies sated, we flung ourselves with a sigh into the back seat, and were whisked swiftly homewards through Fortitude Valley's glistening, glamour-packed streets.
Big Fortune is open seven days a week at Shop 8, 85 Merthyr Road. In addition to their menu-based yum cha lunches served from 11am to 3pm daily, this friendly and high-quality restaurant serves a broad range of all-day specials as well as an extensive dine-in or take-away a la carte menu. Prices range from $4 entrees through to two-course Peking Duck meals for $53. The interior is warmly colourful and yet elegantly restrained, boasting a well-stocked bar, while the outdoor tables are fully-sheltered on a broad stretch of pavement. If you are planning on taking in one of the many excellent performances at the Brisbane Powerhouse, the 11pm closing time on Fridays and Saturdays make Big Fortune an ideal option for your next post-show feast.