May 31, 2011

Hangovers for the Greater Good. Wolfgang's Steakhouse, Waikiki.

Sydney continues to be a city of grey skies and steady downpours today. 

Winter doesn't even officially start until tomorrow but we've already had a pretty impressive preview of the the best(comfort food and The Hangover II) and worst (the weather)  that winter will have to offer.

I've watched this trailer approximately 15 times on Mr SSG's iPad since Saturday morning and I'm trying to convince him to come with me to see it over the long weekend.  Mr SSG is a little disturbed at how well I've taken to such a bloky and politically incorrect film and is trying to persuade me to see that X-Men film instead.  The winner will be decided by whichever film has the session most convenient to our dinner plans for that evening, I think.

Many people are counting the cost of minor flooding in the city today as they survey their houses and cars.  I'm one of the fortunate few who seems to have survived this wet patch with only a broken umbrella as a consequence. 

Perhaps it's all this winter discontent that has fuelled the rather personal and mean spirited backlash to Cate Blanchett's decision to support the carbon tax and use her celebrity to raise awareness of the issue.  Apparently the freedom to have an opinion and raise awareness is means tested to penalize the famous or wealthy and to render their actions to be ridiculous and out of touch.

The wealthy and famous have the dubious honour of being deemed ridiculous and out of touch regardless of how they chose to play their fame card.  At least we can 'tsk tsk' when we read about their personal lives.  When they highlight issues we should all be thinking about and trying to progress?  That would require us to 'tsk tsk' at our own apathy.

Don't take my word for it, the readers of The Daily Telegraph have spoken their mind.  Perhaps we all need to go see The Hangover 2 over the long weekend, have a good laugh and return to the discussion with clearer minds to discuss the issues not the messenger.

The bleaker the weather gets, the more important it seems to me to inject some colour and vitality into the the day.  I'm calling it dressing for the weather I'd like to have back.

Scarf - Hermes, cardigan - Cotton On, T - Target.

My Dancing Pearls scarf resurfaced at the weekend as part of my major wardrobe restructure.  So I wore it to work today.

Is anyone in the work lunch doldrums?  You try to be healthy and frugal for those 5 lunches of the week (so that your weekends may be full of treats and indulgences) but sometimes, you just need a little hit of flavour to keep you on the straight and narrow and not running to the hot chips and the vending machines at the staff cafeteria.

I'm probably slow to catch on to this, but I've finally got myself some salt and pepper grinders for work.  I've been going crazy seasoning my salad leaves and tomato wedges this week.  My salads are still a long way from gourmet but at least they are much tastier now.  I had forgotten how good a little salt on raw tomatoes tastes.  I know salad dressing would have been the more obvious option here but I can never find a good store bought one and trying to tranport a home made dressing from home is fraught with potential complications.

This power of salt and pepper to transform simple foods reminded me of Hawaii (as everything seems to these days). 

Today's Hawaii memory involves a dinner Mr SSG and I had at  Wolfgang's Steakhouse by Wolfgang Zweiner.  To put things in context for Australian readers who are in the midst of a boutique bar and grill frenzy, I did a little research about Wolfgang's.  It is at a price range that most Americans would consider top of the range for what they would pay for steak.  The beef served comes from Texas and is dry aged in a special facility on the island.  There are also branches of the restauarant in New York (the location of the original restaurant) and California.

The concept is similar to what many of you would be familiar with in Australia.  The beef is the focus of a tightly edited menu.  There is also an impressive wine selection to match.  No, there are no decorative Riedel wineglass installations but guests do have a prime view of the wine library.  I cannot comment on whether or not the ladies' powder room stocked Aesop toiletries.  Service is friendly but formal, well informed and efficient. 

We shared the crab cakes for an entree and they were excellent.

Price wise, steaks are expensive by American standards.  My main was a 400g beef fillet that cost $59 USD from memory.  By weight, most Australian restaurants serve a 250g fillet in this price range. 

I was in red meat heaven and definitely got that red meat energy hit I was craving.  American beef has a richness and complexity of flavour that is quite distinctive if you've been raised on Australian beef.  This is not my criticism of either but I was just surprised that I could taste the difference.

The sauce was curious blend of tomato sauce, mustard flavours and a secret blend of herbs and spices.  It went with everything.

It was a testament to the flavour of the beef and the way it was cooked that I was quite happy to eat as much as I could of my serving without the need slather it in too much of Wolfgang's steak sauce.

I didn't have much room to finish the onion rings which were lightly battered, crsip and very moreish.

But I did finish off this generous serve of steamed broccoli.

We didn't have room for dessert, but this is a sneaky snap of a neighbouring table's share plate of desserts.

It was a delicious meal and good value from this tourist's point of view.

Wolfgang's Steakhouse By Wolfgang Zwiener on Urbanspoon

May 30, 2011

The Weeknight Book Club: The Foremost Good Fortune by Susan Conley.

Image courtesy of Amazon.

Beijing is a city that fascinates me.  It's contrasts of the old and the new, its size and its pace, the meeting of East and West and how all of this is filtered (for its citizens, visitors and the outside world) by the less than subtle censorship of the government.

Susan Conley's memoir, 'The Foremost Good Fortune' takes us with her family as they relocate from Maine in the United States, to Beijing China.  Susan's husband Tony has always had an affinity for China and Chinese culture and is not only fluent in Mandarin but has also managed to get 'inside' the heart and soul of the country and its people.  It is Tony's job that takes Susan and their 2 young sons to a new life in Beijing.

In the first part of the novel, Susan is desperately and at time humourously trying to stay afloat in a new country whose language she cannot speak and whose culture she cannot yet understand.  Her 2 young sons begin school at an international school and through them, Susan begins to make friends with other expatriate families.  The expatriate wives are bound by their foreign-ness and isolation in Beijing but this bond is not always strong enough to support friendships between them when personal difficulties and tragedies arise.

Susan and Beijing are at first oil and water but slowly, after much shaking of both, they combine.  Susan starts to learn Mandarin and befriends Rose, her young and talented Mandarin teacher.  Susan's housekeeper becomes a much loved part of the family who loves Susan's sons as her own.  The family driver helps them all navigate the streets and situations that Beijing presents them.

Susan has a very natural writing style that manages to provide very powerful word pictures of the new sights and sounds that are part of her new home city as well as her own reflections of what all these mean to her.

Just as the family get a toe hold in the city, a personal tragedy strikes.  Susan is diagnosed with breast cancer and has a series of frustrating confrontations with the Chinese healthcare system.  It is one of many situations where the friction is not Susan's alone.  Beijing locals stand with her as together they try to get the truth and a fair hearing from those in positions of power and knowledge.

Susan finally returns home to Maine for her successful treatment.  It surprises her that she does return to Beijing with feelings of anticpation rather than dread.  The novel ends with the family's final goodbye to Beijing.  The friends they made, however, will forever be in their hearts and memories.

'The Foremost Good Fortune' is a memoir not only of family discovering and then belonging in a foreign country, it is also a very personal account of one woman's successful fight against breast cancer.  As Susan becomes more proficient in Mandarin, her wider vocabulary not only enables her to be more easily understood by those around her, it also empowers her to articulate her needs, fears and emotions more succinctly.

May 29, 2011

The Massive Internal Restructuring Continues. A Return To Homecooked Dinners.

After yesterday's mass emptying of the SSG Manor wardrobes, I was determined to maintain my decluttering momentum by whatever means possible.  Which required me to brave the Sunday morning crowd at Ikea to get the last few boxes to make my clothes as organized and easy to locate as possible.  My free mug of Ikea coffee did the trick and I was soon buzzing through the self pay station with everything I needed.

I know the major problem I have is that I have too much stuff.  But I also like having options, lots of options.  I've parted with as much as I can but my old way of managing the space I had just wasn't working:
  • before work (as in '5 minutes to spare' before), I'd be pulling 10 different long black stretchy items out of the bottom of my wardrobe in the desperate hope that one of them would be a pair of opaque stockings both free of holes and in possession of a functioning waistband
  • I'd empty baskets of scarves/bangles/belts trying to find the one scarf that I had to wear that day
  • trying to find matching work socks moved me to tears on many occasions - do you know how painful it is to have to get out of your trousers and then find a skirt and stockings at short notice?
  • despite all this, I'd still get vague feelings that I still needed to go shopping that weekend (I think that was my subconscious using retail therapy to manage my wardrobe chaos anxiety).
So, I tackled all these problems head on today and I think I've found a system that works for me.

Everything that isn't on a hanger goes into one of these pull out boxes with a sheer front.  Eventually, I'm going to put tags on the front of each box to make sorting the washing easier.  It's going to be a craft session for another day.  Perhaps one of those afternoons on the long weekend that is only one more weekend away.  Then I halved the handbags floating around (they occasionally dropped onto my head as well) by storing those that don't get used much in their boxes at the very top of the wardrobe.

I found all my scarves!  I'm using this document organizer from Ikea as a set of shelves.  Don't worry, I went back and lined each 'shelf' with tissue paper.  The only problem is, I think there's still heaps of room for more scarves on each shelf.

That black hole of black bottoms?

Sorted.  I now have a basket system which is labelled.  One for opaques, one for socks and one for sheer stockings.  I feel so calm looking at this photo.  Knowing that all my working days from now on will begin with my feet apropriately covered, if nothing else.

I then sorted out the rest of my clothes and stowed anything summery in fabric 'drawers' that sit in my wardrobe shelves.  Out of sight, out of mind (and potential confusion) until next summer.

It hasn't all been ruthless efficiency this weekend.  After 2 weeks away, I decided to get back into that quaint routine of cooking dinner.  If your haven't had a look at the latest issue of Super Food Ideas, I strongly urge you to do so.  There are so many good and practical recipes if you're short on time and imagination but still want to cook something a little different for dinner.

I've had great successwith the 2 recipes I've tried so far.

I made the Spicy Tortilla Soup on Friday night. You know my feelings about Coles' rotisserie chickens.  To me, they are synonymous with the words 'shredded cooked chicken'.

The recipe calls for shallow frying cubed tortillas as a Mexican crouton ('Mexiton'?) for the soup.  The lazy half of my brain was very tempted to use corn chips instead but don't.  The extra effort is worth it.

The tortilla chips go in the base of the bowl and then the soup.  The garnish is sour cream and a mix oc corn kernels and coriander.  It's a liquid taco and you have to have the sour cream.  This soothing soup helped transition Mr SSG and I out of our North American Vacation diet as we try to cope without cake and cream based desserts for both afternoon tea after dinner.

The second dish I tried was the lamb and lentil stew.  Isn't it lovely that winter brings with it a fall in the price of lamb?  This stew was made with lamb shanks, canned lentils and a few teaspoons of Morroan Spice mix (amongst other things).  Again, another major success.  The lamb was very tender and a little caramelized and went perfectly with a simple pumpkin mash and green beans.

Central Park without the Donna Hay effect.  Still magical.

As I mentioned last night, I took the current issue of Donna Hay magazine with my sore back to bed rather early last night.  The New York City feature was beautiful.  There were pretzels, cod and potato dip and chocolate whisky truffles as well as some breathtaking photos of Central Park under a blanket of snow.  New York City is just one of those places, isn't it?  Everyone who lives there or visits it has their own photos that say everything about the city to them.

In other news from the issue, Lanvin flats are on the wish list!  Just thought I'd slip in that fashion reference.  It has not been a high fashion weekend for me at all, I don't think I've been separated from my Explorer socks for any longer than it takes to have a shower and get dressed again.

This week, A Farmer's Wife shared her recipe for beef casserole.  It's been tried and tested in many a country kitchen and has origins in both her and her husband's families.  So it must be good.  Mine has just come out of the oven and I'm getting ready to serve it for dinner.  The house smells fantastic.  Thanks again, AFW, you're The Source for country cooking. 

Hawaii has not left the building.  I'm planning more posts for the next couple of weeks.  APEC is going to be in Honolulu this November and I'm sure Prime Minister Gillard is eagerly anticipating my every post so that she can plan what Tim and she do in any down time that she has.  I hope she's okay with my little customs story from the Hawaii Shop Girl post.....

PS:  we've just had dinner.  The beef casserole was even yummier than it smelled.  The roasted prunes had a salty/sweet flavour and the gravy was rich and full of flavour. 

May 28, 2011

Hawaii Shop Girl.

Today's post would not have been possible without the help of the following people:
  • the lovely man at the luggage carousel who helped me heave my suitcase off the conveyor belt
  • those who laughed with me when I said that the reason both my suitcases were bulging was that I was shopping for Australia
  • the other lovely man who helped me wheel my suitcases through customs because 'the faster we get you through, the quicker I get through behind you'
  • and perhaps most importantly, the young lady at customs who lead me to realize that all the shoes I bought were trainers and who really didn't want to see all the underwear a woman with such boring taste in shoes was likely to be muling home.
Thanks again, all of you.

Neiman Marcus was more cosmetic mecca than Mecca Cosmetica.  Plus the ladies have this compulsion to match what you buy weight for weight with free samples.

So here we are.  I'm finally unpacked.  Personal sacrifices were made.  I stayed home for an entire sunny Saturday morning to pack and declutter. 

My only social outing (besides yoga in the afternoon which was more a therapeutic intervention) involved dressing up my black trackies and grey explorer socks with these fetching Crocs in order to go up the road to get some coffee.

They do their coffees super hot at Cavalicious!  You have no idea what good news this was to my hands this morning.
Those bulging suitcases have slimmed down in record time (they could teach those Hollywood yummy mummies a thing or two) and I've done enough decluttering to find space for all my new stuff make me realize that I realistically will not need to buy another item of clothing until ... a really scary date way into the future. 

The spare suitcase and backpack  with their 'Hawaii Injection'.  Filled in 4 hours ....
I'll come clean and say that a lot of shopping went down in Hawaii.  The volume of which took even Mr SSG by surprise.

I blame those energy foods cheap bananas and Hawaiian coffee (their beans really are better than those that supply the rest of the nation's coffee).

Trolley buses (in the background, the green and yellow vehicle)  operate at high frequency throughout the day and are a cheap way of getting to and from the shops.

Our first stop was the Waikele Premium Outlets, as suggested by The Stylish Shoe Girl.  We took a shuttle bus there and back, at a cost of $4 per person I think and each person receives a booklet of discounts that actually translate to pretty significant savings, so do remember to use them when you're there. 

We had to nominate a return time when we were dropped off.  Because we had nothing else to do, we guestimated 4 hours and to our suprise, we needed every single one of them.  They were pretty generous about your people getting on the return buses with large suitcases.  You'll understand about the suitcases a little later, I think. 

The first store we went to was Saks Off Fifth.

Where do I begin?  You've already seen my ridiculously cheap Marni dress but there was more.  Mr SSG got 2 Hugo Boss suits for the price of one (which was already 60% off), I got 3 pairs of designer shoes for less than $200 and then there were these dresses.

We love leopard print!!!  Dress by Moschino.

Dress by Escada.
Both, I am happy to say were Heavily Discounted and then Heavily Discounted .. Again.  To the point that they each cost the same as what a full price Cue or Country Road dress is going for these days (which is a ridiculous number in both instances).  Sorry about the gratuitous inclusion of my grotty Birkis in these photos but I am all about keeping things real in somewhat surreal retailing circumstances.

Then we detoured to the Samsonite store because it looked like things were getting pretty serious indeed.  We found a very practical soft case (see earlier photos) which came with a free backpack and a matching tote bag as part of that discount  booklet I mentioned earlier.  The pink luggage locks were my idea.

I like an intuitive store entrance.  Totes are much more handy than shopping baskets.  They fit way more too.

Next stop, Polo Ralph Lauren.  Oh my.  It was All American Preppy Heaven for this pair of Australians.  Nothing was more than $60.  There was an additional discount on offer here as well.  I won't bore you with photos but think nautical, bright and for some reason, a black ladies puffer vest.  I'm becoming North Shore before my time.

Found!  A navy stripe knit dress (left) and shirt dresses cut for chicks with hips (right).

I just couldn't say no to nautical or preppy.  My next stop was Brooks Brothers.  The outlet mainly stocked the diffusion line '346' which suited me fine because all the fabrics were very SSG friendly (read wash and wear with only minimal ironing).  The prices were about 75% less than Herringbone but 500% better cut for my body shape.

The Adidas outlet was the scene of more pricing insanity.  $20 to $30 per item for tops and bottoms made from moisture wicking fabrics, $6 for cotton T shirts, $10 for multi packs of socks.

I didn't find anything at the other outlets which included Juicy Couture (which was pretty pricy in comparison) and Banana Republic (their full price stores had some great bargains though).  Didn't get to Coach and didn't look very hard at Barneys.

The two most important places to find at Ala Moana - the food court and where the trolley picks up.

My other major shopping destination was the Ala Moana Center.  It was such a pleasant place to shop.  It is enormous but also open air and only 3 storeys high so it doesn't get as claustrophobic as a Westfields.  It also has a good mix of price points.  I will devote another post to the food court...

The golden butterflies of Neiman Marcus.
In a different life, I could quite possibly be a lady who Neimans.  I've already declared my devotion to the beauty hall.  Don't take my word for it, check their website for their prices.  Now, try to remember any of the reasons that don't involve price gouging as to why prices in Australia are so far north of this.  Nope, neither could I.

American department stores are very similar to their Japanese sisters.  The designer floors are wall to wall, rack to rack merchandise.  Assistants calmly invite you to inspect the latest shipment of Pucci that they've just unpacked.  They apologize that they haven't priced it yet, it's all so new.  The current season Pucci is all immaculately hangered and an identical distance separates each hanger.  They don't look 'last season' at all, to my untrained eye.  All the staff have business cards.  You could host afternoon tea in a change room.

Shopping on holidays is not just about dream sequences in ladies designer fashion, it's also about pushing boundaries.  Shopping for things you normally don't for whatever reason.  Remember how I told the customs lady I bought lots of underwear?  Do you want to know why?  Because it was just so much more fun than I thought it would be.

For a start, the stores looked fun.  There were posters of impossibly perfect supermodels flirting with you from the storefronts but they sort of faded into the background once you step inside.

Oh the shame that Gilly Hicks Sydney does not infact have a single store in Sydney.  The shame!

I didn't know what to expect when I stepped into Gilly Hicks.  It is less of a nighclub than it's big brother A&F.  But it's still pretty dark inside.  There are references to Sydney and its beaches everywhere and that's what made me browse the racks of fashion beach gear.

Then I found the underwear room.  There was colour and print everywhere, plus cute canvas shopping totes.

The changerooms are really clever.  The drawers in the photo above contain each kind of bra by size.  You just try on the samples, find your best fit and style then head out to just choose colours.  Victoria's Secret works in a similar fashion but you pick what you're looking for in a bra (push up etc) and are given a size specific choice based on your cup size.  It's great!  No more awkward moments realizing you've brought the wrong size to the fitting room.  Or brought home something with another person's make up all over the straps.

After his shopping tour de force at Waikele, Mr SSG decided that unless a meal was involved, it would be best to leave me to my own devices at Ala Moana.

So I had to share my coconut shave ice with my Jimmy Choo shopping bag.

It's been a busy day here at SSG Manor.  The wardrobes, especially, are feeling sore and unsettled from all the packing and storing.  I'm off to bed now with my Donna Hay magazine.  There's a winter in New York City feature and I will be reliving some white winter memories of my own through the photos.

Have a lovely evening.

May 27, 2011

Diamond Head. The Cheesecake Factory.

There were visual food cues everywhere.

There comes a time during too many of my holidays where I find myself having to create a respectable apetite in order to do justice to the restaurant I have lined up for that night's dinner.   Lately, this happy crisis point has been occuring earlier and earlier into my trips.  There's just too many good foods I want to try and not enough meals in a day.  Aside from the restaurant meals, there's the on the run food hall meals plus the snacks and there's always the dilemma surrounding whether or not to eat the same thing twice.  There's a whole different set of issues surrounding the need to squeeze in at least one healthy food per meal.

Which is why I found myself on our second morning in Hawaii folding up my flying kangaroo PJs (thank you QANTAS) and pondering the day's kilojoule burning itinerary.

Florence Broadhurst's designs grace QANTAS' toiletry bags.

I seemed to remember seeing a volcanic crater somewhere on the beach....

Diamond Head from Waikiki Beach.

It looked pretty far away with a pretty steep upward climb too.

That's what we'd do.  A brisk walk to mingle with the locals, a climb to the top of a volcanic crater and then .... a dinner featuring burgers and cheesecake.

You know, just our average run of the mill beach front avenue in the heart of the city.

So, off we went to Diamond Head which is probably 3 kilometres down the road and up another one from The Royal Hawaiian (I'm even worse at street names when I'm on holiday, my iPhone makes me so lazy). 

I like trying to find where the locals do their thing in a new city.  It's grounding to be in the streets of surburbia, far away from the glitz of the stores and the somewhat transient atmosphere that suitcases and tour buses seem to give a street.

Coconut Street.
When I got a little more confident of my bearings, I managed to go for a run through the 'burbs most mornings and it was so much more pleasant than the treadmill in the gym.

Diamond Head lighthouse.
Most mornings, these more challenging beaches would be full of local surfers catching some great waves.

Even on a such a small island, canine Hawaiians have their own Bark Parks.

Okay, here we are.  The start of the serious hike.

But first, some freshly cut pineapple and a Gatorade from the esky.

It was a pretty challenging hike.  And then we got to these stairs.

Some keen children reckoned they counted at least 66 stairs, others 59.  I didn't have the breath to count and climb simultaneously.  They felt like buns of steel at the top, even if they didn't look it yet.
But, we were well rewarded at the top.  The air was so cool on our flushed and sweaty faces.

That's the Diamond Head Lighthouse we were face to face with on the ground.

The Royal Hawaiian is nestled in the centre of this photo.

A sign of Hawaii's strong military role within the US.  These are barracks from past conflicts.  Never used.

This young lady was close to calling it a day.  She was all of 4 years old but yes, that is indeed a black velour play suit accessorized with a fresh plumeria behind her ear.

Whilst hiking, it really was difficult to appreciate that we were in fact on the rim of a volcanic crater and looking into the Pacific Ocean.

I've been googling away and this is what Diamond Head looks like with the benefit of an aerial view and a panoramic lens.

Image courtesy of wikipedia.

Enough with the geography!  All that walking and climbing left me starving  but at least I had the start of a killer total body tan.  On holidays, I have a habit of conveniently forgetting my Slip, Slop, Slap.  Just don't tell the Australian Cancer Council on me.

Our treat for the day was dinner at The Cheesecake Factory's only branch in Hawaii.  This place is a legendary stop for tourists.  It is always full, there are lines out the door and they do a mean takeaway trade.  I think my photos will help you understand why.

At the risk of sounding like a whingy tourist, American bread is really sweet.  Even to the sweet toothed tourist.  That being said, the oat and honey bread at The Cheesecake Factory was really up my alley.  The sweetness suited the texture of this bread.

Staying well hydrated is crucial to a carb laden dinner.
Mr SSG and I shared an entree, the Roadside Sliders.  Mini hamburgers with a side of pickles and lettuce.

So tasty as they were, I resisted the urge to douse my share with extra tomato sauce.

They look simple and generic but they tasted as good as I remembered American hamburgers to taste from our last trip in 2009.  The beef is sweeter and had a richer taste here compared to Australian beef.

Then I went all wholesome with a herb crusted salmon salad.  A very generous serve of greens with the perfect amount of dressing. The salmon was cooked just the way I like it.

Mr SSG went Mexican with the stuffed chicken tacos.  They were everything he hoped for - carbs, cheese, sour cream and 100% comfort on a plate.

We couldn't go to The Cheesecake Factory without having cheesecake, could we?  So we shared the Red Velvet Cheesecake.  Where do I start?  Many of the cheesecakes here do not have a crumb base and are in fact layers of cheesecake between layers of regular cake.  They aren't overly sweet either.  They are full of flavour and the cake layers are dense and moist.

They are the reasons why I was so addicted and could not leave until the last forkful was lifted from the plate.

By this stage, my eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach so I contented myself with a look at the takeaway counter.

And pondered options for my next visit.

Which was exactly 6 days later....

The lines were crazy this time so Mr SSG and I got takeaway.  We ate our spoils on some comfy couches in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Centre which surrounds the restaurant.

White chocolate and raspberry truffle cheesecake.

Pina Colada Cheesecake.
We were both pretty quiet for a while there.

By the way, I hope you're not sick of the Hawaii posts yet.  Because tomorrow looks like it's going to be sponsored by Hawaii Shop Girl.

Have a lovely evening.  I've really enjoyed all your comments about the trip.  Keep 'em coming in.

The Cheesecake Factory on Urbanspoon


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