Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Circus Indeed

Britney Spears performed at the first Sydney concert of her Circus tour on Monday, 16 November and I was there. I consider myself to be a feminist with reasonably good taste and yet I didn't go to the concert to be ironic (well, not entirely). Do I need to explain myself? Okay, here's the whole story:

Back in early July when the tickets first went on sale, my friends suggested that we all go. I'm not a huge Britney fan. In fact, I don't own any of her albums or songs, but I love a danceable pop song as much as the next girl. Spending time with my girlfriends gawking at the whole spectacle and singing along to Hit Me Baby One More Time sounded like a pleasant way to spend an evening so I debated with myself about whether or not to buy a $100 ticket.

In the end I decided that 'meh, I'd rather buy a nice top or dine out with Mick than spend the $100 on Brit' and told Jess, the designated organiser, of my nay vote. The very next day, however, she emailed me something to the effect of 'happy birthday, I bought you a ticket anyway.' By purchasing my ticket as a gift, Jess liberated me from any qualms I had about paying $100 to see this overproduced starlet. Once it was free, I got really psyched about going to Britney's Circus.

My friends are obviously women of good taste, too. What motivated them to cough up the big bucks? Well, if I were feeling a bit nerdier today I'd whip up a pie chart, but this will have to suffice. Here are some of our reasons:

It was 22% the biggest pop star of our generation is here in Sydney, not every musical act travels down under, let's get in on that;
37% okay, yes, I really do like some of her songs; and
41% voyeuristic schadenfreude. Poor Brit lost her mind and then her hair and then her shoes that time she was at a 7 Eleven bathroom and then a custody battle to Kevin Federline. Evilly, we couldn't wait to physically witness Brit slip up and say something like 'Happy Easter, Melbourne!'

It seemed like months since Jess ordered the tickets, but the reality of going to this concert set in when Brit kicked off the Australian leg of her tour in Perth and was criticized sharply for lip-syncing the whole show. I immediately decided that anyone who was disappointed by such a show was a fool, a sentiment John Mayer shared via tweet oddly enough. If we're being honest with ourselves, let's admit that our Brit didn't rise to the top because she's an amazing singer and that her recorded music sounds better, more true to the auto-tuned tracks we've come to love and employ as ringtones.

Nah, we weren't bothered by the lip-syncing, my friends and I concluded over glasses of sangria before the show. There was a zen to pop icon concert enjoyment: go in expecting artists to create music on stage and you will be disappointed, go in expecting pyrotechnics, multiple costume changes and choreography and you will be delighted.

Having dinner and drinks together at the White Horse in Surry Hills was the extent of our preparation before the show. We thought about dressing up and aimed for pink as our unifying theme, but didn't look cohesive and that was okay. That's why it was such a surprise when our friend Sus showed up in a full on Britney circa 1998 costume complete with braids, midriff baring button-down shirt, skirt and even those whispy things in her hair.

Sus wasn't seeking attention; she was in it purely for fun and for that reason, Sus is my hero. Here I am psychoanalyzing and justifying our reasons behind going to a Britney Spears concert, but Sus simply saw a Heidi wig while browsing in a costume shop and figured, 'yeah, that'd be fun.' While perusing my own closet my mantra was juvenile and festive, but I wound up looking sort of suburban and boring in my pink tank top, jeans and sandals. Oh, well.

Of course, our group wasn't the only one that dressed to impress for the concert. When we boarded the train, we found it packed with a couple other Britney lookalikes (not as convincing as Sus) and hordes of other young women in night-club attire: tiny cocktail dresses and sky-high heels. This was a surprise as we were expecting to see women our age, tweens and gay men. Instead, the concert was attended by very few men, a number of families with young children and the above mentioned lady-bogans in their late teens and early twenties.

We weren't interested in the opening act, DJ Havana Brown (who?) and arrived about ten minutes before the circus began. I was naively looking forward to seeing animals on stage, but we were treated to the Big Apple Circus instead, a group of somewhat non-traditional acrobats, midgets and those with a talent for spinning large hoops on or around their bodies (is there a word for that?). The most memorable performer was the legless trampolinist; watching her bounce felt wrong somehow, but at the same time I was glad that she isn't always bound to her wheelchair.

After 30 or so minutes of circus, Brit finally made her grand entrance. The crowd was nearly choking with excitement, but we left an hour and a half later underwhelmed. I knew all along that Brit would lip-synch the show, but still felt disappointed that she didn't bother to connect with her audience. There was no 'Happy Easter, Melbourne,' no, Brit was in reasonably good form, but there was no 'Hello, Sydney. How are you tonight?' either. The carefully choreographed interludes between songs were taken up by costume changes and left no room for improvisation. She attempted to sing one ballad, but lazily left it to the backing track a few bars in.

I'd love to say that what Brit lacked in actual singing she made up for with sharp dance moves, but I can't say that either. Britney is a talented dancer, but she was only 75% in it. It looked as if she were just racing to cover all parts of the stage and wasn't concerned about hitting every target.

I had never been to a concert before during which music wasn't created on stage and didn't know exactly what to expect. However, I did expect that Brit would have people out of their seats swaying and singing along to their favorite bubble gum pop anthems. Nope. No one in the nosebleeds was up and moving, looking further down, I noticed that neither were the fans in better seats or even those in the VIP ground area. When Britney sashayed to their area of the stage, they were too busy capturing the moment on their iPhones to scream and stick their hand out wildly in hopes that Brit would bless them with a sweaty high-five.

So, all in all, I was grateful that I hadn't paid for this show. I was even more grateful still that the best part of the circus was sharing it with friends.

Monday, November 16, 2009

You're never too old to boogie board

My friends Mike and Shannon recently relocated to Manly and invited us all to warm their new digs with a brunch party last weekend. The festivities were initially scheduled for the prior weekend, but were rescheduled because of the weather forecast: rain with a chance of bleh. I didn't understand the need for a sunny day; we were coming to see their home, we didn't need the beach! Oh, how wrong I was.

The weather Saturday was warm and perfect for brunch followed by an afternoon at Manly beach. Mike and Shan are, among our friends, the best, most ambitious and most prolific cooks in Sydney and thus it came as no surprise when they treated us to fresh mango smoothies, breakfast tacos with homemade pico de gallo, delightfully spiced coffee cake and juicy watermelon. After waiting the requisite 30 minutes, we threw on our suits and wandered en masse down to the beach (only 7 minutes from their house, those lucky dogs!)

Saturday was one of the first beach days of the season so the beach was understandably crowded. We found dozens of kids in what appeared to be a junior surf life saving club in addition to the usual crowd of sun-loving (but fearing) Aussies on Manly beach that day. Protectively clad in rash-guards, wetsuits and gobs of sunscreen, the kids had an absolute blast paddling their surf boards out to sea, legs kicking in unison and then riding the waves back to shore.

When I saw a six year old girl surf right past me on a gentle wave, I knew I had to grab one of the boogie boards that Mike and Shan had loaned us for the day. I recruited Jess and the two of us retaught ourselves how to catch the waves on a boogie board. After a half an hour of a ridiculous amount of fun, we passed the boards off to other members of our crew so that they could give the boards a go. However, I reclaimed the board twice when one of them wasn't being used.

The tide was very low and I rode the waves practically all the way to the sand. I have yet to learn how to gracefully roll off the board when I've beached myself on the sand and return to a standing position while holding the board. Basically, I looked silly and awkward, but the thrill of being pushed along on top of a wave was worth it. That sudden burst of speed as the wave surges forward is a feeling I hope to never forget. But if I do, I can remake the memory because, fortunately, you're never too old to boogie board.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Best. Halloween. Weekend. Ever.

I didn't have a lot of plans this past Halloween weekend. Gabe and Margaret graciously invited us to their monster cupcake decorating party on Friday, but there was to be no dressing up or pumpkin carving on Halloween day. I was a little disappointed, but I'm an adult living in Australia, what could I expect from this American holiday for kids?

A lot, as it turns out. Gabe and Margaret's second annual monster cupcake decorating party was a huge success. I offered to bring my own glutard cupcakes (courtesy of this delicious recipe), but Margaret, an experienced baker, made not one but two types of gluten free cupcakes all on her own! I was impressed by her baking prowess (she adapted the recipe I sent, a daring move when you're working with glutard flour) and grateful that I had my pick of vanilla or chocolate cupcakes, just like everyone else!

None of us adults were dressed for the occasion, but my boss' children came in costume and that really put me in the Halloween spirit (no pun intended). We filled up on spicy bowls of chili and of course, overloaded on sugar from fluffy cupcakes, sweet green and orange frosting and lots of candy! None of my cupcake designs came out as intended (making a skull from brown and white M&Ms on a three inch cupcake doesn't work), but a good time was had by all.

In fact, we were having such a good time that Thor and Jennie decided to throw a Halloween party the next evening. Bless their hearts, those two Brits went absolutely wild transforming their apartment into classy Halloween central. They spent their entire day searching for decorations and preparing for our arrival and their efforts really showed! They had balloons, an orange and black Trick or Treat banner and had even switched out their light bulbs for spooky red ones.

Thor didn't realize that part of the drama/fun of pumpkin carving is scooping out the pumpkin's stringy, goopy insides and had done all the work for us on four different pumpkins! All we had to do was draw jack-o-lantern faces and carve. I wanted our pumpkin to say something about our surroundings and was inspired by the kangaroo crossing road sign. Mickey gives me all the credit for our good results, but his carving was top notch.

We lined our four pumpkins up along the window, lit candles inside and enjoyed their glow while we binged on snacks, chips and more candy. Nostalgia inspired us to watch the classic It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. We had no idea that the television special is 43 years old; it's so clever and timeless, easy for young and old to enjoy. We followed that with Black Sheep, a kiwi horror comedy about zombie sheep. It was preposterous and not afraid to make fun of itself, good for laughs and not nightmares, thank goodness. Thanks, Thor and Jen, yours was the best last minute Halloween party in history.

We kept the festivities going into Sunday as well, spending a sunny morning on the coast admiring the Sculptures by the Sea at Bondi and Tamarama. The annual event always draws a big crowd and we were glad to arrive before the rush. I enjoyed it because sculptures that I might not have given a second look in a museum seem to make more sense in the context of the water and cliff side. I still had no patience for the abstract, shiny metallic sculptures, but genuinely loved the colorful installations and those that moved with the wind.

As if the weekend couldn't get any better, we spent Sunday afternoon at Jess and Chris' Mexican fiesta, an occasion very loosely tied to El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). They provided all the fixings for carne asada super burritos: grilled steak and peppers, rice, refried beans, cheese and salsas all wrapped up in homemade flour tortillas. We also gorged on chips and guac and Jess' margarita pie for dessert. Wow, what a treat!

Almost nothing can compare to the excitement of planning one's Halloween costume and dressing up for trick or treating on October 31 as a kid. However, if the Halloweens of my future are still filled with sweets and good friends like this one was, I'll be a happy lady.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Restaurant Review - Agave

Eating out in Sydney doesn't often inspire me to share my dining experience with the world. In telling friends about new restaurants I've tried, I find myself saying the same things: "good, but expensive." It seems the only variable in my reviews is the quality of service (usually somewhere between okay and terrible).

Last week, Mickey and I dined at Agave, a new Mexican restaurant in Surry Hills, and I'm delighted to actually have something besides 'good, but expensive' to say about it, so I gave it a blog post.

As ex-pats, we complain about food in Australia all the time: why don't they sell regular Cheerios? Why would anyone eat Vegemite? If cookies are biscuits and biscuits are scones then where are those things that we know as scones and why doesn't KFC here sell biscuits? I could go on and on, but the reality is that there is great food in Sydney. The produce and seafood are fresh and you can't beat the Thai.

Still, I feel our only legitimate complaint is that about the dearth of good Mexican food, a dietary staple for those who grew up in California or Texas, let alone Mexico. The scarcity of restaurants I can understand (there isn't a huge Mexican population in Australia), but the unavailability of key ingredients such as chilies, sauces, cheeses and decent tortillas makes it hard to replicate the taqueria experience in your own kitchen, too.

However, those who could live on burritos (they created the breakfast burrito exactly for this purpose) and now call Sydney home can get a taste of authentic Mexican food at Agave. I'm thrilled to say that I loved everything I tried at this restaurant and I can't wait to go back.

Last Sunday we caught the tail end of happy hour and celebrated with sangria, arguably more Spanish than Mexican, but it was the best sangria I've had in Australia, like juice. We knew we were in for a treat after our flautas appetizer arrived. The tender shredded beef complemented the perfectly crispy deep fried tortillas beautifully. Best of all, the flautas were topped with real guacamole (as opposed to mashed avocado) and queso cotija, that light, crumbly Mexican cheese. This was a huge find for us because Australia is great with cheddar, feta and blue cheeses, but Mexican cheeses such as queso fresco and Monterrey jack are nowhere to be found.

Our mains were equally enjoyable. Mickey went for chicken mole, an excellent choice considering how difficult it is to make mole at home, and I opted for a regional lamb dish, cooked in parchment paper. Both were flavorful, but the highlight was wrapping our meat in fresh corn tortillas. Living in California, I never paid attention to the night and day difference between packaged and fresh tortillas. Now that I'm living gluten free in Sydney, the contrast couldn't be sharper. I was in heaven with those corn tortillas!
Sadly, we didn't have room for flan on Sunday, but I'll be back soon enough. I could have kept Agave a secret, but I'm feeling generous and I want this restaurant to flourish! We were some of only maybe ten diners on Sunday, so word has yet to get around about Sydney's newest culinary treasure. So, if you're in Sydney, give it a try, and bring me back some corn tortillas!

PS - In looking for a picture for my post, I found a review for Agave in the Sydney Morning Herald by Terry Durack. If you don't read the article, I'll summarize: Terry describes Agave as only average; what a pendejo! Watch how fast I can discredit our man Terr, though. He walked in to the restaurant with the following attitude: "There are only three or four meals in a day - why on earth waste one of them on Mexican?" Agave is totally wasted on him! Furthermore, here's Terry's guide to pronouncing the name of the restaurant: "(a-garv-ay)." Yuck! What's the 'r' doing in there? Terr, you couldn't be more wrong.