Way down inside

This is how this post began, some ten days back before I found myself dis­tract­ed by life:

So here I am, a week into  Auck­land town and I’m still rather won­der­ing where I am. I wan­dered up and down Queen Street this morn­ing — begin­ning at 8am (the hour was­n’t inten­tion­al — I mis­read,  or, rather, lazi­ly did­n’t both­er to check an appoint­ment and found myself in an emp­ty ball­room). It’s an odd, quite lone­ly place at that time of the morn­ing, with no-one con­vers­ing or inter­act­ing — aside from the odd order for hot cof­fee — as every­one, head down, push­es towards offices or shops. I was rather out of step as I lazi­ly gait­ed down­town, through the ice-cold extreme beau­ty of ear­ly morn­ing Albert Park to the CBD. I was killing time but my unhur­ried time was some­what unique…


I’d for­got­ten I’d scrib­bled that until last night and decid­ed to leave it unedit­ed as a pre­cur­sor to my trip to New Zealand travelogue.

And a trav­el­ogue it is — I’m a tourist. I came to New Zealand this time, it’s true, on a mis­sion which was very much not that of a tourist or an off-shorer (more of that in anoth­er more time­ly post soon as I gath­er my thoughts and allies) but day to day, after 11 months away, I’m a tourist.

I write this at 40,000 feet, or what­ev­er height air­craft real­ly fly at, hav­ing left Auckland’s odd lit­tle air­port (did it real­ly get an award for retail design? Real­ly?) a few moments ago. I feel torn. I’m fly­ing home to Bangkok town, a won­der­ful, vibrant, huge buzzing mon­ster of a city that I love and love liv­ing in, and I can’t wait to see and hold Brigid after ten days apart (although an hour each day on Skype tem­pers the pain – I guess when tech­nol­o­gy advances to a tac­tile lev­el where I can rub the dogs dig­i­tal­ly on the chest and they wag their dis­tant tails the long­ings may abate a lit­tle more).

But, I’m leav­ing home. I went up the esca­la­tor at the air­port, wav­ing to my par­ents, strug­gling awful­ly with the ever­p­re­sent thought that I hope this is not the last time I see my elder­ly dad who is now a bet­ter friend than he has ever been. I wait­ed until I turned the cor­ner, beyond their sight, and stopped to gath­er myself before going through immigration.

And friends. Every one, every day, I felt like grab­bing, like hug­ging. I love talk­ing to you, I love talk­ing non­sense with you. I miss you so much. All of you. I’m so privileged.

Two days in a row, the two before I left, Peter dropped every­thing to spend an hour, just sit­ting sip­ping cof­fee and talk­ing non­sense. I love you matey. I love you all.

And I love Blake and San­dra for mak­ing me laugh like a sil­ly teenag­er every day and being absolute­ly incred­i­ble hosts. And for tak­ing me on a tour.

I’m not a tourist but I was a tourist. It felt odd. Every­day it felt odd. The street was odd and alien; the way you talk and inter­act was alien; the shops were alien; the sig­nage was alien; the media was alien; and – the thing I liked least — the faux Ponsonby/Parnell small-town sophis­ti­ca­tion and need to aspire to sophis­ti­ca­tion was utter­ly alien.

Again, I find the casu­al and accept­ed racism in the edu­cat­ed and should know bet­ter class­es alien. Worse: it hor­ri­fies. The adver­tis­ing imagery is over­whelm­ing­ly Anglo-Sax­on too — like it used to be (and may still be) in Australia.

The cost of every­thing – the out­ra­geous cost of every­thing (can any­one tell me why a 17” Mac­book Pro is $1000 more in NZ than any­where in Asia) – was very alien. Hell, Duty Free in the air­port charges more than the stan­dard street prices off­shore. I don’t like being gouged, and it did­n’t used to be that way. What changed?

I went places.

I went to Bar­rio. Roger Perry’s fab­u­lous neig­bour­hood bar in Pon­son­by hosts the sort of music you’d put on the stereo at home after tum­bling in at the end a stress­ful day. It has warmth, humour and – in the win­ter – a big roar­ing fire. And it has Roger. Cool as..

I lis­tened to 95bFM. (Inof­fen­sive­ly) way slick­er than it has been in years, it was awash with new – at least to me – New Zealand bands and New Zealand songs and clear­ly nobody asks — or both­ers much of the time to men­tion —  if they are from New Zealand any­more because, rather sim­ply, it no longer mat­ters. That war is clear­ly won, and Manu Tay­lor, the sta­tion man­ag­er, said when we had brekky togeth­er the oth­er day, that ‘it’s 1981 again’ – imply­ing that we are on the cusp of a explo­sive gold­en age of New Zealand musi­cal cre­ativ­i­ty, the dif­fer­ence being that this time there is an estab­lished indus­tri­al back­bone to sup­port it.

Per­haps so, but this time 1981 has been bought to you by an unin­ter­rupt­ed cul­tur­al fren­zy that now stretch­es back years, rather than a reac­tion to a vac­u­um as it was in the punk and post punk era. There is a dif­fer­ence. We have a lega­cy, now we just need to doc­u­ment it.

I went to Tabac. Tabac, owned by my old busi­ness part­ner and friend, Tom Samp­son, and adroit­ly man­aged on a shoe­string by the icon­ic and – if you under­stand the his­to­ry of the cock­tail in Auck­land – leg­endary Kevin the Hat,  is home to many of the more inter­est­ing bands in Auck­land. The night I went I was offered a free tick­et to The Chills at The Kings Arms but declined – I pre­ferred, buzzing off the noise I’d been hear­ing on bFM, to hang around for the trio of new bands play­ing and being pro­mot­ed by the Rekkit Crew, front­ed, par­tial­ly, by Dylan Cher­ry, the son of Workshop’s Chris and Helen Cher­ry and some­one I’d known since he was knee high.

How good were Yolan­da!’ Dylan msgd me a few days lat­er, after I apol­o­gized for, some­what under the weath­er, telling him as he stood on the door that ‘last time I saw you, you were this high….’

And they were.


As was Jesse Shee­han, the head­lin­er. Both blis­ter­ing­ly so.…

Although wary of being the old guy at the end of the bar, I was very tempt­ed to change my flight just so I could do anoth­er Fri­day Rekkit at Tabac.

I went to Hanoi. And it was a lit­tle dis­ap­point­ing. The place was fab­u­lous. The staff were won­der­ful, they were turn­ing away dozens, so the for­mu­la is work­ing. The food was mono­chrome. It had no bite, no edge, no unex­pect­ed dimen­sions. We asked for chill­ies to see if they would help. They came out in a small dish. They had no bite either. We can’t get the hot ones in New Zealand the wait­ress said. The Thai place – Zap – in the next street seems to have no issue doing so I thought.

I guessed the for­mu­la – for that mar­ket demo­graph­ic (the Pons ‘sophis­ti­cates’ as above) – doesn’t include too much chal­leng­ing of the din­ers’ palates. It gets good reviews in the right places.

Most high-end food in New Zealand – the pricey stuff at the chic city and Pon­son­by places is mono­chrome – at least in my expe­ri­ence, which I admit is not uni­ver­sal, how­ev­er, nor is it lim­it­ed. We sim­ply don’t do the ab-fab or sil­ver ser­vice well at all and nev­er have, but most espe­cial­ly when we try to do eth­nic blends like mod­ern Thai or Viet­namese, sub-Syd­ney Chic style as seems to be the cur­rent flavour. The foun­da­tion of the cuisines is often ripped out of it – the heat and spice pro­vide much of the sup­port that the oth­er flavours are built on and if we extract that and oth­er essen­tials there is no sol­id place to start. Ho hum.

That said, and I say this on loop, we do eth­nic hole in the wall and mid-lev­el real­ly, real­ly well and I was tak­en – by Blake & San­dra – on a gourmet tour of a few of the small places.

We went to KK.

I love KK. I’ve (well, Brigid and I) have been to KK, in Green­lane per­haps 60 times over the years. The mas­sive num­ber of glazed-with-hunger wait­ing patrons queued out­side every time we arrive per­haps means that I’m not alone in think­ing that it may the best Malaysian food you will find almost any­where. That includes Malaysia. In many, many trips to that coun­try, and many many researched expe­di­tions to find food, we’ve yet to find a place that offers food like KK, either the breadth of menu or the qual­i­ty of the food. All for sil­ly prices. It has bite.

We went to Sri Put­er­i’s. In Pan­mure, where much of Auck­land nev­er treads 1. Shoe­box sized, with spot­less Formi­ca tables, its Mamak (Tamil) menu was a long way from KK’s more Melayu styles. We ordered so much that I found myself gorg­ing on the spicy reheat­ed lamb cur­ry the next day. Fab, and thoughts of the mouth-water­ing small South Indi­an places in Penang which we fre­quent­ed after escap­ing the hor­ri­ble tourist traps on Gur­ney Dri­ve and the repeat­ed­ly unap­petis­ing hawk­er markets.

We went to Lit­tle India in Kings­land. I know the hip­sters go on about Satya, but the tex­tures at Lit­tle India are — to my taste at least — far more com­plex, lay­ered, and inter­est­ing than it’s oft-tout­ed groovi­er coun­ter­part 2 despite the almost class­room-like ambi­ence of the restau­ran­t’s large room. Satya always feels, like so many name restau­rants, to have adapt­ed their food to soothe the mass­es. That word comes to mind again — Lit­tle Indi­a’s food has bite. Satya has queues — what do they care what I think?

We went to New Flavour. There are so many cheap but over-lit Chi­nese (am I alone in being offend­ed by the New Zealand domes­tic use of the word ‘Asian’ to describe Chi­nese folk in New Zealand — I guess I am — it’s a big place, Asia), Thai, Indi­an, Cam­bo­di­an and oth­er East­ern region­al cafes along Domin­ion Rd, it’s pret­ty much impos­si­ble to know where to start with­out expert advice. I had such advice and we joined the queue for a table at this wee din­er that has all the ambi­ence of the inside of an over­crowd­ed ship­ping con­tain­er with flood lights on.

The deep fried squid was greasy and a mis­take but that was the only one. The var­i­ous vari­eties of Shang­hai styled dumplings (hand-made by an old lady in the cor­ner) we gorged our­selves on were bet­ter than any I’ve eat­en in main­land Chi­na, and the so-called Omelette, which was more like a flat fried bread, stuffed with var­i­ous things (I liked the red bean, San­dra went for the spring onion, Blake ate both) was won­der­ful. How­ev­er, the dish that real­ly nailed it was the Tofu and Cucum­ber — long shred­ded strips — sal­ad, the likes of which I’d nev­er had before. We were reluc­tant to pass over the table but the grow­ing queue was look­ing increas­ing­ly tetchy. I’m not sure why — it’s open until 4 am.

It’s inter­est­ing how big parts of the cre­ative soul of Auck­land City seems to be slip­ping fur­ther and fur­ther away from the tra­di­tion­al core. Places like Domin­ion Rd and parts west are increas­ing­ly entic­ing and whilst Pon­son­by, or some of it, seems increas­ing­ly soul­less. It goes around I guess.

We went to San­tos — like Bar­rio it still has soul, and is in Pon­son­by. What a won­der­ful insti­tu­tion. As Glenn made Blake, Peter and myself some of their reli­able reli­ably great cof­fee, he espoused the glob­al finan­cial crises, rug­by, and South Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, all with suf­fi­cient depth that he was­n’t just anoth­er bar­rista talk­ing shite on Pon­son­by Road. A cafe with bite. And history.

And Auck­land’s best eggs benedict.

We went to Grand Har­bour. It may have the best Dim Sim on Plan­et Earth but we’re not allowed to talk about them at the moment as they’re the only New Zealand joint on the Shark Fin wall of shame.

We went to Rus­sell & Fion­a’s. It was his (Rus­sel­l’s) birth­day and he and Fiona served up a feast of mid-win­ter New Zealand soul-food that went bliss­ful­ly with the con­ver­sa­tion and the whisky. The birth­day boy was sit­ting on the sofa grin­ning wide­ly to a sound­track of Don­na Sum­mer when we took our leave at 3 am.

We went to Mex­i­can Spe­cial­i­ties. Why I love Auck­land, part 1153: tucked away in the face­less sub­ur­ban wash that is the space south of St Johns Rd, and north of Marua Rd, sits this unas­sum­ing Mex­i­can shop which becomes a cafe three lunchtimes a week, and, for the rest of the week is just (not just — it’s a big plus in a city where Mex­i­can food has for­ev­er been the unin­spir­ing slush served up by the likes of The Mex­i­can Cafe) a retail­er sell­ing gen­uine and qual­i­ty Mex­i­can sauces, shells and, I assume there is a mar­ket for these, reli­gious artefacts.

The food, on those three days, is won­der­ful, and, as far as I’m able to judge giv­en my lim­it­ed expo­sure in the Amer­i­c­as, as close to the real thing as you’ll find beyond those shores. And sil­ly cheap. There are, of course, queues.

I met Blair Parkes. I’ve long been a big fan, and we’ve con­versed dig­i­tal­ly for years, but I final­ly was able to meet him, at the Great Blend where he seemed to me to be the star (although I doubt the word would sit eas­i­ly with him) of the evening, with his brick­face font and his mul­ti­me­dia pre­sen­ta­tion. I felt hum­bled and at a loss for words as he explained qui­et­ly how his life in Christchurch had evolved over the past year or so, and the trau­ma and loss, both per­son­al and in a wider sense, that he had forced on him and his world. I was also hum­bled by his tal­ent. I’m always hum­bled by great talent.

Final­ly, but of course, not least, I said good­bye to Min­ka. That I was in town for her funer­al was a (and I want to use the word for­tu­nate but of course it’s wrong and I can’t) tim­ing that I was grate­ful for. She was a good friend, although not a very close friend as our friend­ship was, over the years spo­radic (we had been talk­ing via Face­book over the past few months and did so quite often — I was also thrilled that a pho­to I had tak­en of her was includ­ed amongst those shown dur­ing the service).

And 40 — I still can’t work out how that hap­pens — ratio­nal thoughts are over­whelmed with the awful injus­tice and ‘why?’ But the song of choice at the ser­vice, the com­plete, quite raunchy 1969 take of Zep’s ‘Whole Lot­ta Love’ played loud­ly was Minka’s final good­bye. As it began, that riff, the whole of St Matthews smiled then laughed. Once last time she’d man­aged to lift a whole room by her pres­ence, just as she did so many times over the too few years. Bye, won­der­ful, inspir­ing Minka.


Show 2 footnotes

  1. Pan­mure is like the nev­er-nev­er ‘burb – most folk nev­er go there, nev­er think of it, it seems to have lit­tle rea­son to exist beyond host­ing a road to Glen Innes and anoth­er to Paku­ran­ga. Its main strip, Queen’s Rd, has almost no per­son­al­i­ty – beyond a very few rather inter­est­ing cafes. It’s an odd non-place.
  2. To be fair, I’ve not Satya-ed for a few years now, but even then it was get­ting the press and talk but was nev­er bet­ter than dis­ap­point­ing.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Petra Zoe on Facebook
August 8, 2011 at 11:03 am

I find the casu­al and accept­ed racism in the edu­cat­ed and should know bet­ter class­es alien. Worse: it horrifies.” 

And it appears to be get­ting worse, sad­ly… core Kiwi val­ues appear to be shift­ing more and more towards the “com­plete and utter nasty bas­tard” set­ting. I feel shame…

Rob Warn­er on Facebook
August 8, 2011 at 11:18 am

Excel­lent read Simon. When­ev­er I land back in NZ after a trip to Bangkok I feel the same — and I live here!… Also, KK is one of my locals, been vis­it­ing there for years — sur­prised I’ve nev­er seen you there.

August 8, 2011 at 11:33 am

This post makes me miss Auck­land. Welling­ton’s great and all, but there aren’t many good Chi­nese places around these parts.

James Brad­field on Facebook
August 8, 2011 at 11:48 am

Right on about Satya and lit­tle India.

Blake Monk­ley on Facebook
August 8, 2011 at 12:36 pm

More than 40 restau­rants serv­ing ‘Shark Fin soup’ in NZ, that web­site needs to shame the others.

August 8, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Agreed on Hanoi and Lit­tle India(Satya San­dring­ham beats the oth­er two hands down tho): a few new names in there to try (I’ve had KK in Welling­ton but had no idea they were in AKL). Cheers Simon!

August 8, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Just about to move back to Ak after liv­ing in Lon­don and Syd­ney for the last 5 years.
Expect I’ll feel a lit­tle like a tourist too, but I’m hap­py to read this post — espe­cial­ly the food. Espe­cial­ly, espe­cial­ly the mex­i­can. Always did think Mex­i­can Cafe was shite.…

Busters Bands on Facebook
August 8, 2011 at 12:57 pm

very inter­est­ing si

August 8, 2011 at 1:47 pm

all with suf­fi­cient depth that he wasn’t just anoth­er bar­rista talk­ing shite on Pon­son­by Road. A cafe with bite. And history.’

ha…so true

James Chester­man on Facebook
August 8, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Who wrote this…?

Simon Grigg on Facebook
August 8, 2011 at 5:15 pm

I did

Busters Bands on Facebook
August 8, 2011 at 5:18 pm

great read,insights of cul­tures through its places to eat out in

James Chester­man on Facebook
August 8, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Oh I thought so — the Grig­g­ster! bring back “Beats Per Minute” 🙂 maybe we could just play the record­ings of all the shows you did, as I have them on tape, bags of them…

Stu Kawows­ki on Facebook
August 11, 2011 at 4:22 am

I’m so sor­ry to hear about Min­ka. I only met her a few times, but I real­ly liked her. That’s very sad, I send out my love to her fam­i­ly and friends x

Stu Kawows­ki on Facebook
August 11, 2011 at 4:24 am

Went to Satya last night (Grey Lynn), under­whelm­ing I thought. I usu­al­ly pre­fer to go to Sri Pinang on K’ Rd. Won­der­ful­ly con­sis­tent for the last 20 years or more… Your din­ing adven­tures in Auck­land are inspir­ing Simon!

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