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 08, 2011 at 11:08 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 08, 2011 at 11:08 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 08, 2011 at 11:08 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 08, 2011 at 11:08 AM

Right on about Satya and little India.

Blake Monkley on Facebook
August 08, 2011 at 12:08 PM

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

August 08, 2011 at 12:08 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 08, 2011 at 12:08 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 08, 2011 at 12:08 PM

very interesting si

August 08, 2011 at 01:08 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 08, 2011 at 05:08 PM

Who wrote this…?

Simon Grigg on Facebook
August 08, 2011 at 05:08 PM

I did

Busters Bands on Facebook
August 08, 2011 at 05:08 PM

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

James Chesterman on Facebook
August 08, 2011 at 05:08 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 04:08 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 04:08 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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