Matt Skinner's inside guide to Perth
There has never been a better time to head west for great food and vino, says author and all-round wine man Matt Skinner. If you love exploring award-winning bars and restaurants then Perth is the place for you.
When you think about great Australian food cities, you could be forgiven for omitting Perth from the pointy end of the list. With its flourishing cafe culture and laneway bars, you’d most probably think of Melbourne. Or, possessing the lion’s share of top Australian restaurants, possibly Sydney or even Adelaide, but surely not Perth? This is my third visit to Perth in as many years and a couple of things have struck me this time around. Perth circa 2010 is a radically different place to the city I first encountered a little more than a decade ago, and much of this has to do with confidence. There’s no doubt that the mining boom has helped – most Perth-siders are enjoying a good quality of life – but it’s a confidence that is particularly evident in the city’s thriving hospitality culture.
The staid dining scene that was domin-ated by pricey, so-so French cuisine at one end and bog-standard pub food at the other is a thing of the past. A revolution of sorts has taken place and the landscape has changed dramatically. Perth’s once-daggy world of food and drink has, by and large, been reincarnated as modern, fresh-faced, dynamic and forward-thinking – the kind of place that comfortably rivals much of what is taking place on Australia’s east coast.
But most importantly, the confidence is most evident in Perth’s consumers. If you dare to ask – and you should – they’ll happily tell you to go here for the best coffee, there for the best bread, to him for the best wine advice, or to her for the best dining experience the city has to offer. It doesn’t matter whereabouts you are in the world – to hear consumers talking passionately about their city is wonderful. It’s something that takes time and something that above all else requires conviction: a belief that what your city is doing is very good.
Back in Perth again for work, I have three short days to discover what all the fuss is about. And so, armed with a notebook, a pen and a handful of hastily collated tips from friendly sand gropers, a glass of wine seems as good a place as any to kick things off. Must Winebar (519 Beaufort St, Highgate, 08 9328 8255) is popular among Perth wine lovers and east coast wine nerds alike. For many moons, this simply styled wine bar/bistro in suburban Highgate has set the standard for good wine bars around the country. This is the place to come for great food, courtesy of the talented Russell Blaikie, and a jaw-dropping list of wine that hovers at about 500 offerings – which, if you still need convincing – was crowned Best Wine Bar List 2010 and Best WA Restaurant Hall of Fame at the recent Gourmet Traveller WINE Wine List of the Year Awards.
To be central, I’m staying at Parmelia Hilton (14 Mill St, Perth, 08 9215 2000). At this point I should say that if Perth lacks anything, it’s a couple of good, small, independent hotels. But it’s a minor gripe. It’s been a while since I’ve stayed in a big hotel, and it’s a lovely experience. Staff are friendly and efficient, the rooms are large and come with a cast of both essential and non-essential needs. From big tellies to nice bathrooms, pricey Wi-Fi and a killer club sandwich, everything I need is here.
That said, I struggle with big buffet breakfasts, and so decide the next morning to go in search of great coffee. Like most cities around this country, Perth’s coffee scene is on the rise – something that fuels the argument that baristas are replacing bartenders and sommeliers as Australian hospitality’s hottest property.
I flick through my pile of tips that includes such names as Boucla in Subiaco and Epic in West Perth, but opt to visit the one that has come up too many times to ignore. Zekka (74 King St, Perth, 08 9481 1772) is housed in the rear of an industrial space on King Street that is shared by an uber-cool menswear store. You wander in off the street and right to the back of the space where a hive of activity sees unbelievably good coffee being dealt out at pace alongside eat-in/takeaway breakfast/lunch kind of food. With breakfast up next, I just have a (fantastic) coffee.
Matt Stone is the man behind the pans at Perth’s newest addition, Greenhouse (100 St Georges Tce, Perth, 08 9481 8333). A former sous chef at Perth favourite Star Anise and recently named the country’s Most Exciting New Food Talent by Australian Gourmet Traveller, Stone turns out fresh and sustainable food in equally sustainable surrounds. With the exception of the food, everything you see at Greenhouse is recycled. Glasses are made from recycled bottles, the pattern on the concrete floor is made from recycled milk crates, while the building’s veneer is surrounded by a mixture of steel mesh and reclaimed terracotta pots. It’s genius, as is Stone’s food. From charred toast with jamon, roast tomato and goat’s curd to crushed peas and basil with poached eggs on toast, these are simple yet exciting breakfast dishes.
Fat and happy, your next stop should be La Vigna Liquor (302 Walcott St, Menora, 08 9271 1179), one of Perth’s well-regarded wine shops. Run by sommelier and wine educator Michael Tamburi, La Vigna is where you come for a terrific selection of wine from both here and abroad, an underground cellar that needs to be seen to believed, and a brilliant selection of well-cellared back vintages. It’s a little drive out of town but is well worth it. And what La Vigna is to wine in this city, Boatshed Market (40 Jarrad St, Cottesloe, 08 9284 5176) is to fresh produce. Housed in an old boat-building shed – and most famously home to Australia II – Boatshed today is like a grown-ups’ version of Disneyland, with an unbelievable assortment of cheese, off-the-beaten-track deli items, artisan meat products, fish, bread, flowers and more.
When it comes to wine, Perth isn’t light on for stars. Kjell Ove Almeland of Jacksons (483 Beaufort St, Highgate, 08 9328 1177) is hugely respected here and regarded as the state’s top sommelier. Having taken out the title of Australian Gourmet Traveller’s Sommelier of the Year 2010, Almeland combines the best of the old world, and in particular Burgundy, the Rhône, Bordeaux, Italy and Germany – peppered with a mixture of new and exciting wines from around the world. Prices are more than reasonable, and the list is both clear and intelligently assembled. Similarly, John Jens from Lamont’s (11 Brown St, East Perth, 08 9202 1566) is not without his fans. Responsible for offering a diverse and eclectic range of wines through Lamont’s four busy outlets, the list at the East Perth branch is small yet nicely balanced with a mixture of locally produced own-label products, New World stars, and Old World favourites.
Like Lamont’s, there are plenty of good small wine lists on offer in Perth. Bar 1 (250 St Georges Tce, Perth, 08 9481 8400) boasts a great example. With the menu focused around small, Mediterranean-inspired tastes, the wine list makes its way effortlessly through a well-thought-out selection of bubbles, an exciting and globally inspired list of whites and reds, and half a dozen or so sweet things to finish. Best of all, prices here kick off around the mid $40s and rarely stray over the $150 mark. But if you’re keen to up the ante, then the casual Cantina 663 (663 Beaufort St, Mount Lawley, 08 9370 4883) is where you should head. From the best kind of canned sardines on toast to grilled quail, scallops and pearl barley to sublime confit pork belly, Cantina is part-Spanish/part-Italian and wholeheartedly rustic seasonal cooking at its greatest. The wine list follows suit, with a clever mix of Mediterranean offerings with a smattering of alternative varietals from closer to home.
If, after all that, a nightcap is in order, then make a beeline for Helvetica (Rear 101, St Georges Tce, Perth, 08 9321 4422), which ranks as one of the hottest tickets in town. Come here for a ridiculous range of great whisky, clever cocktails, good bar food, friendly staff and a hard-to-find graffitied laneway exterior that will have you thinking you are in Melbourne, before remembering that you are in Perth – Australia’s most exciting new food city.
This article is from the December/January 2011 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine.