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Australian Gourmet Traveller 2008 Restaurant Guide Awards

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Looking at the establishments covered in this year's Australian Restaurant Guide, produced in association with Electrolux, it seems as though they're more progressive and more interested in tradition than ever before. It might sound like a contradiction in terms, but there are plenty of examples where back-to-barnyard basics and what is called, for want of a better term, molecular gastronomy, the two dominant trends of the moment, appear not only in the same city but in the same restaurant, if not the same menu.

 

We've learned more about steak over the past 18 months than we had possibly dreamed. Forget rare or medium, do you prefer grain- or grass-fed, or a combination of both? How marbled do you like your wagyu? Those who like their proteins in the top-dollar bracket will no doubt have been pleased, too, with the continued presence of top-grade Spanish hams on entrée menus, not to mention the appearance of genuine Italian-made prosciutto.

And while some chefs are over the moon with the quality of these new imports, others are taking the idea of locally raised produce to heart. Not all are as extreme as Melbourne's 100-Mile Café, which details the average distance its ingredients have travelled to reach the plate, but many, like Sydney's Sean's Panaroma and Glebe Point Diner, have quietly concentrated on finding better producers closer to home. This past winter's bumper truffle harvest certainly makes a strong argument for eating local.

The influence of Spain on our leading chefs is undeniable. Where cooks and food lovers once travelled to France to get a feel for the way fine dining was headed, today they're swarming to San Sebastián, Barcelona and all points in between.

With the local availability of the food chemicals favoured by the likes of El Bulli's Ferran Adrià, foams have been joined on restaurant plates by gels, airs and spheres, and there's little shortage of powders or soils either. That Spanish influence isn't all weird science, though - many chefs are taken with the simple grill-and-serve approach used by the better tapas bars, or the focus on the use of fire and smoke in cooking, as seen at Etxebarri near Bilbao.

Our Iberian friends love a bit of meat with their fish, and vice-versa, and so do we: the return of surf 'n' turf has been no flash in the saucepan, so much so that it's almost a shock to see a piece of fish in a fine-diner not coupled with some sort of beast.

It's been a busy year. The smear is the new stack, biodynamics is the new organics, locavores have supplanted vegaquarians, slow is the new fast, duck eggs are the new hen's eggs, bluefoot are the new chestnut mushrooms, tequila is the new gin, edible flowers are somehow cool again, and we're just waiting to see someone put a local twist on the $50 burger bandwagon with a dagwood dog de luxe. Watch this space. 

WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPH JASON LOUCAS

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