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Australian Gourmet Traveller 2009 Restaurant Guide Awards

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It's an exciting time to be a restaurant-lover in Australia. This year's Australian Restaurant Guide, which we have produced in association with Electrolux, is as clear a snapshot of what's moving and shaking as you're likely to find. Working with a team of editors and reviewers in every state, we put together the only national restaurant guide in the country - the nation's most read restaurant guide, for that matter and flipping through the pages of the book, it's hard not to notice just how hard our best chefs and restaurateurs work to stay the best. They're a credit to the nation, and a blessing for anyone who takes pleasure in eating out. 

The two big trends of haute-barnyard and weird-science keep on keeping on. Adherents of the former spend as much time lovingly listing the provenance of their produce and its environmental and ethical purity in near-tedious detail on the menu as they do plating the damn things. They churn their own butter, cure their own meats, are offended by the thought of imported water and obsess over the freshness of their (free-range) eggs. Their heroes are people such as Fergus Henderson at St John in London, Alice Waters at San Francisco's Chez Panisse, Dan Barber at Blue Hill in New York; they're reading Michael Pollan, and dream of visiting Etxebarri in the Basque country.

Beyond the basics of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef and cage-eggs versus free-range, chefs and diners both are looking hard at questions of industrial animal farming, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability - particularly with regard to what ends up on the plate and in our mouths. With the dollar value of food shooting through the roof around the world, too, much focus is being brought to bear on how much what we eat costs, directly and indirectly. Expect free-range pork and wild fisheries to be among the hottest flashpoints in the coming years.

The work of The New Foodists (a disparate group, united only by their rejection of the term 'molecular gastronomy') involves liberating equipment from laboratories, lifting ingredients from food science, and freeing us diners from our preconceptions about which foods play well with others, and how and when they should be served. Their menus tend to be either littered with inverted commas, or written telegram-style ('mulloway, violet, scallops, chicory cake, malt'). Either way, you have no idea what you're about to eat, and it's only the order the dishes are presented in that gives any indication which dishes are sweet and which are savoury. These guys revere Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz, Pierre Gagnaire and Wylie Dufresne. They're alternating between the latest editions from Hervé This and Harold McGee.

Both camps seem to agree that cooking things very slowly for a long time is a good thing, whether it's a whole oyster blade of beef in a 19th-century wood-fired bakery oven at Vulcans in the Blue Mountains or a piece of vacuum-bag sealed blue-eye trevalla suspended in a temperature-regulated water bath at Bentley in Surry Hills. The more controlled style of the latter is gaining acknowledgement as the biggest major change to professional cooking in a long time. American chef Thomas Keller, of The French Laundry  and Per Se fame, is so interested in sous-vide cooking that his latest book Under Pressure, due in Australia at the end of the year, takes the technique as its subject. Xanthan gum is everywhere, the MSG of our day, only without the headache scare, keeping purées from splitting and emulsifying sauces on the sly. Everyone's looking at the internet, too, whether it's at the latest hydrocolloid applications or how to pacify the rare-breed black pig living on kitchen scraps.

Some of the best restaurants, of course, have feet in both camps, looking at the work of their forebears and paying close heed to growers and the land, while using the latest tech and techniques to translate their best qualities to the table as cleanly as possible. The very best do it invisibly - and that's the future.

WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPHY JASON LOUCAS

This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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