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Welcome to the countdown to this year's Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Awards, our salute to the talent delivering the finest eating and drinking in the country. Here are the finalists.
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Expect quality over quantity next time you pop in for a bite between shopping sprees.
Let's face it, the wider world is becoming more Byron than the
other way around. Kombucha is (somehow) a household word now,
man-buns have been deemed an acceptable hairstyle for blokes, and
the market for the organic, the biodynamic, the hand-woven and the
unsprayed has now leapt the farmers' market fence, broken its
health-food-shop shackles and turned into a billion-dollar global
Back in the bay, meanwhile, the eating has never been better. But here's the thing: none of the really good eating is actually in Byron itself. There are still good times to be had throwing down cold-pressed kale and cos juice at Bayleaf while watching city kids unconvincingly attempt the no-shoes-at-lunch look, sure, and In the Pink still dazzles with its Violet Crumble gelato, but the really exciting stuff is now further afield.
Some of it, like Folk, 100 Mile Table and the various things at The Farm, is just out of town, but, as has been the trend for a few years now, the real gains are being made in the small towns around Byron. Bangalow led the charge, with Katrina and Karl Kanetani's Town earning the Northern Rivers region a star in the GT restaurant guide, and now the villages of Brunswick Heads and Mullumbimby (each about a 20-minute drive from central Byron) are stepping up to the plate. Surf's up, food fans - let's get into it.
Three Blue Ducks
With their home base at Bronte in Sydney's eastern beaches, and with a winter pop-up down at Falls Creek in their recent history, you might think the opening of a new Three Blue Ducks at Byron is simply a move on the part of chefs Mark Labrooy, Darren Robertson and their partners to catch some new waves, deepen their tans and build a bit more vacation into their vocation. But no. Not only is the place big, it's ambitious. In fact, it's gutsy as hell. The Ducks are the keystone tenant at The Farm, a working property near the junction of the Princes Highway and Ewingsdale Road, the main entry point into Byron Bay, owned by developer Tom Lane. They share the space with a florist, a boot camp, a yoga studio and The Bread Social, bakers of what might be the finest loaves seen in these parts - not to mention a herd of Berkshire pigs, a handful of cattle and a full chorus of free-ranging chickens.
With the 100 Mile Table café just down the road, the 400-kilometre line they've drawn here for sourcing produce seems generous - or at least it does till you hear this means their access to such basics as onions and essentials like avocados is, well, seasonal. This is no mere greenwashing. The place is vast (the parking lot has space for coaches), but Labrooy and Robertson have profile enough to draw diners in their hundreds, which means they can buy whole sides of beef and entire crops from local smallholdings and put them to good use.
When they make their (excellent) butter for the table, for instance, the leftover buttermilk is used to brine birds for their fried chicken, and the whey goes into the sausage rolls they sell at their coffee counter alongside the Single Origin flat whites. The livers from their chickens become an exemplary parfait, served with some grilled slices of that great bread, a relish made from Davidson plum (aka Mullumbimby plum), and crisp wafers of chicken skin. The bones from the beasts become broth, the trim from the beef goes into the burgers, the fish offcuts become fish fingers for the kids' menu. They're trying to close the loop on their production as much as possible. If it's not from The Farm, it's from as close as possible, and waste is kept to a minimum through both careful menu planning and smart bulk-buying. Even wine is poured from one of the 56 taps in the bar, alongside a dizzying array of craft beers.
This is an all-day operation, so poached eggs with smoked mackerel chickpeas and labne, and congee accessorised with kimchi, kale and seaweed segue into the lunch and dinner menu, where that same superb local mackerel may appear raw instead in a wonderfully spicy salad with pawpaw and coconut.
They blitz the farmers' markets, stocking unsprayed chillies from Bangalow and Myocum coffee beans alongside gluten-free soy spaghetti, unhulled tahini and raw chocolate on the shelves of their shop. "At the end of the day," says Robertson, "it's the farmers who will be determining what's on the menu."
It seems to be working. In the school holidays the place is overrun by kids squealing at the pigs and playing cricket on the grounds against a backdrop of waving sorghum. Some of the guests amble in on walking frames, others turn cartwheels on the lawn while the occasional curious hen wanders past. It's a broad church and takes all comers - admittedly there are more crystals, dreadlocks and tribal ink than you'd see in Bronte, but the strength of the menu is that you can go deep sprouted-millet-and-buckwheat-vegan-wellness-loaf with a draught kombucha, or you can eat a cheeseburger and punch a beer. Or, as likely as not, this being Australia in 2015, do both at the same table.
11 Ewingsdale Rd, Ewingsdale
In many ways Fleet and the Three Blue Ducks at The Farm couldn't be more different. The Ducks is a big operation, employing scores of people and serving diners by the hundred, whereas Fleet is a small bar-restaurant that, if the wind is blowing right, seats 21. But they're kindred spirits, the two prime movers pushing the region towards a new style of dining.
And if anything, Fleet's menu is even more ambitious. Astrid McCormack and Josh Lewis both hail from Loam, the eatery on Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula that was named GT Regional Restaurant of the Year in 2012. Loam turned heads with its thrilling wine list and endlessly inventive use of unusual local produce, and with McCormack's easy charm on the floor and Lewis doing his thing in the kitchen, they're working a similar magic in miniature at Fleet. It's a bit like eating in the bar of a three-star restaurant, only without the restaurant. McCormack's list is tight, and she makes every bottle count, each of them from vineyards that farm in a sustainable manner, most of them biodynamic or organic, whether they're Australian producers of note (Jamsheed rousanne, Luke Lambert nebbiolo, the splendid Sophie rosé from Si Vintners) or one of a handful from Beaujolais, Emilia-Romagna or Swartland.
Lewis, meanwhile, doesn't pull any punches.
His approach to sustainability (both economic and environmental) is that great alchemy of the kitchen wherein the chef uses wit and skill to make delicacies of things that might otherwise be considered undesirable. He works with lamb breast and chicken livers, but his food is as delectable as any fillet or foie. A meal might begin not with olives, but pickled cucamelons, before leading into a lush cream of smoked mullet served with crisps of fish skin and potato for dipping. Tiny, delicate bottle squid shine on a savoury slash of long-cooked greens accented with shavings of Buddha's hand citrus fresh from the Mullum markets, while veal sweetbreads, breaded, fried golden and served with anchovy mayo on soft little rounds of bread, become the schnitty sandwich of your wine-drinking dreams.
The detailing of the place is superb, from the music to the custom-made chairs to the smooth, polished concrete of the bar - and all the more incongruous for being in Brunswick Heads. This is food that would be considered fairly out-there in Fitzroy or Fortitude Valley. Serving it a few doors down from the Centrelink and across the road from a caravan park in a town of 1,636 souls is, well, intriguing. Are you a diner who loathes dégustation dining but still hankers for food and drink with plenty of edge? If you eat in one regional restaurant in Australia this year, make it Fleet.
2/16 The Terrace, Brunswick Heads, (02) 6685 1363
Milk and Honey
The standard-bearer for better-than-average food in Mullumbimby for more than a decade, Milk and Honey has been banging out wood-fired pizza with the best of them, but the arrival two years ago of chef Timmy Brebner saw things take a fresh turn for the interesting. Case in point: a pizza that deploys not only the nation-beating hot sausage made by Salumi Australia nearby at Billinudgel, but drops the hammer with all the salty tasty things by adding shavings of locally made bottarga. Should the ballsy likes of the cured beef tongue with pancetta and olives prove a bit too exciting, the prosciutto, potato, onion and rosemary number is hard to beat, and the wine list includes a smart handful of Italians by the glass alongside such progressive Australians as Quealy and Tom Shobbrook.
5/59A Station St, Mullumbimby, (02) 6684 1422
At Folk the milks include Barambah organic cow's milk and Bonsoy plus the milks of the coconut, almond and oat. There's turmeric and gingko in the ginger beer and tahini in the smoothies, and the "add chia" line is no joke. This is all the more fascinating when you take in the setting, just over the road from the caravan park on Ewingsdale Road. The Jayco and RV crowd have rarely had it this good. The Folk burger comes stuffed with sizzling-hot local fish, grilled pineapple, slaw, coconut chilli and lime, while the house-brewed creaming soda-style vanilla kefir special is garnished with a leaf of mint, a viola blossom and a pretty candy-striped straw. The java from Melbourne's mighty Dukes Espresso is pleasing - almost as pleasing, that is, as the little hatch on the side of the cottage under a sign that reads "coffee".
Lot 1, 399 Ewingsdale Rd, Byron Bay
100 Mile Table
It doesn't get much less Byron-cliché than the setting at 100 Mile Table, which sits among the Gyprock joints, mechanics' workshops and storage farms of the industrial estate. Owners Sarah Swan and her partner Jeremy Burn like to tool around in a camouflage-painted 4WD, too, rather than on solar-powered unicycles or flying yoga mats. But this is merely the home base for their operation. The pair draw on their formidable experience in the culinary sphere (Swan, for one, worked for the Rockpool Group in Sydney for 14 years) to stage events around the region, doing dinners and parties in paddocks, breweries and rugby clubs. In between these, the pair run their sparely decorated headquarters as a weekday-only café. At upholstered Valvoline drums and wide communal tables under an iron beam strung with eight matching soda siphons, the morning crowd wolfs down top-hole granola and cheese toasties dripping with pickles along with well-made Marvell Street Roasters coffee and turmeric-tinted rosewater lassi.
8 Banksia Dr, Byron Bay, (02) 6680 9814
The Shubitz brothers bring no small amount of coffee cred to their café operation. Owner Marc ran the machine at Harry's in Bondi for years and did a stint at the Coffee Collective in Copenhagen to expand his horizons, while Allen, the manager, clocked three years at Allpress. Their supremely confident work with Marvell Street Coffee Roasters beans is the coffee by which all others between Sydney and the border might be judged.
Shop 4, 30 Mullumbimbi St, Brunswick Heads, (02) 6685 0111
What this Israeli eatery lacks in terms of comfort, welcome and most of the other basics of hospitality it more than makes up for with the quality of its cooking. This is a part of the world where falafels and hummus are common coin, and examined with unforgiving scrutiny (especially, it must be said, as far as price is concerned), but while the takeaway counter and patio are rudimentary, the attention to detail on the plate is impressive. The most deluxe of the hummus options sees the creamy dip holding a pool of garlicky broad beans braised Egyptian-style in tomato and garnished with olives, pickles, a sliced boiled egg and a shower of parsley. Hell, it's so good you might not even notice the absence of meat from the menu. If you're here for a few days, be sure to stock up on the hummus, baba ghanoush and tabbouleh for the fridge for perfect post-surf snacking.
2/1 Park St, Brunswick Heads, (02) 6685 0186
Set just off the highway between Byron and Ballina, the microscopic hamlet of Newrybar seems almost like a company town, so central is Harvest to its place on the map. There's the restaurant proper, set in a beautiful tree-shaded Queenslander, and then there's the deli next door, which sells house-made gravalax, hams, local and imported cheese, books, baskets and ready-made meals, but it's the latest addition to the empire that appeals to us most. At the bottom of the garden is an outbuilding housing an old wood-burning Metters oven. The bakery makes the bread for the restaurant and the shop, and on weekend mornings it opens up as a café, its bricks and boards strewn with gleaming rows of pastries and pies, slices and scrolls which are by no stretch rustic. Get in early, because they go fast and when they're gone they're gone.
18-22 Old Pacific Hwy, Newrybar, (02) 6687 2644
Mullumbimby Farmers' Market
In the Northern Rivers region, growers' markets sprout faster than Magic Happens stickers on Kombis, but none of them strike quite as perfect a balance between the useful, the edible, the entertaining and the just plain weird as the Friday morning gathering just outside Mullumbimby. Sugarcane juicers, kale dealers, hemp weavers, almond activators, pretty hippies, crusty buskers and all manner of nannas, dogs and kids turn out in force at this mecca for everything stone-ground, hand-picked, spray-free, grass-fed and dry-grown. Highlights include very local fruit, kraut and kimchi from Byron Bay Alive Foods and the excellent Sicilian food from the Nomadic Kitchen. Pull up a plate of toast and fried eggs with a sauté of peas and lentils between trestles piled high with flaming dragonfruit and tender young ginger and soak it all up.
7am-11am, Fridays, 51 Main Arm Rd, Mullumbimby, (02) 6677 1345
Angie and Greg Wilton opened Scratch on a side-street in Mullumbimby last spring, and they've quickly found a loyal following for their pasties, pork and fennel sausage rolls, croissants and the refreshing variety of their gluten-free offerings. Their all-organic breads come in a rotation that runs from the relatively regular likes of the sourdough spelt to the more out-there rye and wakame loaf. The cheese in the toastie is Nimbin Valley cheddar, the eggs in the pastries are frequently from their own chooks, and the welcome is genuine.
6/108 Stuart St, Mullumbimby, (02) 6684 2914
This one was just opening as we went to press, so we haven't put it through its paces yet, but it's full of promise. Ben Devlin was head chef at Brisbane's Esquire, but has also been going back to basics lately with his Beerkary Bakery project, and his first menus at Paper Daisy seem to strike a balance between intriguing inventiveness and holiday-appropriate approachability. That could mean pastrami and pickles on rye, with each element made in-house, or mushrooms with brown butter, hazelnuts and thyme, or something from the grill - cod cooked in paperbark, say, or crayfish with garlic. The fact that the restaurant is part of Halcyon House, regional New South Wales' newest (and possibly fanciest) boutique hotel, certainly doesn't diminish its appeal. We'll see you there.
Halcyon House, 21 Cypress Cres, Cabarita Beach, (02) 6676 1444