New Zealand, if you listen to the militant New Zealanders who work in the Gourmet Traveller offices, not only brought us the pavlova, lamingtons, the flat white and Lorde, but also invented fire and domesticated the sheep. Attempt to counter this line of argument by raising such trifling Australian contributions to civil society as the black-box flight recorder, ultrasound scanners, the electric drill, AC/DC permaculture, the medical application of penicillin and, if you're a fan of Bruce Pascoe's research on Aboriginal agriculture, the invention of bread, and they'll blither about bungee jumping and jetboats. Jetboats.
In fairness, I feel I should add that they seem happy to let us have Russell Crowe.
Where this leaves us in the matter of chefs is tricky. Tricky in that if they're any good, they have a habit of moving to the big island, and don't often go out of the way to showcase L&P, hokey pokey ice-cream, and Perky Nana chocolate bars in their restaurants.
Which brings us to The Antipodean. Grant King hails from New Zealand, and has decided that cooking with ingredients sourced from Australasia is the way forward. But don't worry - that's about it in terms of concept, and the menu at The Antipodean is blissfully unadorned by anything resembling a philosophy or a mission statement. If you're looking for a place to pigeonhole it, just file it under "very tasty food".
Among the tastiest things it serves is shavings of New Zealand abalone - I think they call it paua over there - with a gooey-centred egg. The thing that pushes it firmly into whoa-baby territory is the combination of the abalone and some shiitakes King has found in the Blue Mountains. The singular texture of abalone, given a slippery rhyme by the mushrooms, goes past the sublime into deeper territory.
New Zealand abalone, Blue Mountains shiitake and soft egg
The passage in Fuchsia Dunlop's memoir, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, in which she relates the dawning of her appreciation for the "elusive delights" of abalone, a shellfish she had previously considered tough, rubbery and not really all that great, is memorable and worth revisiting here.
"The Gentleman Gourmet leans over the table towards me with a suggestive grin. 'We are all adults at this table, so I hope you'll forgive me if I speak frankly. It's just so hard to express the loveliness of that sensation. The only true comparison in my opinion' (here he lowers his voice to a whisper) 'is with gently biting your lover's hardened nipple. Something only a masterful lover will appreciate.' Blushing, I take another bite."
Inside The Antipodean
Nipples aside, on the strength of that dish I've developed a fairly involved theory about ordering at The Antipodean. It goes like this: if the thing has mushrooms in it, get the thing. Admittedly the data set I'm working with here isn't huge, but the agnolotti - little pinked-edged parcels of maybe very slightly too thick pasta encasing buffalo-milk feta - are very happy in their mushroom broth. The addition of fresh pine nuts - an interesting oddity - bring a pleasantly waxy bite to the party.
The backdrop to all this talk of wax and nipples is fairly sedate. The Antipodean is much the same room it was when this used to be Gastro Park: a glassed-in flatiron shape nosing down Roslyn Street on the site that was once home to the great and perhaps not totally licit late-night drinking den called Baron's. Kings Cross might not be anywhere near as entertainingly weird as it used to be, but Roslyn Street still offers up a reasonable quota of the bewildered and bewildering parading past the windows to enliven the evening.
Inside it's 75 or so seats around a scattering of unclothed tables. Potted natives and a blackboard menu dress things up a bit, and the moderne Cutipol cutlery matches the two-tone napkins beautifully, but I think the most appealing decorative feature is the pig's leg.
Jamón Ibérico-style cured pork from South Australia
It's positioned in the middle of the restaurant, propped up on a stand, cloven hoof pointing yonder. It's been air-cured by some smallgoods wizard in South Australia until it resembles nothing so much as jamón Ibérico, the fabled ham from Spain that virtuous pigs dream of becoming after they die. Cut by hand into ragged swatches, it could be perfectly excellent served on its own, but King throws some pickled muntries into the mix for a sweet-sour foil. It is splendid.
It's a refreshingly simple approach for a chef who has not been afraid to dive deep into ambitious ideas and plating in the past. It was King in the kitchen cooking alongside owner and chef Greg Doyle and pastry genius Katrina Kanetani when Pier took out Restaurant of the Year a decade ago. Had you stepped into Pier in 2007 you might have encountered crabmeat "with a tomato water bubble", or vichyssoise sponge with leek and smoked oyster oil. And when King opened Gastro Park in 2011, the El Bulli-influenced molecular theme continued. He liquefied gnocchi and garnished one dish with a substance he called rhubarb wire. There were blankets made of jelly and puttanesca-flavoured wafers of unusual size.
Coming from Pier, King was also particularly good with seafood. Josh Niland might be wowing them up at Saint Peter with fish cookery now but King was dry-filleting fish with his eyes closed and cooking their scales when Niland was still in short pants. At Gastro Park he turned calamari into crackling and dressed seared lobster up with coconut, charcoal and sorrel. He cracked open tuna spines to get at the shimmering jelly inside. In a good way.
And to his great credit, no matter how tricky things got (and they got plenty tricky), the quality of the ingredients seldom wavered. Artisanal winemaking is sometimes criticised for confounding varietal character. In literature, playing with tone, narrative and other effects, argue some critics, comes at the cost of true feeling. But who says it has to be an either/or situation? Fidelity and artistry can go hand in hand. On a good day, King's cooking makes a clear argument that you can deconstruct your cake and eat it too.
At The Antipodean he has pulled back on the technique considerably, but the food is nonetheless not quite like anything else in town. Sure, there are natural oysters, and bits of beef skewered on rosemary that are just bits of beef skewered on rosemary. But they go well with the "crab sauce" listed as an oddball side along with the (excellent) sourdough and butter. Toast and sardines is about as revolutionary a pairing as knife with fork but that doesn't make the flattened fillets on fingers of bread, topped with tufts of brightly dressed parsley and shallot, any less satisfying. And that goes double for narrow lengths of puff pastry topped with goat's curd and charry leek.
King likes to team clams with smoked bacon vinaigrette, throw fermented squash and pepperberry at raw kangaroo, and make a butter out of pickled walnut to complement the serious beefy richness of Rangers Valley tri-tip. He makes a fresh blood pudding and then takes a sharp left with the addition of quandongs and pickled banana shallots. White vinegar reduced with sugar and lemon peel into a gastrique, meanwhile, unites a perfect pale-pink hunk of roast suckling pig on the plate with a glowing orange round of persimmon.
The food at The Antipodean is not without the occasional question mark. Sometimes things lean oddly sweet, some of the meat seems like it's been cooked in a bag or combi oven before it's been grilled, and a garlic yoghurt sauce does surprisingly few favours for a side of green beans.
But the fish cookery is blazingly good. Salt-and-pepper New Zealand flounder is not at all the Chinatown standard the name might have you expect. The fish isn't deep-fried but rather cooked in the steam oven, coming out whole, dressed with (yes) salt and pepper. The garnish of grilled pencil leek and fermented shiitake grounds the juicy meat to a tee. Flathead gets a more muscular treatment, the chunky fillet roasted and served almost Bourguignon style with melting halved baby onions and thick lardons of house-made bacon on a pool of red wine sauce. Put some of the baby potatoes all but caramelised in beef fat on the table and you can keep winter at arm's length another day.
Salt-and-pepper New Zealand flounder
Service? It's not going to win any prizes but it's down to earth and refreshingly relaxed. A similar path is trod with the drinks. The offer of a Red Okaroni, a play on the Negroni made with Okar, a South Australian take on Campari, is a bit of fun, and there's interest (if surprisingly little from New Zealand) on the all-Australasian single-page list. Value is fair, and there's plenty around the $65 mark, but you wouldn't say the wine is a feature in itself - you're here for the food.
Ice-cream flavoured with marigold, maybe, to go with fresh and freeze-fried mandarin. Or, better yet, pink grapefruit, scooped out, made into a cream then tucked back into its skin and topped with a thatch of pomelo jewels and dusted with Davidson plum. King has lost none of his knack for making memorable desserts.
Pink grapefruit and pomelo cream
Gastro Park, it was said in the pages of this very magazine, sounded like somewhere you wouldn't want to let your dog off its leash. (Or walk in an open-toed shoe.) Like many an envelope-pusher, it dated fast, even as its food remained uniformly tasty. In The Antipodean, Grant King plays gently instead with our notion of "local". What's closer in food terms - Perth or Auckland? What does a fish know of national boundaries. It's a concept short on soapbox and long on flavour; hopefully it'll prove a robust vehicle for an unusually talented Australian chef.