Dear Santa, how's tricks up at the pole? Reindeer behaving? Have you given the sled a lick of paint ahead of peak season? Listen, I know it's been a while since I last wrote. A really, really long while. And I'm sorry about that - it's just that as a grown man living in the developed world, things that I would've once put on a wish list I now more or less buy for myself reflexively. Blame the internet. Either that or the fact that most of the things I want these days don't fit all that neatly into stockings.
But I was chatting to my fellow restaurant critics the other day and it occurred to me that we do, in fact, need your help. Don't get us wrong - we love the food and drink scenes in our cities, states and nation dearly. Dearly, that is, but not blindly. And as we travel around the country and around the world we get to wondering about things that could improve them. In some cases they're a bit fanciful, sure - the icing on an already impressive cake - but in others it's more a case of addressing odd gaps and anomalies in an otherwise enviable situation.
Can you help us out? We're happy to upgrade the standard Arnott's Assorted we usually lay out on the 24th with a few treats from Ladurée, and we've saved some of our last bottle of 1977 Ardbeg to splash into the milk.
Please, Santa. We've been very, very good.
Our Christmas wish list
Pat Nourse, chief critic Santa, what do you think about a beach-side crab shack? Somewhere in Sydney or the New South Wales south coast would work for me. I reckon we've got the best crab in the world, but short of buying them yourself, it's hard to find places to enjoy them that aren't fairly expensive or in Chinatown or both. I'm seeing newspaper on the tables, thongs on the feet, plus cold beers and wooden mallets. (Something like Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco or the oyster bar at Grand Central wouldn't hurt either.)
A Japanese-style cocktail bar. Somewhere where the $20 it now seems okay to charge for cocktails actually buys you serious service, decent glassware, subdued music and some weird snacks late into the night. I'd suggest High Five or Star Bar in Ginza as good places to start.
A Caesar salad. No chicken, no crisped-up prosciutto, no avocado - just the straight-up gospel. Anyone who thinks deconstructing the Caesar somehow improves it has obviously never had the real thing made right.
A real taquería. Bowls of chopped onion. Salsas with kick. Cheap beer, ready to be turned into Micheladas. A whole lot of pork and pineapple turning slowly on a doner kebab-style spit. Maybe some barbacoa lamb, maybe the chance to eat a cow's face, maybe not. But, above all, tortillas made fresh on the premises daily.
And no more truffle oil, ever. And enough with the fake caviar. If you're a chef who has ever uttered any variation on the theme of "it's all about quality produce" you should damned well know better.
Michael Harden, Victoria editor Santa, I'd really like a small, old-school fine-diner of the sort where experienced, older waiters fillet fish, carve meat and toss salad tableside. As much as I love the whole flexible sharing thing, there's still the Mad Men fantasist in me that pines for the romance of the fine. Of course, meticulously made Martinis would have to be involved (especially at lunch).
A high-end mezcalería that proves once and for all that mezcal (and its superstar sibling, tequila) is not about that nasty shudder-inducing stuff you shot as a teenager, but a gorgeous, layered, sophisticated wonder, the equal of great Scotch, that should be sipped and savoured with the same respect.
And what about a modern Indian restaurant that embraces a wider range of the country's many regional cuisines and includes fresher, lighter flavours and dishes alongside - or even instead of - the usual Aussie-Indian butter chicken and tandoori and vindaloo favourites?
David Sly, South Australia editor My main beef, Santa, if I may be frank with you, is that I'd like to see more places get serious with wines by the glass. I want to see more of them turn their list over like a specials board, so that curious customers (especially regulars) get introduced to a wider range of interesting wines and unfamiliar varieties from around the world. This would also encourage the staff to taste them, to get excited by them and to talk them up to customers. Choosing wine should be fun for everyone, shouldn't it?
Sue Dyson and Roger McShane, Tasmania editors We'd like a really good pizza joint in Hobart. Pizza in our town is about how many ingredients you can pile on a mediocre and often undercooked base. Oh for a slowly risen, naturally fermented base, cooked in the intense heat of a woodfired oven, just licked with char, and a simple topping made with great ingredients. Annie Smithers could do it in an old stable in Malmsbury.
It shouldn't be too hard in Hobart.
More sympathetic regulators. A way for small, artisan producers to make unpasteurised butter and soft cheeses (especially in Tasmania where the milk and cream are so good), simpler fishing regulations that encourage small-scale fishing operators to sell directly to local restaurants. A more sympathetic approach to curing meats and cooking in the open, especially over fire. People who care about what food tastes like setting the rules.
Max Veenhuyzen, Western Australia editor Santa, I love food courts as much as the next man, but I'd love to see some really great open-air hawker centres. Sure, the rock-bottom prices of Malaysia's Georgetown New World Park Food Court and Singapore's Maxwell Road Hawker Centre definitely appeal, but, still, I'll settle for a food court that gets the basics right. Namely: satay grilled over coals, roti that's pulled to order and chicken rice fried in chicken fat, garlic and ginger - the South East Asian street-food trinity.
A yakitori joint serving all the good chicken bits like nankotsu (cartilage), bonjiri (the parson's nose) and hatsu (heart). In the spirit of thinking really big, the griller-in-chief would also be versed in the finer points of yakiton (grilled pork), meaning the kitchen might drag the likes of pork tongue, stomach and other porcine unmentionables over the coals, too. Canny restaurateurs looking for a role model should look to Tokyo: Bird Land in Ginza or Yakitori Moe in Roppongi. Hong Kong's Yard Bird scores bonus points for its hefty whiskey stockpile. But let's not lose sight of the central idea here: coals, skewered meat, counter seating and a kitchen that stays open really, really late.
Weekday markets. In the CBD. Just like the ones that fill Parisian neighbourhoods with wonderfully inspiring ingredients (more unusual vegetables and fishing-boat-direct seafood; fewer "gourmet doggie treats" and coffee-drinking tire-kickers). Preferably twice and thrice weekly. Heck, in Hong Kong they have them twice a day.
Fiona Donnelly, Queensland editor I hope you'll pardon the risqué language, Santa, but I'd really like to see an end to restaurant website wankiness. Is it so difficult to post a current menu (including dessert and drinks) and keep this updated? Daily would be ideal (it happens), but even fortnightly would be a darn good start. Location, phone number and opening hours should be easy to find on every page, too. Oh, and the site should be optimised for different platforms and not take forever to download, so you can read it on your phone, naturally.
I'd also like a bit more thought to music. Yes, we eat with our eyes as well as our mouths and clever fit-outs reflect this, but any restaurateur who imagines our ears aren't also intimately involved in the whole dining experience is kidding themselves.
A great playlist is another way to express your personality and make an impression.
WORDS PAT NOURSE ILLUSTRATION ANTONIA PESENTI
Thisarticle is from the December 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.