Apparently, there's a recession on. Clearly, no one told Neil Perry, and the diners who pack his two large new Sydney restaurants must've missed the memo too. To imagine that it hasn't been a tough year in the restaurant business, of course, is folly. All businesses, large and small, have been affected, and even those that have had no trouble filling seats have experienced diners opting for the skirt steak over the sirloin, the leatherjacket over the lobster, and leaving with smiles in place of healthy tips.
It's been a great year for diners, though. On the one hand we've seen a fabulous wealth of new restaurants appearing pretty much right around the country, while on the other, many old favourites have had to sharpen their game to stay competitive. Worthwhile lunch and pre-theatre deals, not previously a strong point at high-end Australian restaurants, have become more commonplace.
With consumption of caviar and truffles off many menus either for reasons of fiscal prudence or for the importance of keeping down appearances, both chefs and diners have had reason to cast about for new ways to make dining special. Service staff are valuing their jobs anew in the current climate, which is not only a boon for diners but a balm to the industry's shortage of experience on the floor. The GFC has underscored the phenomenon of "bistronomy", or fine-dining-quality food in a casual setting. Restaurants such as Le Chateaubriand and Le Comptoir in Paris, Bocca di Lupo and Terroirs in London and the Momofuku empire in Manhattan, not to mention the likes of Sydney's Bodega and Melbourne's Cumulus Inc, appear to have weathered the storm better than most, and without battening down the hatches.
Entirely in keeping with the New Old Frugalism there's no trendier possession for a chef than a garden or farm specialising in herbs, leaves and flowers straight out of Hannah Glasse. This is not to say that the fruits of these fields won't be run through the Pacojet or Thermomix the second they reach the kitchen, but the thought of so many grown men (and it is mostly the blokes) fussing over their elderflowers, borage blossoms and native violets with tweezers warms our hearts nonetheless.
Our reviewers report that they're as horrified by truffle oil as ever, and still consider summer truffles as pointless a garnish as anything else with no texture or flavour value. Glass plates inexplicably continue to be used even by good restaurants, and wines by the glass are all too frequently not poured at the table.
Wine service at our best restaurants, though, seems better than ever, and the amount of young blood in the wine world is making it more straightforward and fun by the day. On that note, we're very pleased to be partnered with SIGNÉ, the boutique drinks division of Pernod Ricard Australia, in presenting this year's awards and guide. "This is a great opportunity for SIGNÉ to align our collection of fine wines, Champagne and spirits with the calibre of Australian cuisine represented by the nominated restaurants and bars," says SIGNÉ's head of marketing, Trevor Hannam.
On the plate, we're loving the attention less popular cuts such as beef skirt and flank and lamb belly and breast are receiving. Some diners report instances of sous-vide fatigue (it's interesting to hear that some chefs are stepping away from the immersion circulators already), while spherification appears to be the technique that became a dated fad even before anyone really paid it much mind in the first place. This may be related to the fact that more of today's chefs are paying more mind to the importance of ingredients' texture as well as their flavour.
Hopefully this time next year, with the economic situation brightening, the choice between the marron and the mackerel will be one we'll make solely on the basis of taste. But we have access to so much local talent that it's going to be a tasty ride whichever route you choose. Strap yourself in and let's go.
WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPHY JASON LOUCAS