Restaurant News

Best food 2009

From the tastiest new cut of steak to the most anticipated “debut”, here’s what’s exciting us about the Australian food scene in 2009.

Most feverishly awaited opening east of the Nullarbor
As if opening one smoking-hot restaurant wasn’t enough, Andrew McConnell decided to one-up his own Cumulus Inc by launching Cutler & Co in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, less than a year later. The chatter was deafening. Would it be too big/expensive/poorly located? Had the success of Cumulus stolen all the thunder? Would McConnell burn out? Obviously not. The elegant, moody space (designed by Pascale Gomes-McNabb, McConnell’s partner) that opened quietly in early February is confident, relaxed, exciting and studiously oblivious to the hype. McConnell’s food, like the room, alternates touches of simplicity with flights of luxury. Best of all, it feels serious and grounded without being stuffy. More than worthy of the wait. Cutler & Co, 55-57 Gertrude St, Fitzroy, Vic, (03) 9419 4888.

Most keenly awaited opening west of the Nullarbor
Frankly, you won’t see a hell of a lot of pig’s head terrine around Perth these days. But it’s exactly the sort of rustic dish Star Anise chef-owner David Coomer is putting on the menu at Pata Negra, his long-awaited casual 70-seater. In the kitchen are Greg Malouf protégé Kurt Sampson, sous Matt Stone and a monstrous wood-fired oven. We’re already slavering over the prospect of hot-smoked octopus with jamón and olive oil-poached tomatoes, wagyu shin braised in Rioja, and arroz negro, the ink-black alternative to paella. The concise booze list is part welcome-to-Spain, part drink-this-you’ll-like-it (and we do). But, hey, talk to the hand. We’re way too busy thinking about our next glass of palo cortado teamed with the world’s healthiest snack: deep-fried pork crackling with cumin and sea salt. Pata Negra, 26 Stirling Hwy, Nedlands, WA, (08) 9389 5517.

Silliest names for seriously good sweets
Far be it for us to impugn a fine pâtissier’s reputation by wondering aloud if he smokes a lot of crack, but just what is Adriano Zumbo’s deal, exactly? The Balmain pastry-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold is a hero to dessert fiends and an army of bloggers, and beyond the innate excellence of his craft, we think the fruity names he gives his creations has a lot to do with it. A mango financier with raspberry and liquorice jelly is On the Lounge With Zumbo. On the Lounge with Tina equals cheesecake “mash”, lime “peas”, mango crush and chocolate coconut foam. They share counter space with Wheely Wildly Wendy, the Sunny Cloud, and – perhaps most memorably – the Camel Toe. Adriano Zumbo, 296 Darling St, Balmain, NSW, (02) 9810 7318 and Café Chocolat, Shop 5, 308 Darling St, Balmain, NSW, (02) 9555 1199.

Most chilled-out chocolatier
It’s a contest that Adriano Zumbo might contend, but with its concrete floors, recycled furniture and forest scene wall mural (complete with grazing deer), Melbourne’s Monsieur Truffe takes the prize, hiding its intense dedication to single-origin chocolate behind a laidback bohemian drag in Collingwood. Note the Bolivian or Ecuadorian tags on the paper and gold foil-wrapped chocolate bars or bags of organic roasted cocoa beans and you understand something finer, darker and less sweet is at work here. There are also excellent house-made croissants and pain au chocolat, single-origin coffee, and chocolate appreciation classes for those who need to know more about the provenance of the bean. Oh, and the truffles – the passionfruit-flavoured number is a revelation. Monsieur Truffe, 90 Smith St, Collingwood, Vic, (03) 9416 3101.

Most sides on a single menu
The new Sydney Rockpool Bar & Grill is big. Very big. Big room, big wine list, big gamble, big bucks. You can get big steaks (500gm of Greenham’s dry-aged grass-fed T-bone, say, or a 750gm Cape Grim grass-fed rib-eye on the bone) or simply a big bill (with $240 worth of sevruga or a $140 abalone steak meunière). But we like to go big on sides, and Rockpool Grill’s sides menu might just be the biggest of all. Starting with potato and cabbage gratin and closing with fresh shiitakes and lettuce sautéed with garlic onion rings, it runs to 21 dishes (plus a further four salads and five condiments and sauces). Six more, that is, than the already-huge Melbourne selection. Pick and mix hits and memories like mushy peas with slow-cooked egg, creamed silverbeet and boiled whole organic carrots “inspired by St John” (the restaurant, not the apostle), or slap down $210 (by our count) and see if they’ll serve you the lot. Maybe with a nice bit of steak on the side. Rockpool Bar & Grill, 66 Hunter St, Sydney, NSW, (02) 8078 1900.

Best 24-hour corner store
At heart, Launceston might just be a big country town, but it has better late, late-night food shopping than anywhere else in the country. Where in Sydney or Melbourne  could you buy Martelli pasta, superior olive oils, Ferron carnaroli rice, flavour-rich organically grown local fruit and vegetables, and artisan bread after two in the morning? And if someone who understands the delicatessen is doing the late-night shift, the options are even better – add the likes of Boks bacon, Heidi Gruyère, 41 Degrees South hot-smoked baby salmon and house-made pies to the mix, not to mention a good range of Tassie wines. Davies Grand Central, 86-96 Wellington St, Launceston, Tas, (03) 6331 9422.

Best way to earn a crust between restaurant gigs
Against the odds, and over three long years, chef-owner Craig McCabe managed to slowly tempt Brisbane foodists out to a far-flung home-maker centre to sample his simple but refined Euro-influenced fare. Accolades and awards followed. Now, after a brief flirtation in the inner city in 2008, he’s back at Jindalee starting out again at La Panetteria, this time baking with a concise but immaculate range of artisan loaves, everything from bâtards to baguettes, wholemeal sourdoughs and ciabatta. “I really enjoy making bread. I love the whole process,” says McCabe, who was bitten by the dough-making bug while baking for Soul Kitchen and Woolloongabba’s 1889 Enoteca. “When I do another restaurant, the bread oven will be built-in so I can continue to make these magic loaves.” In the meantime, fans of wholesome pre-fermented goodness are making the most of McCabe’s new obsession. La Panetteria, Shop 22, 34 Goggs Rd, Jindalee, Qld, (07) 3712 0124.

Best reason to up your fibre intake
Suddenly it’s all about grain. This is no news for fans of Middle Eastern food where nutty burghul has been adding textural interest to salads forever, but softened, just-crunchy grains are now turning up on menus around the country. Melbourne is grain ground-zero: at George Calombaris’s modern taverna Hellenic Republic his sharply dressed Cypriot cracked wheat and coriander salad is an instant classic, while Andrew McConnell’s cracked wheat and freekah dish at Cumulus Inc gets its refreshing tang from preserved lemon and barberries. Gigibaba’s kisir, Turkey’s tabbouleh, mixes the burghul with cucumber, dill and pomegranate, garnished with fried feta, and at St Jude’s Cellars quinoa and farro are combined with pistachios, cumin and orange. Roughage rules, okay?

Tastiest new cut of steak
It’s not going to be news if you’re an old-school boulevardier, but onglet is making a case for sharp incisors and a firm bite. Known in the US as hanger steak, and occasionally talked about here at home as butcher’s steak, onglet (pronounce it ONG-lay) is a large, thin muscle cut from the diaphragm (it hangs from the last rib, closer to the kidneys, and is therefore more flavoursome than the other cut from the diaphragm, the skirt). It’s got some chew to it, certainly, and for that reason it’s almost always grilled or sautéed quickly, medium-rare at most, and sliced thinly against the grain. The trade-off for that chew is a hugely beefy, almost offal-like flavour, which can be a revelation for beef fanatics. In Paris, you’ll typically see it served grilled with a slightly sweet shallot sauce; you’ll see it that way in Sydney at Darlinghurst’s La Brasserie, while at The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay they grill wagyu onglet from David Blackmore and serve it with watercress purée. Newcomer Bronte Road Bistro offers theirs with Café de Paris sauce and chips, and up on Palm Cove, the Nu Nu guys list a hanger steak with shiitakes, pepper and ginger sauce and smoky eggplant salad. If the good lord had meant us to eat nothing but eye fillet, he wouldn’t have given us teeth, right? [ED'S NOTE: For a short cut recipe for hanger steak, and other ideas for secondary cuts, check out our Cheap cut chic feature and recipes.]

Best beachside fossicking
There are enough restaurants and cafés in Noosa to ensure you never have to wield a sharp knife while on holiday. But eschewing a pilgrimage with the locals on a Sunday morning to Noosa Farmers’ Market would be ill-advised, particularly when you can tote your treasure back with you to Main Beach to picnic with the best view in town. Visit the Slow Rise Bakery stall for wood-fired sourdough, team these with a selection of The Rolling Dolmade’s mezze – perhaps a jar of pickled pimientos de Padrón, some roast baby beets, confit garlic, piquillo peppers stuffed with Coolabine goat’s cheese and manzanilla olives. Pick up a bag of organic tomatoes from Noosa Reds, add extra goat magic courtesy of Gympie Farm Cheese and you’re ready to go. Who needs a picnic blanket when you’ve got a beach towel? Noosa Farmers’ Market, Sunday mornings, Aussie Rules Football Ground, Weyba Rd, Noosaville, Qld.

Most anticipated “debut”
Strictly speaking, Adam D’Sylva has already been around the traps. In just a few years he has made a name for himself as right-hand man to both Geoff Lindsay at Pearl and Martin Boetz at Melbourne’s Longrain, has won a Young Chef of the Year award and has rocked a stage at Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York. But now D’Sylva is doing it for himself, opening his own place, Coda, in the Flinders Lane basement that formerly housed Mini. Tapping into the shared-plates zeitgeist, Coda’s broad sweep runs from organic Tasmanian snails to made-to-order fried rice paper rolls. Though aware of the débutant pressure, D’Sylva is feeling energised and confident, something he largely attributes to spending time with Keller. “I learnt a lot about cooking there,” he says. “But even more about motivation and the idea that anything is possible.” Coda, basement, 141 Flinders La, Melbourne, Vic.

Best example of taking itself unseriously
Hunkered down beside Perth’s McIver station, Devilles Pad is an outrageously kitsch bar-diner filled with fake stalactites, bejewelled busts of women and a carved totem pole, which gushes smoke onto the dance floor. The menu at this delicious little slice of eclectic retro madness reads like some god-awful faux Yankee franchise (Chesapeake crab cakes, Kansas City ribs, Cajun swordfish), but sauces are house-made and the food is authentic enough. Egalitarian touches include a $20 daily main course special, regular live performances and a free disco with ice-cream for kids on Wednesdays. The male staff wear Mississippi Gambler-style uniforms, while the gals favour red glittery cocktail dresses. If it sounds like some bizarre bipolar nightmare, it pretty much is. Love it. Devilles Pad, 1/3 Aberdeen St, Perth, WA, (08) 9225 6669.

Best use of grapes in a cocktail
Gin snobs tend to turn their noses up at the idea of Beefeater but the folks behind Match Bar & Grill – the Melbourne outpost of the London-based Match bar chain – don’t let pretensions get in the way of doing the job. Their cocktail Space Gin Smash is proof that even an unfashionable gin treated with kindness can hold its head up among the cool crowd. At Match, the Beefeater is shaken with muddled grapes, elderflower, fresh mint, apple and lemon juice before being poured over ice in a tall, hefty tumbler. The thirst-quenching power of the Space Gin Smash comes from the grapes, their lush, slightly acidic sweetness just the ticket for a parched throat. More grapes, we say, and much more Beefeater. Match Bar & Grill, 249 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9654 6522.

Best reason to leave the pie in the warmer
Chef Jordan Theodoros is wowing folks with his simple but superb food at Aquacaf, a waterside shack at Goolwa, near the mouth of the Murray River. Theodoros, previously with multi-starred restaurants The Melting Pot and Magill Estate, has created a big fuss over the most modest of dishes – a perfect fish pasty. Made with plump chunks of local mulloway, cooked leeks, cheddar and a good hit of dill, it’s enveloped in flaky pastry made unusually light with crème fraîche. To make sure foodists don’t take this too seriously, the pasty is presented in the time-honoured tuckshop wrapping of a white paper bag, on a large wooden serving board with spray of fresh salad. “There’s no tricky, expensive ingredients, nothing fancy, nothing complicated – but it is the best-quality produce prepared with care,” says Theodoros, who plans to keep this popular summer eatery open for lunch Thursday to Monday and for dinners on Saturday throughout the year. Aquacaf, Barrage Rd, South Goolwa, SA, (08) 8555 1235.

Best revival of an all-but-forgotten pastry

The canelé, a small fluted cake with a crisp caramelised exterior and a soft sweet rum and vanilla centre, has long been considered a delicacy too tricky to be handled by the home cook, partly because recipes call for copper moulds that need to be rubbed with beeswax before the batter is poured in. Latterly, the appearance of flexible silicone moulds has kept them from disappearing entirely, but we’re most heartened to see Christopher Thé, the former Claude’s pastry chef with stints at Quay, Potts Point’s Yellow and Victoire to his name, making them part of the repertoire at Black Star Pastry, his boho-chic little café in Newtown. He went a little bit overboard with the copper moulds at first and very nearly killed the shop’s budget with them before he realised he hadn’t yet bought a coffee machine. We’re pleased to report that Thé’s canelés have a pleasing density outside that gives way to the spongy bliss within. “They’re coming along,” he says, “but they’re definitely a work in progress.” And yes, he got the coffee machine too. Black Star Pastry, 277 Australia St, Newtown, NSW, (02) 9557 8656.

Most refreshing alternative to the breakfast fry-up
For many people, breakfast out is about hangover remedies, so salt, fat, protein and carbs are essential. But what if you’re not trying to soak up last night’s excesses? The breakfast menu at Hellenic Republic democratically plays it both ways. There are loukanika (spiced pork sausages), ham, eggs and spuds for the bleary-eyed, and then there’s the masterpiece of sense and simplicity: the watermelon, almond and feta salad. Not only easy on the eye, the combination of sweet, hydrating melon, subtly salty cheese, mint, toasted almonds and rosewater syrup hits all the right notes whether you’re après-yoga or post-club. Hellenic Republic, 434 Lygon St, Brunswick East, Vic, (03) 9381 1222.

Best promotion from the ranks
It must have been nerve-racking for Salvadoran-born Josue Lopez to step into the head chef role at Two Small Rooms, crucible for many of Brisbane’s most lauded culinary talents. But you could never tell. After a spell in London at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, the 24-year-old was buzzing with ideas and keen to step into the breach when former head chef Simon Garbutt decided to move on. “I don’t know if the customers are just really polite but I’m hearing nice things,” he says. Not surprising really, when he’s dishing up the beautifully balanced likes of juniper-crusted lamb with mint gremolata, and desserts along the lines of truffle honey parfait and spiced pear granita. “We truffle our own honey using shavings of fresh truffle, the crumb is vanilla brioche and the granita is made from paradise pears, which are tiny but really crisp,” he says. “I work to give pleasure. It’s why I cook.” Two Small Rooms, 517 Milton Rd, Toowong, Qld, (07) 3371 5251.

Best mix of current trends
On paper, St Jude’s could seem like a food fashion-victim. There’s the dedication to organic, biodynamic, free-range and sustainable ingredients. The shared-dish-only menu. The food served up on timber boards. In reality, Danielle Rensonnet’s lively cooking is a long way from victimhood. Her choice of ingredients – say free-range Western Plains pork or Tibooburra beef from the Yarra Valley – is driven by quality as much as ideals, and because St Jude’s only does shared dishes, the waiters are adept at guiding you onto a successfully constructed meal. Spacious tables mean the timber boards actually make sense. Trends are certainly identifiable at St Jude’s but the philosophy behind them makes you notice the flavour more than the fad. St Jude’s Cellars, 389-391 Brunswick St, Fitzroy, Vic, (03) 9419 7411.

Most successful attempt at being more Melbourne than Melbourne

It’s tiny, shares a lane with Becco and Pellegrini’s and has an obscure entrance leading to a moodily gloomy space that used to be colonial landscape painter Eugene Von Guerard’s living room. The counter is a kitchen table wedged between the dining and cooking areas. It feels plucked from the 19th century, replete with enamel plates and mismatched flowery crockery. But it’s not just in looks and size where Von Haus has the extreme-Melbourne theme happening. The menu ranges around northern Europe, dipping the occasional toe into the Middle East. Preserved fish, dark bread and cabbage rolls mix it up with mighty sandwiches, nuts roasted with lavender and fennel and meaty stews. The wine list is as enamoured of Australia as it is of Europe, and cider – the new beer – is prominent. Best of all, Von Haus fulfils its Melburnity in a friendly, embracing style that does parochial locals proud. Von Haus, 1a Crossley St, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9662 2756.

Smoothest bar/café combination
While some places tie themselves in knots trying to decide if they are a café or a bar, Cavallero makes such angst a moot point. It makes the transition from morning caffeine hit to nightcap with effortless aplomb. The high-ceilinged, minimally decorated space helps, maintaining a sense of serenity throughout the day, helped along by a genre-defying soundtrack of second-hand vinyl spun on a turntable behind the bar. The food is both comforting and interesting: Carolina-style pork sandwich replete with house-made barbecue sauce and coleslaw at lunch, say, or lamb rump with gingered carrots and spiced chickpeas after dark. The wine list is brief but geographically diverse and they know their way around a classic cocktail. Cavallero doesn’t need specific labels. It works no matter what you call it. Cavallero, 300 Smith St, Collingwood, Vic, (03) 9417 1377.

Most impressive coals-to-Newcastle act
Opening an upbeat bistro with a strong wine focus in a region with more quality wine and food outlets per capita than anywhere else in the West was always going to be a gamble. But Must Winebar co-owners Russell Blaikie and Gary Gosatti are far from foolish and Must Margaret River has been pumping from the moment it opened in early 2009. All the Must touches are there: a wine list featuring over 600 labels; a separate one-pager listing stuff available by the glass or 75ml taste; and a bunch of beaut bar bites (chicken liver parfait with grenache jelly, Gruyère and olive toasties, frites with béarnaise) bound to bowl over even the most blasé bar fly. Young head chef Chris Cheong knows his way around a charcuterie plate and is making the most of local produce. Blaikie himself has long been a champion of the Albany Rock oyster and has made sure the new Must offers the little bivalve in a variety of ways both raw (with shallot vinegar or Bloody Mary sorbet) and cooked (Kilpatrick; crumbed and served with tartare sauce). Upstairs, three elegant guest suites overlook Margaret River’s main drag. Must Margaret River, 107 Bussell Hwy, Margaret River, WA, (08) 9758 8877.

Goodie bag of the moment
The tender tranche of grilled foie gras with marshmallow, limoncello, tamari and almond is probably reason enough alone to visit Buffalo Club, Brisbane’s hottest new restaurant. But your best excuse for returning frequently has to be the Buffalo Candy Box, a petite silver case offered to all departing diners. This gorgeous take-home gift contains a chocolate bar stamped with the Buffalo Club logo, some hard candy and bubble gum. Perfect for the next day. Or the cab ride home. Buffalo Club, 1/234 Wickham St, Fortitude Valley, Qld, (07) 3216 1323.

Best reason to start thinking about fish fingers again
British-born purists may prefer to keep their fish finger sarnies straight down the line – a classic combination of crumbed and fried cod batons and plain sliced white bread – but Pearl Café in Brisbane’s Woolloongabba has found success with a variation on the classic. Its version of the greasy-spoon standard sees chef Daniel Rowe bracketing juicy crumbed salmon with sourdough from Leavain at Morningside. Throw in a little house-made tartare sauce with gherkins and capers, tomato, not too much cos, and there you have it: a fish finger sandwich for the ages. Pure comfort and balm for anyone feeling, in Fergus Henderson’s words, a little dented. Pearl Café, 28 Logan Rd, Woolloongabba, Qld, (07) 3392 3300.
Longest-term meat marinade
South Australian meat specialist Richard Gunner (already noted for his branded Coorong Angus beef and Pure Suffolk lamb) has been working with research scientists at the University of Adelaide for three years to develop lamb meat with a more gentle aroma and flavour, primarily to appease the fussy Korean and Japanese markets that are most wary of lamb’s idiosyncratic pungency. To achieve this, lambs receive a mixture of garlic and olive oil as a component of their feed; garlic breaks down the gamy smell, and olive oil helps lower the melting point of lamb fat. Unexpected economic benefits for farmers also include garlic accelerating lamb weight gain through increasing their appetite and reducing stomach parasites. Gunner is preparing to manufacture mixed feed pellets to feed to his Pure Suffolk flock for commercial lamb supplies in early 2010. While the more expensive feed will add an expected 10 to 15 per cent cost to lamb products, Gunner says international customers are already keen to order the new, less strident meat. Richard Gunner’s Fine Meats, Kent Town, SA, (08) 8132 1355.

Most anticipated comebacks
Two of Melbourne’s best-known chefs – Greg Malouf and Raymond Capaldi – have been restaurantless for a while now. But 2009 sees that situation reversed with both men returning with big-buck projects that have the local restaurant scene buzzing with anticipation. First out of the blocks is the rebooted MoMo where exec chef Malouf is putting a couple of years of travel and research into practice in a new restaurant space in the Grand Hyatt’s former food hall. Lebanese, Syrian, Persian, Turkish and North African flavours are all in the mix with Malouf particularly enamoured with a gas-fired stone oven that will be pumping out bread and beyond. Capaldi’s new venture, Locarno 150, in the luxurious 150 Clarendon Street building in East Melbourne, is an ambitious, multi-headed project that includes a 100-seat Italian cantina, a spuntini bar and lounge, a 40-seat set menu restaurant (“like dégustation but with more flexibility”) and function rooms. It looks like a year of many happy returns. Locarno 150, 150 Clarendon St, East Melbourne, Vic. MoMo Restaurant, Lower Plaza Level, 123 Collins St, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9650 0660.

Best beer snack
There’s no point in being namby-pamby when it comes to drinking food. There needs to be salt, fat and a devil-may-care, arteries-be-damned attitude. But there’s no need to let your standards drop, which is where the salt-and-pepper chicken spare ribs at Teage Ezard’s Gingerboy Upstairs come in. Left on the bone to keep things tender, the chicken ribs are marinated for up to 24 hours in a mix of sesame oil, Shaoxing wine, light soy and house-made five-spice powder. Just before flash frying, they’re swished through an egg wash and then dusted in flour seasoned with more five-spice and the all-important salt. Served with a light soy strewn with green chillies and shallots, the perfectly drained ribs give crunch and juice in all the right places and sing out for nothing so much as another round of Tsingtao. Gingerboy Upstairs, Level 1, 27-29 Crossley St, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9662 4200.

Best use of college facilities
Dedicated microbrewers Stephen Nelsen and Simon Sellick use the brewery facility within Adelaide’s Regency Park TAFE College to make their outstanding Brewboys range of craft beers. Nelsen, a lecturer in brewing at the institution, knows the workings of the college brewery better than most, enabling him and his brewing partner to focus on specialised brews: Maiden Ale, Hoes Garden (a Belgian witbier style), Ace of Spades (a serious black stout) and Seeing Double (a very robust red Scottish Ale). They remain determined to keep operations on a small, hand-crafted scale. “I don’t want to be a business manager. I just want to make good beer, for beer’s sake,” says Nelsen. As such, Brewboys beers were initially only available through their website – but soon attracted hot demand from discerning drinkers around Australia. Now a tasting shed has been opened opposite the campus brewery, so that punters can taste before they buy. Brewboys Tasting Room, 151 Regency Rd, Croydon Park, SA, (08) 8346 5200.

Most seasonal panini
It helps that Jay Patey makes the panini himself each morning. That separates Pigeon Hole’s panini from its mass-market competitors for a start — in fact Pigeon Hole’s panini expose most breads that dare call themselves by that name as impostors. The other thing that makes them special, though, is that they are truly seasonal. There are only two or three choices of filling daily and each day’s selections take full advantage of Tasmania’s true four seasons. The braised meatball and passata panino, finished with a layer of finely grated cheese, is likely to turn up on the menu on a wintry morning; in summer it’s more likely to be perfumed local tomatoes and basil with fresh chèvre; and braised mushrooms and parsley speak of autumn. Pigeon Hole, 89 Goulburn St, West Hobart, Tas, (03) 6236 9306.

Best recession reading
Has the GFC got you thinking of KFC? A flick through Elisabeth Luard’s encyclopaedic European Peasant Cookery should put your stomach at ease, whatever your financial state. It’s hard to fret when contemplating, say, a hearty (and economical) Spanish potato stew, Lancashire hotpot or a classic stifado. The peasant larder, as Luard points out, varies according to climate and conditions but by its very nature it depends on ingredients easily obtained or grown locally – what could be more in tune with current culinary (and macro-economic) philosophy?

Best scone substitute
There’s a downside to having a state full of pretty Georgian villages and bucolic country towns – there are just too many scones. No matter what else it serves, nearly every country dining room in Tasmania sees a need to have Devonshire tea on its menu. It’s a pleasant relief, then, to visit Sip, where instead of scones, each day Helen Bain and Subi Mead make bulochki, spiced yeast-based buns that are based on a recipe they were taught by an old Russian woman living south of Hobart. Served traditionally with jam and sour cream, the only thing missing is the vodka. Sip also has a Middle Eastern-inspired breakfast plate, an excellent alternative to that other ubiquitous dish – eggs and bacon. Sip at Seaview, 29 Banksia St, Bicheno, Tas, (03) 6375 1247.

Best chef looking for a restaurant
Luke Burgess inflicted grievous bodily harm on Hobart’s food lovers and some of us are still suffering the withdrawal symptoms. Having seduced us with his uncompromisingly local and always beautiful food for about nine months, he and partner Katrina Birchmeier shut their little country restaurant, Pecora, in early 2008, leaving an empty hole that was once filled with memorable lunches. Now, after a sabbatical in Europe and the US, they’re back and keen to open a restaurant in Hobart but they can’t find the right space. Can anyone help? Please? We’re missing our tomato and bread soup with king crab, our cured striped trumpeter with ajo blanco, our beef short ribs with tripe, and our chocolate marquise with dulce de leche.

Best poaching of kitchen talent
Already boasting a strong reputation for superior fine dining, The Wine Underground has made a most valuable addition to its brigade. Young kitchen hotshot Adam Liston (nominated in the Best New Talent category in last year’s GT Restaurant Guide Awards) has taken charge of the stoves, lured from The Melting Pot after it shifted from fine dining to a bistro menu. Keen to push his culinary ambitions further, Liston has worked with owner John Gable to sketch an exciting menu inspired by European provincial food but presented with a touch of grandeur – quail “popcorn”, seared breast and corn tortellini; pea purée with crisp speck; twice-cooked poussin with fennel purée, prawn raviolo and shellfish vinaigrette – or clean Asian accents (tuna tataki, dashi and bonito jelly, white soy, wakame and wasabi cream). “I’m really throwing myself into this new job,” says Liston, “and to hear the boss saying he wants to hit the same high standards that I’m aiming for is music to my ears.” The Wine Underground, 121 Pirie St, Adelaide, SA, (08) 8232 1222.

Best hospitality partnership (in the biblical sense)
With two cellar doors, a Perth fine diner and an acclaimed lakeside restaurant in the Margaret River wine region to her credit, one might have thought Kate Lamont had enough on her plate. One might have been wrong. Late last year, Lamont joined forces with her affable wine merchant hubby John Jens to open Lamont’s Wine Store in the inner Perth suburb of Cottesloe. The new place is essentially an enoteca, part-bottle shop, part-café, offering a changing array of simple, recession-proof tapas-style tastes from noon till late. Jens keeps himself busy organising regular wine dinners and there’s a dedicated tasting room available for hire by groups. Diners may order from the concise, clever wine list or select anything in the bottle shop and pay a fixed drink-in levy of $18.50 per bottle. Lamont’s Wine Store, 12 Station St, Cottesloe, WA, (08) 9385 0666.

Best example of productive downsizing
Oyster farmers off South Australia’s western Eyre Peninsula choose to snack on the smallest Pacific oysters while they’re working – their plump meat is sweeter – so Brendan Guidera of Pristine Oyster Farm at Coffin Bay has focused on producing miniature (less than six centimetres long) Pacific oysters for the national market. He calls these a Kumamoto-style oyster, after the rare species emanating from the waters off Kumamoto in Japan but now mainly grown in small numbers in the United States. “I can only grow these off Coffin Bay in the very best ocean waters,” says Guidera, who also runs oyster farms on Eyre Peninsula’s east coast, at Cowell. “These oysters need plenty of tidal movement and the ability for the shells to roll a lot to get their more rounded shape.” Already a hit with chefs including Vue de Monde’s Shannon Bennett and Bentley’s Brent Savage, they cost about 25 per cent more than standard Pacific oysters, yet demand is growing and Guidera is increasing production to an anticipated 500,000 Kumamoto-style oysters this year. Pristine Oyster Farm, Coffin Bay, SA, (08) 8685 5056.

Best insider food blog
Victorian living food treasure George Biron has a cult following among hard-core food fans thanks to his dedication to the Slow Food/kitchen garden philosophies, his legendary cooking classes and his “restaurant in the middle of a paddock”, the weekend-lunch-only Sunnybrae. But his wise and humorous blog sees his welcome influence spreading even further. Combining produce news, cooking tips, interesting and mature comment on the state of food writing and criticism, excerpts from books and food news, the blog achieves gravitas because it is written by someone who really knows and feels passion for food and its associated industries. Bookmark it.

Best blindside by a new food precinct
Smith Street, the border between Fitzroy and Collingwood in Melbourne’s inner north, is mostly famed for its heroin trade, drunks and empty shopfronts. But recent whispers have been more about food than drugs. The Panama Dining Room set up shop in a cavernous warehouse space two flights of rickety stairs above street level and then Cavallero brought a whiff of calm and cool to the strip’s café culture. But that drip has turned into a stream with chocolatier Monsieur Truffe, quirky Japanese cafés like Wood Spoon and Wabi Sabi Salon and Ismail Tosun’s brilliant Turkish bar Gigibaba emerging in rapid succession, blindsiding everybody who had their eyes firmly trained on chic Gertrude Street. A new bar, Collingwood World, has upped the ante in the cocktail stakes and there’s a French wine bar on the way. Stranger than fiction, Smith Street has suddenly become the space to be watched.

Best use of a shearing shed not involving sheep
Every October, Kukerin yabbie farmers Mary and Michael Nenke swap their wellies and Driza-Bones for formal wear and become the Wheatbelt’s most gracious hosts. The annual Cambinata Extravaganza is a unique silver-service dinner for 300 held in a huge shearing shed decked out with carefully dressed tables, chandeliers and old shearing equipment. Local wines feature in the multi-course dég, which showcases exceptional produce from around the state. The next morning, those who can still stand make their way back to the Nenkes’ place for the traditional breakfast fry-up. Cambinata Yabbies, Collie Lake King Rd, Kukerin, WA, (08) 9864 6054.


This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.