I ate a bunch of really nasty things in 2011, both in and out of the course of duty. Some of them rotten, some of them inept, pointless, or stupid, others just plain dull. Oyster ice-cream. Sliced oysters and raw squid with umeboshi and a vile, Provençal-ish tofu made by gelling soy milk flavoured with lavender, combining the hitherto discrete qualities of "flowery", "fishy" and "slimy". Things poached in seawater shipped from the Hawaiian ocean floor. Things that really shouldn't be put in sous vide machines. And fish semen. Really not getting the hang of that one.
But here's the thing: for every mind-numbingly uninspired, paint-by-numbers variation on the new quenelle-crumble-dust-poached-lump-of-something-with-a-poured-on-soup routine I've forced myself to stay awake through this year, there's been at least one smart, witty-but-not-too-precious thing to balance it out. Things that are honest and gutsy, and that taste good to boot. Things that don't need inverted commas around them to make them interesting. Truly inventive things. Believe it or not, I've even eaten dishes that have had no flowers or micro-herbs on them.
Things, in short, are looking good. Here's some stuff that impressed me and the rest of the GT gums-for-hire over the course of 2011. Hit us back on Twitter and let us know what's wowed you.
Pat Nourse, chief restaurant critic
Laksa assam, Lam Kong Coffee Shop, Penang My working title for this one was Pretty Much Everything I Ate in Penang. By dint of demography, geography, history and inclination, the people of Penang have evolved into some of the world's most serious eaters. To put it very mildly, it's not a hard place to eat well. And when a table of really serious eaters get together, talk soon turns to laksa assam, and from there, naturally enough, to the small town of Balik Pulau, on the Malaysian island's quieter western half. The assam laksa of Penang is to the coconut-choked slop that passes for laksa lemak in this country as Beethoven is to Bieber. Here, at a small stall in a coffee house, say some (though certainly not all) of Penang's laksa lovers, lies laksa perfection. You don't need to be any kind of expert at all to see the tangy brilliance in the balance of such seemingly disparate ingredients as mackerel, chilli, pineapple, tamarind, Vietnamese mint and ginger flowers. Throw in a fresh nutmeg juice and know streetside eating nirvana. And get change out of a tenner.
Sandwich of rye bread, chicken skin, lumpfish roe and smoked cheese, Noma, Copenhagen [pictured]
There are worthier dishes at Noma. Dishes that boldly go. More arresting stuff. More oddly local stuff made with even more oddly Nordic ingredients. Bits of trees. But for simple I-want-to-eat-this-again-right-now-please tastiness, my vote goes to this crisp two-bite flavour bomb. God's gift to beer snacks.
Pork petit four, Momofuku Seiobo, Sydney Could've been the savoury custard thing with the chicken sauce and the tea. Could've been the pleasure of savouring the damn pork buns on home ground. But in the final analysis it had to be what has come to be called the pork petit four. Call it outlandish, call it a happy mistake, call it Ishmael - throwing down an eat-with-your-hands slow-cooked pork shoulder after the desserts at the end of a dégustation is exactly the kind of the-hell-with-it gesture that makes David Chang's restaurants so great. That and the straight-up pleasures of eating a hunk of pork located in that happy place between confit and caramel.
Whisky gums, The Fat Duck, Bray Little wine-gums stuck on a map of Scotland? Cute idea. Making them taste exactly like the whisky made by the key distilleries of the region - Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay and beyond? That's what keeps The Fat Duck ahead of the game.
Char siu pork, Dynasty, Hong Kong They said it was the best char siu pork in Hong Kong. They were right.
Ikura, Sushi Kanesaka, Tokyo Kaneseka was dazzling in all the ways a top-flight Ginza sushi restaurant ought to be, but the very best dish wasn't the intricately sliced kohada or the superbly seasonal anago three ways, nor was it the simple quality of the rice (which was beyond reproach). The dish of the day was, instead, a small bowl of the freshest cold-water salmon roe, the exquisitely fragile eggs dressed with nothing more than a zesting of yuzu.
Raw beef, The Bridge Room, Sydney "Neither carpaccio nor tartare," wrote some wise old whippersnapper of this almost instant signature at one of Sydney's most impressive new restaurants, "it comprises gossamer-thin sheets of well-marbled pink-and-white wagyu draped over little bundles of smoked enoki mushrooms, accented with Microplaned horseradish and ... Celtic sea salt. Impossibly thin rings of pickled chilli are an inspired addition." Word.
Blue mackerel, Generation Next, Est., Sydney Every year we do a dinner where we invite up-and-coming chefs from around the country to come together and cook like the blazes for a highly appreciative audience at Est., in Sydney. This year's crew nailed it so thoroughly that you'd have to go to the photo-finish to pick the dish of the night. I reckon I'd give it to Lennox Hastie, the hearthmaster who has recently left his post as head chef at Etxebarri, the cooking-with-fire pilgrimage site in the Basque country, to open a restaurant in Sydney. Blue mackerel, fresh as the day is long, its briny brightness exaggerated, somehow, by careful cooking over coals. An enticing suggestion of more good things to come from a talented young chef. Stay tuned.
Croque-monsieur, Ved Stranden 10, Copenhagen Wine is unabashedly the thing at Ved Stranden, a wine bar that bookends Noma as a reason to stay at least another day in the Danish capital. And exotic, unusual and consistently well-chosen wine it is, too. They do very, very little food - rillettes that gets brought up weekly from the Loire, and a croque monsieur. Both are sen-f*ing-sational. They've spent months trying to make the croque as good as they possibly can, and by god, it's a masterpiece painted in cheese and mustard, ham and bread, a thumbed nose to France, and almost perfect ballast.
The Ron Burgundy, Viajante bar, London
Rare is the dish (let alone the cocktail) with a gag name that satisfies both the palate and the sense of humour. This makes The Ron Burgundy doubly satisfying. Served, oddly enough, by a ridiculously young Noosa-born bartender, Alex McKechnie (he's since moved on), it's a play on the name of the lead in Will Ferrell's 2004 farce, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Rum equals the Ron, pinot noir the Burgundy. It arrives on a leather-bound book under a smoke-filled cloche, and yes, it smells of rich mahogany.
Michael Harden, Victoria editor
Piccata of chicken livers with fresh pappardelle, Bistro Gitan, Melbourne Chicken livers can be mean when not treated nicely. In gently searing them with a mix of Kaiserfleisch, pickled shallots, button mushrooms, garlic and butter and then popping them on house made pappardelle and adding a hint of sugar with balsamic, though, chef Steven Nelson, sure brings out their sweet side.
Pickled cucumber with poached oysters, Geranium, Copenhagen Soft sensuous tastes of the sea - gently poached oysters, salted scallops, oyster sauce finished with dehydrated and ground algae and seaweed - team up with pickled cucumber and delicate cucumber flowers in this beautifully subtle, evocative dish.
Violet ice-cream, chocolate ganache, sour cherry with clove meringue, Cutler & Co., Melbourne You'd be happy just gazing upon this pretty, artfully plated dessert with its blushing pinks, browns and fluffy tufts of almond chiffon sponge. But start tucking into the floral, aromatic flavours and crisp and silky textures and it's soon apparent that eating with the mouth trumps eating with the eyes.
Rotisserie chicken, PM24, Melbourne This organic chicken, slow roasted (on an impressive red enamel rotisserie no less) and flavoured with nothing more than rosemary, preserved lemon, salt and pepper is the poster child for simple things done beautifully. Teamed with vegetables basted in the juice of the bird, it's the stuff of addiction.
Pine mushrooms and veal tongue, Loam, Drysdale Freshly picked pine mushrooms sitting in a beurre blanc - flavoured subtly with fresh juniper branches - are topped with a flurry of shreds of veal tongue that's been dehydrated to an intense, slightly crisp-and-chewy state that's a whole lot of slightly weird fun to eat.
Tuna tartare with Moroccan eggplant and harissa, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sydney Surely this couldn't work, this beautiful tuna sharing a plate with fiery, insistent harissa, slippery, Moroccan-spiced eggplant and creamy cumin mayonnaise? But it does, in the best and most ethereal way where every flavour and texture seems to have found exactly the right level.
Tomato salad with burrata, Carlton Wine Room, Melbourne Big-flavoured heirloom tomatoes, creamy burrata from nearby "mozzarella laboratory" La Latteria, puffed brown rice, toasted almonds and slightly sweet, sticky olive oil jam get together to do a highly successful remix of the traditional Caprese salad.
Live fjord prawns with brown butter sauce, Noma, Copenhagen They arrive in a closed flip-top jar filled with ice, these little semi-translucent prawns, waving their feelers about when the lid is opened, confronting you with the idea of popping something alive and wriggling into your mouth with just a dab of brown butter sauce. The vibrant, unrepeatable flavour can make you go all hippie with talk of the life force.
Soft-shell crab and avocado rice paper rolls with Mrs T's magical sauce, Dandelion, Melbourne The roll is good, with its crisp and soft textures and excellent quality crab, but it's the sauce - the recipe for which Geoff Lindsay obtained from the wife of one of his regular Vietnamese grocery suppliers on Richmond's Victoria Street - that kicks it into another league. Pungent fish sauce, chilli, crushed pineapple all contribute to its zinging, sprightly beauty.
Eel and bone marrow, Royal Mail Hotel, Dunkeld Smoked eel in a nougatine-base, flattened and dehydrated into paper-like sheets, sitting on top of intensely rich bone marrow, a tangy eggplant purée with chocolate and white miso burned onto the plate and tiny little pickled radishes, turnip and beetroots - this disparate-seeming collection of intense flavours comes together with all the pop, fizz and bang that make Dan Hunter's food so enjoyable.
Max Veenhuyzen, Western Australia editor
Charcoal roast Swan River crab, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Perth Never mind the steak. For mine, season one of Rockpool Bar & Grill Perth is best remembered for the local swimmer crab, brought to its full sweet and smoky potential through the magic of charcoal. Together with the aromatic Tex-Mex kapow of jalapeño, coriander, cumin and preserved lemon, it's a partnership fierce enough to almost make beef an afterthought.
Tartare of yellow fin tuna, Sepia, Sydney Or as it appears on the menu: "tartare of yellow fin tuna, warm leek cream, poached egg yolk, soy and wasabi, sprouting caviar lentils, amaranth grain". As the comprehensive descriptor suggests, this contains more than a whisper of that Royal Mail Hotel signature, but it's the dish's pronounced Japanese accent - the cubes of vivid red tuna, in particular - that distances it from the rest of the country's "egg yolk, toasted rye, legumes and yeast" doppelgangers.
Kazunoko, Chihana, Kyoto Elegance and seasonality have been constants at this itamae kappo restaurant since 1946, but in terms of a standout, it's hard to go past the unexpected crunch of herring roe marinated in sake, dashi and soy.
Richard's slow-cooked pork belly, University Asian Restaurant, Perth You won't find this on the menu, but instead scrawled on various mirrors decorating this popular student haunt. It's also a winter-only treat, however the melty, gravy-rich awesomeness of pork belly braised in 18-year-old master stock and tucked into warm, fluffy mantou buns handsomely rewards the patient. One really is never enough.
Vietnamese pancakes with chicken, green papaya and nahm jim, Greenhouse, Perth
"Vietnamese pancakes" usually conjures images of crisp yellow banh xeo, but chef Matt Stone has a way of confounding expectations. Here, the one-time GT Best New Talent winner delivers a trio of crunchy part-blini, part-taco "pancakes" together with an intense salad of sprouts, chilli, poached chook and a whole damn kitchen sink of hot, sour and salty flavour.
Spanish mackerel sashimi, Nihonryori Ryugin, Tokyo Conventional isn't Seiji Yamamoto's cup of roasted ginseng tea, yet the Ryugin chef also knows when to tread softly. A case in point: the (relatively) simple, yet inspired addition of finely diced iburigakko - smoked pickled daikon - to lightly seared rectangles of meaty, Spanish mackerel belly. Amazingly, it tastes even better than it sounds.
Beef tongue, vanilla, myrtus, lettuce stems, Attica, Melbourne Velvety, smoky and coated with a jumble of soft herbs, pickled lettuce stems and crushed myrtus berries, this dazzling take on this oft-ignored bovine cut - hot smoked and from purebred Black Angus - is as tasty as it is resourceful.
Quince and pear crumble, Foragers, Pemberton
Textural abracadabra, offbeat combinations and "dish names framed by quotation marks" are all good and well, yet sometimes the body just wants comfort. And so it is with this baked, buttery and still-warm nightcap, the local fruit poached with Pedro Ximénez, not liquid nitrogen, the accompanying chestnut and honey ice-cream churned using conventional rather than Pacojet technology. Chalk up a win for the old-school.
Anchovy, scallop, tomatoes, Restaurant Amusé, Perth The melange of Ortiz anchovies, jamón Ibérico and slow-cooked tomato could be a food postcard from anywhere on the Mediterranean, but look instead to those fusilli-like spirals for a true measure of Hadleigh Troy's smarts, the talented chef slyly swapping durum wheat for a "pasta" of dashi-poached scallop skirt.
Notorious PIG Juicy, Coda, Melbourne The setting was down an alley in Melbourne not Los Angeles, and guests didn't need to rely on Twitter to know where Roy Choi was going to pop up. But despite the breaks with the typical Kogi BBQ food truck experience, the Los Angelino's bold, multicultural cuisine effortlessly survived the cross-continental journey, these hunks of brined then quintuple-char-grilled porky goodness a highlight of this year's Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.
David Sly, South Australia editor
Hallett Cove, Penfolds Magill Estate, Adelaide
Named after a metropolitan Adelaide diving site, this dish presents contrasting fresh fillets - snook, Coorong mullet, tommy ruff - with four seaweeds and chef Jock Zonfrillo's own "sponge" served on a smooth black stone picked from the beach. Warm aromatic crab broth poured at the table brings an intense marine tang in a clever and very effective presentation.
Scallop gnocchi, Celsius, Adelaide Always inventive, chef Ayhan Erkoc takes a very different route with outstanding wild-caught Kangaroo Island scallops, shaping them into gnocchi that become glorious textural partners with cauliflower, broad bean and the slightest bit of fennel.
Pasta, Vincenzo's Cucina Vera, Adelaide Vincenzo LaMontagna's pastas are consistently magnificent. Gloriously silky snail-shaped lumanconi with delicately poached pheasant and shavings of autumn truffle has been a memorable star of his ever-changing dégustations.
Soy-braised quail, Petaluma's Bridgewater Mill, Bridgewater Zac Ronayne's crisp soy-braised quail with hot and sour eggplant and green papaya achieves an enticing mix of robust richness with a meld of subtle flavours and nuances.
Twelve-hour braised oxtail, Mantra on King William, Adelaide This is powerful meatiness, writ large. The deep, dark, satisfying beef is nicely balanced with celeriac, eggplant, Vichy carrots and pommes maxim.
Red duck curry, FermentAsian, Tanunda Owner-chef Tuoi Do uses spice with a gentle touch to provide deep flavour harmony rather than a violent heat blast in red duck curry studded with a perfectly few pieces of lychee and pineapple.
Honey and anise sweetbreads with turnip purée and parsley sauce, Press Food & Wine, Adelaide These roasted sweetbreads have a rich meatiness offset by sharp anise and sweet honey flavours, pulling emphasis onto the sweetbreads' silky texture.
Terrine of pig's ears, Bistro Dom, Adelaide Nice to see bistro classics executed with respect, and devoid of unnecessary fussiness - here the terrine's piquant edge is accentuated by a celeriac rémoulade and mustard fruits.
Spring trio of artichoke, broad beans and asparagus with lamb loin, Appellation, Marananga
Mark McNamara's kitchen garden is the source of inspiration for his best dishes. His garden's spring produce, picked immediately before gentle cooking, becomes the hero of this dish, with delicate rare lamb serving as a rich foil.
Lamb's brains, Fino, Willunga
Resolutely fresh and local in his sourcing, David Swain makes a smart addition of Willunga almonds in a coating that brings appealing crunch to creamy lamb's brains, complemented by the smoky tang of cured pig's cheek.
Sue Dyson & Roger McShane, Tasmania editors
Tomato bread, clams, celery, tomato, horseradish and capers, The Stackings, Woodbridge
Inspired by Clamato, this dish is a perfect expression of summer. Light, fresh and very beautiful but with plenty of flavour spikes, it was an ideal first dish on a sunny day.
Radishes, lamb's lettuce, quail eggs and anchovy butter, Garagistes, Hobart The just-picked radishes pack real flavour, the plating is naturally beautiful, there's crunch and creaminess, and plenty of umami. All bases covered really - and you can eat it with your hands.
Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream, pumpkin cake, cider-pressed pears, puffed buckwheat, Garagistes, Hobart We're still bemused that someone could even think it's a good idea to make a dessert from Jerusalem artichokes, much less pull off one of the best winter desserts we've ever eaten. As with many dishes here, it's the counterbalancing of flavours and textures that provoke the excitement.
Potato cooked in the earth in which it was grown, Attica, Melbourne This dish is proof that a great dish is about great cooking, not extravagant ingredients. One potato, crisp saltbush leaves, smoked goat's curd, young coconut ash and a little graininess from freshly ground coffee. Who would have thought it could be so amazing?
Black sesame, lime and yoghurt, Golden Fields, Melbourne The feather-light, airy, charcoal-coloured pieces of black sesame cake strewn across the plate look like fragile lichen. Sesame features in a wafer and in a dark black sesame paste too. It's beautifully countered by bright white lime sorbet and a disc of creamy set yoghurt.
Lozère lamb and morels on a vin-jaune-infused cream, L'Astrance, Paris The lamb is, as expected, excellent, but there's a depth, enhanced by the vin jaune and morels, that lifts this dish into special territory. A glass of Jean-François Ganevat Cuvée de Garde, a blend of savagnin and chardonnay, helped too.
Oxtail parmentier, Le Comptoir, Paris Parmentier seemed to be the bistro dish of 2011 in France. Yves Camdeborde's version just edged out the many we tried. It had the right balance of crunch and crisp bits sticking to the edge, and underneath, sufficient juices from the rich braised oxtail to mingle with the potato purée.
Balmain bug with lamb sweetbread, black bean and coconut curd, The Bentley, Sydney The coconut curd alone is a revelation, the star is the almost-translucent Balmain bug meat, and the depth comes from the sweetbreads. Multiple layers, each with a purpose.
Baked eggs with Taleggio and preserved lemon, Pigeon Hole, Hobart From the moment we tried this dish it became our benchmark for breakfast eggs and nothing we've eaten since has approached it. The balance of flavours is extraordinary, the cooking precise, and it's impossible to tire of it.
Gnocchetti, polenta, aged Gouda, Septime, Paris Some of the prettiest comfort-food we've ever eaten. A base of creamy polenta, just-golden pan-fried tiny gnocchi, judicious shavings of aged Gouda and a shower of chive flowers.
Gareth Meyer, Australian Capital Territory editor
Truffle and Gruyère toasted sandwich, Biota, Bowral Dinner at Biota is great, but for a real head-turner, head back in the morning to experience this standout breakfast dish. It's a many-layered affair - thin slices of toast, Gruyère, and black truffle oozing a buttery rich goodness.
Citrus caramel pork hock with jujube salad, Neila, Cowra Pork dishes don't get much better than owner-chef Anna Wong's lovingly prepared pork hock - it's unctuous, sweet, sticky and salty all at once. The "jujube" salad of spiced red dates offers a fresh and zingy contrast.
Pork crubeens, Pulp Kitchen, Canberra If only all suburban shopping centres boasted the talents of a Christian Hauberg. In this standout dish, meat from the head and trotters of the pig is slowly braised, pressed into shape, fried and paired with apple compote and some creamed leek.
Grass-fed beef hamburger, Nopa, San Francisco San Franciscans would generally not swap a burger at nearby Zuni Café for quids, but the grass-fed burger at Nopa a couple of kilometres away is very much its equal. It's beautifully juicy and tender, and arrives on a soft and buttery bun accompanied by house-pickled red onions and French fries. Perfect with one of Nopa's many great cocktails or a local organic ale.
Foie gras, balsamic chocolate kabayaki, raisin cocoa pulp, sip of aged sake, O Ya, Boston Why O Ya? One bite into this inspired signature dish and all becomes clear. The foie gras has been coated in a sweet-and-sour mixture (soy sauce, balsamic vinegar and melted chocolate), pan-seared and presented nigiri-style, making for an astonishing arrangement of flavours and textures, with aged sake the perfect accompaniment.
White corn grits, sunny-side up farm egg, French breakfast radish, chanterelles, fiore sardo, truffle, Bondir, Boston This inspired dish repositions the southern US speciality of grits (coarsely ground corn, with a polenta-like texture) in a distinctly European context alongside the earthiness of chanterelles and truffle, radish for textural contrast, and some piquant Sardinian sheep's milk cheese for balance.
Piece of cow smoked with Tepú and cooked 40 hours with aroma from Manquehue, Boragó, Santiago Boragó is Chile's answer to the weird-science-meets-paddock-to-plate genre of modern cuisine. "We believe the environment decides what we consume and when," reads their high-falutin' philosophy. In a tasting menu packed with innovation and surprise, a dish of beef smoked with Tepú (a tree endemic to Chile), then slow-poached, coated in a sweet black powder derived from raw sugar cane and presented as if it were a smouldering volcanic ember, stands out.
Chocolate fondant with marmalade ice-cream, Dieci e Mezzo, Canberra Chocolate fondants come and go, but James Kidman takes it to a new level when the silky molten Amedei chocolate centre spills out and mingles with the cleansing tang of a stunning homemade marmalade ice-cream.
Insalata di Campo, Delfina, San Francisco Such is Delfina's dedication to fine produce that they can elevate a simple salad of bitter greens pancetta, walnuts and parmesan to one of the memorable plates of the year. It has something to do with the incredibly fresh organic local ingredients and unwaveringly fine technique.
Steak tartare, Cumulus Inc., Melbourne
In his imagining of the French classic, Andrew McConnell cedes control over blending the impeccably diced condiments of cornichon, breakfast radish, capers and shallots with the bright red cubes of beef rump, seasoned with Dijon and Worcestershire sauce to his guests. Colourful, fun, exciting mouth-watering stuff.