The numberplates say it all. The sunshine is still here, but these days Queensland is the Smart State. And if what's happening on the eating and drinking scene in Brisbane is any guide, they're damned right. There are some new sheriffs in town, and the Brisbane new school is doing some of the most exciting stuff in the country.
The new kings of the dining scene respect their elders, and acknowledge that they're standing on the shoulders of those who came before them - big names in the Brisbane eating scene such as Montrachet, E'cco, Restaurant Two and Isis. But there's also been a break, a distinction that's been defined as much by a generational shift as it has by an influx of new talent. The city's diners are eager, hungry and game, and suddenly the Brisneyland jokes fade as the city becomes a desirable site for second-city expansion for Melbourne and Sydney restaurateurs. Talk of the impending opening of a riverfront branch of Saké, the popular post-Nobu Sydney diner, has been followed by rumours that a Longrain, and perhaps a Stokehouse-style restaurant from Melbourne's Frank van Haandel, may be next. The French Laundry-trained local golden boy (and last year's GT Best New Talent) Ryan Squires, meanwhile, is set to open a new restaurant of his own on the river in early 2011.
The recent history of Brisbane restaurants is probably best dated from the day The Bowery's Cam Birt and Stephanie Canfell decided to branch out from the bar business and open The Buffalo Club in Fortitude Valley in January 2009. Ryan Squires was the chef, and from out of nowhere, the stage was seemingly set for out-there, dégustation-only style dining. In August 2009 the Aria show rolled into town, taking over the old Pier Nine spot on the river. Sydney chef Matt Moran brought an awe-inspiring cellar and $50 main courses to boot.
Speaking of $50 main courses, Urbane reopened at the end of the 2009 hauter than ever after a multimillion-dollar refit as not one but three discrete drink/dine spaces, flanked by The Laneway bar and The Euro upmarket bistro. And then, only weeks later, came the key piece of the puzzle. The Brunswick Street premises of one-time two-star restaurant Isis had been shuttered since chef Jason Peppler and owner Simon Hill went their separate ways, but in December it reopened as the proudly Spanish Ortiga, with Pablo Tordesillas, previously Hill's chef at Bar Alto, at the helm. The quality of Brisbane restaurants has risen considerably in the past 18 months, Hill says. "And people are now willing to go along for the ride. People come here and they want to go the whole hog and have the whole experience."
On the bars and cafés front, it's been a matter of evolution rather than revolution. Brisbane has been a player on the cocktail scene for some years now. The Bowery, which opened in the Valley in 2003, remains one of the top bars in the country, and in its wake has risen a culture of professionalism in the cream of Brisbane bartending that's a pleasure to savour, whether it's at the classical likes of Paddington cocktailian favourite The Lark or the more niche, out-there Sling Lounge or Mana Bar. And, perhaps concomitantly with this night-owl scene, coffee is taken pretty seriously here now too.
RESTAURANTS Ortiga A restaurant designed by Brisbane, for Brisbane, and with plenty of talent looking after the floor, the wine and the food, Ortiga is firing on all cylinders. At street level, under a ceiling of lovely pressed tin, it buzzes with the sense of a tapas bar done right - one of the very few in the country that doesn't feel like a pimentón-flavoured paint-by-numbers job, where proper attention has been paid to the careful sourcing of everything from sherry to the charcuterie in the gleaming glass case. Oysters and plates of jamón fly thick and fast. Downstairs in the restaurant itself, the fanciness ratchets up several notches. Pablo Tordesillas is the real Spanish deal, cooking food that references Spain both old and new. He could probably pull back a little on the foams and smears; good as they are, the likes of his deconstruction of the classic ajo blanco almond soup with smoked eel and grapes are outpaced by gutsier fare in the vein of the jamón and fino-enlivened chickpeas with tiny tender Moreton Bay baby squid. Restaurant owner Simon Hill has built on the reputation the site had for good wine in its incarnation as Isis, with dashing sommelier Matthew Brooke presiding over a list that has substance and a Spanish slant that is more than cosmetic. 446 Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley, (07) 3852 1155
Urbane The rebooted Urbane is a crisp, modern, somewhat hushed small space, softened by a sculpture of a large fish-like organism fashioned from scales of leather hanging on one wall (it's a great relief to find that the staff aren't too buttoned-up to let you touch it, too). Chef Kym Machin has been one of the more progressive players in the local food scene for some years now, but it's clear that he's been told to go for broke here. Top-dollar ingredients and newfangled kitchen whiz-bangery are deployed with both barrels to varying success, but when they hit the mark, as with the deeply savoury young chicken poached tender in master stock and served with a texturally rich assemblage of crab, tofu and abalone, it's a beautiful thing. Urbane's greatest asset, though (beyond its exquisite private room), may be pastry chef Shaun Quade. His desserts range from the loopy to the damn-near unhinged in their oddness, taking in everything from fennel pollen and amaranth to cocoa husk and vine ash. Get a load of the edible nest interwoven with threads of mandarin zest, micro basil and lemon thyme. It holds one egg made of lavender ice-cream and black rice in a crisp candy shell, and another of molten chocolate fondant sealed in anise toffee. Oh yeah. 181 Mary St, Brisbane, (07) 3229 2271
The Euro The Euro is a separate restaurant but overseen by the same chefs and kitchen as Urbane. It's tempting, in fact, to suggest that the brief of more approachable food brings to heel some of next door's more froufrou excesses on the plate; certainly the likes of the quail pie, set against a warm background of carrot, gingerbread, quince and almond, walks the line between progressive and traditional in a convincing manner. Again, Shaun Quade's pastry work is a highlight, not least of all the date tart with burnt butter ice-cream and the orange brûlée paired with pineapple poached in dark rum. 181 Mary St, Brisbane, (07) 3229 3686
Aria Brisbane Now that Brisbane is a little bit less giddy about Matt Moran-sightings on Eagle Street Pier, the city has started to treat its Aria less like a novelty and more like a showpiece. Sure, it's a blow-in, and the dinner prices can make your eyes water, but there's a sense of big-city polish here that few others can match. Though several Aria Sydney classics have crossed the border, the more Mediterranean feel of the menu, combined with chef Ben Russell's use of local produce (reef fish, Vannella cheese from Far North Queensland, spanner crab), gives this outpost a vibe all its own. The restaurant's superb cellar includes possibly the smartest collection of Queensland wines you'll see in a fine-dining restaurant, and when you consider that you can get the likes of the signature Peking duck consommé or the slow-poached duck egg with prosciutto, pickled mushrooms and brioche for a cool $55 for two courses at lunch, it's clear that the city holds the restaurant this close to its bosom for good reason. 1 Eagle St, Brisbane, (07) 3233 2555
Moda Like Urbane, Moda is a rebirth of sorts. Here, it's not so much a dramatic reinvention of the space - it's pretty much the same open-walled courtyard it was back in its Gianni days, minus the tablecloths - as a change in thinking. Javier Codina, the restaurant's long-time chef, has invested it with more of his native Catalonia, and in cooking food closer to his heart - seafood-laden fisherman's rice; smaller dishes to share along the lines of the tuna-stuffed piquillo peppers - he has given the place a new lease on life. 12 Edward St, Brisbane, (07) 3221 7655
The Buffalo Club
After a period of tension between opening chef Ryan Squires and its owners, this slick first-floor restaurant, overlooking the often chaotic intersection of Brunswick Street and Wickham Street, has found its stride once again. Under Ashly Hicks, the open kitchen is still a whirl of intense young men artfully plating up intricate dishes against a backdrop of winking lights on immersion circulators working their magic. It's dégustation all the way here, and whether you choose the seven or the 11-course option, you're looking at cryptic menu descriptions that come to life in explosive presentations on the plate. The cheese course ("goat's curd - peppers, rice, basil") unfurls across the plate in an outburst of crunchy, spicy, creamy textural contrasts. Level 1, cnr Wickham & Brunswick sts, Fortitude Valley, (07) 3216 1323
The smart converted 19th-century shopfront combines a wine store, tasting bar and restaurant all under one roof. Co-owner and wine importer Dan Clark says he wants to put Italian wine on a pedestal - and what a stunning pedestal he and his collaborators have created. You'll need to order a beer and some 'nduja, the brick-red rillettes-like spicy spreadable salumi from Calabria, to hold you as you pore over the list. GT wine editor Max Allen has just named it Wine List of the Year in the latest edition of the GT restaurant guide, noting the presence of the "excruciatingly rare" and fairly pricey Quintarelli Amarone alongside plenty of more approachable goodies. Then again, if lovingly turning the pages of wine lists sounds like a slow afternoon in hell to you, Enoteca's crack team of sommeliers can pluck the perfect glass to match dish or mood from the air in a seemingly effortless manner. On the food front, meanwhile, newish chef Matt Osbourne is never better than when he surrenders to Roman simplicity. Few chefs in any Australian capital have the confidence to offer a cacio e pepe (nothing more than spaghetti sauced with Pecorino Romano and black pepper) or bucatini all'Amatriciana at a restaurant of this calibre, let alone the audacity to do them so well. 10-12 Logan Rd, Woolloongabba, (07) 3392 4315
Astroturf, Kartell stools, giant burgers, Hunters & Collectors and an indecent number of good-looking women spill out into the barbed wire-fringed alleyway this newcomer calls home. Offering everything from Fever Tree ginger beer, cherry Coke and good Genovese coffee to a fresh juice sold under the name Mrs Palmer and Her Five Daughters alongside diner-meets-ocker eats such as savoury mince on cornbread or corned beef with pickles on rye, Flamingo is the new Brisbane wrapped up in one sunny, thoroughly tattooed package. 5b Winn St, Fortitude Valley, (07) 3252 7557
Desmond & Molly Jones
Christina Hatzepetrou may have moved on to open Flamingo, but Desmond & Molly Jones still has flair to burn, not least in the form of the CLT, a Cumberland sausage, lettuce and tomato sandwich with crisps on the side. 615 Stanley St, Woolloongabba, (07) 3391 8594
Along with 1889 Enoteca and Crosstown, this aptly named little space is one of the anchors of the Logan Road strip's appeal. The coffee is reputable, the salad of smoked eel, potato and lardons topped with a poached egg a fine example of the way the kitchen plays it. 28 Logan Rd, Woolloongabba, (07) 3392 3300
The Crosstown Eating House
Kirin on tap and Chablis by the glass rather than cocktail antics are the focus here, and, paired with gin-marinated olives and pork spareribs from the superior snacks menu, they make Crosstown a hangout that's hard to beat. 23 Logan Rd, Woolloongabba, (07) 3162 3839
The dressed-up sister to West End's boho Lychee Lounge, Laruche injects a note of gilded sci-fi gothic style into Ann Street nightlife. 680 Ann St, Fortitude Valley, (07) 3666 0880
Logan Road's latest combines wild graphics, hand-chipped ice and the likes of the Frida (tequila, elderflower, blood orange, celery bitters) to winning effect. 16b Logan Rd, Woolloongabba, (07) 3891 2111
Massive feature lights and acres of leather provide the backdrop for a steakhouse bar of surprising quality. The wine list, too, is a thing of unexpected substance. 39 Edward St, Brisbane, (07) 3236 4500