At The Australian, a raffish bar and restaurant in New York that evokes suburban Rozelle, a table of bewildered patrons is raising a hue and cry about the dinner menu. "Are you serious?" announces one defiantly. "They eat kangaroo?" The group's unfamiliarity with elements of modern Australian cuisine could be forgiven. Only recently has 'Australian' entered the local vernacular as a bona fide culinary genre, wedged between Asian and Austrian in restaurant listings. Questions about the merits of marsupial are to be expected. "A lot of people say they don't want to eat the cute little kangaroo," quips The Australian's owner Matt Astill. Until, that is, Astill explains how lean the meat is. Then they hop to it.
Did someone sprinkle a handful of wattle seeds over New York? How else to account for the proliferation of antipodean eateries of late. The Australian is the most patriotic, rearing up in midtown Manhattan last September like an old-school pub with a slightly kitsch sensibility. The walls are lined with vintage brewery posters, the Victorian-style bar serves Blue Tongue and Barons Black Wattle, and the menu is punctuated with such gastro oddities as damper loaf, roo satay sticks and Tim Tam tiramisù. "I wanted it to be unapologetically Australian," says Astill, a former Sea Eagles front-rower who crash-tackled the glut of Irish bars in his neighbourhood. "Everyone loves it," he adds. The dining room, at the rear of the long, narrow space, has seating enough for 120, which they're filling several nights a week.
The Sunburnt Cow in the East Village doesn't have any trouble enticing revellers, either. On a recent Friday night, it took barely two rounds of cocktails with names like Whinging Pom and Fremantle Doctor for the venue to spring to life. A DJ spins dance tunes (no Men at Work here), the ambience is boisterous, and the service, from chatty Aussie waiters, reliably genial. "We're often said to be the friendliest place in town," says Sydney-born owner Heathe St Clair. There are an estimated 13,000 expat Australians in New York - a captive audience if you dangle a Tim Tam in front of them - but the only Aussie accentsI hear at the Cow stem from our table. The boîte opened in 2003 and, while it serves respectable renditions of prawn cocktail and chicken schnitzel, I prefer Bondi Road, St Clair's second venture, which emerged last year.
Located on the Lower East Side, Bondi Road seeks to replicate the archetypal fish and chipperies of Sydney's beaches - they even do potato scallops. "Bondi Road gets more Aussies than the Cow," confirms St Clair, so I'm not alone in my partiality. A photomontage of the famous beach decorates the walls, and patrons sit at high tables and chairs. The set-up is as uncomplicated as the décor. You're handed a paper menu and a pencil and asked to nominate your preferred fish (they typically have barramundi, John Dory, Tasmanian ocean trout and gold band snapper) and cooking method (breaded, grilled or fried) as well as a side. That all this costs just $15 has much to do with its appeal. "It's great value," says St Clair who, even after 15 years in the US, signs off exchanges with "Good on ya, mate".
Speaking of mateship, a tangible camaraderie exists between the proprietors of New York's Aussie restaurants. Each has his own interpretation of native nosh, and they all happily coexist. At Ruby's in Nolita, burgers and coffee get all the raves. In fact, Ruby's has the best flat white in town, not least because you can order one without having to explain what it is. At Tuck Shop in the East Village, it's about pies, lamingtons and Coopers Ale. At Eight Mile Creek in Nolita, the more rarefied dishes include emu carpaccio and pink peppercorn pavlova. Brothers Will and Frank Ford opened their pioneering restaurant in 1999, a time when Crocodile Dundee still lingered strongly in the American psyche. Since then our intrepid expats have experimented with all manner of hoary and new recipes, simple and sophisticated approaches, sourcing Australian ingredients such as lemon myrtle, barra and lamb. "American lamb just doesn't have the same flavour," says Sheep Station's Jason Crew, a longtime friend to the Fords.
Are meat pies replacing cupcakes as New York's portable snack du jour? Not yet, but their numbers are flourishing enough to one day pose a threat to that insidious little sugar bomb. Commercial baker Down Under Bakery Pies opened a storefront in the Brooklyn 'burb of Carroll Gardens, while the menu at The Pie Shop in Brooklyn's Prospect Park reminds people that the iconic treats are "designed to be eaten from your hand like a sandwich". Patrons sidling up to the retro counter at Tuck Shop choose between the traditional and more esoteric versions, including Thai green chicken curry and tiger prawn. Coming soon: a pie filled with buffalo chicken wings and blue cheese. "I wouldn't have thought of that in Australia," says the waggish Melbourne-born baker Lincoln Davies, who averages some 1500 pies per week at the downtown branch alone; he has a midtown satellite, too.
Emboldened by their success at Ruby's, Nick Mathers, Lincoln Pilcher and Nick Hatsatouris revved their entrepreneurial engines with Kingswood, unveiled last year in the West Village. Despite its larrikin name, Kingswood doesn't pitch itself as an Australian restaurant. The chef, Ben Towill, is British ("I've never even been to Australia," he protests) and the exceptional menu is a melting pot of ethnic styles from seaweed salad to crab linguine and Goan fish curry. But, to my mind at least, this is precisely what makes Kingswood the most authentic Australian restaurant in New York. With its laid-back vibe, its Asian-French-Italian-inflected fare, and its wine list heavy on Down Under drops, Kingswood approximates classic restaurants such as Sydney's Bistro Moncur. "Our atmosphere is very Australian in that we're casual but the food is very polished," says Mathers, who also cites the Grand National and Centennial as influences.
Sniffing out a homegrown hotspot, expats are pouring through the glass doors at Kingswood ("Aussies make up maybe 30 per cent of our clients," says Mathers), and this passel of nostalgic possums will only increase in March when the boys open a subterranean bar. Designed in collaboration with the Ksubi duo, the lounge is equipped with black mosaic tiles, enormous glass cabinets and resident mixologists serving fashionable libations. At the other end of the spectrum, and the outer boroughs of New York, is Sheep Station in Brooklyn's Park Slope. It qualifies as the Cheers of expat bars for the core of wistful regulars who frequent the place. "I like the idea of providing a respite for Aussies who just want to come and hang out," says Jason Crew. "New York can be a tough city." Though the bar is rendered in corrugated metal, recycled wood and pressed tin, it still manages to resonate with a cosy vibe.
Sheep Station has generated column inches for its burger with the lot - fried egg, roasted beetroot and pineapple, natch - with some reviewers expressing bafflement with the idiosyncratic creation: the New York Times described it as "a hamburger in drag". But Crew rushes to the defence of his Priscilla burger. "I tell people to give it a try and take out what they don't want," says the personable Brisbane native. "Once they try it, they love it." Aussie burgers are also on the menu at Wombat, a Williamsburg diner launched recently by two American chefs. Asked what prompted them to open an Australian-themed restaurant, Craig Allen-Bailey says, "It's something different". For a fledgling cuisine in the Big Apple, imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery.