Travel News

Western Front

It might be driven by the booming mining sector but Perth’s riches aren’t limited to minerals. Max Veenhuyzen takes the pulse of a capital city most definitely on the up.

Perth is the place to be. But as a local, I would say that. And I have been saying it for decades, basing my argument on little more than deep-seated parochialism. The times, however, are changing. Proud Sandgropers now have evidence with which to bat for their state: 112 billion pieces of evidence in fact, the dollar value of the state's exports for the last financial year.
Perth is riding a wave of "we-can-do-it" verve, ranging from seven-figure fit-outs to hole-in-the-wall bars; from the exclusive boutiques of King Street (this month Chanel joins the ranks of Prada, Gucci and Armani in Perth's fashion epicentre) to boldly singular ventures such as William Topp and Pigeonhole, two of the inner-city's better destinations for arty knick-knacks.
The state government, buoyed by this career-best economic form, is also striking while the iron ore is hot, announcing a series of major infrastructure projects that are as much about managing a growing population as challenging a reputation for insular thinking. Projects such as Elizabeth Quay, which, once completed in 2015, will link the Swan River to the heart of the city by way of a sparkling waterfront precinct. Or Perth City Link, a project to reunite the CBD and Northbridge. And while some parts of Perth might currently appear more building site than boom town, Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi is focusing on the bigger picture.
"The only time you're going to get a great city is if you take the time to build it properly," says Scaffidi. "We've got to go through a little bit of pain while we rebuild this amazing future world city. I think there's a real evolution. People are starting to be very proud of the maturity of our city and we've reached a point where we have a strong sense of who we are and who we want to be in future."
For out-of-towners, respite from Perth's notorious bed shortage is also on the cards. The boutique Terrace Hotel in heritage-listed St Georges House has just started taking guests, and in early 2013, Crown Perth (née Burswood Entertainment Complex) will begin work on its new 500-room six-star Crown Towers hotel. Combine that with the $125 million invested in sprucing up the complex's Crown Metropol (formerly the Intercontinental Perth) and it would appear James Packer and co are keen to take the title of Perth's flashest innkeepers.
They can expect some serious competition, however, when Australia's first Aman Resorts property opens in the city's Old Treasury, reportedly in 2015. The company's founder, Adrian Zecha, says it was the aesthetics of the historic buildings, Perth's location (it's the nearest Australian city to his hometown of Sukabumi, West Java) and the opportunity to work with award-winning Perth architect Kerry Hill (him­self no stranger to an Aman fit-out) that convinced him the west was best for launching the luxury brand in Australia.
The Western Australian capital is also paying dividends to those with a taste for eating and drinking. The must-do for any discerning eater is Restaurant Amusé, GT's top-ranked restaurant in the state for four consecutive years, and well worth the short cab ride to East Perth. Arriving at Restaurant Amusé is a key part of the experience, its homely façade suggesting residence rather than restaurant. But inside, it's modern in mood with new renovations giving the spare dining room a heightened sense of occasion.
The undersell-overdeliver combination continues care of well-drilled staff who verge on the telepathic. The light-bulb moments happen with regularity, from the brilliant, wacky quartet of foie gras, white chocolate, caviar and olive toffee, to a meticulously composed homage to tomatoes. If you want to dine prime time, book months in advance; otherwise, midweek tables are a little easier to score.
Head chef Hadleigh Troy says that while he and wife Carolynne trod a do-it-yourself path to success (the couple lived in the back of the restaurant during its early years), a perfect storm of entrepreneurial spirit, economic confidence and go-WA bravura has given the local scene dynamic new legs.
Sharing the Troys' sentiments are Kiren and Kelli Mainwaring (Dear Friends, Caversham) and Scott and Hazel O'Sullivan (Red Cabbage, South Perth), equally ambitious husband-and-wife duos who opened their restaurants the same year as Amusé.
"You always have a plan to be successful when you open up," says Hadleigh Troy. "I think with us chef-owners and front-of-house managers being quite successful with our small businesses, it inspires other people. 'Well, they made it, why can't we?' I don't know.
I could be very wrong. But the economy's a lot better here than much of Australia and people have the expendable income to go out."
There's a host of options to be found in the city itself. And considering how the mining boom has helped fuel the food scene, it's fitting that much of the action centres on Brookfield Place, the precinct at the foot of the skyline-changing new City Square and freshly minted BHP Billiton headquarters. But while the tower is a picture of contemporary design, many surrounding new eateries have gone old school, at least with their aesthetic.
The Trustee is a celebration of European food and wine in the former WA Trustees building. In the subtly industrial downstairs bistro, the likes of the juicy pork cotoletta and the chocolate salted caramel with crème fraîche ice-cream speak of head chef Michelle Forbes's European bent. The influence of co-director and grape zealot Scott Taylor is also obvious, if not in the bold wine list offering 40-plus choices by the glass, then certainly in the imposing glass cellar erected in the middle of the street-level bar. Between the Trustee's champion cellar - winner of this year's Gourmet Traveller WINE best new list award - and the well-made cocktails next door at Bobèche (the Mint Julep mixed with almond-infused Bourbon, say), it's easy to see why many in white-collar Perth have made this stretch of St Georges Terrace their unofficial clubhouse.
Expect membership numbers to swell now that the four-storey Print Hall has opened. Venues within include a rooftop bar named after former prime minister Bob Hawke, a mod-Oz dining room, and Apple Daily Bar and Eating House, serving Asian street food. And it's not just the scope of the project that's grabbed the country's attention, but also its personnel. Cheong Liew has lent his nous to Apple Daily's menu, David Coomer (of Pata Negra fame) has been coaxed out of retirement to consult as director of food, and former Quay head sommelier Daniel Wegener has been appointed director of beverages.
"People asked me why I went from something so stable and benchmark to an untried, unproven venue," says Wegener. "Well, I want Print Hall to be benchmark too. I want to have built something that people remember and that stands up after 10, 20, 30 years."
Rest assured, there's a buzz at the western end of St Georges Terrace - "the Terrace" to locals. And there's more to eating and drinking out west than million-dollar restaurants in heritage-listed buildings. As the much-improved Sentinel Bar & Grill demonstrates, a pricey fit-out can also get you a side of impressive modern architecture to go with your wagyu slider and glass of Cahors.
But truth be told, some of Perth's best tucker isn't in the restaurants. Rather, it's in its small bars: boutique and beautifully idiosyncratic hangouts where guests don't have to eat to drink, but will probably find abstaining from food tough. Or at least I do at Greenhouse, designer Joost Bakker's case study in sustainable, environmentally conscious good living.
Here, while street signs upcycled into furniture and walls of potted ivy power Bakker's green machine, GT's 2011 Best New Talent winner Matt Stone oversees a kitchen similarly on-message. The constant updating of the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus - never mind milling the restaurant's own flour and maintaining an onsite garden - keeps Stone and head chef Courtney Gibb busy, but it's the best way to honour such seasonal and fastidiously sourced ingredients. How's hamburger-sized char siu bao for breakfast, a fiery kingfish som-tum lunch and a dinner of woodfire-roasted lamb leg, flatbreads and a glass of Bella Ridge Estate Barbera sound? Whether you drink alfresco on the rooftop or indoors at the ground-level bar, where liquor is suspended Der Raum-style from the ceiling, it's a fluid, fun package and one side of a thoroughly enjoyable devil's triangle for barflies.
The good times continue across the road and down Howard Street at tapas stronghold Andaluz. Slick booze offerings and Scott Alfonso's bold Iberian-informed eats make this a handy refuelling station, although you might find it hard to leave if you snag one of the chaise longues squirrelled away in the warren-like den. (It gets bonus points, too, for its decision to start opening on Sundays.)
But with the wonders of small bar Helvetica around the corner, it pays to keep moving. Bartenders with smiles as broad as Helvetica's rye, Bourbon and single-malt selection speak of hospitality rather than mixologist self-absorption - although some of the city's finest cocktails are shaken and stirred at this sharply designed space - while smart beer and wine choices keep locals hydrated after all that wheeling and dealing.
It's a package any publican could be proud of, yet for Helvetica partner David Gillman, one outstanding venue in the CBD isn't enough. For his next trick, he has assembled a crack team to transform white-collar favourite Emporio into new tavern Lalla Rookh Bar & Eating House. While Lalla Rookh's welcome remains as warm as Helvetica's, modern Italian cucina from Joel Valvasori-Pereza and grande wines from sommelier Jeremy Prus sweeten the deal significantly.
As far as Gillman is concerned, the city's continued reinvigoration is all about strength in numbers and young go-getters seizing the day.
"We don't see each other as competition, but more as neighbours," says 29-year-old Gillman. "It's important all of us do well because that's what's going to grow the CBD, and the Terrace in particular. Perth's a great place for a young fellow to have a go. If I started my career in Melbourne or Sydney, I'd still just be on the floor managing venues. Perth gives people like me the opportunity to run their own venues a little earlier than they probably would in other capital cities."
On the other side of the (soon-to-be-sunk) railway line is Northbridge and its slowly gentrifying major artery, William Street. Once the stomping ground of nonnas and yum-cha fiends, it's now an area of destinations as diverse as 1UP Microcinema, quasi-speakeasy Ezra Pound and independ­ent bookshop New Edition, which does a healthy trade in the favourites of the counterculture set. And that's just within the first two blocks of the Horseshoe Bridge, the geographical landmark that separates the suburb from the city.
This is a great part of town for culture-hunting, particularly with New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) lending the state gallery some of its most prized pieces in the next three years. A series of six exhibitions starts with Picasso to Warhol: Fourteen Modern Masters running until 3 December. New York flair? In Perth? Believe. It's a nice riposte to the notion that local art appreciation is limited to new-model jet skis and the teaming up of Appleton rum and Sprite.
Further north (be sure to drop by the cosy 399 for more bar-room antics en route), Northbridge gives way to the hipster-blighted Mount Lawley, an upwardly mobile neighbourhood on one mother of a comeback tour and a serious contender for the Home of the Good Times mantle. Its treasure trove of dandy eats and drinks seems to grow monthly. Notable spots include Raah, with its bold Middle Eastern flavours, and Clarences, the breezy bar-slash-diner where rugby and soccer fans snack on pre-game chicken wings and Mosel riesling. Weeknight specials (chicken parmi! slow-cooked lamb shanks!) ensure energy and noise levels remain high all week.
Then there's El Público, Perth's benchmark for la comida Mexicana (and red neon donkeys). Dishes such as addictively juicy esquites (grilled and de-cobbed corn with mayonnaise, chilli powder, queso fresco, coriander and lime) and the bright salmon aquachile - think of it as Mexican ceviche - suggest Sam Ward has set his sights higher than refried beans. Gun bartender James Connolly runs the fun yet focused bar, slinging tequila, mezcal, and expertly made cocktails containing parts thereof.
Outside the inner city, the casino is Perth's other eating and drinking destination of note - even more so following the recent name change and subsequent recruiting that's shifted the odds in diners' favour. One of the key players in this food renaissance is Neil Perry and the local Rockpool Bar & Grill outpost, which has been full since opening in early 2011.
Those familiar with the Melbourne and Sydney Bar & Grills will know the sophistication-through-simplification drill, certainly in dishes honouring hometown heroes including Margaret River Jarrahdene pork, Pemberton marron and Swan River swimmer crabs. The west coast flavour is apparent in the personnel, too: restaurant manager David Best and sommelier Richard Healy are both local lads who were working elsewhere when the offer to return west arose and proved tough to refuse.
"While we build the restaurants, it's the amazing teams that inhabit them that give them their personalities," says Perry. "It's really important the staff reflect that local flavour. When you sit in Perth, you really get that experience that this is Perth."
Nobu Matsuhisa followed Perry's lead and opened Australia's second Nobu (the first is at the Crown Melbourne mothership) earlier this year, while in September Guillaume Brahimi's Bistro Guillaume became the first restaurant to open after the name change. Guests at the cheery 160-seater eatery can enjoy French classics cooked with smarts and many a dish for two, including roast Liveringa chicken and rack of local White Rocks veal, all the while enjoying vistas of the recently glammed-up pool area.
Time will tell what effect the early 2013 opening of Jamie's Italian will have on both 140 William Street and the Perth food scene as a whole, but, for now, it seems both parties are looking forward to the move.
"I love the fact that life in Perth is built around the sea and sunshine," says Jamie Oliver. "It gives the city that really cool, relaxed feel, and the recent investment in the city is being reflected in the number of local eateries that have opened in the past few years. I'm really excited to be a part of it."
Excitement is an appropriate sentiment when it comes to assessing Perth's prospects. Why else would Qatar Airways commence thrice-weekly flights to the city? Why else would Air New Zealand upsize its popular Perth-to-Auckland service?
Locally, a $750-million redevelopment program has been announced for the domestic and international airport terminals, signalling a serious commitment by team WA to have the welcome mat ready for visitors keen to check things out. And understandably so. Forget what you think you know about P-town; Perth really does seem, more than ever, smarter (not to mention sunnier and more fun) than your average capital city.