It’s a funny thing, but when it comes to famous international chefs, educated Indians are surprisingly insular. In much of the world, such French chefs as Guy Savoy or Pierre Gagnaire would evoke murmurs of recognition. Great American chefs like Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller and Mario Batali usually see their reputations travel ahead of them – except in India where they are largely unknown.
Even when it comes to British chefs, the only one most Indians have ever heard of is Gordon Ramsay. And he is famous for his swearing, not for his food. Other British stars like Philip Howard, the Roux brothers, Fergus Henderson or Marcus Wareing are hardly household names in India.
Strangely enough, the only global chefs most Indians have heard of are Australians. Matt Moran is famous on the basis of his appearances on the Australian version of Masterchef, which is such a hit here. And Kylie Kwong has a country-wide reputation in India on the basis of her TV shows. Other Australian chefs who make guest appearances on Masterchef – such as Mark Best – are much better known in India than, say, Alain Ducasse or Joël Robuchon. Even India’s best-known expatriate chef – Bill Marchetti – is an Australian (no, he’s not really an Italian).
Given that so many Rude Food readers associate great chefs with Australia, I was always a little embarrassed about never having been there. When I had eaten food cooked by Australian chefs, it was always excellent. I ate at MJU in London when it had just opened over a decade ago and Tetsuya was behind the stove himself. And it is always a pleasure to eat David Thompson’s take on Thai cuisine which I have now done in three different cities: London, Bangkok and Singapore.
But eating food cooked by Australians outside of Australia is not the same as eating in their original restaurants. And so, last week, I took off for Sydney to do something I should have done a decade ago: check out that city’s food scene.
Sydney has no Michelin Guide, so it is hard to place its restaurants in a global context. But most international food critics have always claimed that it has some of the world’s finest restaurants. And having eaten at some of the city’s best places, I’d have to agree. At least one, if not two, of the restaurants I ate at would get three stars in the Michelin Guide and most of the others were pretty amazing.
One reason why Sydney’s food scene sparkles is because its chefs combine Western techniques with Asian flavours and high quality Australian ingredients. A good example of this culinary synthesis is at the Universal restaurant where the chef, Christine Mansfield, uses Indian, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese and Indonesian influences as a starting point for her own style of cooking.
Among the dishes I enjoyed was a sausage salad which took inspiration from the spicy sausages of Chiang Mai in Thailand. Except that Christine did her own take on the Thai sausage, making it at the restaurant with quail and pork and then air-drying it for three days. Another dish paired Sichuan-style duck with small, sweet scallops in an Indonesian-style gravy. An oxtail consommé formed the base of a third dish of veal but Christine moved away from the heaviness of a French-style consommé to produce a lighter soup which was almost Vietnamese in its taste.
After dinner, I asked her where all the Asian influences came from. Most seemed to derive from her own travels throughout the world. She is a frequent visitor to South-East Asia, has run a restaurant in London, and is often in India. She showed me a book she had done on India and its cuisine and it seemed very impressive, though sadly, I seemed to have missed its publication in India.
If Christine loves India, then India loves Matt Moran. He is the laconic fourth regular on Masterchef who appears periodically to add a serious cheffy touch to the proceedings. I went to two of Matt’s restaurants in Sydney. The first was his flagship Aria, near the Sydney Opera House. (Aria! Geddit?) Though Australia is an informal country that thrives on casual dining, Aria struck me as being the sort of place where well-heeled businessmen take their guests. I had his signature dish: a consommé of Peking duck with lots of mushrooms. It lived up to its reputation though frankly, I could have done without the over-abundance of enoki mushrooms.
Other dishes were interesting. It’s nice to see a famous chef putting a pie on the menu. Naturally, Matt’s was a fancy pie made with duck and peas but it successfully combined fine dining with the goodness of home-cooked food. A starter of Kurobuta pork served three ways worked well too: braised pork belly, a pork croquette and crisp scratchings. Less successful was corned Wagyu beef which gained nothing from the use of expensive beef and was dried out as corned beef can sometimes be.
Matt Moran also runs Chiswick, a casual restaurant overlooking a garden. I thought it was more successful in what it set out to do than Aria. The two rooms were large, bright and cheerful, service was warm and friendly and the food was simple but well-executed: perfectly-fried fish and chips, nice juicy steaks, and fresh Australian oysters. It’s not fine dining. But it’s fun dining with high quality food.
Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out what the fuss about Icebergs is. This is one of Sydney’s most expensive restaurants but the room is tightly packed and not particularly nice. Service is well-meaning but slapdash. And the food is distinctly so-so: five different steaks, a few pastas, etc. People say that you’re paying for the view of Bondi beach, which is truly spectacular. But that doesn’t explain why this is such a popular restaurant and a celebrity hangout.
Most guides to Sydney will tell you that the title of best restaurant in town is a shoot-out between Quay and Marque. They are both very different places. Quay is glamorous and has the most awe-inspiring views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Marque is a medium-sized room on a street full of restaurants (Kylie Kwong’s restaurant is next door) and the emphasis is on serious food not on glamour or views.
From an Indian perspective, Marque has the advantage of being Mark Best’s restaurant – most of us will know him from his appearances on Masterchef. But Peter Gilmore who cooks at Quay is also regarded by many critics as being Australia’s best chef.
Dinner at Quay was four courses of which the stand-out was a first course consisting of strips of jasmine-scented poached chicken jostling with shavings of scallops, Chinese artichokes and a smoked eggplant cream. The dish was held together by the bridging flavour of black sesame oil. Other courses were excellent too: braised lamb with cumin for instance had a gentle flavour, while a pig’s cheek done two ways brought sophistication to what should have been a simple, hearty course.
Gilmore is famous for his desserts, the best-known of which is the snow egg, which he tried to get contestants to make on Masterchef. It is a cross between a Baked Alaska and Floating Island, pulled off with so much delicacy that it deserves to be regarded as a classic of the genre.
My own favourite of all the meals I had in Australia, however, was dinner at Marque. I had 12 courses, so I can’t possibly give you a full rundown. But the stand-out courses were a surprisingly light venison with beetroot and liquorice, a crab chuwan-mushi topped with foie gras powder and a Sauternes custard served in an eggshell.
Mark Best’s cooking takes in a variety of influences from Alain Passard to Raymond Blanc to Ferran Adrià to Thomas Keller to René Redzepi. And yet, the great thing about his food is that his style is entirely his own. Cuisine of this kind can only be found at the world's very best restaurants (it is hard to think of many three-star restaurants in France where the food is better) and though his use of ingredients marks him out as an Australian chef, his style defies national categorisation.
After dinner, I asked Mark if he had ever been to India given that Masterchef has such a following here. He said that much to his regret, he had never been but that he was dying to go. “If anybody invites me, I’ll be on the next plane,” he laughed.
I’m sure there will be no shortage of invitations. Australian chefs are all the rage in India. And judging by the meals I had last week, Sydney is one of the world’s great food cities.
Icebergs Dining Room
From HT Brunch, September 2
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