It is a measure of how highly regarded Australia is within the food community that when the world’s greatest chefs want to try something different, they take off for Oz. Heston Blumenthal closed the original Fat Duck in Bray (England) for several weeks and opened a pop-up restaurant in Melbourne. And this year it has been the turn of René Redzepi of Copenhagen’s Noma to open a pop-up in Sydney.
The Australian government has been quick to recognise the potential of positioning Australia as one of the world’s great food destinations, and the ad campaign for the country even calls it Restaurant Australia.
Which is how I came to be in Sydney. Tourism Australia had partnered with Redzepi and Noma. As part of the deal, they got to take over Noma for one dinner, which they hosted for chefs and food writers from all over the world.
I was one of the Indians fortunate enough to have been invited. And while I will write about Noma and the changing philosophies of food in another column, I’ll stick to Australian food for this one. The Noma dinner was on my very first night in Australia, but I stayed on and visited as many Sydney restaurants as I could in four days.
Sydney is now one of the world’s most international cities and this is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is bad because it takes longer for visitors to get acclimatised. The staff at my hotel (The Ovolo, which used to be the Taj till Indian Hotels sold it), were recent immigrants who didn’t speak much English and were no help when it came to suggestions for getting around. The taxi drivers had been imported from Lahore, had not bothered to learn how to operate GPS, and expected you to show them the way.
And the fancy limo services were no better. One driver dropped me at the HSBC building rather than the Citibank tower, presumably on the grounds that one bank was as good as another. And the limo driver who was supposed to take me to the airport for an early morning flight did not turn up. (His company later claimed that he had taken another man, who claimed to be me, to the airport instead. The mind boggles!)
But internationalisation is a good thing – from the food point of view, anyway – because it has helped Aussie chefs move away from their roots in French/British cooking. More than any other country that I know of, Australia is conscious about the quality of ingredients. Because good chefs work closely with farmers, livestock breeders and the like, they have access to what may well be the world’s best ingredients. And because they are familiar with international techniques, they use them to create wonderful new dishes that no European could ever have dreamt of.
This was my third visit to Australia, and each time I’ve gone I’ve tried to eat the food of Australia’s great chefs: Matt Moran, Mark Best, Shannon Bennett, Peter Gilmore, David Thompson (in Singapore, London and Bangkok, though), etc.
The chefs cook in no single style that can be called Modern Australian. Mark Best is more classical in his approach; Thompson cooks traditional Thai, Bennett does wonderful things with offal, Moran’s food is about the ingredients. And so on.
But what always strikes me about eating in Australia is that the only way you can go wrong at a great restaurant is if the chef tries too hard. Otherwise the ingredients are so good that less is always more.
This time, I went to Neil Perry’s flagship restaurant, Rockpool, which was smart and sophisticated and featured Perry’s Eastern-influenced riffs on Australian ingredients. I loved what was called a lobster congee but actually had very little to do with the Chinese congee, except that the dish used rice. Also terrific was the deceptively simple scrambled egg with spanner crab, a combination that was somehow typical of Australian chefs.
Perry is one of Australia’s most famous chefs and though I didn’t think much of his Chinese brand, Spice Kitchen (boring Hakkasan-type stuff), I have been intrigued by his reputation for steaks. At Rockpool Bar & Grill, (a sister restaurant) Perry ages his own steaks and they are supposed to be extraordinarily flavourful. I had one at the original Rockpool and though the chef told me he cooked them differently from the Bar & Grill’s charred-on-the-outside style, it was the same meat. I thought it was very nice but no, not historic.
There was a time when Tetsuya Wakuda was universally regarded as Australia’s greatest chef. Around 15 years or so ago (I think) he was briefly ensconced in London, where he cooked at the MJU restaurant on Sloane Street. I went twice and was blown away by his 14- and 21-course menus of small (sometimes tiny) dishes, each bursting with flavour.
Since then, Tetsuya’s has opened in Singapore to some acclaim but within Australia, his reputation has suffered. The general view is that he is resting on his laurels and that the food is now boring and without flair.
It is an unkind view. But having eaten at his flagship restaurant this time, I have to say it is not entirely unfair. There were some great dishes, including his famous Confit of Ocean Trout and a superb chocolate cake. But lots of it was merely very good (not excellent or memorable), ranging from bland venison to fresh oysters with a sauce that overpowered their flavour to, believe it or not, Chilean sea bass! The room was packed with tourists, so I guess Tetsuya is making lots of money anyway.
It is hard to say who Australia’s greatest chef is at the moment, but I imagine Peter Gilmore would be near the top of any list. I went to his flagship Quay restaurant some years ago but his empire has now expanded to include the stunning Bennelong inside the Sydney Opera House. I chose not to eat at the main restaurant but at the Cured and Cultured counter, where chefs made the food in front of you and explained each dish.
I recognised immediately that it was a great idea but I had no idea that it would be the best meal of my trip – better than Neil Perry or Tetsuya’s flagship restaurants. The success of Bennelong is a good demonstration of the strengths of Australian cuisine. Neil Walkington, the manager, insisted I have the carrot salad, a dish that I found hard to get excited about – till I tasted it! The carrots were so full of flavour and the salad so light and tasty that I saw why Neil had pushed it. The yabbies (a sort of Australian prawn) came in shells (only for presentation – they had already been detached). You were supposed to eat them on buckwheat blinis with lemon jam and cream. They were delicious that way. But because the quality of the fish was so good, I ate them on their own with sea salt and a little olive oil.
The locally sourced culatello (a kind of pork cold meat) was excellent. But the two standout dishes were the tartare and the bresaola.
Gilmore gets his wagyu from Blackmore, one of Australia’s best breeders. So when it is minced for a tartare it is already delicious. But the chef uses Asian ingredients to give it a flavour like no tartare I’ve ever eaten. The bresaola, also from Blackmore, melted in my mouth. I asked where I could buy some and was told that Blackmore made it specially for Gilmore.
That meal confirmed what I thought: the best food in Australia comes from chefs who source the best ingredients and then cook them with so much respect that both the original flavour of the ingredients and the chef’s talent are on the plate.
Neil Walkington sent me to Firedoor, another Gilmore operation. This is one of Sydney’s hottest new restaurants but I went because of the fame of one dish: that 122-day dry-aged rib on the bone. If you are a steak fan, you will know that while wagyu has complex and flavourful fat, Angus has better-tasting lean meat. Lennox Hastie, the chef at Firedoor, and Gilmore have found a breeder who has managed to breed a well-marbled Angus steak that combines the fattiness of wagyu with the deliciousness of the finest Angus.
They age the meat for 221 days (far, far longer than normal) to let the flavours develop. Then Lennox cooks it in front of you on an open fire. It ain’t cheap (I paid AUD147, but each steak is large enough for two) but it is probably the single best steak I have eaten in years. Better than Neil Perry, better than wagyu and better than any US Prime I’ve had recently.
That single dish seemed to reaffirm why Australian chefs are special: they get involved in the meal, while the raw materials were still being prepared, long before the ingredients even reach the restaurant.
So, if you want a foodie holiday, follow the rest of the world and head for Sydney. Remember that it is a relaxed place with variable levels of efficiency (even Singapore Airlines staff at the airport broke with SQ tradition and took between 10 to 15 minutes to check each passenger in!). But if you want a laidback time with some terrific food, then this is where you should go.
From HT Brunch, March 20, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch