Dining Down Under

Australia’s dining revolution finds its culinary epicentre in Sydney.

If you’re curious where the next big dining trend is headed, follow the trail of ants.

It leads to Rene Redzepi, famed forager and widely recognised as the world’s most influential chef. Redzepi has prepared the insect at Noma, his iconic Copenhagen restaurant and at his pop-up restaurant last January in Tokyo, where he served live, wriggling specimens on raw jumbo prawns. He now has his sights trained on the Green Ants from tropical Australia’s Arnhem Land, which he plans to dish out at his 10-week pop-up now open in Sydney.

According to Redzepi, the ants offer an explosion of “kaffir lime, lemongrass and a touch of coriander,” a taste sensation that only a select group of fast-fingered diners will get to experience. (Bookings for the 26 January to 2 April residency sold out in less than four minutes upon going live.)

Noma’s move is the latest jewel in the crown for Tourism Australia’s Restaurant Australia campaign, which has enjoyed monumental success in its efforts to brand the country as a foodie destination. Since its launch in May 2014, expenditure on food and wine in Australia has grown by (16.6 per cent. Over 800,000 international tourists visited an Australian winery in the last two years, a year-on-year increase of 17 per cent. International chefs have also heeded the campaign’s siren call: Heston Blumenthal’s celebrated Fat Duck just concluded its six-month stint in Melbourne, while much-feted local chef David Thompson has just opened Long Chim in Perth’s Como the Treasury (his first Australian restaurant since the mid ‘90s).

A Culinary Blank Slate
The boom in gourmet-minded travellers has dovetailed with a new breed of innovative chefs who are forging their own brand of Australian cuisine. They certainly had their work cut out for them: the proliferation of some of the worst kinds of stereotypes about the continent’s cuisine – including overly gamey Crocodile-Dundee-style meats like kangaroo or emu, throwing “shrimp on the barbie” or deep-fried Bloomin Onions at Outback Steakhouse. Michelin has yet to publish an Australian edition – the closest thing is the Australian Good Food and Travel Guide, which awards Chef Hats for culinary excellence. There was also a stigma that most food trends would have long passed their sell-by date by the time they made their lengthy sojourn to the antipodes.

“There’s a misconception that Australia is a bit behind the times, that we’re still serving food from old-school England here,” says Mat Lindsay, who helms Ester, one of Sydney’s most acclaimed new-wave restaurants.

As visitors have discovered, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, it’s precisely a lack of established culinary traditions that have led to a sort of gastronomic blank slate, one which allows chefs to blaze their own paths completely unhindered by conventions or expectation.

“In the UK, we’ve had so many years under the shackles of French cuisine where there was a perceived right or wrong way to do things,” Blumenthal told dining publication Good Food. “You don’t have that in Australia. Customers were coming to the restaurant in the ideal state of mind to rub their hands together in excitement and it really energised my guys.”

Matt Dillow, who owns a small dining empire in Sydney’s storied Hunter Valley, says Australian cuisine offers a bit of everything. “We’ve taken a big leap in the last five to 10 years – chefs are really pushing themselves to do different things. We’ve taken bits and pieces from all over the world and put it on a plate,” he says. “I guess you can call it ‘fusion’, but it’s about doing it the right way. If not fusion can become confusion.”

Homegrown Advantage
If Sydney is experiencing an explosion of dining innovation, the incredible bounty of local produce is the rocket fuel propelling it. “We utilise what’s in our backyard”, says Dillow. “We’ve great quality produce here – like white Pyrenees lamb and fantastic line-caught fish. In the Hunter Valley alone, there’re fantastic cheeses and beef. Lots of restaurants are into growing their own produce now – it’s the freshest you can get.”

Nowhere in Sydney is this abundance more evident than at Carriageworks Farmer’s Market, a weekly Saturday smorgasbord of locally grown foods which you can browse over a freshly brewed cup of locally-roasted beans, craggy wedges of berry-topped pavlovas, or a steamed pork bun from local dining doyenne Kylie Kwong, who still mans her bushflower bedecked stall here. Meanwhile, the world’s most glamorous butchery, Victor Churchill, in the wealthy suburb of Woollahra, continues to ply its superlative wagyu and charcuterie from within its sleek brass and vitrine-filled space, which to all appearances looks like it sells Prada rather than pork.

Even bush foods, which have been slow to catch on despite local Aboriginal Australians consuming them for centuries, have been popping up on plates in Sydney’s best new restaurants. Among these include warrigal greens (a native spinach), finger limes (with its caviar-like fruit sacs), aniseed myrtle (with its rich aniseed aroma), and even those zesty Green Ants that have so enamoured Redzepi.

One new player uses Australia’s unique flora to literally flavour its food. Set in Sydney’s affluent Surry Hills, Firedoor is the city’s restaurant du jour when we dined there, less than a month into its opening. Its waitlist is as long as its extensive wood menu, a unique concept in which different woods (mostly local ones like ironbark and pear) are used to bring out the best in different ingredients. Chef Lennox Hastie says the restaurant sources its wood from a guy in the nearby Blue Mountains ‘who just goes around collecting them.’ “The food here is about the delicacy of the wood,” he says. “Apple wood tends to turn white hot quickly, which is good for crustaceans and delicate fish. Mallee root gives a rich, earthy tone.”

The restaurant is cleft in two, with half dedicated to the kitchen, which resembles a blacksmith’s workshop and is dominated by a giant wood burner. This burns at a hellish inferno of 1000 degrees, which effortlessly reduces freshly hewn logs into coals in time for dinner service. Despite its name, Firedoor is anything but smoky, relying instead on its deliciously fire-cooked steak, seafood and even desserts to turn up the heat.

Reinterpreting Local
“I guess eating local is trendy, which is weird because it’s the oldest form of cooking ever,” says Lindsay, whose restaurant, Ester, has become known for extremely nuanced dishes that belie their menu’s truncated descriptions. “I guess you can call my cuisine Modern Australian – inspired by different cultures with touches of Asian freshness,” says the former waiter who trained under Australian icons like Neil Perry and Kylie Kwong.

Ester’s food has a primal, salt-of-the-earth feel about it. A wood-roasted whole snapper is dressed in just a light onion sauce and crisp saltbush (a local briny-flavoured shrub) garnish. Raw, glistening slices of local Kingfish come simply accompanied by a dab of charcoal nori sauce and grilled mandarin orange. It’ll prove challenging but leave room for dessert – the Three Milks, an unctuous trifecta of dulce de leche of goat milk, frothed sheep’s milk yoghurt and delicate pannacotta with an appealingly crunchy dappling of rosemary-olive oil biscuit crumbs – will singlehandedly guarantee a return visit.

Lindsay’s pared down culinary approach is reflected in his restaurant, a garage conversion in Chippendale, a small inner-city suburb with artistic ambitions. At Ester, there are no flowers on the table, and no starched tablecloths. In short, it is fine dining without the frippery, a ‘stripped down’ approach one frequently encounters in Sydney’s new wave of restaurants. It’s the case even at Aria, Matt Moran’s celebrated occasion restaurant at Sydney Harbour, or Bennelong, Peter Gilmore’s new venture which recently launched at arguably the country’s most high profile stage, the Sydney Opera House.

None of this is lost on Redzepi. He recently named several Sydney establishments as noteworthy, particularly Ester, which he praised for its seasonal, “spot-on” cooking. Australian cuisine offers unbounded culinary possibilities, Redzepi recently told Conde Nast Traveller. “They’re searching for something in Australia. They’re not food preservationists—they’re on the verge of creating something mind-bogglingly new.”

Michelin, take note.

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