Mjølner, Sydney, New South Wales
With whimsically themed hotspots, respectfully pared-back ethnic interpretations, and the rise of the modern bistro, 2017 is shaping up to be an excellent year for Australian dining.
By Anthony Huckstep
Published: 16 May, 2017
In 2016 Australians watched with relish as the national dining scene expanded to embrace the rise of micro-local (small-batch and local) produce, the re-emergence of destination dining and several outstanding culinary talents (Dan Hunter of Brae, we’re looking at you). And 2017 is shaping up to be of similarly high quality. This is the age of the modern Australian bistro – a mid-price-level experience offering fine-dining quality without the pomp and circumstance – and two openings this month reflect that.
But there is so much more going on, with an important new Japanese restaurant in Adelaide and a Thor-themed carvery in Sydney among the highlights. Here’s what’s happening in Australian dining.
SYDNEY AND SURROUNDS
To Australians, the notion of a themed restaurant is a nostalgic throwback to the 1980s, but the arrival of Mjølner – a Thor-themed carvery and whisky bar – in inner city Redfern proves they need not be an ungodly affair. Descend to a darkened small bar with more than 400 whiskies on offer, before walking through exposed brick archways past an array of Viking paraphernalia into a subterranean den, where the banquettes are lined in fur. Enjoy a complimentary skal (mead, honey and vermouth) poured into a glass horn, before pulling on a bib and selecting a large knife from a leather pouch to carve your meat. It’s endearingly over-the-top but the food and service are spot-on. A punchy horseradish cream joins pickled cucumber to balance rich trout gravlax, while a wobbly pig’s head terrine melts on the tongue like meat butter. A multitude of animals is cooked over the rotisserie, but don’t miss out on the whole baked flathead or a beautifully braised short rib. It’s all very thunderbolts and lightning.
Melbourne may be better known for its laneway restaurants, but Sydney is enjoying a proliferation of hidden gems taking diners down a wonderful new path. In a dark alley behind unassuming Japanese noren curtains lies Sasaki – an intimate, tranquil and exquisite eatery paying homage to the regional cuisine of Japan’s Shimane Prefecture. An interior designer’s dream of blonde Tasmanian oak, wooden spoons carved by the chef’s father, and bespoke potted bowls, Sasaki has a shy, unassuming beauty and calmness that reflects on the plate in stunningly simple food. Softly spoken waitstaff share cooking secrets and provide an education in saké as diners sit on stools and revel in dishes inspired by chef Yu Sasaki’s memories of his mother’s cooking. It is as respectful of Japanese tradition as it is of Australia’s produce du jour. Start with the textural give of gurnard sashimi before dipping into a richly satisfying miso accentuated by delicate silken tofu. Beautifully blushing duck finds a sweet ally in leeks braised in soy before a velvety white peach sorbet with yoghurt sweeps you off your feet. Sasaki is sating and stylish at every step.
MELBOURNE AND SURROUNDS
The bistro has long been considered the go-to for a casual midweek meal, but Australia has fallen ardently in love with bistro food over the past year and the traditional concept has evolved in tandem with the trend. With a wine list that celebrates Australia’s excellent local drops, and service and food that will have you booking another meal before you’ve left, Etta is the latest example of this. In fact, it’s arguably everything you could want from an exceptional dining experience, without the fuss of fine dining. The long, slender space on Melbourne’s Brunswick Street speaks of cutting-edge contemporary cachet, with high ceilings, polished concrete walls, wooden floorboards and a choice of booths, communal or single dining. Dishes are mostly Mediterranean, with the odd Japanese accent, and more than half of the menu is vegetarian – much to the benefit of the eating experience. Orange and haloumi add zest and texture to charred carrots, while a pine mushroom tart gets a salty, earthy kick out of celeriac and gruyere. Meanwhile, fig and goat’s cheese add seasonal bliss to lamb from Flinders Island (a wild, unspoilt isle off the coast of Tasmania) and zucchini and olives come entwined in mozzarella shaped like strands of fettuccine. This is the Australian bistro in 2017.
ADELAIDE AND SURROUNDS
Adelaide’s Leigh Street has fast become one of the most exciting eat streets on the Australian map, and new addition Shōbōsho (fire station) has not only enhanced the area’s reputation but generated envious interest from much bigger sibling cities Sydney and Melbourne. Chef Adam Liston has dished up a spin on the ideal of the izakaya and yakitori bars found throughout Japan, but has given them an Australian contemporary aesthetic that’s intoxicating. Dine in booths made of blonde woods partitioned by noren curtains, along communal tables or in pole position at the bar to watch the chefs cook over white-hot binchotan coals. Start with chicken thigh and spring onion on skewers, raw tuna tossed with edamame and yuzu juice, or plump Korean wagyu dumplings begging for the hot XO sauce. Then wrap things up with bo ssam and all its pleasures: condiments, lettuce cups and slivers of dry aged rump served on hot coals. With down-to-earth staff and a wine list that’s as adventurous as it is fun, Shōbōsho is one of the best nights out you’ll have in this flourishing culinary capital.
Tasmania has a well-established reputation for its excellent produce, but it’s only in the past few years that its restaurant scene has bloomed into a must-visit experience for Australian dining enthusiasts. Not all its excellent food experiences are in capital city Hobart, however. Newly opened Geronimo is found in Tasmania’s second city, Launceston, a town of just 85,000. But the food here has as much confidence and purpose as that in any big city on the planet. A bistro at heart, Geronimo celebrates local produce with strong technique and bags of flavour by backing it up with a serious wine list too. A sleek aperitivo bar overlooks the industrial chic of the dining space highlighted by concrete walls, wooden floors and designer seats that would please any stylist. As with much Australian contemporary cuisine, whispers of global influence pepper the menu: pan-fried sardines get a Mediterranean makeover from dried olives and capers, while a savoury panna cotta lets slices of local abalone show their star qualities. Baba ganoush and fried chickpeas lay a solid foundation for braised lamb, and spinach puree raises a skirt steak’s game to a new level. It’s big city dining without the big prices.
BRISBANE AND SURROUNDS
The Blue Door on 5th
About an hour and a half south of Queensland’s capital Brisbane, The Blue Door on 5th is adding serious oomph to the Gold Coast restaurant scene with food that’s worth travelling for. Behind a turquoise timber door lies a narrow room of banquets and dark wooden tabletops illuminated by candlelight, while out the back there’s a bar befitting saloon status. As staff gleefully bounce from table to table, guests kick back and give in to tempting treats that prove fusion need not be a confusing eating experience. Cauliflower and roasted pepper let perfectly confit squid sing, while roasted suckling pig gets cosy in a bed of lentils, fennel and curry leaf. Don’t miss the local Ballina king prawns, which are delightful cooked over coals and swooshed through a lemon aspen beurre noisette. When you’re done surfing on the beach, surf the menu and let the staff do the rest.
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