Sotto Sopra, Sydney, New South Wales
From an exquisite regional bistro to Tasmania’s hottest new Italian eatery, these are the most notable additions to Australia’s dining scene this month.
By Anthony Huckstep
Published: 21 April, 2017
As well as hosting the World’s 50 Best Restaurants award ceremony in Melbourne, Australia’s dining scene has welcomed several significant new restaurants this month. The nation’s long-standing affair with modern Italian cuisine endures, and there are new flavours to welcome: among them Middle Eastern, Balinese and a wealth of European influences.
SYDNEY AND SURROUNDS
Fifty minutes north of the city centre you’ll find the serenity of Sydney’s Northern Beaches – a favourite escape of citysiders and home to a new Italian trattoria, Sotto Sopra. Australia’s Italian population was established several generations ago and the well-developed hybrid of Australian-Italian cuisine is highlighted here with sating, simple, regional Italian food, made using the best of Australian ingredients. The name Sotto Sopra means upside down and the space resembles this, with a kitchen and bar perched on the mezzanine overlooking guests as they dine and imbibe on communal tables by floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s elbow to elbow and a bit rowdy, but the food is what’s got Sydneysiders talking: whipped salted cod oozes from a golden chickpea pancake, while the light crunch of delicate pastry opens into a seafood pie swimming with prawns, mussels and octopus. A large slice of tiramisu makes for a satisfying finale.
Head for the lush green hills of the Southern Highlands 90 minutes south of Sydney to discover a restaurant taking the bistro ideal to a new level. Bistro Officina offers a very modern taste of regional Australian dining in a stylish country cabin complete with parquetry floors, deer antler chandeliers, dark wooden tables and lounge room by the fireplace. Fire is the optimum word here: a wood-fired oven lies at the heart of the menu, which celebrates seasonal, native Australian ingredients as much as it does European techniques and combinations. Plump leatherjacket cheeks wade in a smoky fish broth. Salsa verde balances the big butteriness of bone marrow. Black barley and carrots provide a foundation for roasted spatchcock, while grilled sweet potato partners smoked meringue. A must-visit.
MELBOURNE AND SURROUNDS
Australians have lately been swept off their feet by the magic carpet ride of Middle Eastern food, with a swag of establishments giving this smoky and fragrant cuisine a cutting contemporary edge. And Souk is testing the boundaries of breaking from tradition without losing the cuisine’s essence. Follow the neon sign (it says Souk backwards) to find this eatery tucked away down one of Melbourne’s famous laneways. Share a drink in a booth in the fluorescent pink bar before ascending to a huge 130-seat industrial diner-meets-cafeteria where a happy hum hovers above a packed house. This is a shared feast and Melbourne’s food lovers are flocking for food that’s as familiar as it is fantastical. Pita pockets are filled with dukkah-rubbed softshell crab while a hot muhammara sauce adds a kick to charred octopus tentacles. Smoked black tahini brings depth to prawns wrapped in falafel before apricot and chicken koftas land on a beetroot hummus. Bring a group, roll your sleeves up and share everything.
Cutler & Co
Cutler & Co has been one of Melbourne’s most important restaurants for several years and its latest incarnation, after a refurbishment both in design and in offering, is undoubtedly its best. Housed in an old metalwork factory on one of Melbourne’s most happening eat streets, Cutler balances the world of simplicity and elegance without making everything too stuffy and formal. Think Art Deco lines, marble, exposed brick and a dark and sultry sentiment. It has all the sophistication of a wine bar and food that challenges the best gastronomes Down Under, placing it at the cutting edge of Australia’s new wave of dining. In the bar, seafood stars. Abalone gets a bit of tonkatsu loving between two pieces of white slice, while mussels arrive escabeche. In the restaurant, figs and jamon play a supporting roll in beautifully roasted pigeon, while sweet and sour onions help cut through the richness of roasted suckling pig. Before you head back to the bar for a nightcap make sure you succumb to the burnt butter ice cream sidled up to a confit apple terrine. Fantastic.
PERTH AND SURROUNDS
West and Ku dining
Western Australia has become the first port of call for many successful Asian-based ventures, and at new dining playground Ku De Ta Perth (the first international outpost of the flagship Bali beach club) there are two dining offerings making waves in the west. At the more casual West, chefs provide the theatre, dishing up an array of seafood and charcuterie. Sweet crab flesh shines on an open sandwich, while the pungent prawn panache of XO gets Goolwa cockles to sing. Meanwhile, the venue’s more formal offering, Ku Dining, delivers a more complete dining experience. Saltbush bearnaise adds a grassy note to marron, while riberry and corn bring tartness and sweetness in good measure to pretty pink quail. Whether at West or Ku Dining, it seems Perth has a new home of a big night out.
HOBART AND SURROUNDS
Tasmania has always been known for its stunning produce, and at Hobart restaurant Fico the produce de jour is given a wonderful, albeit simple, Italian touch. From the affable and proficient staff, to the sleek, yet earthy tones of the dining room and a wine cellar housed in a former bank vault, Fico captures the very essence of dining on this Australian island. Great wine, delicious food and all the care of finer dining without the frills. Of course, it’s the maturity and honesty on the plate that’s getting all the attention. Smoked eel pâté arrives on a brioche bed. A tomato puddle adds twang to zucchini flowers filled with ricotta. Perfectly rare pigeon breast comes to earth with mushrooms and beetroot, while pistachio adds a nutty punch to a savoury soufflé. Sit at the long timber bar or on well-spaced tables that provide a sense of privacy without missing out on all the action.
BRISBANE AND SURROUNDS
It’s always been something of an institution for Brisbane locals, but a new owner has brought a breath of fresh air and a glistening new vision to Pearl Cafe, which is drawing in pundits from everywhere. Pearl is, at its heart, an Australian interpretation of an Italian trattoria, though the menu travels throughout Europe to capture the best of both bistro and trattoria. Caramelised artichokes crown plump and fluffy gnocchi lathered in a lemon-scented cream. Crisp-skin kingfish finds a home in a vibrant saffron and fennel risotto, while yoghurt brings an acidic twang to a medley of honey-roasted carrots that is deeply satisfying. Housed in a heritage-listed building, the dining space is anchored by a beautiful and timeless bar, while timber floorboards and exposed brick speak of the past, and the sleek tables and bentwood chairs bring it into the present.
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