By OCinSite At-Large on January 22, 2011 3:28 PM
Photo courtesy of Tourism NSW
By Andrew Bender | Laguna Beach Magazine, Oct./Nov. 2010
Kangaroos: Check. Koalas: Check. Opera House, outback, Great Barrier Reef: all must-dos on a first trip to Australia. For my second trip I wanted a deeper dive. Australia is known for wine, of course, but who knew it had such a gourmet scene? My culinary journey through greater Sydney and the state of Queensland led me to sea pearls and sea planes, a Spirit House and a rainforest retreat—and dining experiences to last a lifetime.
I’m always suspicious when visitors return from a destination with nothing but raves, but Sydney really is all they say. Mix the cosmopolitan, low-to-the-ground neighborhoods of London with the weather of Southern California and waterscapes as pretty as Vancouver’s or Hong Kong’s, and you’ve about got it.
I arrived nonstop in Sydney aboard Qantas’ A380, bounding with energy to return to one of my favorite places and boosted even further when I opened my curtains at the Shangri-La Hotel to view the Opera House gleaming off the harbor in the morning sun.
The hotel is adjacent to the Rocks, Sydney’s first neighborhood and worth a ramble through its cobblestone streets and intimate, pub-filled alleys. The Rocks Discovery Museum is like an architectural dig through history, and Friday farmers markets are a great way to meet locals.
Just beyond is Circular Quay, where ferries chug in and out all day. It almost doesn’t matter where the boat takes you; the ride is a show, particularly as you circle just past Jørn Utzon’s world famous Opera House and the Harbour Bridge which lords over the inlets to the west.
So of course I had to make my arrival dinner at Quay (quay.com.au), directly across Circular Quay from the Opera House—position yourself correctly, and you can stare at this landmark all night. Quay’s location would make it a tourist trap anywhere else, but fortunately, the fertile mind of Chef Peter Gilmore makes each dish unique; Quay was just named number 27 on San Pellegrino’s list of the world’s 50 best restaurants.
Sea pearls arrived first, like candy-colored seafood truffles. An egg white and octopus pearl was pinhead-sized balls of egg white, pressed around smoked eel brandade and sliced octopus. The mud crab pearl combines the crabmeat with yuzu (Japanese citrus), enrobed in tapioca beads and topped with silver leaf.
Another signature dish, confit of pig belly, boasts an outer layer of pork crackled like a candy crust, while the inner layer was braised for seven hours in olive oil, star anise and cinnamon. At the arrival of duck confit with kabu turnips, winter melon and hasuimo (Japanese green taro shoot) in duck stock, I took a moment to thank my Creator for the sense of smell, and the universe for the good fortune that brought me to this place.
The next day was a journey: a taxi ride across Sydney, takeoff by seaplane from a glistening inlet and touchdown on the idyllic Hawkesbury River. The flight took only 20 minutes, but modern Sydney’s quickly forgotten amid nature’s eternal art: cliffs striated charcoal, terracotta and desert sand, reflecting on the rippling waters below. The time zone on my mobile phone actually reset to Siberia.
The plane docked at Berowra Waters Inn (berowrawatersinn.com), Chef Dietmar Sawyere’s culinary playground. The restaurant’s inaccessibility means that Sydneysiders linger for hours over lunch; not difficult with cooking this creative.
Berowra Waters Inn
I’d love to think that the term “food porn” has jumped the shark, but here it made sense; just about every table had someone taking photos of Sawyere’s photogenic creations. The orange of the salmon on a tortilla, topped with Oscietra and salmon caviar, guacamole and tiny sprigs of dill and cilantro sensuously offset the seaplane anchored outside and the gentle zzh, zzh, zzh of wakes pulsing against the boulders underfoot.
Berowra Waters Inn fare
Although the menu changes every few days, one regular dish is ultra-creamy chilled Vichyssoise topped with Alice-in-Wonderland-sized mini-croutons, alongside beignets of Hawkesbury oysters fried prodigiously light and served in the shell over a slaw of gently stewed yellow leeks. Aubergine (Australian for eggplant) ravioli usually means the eggplant’s on the inside, but here it’s also on the outside where the pasta would be, in thin strips, seared and sharing the bowl with bocconcini, basil, lemon and an olive oil sorbet.
A plate of petit fours was the perfect dessert: miniature bricks of mango jelly, white chocolate and lemon macaroons, walnut tartlet and a dense and moody chocolate ganache. It all made the sea plane ride back thrilling, and dinner superfluous.
Shopping up an Appetite
I spent the next day walking off those meals with a retail workout. Amid the towering headquarters of banks and multinationals reigns the neo-Romanesque Queen Victoria Building (qvb.com.au). Built in 1898, the QVB boasts international brands (Swarovski, Ralph Lauren, Bally, Camper, et cetera) alongside specialty shops like the spit-shined Elite Military Miniatures and Little Voice, outfitting the littlest angels with the fanciful and the adorable, the floral and the woodland.
A few blocks away, as ornate but more intimate, the Strand Arcade (strandarcade.com.au) concentrates on local designers and a more contemporary flair, like the chunky, colorful resin jewelry of Dinosaur Designs.
I also took a short cab ride to the trendy Surry Hills neighborhood, where narrow streets and low-slung buildings house some of the most interesting art in the southern hemisphere. Collect, Object Gallery’s retail store, (object.com.au) showcases up-and-coming Australian artists and designers: indigenous beads and baskets, bowls made from macadamia nut husks (both eco-friendly and artistic); prints of Australian motifs on linen. “It’s like a lolly shop for adults,” manager Kylie Johnson told me, and you can pick up a map to other nearby galleries.
Queen Victoria Building
Dinner that evening was at Rockpool Bar & Grill (rockpool.com.au) back in the Central Business District. It’s the newest restaurant from Neil Perry, Australia’s best-known chef. White-jacketed, black-tied servers scurry beneath three-story green marble columns and an Art Deco rotunda a la Ayn Rand, illuminated by a chandelier of 2,682 Riedel wine glasses. The 30-page bar menu begins with house rules (“Gentlemen, don’t approach ladies; and if you are so lucky to have one approach you, endear her as you would your mother.”). Another leather-bound booklet explains the restaurant’s Australian hormone- and antibiotic-free beef—more on that in a moment.
Rockpool Earl Carter Steak
First, though, a plate of “raw tastes of the sea,” from buttery to bracing: blue fin tuna with wasabi and shiso; crudo of ocean trout, yellowfin tuna and kingfish with fresh ginger, coriander and finger lime; and tuna tartare with Moroccan eggplant, cumin mayonnaise and harissa. Spanner crab with roast cherry tomatoes and (very) spicy prawn oil beautifully offset semolina noodles rough cut like strands of rope.
When rib eye on the bone arrived, aged 78 days, I got all giddy playing with the mustards, harissa, béarnaise—and more traditional horseradish cream and barbecue sauce—that the server offered. Sides of charcoal-oven roasted pumpkin and sweet potato roasted were topped with garlic yogurt and burnt butter, and a tomato basil salad was friendly and familiar.
The next morning I bid a fond farewell to Sydney for the 90-minute flight to Brisbane, capital of Queensland, Australia’s “Sunshine State” on the continent’s northeast coast. Southern Queensland lives for the outdoors. The old-growth trees, climbing vines and young wallabies on a hike through Mary Cairncross Rainforest Park made sure that I knew I wasn’t in Sydney anymore. I spent the evening at Noosa Beach, one of Australia’s most famous and most chichi seaside communities (see sidebar).
About 20 minutes’ drive from Noosa, I stepped through a brick-red wooden gate carved with climbing golden vines, and into Spirit House (spirithouse.com.au). If I hadn’t just passed the tall grasses surrounding Australia’s largest ginger plantation, I would have guessed I was in a noble villa in the Thai countryside where stone ewers brimmed with orchids around a pond.
Spirit House is one of Australia’s leading Thai restaurants and offers expert Thai cooking classes. It was a hoot to be the only Yank among the 20-or-so Glorias and Kerryns in little black dresses—and rugby shirted Alastairs and Graemes. We donned our aprons and took turns stirring a relish of prawns and soybeans simmered in coconut cream; grinding chilies, coriander, cumin, cloves, star anise and cassia bark for Chiang Mai-style pork curry; and stuffing pork, sticky rice, garlic, coriander root, green chilies and shredded kaffir lime leaves into sausages. “You look like a typical Australian,” the friendly instructor, Katrina Ryan, told me as I grilled our “snags” on the barbie.
Spirit House fare.
I’m not sure which I liked better, making our creations or eating them alongside my new Australian mates—a kickboxing equipment seller, engineers, a mum and daughter on a girls’ day out—and washing down our creations with Aussie Sauvignon Blanc.
For my last lunch in Oz, I journeyed a couple hours across Queensland to another rainforest, Mt. Tamborine. I wasn’t on my honeymoon, but I felt like it anyway amid the lush gardens at Songbirds Rainforest Retreat (songbirds.com.au). Buddha statues populate rambling, leafy gardens and lawns, some in plain sight, many others hidden in nooks and crannies, all conspiring to offer inner peace. The indoor-outdoor dining room is awash with plush white cushions and nubby red-tone silks, over rattan chairs.
Songbirds Rainforest Retreat
Lunch here was an affair to remember. After tender rabbit topped with potato parsnip puree, with nameko musroooms and jus of date and thyme, a palate-cleanser of popcorn granita sounded like a joke ... until I tasted it: ice crystals made from a reduction of popcorn, complete with butter and salt. Poached white Pyrenees lamb fillet arrived nestled in pistachio mousse, ratatouille salsa, whipped aubergine (eggplant), king oyster mushrooms and cloves of stewed garlic.
For dessert, a fig and date Katafi pastry was an explosion of texture (the shell, like spun noodles, has a prodigious crunch, with the fruit pastes inside) and flavors like rose, tarragon and sherry, just like a wedding bouquet.
After lunch, I went for a walk in the rainforest, stopped to commune with a Buddha and made a wish to return.
Now that your appetite for the land down-under is whetted, click on the link to read about ‘Where to Stay While Down-Under.’
Click on this link to get the skinny on ‘How Best to Explore Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.’ A hint: base yourself in Noosa.