Jane Cornes samples taste of the tropics in WA’s famous pearling port of Broome
DUSK has fallen on another picture-perfect Broome day, and the town’s favourite eating places are doing a brisk postsunset trade. Broome’s growth as a tourist destination has been impressive since the 1980s, when British peer Lord Alistair McAlpine saw potential in a scruffy, red-dirt settlement overlooking the spearmint waters of Roebuck Bay and spent tens of millions of dollars realising his vision to develop it.
McAlpine’s wonderful zoo, with its walkways and huge aviary, has long since been carved up and sold off as residential lots for those after the prestigious Cable Beach postcode.
The zoo’s administration building has survived and now houses the Old Zoo Cafe, its pretty deck bounded by the requisite palm trees and koi-filled stream.
The town is undergoing an evolutionary process much like the one in Western Australia’s Margaret River 15 years ago.
There the expansion of tourism and, with it, increasing numbers of educated palates established a sound commercial base on which good eating places could survive and flourish.
In Broome, a similar process has encouraged the emergence of and ever-increasing interest in local produce, and the willingness of chefs to develop their skills, despite a transient workforce that keeps service at the lower end of acceptable.
Out at Twelve Mile, the land surrenders to pindan scrub, and Broome’s market gardeners grow mangoes, pawpaw and other culinary exotica, much of which finds its way into the town’s best restaurants. Mango wine is available, as is fresh galangal and organic pak choy.
Not that the dapper northwest township can compete with Noosa just yet. Despite the growth, Broome is still very much a frontier town. Anything that cannot be grown here is freighted in from Perth and consequently very expensive.
Restaurant staffing can also be a problem. Nancy Gibson, a well-known chef who has owned several of the town’s best restaurants, says she has trained new waiters only to have them suddenly move on. She has since left the restaurant trade but directs me to Milton Comino of Roebuck Seafoods, the source of local fish, a passion of Gibson’s when she was a restaurateur.
Comino, a former crayfisherman with a crusty sense of humour, operates two fishing vessels and sells the town’s only locally caught fish.
At Comino’s modest retail outlet, at 953 Port Drive, beside Broome Wharf, the tropical species glistening in the cold cabinet — barramundi, dhufish, goldband snapper — were caught just hours ago. Comino also sells less well-known species such as queenfish, black dhufish and bluenose salmon.
‘‘ We catch them each morning and fillet them out the back. You don’t get much fresher than that,’’ he says with a touch of pride.
Noodlefish, at 6 Hammersley St, offers what chef and owner Stefan Mitchell calls ‘‘ kerbside dining’’. Noodlefish serves the most consistently interesting and wellexecuted modern Asian fare I’ve tasted in the state. Mitchell sources all his fresh fish from Comino and especially likes threadfin salmon, which he grills and serves with a spicy green paw paw salad.
Other highlights here are the twicecooked sichuan duck and grilled east-coast fish triple tail with salsa verde.
Good dining Broome-style does not translate into fine dining. Guests at Noodlefish often struggle with inadequate service, drink their wine from water tumblers and sit so close to the road that passing traffic can drown out conversation. According to Mitchell, this is just how it is in Broome.
Next door at Aarli Bar, on the corner of Frederick and Hamersley streets, diners sit beneath the buttermilk blossoms of a spreading frangipani tree, screened from passing traffic by palms, crotons and other exotic greenery.
Whole local fish are a specialty (chef/ owner Nick Wendland is another Comino fan) and a good range of tapas-style share plates (fat field mushrooms oozing garlicky butter, crunchy green beans with oregano and fetta, felafels with minted yoghurt) are on offer. Breakfast here is the best in town. As a bonus, a range of sprouted-grain, spelt and wholegrain breads baked by Gibson are sometimes on sale in the courtyard on Saturday mornings.
One of the pleasures of the town’s dining is its lack of pretentiousness. At Cafe Carlotta, in Jones Place, Old Broome, owners Mic Whatley and Charlotte Brown live upstairs from their large courtyard dining area. There is no busier place to eat in Broome. The locals clearly relish the laidback atmosphere and the way Whatley and Brown engage with their patrons. It feels like being one of the family.
There is a wood-fired oven, and at least one house-made pasta is always on offer. Cafe Carlotta also has a liquor licence.
And there’s always nearby Cable Beach’s 22km expanse of pale sand to beckon those who’d rather pick up a cool white wine from the town’s well-stocked bottle shop, watch the camel riders pass and toast the Kimberley sunset in true Broome style. www.broomewa.com www.broomevisitorcentre.com.au
Nice slice: An exotic fruit plate, above left; the best breakfasts are at Aarli Bar, top; Noodlefish boasts mod Asian fare, above right