Work­ing up an ap­petite for 2017

Restau­rants that worked and didn’t, and what’s to come

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - JOHN LETHLEAN

Food is any­thing you want it to be th­ese days. Ap­par­ently. A bloke walks into an apart­ment build­ing where they are ren­o­vat­ing the restau­rant. “What’s it gonna be?” he asks. “Span­ish, Mex­i­can, South Amer­i­can, with a lit­tle bit of Mid­dle East­ern in­flu­ence,” he’s told. I’m not mak­ing this up. “Sounds great. Have you got a good chef?” “Yeah he did his ap­pren­tice­ship un­der Jamie Oliver.” River Cafe meets Day of the Dead via ta­pas with hum­mus and falafel. Can’t wait.

I’d like to think the mud­dle of Aus­tralia’s freestyle, throw-it-all-into-the-pot cook­ing is set­tling; the lack of rules and cul­tural bag­gage has been a good thing for the na­tion’s culi­nary de­vel­op­ment, and prob­a­bly suits the na­tional char­ac­ter. But with­out proper train­ing and roots, our com­mer­cial cooks some­times lose di­rec­tion. See above. Places that are more fo­cused, with less of a scat­ter­gun ap­proach, will al­ways be the real stay­ers.

To look for­ward, of course, it is use­ful to look back. And the restau­rants of 2016 that made a dif­fer­ence, that have legs, all have a clear sense of iden­tity.

WIN­NERS The stand­outs of 2016 have a clear mis­sion at their core. I’m think­ing Stan­buli in En­more, Syd­ney, with its Turk­ish roots; Igni in Geelong, Vic­to­ria, with its orig­i­nal cook­ing de­voted to fire and smoke; Lulu La Delizia, in Perth where pasta is ex­plored in a ma­ture and ad­ven­tur­ous man­ner; Oakridge, in the Yarra Val­ley, where the cook­ing and the wine pro­duced on-site talk to each other beau­ti­fully; Bar Brose, Hu­bert, Yel­low and Dol­phin — all, I’m afraid, part of the Syd­ney push, too. Not to men­tion Aus­tralia’s first great seafood restau­rant, Cir­rus, and Fred’s, push­ing a new style of hearth-to-plate kitchen-as­diner. Syd­ney had so much hap­pen­ing in 2016. We were ex­cited by the re­born Africola, in Ade­laide, too: a great ex­am­ple of what a sin­gle-minded chef — in charge — can achieve. And in Perth, Wild­flower came on stream with truly in­spired con­tem­po­rary food in­spired by the West. And Long Chim … Sure it’s a chain, but it’s done very well, and a se­ri­ous chef is be­hind the con­cept.

LOSERS The coun­try is full of or­di­nary restau­rants that per­sist with tak­ing our money in ex­change for lit­tle. It’s a mys­tery. Low­lights of the din­ing year in­cluded Ade­laide’s Hill of Grace and Ver­sace’s Van­i­tas, in Surfer’s Par­adise, both ex­pen­sive and anachro­nis­tic. Ditto The Cut in Mel­bourne, a busi­ness that now — most pe­cu­liarly — finds it­self a sta­ble­mate (in an­other for­mat, af­ter the fail­ure of the first one) of the per­sis­tently good Rock­pool Bar & Grill trio. And Cape Lodge in the Mar­garet River re­gion, a place that can­not shake off its func­tion-cen­tre iden­tity, de­spite the prices.

They con­sti­tute a small group of restau­rants I found mas­sively want­ing in 2016.

Then there was a bracket of places pumped full of air by others in the me­dia that seemed to me to have de­vel­oped se­ri­ous leaks. I’m think­ing The Apo in Bris­bane, Mer­cado and Indu in Syd­ney, Fuyu and Bib & Tucker in Perth. They are all, as far as I know, still alive. Less so are the enig­matic Mark Best’s Mar­que, French­man Guil­laume Brahimi’s Guil­laume in Pad- ding­ton, Sil­ver­eye in Chip­pen­dale — a post-Noma ex­per­i­ment that failed — and, tech­ni­cally, Rock­pool 1989, which be­came Eleven Bridge and stayed out of the Ur­ban Pur­veyor Group merger (see be­low).

All, in their own way, places of con­sid­er­able merit that ran their race for a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent rea­sons.

PUT IT IN YOUR DI­ARY Hun­dreds of new restau­rants will open in 2017. Most will be beige, rud­der­less ships, the din­ing equiv­a­lent of a Holden Cruze. There are, how­ever, some open­ings on the draw­ing board that will make a lot of noise.

In Syd­ney, it will be fas­ci­nat­ing to see if Chin Chin’s Mel­bourne brand trans­lates when it launches in Surry Hills around Au­gust. The restau­rant has been the phe­nom­e­non of the decade in its home town.

And from the same pro­pri­etor, Chris Lu­cas, an as-yetun­named three-level Ja­panese restau­rant with chef Shaun Pres­land at the helm has some very in­no­va­tive ideas be­hind it, des­tined to shift think­ing at the high end of Mel­bourne eat­ing. Around May. And in the un­likely

A SUITE WITH THE LOT Last year found us re­think­ing the “restau­rants in ho­tels are dread­ful” rule with some lux­ury food-fo­cused flop­house open­ings in WA and Vic­to­ria. Over in the West, Perth gained Como The Trea­sury, con­sid­ered by many to be the best ho­tel in Aus­tralia, and home to the out­stand­ing Wild­flower restau­rant among others. Still in the West, where they like things big, the op­u­lent Crown Tow­ers opened with Perth’s big­gest buf­fet and the world’s big­gest choco­late fountain, which makes us snort and think of the Vicar of Di­b­ley (Google it). Mean­while, QT Mel­bourne bounced into town fea­tur­ing a perky Parisi­enne bar and grill called Pas­cale, ter­rific eclairs and a cou­ple of other joints breath­ing new life into an old cin­ema in the town’s foodie golden mile.

The trend con­tin­ues in 2017 with the open­ing of Perth’s Aloft (of the Star­wood brand) in May. Over in Tassie the MACQ 01, the first wa­ter­front ho­tel in the cap­i­tal for a decade, de­vel­oped by the peo­ple be­hind Saf­fire Fr­eycinet and the Henry Jones, will open in the mid­dle of the year. Mel­bourne will get an­other Four Points by Sher­a­ton down in Dock­lands, and Syd­ney will get an­other Sof­i­tel.

BIG BUSI­NESS IS DIF­FI­CULT TO AVOID AT LUNCH Big restau­rant groups have al­ways been around but more than ever be­fore, they are part of the qual­ity din­ing land­scape. That seems likely only to in­crease this year. Look for se­ri­ous ex­pan­sion from Rock­pool Din­ing Group, the rather mis­matched mar­riage of Neil Perry’s places with the mixed bag of restau­rants and tav­erns owned by Ur­ban Pur­veyor Group.

In Syd­ney, Merivale will con­tinue its qual­ity/quan­tity bal­anc­ing act with more places planned for Padding­ton and, un­doubt­edly, more pubs (wit­ness their lat­est re­born pub/restau­rant Queen Chow and The Smelly Goat in En­more).

Hav­ing sold a size­able slab of his busi­ness to Sin­ga­porean in­vestors, Mel­bourne’s Shan­non Ben­nett will push on with Syd­ney plans and the con­ver­sion of Burn­ham Beeches, in the Dan­de­nongs, to a lux­ury re­treat/ restau­rant.

Made Es­tab­lish­ment, the ve­hi­cle be­hind celebrity

Igni in Geelong, top; Stan­buli in Syd­ney, above; Long Chim Perth, be­low; Africola, far right; a lamb dish from Oakridge, right top; chef Danielle Al­varez in the kitchen of Fred’s Restau­rant, right

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