Working up an appetite for 2017
Restaurants that worked and didn’t, and what’s to come
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