BEST OF THE BUSH
Red Ochre is still a good bet for trying native flora and fauna on your plate.
ITHE “NEXT BIG THING” HAS BEEN A STAPLE AT RED OCHRE FOR MORE THAN A DECADE
f you took a straw poll among the country’s best-known chefs and asked them to identify the “next big thing”, native ingredients would figure in almost every response. They’ve watched the rise of global superstars such as Rene Redzepi at Noma in Denmark, and Alex Atala, from Brazil’s D.O.M. who send teams to search for the plants, seeds and fungi in their forests and jungles.
It makes sense. When so much emphasis is being placed on the provenance and proximity of food, the logical follow-up is to find the stuff that has been growing there naturally all along.
And when land, water and other resources are at a premium, the ethical arguments are compelling.
In Australia, despite an indigenous culture that has survived for millennia by finding what is edible in all manner of terrain, the wider promotion of these ingredients has been fraught with difficulty.
The awful term “bush tucker” has been a handicap and too often, through poor quality control or misunderstanding, what’s put up has failed the basic test of tasting good.
In Adelaide, Red Ochre restaurants have long been working to set things right, first with the pioneering Andrew Fielke in Gouger St, and since 1999 in a spectacular riverside setting on top of the Torrens weir.
From here, viewed across the water that shimmers with reflected light, the city skyline is surprisingly beautiful, and it’s no surprise that tourists seem to take up a fair proportion of tables on a Thursday night. The other attraction, of course, is the chance to try the native flora and, particularly, fauna.
Here long-time head chef, and now owner, Ray Mauger plays it smart with a softly-softly approach that uses unfamiliar elements in moderation (a little lemon aspen béarnaise with your steak, sir?) and has enough escape routes if that isn’t your bag.
He may even overturn some long-held prejudices. The grilled kangaroo fillet, for instance, has convinced me to find a good supplier and start cooking roo at home again. A small saddle, cooked rare but obviously well-rested, cut into five glistening, ruby pink slices, is meltingly tender, with a flavour so pure you would almost call it sweet. Sourced from Dew’s of Orroroo in the Mid-North, it is some of the best red meat of any persuasion I’ve had for a while. The accompanying puy lentils, spiced pear, puree of carrot and cardamom sauce all hang together well, though would be better not smeared around such a large plate.
On the other side of the ledger, my view of crocodile is unchanged by Red Ochre’s salt and pepper version, which, despite clean frying and a nicely zingy crumb coating, tastes like strips of chicken – and not good chicken at that. The dish is saved by a salad of apple discs, cucumber and herbs dressed in an excellent nam jim made with native lime (not that you’d pick it).
Lamb two ways – the backstrap coated in a crust of native dukkah, the shoulder shredded and pressed into a round mould – has a shopping list of components including ras al hanout, peas, native currant, preserved citrus and yoghurt “snow” but the bush-meetsbazaar spicing works surprisingly well and that shoulder meat is great eating.
Desserts are certified show-stoppers, plated with plenty of toffee shards and other eye-catching whiz-bangery, and the flavour balance tweaked just a smidge to the sweeter side.
A triple whammy tasting plate comprises a sorbet of Davison plum, with poached fruit hidden in its midst; a lemon myrtle panna cotta topped with rosella flower jelly; and a wattleseed pavlova that is soft and fluffy but still has some undissolved sugar granules.
It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing cooking that Red Ochre pulls off very well. And if it helps introduce more people to the treasure-trove of remarkable flavours at their doorstep, all power to them.