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Australian tour: Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney (long)

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Australian tour: Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney (long)

T.O. Diner | Feb 7, 2016 07:30 AM

We’ve returned home from an Aussie adventure that included Canberra, Melbourne, Mount Gambier, Barossa, Adelaide, Brisbane, Hunter Valley and Sydney.

Our first sit down meal was at Eighty Six in Canberra http://eightysix.com.au/ . Terrific spot, lively atmosphere with an open kitchen. Designed for sharing and we loved everything we had. The tartare had a perfect balance of spice, the lemon ricotta gnocchi was described as ‘little pillows of heaven’ (by my spouse, not on the menu) and the black chicken with buttermilk slaw was also fantastic (if a bit pricey). Rounded out by very good service and an interesting wine list. No noticeable flaws whatsoever - huge thumbs’ up to 86.

Melbourne highlights included Cumulus Up http://cumulusinc.com.au/up/ where we booked after being unable to secure a table at Cumulus, but we were actually really happy that that’s how it turned out because we had a really great time at CU. Again, started with a really upbeat vibe. We did a tasting menu and they were quite happy to tailor both the number of courses, and the contents of the courses, to our liking rather than how the tasting menu was laid out. The wine list was very strong, as was the Som. In fact, service all around was top notch. Very, very good value – would go back in a heartbeat.

Our favourite bar was The Everleigh http://www.theeverleigh.com/ was a really cool prohibition-era bar. Setting is fantastic, as was the bartender (I didn’t have to ask if he knew how to make a Corpse Reviver No. 2 – I could just order one). Damned expensive – a place to have a cocktail to start or end an evening, not to spend an entire one – but absolutely worth a stop.

Our cocktail at The Everleigh was followed by dinner at Cutler & Co. http://cutlerandco.com.au/ When we sat down to do our review the overwhelming memory of Cutler & Co. was ‘meh’. It was good, but not great and there was nothing particularly memorable. Room was nice, service was good and food was competent, but in a town with so much exceptional food I wouldn’t bother with simply competent.

For our other Melbourne meals we had a combination of good news and bad news. For those who enjoy high end food (and are lucky enough to be able to splurge), it appears both Vue de Monde http://www.vuedemonde.com.au/ and Attica http://attica.com.au/#!home are 'must dines'.

The good news was, thanks to decent pre-planning for one, combined with another couple's timely cancellation at the other, we managed to get into one for lunch and the other for dinner. The bad news was, they were both for the same day. After some debate, given that it was our last day in Melbourne, we decided we just had to buckle down and go for it, and we're really glad we did.

We started at VDM for lunch. The setting is exquisite, down to the creative table settings and the service of each dish (including the most beautiful cutlery I've ever seen).

The open kitchen – it was fully open to the resto, not just on one side - was fascinating to watch and our table directly in front provided great theatre as well as generally exceptional food (if watching the kitchen staff interests you, request table 10).

The options were a 5, 8 or 10 course lunch - knowing the day ahead, we opted for the 8. As expected, there were a number of small bites before commencing the official courses. Among the tastiest were the soft boiled quail eggs rolled in rocket powder and the whole small prawns (in shell) dipped in a creme fraiche sauce.

Stand outs included raw tuna with strips of slightly dried watermelon (visually indistinguishable and a terrific compliment to one another), a single stalk of perfectly grilled asparagus with a tangy dipping sauce (which my spouse threatened to lick off his plate), and the lamb sweetbreads (which were, unfortunately, served almost cold).

When we commented on it to the staff the response was 'that's how we serve them' - sorry, but I must call BS on that and use this as a segue to comment on the open kitchen. As people who like to cook as well as eat, we truly loved it, but it also means you see the (albeit small) flaws. This included seeing hot dishes sit awaiting pickup, sometimes for several minutes, such as the sweetbreads. On the other hand, it also permitted the head chef to notice that we were having an issue removing a steak knife from the stone in which it was artfully presented and pop out of the kitchen himself to see if we needed assistance.

Back to the food - the wagyu brisket was an exceptional dish, cooked sous vide for 12 hours. It hardly needed a knife at all, let alone a steak knife.

A hit of intense coconut - presented looking like a small black stone - was a great transition to dessert.

The chocolate souffle was pure fluffy egg white heaven, and the breakfast bag for the next morning was a nice touch. All in all, an exceptional meal worthy of the reputation.

Then, after a short rest, we headed to Attica.

The atmosphere couldn't have been more different from VDM - from the open space and sweeping views of the 55th floor of an office building to a small, ground level resto with walls painted black. Even after arriving late (due to terrible traffic and an irresponsible cab co), the welcome at Attica couldn't have been warmer. We were very concerned about timing and were expecting to hear we may have to forego part of our meal due to our tardiness but quite the opposite. We were told to relax, settle in, that the table was ours for the night and dinner would proceed at whatever pace we liked (which, for obvious reasons, was great to hear).

While the wine pairings sounded fabulous, they featured little Australian wine so we decided instead to order a Clare Valley Riesling followed by a St. Joseph-style Shiraz from a small local producer. Once that was selected we launched into our 12 small bites followed by the 4 Savoury and 2 sweet courses.

Standouts among the small bites included fresh soft cheese covered in honey scraped off the comb at the table, the fluffy whipped corn, pastry pockets filled with lamb, fresh bread with macadamia oil dip and a stuffed deep fried baby potato.

The mains included marron, perfectly cooked, a kangaroo course (which was the only miss of the evening - it was over powered by too many pickled carrots to which it just couldn't hold up), a dish of the most glorious, rich potatoes I've ever had, and a dish called 142 day cabbage (the number of days from cabbage seedling to plate) featuring emu in a rich tomato broth.

The green apple dessert, filled with a lemon custard, was stunning and the chocolate cake was somehow light and rich at the same time.

Although both were wonderful meals, I'd have to say it was Attica that impressed us the most. Even arriving half full from lunch we savoured almost every bite. The table presentation of each dish featured members of the kitchen team coming to each table, which was a really nice touch. Overall, the staff seemed more *genuinely* friendly (a genuineness generally absent at VDM, including a sommelier who didn't hide well that he didn't approve of our wine selection over lunch).

The ideal way to experience these 2 great restos? Clearly not, but we would have very much regretted missing out on either. Both great meals, do both if you can, but if you must choose, we'd do Attica.

For wine lovers, a trip to Mount Gambier for a meal at The Barn is a must.

http://www.barn.com.au/steakhouse.html It’s effectively a motel, but the rooms are large and clean, so don’t let that put you off. The food (a traditional steak house) is tasty, but what makes it worth the drive is the wine list. Clearly the cellar master *loves* his job and we all get to benefit from it. It was my spouse’s birthday the night we were there, so we knew we were going to splurge on wine. We had checked out the extensive wine list on line before dinner and decided to share a 1990 Bordeaux and followed it with a 1967 (yes, 1967) Barossa Cab which, although a touch sherry, was still showing fruit. And to boot, the prices of the wine were unbelievably reasonable. We’ve both said any trip back to Aus must include a trip back to the Barn.

A stop in Barossa took us to Hentley Farm https://www.hentleyfarm.com.au/ and we're so very glad it did. We did the Discovery Menu with wine pairings (we took a cab from the hotel and if you decide to do the same, budget about $50 each way - it's a ways out (from any hotel) and cabs in Australia are expensive). All around the food was exceptional. The wine pairings were spot on and the pourings generous, with no staff batting an eye at either topping up an empty glass or happily fulfilling a flat out request for a bit more of one wine or the other.

The pastry chef (whose talents we often find under appreciated, especially at the end of a long tasting menu) was exceptional, with 2 sweet courses of which there wasn't a bite left.

Adelaide started at Apothecary 1878, a really neat retro bar on the otherwise rather scuzzy Hindley Street https://www.theapothecary1878.com.au/ . The owner designed it around antique apothecary cases and counters - the decor and vibe are really great. Although the placed focused more on cocktails, the food was very good. We ordered the sardines on toast and carpaccio, both of which were terrific.

The ordering process was a bit off, receiving the appetizer menu without receiving the main menu at the same time. Once we finished our apps and were presented with the full dinner menu we realized we were too full for full main courses each, so we split a few more apps, then shared a main (venison, cooked slightly rare, even for us (fully raw through the entire middle)) but that was quickly dealt with by putting a slice between two piping hot potatoes!)

All in all the food was great, the wine list fantastic, the service friendly and helpful (including with food recommendations in town) and the cocktails spot on (best Corpse Reviver No. 2 I had in Australia) - we'd highly recommend for dinner or a late night drinking spot.

One day we hit the central market for a baguette and cheese from the Smelly Cheese shop. Coming from a city with one of the largest fresh food open markets in the world, the market itself wasn't particularly stunning, but we got exactly what we were after. Later that day we popped a few streets over to Sit Lo, a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese place with outstanding steamed buns (a recommendation from the staff at Apothecary) http://sitlo.com.au/ . We highly recommend it as well. You can have a hearty lunch, or light dinner, for about $15pp.

We decided to settle in for an LBL (Long Boozy Lunch) on one of our Adelaide days, and did so at Sosta, an Argentinian restaurant on Rundle http://www.sostaargentiniankitchen.co... . We had some well-prepared calamari and meatballs to start, then the paella, which was some of the best we've ever had (including during trips to Spain and Argentina). In fact, loaded with so much fresh seafood we actually couldn't finish it (which we somehow always find embarrassing!). The staff was friendly and our server, who was also very knowledgeable about the wine list, honoured us with an interpretive dance of his impression of one particular vintage.

After much great food and 2 bottles of wine at lunch, no dinner that day.

Our last dinner out in Adelaide was at Press * Food and Wine http://www.pressfoodandwine.com.au/ . The place was packed with largely communal seating on the first floor, but (with an advance reservation) we were seated at a beautiful big booth upstairs. They weren't serving their full menu (of which they advised when the reservation was made - by the way, no reservations online so we asked our hotel to make it on our behalf several weeks in advance).

They served a 4 course tasting menu, which is a bit of a misnomer (in the best possible way). The food is served family style, with diners sharing plates of food. The first 'course' was comprised of 3 good sized dishes - raw salmon, steak tartare (served with anchovies, which was a fabulous touch) and a quinoa salad that, to the shock of these two hard core carnivores, was the star of the show (the ingredients list is too long to recall, but included beets (raw and roasted), fresh goat cheese, sugar snap peas, apples, lentils with a crazy good pomegranate-based dressing).

The second course was blood sausage and calamari (separate dishes), the latter served with a mild chimmichurri, again an unexpected flavour combination that totally worked. The final savoury duo were steak and pork belly (with a great crispy crackling). Dessert was baked Alaska.

And all of that was $68 pp (and remember that prices in Australia are 'all in', with tipping purely optional for excellent service). The value/quality for the money was through the roof.

Brisbane featured perhaps the best burger I’ve ever had (and, sadly, I can’t remember the name of the pub), as well as a really interesting Middle Eastern-influenced meal at Gerard’s Bistro http://gerardsbistro.com.au/ A very interesting wine list (where the staff was happy to let us sample the Lebanese wine we were contemplating before ordering a bottle). Food designed for sharing, we had (among other things) an incredible salad with pomegranate, mint, cheese and almonds (which I liked enough to make at home) and wagyu brisket (sadly, quite over salted, but melt in your mouth and tasty nonetheless).

Fast forward to Sydney (although I’m sure Port MacQuarrie and Hunter Valley have lovely restaurants, we didn’t eat at any of them – ‘nuff said).

First, bars. Both Palmer & Co. http://merivale.com.au/palmerandco and The Baxter Inn http://thebaxterinn.com/ are both ‘must stops’ if you like a fine cocktail (don’t be put off by the access point to either – it seems that it’s part of feeling like you’re in a prohibition-era bar to have to get to it through a back alley).

The absolute restaurant highlight for Sydney was Rockpool Est. 1989 http://www.rockpool.com/rockpoolsydney/ (make sure you’re clear on which location you’re heading to – we almost goofed and ended up at the bar and grill when we’d booked at the fine dining location – entirely our own fault). The setting was stunning and an upstairs table lent a feeling of privacy. We opted to have the wine pairings and could not have been happier that we did. At the end of the meal we both concluded that they were, perhaps, the most exceptional wine pairings we’d had with any meal, anywhere, any time. Every one not only ‘went with’ the dish (which, sadly, is the end goal in many restaurants), but each pairing brought out something in the food we wouldn’t have otherwise tasted, and vice versa. And, even more impressive, the Som was happy to accommodate our ‘we’d really like to focus on Australian wine’ request, so some of the pairings were not pre-selected.

The food was equally exceptional. The first several courses were fish and seafood focused with an Asian influence and ultimately moved to a spectacular wagyu course. Don’t let the brevity of this review underplay our enthusiasm – this was a completely amazing meal and if we’re lucky enough to be in Sydney again Rockpool will be top of our list.

We spent a couple of hours on New Year’s Day at Doyle’s on the Beach in Watson’s Bay. Pricey, but we had a seat outside on the balcony on the second floor overlooking the bay so if you factor in the entertainment, along with perfectly good food, it was well worth it (and a great area to go for a walk before or after lunch). Make a rez if you can – there was room for walk ins but a *very* long line that forms about 20 minutes before the restaurant opens.

Our last dinner in Sydney was at Bentley http://www.thebentley.com.au/ But for having dined at Rockpool, we’d be raving about Bentley. It really was great, and if you can’t get into Rockpool, or you’re not quite ready for the considerable tab at Rockpool, Bentley was *very* good and well worth visiting (you can see we’re running out of oomph for details…)

We spent weeks planning our meals in Australia, and booked many of them months in advance, and were able to make some amazing choices all thanks to the Chow community. We hope this is equally helpful to someone else planning to visit this fantastic food-lovers’ destination.

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