Noma’s Executive Chef, Rene Redzepi, recently contacted his peer at Orana, Jock Zonfrillo, to discuss Jock’s take on “Australian” cuisine. It is fitting that I was reading about this on the way to Adelaide, and our eventual date with Orana. It must be quite an honour considering Orana is undoubtedly taking more than a pinch of inspiration from what Noma is doing with Nordic ingredients.
When I am going to a new restaurant I rarely read any reviews, or even look at the menu, because the less expectation, the better. However, whilst doing preliminary research, and making a booking, there is still a certain amount of information you take in, as well as when speaking to others about your future visits. At one Adelaide Hill’s winery, the owner mentioned that some people try thirty new ingredients when dining at Orana. I found that incredibly exciting.
Orana is not the only restaurant in Adelaide making huge waves. It is located around the corner from another trendsetter in Africolo, and there are a host of other new names. Upstairs from popular sister eatery, Street ADL, the space is in a word, tiny. Small enough that Catherine and I counted twenty-six chairs, nicely spaced, facing the middle of the room, and the largest table of six. Oddly, everyone facing inwards towards one table seems to work out, especially given there is no decent view outside. The space is simply furnished with some smart fittings that are both stylish and noise reducing. The tables are also simply adorned, making room for some artistic decanters later on.
Once seated we are given an explanation of the tasting menu to come. Amazingly we are told we will start with fifteen “snacks”, before going on to four savoury mains, and then dessert, which again includes several snacks. One thing I did research, but can’t remember being specifically told, is the price of the tasting menu ($175). Equally, when asked about whether we wanted to take the option of matching wines, the price ($120) does not come up. This happened at Vue de Monde too, but I’d prefer to know or at least be given an overview when booking (which was on Dimmi) or when the restaurant confirms. All the same, we are eager to get into the food and with a couple of small requests for change on the wine matching, which the sommerlier agrees to, we decide on the wine matching too.
The snacks are brought out by head chef, Shannon Flemming, in what is a trend for the rest of the evening. I like the chefs having an opportunity to present their dish to you, and explain what ingredients are used, along with any story about the creation of the dish. For the first snack, damper, Shannon asks us to grab the tongs and turn it over in the hot coals that have been placed on the table. In one minute we can grab the damper off the hot coals and dip in the lamb butter to begin an evening of gorgeous combinations of local and Australian ingredients; invention abounding, and discovery similar to the road trip we have enjoyed from Melbourne via Mildura.
Without detailing each and every snack, which could go on for pages, I’d like to focus on a few of the new ingredients we tried, and some of the more inventive, or delicious bites we tried. It’s hard not to first mention the Alexander palm heart with native honey and green ants which I enjoyed two serves of! The ants are clearly sitting atop the delicately chopped palm heart and my curiosity needs to try one on their own. Surprisingly, they taste of fruit, berry like, with a burst of flavour as you crunch into them. The small spoonful of a dish works as a combination, purposely quite sweet to provide balance to the other savoury bites.
The red dust of the Davidson plum on the barely cooked prawns is spicy. The absolutely beautiful emu is gently seared with wild plum inside oozing out in your single bite. The lamb in kohlrabi is bursting in flavour. The macadamia cream drunk from a cup is a pure expression of the impeccable nut from Queensland. Never off the menu to date, the thinly sliced pumpkin again demonstrates the ability of the chefs to harness and accentuate a single ingredient.
One of my favourite snacks was towards then end where the last few were slightly larger. The crab and yoghurt sorbet is creamy and slightly sweet, on a bed of codium and sea purslane, which both are found in or near the sea. Reminiscent of the oyster ice cream at Brae, you will see sorbets and ice creams of seafood more and more, because somehow it just works.
Settling into the main dishes, a spelt dish starts us off. It is soft and generous, but not as exciting as the other mains. Next we have the first of three impeccable savoury courses. The kangaroo is encased in thinly sliced beetroot, along with many other accompanying ingredients including grasses and wild garlic. The roo itself is softly cooked, separated into bite sized tastes, almost pulled, and just tastes amazing. Whether combined with the other ingredients or on its own, it is beautiful, which is not easy to do with kangaroo.
The fish course is one of Catherine’s favourites. Mullet is again lightly touched, showing off its unctuous goodness. It comes with an ingredient we only first tried two nights back at Penfolds Magill Estate where several of the staff here have worked. The ice plant is a succulent used here that you will see more in mainstream restaurants in years to come because it has an inviting but unique flavour.
My favourite dish of the night is the Angus beef, served aside ox tongue. When combined with the caramelised leaks, and soft smoked potato, it has nothing of the flavour you would expect from what is often just another meat dish at the end of a tasting to make sure you are full and satisfied. This is a very adult version. Strong flavours in balance, to be eaten in small bites and not devoured.
Each dish was well explained by the chefs or floor staff who were serving us, and service was the highest quality, balancing attentiveness with absence for conversation. The sommelier did a terrific job too. We had started with a versatile blanc de blancs from Champagne producer Jose Dhondt (topped up without our beckoning by the sommelier to see us through the fifteen snacks), and went on to a 2012 Chablis by Patrick Piuze (as requested) with the spelt. The kangaroo was theatrically presented inside a large bowled Riedel glass which was full of smoke. Once lifted and wafted in your direction, the glass is filled with a local South Australian Amber Ale beer by Robe Town. Not a huge beer fan, Catherine requested a wine to be matched instead and got to try a great red from producer “Head”.
With the oily Mullet fish, we tried an equally inventive wine. Oddly Cabernet Sauvignon from the Adelaide Hills is combined with Sauvignon Blanc and Petit Verdot from the same block in an experimental vineyard. While the team at Domaine Lucci understand there is more Cab Sav in the blend, the actual proportions are not known as all the grapes are combined in the winemaking process. The result is offputtingly delicious for a traditionalist like myself, and the combination with the fish is superb. More traditional but equally delicious, the SOS 2014 Sangiovese from the Yarra Valley finished our savoury courses off, combining gracefully with the beef.
Going into our dessert snacks the Australian theme did not subside at all. We tried marshmallows tasting of bush lemon and dusted with mountain berries. Cinnamon jam doughnuts featured too, only the jam was made from riberry bush berries, and pocky sticks came in flavours of dark chocolate with local porcini mushrooms, white chocolate with quandong, and Spruce pine. To match we had a glass of Joseph Riesling Traminer by Primo Estate which is a Botrytis dessert wine that I’ve liked for many years.
The first of our main desserts is Davidson plum molasses over Bunya tubers in the form of ice cream. It is the sweeter of the two desserts and is followed by the only other dish besides the pumpkin that has stayed the distance on the menu (though I did suggest they might want to think about keeping the beef on!) It is not overly sweet, and is one of those dishes that works far better in combination than tasting the ingredients separately. Set buttermilk is surrounded by a strawberry juice with eucalyptus oils dispersed. It seems simple but it isn’t.
Even the petit four with our tea and coffee was imaginative, looking like a normal chocolate truffle, but tasting just like your classic chocolate crackle from the local bake stall at the fete!
We had an extraordinary time at Orana. With ingredients coming from far and wide, across our beautiful country, many of them indigenous to Australia, it was a journey. The floorstaff and chefs guided us with care and humour through the experience, and I can see why Rene Redzepi is taking lessons from Jock on his venture into what is Australian. Orana is Adelaide’s dining Fringe Festival, and it promises to be just as successful.