Impressions from the AGT Restaurant Guide for 2018

Orana – Crab & yoghurt sorbet, codium & sea purslane

My favourite restaurant guide has been released for yet another year. When you narrow down the thousands of restaurants in Australia to a top 100, there are naturally some surprises, but in the end, every single one of those restaurants is a terrific place to have a day or night out.

Getting down to the pointy end is exciting. There are only eight restaurants in the whole of Australia that get three stars. They set themselves apart by doing the basics perfectly, and innovating in a way that is remarkable. They are not always the obvious, but equally, they are certainly not places you stumble over by accident.

Attica – Marron, Lilly Pilly and Pearl

Take Orana in Adelaide. If you were to turn up unannounced one evening and somehow get a table, you would initially be skeptical of the price tag, and then be wondering whether you are on “candid camera” as you open your mouth to allow a spoon of green ants to greet your tastebuds. What about Brae in Birregurra, near Geelong. If you were dropped off outside this homestead and farm, you might be searching for the nearest uber to take you back to civilization.

Cutler & Co – Roast chicken, house ground polenta, baby corn & miso

These are not ordinary, everyday experiences. There is a touch of discomfort. It might be the cost, the reverence, the soft gasps, or the sheer oddity of three star dining. But like most experiences, when you are out of your comfort zone, or at least on the edge of it, the memories are bigger than the moment.

Vue De Monde

When Shannon Bennett says that he wants his customers to have a comforting experience, he doesn’t mean eating meat and three veg in your tracksuit in front of the television. He means he wants the experience to be memorable for different reasons, and for his staff to do everything to make such a potentially awkward meal something to aspire to do again, and to relive in stories for the meantime.

Momofuku – beef, radish, fermented black bean

There are the unassuming places. Momofuku Seiobo looks a bit oddly placed in The Star casino and entertainment complex. The Bridge Room is almost quaint. Attica is in the suburbs. Cutler & Co sounds like a ye olde medicinal shop, placed in one of the quieter parts of Fitzroy. They were not dining destinations before the owners set up shop and created something special.

The Bridge Room – Aerated passionfruit, roasted nougatine, passionfruit ice cream, passionfruit seed powder, glass biscuit

Then there’s Quay. That is the one that stands out because it is entirely appropriate. A restaurant overlooking the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House serving food with Ferrari price tags. The achievement of Peter Gilmore keeping this restaurant at the top of its game is surely not lost when you eat at some of its neighbours.

Brae – Egg yolk, potato and jerusalem artichoke, sauce of comte and vin jaune

It is the first time I’ve been to all eight of the three star restaurants. I believe they all deserve a spot for what they have achieved, and what they are currently doing. I love the fact that really none of the top five have a view (sorry Brae, the farm is actually very serene), and I love the fact that with all of these restaurants while the basics are done very, very well; it is the food that is the reason they are so brilliant.

Well done to Australian Gourmet Traveller on a sensational list. A real statement has been made by putting Orana as number one whether the Sydney and Melbourne dominant audience likes it or not. I have never had a meal like it, and that is what separating yourself is all about.

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Brae – Birregurra, Victoria – Saturday 30 August 2014 – Dinner

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Destination restaurants are special. At times the community creates the restaurant, and vice versa, but the best examples have the two living hand in hand. Birregurra is a town I didn’t know well, but I will be getting to know for years to come thanks to Dan Hunter making it his town.

Dan Hunter didn’t establish Birregurra and he didn’t create the venue where Brae resides. It was previously “Sunnybrae” and I was unfortunate not to eat at this predecessor that had an amazing reputation of its own. However, Dan has, in the space of months, and particularly over the past fortnight, put Birregurra on the map for restaurant lovers both in Victoria, and throughout Australia. I expect he will put it on the world map in the not too distant future.

Radicchio growing in the extensive garden

Radicchio growing in the extensive garden

It is one thing to have a successful destination restaurant in a capital city that requires out-of-towners to fly in for a “must try” experience. It is a further stretch to have a restaurant in a small town, 90 minutes outside of the city. The thing I love about destination dining is the feeling of being away. Even if only for a night you are having a new experience, not only of the restaurant, but of the town the restaurant lives and breathes in. We chose Harvest Birregurra B&B as our accommodation for our Brae experience and Fiona & Steve could not have been more hospitable. We were relaxed well before we ventured to the restaurant in Steve’s “Chariot”.

Egg yolk, potato and jerusalem artichoke, sauce of comte and vin jaune

Egg yolk, potato and jerusalem artichoke, sauce of comte and vin jaune

Dan Hunter knows how to create brilliance to travel for. He was head chef at Mugaritz in San Sebastian which is one of the world’s best restaurants, before creating a destination of his own in Dunkeld at the Royal Mail Hotel. But Brae is special, Brae is his. There is overwhelming expectation created by the CV, and the recent awards Brae has received before it’s first anniversary.

It is easy to forget we are in the country as we step through the doors and into the comforting confines of a fine dining restaurant. For a building looking like a homestead, it is surprisingly sleek and restrained inside. The tables are well spaced, and the kitchen is in the spotlight, many of the tables facing the bright lights like it is the stage in a theatre.

There are many floorstaff and many chefs. On the floor there is a certain hum, it is smooth, and everyone is doing their job in an orderly fashion, but it is not stuffy. In fact, small delays and mistakes are made, but they are not worth noting. There is an assuredness in the service, but it is like the first quarter of a footy game – everyone knows their job, and is doing it well, but the team is not quite perfectly gelling – though it is not far from it.

The degustation consists of eight tastes to begin, five savoury courses, and two dessert courses. There are many influences, so many influences the cuisine can only be described as modern. The one dominant influence is the restaurant garden out the front as you drive in, which is rich in the freshest seasonal produce imaginable; the envy of city chefs. Most ingredients are sourced locally, including many of the wines in the optional matching.

Iced oyster Beef tendon and mountain pepper Globe artichoke Radish and fermented cream

Iced oyster
Beef tendon and mountain pepper
Globe artichoke
Radish and fermented cream

Of the eight tastes, there are several that are outstanding. At the top is the “iced oyster”. There is no oyster at all. It is the essence of the oyster in a delicious sweet and salty ice cream served in the shell. Then the “beef tendon and mountain pepper” looks like a glorified prawn cracker. The gelatinous tendon must be dehydrated, and perhaps stretched, to achieve both an inviting texture, and a decadent richness. The prawn heads are served quite crisp and you are encouraged to eat the entire head, which is both flavoursome and a little disconcerting at the same time. If it wasn’t for friends, who I’ve seen devouring large prawn heads many times, I would have opted out! Other tastes featuring globe artichokes, radishes, and turnips, presumably straight from the garden, are excellent too.

Hapuku just cured with orange, celeriac, pickles

Hapuku just cured with orange, celeriac, pickles

The Hapuku fish is lightly cured with citrus and stands out even though delicate. It is beautiful from a textural perspective, the dressing glossing over the plate, and featuring varied herbs including Vietnamese mint, elk and lemongrass. Tiny pickled vegetables add some crunch into a genre of dish that is becoming a modern classic. In the next dish, warm ricotta again is the focus, covered in ground winter truffle, and incredibly presented with nettles and brassicas (mustardy cabbage) standing through the cheese.

Warm ricotta and nettle, winter truffle and brassicas

Warm ricotta and nettle, winter truffle and brassicas

Another modern classic is any dish featuring egg yolk. There are so many variants on this theme that it needs to be amazing, otherwise it is passé. Dan Hunter’s version is restrained for such a typically rich dish, and the dried jerusalem artichokes, and soft flavoursome potatoes, enhanced by the comte and vin jaune sauce, are definitely amazing together. The raw wallaby, in an array of spices, is covered in radicchio that has been soaked in maple syrup and charred. The charred beetroot it is served with is utterly superb. The two tie each other together in one of the best dishes I’ve eaten. Yes, it is raw wallaby and that is confronting in more than one way, but this is culinary genius. It is building on a foundation of two ingredients that work together, and launching it to out of space.

Raw wallaby, wattle and lemon myrtle, charred beetroot and radicchio

Raw wallaby, wattle and lemon myrtle, charred beetroot and radicchio

After the wallaby, it is hard to impress any more, but the Wessex saddleback pork is strong and flavoursome all the same. The meat is cooked so perfectly there has to be some science involved. There are so many techniques and such inspired cooking throughout the savoury courses that you are left wondering how the food could be topped by dessert. We were soon to find out.

We wouldn’t normally choose the wine matching. In multiple course degustations it is definitely a good idea, but getting the volume right is difficult and we were convinced some time ago that matching a glass to every couple of dishes can work better on occasion. Tonight, we were convinced otherwise and we appreciate the sommelier’s suggestion which he equated to four glasses of wine. The absolute highlight was the 2011 By Farr “Sangreal” Pinot Noir from nearby Geelong which was matched to the saddleback. The depth of the pinot is exceptional, with a great mouthfeel that lingers like the warm sunny day we’d just experienced. I thought the other highlight, amongst many other great matches, was the 2013 The Story “Westgate Vineyard” Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier from the Grampians. The perfect foil for the egg yolk, delivering savoury richness and balance.

Quince simmered with onions, honey, cultured milk

Quince simmered with onions, honey, cultured milk

When all you know of a dessert is “quince simmered with onions, honey, cultured milk” you could be led to believe you are about to eat another savoury course. However, the waitstaff put this impression to bed when they informed us the saddleback was the last of the savoury courses. So what we discovered with mouthwatering bite after bite is an intriguing dish, luckily not tasting of the onions the quince are poached in, but in perfect balance both in taste and texture. The slightly sweetened cultured milk has little pieces of honeycomb below it providing a crunchy burst of sweetness of its own. There are two strips of citrus peel providing a bitter note, with the divine honey bringing the dish together. It is one of those times where you don’t need to combine all five elements, but when you do you are rewarded.

Parsnip and apple

Parsnip and apple

Our next dessert is a signature of Dan Hunter. It has a high visual impact when brought to the table with the largest parsnip crisp you have ever seen protruding from the plate like a dosa in Southern India. On the parsnip is delicious shaved apple that enlivens the palate. Underneath, resembling a log, apple features in a mousse-like texture, and dehydrated apple, with skin on, is scattered over the plate. It is incredibly flavoursome, and incredibly fun. You end up breaking off pieces of the parsnip, scooping up some mousse, adding a bit of apple, and enjoying a taste sensation! It is hard to do any justice to the amount of imagination and technique this dish would require and it wouldn’t be out of place in any of the world’s best restaurants but feels completely at home in Birregurra.

For a destination restaurant to work it has to have something special, and it relies on the community to add a further intangible quality to the experience. Birregurra is used to having a great restaurant to call it’s own, and Brae seems to have captured the imagination of this community and given them another aspect of their town to be very proud about. Dan Hunter has made a good decision to move here, and I’m positive Birregurra is the envy of towns across Victoria and throughout the world.

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Harvest Birregurra B&B – Birregurra, Victoria – Sunday 31 August 2014 – Breakfast

IMG_2506Bed & Breakfast conjures up feelings of utter satisfaction. They are informal, comfortable places, with locals showing you their hospitality, not to mention cooking you breakfast in the morning!

Harvest Birregurra is about as comfortable as it gets. With only two rooms available the service from Fiona and Steve is assured to be personal. We stayed in the “Ballroom” which appears to be the superior of the two rooms. More importantly, we opted to have the hot breakfast in the morning for a very cheap additional charge.

With only two couples to cater for, often having been to Brae the evening before, Fiona was happy to serve breakfast after a sleep in. What we didn’t realise was the variety of foods available for breakfast with fresh fruits, yoghurt with almonds, poached pears with walnuts, homemade passionfruit curd, local marmalade, rye bread, cereals and incredibly tasty crepes with creme anglaise and strawberries!
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For our hots, I selected the eggs option (poached, scrambled or fried) which comes with all the trimmings – delicious sausage, bacon, asparagus from the garden, tomatoes, mushrooms, beetroot, and the rye – are all accounted for. It was the quality of a good cafe. Catherine had the omelette with smoked salmon that was huge considering all the other food being served. The smoked salmon was excellent, soaked in strawberry vinegar that “Shannon Bennett monopolises” and with some of the fresh asparagus from the garden. The omelette was filled with goats cheese and was perfectly prepared.

I think it may have been the most I’ve eaten at breakfast for the year! It was served along with good quality espresso. We were in bed & breakfast heaven! If it was open to those not spending the night it would be very popular.

Harvest is a great place to stay and the breakfast is equally as good. Just make sure you select the hot breakfast!

Impressions of the 2015 guides – The Age Good Food Guide and the Australian Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Guide

I am excited. I have been excited for some time having booked at Brae close to five months ago. But now I am heading to The Age Good Food Guide restaurant of the year and on the first Saturday after it has been crowned!

Momofuku's xo, diakon, tripe

Momofuku’s xo, diakon, tripe

It’s a bit of good luck and good planning. There is a lot of ill feeling towards food guides in general, but they are all too often misunderstood. Basically, it gives the publisher a once-a-year opportunity for their publication to be more broadly and generically publicised. It is great for the restaurants who get awards and/or acclaim (hats in the GFG and stars for AGT) and it does help grow their business and the industry, but they completely understand that you need a bit of good luck on top of great execution and a special difference to get an award. It is not scientific, and it is extremely subjective. Like so many artistic awards, if you are towards the top of the tree, you are successful in your own right, and the recognition is a little bit of cream, rather than the objective.

Lake House's Moreton Bay bug ravioli, kim chi, dashi

Lake House’s Moreton Bay bug ravioli, kim chi, dashi

There are thousands of restaurants. To all of those who say guides are irrelevant, I say if you can get a hat or a star, then you are worth trying out. There is no possible way any one person can attempt to try every restaurant in a city (let alone Australia) in the space of a year, so consistency is impossible. However, if several experienced diners have been to the same restaurant, and all have enjoyed their experience and rate the restaurant close to the top of their list, then that is compelling to me. Taking that into account is more important than arguing why one restaurant in the Australian Gourmet Traveller Top 100 is higher than another; as this is not going to bear any fruit whatsoever.

Supernormal's New England lobster Roll

Supernormal’s New England lobster Roll

For any time starved person, whether it be work or family or other pursuits, using a guide is a savvy way to have more positive than negative experiences in restaurants. While guides like AGT are like my bible, it is not a blind following. There are restaurants that are going to be more suitable, more comfortable, more confronting, and more expensive, than the next. You still need to be picky, and match the destination with the company,and with the occasion. That being said, I have rarely been to two and three hatted/starred restaurants and had a mediocre experience.

Cutler & Co's heirloom tomato salad, smoked buffalo ricotta, filo pastry

Cutler & Co’s heirloom tomato salad, smoked buffalo ricotta, filo pastry

I’m pleased the GFG chose Supernormal, which I reviewed recently, as the new restaurant of the year. I love Andrew McConnell’s diversity and the child of Golden Fields is a fantastic place to dine. I’m also pleased that Attica won the AGT restaurant of the year which has been dominated by Sydney over the past decade. I can understand why Rockpool, Momofuku Seiobo (see my recent review), and Quay round out the top four and hopefully my experience at Brae this weekend will measure up to its award as AGT regional restaurant of the year, and fifth in Australia. It is fantastic to see Cutler & Co also make the top ten in seventh (see my recent review). With Attica, Flower Drum, Vue de Monde, and Brae all receiving three hats in the Victorian GFG there is mainly consistency with AGT.

Momofuku's almond, peach, thyme

Momofuku’s almond, peach, thyme

If you were to dine out at restaurants like these every day you would be quickly going broke. We need some diversity in our dining experiences and a quick look at the AGT Top 100 and the hatted restaurants in the GFG provide an excellent array of styles and cuisines. There is traditional and contemporary, expensive and reasonable, formal and informal, institutional and new. It’s exciting seeing the number of restaurants breaking new ground all around Australia and around Victoria.

The growth of the restaurant industry must present a daunting task for the various judges of these guides. The reward for the publisher comes in being able to promote to a broad audience the places that are worth some effort to try, whether it be to get a booking, to drive or fly, or simply wait in line. I applaud those who contribute to these guides, and look forward to ongoing debates about the relevance and accuracy of the guides.