In a special new series, top industry names give us first-hand accounts of their travels. We begin with Stuart Gillies, head chef at Boxwood Café, London, on the Sydney and Melbourne restaurant scene.
Over the past year, I've been lucky enough to travel to Los Angeles, New York, Sydney and Melbourne for a variety of business-related jobs, from cooking at live shows with Gordon Ramsay to looking at company developments.
The beauty of today's world for chefs and restaurateurs is that you can see and indulge in so much of what is going on globally in the food industry. The experience constantly surprises me - some places are good, some bad, some amazing and some shocking - but it always keeps me and my team at Boxwood Café alert and excited.
Australia is such a long way away, it's easy to ignore what they're doing there, but there is a huge amount of talent.
Starting with Sydney, my favourite restaurant is still Icebergs, owned by Australian restaurateur Maurice Terzini. It has stunning views over Bondi Beach and offers inventive, light and clean cooking, with a relaxed and friendly service. Standout dishes were the crab and soft polenta and the Flinders Island salt-crusted suckling lamb.
We also had an amazing meal at Quay, which was up to its fine-dining best. Peter Gilmore is one of many chefs using slow-cooking techniques very successfully. His imagination for great presentation culminated in a dish of "sea pearls" - six perfectly spherical balls of tuna, caviar and brandade, scallop, smoked eel, crab and abalone, which looked like an eyeball but tasted divine.
Another stand-out dish was the poached fillet of rose veal with nuts, grains, seeds and funghi. The veal was fantastically slow-cooked, so it was just like butter. All this with a view of the Sydney Opera House only matched by Matt Moran's Aria.
Matt Moran actually took us for lunch to the Establishment sushi bar, Sushi-e, for an amazing selection of dishes, including some of the new-style warm sushi that is popping up at certain Japanese restaurants. It uses a traditional sushi format, which they heat with a blowtorch before serving to help the fats from the fish melt in your mouth. It does change the flavour, for sure, making it slightly stronger, and gives it an almost creamy texture. Quite unusual when you're expecting the normal sushi taste.
Staying with Asian style, which Australia does fantastically well, we ate at a long-standing favourite, Longrain. Chef-owner Martin Boetz, the critically acclaimed protégé of David Thompson, chose us a menu of the most popular dishes and every one was fantastic, including caramelised pork hock with five spice and chilli vinegar, crisp fried soft shell crab, betel leaf and smoked trout with galangal and the Longrain signature dish "Eggnet" with pork, prawn, mud crab, beansprouts and sweet vinegar. This was the highlight of the night. The plate is placed ceremoniously on the table to share. Covering the dish is a dome of egg lattice, which looks so incredible everyone just stares at it in wonder. Hilarious and great theatre.
Sydney Opera House
The night before, I tried Golden Century, recommended by Pied à Terre co-owner and head chef Shane Osborn. It's a traditional late night, busy Chinese like so many, serving good food, but the difference here is that the fish and shellfish are kept in live tanks along one wall of the restaurant. So, you choose your mud crab, rock lobster, king crab or snapper from a tank, they bag it up, weigh it and bring it to you to check the quality and price… still alive. How good is that? Then into the kitchen for the chef to cook your mud crab with XO sauce - fresh as can be!
It's probably the best thing I've ever eaten in a Chinese restaurant, which is saying something considering how often I frequent the brilliant Yuatcha or Hakkasan in London.
Legendary Australian cook and restaurateur Neil Perry is back at the top of his game with the enormous and stunning Rockpool bar and grill in Hunter Street. Its atmosphere is like the Wolseley in London but the menu focuses on wood-burning grill options and has a large selection of Asian tapas starters too.
Everything was delicious both here and at the Melbourne Rockpool grill but what really stood out was the selection and quality of steaks from Australia and the USA. Grass-fed cattle, grain-fed cattle, on the bone, off the bone - every choice was catered for. Top of the list, however, was the grade six wagyu rib-eye. Wagyu is graded on fat content up to a maximum of 10-12 for incredibly well-marbled meat. We don't use much wagyu and Kobe beef in the UK as we don't produce it here, but in Australia they rear a huge amount, so it's very common.
The locals claim Melbourne is the real foodie capital of Australia, as a more refined and European crowd lives there. I don't know if that's the case but it's a beautiful city, with a great running circuit around the botanical gardens.
The restaurant scene certainly has as many choices as Sydney and top of the list is Vue du Monde. Chef-owner Shannon Bennet runs a well-oiled restaurant with many unique creative touches, including a "cigar of foie gras" which looks exactly like a cigar, and great theatre with the "five-minute boullion of ginger, fennel and lime" with, unfortunately, bluefin tuna.
On to Press Club, the modern Greek restaurant run by George Calombaris on the site of a former newspaper printing floor. Two of the stand-out dishes were the kleftiko of duck and quince with village bread in horiatiki and the braised lamb neck with yogurt, honey and coffee soil. One of the biggest surprises is the clever twists he puts on Greek cooking.
At the Crown Casino complex in the centre of town, where Maze will open next March, is a selection of some of Melbourne's finest restaurants, from Nobu and Guillame to Rockpool and Gas. Guillame serves a good selection of rustic French classics, with the pommes dauphinoise being particularly good.
Across town is a new addition to the Melbourne scene with Andrew McConnell's opening of Cutler & Co, a bar-restaurant serving very un-bar style food. Clever slow-cooking sous vide techniques are evident everywhere, incorporated in some classic dishes like salad landaise, a French brasserie stalwart, but adapted very cleverly for a modern audience. Other knock-out dishes included the Yarra Valley barbecued quail with caramelised figs and the truffled pecorino and ricotta tart with confit of onions and fried zucchini flowers.
We had a quick lunch at Ginger Boy in the downtown area, which served great Asian creations and a modern adaptation of hawker-style Asian market street food. The restaurant is very Hong Kong glamour in style, with its glowing neon lights making the ceiling look like a galaxy of stars. But the food is outstanding and it has a great following in Melbourne.
We followed this with snacks at Pearl. We came here by chance but had some really inventive and delicious dishes created by chef Geoff Lindsay. He has developed a clever menu combining quality local ingredients with an Asian or Mediterranean twist to create a truly modern Australian dining experience, which completely spoilt our dinner appetite. But for the sake of research we carried on, martyrs to the cause of hospitality! If you make it to any of these great places, say "hello" from me. I'll be back one day soon, hopefully.
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