It wasn’t my fault. At least, probably not. Back in 2010, when Australian Traveller magazine presented the 100 Greatest Australian Gourmet Experiences, they only listed one Canberra restaurant: Ottoman Cuisine in Barton. I’ve dined there, and while the food was excellent, I didn’t really think it towered over all other Canberra restaurants I’ve visited. Then again, as a vegetarian, I’m somewhat limited in what parts of the menu I can sample. I couldn’t try the Dolma stuffed with salmon and prawn, or the confit of duck with juniper berry. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Australian Traveller also saw the Ottoman as an oasis, dismissing Canberra dining as “for the most part, a barren gourmet scene”. Huh? What of the other most commonly cited best Canberra restaurants, like Chairman & Yip, another fine-dining establishment (though it’s no longer as “cool” as it used to be)? What about Aubergine, Podfood, or the Silo Bakery?
Best Canberra restaurants
That’s where I was of no use whatsoever. As I was their main Canberra-based correspondent, the editor asked me what I could recommend in the region.
As you would know (if you cast your mind back two paragraphs), I’m a vegetarian. While I have no shame about that, I admit that it means I’m not the most qualified food critic.
Little realising that they would denounce Canberra as “a barren gourmet scene”, the only place in the region that came to mind was Grazing, a wonderful establishment in Gundaroo, a country town on the outskirts of Canberra proper, where most ingredients are freshly grown on site. Not just the classic vegetables, but also gems like quince, cavolo nero and stinging nettle (yes – not only a flavouring agent, but also a superfood).
At my recommendation, Grazing made the list (though not as high as Vegemite). Still, I can’t help feeling that I missed an opportunity to push out a few self-important Sydney eateries by mentioning the great Canberra fare. My home city was once reputed to have more restaurants and cafés per head than any other city in the world. (Paris came second.)
It’s a disputed claim – Adelaide and Perth both now claim to have more restaurants per capita than any other Australian city – but there’s no shortage of fine dining.
In 1999, food writer Barbara Santich even wrote a frontpage story about Canberra’s restaurants for the travel section of the New York Times, which led to long-distance reservations at the Chairman & Yip and The Ottoman. Despite this cross-Atlantic endorsement, the other restaurants profiled have since closed. Happily, there are plenty of worthy successors.
Australia has a few must-have dining experiences. For obvious reasons, I have done very few of these. In a few months, however, I’ll be visiting the famous Tetsuya’s in Sydney. It’s the sort of thing you would only do with company, and don’t know enough people who are willing to pay two hundred dollars for lunch.
When I discovered that a few of my friends would like this experience, however, I was happy to join them. While it’s a “degustation” menu (which is French for “you’ll eat what you’re given, chump”), there is a special menu for people like me. (No, I don’t mean malcontents. Vegetarians, I’m saying.)
Also in 2010, when I worked in the trendy Sydney suburb of Balmain, I noticed Adriano Zumbo’s original patisserie on Darling Street. Even though it was around 2:30, this tiny shop still had a crowd outside waiting their turn, like an exclusive London nightclub on a Friday night (except with less ridiculous clothes).
Zumbo is Australia’s most famous pastry chef, thanks largely to a certain television show that I have promised myself never to mention in this blog. Let’s call it SuperCook. Rarely has Australia produced such a gripping, edge-of-seat drama.
Zumbo, you might recall, was the arch-villain of SuperCook. Just as Superman had Lex Luthor, James Bond had Blofeld, and Doctor Who had Davros, the daring heroes of SuperCook (meaning the contestants, not the guy with the cravat) have battled their own evil genius.
He even had the telltale sign of a super-villain: he was completely bald, like those three villains I just mentioned. (Conclusion: Our hair prevents us from turning evil.)
Also like Davros, he would terrify the heroes with his monstrous creations. Davros had the Daleks; Zumbo would enter the kitchen with such beasts as the croquembouche and the macaron tower, saying “One of you pathetic weaklings will not survive this challenge, nyaah-hah-hah-hah-hah!” (Or words to that effect.)
True enough. This guy is so ruthless that he has even eliminated other bald guys with his creations (Tom in the first series; Alvin in the second).
You can tell by the looks on the heroes’ faces that his very name fills them with dread. He has cunningly defeated the “top amateur chefs in Australia” with his V8 cake (“nyah-hahhah- hah!”), left the original winner Julie Goodwin hideously disfigured with his croquembouche (well maybe not, but she had band aids on almost every finger), and even destroyed singer-songwriter Alex Lloyd’s chances on Celebrity Master-, er,Celebrity SuperCook.
Naturally, I’m well aware that most great chefs are evil. I also note that Zumbo (a super-villain name if ever there was one) is ranked even higher than the Ottoman on the Australian Traveller list. So this was my chance to have one of Australia’s great culinary experiences.
But I noticed the queue. I had to have lunch, and much as it was tempting to buy a whole croquembouche and eat it at the desk (distracting the lady next to me from her egg salad sandwiches), I probably couldn’t afford either the cake or the stomach pump. I went and bought myself a six-dollar pad thai instead. It was very nice, thank you.