Dining Down Under


Chef John Placko recounts his culinary journey to Australia

Australia’s culinary scene has changed dramatically since I left for Canada in 1995. Although I’ve been back many times, it was a recent trip that changed my perspective. The country’s restaurants offer a unique niche in world-class dining that attracts culinary celebrities.

On my latest visit home I ate at amazing restaurants, namely Bentley, Aria, Sepia and the first international outpost for David Chang at Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney’s Star Casino. Beyond the incredible meals at these restaurants, the experiences reminded me of the tasting menus I enjoyed at Quay and Marque in Sydney last year — restaurants, which rank 26th and 70th, respectively, on San Pellegrino’s 2011 list of The World’s Best Restaurants.


Surry Hills, New South Wales

My lunch at Bentley was a pleasant surprise. Chef Brent Savage, and award-winning sommelier Nick Hildebrandt, opened Bentley Restaurant & Bar in 2006, and it has since been recognized by The Sydney Morning Herald as one of the most dynamic eating and drinking experiences in the country. Savage’s cookbook, Bentley Contemporary Cuisine, is another gem; it’s simply beautiful and holds a special place on my shelf with its distinctive black pages and stunning photography.

In 2010 Bentley won the Australian Gourmet Pages’ Restaurant of the Year Award, so it made sense to have lunch at the restaurant with the owner of Australian Gourmet Pages, Franz Scheurer. Franz wears many hats, working as the editor/owner Australian Gourmet Pages and spirits editor of the Australian Gourmet Traveller wine magazine to name a few of his jobs. He’s also an avid photographer and musician, but it was his passion and knowledge of food that impressed me.

Our tasting menu at Bentley was eight courses of bliss. Meticulous plating and incredible contrasting textures were complemented by the most important part of the dish — the taste. The flavour combinations of pork cheek, calamari, fennel and jamon gel were surprisingly complimentary. The finale, a dessert of sorrel sorbet, geranium, peach and freeze-dried raspberry was heavenly. Other dishes that were near perfection were the appetizer of duck liver foie-gras parfait with pickled carrot and cocoa bread crisps; the main course of King fish with smoked mulloway roe, juniper, kale, charred spring onion and baked potato broth; and a dessert of compressed peach parfait, sesame meringue, nougat and roasted-apricot sorbet.

Wow. That’s Momofuku. Although the location within the Star Casino isn’t the best, my impression changed upon entering the restaurant and tasting the food; you get lost in the perfection. The dishes and juice pairing reminded me of my lunch at the Award-winning Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark. The Mud brand handmade plates, tempered with Earth tones and a classic shape in a small studio outside of Sydney, were impressive. Of course, the food itself was interesting, too. The final chapter of the 15-course tasting menu was most unusual — it was slow-cooked pork shoulder with brown-sugar glaze. My dinner companions couldn’t manage this final dish after the dessert of white peach, pistachio and rose meringue followed by cherries with miso ice cream and black sesame crumble. I can’t blame them; I rarely eat a savoury dish after dessert, but this was the exception.

And, Momofuku’s David Chang may soon have some competition from another famous chef, with rumours circulating that Heston Blumenthal is planning to open an Australian restaurant. This comes after news that Blumenthal won a court battle against Sydney’s Fat Duck rotisserie kitchen. The Sydney restaurant has been forced to change its name, which is similar to the high-profile chef’s Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, U.K. Interestingly, Guelph Ont., also has a Fat Duck gastro pub. I wonder whether the owners will be forced to change its name, too?


Sydney, New South Wales

I met chef Martin Benn while dining at Sydney’s Sepia restaurant; he was awarded Chef of the Year in The Sydney Morning Herald “Good Food Guide 2011,” and is known for his innovative elegant dishes. The restaurant opened in May 2009, boasting a unique take on contemporary Australian cuisine sourced from local produce with inspiration from Japan and a focus on texture and contrast rather than taste. My favourite dish was the Japanese stones; they take two days to make, but it’s worth it. What you get is Yuzu jelly topped with black cocoa-butter-coated stones with various soft jellies (cherry, coconut and chocolate) made with liquid nitrogen and sprinkled with mint, green tea moss and black sesame.


Sydney, New South Wales

If it’s a great view you enjoy, chef Matt Moran’s classy restaurant, Aria, overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House, provides one of the best. But, his resto is not just about the view, the seven-course tasting menu features dishes plated with style and precision, including my favourite: Kurobuta pork belly with pork croquette and caramelized apple. The view, food and impeccable service are a draw, but it doesn’t hurt that Matt is a well-known chef in Australia. I had to buy his latest cookbook Dinner at Matt’s; it’s filled with impressive food shots and wrapped in a wood-panelled cover. It’s a must-see and must-read.

Meeting of the Minds

Crave, Sydney’s International Food Festival, attracted big names in October. South America’s Alex Atala attended the Festival. He uses indigenous produce at his Brazilian restaurant D.O.M., which ranks 7th on San Pellegrino’s 2011 World’s Best Restaurants list. Other notable chefs at the show included David Chang (Momofuku), Dan Hunter (formerly of Mugaritz), Matt Moran (Aria), Mark Best (Marque) and Ben Shewry (Attica).

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