On a recent culinary press trip to Australia, I dug into the exciting food scene in Brisbane, and farm-to-table bush tucker on the Queensland coast, a surfer’s paradise and diner's delight.
Juicy pearls of Australian pink finger lime, atop the barramundi cured with green ant gin and served with sweet, tender sea succulents, at Wasabi restaurant in Noosa Heads, Sunshine Coast.
By CINDA CHAVICH
(QUEENSLAND, Australia) - Australia’s aboriginal people have a tradition of walking the landscape – hunting, foraging and preserving this vast country’s native foods, from the dry desserts, lush rainforests and surrounding seas.
Today, we’re tasting some of that local bounty with Aboriginal elder Lyndon Davis and forager Peter Hardwick, along with the chefs at Wasabi restaurant in Noosa Heads. After a traditional greeting in his Gabi Gabi language, Davis explains the deep connection Australia’s first people have to indigenous ingredients.
“I am a descendant of traditional custodians and our heritage is to be caretakers of this place,” he told our group of visiting food experts. “We learn to hunt and gather in the right places, and in the right seasons, looking after the smallest to the largest insects and animals.”
Today’s lunch, created by chefs Alastair Waddell and Zeb Gilbert, marries those local traditions with a modern farm-to-table ethos and Japanese aesthetic. Restaurant owner Danielle Gjestland describes her commitment to all things local - like the native bee “sugarbag” honey from her own farm that’s drizzled over a sliver of Llangothin goose breast, or the juicy pearls of Australian pink finger lime, atop the barramundi cured with green ant gin and served with sweet, tender sea succu
It’s just one of the revelations on our “walkabout” across the state of Queensland, once known for primarily it’s broad surfing beaches, rugged ranchland and coal mining, but now emerging as a top destination for food lovers.
Noosa is a laid-back beach town, a “protected biosphere” where the tangled rainforest hugs the shoreline and surfers crowd the frothy breaks in the turquoise blue Pacific.
I’ve walked down from my comfortable condo hotel to the boardwalk that stretches from the coffee and gelato shops, boutiques and bars along the main shopping street, out into the Noosa National Park, in search of koalas. While that iconic animal remains elusive, there are other sights, sounds and flavours to explore, including good coffee and toasted banana bread at the park office/café.
Noosa is a busy surf town, within a protected rain forest biosphere on the Sunshine Coast in Australia.
I follow the advice on park interpretive panels to “exercise your senses - look, feel listen and imagine – as you stroll along the walking tracks.” I scan the towering rainforest canopy as noisy pittas swoop among knotty vines, admire the views from rocky cliffs, and silently thank the people who lobbied to preserve this spectacular wild headland from development.
That outdoorsy vibe runs deep in this section of the Sunshine Coast, a place popular with families and retirees alike, and where strolling, cycling, paddle boarding and surfing are the preferred modes of transport.
It’s on the plate, too – native rainforest fruits like Davidson (Ooray) plums, lilly pilly berries and tamarind, tropical spanner crabs, pearl perch and Moreton Bay bugs.
Dinner aboard the M.V. Catalina is a private floating party, with fine Australian wine and coastal cuisine. Tonight celebrity chef Matt Sinclair is cooking specialties from his new Sum Yung Guys, a casual spot (just up the coast in Sunshine Beach) that’s making waves with its locally and southeast Asian-inspired menu.
Sinclair is here for the annual Noosa Eat & Drink Festival, one of the country’s premier food events. Like many young chefs, he’s left the big city for the coastal lifestyle.
“Chefs who have young families have had a big influence on the emerging food culture in Queensland,” he tells me. “The Sunshine Coast is not the hustle and bustle of the city but it’s the whole package – people are food obsessed up here and the spotlight is starting to shift away from the larger centres.”
Access to fresh, seasonal ingredients is exceptional here, too, he explains, delivering a grilled “toastie” starter filled with creamy spanner crab salad, scented with locally-grown lemon grass, green chili and kaffir lime. A charred kabob of organic Australian Kobe beef short rib with sesame cream and roasted rice follows, and the inspired fusion continues with lightly smoked Mooloolaba mackerel topped with cherry tomatoes and Thai basil in a creamy red curry sauce. A crispy piece of ghee-fried roti – “a flagship at the restaurant” – makes the perfect foil for Sinclair’s food that’s inspired, like much in OZ, by the cuisines of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan.
Lightly smoked Mooloolaba mackerel topped with cherry tomatoes and Thai basil in a creamy red curry sauce
The M.V. Catalina has been plying these coastal waters for 30 years but, thanks to a recent overhaul, now has two stylish decks to enjoy drinks and dinner while cruising Noosa’s calm river estuaries. Tim Norris, one of the boat’s new owners, says it was re-launched in January 2019 as a floating event space for weddings, parties and special dinners.
It also has a well-stocked bar – a feature is their bespoke Catalina gin, created by Australia’s Applewood craft distillery, featuring local botanicals including juniper, mango, coconut and Australian cut leaf mint.
It’s all part of the culinary scene on the Sunshine Coast. From new breweries, cafes and beautiful bread shops to beautiful beachfront restaurants, like the top-rated Wasabi, Noosa is one of the country’s hottest food destinations.
PADDOCK TO PLATE
Head inland from the coast and you’ll find Australia’s “hinterland” – an agricultural area dotted with dairies and cattle ranches, fruit, nut and vegetable farms, country inns and destination dining.
From Noosa, we drive west, through steep forested hills and deep valleys to the source of this part of Queensland’s seasonal pantry.
Lunch at Hinterland Feijoas includes this unique tropical fruit melting into a tender braise of local pork with fennel, and a dessert featuring layers of hazelnut meringues and seasonal fruits. At The Falls Farm, Melbourne star chef Matt Wilkinson, walks us through some of his favourite local ingredients, from tiny wild bananas, yuzu and finger limes, to red okra, creamy Japanese turnips, heirloom carrots, tiny Thai pea eggplant and giant watermelon radishes.
“You can wrap a whole pig in banana leaves, finger limes are wonderful in sorbets or G&Ts, and these Hakuri turnips are beautiful just lightly sautéed in foaming butter,” says Wilkinson as we traverse the lush garden, nibbling a variety of unusual plants. “Sorrel is the perfect partner to any fish dish –we serve native worrigal greens (New Zealand spinach) with skate and lots of butter.”
This park-like market garden supplies chefs throughout the region, a joy says Christine Ballinger, the green thumb who runs the farm with Val Huddart and her husband Peter, and their children, catering to the whims of Queensland’s top culinary creatives. Beyond heirloom vegetables and tropical fruits, there are wild flavours – rosella for jams, tamarind and mountain pepper.
“Bang Bang took these, sliced them paper thin with a mandoline, then candied in a sugar confit,” says Ballinger, brandishing a gnarly Buddha’s hand lemon, with it’s yellow skin and twisted “fingers”. She grows several varieties of sorrel, riberry, native hibiscus and supplies “every part of the plant” to chefs embracing the root-to-shoot ethos.
The farm, surrounded by the shadowy stands of towering gum trees, borders a national park filled with native birds which Peter says are the biggest challenge to their 34-acre organic farm, but also a beautiful blessing. It’s hard to imagine the rolling gardens were once a mass of invasive weeds that took 18 months to clear before the property was planted.
Like many Australian chefs, Wilkinson comes to Noosa to celebrate local food at the annual food and wine festival – this year hosting the Gin Pig event, featuring pork that has been fed from the leftover botanicals from Australia’s Four Pillars Gin. His “gin pig” sausage roll features gin butter puff pastry, freeze-dried gin vinegar, and a sauce made with Japanese Kazume red apple, another Four Pillars product.
When he’s not celebrating the food of Queensland, Wilkinson is overseeing his Melbourne-based food empire, from his famed Pope Joan restaurant to The Pie Shop (featuring savoury pies like his #1 selling wallaby, black pepper and cheese pie), to his food writing and award-winning cookbooks focused on his vegetable-forward cuisine.
Our paddock-to-plate explorations continue in the high country just beyond Brisbane where a helicopter drops us at Spicers Hidden Vale, a luxury camp resort set in 12,000 acres of Australian bush in a former working cattle station, just a one-hour drive by car to Brisbane.
Though the historic ranch house had burned in a recent fire when I was there (and was being rebuilt), the chefs had regrouped to create their hyper-local Homage Restaurant, with it’s kitchen gardens and massive wood-fired grills, with service outdoors and in a collection of rustic outbuildings.
The Lockyer Valley boasts some of the most fertile soils in the southern hemisphere and is dubbed “Australia’s salad bowl”, and with their own livestock, orchards and honey, plus additional ingredients drawn from farms within a 60 km radius, this is seasonal Australian cuisine at its best. A chef tours us through their gardens, the little pickling and preserving shed, and the freestanding smokehouse that’s used to smoke everything from garlic and beets to butter, then we retire to a large communal table, set in a former stable, to dine.
The highlight of our memorable meal is a tender piece of beef sirloin, wrapped in a salty dough of hay and milk powder, and blackened in the 1200-degree wood oven for just 18 minutes, emerging perfectly seasoned, rare and juicy. But there’s also a pretty starter of compressed cucumber with pink beet puree, grilled Barcoo Grunter (freshwater perch) with fermented whole grain, and lightly pickled Murray cod in a brined lettuce wrap with a dusting of dried caper “soil”.
While kangaroo are apparently as common here as urban deer in Canada (one local described groups gathering on her suburban street corner like gossipy neighbours), the only version of wild “roo” I encounter is the tender morsel on the plate at Wasabi, cooked medium rare over smoky cherry wood and reminiscent of venison.
But here at Homage, the kangaroo comes in the form of a sausage, seasoned with native pepper and bathed in Vegemite onion gravy.
GOLD COAST GOURMETS
The beach scene along the busy Gold Coast is the antithesis of Noosa chill, all about glittery high-rise hotels, casinos and sprawling shopping malls. It’s the place to come to party – and to surf – and my suite on the dizzying 31st floor of the Peppers Soul Surfers Paradise definitely has the space for friends to gather.
But we’re here to explore the local food scene and a tour with Karen Inglis-Turner of Gold Coast Food and Wine Tours uncovers some hidden gems.
The contiguous stretch of beachside neighborhoods runs from the urbane Surfer’s Paradise to more suburban Broad Beach and Mermaid Beach.
The latter is home to Bam Bam Bakehouse, where Sicilian pastry chef Aurelio Galino is busy laminating croissants (they sell hundreds daily) and we indulge in sweet pastries, their famous blue latte (made with spirulina), and a variety of hearty egg dishes.
Karen reels off a list of her favourite haunts as we cruise along the Gold Coast Highway past rows of condos and hotels – Mamasan Kitchen, Social Eating House, Nineteen – then introduces us to local artisan cheese maker Kat Harvey, who sells her tasty little French-style St. Lily goat cheese, creamy Tintenbar brie, and cow’s milk blue at farm markets and from her micro-shop, set in a repurposed ATM space on James Street.
Just one metre wide (and two deep), “it may be the world’s smallest cheese shop,” she says. You can’t eat in but her $25 cheese and cracker picnics make tasty take-away.
Next stop is Koko Café on Karen Avenue, Alex Winter’s little industrial coffee roasting space and café, and a snoop into 19Karen, a contemporary art gallery next door, featuring emerging international artists (including some colourful canvasses by Vancouver Island’s Lucy Schappy).
At Granddad Jack’s Craft Distillery, in the suburb of Miami, 22-year-old Luke Ridden and his father Dave Ridden have created a homage to their late grandfather David (Jack) Goulding with a new line of small batch spirits. The cosy industrial space, renovated with salvaged and repurposed materials, features a comfortable tasting bar and vintage barbershop alongside the pot and column stills. It’s part distillery, part cool man cave, celebrating Granddad Jack’s colourful life story.
We’re here to taste their three distinctive gins (heavy on the juniper and local lemon myrtle).
“We’re a two-minute walk to the beach – the closes distillery to the ocean in Australia,” says Dave, adding “Luke is the youngest commercial distiller in the country.”
The distillery began winning awards during the first year of its opening. Stay tuned for several unique whiskies that are now aging in small barrels.
You’ll find their spirits in local cocktail bars, like the new outdoor Burleigh Pavilion beach bar, set in a vintage public swimming pool space and just reopened after a $10 million renovation. We take a breezy table outside and order drinks while surfers arrive, propping their sandy boards before sitting down for pizza and craft beer.
It’s just our entrée to a long lunch at the famed Rick Shores restaurant, where we admire the views of Burleigh Beach from a wall of open windows, while indulging in the Asian-inspired menu. There’s glistening kingfish sashimi atop paper-thin persimmon, yellow prawn curry with charred roti, crispy karaage chicken with kewpie mayo, and the restaurant’s most famous nosh – ‘Ricks’ Fried Bug Roll - the local Moreton Bay bug (a.k.a. flathead lobster tail), tempura-fried and nestled in a toasted brioche bun.
Though home to more than 2.5 million, downtown Brisbane is extremely walkable. The wide Brisbane river meanders through the city, with locals running and biking the riverside pathways, or traversing town via the City Cat ferries.
My room in the recently opened Fantauzzo Art Series hotel makes the perfect base for explorations on foot. Part of the recent $200 million Howard Smith Wharves development, which turned a derelict area beneath the iconic Story Bridge into a popular dining and entertainment district, the ultra-contemporary, 164-room hotel celebrates local artist Vincent Fantauzzo and is chock-a-block full of his dramatic portraits and other large artworks.
The Fantauzzo hotel is only one of the new hospitality venues here along the Brisbane riverfront. There’s Greca Greek restaurant, a coffee roasting company, Cantonese restaurant Stanley, Toko Japanese dining, and several event spaces, all in re-imagined heritage buildings that date to the 1930s and ‘40s. Wide walkways and grassy areas encourage, strolling, picnics, cycling and simply exploring this strip below the dramatic steel bridge, which is lit in blue lights that reflect in the river below at night.
Morning finds us hoofing it along riverside walkways to meet Walk Brisbane’s Lee-Anne Harris for an exploration of the city’s hidden cocktail and coffee bars. Australians are as fussy about their coffee as they are about their local ingredients, and we encounter some serious baristas in small cafes down back streets and laneways.
There’s a hidden “garden” behind the narrow Iconic coffee where my $4 “flat white” is made with a shot of single origin El Tablon espresso. We discover the funky, underground Bean café down a narrow alley, and try icy glasses of cold brew (steeped for 18 hours) with colourful cakes at Felix for Goodness.
The latter is found along Burnett Lane, one of Brisbane’s historic laneways, and home to colourful murals and the new Death and Taxes cocktail bar, marked by a wall stenciled with regal lions. The secretive street artist Blue Art Xinja has left his signature blue silhouettes along the way, too – blue rats behind exposed red water pipes, birds soaring across exposed brick, a dapper duck in top hat.
There’s more street art, sculpture and public installations to see as we wend our way toward the Kurilpa Bridge, with its stunning multiple mast suspension system, enroute to Fish Lane, another colourful street to explore. Whether its simply creative coffee Miss Green’s Beans, inspired Asian at Chu the Phat, Vietnamese from a shipping container at Hello Please, French food at La Lune, or high concept tasting menus at Gauge (and cocktails at Maker), this funky laneway is devoted to delicious diversions.
Eating through Fish Lane takes more than one visit.
For a taste of what’s new from a collective of artisan entrepreneurs, we stop in at Wandering Cooks, the communal kitchen and retail space, where local food entrepreneurs can rent commercial kitchen space to launch new products. Artisan food producers make crackers and samosas, beautiful gluten-free baked goods, Argentinian barbecue and even plant-based Mexican fare to sell on site, at events, and local food markets. There’s even an on site bar showcasing artisan, small batch beer, wine and spirits, a coffee shed and patio, and stage for local music, which makes it a space for artists of all kinds to gather and share.
But there’s also big money in Brisbane’s food and hotel scene. The city has seen a burst in investment and development in recent years, bringing top chefs and creative concepts from across the country and around the world.
The young celebrity chefs behind Three Blue Ducks brought their winning organic, ethical food concept to Brisbane (their fourth location) last year. It takes up a sprawling space in the ultra-modern W Hotel, overlooking the city lights and winding Brisbane River, and serving hyper-local fare from its wood-fired ovens, including Queensland prawns, spanner crab and other seafood.
And Chef Shannon Kellam has updated the fine French dining experience at Montrachet with a new location on trendy King Street and a traditional French bakery down the block. A decade in Michelin-starred kitchens in France (including competing for Australia at the prestigious Bocuse d’Or) is translated with Australian ingredients, from wild Queensland venison rolled in Tasmanian pepper with white Australian anchovies, to pearl barley risotto with local pine mushroom, duck with braised quince and parsnip gratin, and Townsville lobster poached, sous vide, in tomato butter with tiny peas and a classic, citrusy Maltaise sauce.
“We moved down here 18 months ago and it’s exceeded all of our expectations,” Kellam’s wife Clare told us as we finish the decadent chocolate dessert course on his elegant multi-course menu, paired with beautiful French wines.
Queensland’s capital has exceeded all of my expectations, too – a place where wild and local collides with contemporary cooking on every plate.
This feature first appeared in EAT magazine