Eating Down Under is Oz-some

It was midnight. I climbed aboard a Qantas jet in Los Angeles bound for Sydney Australia. I had been travelling all day. I wanted nothing more than to stick the squishy little plugs in my ears, pull down my eyeshade and sleep my way across the Pacific.

“No, thank you,” I said politely to the flight attendant as he passed out the large business class menu with a mouth-watering photo of roasted tomatoes on the cover. “I am going to sleep.”

“Just have a look, mate,” he suggested, in an unmistakably down under accent. “I think you will like it. You can sleep later.”

Was it written all over my face that this was a ‘foodie’ on a mission?

My mission was to discover first hand why all the hype about Modern Australian cuisine – “Mod Oz” they call it – and why their big, bold wines with cheeky labels such as Two Hands On and Yellow Tail are making such a splash around the world.

I had no expectations this would happen before I set foot in Sydney.

But life is full of surprises.

Here was a menu created by award-winning chef Neil Perry, who enjoys the kind of celebrity status in Sydney what Susur Lee or Jamie Kennedy do in Toronto.

Forget sleep – this was an opportunity not to be missed.

My choice of Braised Veal was followed by a Green Leaf Salad with Capsicum and Feta, Apple Cake with Crème Anglaise and a Valrhona Chocolate treat. It turned out to be the freshest, most flavourful in-flight meal I’ve ever tasted. The accompanying Shiraz bounded forward from the glass with berry and spice aromas. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Visitors who turn up in this cultural conglomerate – some 130 nationalities live in Australia today – will discover a land of many influences and as many tastes.

Neil Perry’s, restaurant, Rockpool, in Sydney’s historic Rocks district was voted one of the 10 top restaurants in the world. Best known for exotic fresh seafood, “Ocean to Plate”, Perry wows the hungry at this sleek eatery. But he is just one of many chefs whose cooking blends foods and flavours from indigenous, Asian and a variety of European cuisines.

“Everyone likes to call his or her cooking Mod Oz,“ Perry told me, “although the exact definition is open for discussion.”

First stop on my tour of the southern part of the country was Canberra, the country’s demure capital that boasts over 300 restaurants. Some 25 wineries are located within 40 minutes of the city. Chairman & Yip Restaurant has taken the city by storm with its bold, experimental menu. Tea-smoked kingfish drizzled with cinnamon-infused soy goes to the next level. The signature beef and scallop hot pot combines tender meat and fat scallops in a sauce that gets a wallop of heat from black pepper and exotic spices.

The Canberra district is a relatively young, viticultural area, but its wines are winning major awards. Part of the area’s charm is the number of small, family-owned operations. You may even meet a winemaker at the cellar door.

Shiraz, which grows widely here, is the most expressive Australian red, but styles vary enormously. At Clonakilla, Tim Kirk’s signature wine – Shiraz blended with a little Viognier – has been mistaken in blind tastings for Cote Rotie. It’s a far cry from Barossa blockbusters that Canadians associate with Aussie Shiraz.

Queen Victoria Market, Melbourne’s vibrant, food mecca is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, offering visitors a true flavour of the country’s multiculturism. It’s not the thousand vendors under one sprawling roof that overwhelms, but the smorgasbord of international foods – everything from crocodile and kangaroo at the Aussie deli, to lotus root and gai larn at the Asian vegetable stand. European influence is evident in fresh Italian pasta, Polish kielbasa, French cheeses and baby goat at the Greek butcher. And every coffee bean under the sun, ground to your specification.

At the Grange Restaurant in the Adelaide Hilton Chef Cheong Liew started blending European techniques and Asian ingredients long before anyone coined the term ‘fusion.’ U.S. Food and Wine magazine named him one of the 10 hottest chefs alive. Influenced by his Malaysian/Chinese heritage and 30 years living in Australia, he incorporates French, Malaysian, Japanese, Greek and Chinese flavours into many of the dishes.

His signature dish is evocatively named “Four Dances of the Sea”. A marvellous creation constructed from 50 separate ingredients, comprising four small islands of seafood on a bare white plate, eaten clockwise in ascending strength of flavour. To start – slivers of snook with avocado soused with cherry vinegar reflects the Japanese influence. Sesame-flavoured, paper-thin cuttlefish sashimi served on squid ink noodles follows. Next in line is octopus with eggplant, aoli and tomato confit that combines provençal, Mediterranean and Asian elements. The final morsel marries a Japanese concept with Southeast Asian flavour – curried prawn sushi on a bed of sticky rice cooked in coconut milk. Choosing a wine to compliment is best left to the sommelier who suggests a Lenswood Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc.

An hour’s drive north of Adelaide brings you to the country’s most famous wine regions, the Barossa Valley where Shiraz is king.

Maggie Beer, an in-the-know food guru, is one of the most famous names in Australian food and her Barossa Valley restaurant Farm Shop, one of the best places to go for lunch. Known for her simple approach to regional cooking, Maggie embraces local produce and regional favourites such as Walnut Bread and Pheasant Farm Paté.

Her take on Mod Oz pretty well sums up the country’s ethnic melting pot. “It’s different all over the country,” she said. “And it’s best when we stir the area’s cultural mix into fresh, local, ingredients.”

It’s a stew pot and it’s way beyond delicious.

Toronto Star, December 30, 2004