No longer a poor culinary cousin, Brisbane has arrived as a food capital.
Inside the restaurant, tonight as packed as a celebrity chef's weekly public appearance diary, one superlative course follows another. In what is becoming the degustation equivalent of a half-marathon, I divide my time between eating by marvelling at the artistry of each dish and gazing out across the ferry-studded water at The Bridge, twinkling in the night.
But hang on, this isn't Sydney. This Bridge, resembling more the sort of bent coat-hanger used to break into a car than the arched equivalent that dominates the harbour city, is the somewhat more humble Story Bridge, and the city, Brisbane. But there's nothing humble about the food here at Esquire, the Queensland's capital premier restaurant, according to the state's dining bible, the Good Food Guide 2014-15.
Esquire may also be one of Australia's best-kept dining experiences, particularly since few foodies in Sydney and Melbourne have contemplated Brisbane as a serious gourmet destination. Not since Sydney and Melbourne themselves has an Australian city embraced food with such vigour and enthusiasm as that which is now being witnessed in Brisbane.
Joanna Savill, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2014 and festival director of Fairfax Media's Good Food Month events held in Sydney, Melbourne and, for the first time this year, in Brisbane, has no doubt the Queensland capital has emerged as a major foodie hub, perhaps displacing Adelaide in third place behind our two most populous cities.
"Brisbane is booming in food and wine - particularly in the fine-dining and fine bars arena," she says.
"It has such fabulous locations and amazing produce - the riverside areas are spectacular and the new restaurants keep on coming."
I'm in Brisbane for a weekend to sample the tastes of the city ahead of another major foodie event, Regional Flavours, which last year attracted 70,000 visitors to the city's riverside South Bank, the redeveloped site of the 1988 Expo. Among the restaurants that will host a stall is The Jetty South Bank, which will be pumping out Thai-style fishcakes and sticky-date puddings from its airy, open-fronted timber-clad restaurant that could fit right in to any major south-east Asian capital.
And in its first year, 200 Brisbane restaurants are taking part in Good Food Month, which runs until month's end. If that's not enough, Brisbane's acclaimed Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) is exploiting the city's gastronomic love affair with a food-themed exhibition called Harvest.
It's showcasing food in art and film, drawing from more than 150 works in its collection, as well as involving leading chefs, such as Esquire's Ryan Squires, with Harvest-inspired menus.
Typical of its reputation for innovation, GOMA was probably the first cultural institution of its kind in Australia to appoint its own executive chef rather than rely on food from conservative catering companies.
At the sun-filled one-hatted GOMA Restaurant, with its river and city skyline vistas, ex-Noma chef Josue (Josh) Lopez not only dishes up imaginative and beautifully presented food, but he's also integrated into the gallery's major exhibitions, including Harvest and, later this year, Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion.
Savill says Brisbane has suffered from being, restaurant-wise, the "poor cousin to Noosa", and not having "as much bling as the Gold Coast". But Brisbane is settling nicely into its role as a "mature, progressive, sophisticated city with amazing cultural institutions", with the influential international style magazine, Monocle, recently including Brisbane in its list of the top 25 most liveable cities.
The emergence of the city is fortuitous, since later this year it will host the G20, the meeting of the world's richest nations and probably the biggest event to be staged in Brisbane since Expo. The delegates, if they can give the intensive security the slip, will find that Brisbane is a city of precincts, something that can be confusing to the visitor in an unplanned, at times difficult-to-navigate, place.
Yet James Street, Fortitude Valley, for instance, is one of Australia's finest examples of successful urban redevelopment.
It's a high street, created from scratch, that's now full of designer shops, cafes, bars and restaurants, including the one-hatted Gerard's Bistro with, as the Good Food Guide describes it, its "clean Scandinavian lines, bespoke furniture and colourful Moroccan mosaic".
Back beside the Brisbane River at Esquire, tucked away at the rear of a skyscraper, the degustation menu, each course matched with a well-chosen wine, has more twists and turns than the Fitzgerald Inquiry.
The dishes are announced, Tetsuya's style, by a well-versed waiter, drowned by the clamour of one of the noisiest fine-dining restaurants I've ever eaten in.
A dish of "popcorn" is served molecularly frigid, an elusive combination of the sweet and the savoury, while rich wagyu is cooked pastrami-style. One of three dessert offerings, chocolate rocks,appears on a strange long calcified-like bone, while another, sweet-tasting fluffy muffin-like balls, are made from wagyu fat. But, before we get too excited, Brisbane's evolution as a food capital is not entirely complete.
Chef Squires decries the "mix of million-dollar fit-outs with mediocre offerings" and the "slapped-together fun fair with brilliant no-frills eats", syndromes not unfamiliar to diners in the southern capitals (yes, Sydney, we're talking about you). Squires believes the arrival of the Good Food Guide, backed by Fairfax's brisbanetimes.com.au, has "injected massive interest" in dining out in Brisbane.
"[But] there are still many restaurants serving 500 grams of beef on a plate with fries on the side and choice of bearnaise, green pepper or sweet chilli," he says. "You need that - every city needs that. What f--ks me off is that it takes away the incredible hard work that Esquire and many others put in day in, day out, such as being at the fish market at 5am just so you can pick and choose the best, flying produce direct from Sydney that costs an arm and a leg, though is the best the country has to offer."
Squires wonders whether Esquire would have succeeded in the Brisbane that existed a decade ago. Probably not well, he concludes. But, really, the past is the past. Brisbane, according to the food tragic Savill, can hold its head (chefs) high.
"Honestly, restaurants like GOMA, Urbane, Esquire, Gerard's, Public - to name just a few - are totally on par with Sydney and Melbourne," she says.
"Chefs like Alejandro Cancino at Urbane and Ryan Squires are phenomenal and really are up there with the best not only in Australia, but in the world."
Anthony Dennis is Fairfax Media's national travel editor. He travelled as a guest of Brisbane Marketing.
Five more top Brisbane restaurants
Matt Moran's two-hatted Brisbane spinoff of the Sydney harbourside institution, Aria is the place to dress up for, a place where serious food and a stunning wine list meet one of the city's best water views.
THE FORAGING QUAIL
Minh Le's gorgeously presented food at his New Farm restaurant has a touch of whimsy, with a layering of flavours and textures that earmark him as a chef to watch.
A share-plate menu offering adventure, including a dish called "Kentucky Fried Duck", tempered by upscale comfort are features of this one-hatted city restaurant.
Stokehouse, the Brisbane brother of the late Melbourne institution, is swanky, with a winning riverside position, impressive city views and contemporary decor, with classy food and wine and spot-on service.
The menu is as simple as the room itself. "Scallop cucumber apple", "mandarin honeycomb" and so on, it reads, without giving a hint of chef Alejandro Cancino's dishes that assail the senses.
Extracted from the Brisbane Times Good Food Guide 2014-15 ($12.99). See smhshop.com.au/btgfg2014. From next week it will be available as a free app, for iPhone and iPad, from the App Store.
Mantra South Bank, 161 Grey Street, Brisbane, a short stroll from the river, is an affordable, centrally located base for both food and art lovers. Rooms start from $226 a night (weekend specials available). Phone (07) 3305 2500, see mantrasouthbankbrisbane.com.au.
SEE + DO
Good Food Month in Brisbane runs until the end of the month. See goodfoodmonth.com.
Esquire, 145 Eagle Street. Phone (07) 3220 2123, see esquire.net.au; GoMA Restaurant, Gallery of Modern Art, Stanley Place, Cultural Precinct South Bank. Phone (07)) 3842 9916, see qagoma.qld.gov.au; Gerard's Bistro, 15 James Street, The Jetty South Bank, Sideon Street, South Bank, phone, (07) 3844 8838, see thejettysouthbank.com.au.