"Do you want to hear about the menu? Then i can just shut up for the rest of the night and be grumpy," chef Simon Bryant deadpans.
We've been escorted to the Flinders Ranges for a special outback dinner cooked by Bryant, the "Chef' part of the popular ABC show The Cook and the Chef which he co-hosted with Maggie Beer (the cook) more than 20 years ago. In fact, I'm so used to having SBS Food Channel's endless reruns in the background at home, Bryant's presence here feels very familiar.
As we've learnt from the show, he is passionate about South Australia and its bountiful produce, so it's no surprise he's been named Patron of Tasting Australia, the annual food event which showcases the state's unique people, produce and landscapes.
We've been flown out from Adelaide, a four-hour drive away, to the jaw-dropping Flinders Ranges' Ikara-Wilpena Pound via 'Tasting Australia Airlines' to preview one of the event's premier dining experiences. The private plane takes us on a scenic lap of Wilpena's bowl-like circumference before landing at former sheep station Rawsley Park, which has been transformed into luxury accommodation.
The one- and two-bedroom sustainable villas are spacious and cool inside, a respite from the last of the summer's sun which bakes down on the ochre-red hills and surrounds of Rawnsley Bluff, the easternmost point of Wilpena Pound and the gateway to the national park. With large verandahs, a barbie and a full kitchen, guests can bunker down and enjoy the walking trails and the wildlife the area contains. The small town of Hawker is the nearest town, a half-hours' drive away. Inside the kitchen, Bryant has left us some of his sourdough bread, mixed nuts, fresh and dried fruit to sustain us before dinner and for breakfast the following morning.
We're collected for dinner before dusk, and escorted to the station's old homestead to our table setting on the verandah, which has front row seats to Rawnsley Bluff. Bryant takes time to speak to each of us in between manning his outdoor kitchen for this event, set up at the opposite end of the verandah. We hear about the producers behind each plate; beginning with 'bar snacks' from Adelaide producers, which include his lavosh bread, and well-known cheese producer Kris Lloyd's "amazing" cheddar.
"I'm serving it with a fermented quince paste, not actually because I am a hipster, because I f-stuffed up the quinces and they all went fermented so I just rolled with it," he quips. " So who wants to be my first guinea pig?"
Everyone pauses politely before Bryant nods at me. "Anything but the goose pate," I ask, motioning towards "Sassy's" (Saskia Beer) goose prosciutto.
"What are you, goose-ist?" he says, not missing a beat.
And dinner-and-a-show continues, as the sun sets behind us turning the sky a dusty pink.
Stories accompany each (delicious) plate, where Simon deals a deft hand on SA's stellar produce, allowing it to shine. The standout is the main dish, a vegetarian substitute for kangaroo, a sweet potato rubbed with desert tomato, quandongs and desert lime.
"I hate frou frou," he admits. "I did fine dining where it took almost six and a half minutes to get the food plated and by then the food's cold. Also you've only got so much energy and ability and if you're going to put 50 per cent into appearance then my rule is that I could possibly lose 50 per cent of flavour, and i'd rather just chuck it into flavour."
Tasting Australia patron Simon Bryant at home. Photo: Ben Liew
After what feels like no time at all, dessert is wrapped up and the darkness of the outback envelopes us before we're escorted back to our villas, where I discover a retractable ceiling in the bedroom allows you to stargaze as you fall asleep. A truly magical evening.
Tasting Australia runs from 29 April to the 8 May. Although this Tasting Australia Airlines: Flinders Ranges event has sold out, there are plenty of other unique experiences to choose from. For more information, head to tastingaustralia.com.au.
Five restaurants to try in Adelaide
One of the first to extend a sustainability model to its staff, with proper training and fair payment part of its philosophy. Formerly at the helm of d'Arenberg, South African born chef Brendan Wessels employs a custom-built braai to chargrill elements of his Korean and Japanese inspired menu. Cauliflower is blended into a smokey puree and served with crispy fried coral mushrooms; if they don't sound familiar, these are special indigenous mushrooms that grow on a five-week cycle and need to be ordered five weeks in advance. The desserts are sublime: pastry chef Huy Nguyễn turns simple recipes on their head, experimenting with unique smokey cacao from Vietnam and Mexican chilli; Vegemite in salted caramel or substituting camomile for vanilla in ice-cream. auroraadl.com.au
Bloom cafe in Adelaide. Photo: Bloom
With tall cacti set against whitewashed walls, light-filled Bloom feels like a piece of Los Angeles in Adelaide. Actually an old horse tram barn, this bustling cafe has set the bar very high when it comes to food. Their generous feed me menu ($70) is ridiculously well priced, and includes dishes such as the standout fire-grilled beans with XO sauce; kingsfish wings with furikake and mandarin vinegar and a roasted chook in a marigold curry sauce. 38bloom.com.au
Themis Chryssidis and Callum Hann pivoted after 'Sprout', their cooking school, had to close during lockdown in 2020, opening the French-inspired modern Australian eatery to rave reviews. Whoever came up with the concept of chicken skin butter deserves a medal, first introducing itself at this new CBD restaurant (and secondly welcomed at Bloom, above). Consisting of butter churned with chicken jus, sprinkled with crispy chicken skin salt and served with a caramelised onion milk bun, a prelude to the excellent, SA-produce inspired small plates that follow, such as King George whiting ceviche. elevenadl.com.au
Fugazzi Bar and Restaurant
The dining room at Fugazzi. Photo: Julian Cebo
Where Bloom is light and airey, this NYC inspired diner is dark and atmospheric, with marble tables and leather booths. The chef behind the food is Laura Sherrard, a Masterchef alumni, whose famed pasta dishes do not disappoint. As part of the 'feed me' menu, the crab pasta consists of unctuous tubes of pasta with a real bite of heat from chili. But for me the fish is the standout dish - served on top of a tri-coloured bed of broth that's whipped until foamy, a pool of wakame oil, and a bed of mash that is exactly fifty per cent butter and fifty per cent potato. I'm still trying to work it off.... fugazzi.com.au
Leigh St Wine Room
The highlight of any visit to the Leight St precinct, and perhaps even the city itself, is Leigh Street Wine Room. I'm served a Gruner by minimal interventionalists BK Wines while eclectic music ranging from the Last Shadow Puppets to Icehouse pours from the speakers. Flavour-packed dishes come out fast; pickled peppers and anchovy crostini blanketed in finely chopped chives; kingfish sashimi with shaved kohlrabi; and a comforting, pillowy gnocchi. For dessert, there's a strawberry and yuzu sake to accompany a light mascarpone and meringue dessert. leighstreetwineroom.com
Rawnsley Park Station's eco-villas start at $490 per night. Visit rawnsleypark.com.au
The writer was a guest of Tasting Australia and SATC