BENNELONG AT THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE
In any great city, the clever tourist will seek out the cultural heart, the most scenic location, the most striking architecture and the most articulate and expressive cuisine. Well, folks, as the sign says: "You Are Here". After a $3 million makeover, the team behind the award-winning Quay restaurant on the other side of Circular Quay have given the Sydney Opera House the restaurant it deserves, with chef Peter Gilmore artfully showcasing Australia's finest produce. See bennelong.com.au
WHISKEY AND GIN DISTILLERIES, TASMANIA AND NSW
After a 150-year ban on distillation in Tasmania, Bill Lark was issued the first licence to distil whiskey in 1992. Now, there are over a dozen whiskey makers on the island and a passion for craft spirits has taken the mainland by storm. In Perth this year, West Winds gin took out the inaugural Australian Distilled Spirits Award for best gin. In Sydney, brewery Young Henry's has produced its Noble Cut gin distilled with indigenous ingredients like pepperberry and bush tomato to accolades. While back in Tassie, Bill Lark was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the World Whiskies Awards in London earlier this year. Craft beer, you are sooo last round. See larkdistillery.com; younghenrys.com
Wine tasting in Australia – whether in the Hunter Valley, Barossa, Margaret River or one of the lesser-known wine regions – is simply a lot more fun than it is elsewhere. The earnest snobbishness of European cellar doors is absent, as is the charge per tasting in American vineyards. There are generally plenty of tour companies to choose from too – whether cheap and cheerful minibuses that go round a highlights reel of bigger wineries or private chauffeurs who pick destinations according to passenger taste. See australia.com; winetoursdownunder.com.au
If, a few years ago, you wanted to sample the imaginative, finely tuned, seasonally driven cooking of Melbourne-born chef Dan Hunter, you would have had to travel all the way to the world-renowned Mugaritz restaurant in the Basque region of Spain, where he worked as head chef for celebrated chef/owner Andoni Luis Aduriz.
Now, you can leave your passport at home, and head, instead, for Victoria's wild-and-woolly Otway ranges, home to Hunter's postcard-picturesque Brae restaurant, set on a 30 acre property in Birregurra, 130 kilometres west of Melbourne. In the high-end diners of the city, where the nearest patch of arable soil is a day's drive away, an intuitive diner can sometimes sense a disconnect in the much-touted "paddock-to-plate" philosophy.
Here, it's a step from the door, in 30 hectares of landscaped kitchen garden, creating an almost visceral connection with the land that is reflected in the daily changing 13-course menu. So, on the first day of the new asparagus season one of the highlights in the flow of dishes will be a single, proudly green, just-picked asparagus spear, with naught but a baby turnip topped with brook trout roe for company.
Another day, there will be a savoury oyster ice-cream finished with dried oyster and sea lettuce; nasturtium-wrapped parcels of finger lime and sweet prawn meat; or meltingly tender 45 day-aged Tajima wagyu with barbecued carrot and fermented roots.
Small wonder that Brae was this year named number four in The Australian Financial Review's inaugural list of Australia's Top 100 Restaurants, lauded for its 'culinary sophistication in a country cottage".
One dessert, of slow-roasted parsnip with parsnip cream is already legendary. The dining room, cared for by manager Simon Freeman, has just the right air of understated luxury. And by early 2016, there will be six luxury, eco-friendly rooms in which travellers from, say, the Basque region in Spain, can stay overnight. See braerestaurant.com
PENFOLDS MAGILL ESTATE, ADELAIDE
For devotees of Penfolds Grange historic Magill Estate on the outskirts of Adelaide is akin to a sacred site. It was here Max Schubert created Australia's most famous, and collectable, wine: Grange Hermitage. But how to preserve this viticultural heritage, while bringing the estate into the 21st Century? The new-look cellar door is a triumph – sleek, sparse and darkly smouldering. Next door is a chic and equally theatrical dining space called Kitchen. Magill Estate never looked sexier. See magillestate.com
Serious steak-lovers once had to travel to Japan to experience the earthly joys of rich, rare, full-blooded, heavily marbled wagyu beef. Now, wagyu is Australia's own high benchmark for the ultimate steak hit, as pioneering producers such as David Blackmore in Victoria guarantee authenticity of genetics and an ethical supply chain. The fine veins of intramuscular fat (graded and scored from 0 to 9 and a heart-fluttering 9+) melt like butter on the grill, virtually ensuring tender rich flavour that, in turn, cries out for a world-class Australian red wine. Try it at Rockpool Bar & Grill (Melbourne and Sydney) and Brae in Victoria. See blackmorewagyu.com
There's a very good reason that Sepia was chosen as "The One To Watch" at the 2015 World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards in London. It's the same reason New York three-star chef, Eric Ripert, rates it one of the five best restaurants in the world. Because owner/chef Martin Benn's cooking is original, inspired, and unique in how it combines peerless Australian produce with a breath-taking Japanese aesthetic in some sort of new-age kaiseki. Another very good reason? The poached spanner crab with citrus dashi and smoked bone marrow. See sepiarestaurant.com.au
Scottish-born Jock Zonfrillo works with the unique flavours of the Australian desert, bush and coastal regions. Applying his own minimalist, natural style of cooking, he has created a cuisine that could not exist anywhere but in Australia. Native ingredients such as marron, kangaroo, bush honey, mountain pepper, finger lime, green ants and salty sea succulents are memorably matched in a tasting menu like no other. See restaurantorana.com
WESTERN AUSTRALIAN MARRON
Other countries have prawns, lobster, oysters and crabs, but only Australia has the magnificent marron, native to the south-western corner of Western Australia. Cherax cainii is virtually the lobster of the land; a freshwater crustacean related to the yabby whose sweet, firm meat and delicate texture makes the highly prized European ecrevisse on French Michelin star menus look like a loser. Try it at Restaurant Amuse (Perth) and Bennelong at the Opera House (Sydney). See bennelong.com.au; restaurantamuse.com.au
The black Perigord truffle (Tuber melanosporum) is the holy grail of gastronomy; rare, precious, mysterious… and heinously expensive. Few people realise that Australia is the fourth largest truffle-producing country after France, Italy and Spain, and that at its best, the local product is just as earthy, musky and feral – and at around $150 for 50 grams, almost as expensive. The black treasure from Peter and Kate Marshall's best-practice truffiere, Terra Preta of Braidwood, NSW, is now exported to top restaurants in France, Italy and the US. Try it in season (July/August), over scrambled eggs or in a cheese toasty. See terrapretatruffles.com (NSW); perigord.com.au (TAS); manjimuptruffles.com.au (WA); or visit Canberra's annual truffle festival trufflefestival.com.au or Western Australia's trufflekerfuffle.com.au.
CUMULUS INC, MELBOURNE
This is no fine-dining restaurant with hand-foraged food, exquisite decor and a wine list only an arms-dealer could love. It's better than that. It's a great middle-class, middle-range, middle-priced meeting place from Melbourne's most influential chef, 'recipe-whisperer' Andrew McConnell, that is democratically open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. McConnell has an instinctive ability to integrate far-flung ingredients and styles – foie gras and duck waffles, pork scratchings with spicy kim chi – that synthesise well-travelled, texture-led, Asian and European technique into the best of right-here, right-now Australian cooking. See cumulusinc.com.au.
MELBOURNE'S CAFE SCENE
There are around 2000 cafes in Melbourne – give or take a few – ranging from stand-up affairs to warehouse-sized establishments. Espresso, cold drip, pour over: even the humblest corner cafe is pulling coffee that's top quality on a global level. Trend spotters say the key theme is restaurant-quality food at cafe prices, and brunch is so hot right now. Expect food that's seasonal, traceable and devoured amidst totally Instagram-worthy surrounds, though the days of super-pricey fit-outs are waning: think clever rather than cashed-up. Namedrop these Melbourne roasters to lock in your global coffee cred: St Ali, Proud Mary, Dukes, Seven Seeds, Code Black, Toby's Estate or Market Lane.
PALATE RESTAURANT, SAFFIRE FREYCINET, TASMANIA
At Saffire Freycinet, Tasmania's most spectacular lodge, executive chef Hugh Whitehouse, a former Good Food Guide NSW regional dining hatted luminary, is passionate about Tasmanian produce, from its seafood to its 20 kinds of potato, which he showcases in his exquisite degustation menus. He is equally passionate about Tasmanian wine, pulling out the perfect match for every dish at his house-guests only restaurant overlooking the spectacular Hazards mountain range. It is hard to say which is more convincing – his enthusiasm or his talent, but one thing is clear: when it comes to regional food and wine, Saffire shines. See saffire-freycinet.com.au