Dining out in Oz

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The Roobar, on Crown Street in Sydney:  We ate breakfast there just about every day.  Great eggs with bright orange yolks - poached, fried or scrambled.  Every breakfast came with two slices of great thick toast and a grilled tomato half, and for a buck each you could add hash browns (with herbs and onions), steamed spinach, etc. One day we had lunch, and it was superb.  I had a lamb burger - perfectly cooked (medium rare) on a big fat section of seeded baguette with a tangy tomato sauce and ample greens; also on the plate were a heap of chips (a bit pale for my taste, but not undercooked) and a salad (leafy greens only) with a very nice vinaigrette.  Rita's lunch was a grilled chicken salad, with big at chunks of chicken, greens, sliced red peppers ("capsicum"), carrots, etc. in the same vinaigrette as my side salad.  I had a health drink - a huge metal milkshake container full of citrus juices - and Rita had a bottle of Pop Art brand Cloudy Lemonade.  This is a line of soft drinks marketed "to promote and support artists" - this bottle featuring a painting called "Alligator Men" by Jeffrey Stapleton.

Raquel's, on Oxford Street, Darlinghurst: We had two appetizers: barbecued whole sardines on a slight bed of watercress, salty and satisfying, not too fishy; and mussels in a bland, uneventful tomato sauce that was nothing but the starting point for a real sauce of some kind. Rita's main course was a plate piled high with lamb chops, under which were potatoes and discs of yams. The lamb had a very, very strong flavor -- a slightly unpleasant, gamy taste. I experienced a slight visceral reaction, almost as though the meat was bad. My grilled scallops were handsomely presented on a plate with side-by-side pools of red and white sauce, both of which could have been a good deal more piquant without offending the delicate flavor of the scallops. Atop the plate were two scallop-shaped pastries, which I thought would be tender and buttery like croissants but which were instead hard, though not stale. We both agreed that the sardines and the scallops were good, the other two dishes forgettable.

Uchi, Sydney: The meal was a fine collection of variations on Japanese fare, however. As an appetizer, we were given a pair of rice cakes -- the size of a piece of nigiri with nothing on top -- lightly fried and brushed with soy sauce, a delicate treat. We sipped our sake and enjoyed a rich and bracing Miso soup, followed by one of the specials: "Tasty eel" -- unagi and rice stir-fried with that sweet thick soy sauce that usually accompanies unagi, delivered in a triangular bindle made from a banana leaf.

We asked for water, and it arrived in a pitcher stuffed with fresh mint leaves - more for the visual effect than for flavor, it seems. Nice touch!

Interesting that here was no wasabi, and we had to ask for pickled ginger (but when we got it, we were very happy: it was fresh, spicy and flavorful).

Another exciting dish was half an eggplant, diced and replaced in its skin, broiled with shredded Parmesan and a sweetish glaze on top. On the side were threads of salty and slightly oily seaweed and a scattering of tiny black seeds. The eggplant meat was pale, translucent and delicate; an impressive invention.

Other, more conventional items rounded out our meal: a serving of oshitashi that could have used a little more vinegar, and seared ahi slices under daikon threads, with a nice subtle white sauce.

Savoy, Katoomba: Sitting in the nonsmoking section (after moving away from the window because the glare from an outside table was overwhelming), I ordered an entree-size spaghetti Napolitano, and Rita ordered the day's special, pumpkin (squash) soup. We agreed to share a green salad and a plate of steamed vegetables. Portions are huge here, as they have been in every restaurant we've visited since our arrival in the country; we must learn to order less.

The quality of the meal was superb, again. Either we are continuing a phenomenal run of good luck or this country is especially well-fed. The salad was topped with snow pea shoots and included a couple of different varieties of lettuce, tomatoes that were much better-tasting than they looked; large slices of cucumber; and dressed with a tasty vinaigrette. Our side order of steamed vegetables included tender little white potatoes, carrots, perfectly-cooked broccoli florets, and an abundance of green beans. The spaghetti arrived in the same large-sized bowl as everything else; a simple sauce of tomatoes and garlic, and not a drop of extraneous oil, made for a delightful and tasty main course. The pumpkin soup was darker-tasting than I would have expected; Rita noted an abundance of onions, and pronounced the dish "not as interesting as I had hoped for." The accompanying roll was crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle.

Silk's, Leura: High ceiling, rubbed-paint walls, painted wooden mirror frames, glass brick sections of the walls, black blinds on the front windows. Sconces were inverted half-cones, black with gold bottoms like the ends of light bulbs. Full bar, decorated with many olive oil bottles across the top shelf. Atop the bar at ether end, huge vases full of kangaroo grass and dried flax branches with their black, upturned pods. Fine linens on the table, along with colored pencils in a liqueur glass so we could doodle on the paper table cover. Excellent service by two very attractive and pleasant young red-haired women who might be daughters of the owner; one of them offered to hang up our "bits and pieces" (jackets, gloves and hats -- it's cold up here in the hills!). Not much of a crowd when we arrived a little before 7:00, but the place was comfortably full but not crowded, and not at all loud, by 8:00. Ten of the 16 tables were occupied when we left.

There were many food books on the mantelpiece at the rear of the dining room. Australia: A Gourmet Paradise. Who knew? It really is!

Rita's appetizer was 6 oysters surrounding a Bloody Mary in a tall stem glass. Mine was smoked salmon with cucumber ribbons and rocket (?), piled atop a creamy pancake with a very mild horseradish sauce. We were also served two slices of hot bread, thick and crusty on the outside and chewy and a little doughy on the inside, with some sort of dark seeds; not entirely pleasant.

Our main courses: Filet mignon with thin threads of onion on top and a simple glaze; when I cut into the steak, red juice shot out. This was a perfectly cooked piece of meat. Yorkshire pudding on the side, also very good: crisp on the outside, creamy in the middle. Rita had chicken and tarragon cream and rice. We shared a bowl of perfectly steamed vegetables.

Echoes, Katoomba: We were served a small plate of smoked salmon and a crisp, hot dinner roll for starters. I had a delicious, earthy prawn bisque with a generous float of cream on top, and Rita's meal began with a crepinette of rabbit (sort of a flat, squarish sausage) on baby turnips and Brussels sprouts in a truffle sauce.

My main course was roast saddle of lamb with white bean ragout, savoy cabbage and spring onions. This lamb did not have the frightening aggressiveness of the lamb we had earlier in the week in Sydney: the pieces were rare, and quite tasty. Rita ordered the Bourride aioli with blue eyed cod, flounder and King George whiting -- three pieces of similar-textured fish sautéed and finished with a mild aioli.

This was the only restaurant we've been in so far where we didn't have to ask for water. Oddly enough, the water was poured from a metal pitcher into metal tumblers; I assume it was tap water, because it had a vaguely unpleasant metallic taste that I suppose could have come from the pitcher or the cups, but I doubt it.

I think it's generally true of Australian cuisine that it's milder than we expect, a hair on the bland side. "That makes sense," Rita commented at table tonight. "It began as English cooking." A nasty stereotype? Maybe; maybe it's just the truth.

The Hattery, Katoomba: The "pumpkin soup" I had at The Hattery was a brighter orange than the one we had the other night, and sweeter to boot. Rita says it was actually butternut squash, leading us to wonder if the terms squash and pumpkin are interchangeable here. Rita's lunch was a vegetable stir-fry in a spicy curry sauce. Again, even the casual meals are first-rate here.

Dos Amigos, Brisbane: The food at Dos Amigos was surprisingly pleasant and authentic. The guacamole was clearly not fresh, and the tortilla chips were not the heavy, oily housemade type we get at Juan's Place in Berkeley, but my chicken fajita were on a par with anything I'd get at home -- except that as is par for the course in Oz, the seasonings left a little to be desired. Rita seemed happy with her chicken taco and chicken enchilada combination. The one really odd thing was the "tortilla crisp" appetizer (er, entree) that Lara and Andrew and Amy ordered: a flat crispy tortilla with a thin layer of melted cheese, schmeared with that canned guacamole. Aside from that, everything else on the menu was pretty much the same as American-style "Mexican" food: tacos, enchiladas, burritos, fajitas, tostadas. We did not have dessert.

Heron Island:  Dinner Monday night began with warm sliced of olive and capsicum bread and garlic and herb bread.  We were each served a crayfish and prawn bisque, dark and not too creamy, with threads of toasted something on top and one nice garlic crouton ("sippet") on the side.  We shared the two "entree" (appetizer) selections: a Caesar salad (which came with a cylindrical (actually truncated-cone-shaped) hard-boiled egg, a tasty anchovy dressing and an abundance of tiny croutons; they refer to Romaine lettuce as "cos"); and barbecued calamari tubes, which were served with a sweet brown glaze of soya, ginger and lime beside a scoop of turmeric atop a pool of mirin butter sauce (I don't know what that is, but it, too, was sweet).  My main course was macadamia crumbed barramundi fillet, pan fried and "cohered with Galliano, mango and a passion fruit glaze" and threads of carrot and (I think) onion on top.  The glaze was almost too sweet, and the entire thing overpowered the delicate flavor of the barramundi, which is a moist flaky white fish deserving of a more delicate treatment.  Also on the plate was a triangular stack of orange squash ("pumpkin") slices, with a little melted cheese on top; this was tasty without being too sweet.  Rita had a chicken breast "filled with a farce of scallops and cashews char grilled and napped with a tomato hollandaise."  I did not detect the scallops in the stuffing, but the whole thing was pretty tasty.  And, as seems to be the custom in Australia, our meal was accompanied by an unannounced dish of perfectly cooked vegetables to share: baby sugar peas, diced zucchini, carrot slices, etc.  There were some butter at the bottom of the dish, but the veggies weren't soaked in it.  For dessert, we both had "Warm creamy butterscotch bread and butter pudding," which was (surprisingly, considering the excessive sweetness of the non-dessert courses), not cloyingly sweet.  On one side were a small pool of a yellowish cream sauce, not too sweet, and a little rosette of "cream" (a pervasive item in Australian cuisine: not sweet and fluffy like whipped cream, but sweet and almost buttery); on the other side of the pudding was a dusting of bitter chocolate powder.

Tuesday:  Cream of broccoli and brie soup, an unambitious undertaking that needed something to liven it up; "Tartlet of Victorian scallops through a champagne and lime beurre blanc and topped with caramelised leek" (the tiny scallops were yummy, the crust nice and flaky, but the liquid wasn't creamy or flavorful enough; I wonder if the international clientele and captive-audience quality of the situation here doesn't require the chef to play it way too safe).  Rita had Roasted fillet of pork with a brandy orange glaze and garnished with a sour apple tartlet.  "It was perfect," is the sum of her review.  My main course was Filet of ocean trout, pan fried and topped with green tiger prawns and napped with a lemon and lime butter sauce.  This "trout" was like a fine-grain salmon, smooth and buttery and less intense than salmon in color and flavor.  My comments about the scallop tart apply here, too.  But at least the flavor of the fish wasn't totally swamped by an overly-sweet sauce.  For dessert, I had "Warm coconut and Bacardi custard brulee," that last word being totally ignored in the process of preparation.  It was a smooth, pleasant custard that (sing along with me now) could have used a little more of something to bring it to life.  Rita had the blueberry cheesecake with creme Anglaise: a mild, homogenized filling with some actual blueberries folded in after the fact; the crust was a bit on the hard side.

Wednesday:  Roasted tomato and tarragon soup - zingy enough, hooray!  "It was very fresh-tasting," says Rita.  My entree was "avocado pear" with smoked salmon "and drizzled with a lime and orange vinaigrette," according to the menu - but it was in fact a creamy dill sauce.  Rita's entree was "wok-tossed baby octopus in soya, chillies and ginger, on asian greens and glass noodles." The octopus "was perfectly cooked - not too chewy," says Rita, "but the sauce was too strong."  We both had the same main course: Filet of coral trout, "simply pan fried and placed on a bed of asian bok choy and soy beurre blanc."  In reality, the bok choy was pressed into a tight little plug.  It came apart easily enough, and it was delicious.  The fish was excellent, and not like any "trout" I've ever seen: firm, white and flaky.  The sauce was "cheesy but good," said Rita.  "It went well with the trout.  It could have been a little lighter.  But I think that's the way it is here: there's not much subtlety - everything is a big bold one note." The dish of vegetables on the side tonight included broccoli, and a lot of carrots.  Desserts were a Belgian chocolate torte with seasonal berries and "fresh cream," and (tonight's winner) Moist fig pudding with butterscotch sauce.  I was wrong to order the chocolate, 'cause that butterscotch sauce was the stuff!

Thursday:  The soup was called "Russian Bortch" on the menu.  "Beetroot and julienne vegetable." It was beet soup, all right, but it was not like any borscht I've ever seen: clear, thin beet broth, with some thin threads of leek (?) on top.  It was good, but it wasn't borscht.  Our entree was "Asian noodle pancake," a sort of rice-spaghetti latke,  with a couple of big fat prawns on top and a bland sauce labeled as "mango and lime salsa."  Rita's main course was "Breast of free range duckling char grilled, placed on a soba noodle nest with a soya and tamarind glaze" - which she ordered after saying, "Not much point in ordering duck here when we live so close to Bay Wolf."  The duck was good, and could stand up to the soy sauce (not much tamarind in evidence); the soba bed was a solid, greasy, overcooked mess that you couldn't even cut with a knife.  It never should have left the kitchen.  My main course was "Laska of chicken with pappadum, jasmine rice, and tomato salsa" - a perfectly ordinary, unspectacular Indian-style curry.  Our desserts were listed as "Tropical fruit salad ["salad"=jello-type things in this culture] and yoghurt flavoured timbale in a passion fruit sauce" and "Redland Bay strawberry brulee with a [sic] Italian meringue."  The former was a nice cylinder of creamy fruit-flavored something, halfway between a jello mold and a pudding but firmer than either, in a pool of zingy passion fruit sauce; the latter was a ramekin of vaguely strawberry moosh with meringue on top, finished in the oven (brulee!).  I liked my fruit "salad" quite a lot.

The daily catamaran that brings guests to the resort also brings fresh food to the kitchen - we saw it being loaded on our trip out here.  Our friend Matt, who had been here playing music for two and a half weeks, said the menu tends to be the same over a weekly cycle - he predicted the Coral trout, and also predicted our pleasure in it.

Breakfast and lunch here were buffet-style, and the usual Australian fare is offered.  For breakfast: fried or poached eggs served atop soggy toast squares that no one takes, scrambled eggs, little fat sausages or long thin ones, bacon, pancakes, many varieties of bread to toast and pots of jam, cold porridge, dry cereal, stewed and fresh fruit, yogurt, fruit juices, croissants and sweet rolls.  Lunch varied from day to day, with a nice selection of hot (for example, one day it was all Italian-type stuff - lasagne, tortellini, linguine - with a selection of so-so sauces; another day it was Mexican-style, with a surprisingly meaty chicken enchilada topping the fare) and cold items, sliced meats, pasta salads, fruit, etc.  Oceans of coffee, and several varieties of loose tea and small pots so you could make your own at the table.  It was perfectly fine institutional food - but this was all done a little better at Binna Burra.  "I think they're not trying to be as nouvelle at Binna Burra," said Rita.  "At Heron Island they seem to be trying to be more upscale, and it's not quite there yet.  Not much subtlety.  Everything has a top note, but nothing much behind it."

The Rocks Cafe, on George Street in Sydney:  A busy little place in a very touristy district, right up the street from where a Norwegian Cruise Line ship was docked.  Rita ordered a seafood fettucine. "I thought it was lovely: mostly clams, in a light , fresh red sauce like a marinara.  Dee-lish!  Much better than what I had at the Balkan, which was way overdone, and much better than Lucky's in Brisbane."  I had scampi - half a dozen sauteed halves on a bed of green linguine in "pesto" (really just basil and oil), with a yummy rocket salad on the side.

Out of curiosity, I ordered a caramel milk shake.  Australia doesn't mean the same thing as we do by "milk shake."  This thing was just milk with caramel flavoring - and not much of it, at that.  No ice cream.  Just flavored milk.

Yipiyiyo, 290 Crown Street, Darlinghurst (Sydney):  This was our last dinner in Australia, and one of our best. For starters, we shared a plate of quesadillas - flour tortillas folded over prawns, cheese and chili.  Very spicy - a great way to start the meal.  Our main dishes were Tijuana Tenderloin and chargrilled fish.  We joked with the waiter/proprietor that back at home, "Tijuana" was not an adjective that inspired confidence, and that "Tijuana tenderloin" might be taken to mean "ground chuck," or even - he completed the thought: "Chihuahua?"  Well, yes.  He explained that he was looking for a "T" word for the name of the dish, and most of his clientele wouldn't make the association with "Tijuana" that we did.  We understood and agreed.

The Tijuana Tenderloin was a nice thick piece of steak, cooked medium rare, served on a generous heap of mashed parsnips and finished with a surprisingly delicate chipotle and tomato glaze.  I told Rita it reminded me a little of Flint's barbecue sauce - but in a good way! - because of the combination of tomato and hot chili pepper.

The grilled fish was a south Australia catch, Rudder cod - a white fish, not too thick and steaky, moist and tender and flavorful. It was served on a celeriac mash and surrounded with a circle of lemon butter glaze and specks of red pepper.  We shared both dishes, and were delighted with both.

For dessert, Rita had a rhubarb crumble, served hot in a deep dish with a small pitcher of creme anglaise on the side.  I had "peanut butter heaven and hall cake," a hard chocolate pie crust with a creamy peanut butter filling and a layer of soft chocolate on top.  It was almost too rich!

Oxley's (Brisbane): The night we got back from Heron Island, the newlyweds joined us at this riverside restaurant, the recommended place for Moreton Bay Bugs.  (I had forgotten about this one until Lara reminded me in February 2000. I don't remember much about the meal now.  Moreton Bay Bugs are tasty, somewhere between crawfish and lobster.)