The headline in the Sydney tabloid said that food costs were squeezing Australians' budgets. If my dining experiences the past two nights are any indication, I can see why.
I stopped over en route to the wine regions around Adelaide, where I arrived this afternoon. It's been two years since my last visit to Australia. The superb cutting-edge cuisine I've had here over the past decade used to be a bargain by U.S. standards. No more. The top restaurants in Sydney cost about as much as comparable spots in San Francisco or New York.
The good news is, they're still pretty darn good. So are the wine lists, which these days feature more European wines. I was pleasantly surprised at the familiar names I saw from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhône, Piedmont and Tuscany. When I am in Australia I like to drink Aussie wines, especially wines I don't know, but my friend Huon Hooke, Australia's most respected wine writer, confirmed that Australians are drinking more European wines. I suspect that Aussie winemakers will be striving for more finesse in their wines to satisfy that taste. That would be a good thing.
At Marque, chef Mark Best uses hypermodern techniques to produce weird but wonderful food. He freezes snow peas and makes a powdery bright green snow to spoon over sea urchin cream. He cuts squid into rice-like bits to make a "risotto" with prawns. Over dinner there, Hooke chose a distinctive Chardonnay from a cult winery I haven't seen in the U.S., and I picked a 2001 Chassagne-Montrachet red from Ramonet. He had drunk the Ramonet whites in the past, but never had the red.
Sorrenberg Chardonnay 2004 comes from Beechworth, the same remote corner of Victoria where Giaconda grows its grapes. Giaconda is one of the original cult wineries in Oz, and Sorrenberg is seen as sort of the poor man's Giaconda, but I'd rate them extremely close. It's a subtle wine with a distinct minerality and a quince-like fruit character. It got silkier in the glass. On the list it was about $95 by today's exchange rate, and it sailed beautifully with that snow pea snow and my favorite dish of the evening, a sort of gravlax of Tasmanian ocean trout overlaid with honeydew melon that had been lightly pickled, vacuum packed to firm it up, and sliced thin enough to drape over the fish.
I described the Ramonet as the red version of the winery's whites—vivid in flavor, racy in structure, and explosively aromatic. Huon stuck his nose in the glass, looked up and grinned. It took a while for the raciness to give way to a more supple mouth feel, but the food brought it right there.
The best dish with the Chassagne was probably the simplest, a thin slice of Iberian jamón with roasted Belgian endive and a loose Parmesan-flavored custard.
Pinot Noir was on the table the next night at est., chef Peter Doyle's paean to stylish simplicity in the updated Establishment Hotel. But where Marque pushes the culinary envelope, Doyle seems happy to cook traditional food and serve it without fuss.
The menu takes a unique approach. A chef's menu of nine courses goes for A$140 (about $112). The heart of the menu consists of five sections, each with four or five options. You can take one from each section for A$120, or have a first course for A$36, a main for A$48, dessert for A$25 and sides for A$10.
On a previous visit, I was taken with Doyle's brilliant idea to freeze mignonette, the vinegary topping for oysters, into a granita. You spoon it on your raw oysters with little espresso spoons. The icy tartness makes a uniquely refreshing complement to the minerally oysters.
Since neither my guest nor I was in a mood for a long chef's menu, we picked two dishes each, and 36 bucks seemed excessive for four oysters, even with frozen vinegar. So I started with king prawns, which must have been 3 1/2 inches across, grilled sweet and succulent. There were three of them, served over a warm vegetable melange that included zucchini flowers, zucchini cut into thin strips, and chanterelles in a shiitake vinaigrette. I can't figure how this is the same price as four oysters, but I felt good about my choice.
"Twenty-four Hour Suckling Pig" was too tempting to pass up, and we both thought a Pinot Noir would be the thing with the fork-tender, intensely flavorful meat. I avoided several wines I knew well on the list because I wanted to try something new. Port Philip 2004, from Mornington Peninsula, comes from the same winemaker who makes Kooyong, but it wasn't as vibrant and complete to me. That's the price of experimentation; sometimes it works for you, sometimes it doesn't.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I stumbled on a place that, for A$7, mixes together your choice of cooked and raw organic ingredients with their own salad dressings, puts it into a wrap and toasts it. Best seven bucks I have spent recently on food.
Level 1, 252 George St, Sydney, NSW, Australia 2000
Phone (61) 9240 3010
355 Crown Street, Surry Hills NSW Australia 2010
Phone (61) (2) 9332 2225