You don’t have to die and go to heaven to eat at these bucket-list restaurants – but you’ll feel like you have.
Reviews by Anthony Huckstep
Sydneysiders thought they had great restaurants sewn up. Until, of course, Ester opened its doors. With a focus on amazing food and booze, it removed the fuss of finer dining (and proved that you don’t need tablecloths to be considered a major player). Sit at the bar or in groups, elbow to elbow, in a boisterously energetic room. Chef and owner Mat Lindsay’s smart, respectful dishes pay homage to best-in-class produce – most of which is given a hot kiss by the wood-fired oven. Burnt butter is lathered on king prawns before being roasted. Kingfish head and collar gets the same hot loving but arrives with lettuce cups, pickled cucumber, chilli, herbs and a caramel-soy vinaigrette. Housemade white bread hosts blood sausage in a hat tilt to our famed sausage sanger. Ester is the future of dining Down Under, right now.
46/52 Meagher Street, Chippendale; (02) 8068 8279
No-one embodies the new wave of Australian dining more than chef Clayton Wells and his movable feast at Automata. He has a natural drive to hero native ingredients with complex technique. And what arrives on the plate? A simple aesthetic with bags of flavour. This game changer opened in The Old Clare Hotel redevelopment in 2015 and has fast become one of our best diners. The industrial fit-out features polished concrete floors, a curvaceous timber ceiling and lights fashioned from pistons. Affable, proficient service is backed by a left-of-centre wine list that’s as quaffable as it is accessible. It’s just the tonic for Wells’s five-course feast. XO adds oomph to steamed eggplant. Wobbly pork belly rests over beans and tamari. Bonito gets a grassy hit from new-season asparagus. It’s a gorgeous ride taking us in a new culinary direction.
5 Kensington Street, Chippendale; (02) 8277 8555
A visit to Sydney isn’t complete without a tour of our famous “nuns in a scrum” and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better dining experience than that housed under its sails. Bennelong – from the team behind Quay – is nothing short of spectacular. A delightful bar, pre-theatre menus, the Cured & Cultured counter and the restaurant proper deliver myriad drinking and dining options. An Australian-heavy wine list is a joy, the service is smart and succinct, and the food of Peter Gilmore and Rob Cockerill is as technically astounding as it is delicious. John Dory arrives coated in the chef’s signature umami butter and decorated with turnips; confit carrots partner sweet suckling pig; and a passionfruit pavlova’s meringue wisps mimic the Opera House itself. Bennelong is a triumph.
Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney; (02) 9240 8000
Reviews by Morag Kobez
Nu Nu Restaurant
Okay, you have to venture to Far North Queensland. But it’s worth it. Nu Nu perfectly epitomises the tropical paradise that is Palm Cove. The restaurant overlooks the Coral Sea – replete with swaying palms and waves lapping on the shore – while the laid-back atmosphere of the open dining room (with its abundant greenery, timber deck and pitched canvas roof) evokes a glamping-type vibe. The food reflects the purity of the landscape but it also has the sophistication of its big-city counterparts. Star-anise-spiced barbecue duck is a case in point. And Pacific oysters are tucked into a feather-light batter then served on green-tea noodles with ginger caramel. Nothing beats a fancy, fruity popsicle on a balmy night, except perhaps another of Nu Nu’s excellent cocktails – its Long Island Iced Tea is sure to take the edge off the heat.￼
1 Veivers Road, Palm Cove; (07) 4059 1880
There’s no doubt Esquire calls for a leap of faith. The dégustation menu changes daily; it could be 12 dishes or it could be twice that many. It’ll cost anywhere between $175 and $240 per head with matching wines. The menu descriptions serve mainly to heighten curiosity – examples include “highly marbled tongue bitter greens onion”, “boar lomo”, “salsify butter bbq flavours” and “lozenges”. Sure, the hallmarks of distinction are evident in the assured service, stunning Story Bridge views, slick Scandi interior and smart wine list but the level of creativity and precision is fully revealed in the procession of plates that follow. Owner-chef Ryan Squires has been consistently recognised, not only for his ingenuity but also his restraint in executing unique dishes that pay tribute to remarkable, uncommon ingredients – especially seafood. Take that leap; you only live once.
145 Eagle Street, Brisbane; (07) 3220 2123
This venue is now permanently closed.
Reviews by Larissa Dubecki
The anchoa is a classic by now – a fat anchovy fillet with smoked tomato sorbet on a thin crouton. So is the cecina – slices of air-dried Wagyu with poached egg and truffle foam. It might seem odd that a Spanish restaurant can be considered the very essence of Melbourne but MoVida has it licked. From the prime position on Hosier Lane, in the city’s street-art epicentre, to the brio of the snappy waiters, this little piece of the Iberian Peninsula – decked out in timber and terracotta – is a beguiling mix of home and away. It’s less the ideal of the tapas bar these days and more a proper restaurant (complete with long lead times to snaffle a table). But one bite of smoked eel, celeriac remoulade and dried jamón, or goat’s cheese and quince paste wrapped in brik pastry, and you’ll know the wait was worth it.
1 Hosier Lane, Melbourne; (03) 9663 3038
Everything that’s good about modern dining is rolled into this Smith Street shopfront: the unassuming staff, the ironic soundtrack of ’70s and ’80s soft-rock hits, the gripping wine list and the brigade of tattooed chefs slaving in the open kitchen. Oh yes, Saint Crispin sashays with style. And the food? It’s pure joy – from opening snacks, such as pork crackle wafers dusted in sesame dashi powder, to bigger dishes that combine a European palate and a modern, sometimes Asian-leaning sensibility. Swordfish and sticky black rice team up with white-rice foam, while kangaroo tartare goes Japanesque with yuzu and toasted nori. Really, it’s fine dining in jeans and trainers. saintcrispin.com.au
￼300 Smith Street, Collingwood; (03) 9419 2202
As premises go, it’s disarmingly simple: Tipo 00 is a pasta bar, doing it the way Italians have always done. The reality is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Stepping into this packed restaurant is like landing in 1960s Rome – an impression only augmented once the crack service team have magicked a glass of Friulano into your hand. From there it’s a clear-cut case of Italians doing it better: silken ribbons of pappardelle tossed with braised rabbit, hazelnuts and marjoram; thin slices of grilled ox tongue bedecked with pink peppercorns; and the Tipomisù, a cheekily boozy take on the classic chocolate, mascarpone and coffee dessert.
361 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne; (03) 9942 3946
Reviews by Lucy Barbour
For country-style grandeur, head to the Canberra suburb of Pialligo, which is home to the Colonial-style Farmhouse – a hatted restaurant – and the more casual Garden Pavilions. Both overlook landscaped lawns, a thriving olive grove, vineyard and orchard, plus a smokehouse that produces award-winning bacon (try it with poached eggs and wood-fired sourdough at the Pavilions). Homegrown produce features prominently in the Farmhouse’s dégustations. Pan-fried scallops are dressed with blood orange, ginger and pumpkin sauce, while snapper is flavoured with saltbush, celeriac and jamón Ibérico. To finish, sip on local botrytis.
18 Kallaroo Road, Pialligo; (02) 6247 6060
Monster Kitchen and Bar
Of-the-moment Hotel Hotel has many talking points and the entrance to Monster Kitchen and Bar is one of them. The 3D-like ascent through a tunnel of artfully arranged recycled timber leads to a retro bar that attracts patrons from sun-up to sundown. Hotel guests start their day with coffee and spelt granola, while night owls flock to graze on pork buns, beef tartare and yabby jaffles washed down with martinis. The adjoining restaurant faces Lake Burley Griffin but equally mesmerising is the tender lamb shoulder with pistachios, yoghurt and pomegranate. Cap it off with a silky crema Catalana before retreating upstairs to bed.
25 Edinburgh Avenue, Canberra; (02) 6287 6287
Reviews by Max Veenhuyzen
Dine at Wildflower so you can admire the State Buildings redevelopment it belongs to. Dine at Wildflower for the rooftop restaurant’s arresting views of the city. Dine at Wildflower and marvel at the dining room’s clean lines, glossy marble and dapper waitstaff. Dine at Wildflower to taste Jed Gerrard’s thrilling interpretations of West Australian ingredients: wood-grilled marron with a nutty beurre noisette mayonnaise and sweet Shark Bay scallops played off against unripe berries. But, most of all, dine at Wildflower because once this fine-diner reaches its potential as Perth’s best restaurant, landing a table is going to be really, really tough. ￼
1 Cathedral Avenue, Perth; (08) 6168 7855
Lulu La Delizia
No chef in WA is cooking Italian food quite like Joel Valvasori-Pereza. During his four-year stint at Lalla Rookh, he impressed CBD diners with his gutsy takes on Northern Italian flavours (key motifs: butter, pork and woody herbs and spices). Out on his own and overseeing a smaller operation, our man is now able to really focus on his craft, especially his handmade pasta. From benchmark tagliatelle judiciously sauced with a meat ragù to lesser-seen shapes such as bigoli (fat tubes of spaghetti synonymous with Venice) and Friuli’s sweet-savoury filled half-moons known as cjalsons, Lulu La Delizia is as much a study in tradition as it is in deliciousness. Switched-on service is another tick for this hot new restaurant.
Shop 5, 97 Rokeby Road (Forrest Walk), Subiaco; (08) 9381 2466
Reviews by Sam McCue
Nabilil Dreaming Sunset Dinner Cruise
The cool, crisp dry season in the Top End is a magical time of year. True – this is not a restaurant in the traditional sense. But what could be more of a bucket-list experience than this dinner cruise that takes in breathtaking Nitmiluk Gorge, about 350 kilometres from Darwin? As the sun sets behind the sheer gorge walls, the onboard chef assembles a tasting plate of melaleuca-smoked chicken, saltbush kangaroo and crocodile bisque. That’s followed by your choice of wild-caught barramundi with king prawns, thyme eye fillet or confit duck breast with native herbs. Dessert is coconut and ginger crème brûlée. A sublime experience in a mystical setting. Departs 4.30pm most days (April to October).
Nitmiluk Gorge, Nitmiluk (near Katherine); 1300 146 743
Reviews by Nigel Hopkins
Owner-chef Jock Zonfrillo has redefined our understanding of the nuances and flavours of native Australian produce with a series of remarkably crafted and approachable tasting menus. Up to 20 tasting courses – what Orana calls alkoopina – make up the meal, starting with a tiny loaf of potato damper crisped over hot coals or a sensational bowl of Goolwa pipis with smoky eucalypt leaves in a broth of their own juices. Larger offerings include a fillet of Coorong mullet – one of the few warm dishes – seared over coals then brushed with an emulsion of Geraldton wax. The wine matches are clever and the service is thoughtful. This is one of the most exciting all-Australian food journeys imaginable.
Upper level, 285 Rundle Street, Adelaide; (08) 8232 3444
The huge fire pit has been ditched in a colourful redesign of the restaurant but the fire in the belly remains. Landmark dishes like the whole roasted cow’s head have also gone, to be replaced by dishes such as Africola Boom-Boom Hummus and crisp eggplant with cumin and shallot sauce. Owner and chef Duncan Welgemoed has jumped from South Africa to Middle Eastern-influenced North Africa with fiery takes on staples such as a creamy baba ganoush with seaweed, black cod roe with fried peppers and roasted cauliflower with tahini and pomegranate molasses. Vegetables now rule but some meat dishes have survived, with the utterly delicious piri-piri chicken and its hot, spicy Boom!chakalaka sauce starring. Of course, some things never change – Africola is still noisy, still frenetic and still great fun.
4 East Terrace, Adelaide; (08) 8223 3885
Reviews by Jo Cook
The Source Restaurant
With Vince Trim moving up the ranks to executive chef, The Source Restaurant at Mona has a stunning new menu that’s full of exciting flavours. The fine-diner fits the aesthetic of David Walsh’s eclectic museum perfectly. To wit? Each glass-topped dining table is a unique display curated by Mona’s first lady, Kirsha Kaechele. The drinks list is longer than there are pieces in the museum, with wines from near (Hobart’s Derwent Estate) and far (Long Island, New York). The food is a flavour bomb of native Australian produce: wallaby tartare sits with crisp saltbush, garlic chips, toasted macadamias, wattle and mountain pepper, while a bowl of Tasmanian abalone, ham, shiitake, soft egg, broccolini and kelp stem is umami-rich. Finish on an elderflower panna cotta with sorrel granita, apple crumb and freeze-dried lychee. mona.net.au￼
Ether Building, Museum of Old and New Art, 655 Main Road, Berriedale; (03) 6277 9904
Osteria at Stefano Lubiana Wines
You’ll think you’re in Italy when you arrive at Osteria, 30 minutes north of Hobart. There’s the family’s Tuscan-style villa up on the hill and the vineyard restaurant below, which has stunning views over the garden and the Derwent River in the distance. Italian-born chef Claudio Guidetti designs the weekly changing menu around the produce from the biodynamic vegetable garden. Along with his team, he pickles, preserves and ferments – and uses only ethically raised meat and line-caught sustainable seafood. To start, try the beetroot “ravioli” filled with goat’s curd and served with merlot vino cotto and toasted almonds, followed by charcoal-grilled black grouper, broccolini, yoghurt and chilli oil. Stunning desserts by Estonian pastry chef Kaisa Kliimand include a licorice tart and celery granita – perfetto with an espresso made with organic coffee beans.
60 Rowbottoms Road, Granton; (03) 6263 7457
Top image: Wildflower