Australian cuisine is tricky to define. Some might say it’s a pie filled with mystery meat and gloopy brown sauce, or smashed avo on sourdough with a flat white to finish. Or is it Vegemite, Cherry Ripes and pavlova (back off, New Zealand) that define the nation’s diet? Then again, so-called modern Australian, which takes inspiration from all over the world and fuses it together, has often been touted as the national cuisine. Or could it be, as an increasing number of top chefs believe, that our food culture should be about native produce? Kakadu plum, lemon myrtle, quandong, emu, riberry, river mint, magpie goose and green ants – these foods are as local as they come and they’re popping up on menus from Sydney to Perth. We’ve scoured the land to find restaurants working with Indigenous ingredients to delicious effect.
Attica appears consistently at the top of best-restaurant lists – in fact, it was the only Australian restaurant to feature on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2016 (at number 33). Expat Kiwi chef and owner Ben Shewry interprets the culture of his adopted homeland through his cooking, each dish a story of Australia. On the current tasting menu are dishes that sound simple but are anything but: Gazza’s Vegemite Pie is a riff on a couple of Aussie obsessions in the form of braised lamb in a Vegemite pastry topped with cheese; Avocado on Toast is a deeply green combination of avocado, finger lime and mint on delicate crispbread; and An Imperfect History of Ripponlea as Told by Tarts is, well, just that.
An Imperfect History of Ripponlea as Told by Tarts from Attica.
Each of the three tiny tarts represents the Melbourne suburb in which Attica sits: the first is filled with ingredients local Indigenous people would have eaten, such as riberry, native pepper and blood lime, while the second touches on its dairying era and the third its Jewish migrants. If you want a taste of Ben Shewry’s creations, get in quickly: Attica is closing in February 2017 for a revamp.
74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, Victoria; (03) 9530 0111
Chef Kylie Kwong incorporates Australian native ingredients into her Cantonese-style cooking at Sydney institution Billy Kwong. It’s a fabulous combination – think of traditional Chinese flavours: sweet, salty, sour and hot combined with the bitter, earthy, astringent, tart tastes of native ingredients. The current menu includes steamed dumplings filled with warrigal greens; crisp savoury salt bush cakes; stir-fried calamari with sticky pork and a finger lime, chilli and ginger dipping sauce; and braised caramel wallaby tail with black bean and chilli.
Steamed warrigan greens dumplings at Billy Kwong. Image by Penny Lane.
1/28 MacLeay Street, Potts Point, New South Wales; (02) 9332 3300
Set in the garden of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E.) in Ballarat, Saltbush Kitchen serves breakfast and lunch classics with excellent native adaptations. A house-made labneh is spiked with river mint; dressings are infused with lemon myrtle and pepperberry; and on a cheesy salami toastie, finger lime slices act as a kind of sharp, pleasing pickle. To drink, try a wattleseed soda with kaffir lime and orange.
Wattleseed soda at Saltbush.
102 Stawell Street South, Ballarat, Victoria; 1800 287 113
Take one Scotsman of Italian descent and plonk him in the middle of Australia. The outcome? One of the most interesting and dynamic restaurants in the country. Scottish chef Jock Zonfrillo was struck by native foods when he arrived in Australia and set off on a culinary tour of the nation, spending months with Aboriginal communities and studying their food and cooking techniques. His discoveries now pepper the menu at Restaurant Orana, his Rundle Mall fine diner. Zonfrillo’s enthusiasm for local ingredients is palpable in every dish, especially Goolwa pippies served with beach succulents; and kangaroo, gubinge (a type of bush plum), wild garlic and grasses. For dessert, there are playful takes on classics, such as the Native Currant Fool and a pannacotta of buttermilk, strawberry and eucalyptus.
1/285 Rundle Street, Adelaide, South Australia; (08) 8232 3444
On the Cairns waterfront overlooking the Trinity Inlet, Ochre uses native ingredients on its menus to great effect. The dishes sound safe: there’s pork belly, lamb tenderloin and antipasti – but there’s a definite bush-food twist to each. Antipasti consists of salmon and green ant gravlax, smoked kangaroo, Kakadu plum and emu wontons, smoked crocodile with Davidson plum sauce, and on the side, riberry mayo and damper crumb. The lamb is heightened by a garlicky bush tomato aïoli. And that old mainstay, pork belly? It’s served with local scallops, cauliflower puree and Davidson plum jam. For dessert, there’s a quandong brûlée and a wattleseed pav served with Davidson plum sorbet and macadamia biscotti.
Harbour Lights 6/1 Marlin Parade, Cairns, Queensland; (07) 4051 0100
Vue de Monde
So dedicated is chef Shannon Bennett to Australian produce that even the dining tables at Vue de Monde are covered in kangaroo leather. However, it’s what’s on the table that’s most important, and Bennett’s menu is as inventive as his décor. Dinner is served as a series of four to 10 courses, depending on your appetite and culinary curiosity. Some of the highlights include Flinders Island wallaby with rock melon and fennel; red kangaroo served with native fruit pickles and spicy greens, and Gumnuts, little balls made of eucalyptus ice-cream.
Rialto Towers, 525 Collins Street, Melbourne, Victoria; (03) 9691 3888
At the second-best hotel in the world (according to Conde Nast Traveler) lives an equally fabulous restaurant. Helmed by Jed Gerrard, Wildflower’s glassed-in dining room occupies the rooftop of Como the Treasury in the centre of Perth. Locally farmed and foraged foods form the basis of the menu and native vegetables, fruits and aromatics serve to elevate dishes into the heavens. Think this is hyperbole? Don’t judge until you’ve tried the marron with river greens, salted radish, chives and a preserved finger lime butter that pulls the whole thing together. Desserts are just as inventive: sandalwood custard is accompanied by a refreshing bottlebrush sorbet and candied rosella flowers and there’s a native Eton mess of sorts, involving lemon myrtle cream, Davidson plum and meringue.
A dish from Wildflower's ever-changing menu.
Como the Treasury; 1 Cathedral Avenue, Perth; (08) 6168 7855
The menu changes daily based on what’s sprouting in the kitchen garden at Brae. All manner of exotic things grow in this fantastical food forest, but we’re most impressed by the array of native plants. Currently, Brae’s list of home-grown ingredients includes lemon myrtle, lilly pilly, coastal rosemary, ruby salt bush and muntries, which are put to great use in the kitchen by chef Dan Hunter, along with foraged ingredients such as coastal bone fruit plus quandong and mountain pepper grown by local farmers. Recent appearances on the menu are raw pea and lemon aspen tart; and wallaby, flax, lemon myrtle and wattle.
Beef tendon and mountain pepper; wallaby and flax, lemon myrtle and wattle from Brae.
4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra, Victoria; (03) 5236 226
Revered Sydney fine-diner Quay uses ingredients such as native succulent ice plant, mountain spinach and samphire in its intricate dishes. On the tasting menu is Arkady lamb matched with native nasturtium and salty, crisp ice plant; and organic green rice and tofu are heightened by saltbush and seaweed. Such is his interest in growing things that chef Peter Gilmore wrote a book Organum, which delves into the vast array of edible species native to Australia. When he’s not whipping up gems from Quay’s internationally renowned menu or devising Masterchef stumpers such as the Snow Egg, he’s in his garden, coaxing exotic species like the apple-flavoured silver sorrel from France and edible Australian native flora into being.
Overseas Passenger Terminal, Hickson Road, The Rocks, New South Wales; (02) 9251 5600
Main image: Cuppa Tea and Mint Slice in the Garden from Attica.