In search of the country's best food experiences, the co-editor of the national Good Food Guide heads to Darwin for one action-packed weekend.
No, I didn't have any Wake in Fright moments ("It's the end of the bloody world!") No, I didn't wrestle a croc, box a kangaroo or get stung by a deadly jellyfish.
That said, the vibration of Darwin is ... a little different. It feels, to the casual observer, like there's danger at every turn. And to be brutally honest, the Everything There Is Deadly motto I went in with may never quite have left my head.
It's definitely hard to remove the idea that at any moment you might have your arm bitten off stumbling home from the pub. Or maybe I just spend too much time reading the headlines of the NT News.
Even the weather is its own creation. It has the feeling of south-east Asia: high humidity, searing heat and unrelenting sunshine. And it's one of the most relaxing places I've ever visited in Australia, once I stopped flinching at every rustling bush.
There are two ways to really get the most out of your time in Darwin. It's either a trip down to Adventure Town (daytrips out to the Katherine, hikes, helicopters) or a lazy "nope, definitely not leaving the city centre" attitude to drinking, dining and light rambles. I took the latter approach.
Given Darwin is roughly four hours flying from Sydney/Melbourne, it's totally doable to have a great weekend here. It does, however, mean cramming a lot into two clear days.
There's definitely something to be said for arriving on a Thursday evening, doing the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets and then greeting Friday afresh. If that's out of the question, try this lot out for size ...
Now, there are many fine balconies to while away an afternoon in Darwin. It's pretty much a local pastime, seeking relief from that heat under slow-turning fans, lazily moving warm air. And sure, you could sit inside in the airconditioning, but you'd miss out on the passing human traffic of Mitchell Street. The best place to really experience this is on the balcony at the Hotel Darwin with a round of beers.
If you make it past the pub, you'll want to head to Hanuman for dinner, just a few minutes' walk away. It's some of the most delicious and interesting food you'll eat in Darwin – not least for the proper Nonya chicken satay. Juicy chicken pieces are fragrant with coriander, lemongrass and cumin, served with a piquant, tamarind-heavy peanut sauce. The curries are the thing here, like the meen moolie – wild-caught fillets of barramundi, gently poached in a light coconut-based sauce heavy on fresh turmeric, and delicate curry leaves.
It's a room and a cocktail list that defies expectation, looking for all the world like the back end of a Gold Coast casino, serving fluorescent aqua-coloured cocktails. But within an hour of our arrival the place is entirely full and waiters here know how to work a room. If there was one pony to bet on when it comes to Darwin restaurants, this is it.
Given this is the main day for adventuring, you'll want to make an early start. At Roma Cafe, you'll find big communal tables indoors (airconditioned – aaaah) or plenty of two-tops outdoors if you want privacy. Here, you'll find good coffee, a very good eggwhite omelette and very, very good banana pancakes.
Best of all, given these guys are in the heart of the city, it's a perfect pit stop for a gentle adventure out to Litchfield National Park. This is landscape like nowhere else. Giant ant mounds make up natural sculptures by the side of the red dirt road, offset by a perfectly clear electric blue sky. There's even an errant water buffalo that's either lost or very thirsty standing in a puddle. A gentle hike past the falls and down the other side is both enough to blow out the city cobwebs as well as to work up a thirst. The Noonamah Tavern, to my utter delight, doubles as the official bar of the neighbouring rodeo stadium. Yee ha.
It's a bit of a commitment getting out of town, but it's well worth it. And PM Eat and Drink offers a mercifully late lunch menu for when you get back. It's about as contemporary a fitout as you'll find here, offering a grab-bag of on-trend interior motifs (there are your edison globes, your treated concrete floors, your wall murals, and your all-important collection of succulents) and a whole lot of little share plates. There's pan-fried haloumi drizzled with honey and toasted sesame seeds lifted with a squeeze of lemon, a bloomin' onion with spiced mayo, skirt steak tacos, and a very refreshing watermelon and feta salad. It's definitely a side of Darwin snacking I didn't expect to find, but I'm glad I did.
Not as glad, however, as when I was sitting down to an entire black pepper crab much later in the evening at Noodle House. The dinner menu offers local mud crabs served one of five ways, but Singaporean black pepper style is a rare find in Australia. Yes, it's an exxy indulgence, but it's juicy and heavy on the meat, which falls out of the massive claws in generous shreds. And really, how many times can you eat a muddy this close to the source?
An early-morning walk around the water gives you some real perspective on where you are. The tide has come in so far and so quickly, the large mangroves are submerged up to their middle branches. The water is irresistibly pristine. And full of just about anything you'd care to name that'll kill you and eat you for supper with black pepper.
And now, if you, like me, are secretly sad you didn't get accosted by a saltwater beastie, there's always Crocosaurus Cove. Admittedly, I'm an idiot for a tourist trap. I absolutely love sights and all the awful souvenirs that go with them. So seeing a sign advertising a Cage of Death was almost too much to bear. At the cove, you can get in a large plastic cylinder and be lowered into a tank where a 900-kilogram, three-legged crocodile is snoozing. Watching a few people do it, I can't say I'm rushing to spend the $180 it costs to have someone dangle a chicken head on a string trying to entice said crocodile into the tank (he's really not keen on moving). But it doesn't stop me paying the admission. Especially when you get to hang out in the nursery with all the baby crocs. They're almost cute.
But if you're reading this you probably want to know where you can eat one, not swim with one. That can be done at the Pearl, where they're serving croc-corn – little crocodile nuggets that have been deep-fried and served in a little cone. It's like the world's most state-specific bar snack. And caffeine fiends, if there's one place to be doing your brunching while you're here, it's Trader Cafe out on the industrial estate. They are doing some really exceptional coffee work and offer a salami toasted sandwich I'm still thinking about, and breakfast hummus with a nicely acidic salad and crispbreads. And there are piles and piles of cookbooks strewn around the room. Any cafe that carries a well-thumbed copy of the Cumulus Inc cookbook is all right by me.
Crocosaurus Cove 58 Mitchell Street, Darwin
Hotel Darwin 39 Mitchell Street, Darwin
Hanuman 93 Mitchell Street, Darwin
Noodle House 84 Mitchell Street, Darwin
Noonamah Tavern 1801 Stuart Highway, Noonamah
The Pearl The Vic courtyard, 9/27 Smith Street, Darwin
PM Eat and Drink Corner of Knuckey Street & Austin Lane, Darwin
Roma Cafe 9 Cavenagh Street, Darwin
Trader Cafe t3/60 Winnellie Road, Darwin