The Age Good Food Guide 2015: trends
Watch out meat, vegetables are hot stuff. Heirloom tomatoes take centre stage at the Town Mouse, Carlton. Photo: Eddie Jim
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- Video: The Age Good Food Guide 2015 awards
You don't have to be a committed restaurant trainspotter to have noticed this year's prevailing theme - the diffusion brand. Restaurateurs have taken a leaf out of the fashion industry's book and embraced the cheaper, louder, more youthful sibling and spin-off - a place to go for a casual night with friends rather than the full bells-and-whistles experience. Jimmy Grants, Hellenic Republic, Meatball and Wine and Huxtable's Huxtaburger all went forth and multiplied.
Another thing we've noticed as this guide turns 35 - the shelf-life of a restaurant is shortening, dramatically. Relative newcomers were reborn and had fairly mayfly life cycles: Mama Baba became Le Grand Cirque, then closed in the space of months; and PM24 was reborn as Lucy Liu's.
Places that make it to their 10th birthday are anomalies. It makes stayers such as Flower Drum, Abla's and France-Soir even more remarkable. As we celebrate all of the above, here's how we're eating now.
Snap, crackle and pop
The sound of fermenting emanates from a growing number of restaurant kitchens. It's the pointy end of a ''lost'' culinary arts revival. Pickles are also crowding plates, sometimes too eagerly. And kimchi (try the Kong version) continued to jump out of the jar into dishes that couldn't find Korea on the map, such as Hammer and Tong's octopus or Pope Joan's snapper.
Watch out, meat
Vegetables are on a status drive. Abundant heirloom varieties have gone positively haute. Expect more dishes where greens are stars and not support acts from chefs such as Town Mouse's Dave Verheul, who gives red cabbage some slow-cooked love.
Italian food remains the largest national cuisine represented in the Guide, accounting for about one in seven listed restaurants. But it was good to see a rise in modern Vietnamese with some funky newcomers (hello Uncle and Saigon Sally) and several small places and chains delivering a modern take on banh mi. And there was a brief spike in Eastern European food with Sezar and Brutale stepping into the ring.
Blame kale if you will, but greens are the new black, taking over from the overused (and annoyingly dubbed) ''superfoods'' such as quinoa on menus with notions of - eek - health and vitality. Grains continue to bust out of breakfast, and more chefs are catering to those with dietary issues. Cumulus Inc's cracked wheat, freekeh and barberry salad remains the genre's poster child.
The lonely piece of protein with a simple jus often passes as a main course these days. Look out for bill shock after adding a salad and fries to that wagyu steak.
Cheek (beef) by jowl (pork)
Beef cheek and pork jowl … these were the meats we wanted to eat, the stars of the past 12 months; lamb shoulder and neck, too. We liked to choose our protein by its breed, the rarer the better (Footscray's Station Hotel lists its beef's breeder), or by all sorts of organic and free-range options, too.
The trend for food rooted in terroir has given rise to the second wave of indigenous ingredients, incorporated seamlessly into menus, whether lemon myrtle and finger lime or the meat of the moment, wallaby. Kangaroo is hopping on to more menus, such as Jim McDougall's at Stefano's Cellar, where it stars in a brilliant carpaccio.
And while we're rooting around...
We still continue to prize food that's seasonal, had a short trip from farm to table, is wild or foraged. ''Eat your greens'' became ''eat your weeds'' as chickweed, wood sorrell, purslane and nettles (saucing pasta at Moon Under Water, in risotto at Tutto Bene) continued to show up at haute and haughty restaurants.
Oriental ingredients are being used in ways that are in no way ''fusion''. Spot yuzu (with rare tuna, at No. 8) and wakame, daikon and dashi on savoury and sweet menus, while Korean is on the way up.
Twice is nice
With restaurants needing to turn tables to turn a profit, the choice for diners is fairly inglorious - eat at nursery hour, or so late your stomach is in danger of digesting itself. Many restaurants offered two sittings: Coda, Tonka, Huxtable, Anada, Lau's, Lee Ho Fook, MoVida and Maha among them. We'll concede it's better than no bookings at all. And who knew we'd be regularly queueing for breakfast?
So-long sous vide
It's so last year. Meat is getting its mojo back with real cooking. Open flames, smoke and charcoal are de rigueur. Josper oven? 'Course. Binchotan? Is there any other charcoal? Ask Northern Light chef Adam Liston.
Peppers are hot, really…
Simply grilled, griddled, barbecued or baked with a sprinkle of salt, bowls of piquillos, friggitellos, or something from nonna's garden (Valentino) all won us over as we played Russian roulette with our appetisers. As Bar Lourinha staff warned: "Around one in 10 is really hot."
We're moving to Richmond
Smith Street, Southbank and Flinders Lane remain our big food precincts, but with four new entries in the Guide, and more on the way, Richmond seems set to become a dining hotspot, as Mister Jennings, Meatball & Wine and Feast of Merit joined the strip.
We're doing it in the house
Making your own butter (at Epocha, paired with its own bread), cheese, yoghurt, honey, pickles, ferments and charcuterie is about exerting greater quality control, and it's a good thing.
Some food is too crumby
Understood, dotting dishes with sweet and savoury crumbs adds texture, but using them is like having children - just because nearly everyone can do it, doesn't mean they should.
Restaurants went a bit Disney
We saw a couple of flirtations with theme restaurants, both with French names, Philippa Sibley's Prix Fixe drawing inspiration from theatre; Manu Fieldel's Le Grand Cirque going Francophile-circus, but closing in July.
And dishes grew dishier
Bespoke plates surfaced in many restaurants, like Attica, handmade by ceramicists for the chefs. They ranged from rough-hewn and oddly shaped plates to luxe Japanese-inspired bowls. At best they were things of beauty; at worst, eating off them was like screeching nails on blackboard.
Dried, dehydrated milk became a thing. Crisp sheets crowned dishes both savoury and sweet.
The fifth flavour
The search for umami, the savoury bliss point (think parmesan, soy, even cheeseburger), the so-called fifth flavour after sour, sweet, spicy and salty, became the Golden Snitch of the food world as chefs sought to incorporate it into their menus. At Beechworth's Provenance, Michael Ryan proved a master of the art.
The sweet stuff
Salted caramel has officially jumped the shark - but licorice, coconut, popcorn and bacon, as well as vegetables (Brae's fried parsnip, Royal Mail's zucchini sponge and Saint Crispin's carrot dessert) are now commonplace at the sweet end, where sour and salty elements are likely to share the dessert limelight. Marshmallow, both sweet and savoury, had a moment, too.
The Age Good Food Guide 2015 will be available for $10 with The Saturday Age on August 30 from participating newsagents. It can also be purchased in selected bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au/theagegfg2015 for $24.99. #goodfoodguide