Australia's best restaurants: Terry Durack's top picks

Australia on a plate: Scallops with beach succulents at Orana.
Australia on a plate: Scallops with beach succulents at Orana. Photo: Matthew Turner

All change! Ten years ago, only three of these restaurants existed. Ten years ago, every restaurant that made the list would have been in Melbourne or Sydney. Ten years ago, most of them would have been serving modern French food.

Ten years on, and my "critic's choice" of the best restaurants in Australia takes in Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia as well as NSW and Victoria. Sorry, WA, ACT, and NT; your time will come, but right now, this is the call.

To achieve this result I dined around Australia, then employed a complex algorithm that involved pouring a glass of wine and interrogating myself as to which Australian restaurants I would happily take overseas friends, to show off what is happening in Australia right now. They're not necessarily my "favourites" because I don't have favourites. Nor are they cheap, because this particular brief calls for the best of the best. And while our perception of what is "best" is evolving, it must still represent outstanding food, professional and personal service, and a dining experience with more than a bit of magic.

Martin Benn, head chef of Sepia.
Martin Benn, head chef of Sepia. Photo: Nic Walker

Agree or disagree with the dozen, but you can't deny that we're doing bloody well on the dining front. I still wanted to squeeze in Melbourne's Flower Drum and Cutler & Co, Hobart's (soon-to-close) Garagistes, Newcastle's Subo, Brisbane's Urbane, Sydney's Sixpenny, Bentley, Café Paci and Marque and Perth's Restaurant Amuse as well, but a dozen, the last time I looked, was just 12.

Sepia | Attica | Brae | Quay | Rockpool | Orana | Momofuku Seiobo | Esquire | Magill Estate | Vue de Monde| Franklin | Biota Dining

1. Sepia

Three Michelin-starred New York chef, Eric Ripert, recently hailed Sepia as one of the top five restaurants in the world. The world is catching up with Martin Benn's natural affinity with Japanese flavours, which first surfaced during his 10 years cooking at Tetsuya's. It has now developed to such a point that a meal at Sepia is like a poetic and pinpoint-precise new-age kaiseki, running from a freakishly clever frolic of Yasa caviar, smoked bone marrow, horseradish cream and umeboshi, to cooked-to-the-second miso black cod with silken tofu and nasturtium flower butter dashi. Dessert could be the chocolate forest, complete with chocolate twigs, green tea, lavender and honey cream, rosewater jelly and crystallised fennel fronds. Wrapped up with a moody New York vibe; anticipatory and caring service from co-owner Vicky Wild and Sydney's most engaging sommelier, Rodney Setter, it's a complete and compelling dining experience.

201 Sussex Street, Sydney 02 9283 1990 sepiarestaurant.com.au

2. Attica 

No, you haven't made a mistake, that neighbourly little suburban shopping strip in the distinctly un-buzzy Melbourne suburb of Ripponlea is home to the only Australian restaurant to make the current list of the World's 50 Best Restaurants (at No.number 32). New Zealand-born Ben Shewry channels his own childhood, forages along local railway tracks, and tends a massive garden plot in the nearby Ripponlea Gardens to produce a highly personal cooking style that is utterly spell-binding. His food can be didactic. Honey is scraped from the comb at the table and combined with creamy curd and hazelnut oil; wallaby blood is cooked into mini pancakes served with house-made plum jam; and the chocolate and salted caramel Pukeko's Egg makes you feel complicit in raiding a nest.

74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, Melbourne 03 9530 0111 attica.com.au

3. Brae

Two gleaming industrial exhaust outlets emerging Dalek-like from the corrugated iron roof suggest this is no ordinary country cottage. Dan Hunter, who gained an international reputation as head chef of Mugaritz in Spain, has found his perfect niche in this picturesque 12-hectare property in the Otway hinterland. Every day, the kitchen raids its own organic gardens to add high notes to the day's menu, taken at a measured pace in the graceful, city/country dining room. Things kick off with a volley of eat-in-the-hand snacks, from a meticulously carved turnip topped with brook trout roe to gnarly burnt pretzels smeared with treacle and pork crackling dust. A roll of meltingly tender squid sits on a bed of pickled vegetables; Southern rock lobster is cleverly paired with a carrot sauce and "sea butter"; while deeply flavoured, dry-aged tajima beef comes with dehydrated cauliflower and a lush kale puree. Timing and temperature is key here, as is contrariness, right down to the savoury/sweet finish of slow-roasted parsnip with parsnip cream.

4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra 03 5236 2226 braerestaurant.com

4. Quay

OKay, so there's a dirty great ship in port, and you can't see the Opera House. Big deal. If you want to see the Opera House, go for a Bridge Walk. But if you want to see some of Sydney's most articulate and striking food, then slide in to a table at Quay. Flower-powered chef, Peter Gilmore's food is ever-evolving, as textural, floral, new dishes appear with every new crop of baby vegetables, and old favourites are re-visited and re-thought. So the all-conquering snow egg dessert could now be (spectacularly) cherry, and the confit pig jowl might come with roasted koji, shiitake, kombu, scallop and sesame. New, to me at least, is an artful dish of young bamboo shoots, tiny young black-lipped abalone, eggplant and smoked eel; and the sweet, meaty notes of Flinders Island lamb, coastal greens, baby hatsuka radish and oyster crackling. As luxe as dining gets in the harbour city.

Upper Level, Overseas passenger Terminal, The Rocks, Sydney 02 9251 5600 quay.com.au

5. Rockpool

Neil Perry has reinvented himself so many times – as chef, restaurateur, author, food recipe columnist, airline consultant, burger flipper – he needs to check the name on his chef's whites to know who he is. Throughout all incarnations, however, Rockpool, first established in the Rocks 25 years ago, set the compass for modern Australian dining. Now ensconced in the glamorous, moodily lit interior of the splendid Burns Philp Building with gifted head chef Phil Wood in the kitchen, it has a new lease of life. Wood takes Perry's commitment to local produce and Asian intonations into the future, whether it's the "rich and noble" lobster congee or the chirashi sushi of tuna, kingfish and squid. The measured, multi-course dining is confident, polished, and thoughtful, from the prawn-stuffed eggplant with pigeon "zheng shui dan" to the smoking of fresh oysters under a dome as a cute little bar snack.

11 Bridge Street, Sydney 02 9252 1888 rockpool.com

6. Orana

Scottish-born Jock Zonfrillo is not your regulation celebrity chef. He may have his own TV show (Nomad Chef), but it's on Nat Geo, so he isn't getting mobbed in shopping centres. Similarly, his Adelaide restaurant Orana isn't top-of-mind with the Australian dining public ... yet.

Zonfrillo curates similarly under-the-radar indigenous ingredients foraged from across the country to produce seductive and intelligent food with a unique sense of place. Australian cuisine can only ever happen when chefs go out and get their hands dirty, and forget the bush tucker slang and white-man attitude – this is cooking as an act of reconciliation. Coorong mulloway with native cherries and sea parsley, delicate Adelaide Hills marron with mountain pepper and sea blight; and cured wagyu brisket with riberries are as much about harmony and grace as they are about provenance. A revelation.

Orana, 285 Rundle Street, Adelaide 08 8232 3444 restaurantorana.com

7.  Momofuku Seiobo

When David Chang chose to open his first Momofuku outside New York in Sydney in late 2011, the impact was immediate. Within a year, the restaurant was awarded three hats by the SMH Good Food Guide, and stool-lined kitchen counters, chefs-turned-waiters and steamed pork buns all became part of the Sydney dining landscape. With a founding head chef as driven and talented as Ben Greeno, however, there was no way the restaurant was going to rest on its pork buns. Team Greeno kept on pushing the gastronomic boundaries, finding edifying new ways to feed hearts and minds. Witness the chicken bum nuggets, black truffle cheese toasties, and deep-fried honeycomb tripe on braised daikon. Now, as a new Momofuku general moves to head up the Australian battalion and Greeno heads to pastures new, we hope – and expect - great things from both.

The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street  level G, Sydney momofuku.com/sydney/seiobo/

8. Esquire

There is always a tension between the fickle nature of nature, and the printed menu – how does a chef promise the very best produce of the day, when diners insist on knowing what they're in for? At this stripped-back, sculpted, wood-and-stone riverside Brisbane dining room, owner/chef Ryan Squires flips the dilemma into a thrill-a-minute ride into the unknown. You won't know if dinner is 12 or 25 courses (between $120 and $160 pp) until you get there – because neither will he. Squires builds on his time at The French Laundry, El Bulli, Noma and WD 50 to start afresh every day. There's no end to the surprises, from flathead sashimi with the kapow of freshly grated horseradish to coal-roasted Clarence River octopus; or from an extraordinarily delicious slab of smoky wagyu pastrami topped with dill pickles and house-made ketchup, rich with dashi and bonito, to a single leaf of dried fermented cabbage.

145 Eagle Street, Brisbane 07 3220 2123 esquire.net.au

9. Penfolds Magill Estate

It's an almost religious experience for a wine lover to visit the original home of Penfolds wines, where Max Schubert developed the first experimental vintages of Grange in the 1950's. And now that the recently renovated state-of-the-art kitchen of Magill Estate was colonised by Scott Huggins and Emma McCaskill (whose joint CV includes Royal Mail Dunkeld, Sat Bains in Nottingham, and Narisawa in Tokyo) it's inspiring food lovers as well. The mission they chose to accept is for the food to match the living history in the exalted wine cellars. They succeed by keeping things simple, witty and damn tasty, sending out crisp-skinned Barossa Heritage pork belly with broccoli and sesame; Laura Hills lamb with carrots and garlic; and just-touched calamari with almond cream and shaved fennel. There is much joy to be had at a table in the wood-trimmed, dramatically lit dining room, those famous vines – and a glass of Grange - before you.

78 Penfold Road, Magill 08 8301 5551 magillestate.com

10. Vue de Monde

The location of local pin-up boy Shannon Bennett's flagship restaurant on the 55th floor of the Rialto building delivers far more than its dazzling "view of the world". There is a ruthlessness to the timing here that can make you feel a like a cog in the fine dining wheel, but there is also excellence, disciplined skill, and a damn lovely, almost translucent marron dish, currently served with a pine mushroom cream. The table setting is high drama, strewn within minutes with desert rocks, rock oysters and salt-cured wallaby. Resident head chef, Cory Campbell, turns Australian indigenous ingredients into stars, candy-coating smoked eel in white chocolate and caviar; searing kangaroo at the table and spiking it with munthari berries; teaming Flinders Island lamb with Australian anchovies, olive and sunflower. The soufflé is technically perfect – and really, how often can you say that? – and the walk-through wine cellar is worth a detour, if you have the time."

Level 55, Rialto, 525 Collins Street, Melbourne vuedemonde.com.au

11. Franklin

Tasmania's food culture is rising as slowly and inevitably as unleavened sourdough, as the state's brilliant food producers inspire young chefs to open highly considered restaurants such as this. Set in the splendid Hobart Mercury building, Franklin is a brutally minimalist concrete bunker with an ethic of hard work built around a calm open kitchen and central wood-burning Scotch oven. It's in high contrast to chef David Moyle's last post at Stackings at Peppermint Bay with its d'Entrecasteaux channel views, but he has turned it into a dining destination without such blessings. Instead, there's whole pigeon roasted in said oven, warm beef heart mortadella made in-house, and steamed clams with fried bread, peas and lovage; all flavour-first; all with a raw honesty that connects them back to air, land and sea. The crusty sourdough from next door neighbour Pigeon Whole Bakery is served as a course in its own right, with a rather wondrous dried oyster butter.

30 Argyle Street, Hobart 03 6234 3375 franklinhobart.com.au  

12. Biota Dining

Regional restaurants don’t come any more regional than Biota. Owner/chef James Viles sources sea plants and seafood come from the nearby South Coast; pork is from Redleaf Farm; chickens from Holmbrae; cheese from Pecora Dairy, and vegetables, herbs and hone from the restaurant’s own garden and hive. It all sounds very rustic – until it goes through the sleek, high-tech kitchen and comes out as successive waves of sophisticated, and quite dramatic, contemporary plates. The 6 or 9 course menu might kick off with sweet potato crisps sandwiching creamed oyster and caramelised cucumber. Oyster milk is poured over freshly podded peas and fresh cheese; a glistening little mound of kangaroo tartare comes with artichokes and garlic scapes; and smoked hen mixes it with cream corn and sprouted grains set off with fresh wood sorrel. A windfall of roadside apples might even turn up in your dessert – sweet.

18 Kangaloon Road, Bowral 02 4862 2005 biotadining.com

Terry Durack is joint director of Australia's Top Restaurants, in which chefs and restaurateurs get their chance to select the top restaurants in Australia, australiastoprestaurants.com. 

** Love food and wine? Planning a trip? Find inspiration at goodfood.com.au/travel.