One of the great thrills of reviewing for the Good Food Guide is what I call the thunderbolt. It's when something happens that you weren't expecting; when a totally new dish suddenly appears and you have an immediate, emotional response. It's love at first sight – and bite.
It might just be the ingredients that stop you in your tracks – hand-harvested seafood from across the country, or peppery kangaroo meat turned into light-as-air floss.
It could be the back story that gets to you the most – a young chef exploring her own heritage for the first time, or the affirmative action of celebrating Australia's uniquely wild and Indigenous flavours.
It might not even be rationally and easily explained; just something that appears and pushes us all forward. You just know. Here's to more thunderbolts.
Hand-harvested seafood at Quay, Sydney
Peter Gilmore wants you to pretend you're barefoot at the seaside, bending over a rock pool, breathing in the ocean air. But instead, you're at Quay, overlooking Sydney Harbour, revelling in the luxury and comfort of its estimated $4 million makeover in June this year, peering into a rocky bowl of exquisitely fresh seafood. Never mind, it'll do. Especially when the rubbly, roughly textured bowl, made by ceramic artist Paul Davis, is layered with Rottnest Island scallops, baby octopus from Coffin Bay, and tiny hand-raked vongole, combined with fresh lotus seeds, raw palm heart and Korean seaweed aged in brown rice vinegar and dressed with virgin soy and grapeseed oil in a tidal wave of umami.
What makes it special? The bespoke black titanium tweezers that help you customise each spoonful. "It's a more delicate way of eating that's interactive and fun," says the chef.
Peninsula potato, pistachio, cream, caviar at Laura, Mornington Peninsula
It's just a spud. But it's a spud with purpose. When former Rockpool chef Phil Wood moved to the Mornington Peninsula to open Laura as part of the spectacular, sculpture-strewn launch of the Gandel family's Point Leo Estate, he dug deep into the local soil on a mission to uncover the best the peninsula has to offer. Hence the menu lists dishes by local regions such as Tuerong, Cape Schanck, Moorooduc, Sorrento and Tyabb. "I wanted to play with the idea that a simple ingredient could be luxurious," says Wood, who confits the Dutch cream potato for three hours at 95 degrees, then caps it with a miso cream, Yarra Valley trout roe and Rossini caviar, with a perfectly executed chive beurre blanc.
What makes it special? It pays such respect to the soil in which the potato is grown, and to the Hawkes family of Boneo who have been growing potatoes since the 1880s.
House-made paratha bread with dhal butter at The Pot by Emma McCaskill, Adelaide
Emma McCaskill has cooked with Teage Ezard in Melbourne, Tetsuya Wakuda in Sydney, Sat Bains in Nottingham, Yoshihiro Narisawa in Tokyo and Scott Huggins in Adelaide. It's only when she landed at The Pot in King William Road that she began rediscovering the flavours of her own British-Indian heritage, Now, the "house bread" – paratha inspired by her grandmother – is the must-order, spread with rich, creamy, turmeric-stained lentil butter. Cue thunderbolt.
What makes it special? The epiphany. This dish captures that moment a young, ambitious chef realises that the key to developing her own voice and style comes not from others, but from herself.
Whiting, cucumber, roe in a green leaf at Igni, Geelong
With the barrage of snacks that begin a meal at this back-street Geelong gem, indie chef Aaron Turner sets the scene for an experience that is at once personal, celebratory and serendipitous. He's a dab hand at creating little parcels of happiness, which is the best way to describe the form and the effect of this leaf-enclosed whiting, one of eight small courses to come from the wood-fired brazier that dominates the tiny open kitchen. Turner starts by curing fresh whiting in white pepper before dicing it and enfolding it in a mustard leaf dumpling that is then briefly grilled over the coals. A green cucumber broth is poured over to create a vision in green, topped with a little brook trout roe, to make the whole thing pop.
What makes it special? The quiet intensity and determination behind the idea, the stubborn commitment to using the coals for everything, and the value placed on such a modest ingredient as a mustard leaf.
Pickled kohlrabi, elderflower, Dorrigo pepper and lemon myrtle at Restaurant Orana, Adelaide
Jock Zonfrillo clearly had lotus seed and eucalypt pods on his mind when he designed this evocative dish at Orana, the pioneering restaurant he opened in 2015 to highlight the diversity and sophistication of Indigenous ingredients and culture. While it changes according to the season, this version is anchored by a ball of light, creamy burrata cheese into which slices of quandong and cones of rolled discs of kohlrabi, soaked in a pandanus and gubinge pickle are pressed, forming a visually dramatic "pod". The dish is finished with a reduction of the pickle liquid mixed with burnt butter, Dorrigo pepper and strategically placed elderflowers. New ideas, ancient tastes.
What makes it special? Seeing our uniquely Australian cuisine evolve before our eyes.
Red witlof, kangaroo, violet mustard, Davidson plum at Gauge, Brisbane
By day, restaurateur Jerome Batten's South Brisbane hot spot is light and bright, offering high-level cafe food from sourdough bacon sangas to soft eggs with spicy green sauce. It's when the sun goes down, four nights a week, that things get darker, moodier and more intense, as chefs Cormac Bradfield and Phil Marchant go to town with a choice of multi-course degustation menus full of intrigue. Case in point: red witlof braised in onion dashi, and topped with kangaroo floss – the meat salted, cooked until dry, fried and whizzed into light-as-air fluff, seasoned with sancho pepper. Served with freeze-dried Davidson plum powder, and violet mustard creme fraiche, it's a collision of fruity sweetness and tart savouriness.
What makes it special? It's such a perceptive, bold and intuitive use of native ingredients without being in any way gratuitous.
Photo: Rebecca Mansell
Burns Beach abalone cooked in squid ink, saltbush, kombu, finger lime, brown butter emulsion at Wildflower, Perth
If the true concept of luxury is rarity, listen up. David Sutcliffe is the only abalone diver in Western Australia licensed to wild-harvest the small, sweet roei abalone (to a strict quota) from Burns Beach just north of Perth – and the only restaurant to buy those abalone is Perth's Wildflower. It fits neatly with chef Jed Gerrard's goal to showcase as much Western Australian produce as possible in his glass-walled rooftop restaurant in Perth's CBD. To this end, the abalone is coated with squid ink brioche, cooked in clarified butter, topped with saltbush and salted kombu gathered from the same beach, and paired with an emulsion of slow-cooked eggs and brown butter, hit with the tang of finger lime from Pemberton. WA to go.
What makes it special? The sheer unapologetic pride (justified) in Western Australian produce. It's what we've been waiting to hear from WA chefs: that the west is best.
Photo: Christopher Pearce
Muffuletta at A1 Canteen, Sydney
It's the dish that lit up Instagram when it appeared at A1 Canteen, the proletariat, all-day diner version of Clayton Wells' two-hatted Automata in Chippendale. But what's so special about stuffing a small loaf of bread with layer upon layer of green olives, provolone cheese, LP's Quality Meats' richly fatty mortadella, salami, marinated artichokes, grilled peppers and fresh spinach? And then pressing it and slicing it to reveal the relief map of Mediterranean vegetables within? This reinvented workers' lunch is so cleverly conceived and executed that the flavours meld as one in the mouth; the bread is just the right heft; the rich oiliness coats the tongue, and the sweet, pickly components keep you coming back for more.
What makes it special? The engineering. It's masterly.
Photo: Justin McManus
Otak otak of spanner crab curry, finger lime, rice crisps at Sunda, Melbourne
Every now and then, when you eat something completely new and different, it's as if you've met before, in a previous life. It's a common response to the roti bread with Vegemite curry at Punch Lane's Sunda, where chef Khanh Nguyen twists and tweaks traditional Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean dishes into post-apocalyptic comfort food. Same deal with this precise oblong of curry-licked spanner crab parfait, punched up with little pearls of finger lime and a support act of super-crunchy puffed rice crackers. It's going to be hard to keep them down on the farm with your average otak otak of spicy fish paste in banana leaf after they've seen Paree, I tell ya.
What makes it special? It turns a traditional dish on its head and yet stays true to why you loved it in the first place.
Saffron spaghetti with albacore tuna, green olive and marjoram at Fico, Hobart
This highly seasonal, locally sourced pasta was only on the menu at Fico for six weeks while the albacore tuna were running off the east coast of Tasmania. Owner-chefs Federica Andrisani and Oskar Rossi, who met in Northern Italy and opened Fico in Oskar's hometown of Hobart in 2016, call it simply "a bite of Italy in Tasmania". The spaghetti is made by hand in-house, infused with Tasmanian saffron and tossed with local marjoram and green olives. The tuna, bought directly off the boat from a local fisherman called Aiden, is diced and added to the spaghetti at the last moment, so it is still raw in the centre. It's a dish that is very much a celebration of its own time and place, not to be mourned for being here for such a short time but celebrated for being here at all.
What makes it special? This is the antithesis of the printed menu with the same old standards year after year. It's why we travel and eat out – to get a taste of right here and right now.
The Good Food Guide's second annual national edition, with hats awarded across Australia, was launched on October 8 with our presenting partners Vittoria Coffee and Citi. The Good Food Guide 2019 is on sale in newsagencies, bookstores and via thestore.com.au/gfg19 (delivery included), RRP $29.99.