Top hats for tiny snacks

Brae's whole-wheat croissant and pumpkin is a year in the making and gone in a flash.
Brae's whole-wheat croissant and pumpkin is a year in the making and gone in a flash. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

What makes Australia's best restaurants? You'll know at first bite. Over the past decade, degustation menus have morphed from a long-haul flight of plated courses to festivals of tiny snacks surrounding a more manageable mid-section.

Bite-led offerings defined the restaurant of the year nominees in the 40th edition of the Good Food Guide, which will be unveiled at an awards ceremony on Monday night.

Guide editor Myffy Rigby thinks the trend is a keeper. "Year on year, chefs are lifting their game in the snack department. They're delivering so much more of their personalities on the plate through those tiny bites. I'd say the snack has gone a long way to replace the traditional tasting menu - it's a welcome change of pace."

A flurry of bites covers the table as a welcome to Igni.
A flurry of bites covers the table as a welcome to Igni.  Photo: Julian Kigma

For anyone who thinks they're being short changed (it is the internet's favourite past-time, comparing these delicate bites to the mighty heft of a $20 pub parma) it's worth noting that bite-led offerings have transformed dinner from a play of seven acts to maybe 20. Cutlery has vanished for the tangible experience of getting fingers dirty. And while those bites are gone in under 60 seconds, the artistry behind them can be insane.

Technically, the whole wheat croissant with pumpkin at Birregurra's farm-to-table temple Brae took a year to come to fruition. But even if you don't count the time it took chef-owner Dan Hunter to grow the restaurant's own organic wheat crop and pumpkins, you're still faced with a ridiculous production process.

The wheat is milled on a neighbour's property daily, then used to make a croissant - a pastry defined by its airy lightness which in this case is complicated, in the most delicious way possible, by that obstinate whole-grain flour. It necessitates making the pastry in tiny batches to be rolled out by hand.

Dan Hunter shaking the pans at Brae restaurant.
Dan Hunter shaking the pans at Brae restaurant. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Hunter figures that if you want the world's gold-standard croissant, you go to Lune. If you want a blousy Parisienne classic, you can get that in situ. His grainy version is a true expression of the farm on which his restaurant sits. The bite doesn't end there.

Wakame and olive oil is infused for a week before it is used to gently poach a coin of pumpkin to order. A glistening ripple of nori is layered with turnips and a butter containing koji (the mould used in sake-making) and baked like a gratin, then peeled off to finish the one-bite wonder.

Like all of the Guide nominees' snack-based openers, Brae's croissant is the ultimate expression of the restaurant's ideals condensed to a single bite, and just one of 15 items that might hit your table.

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For diners, there are other wins. The format means your dining session is more fast paced and engaged than the former six-hour slogs of yore where every second sentence was disrupted by the changing of crockery and cutlery.

And it's of no small cost to restaurants. Brent Savage of Sydney nominee Bentley Restaurant and Bar notes that with labour costs being a restaurant's major expense, they almost ditched the fiddly offerings. "But then we realised they were a standout part of the meal." They now incorporate eight snacks in the degustation instead of two.

According to Rigby, snack-driven fine dining has an appeal that won't go away soon. "It's so utterly hospitable. That first flurry is usually a very good representation of a chef's intention for the rest of the meal. And hey - if you're on an awkward date, it gives you something to talk about for the next half an hour."

The Good Food Guide 2020 Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year nominees

Bentley Restaurant and Bar, NSW

Brent Savage and Nick Hildebrandt's darkly glamorous CBD fine diner is made for work or play or with flawless service, cult wines and quietly considered cooking.

Snack of choice: Marron with fermented gooseberry and cultured cream.

Brae, VIC 

An hour from Melbourne, Dan Hunter's fine diner set in a colonial cottage on an organic farm is the true expression of farm-to-table dining. 

Snack of choice: Whole-wheat croissant with pumpkin. 

Firedoor, NSW

Chef Lennox Hastie manages to astound with his precise, intuitive and pitch-perfect dishes cooked over fire at this Surry Hills hot spot.

Snack of choice: Kangaroo skewers grilled over juniper.

Igni, VIC

Chef-owner Aaron Turner is Victoria's keeper of the flame, coaxing near-unbelievable flavour from minimal ingredients using raw fire power in his Geelong restaurant. 

Snack of choice: Chicken skin with taramasalata.

Quay, NSW

Theatrical fine dining at the pointy end of Sydney from chef Peter Gilmore and the Fink Group. After its $4 million 2018 refurbishment, service, setting and snacks have meshed seamlessly into a holistic experience

Snack of choice: Oyster cream, liquorice and kombu tart.