The Good Food team presents its mid-year report card on what we've loved and loathed so far.
What I love The pint-sized pocket of fun that is Sydney's Cantina OK. The pitch here is narrowly specific but widely fun: a handful of mescal- or tequila-based cocktails (the Department of Awesome reports all the ice for the margaritas is churned by hand) and a list of tequilas and mescals to be drunk neat, from the furthest reaches of Mexico by the tiniest producers. No seats, no food, no problem. Everything here is OK.
What I loathe Cynical service. Look, not everyone eats out as often as the Good Food Guide team. What we can put down to a waiter having a bad day/hangover/life, make a note about and move on, is the sort of thing that ruins the entire week of a person who eats out only a few times a year. It always makes me sad when I have poor service. Not because it ruins my night, but because it's probably ruining everyone else's.
What I am looking forward to Seeing what opens in the second half of the year. There's nothing more exciting than last-minute additions to the Good Food Guide. It's the edge-of-the-seat stuff I live for.
What I love Sommeliers who embrace flexibility and imagination in their drinks lists and their service. So instead of rigidly following the one-wine-per-course formula, smart operators at places such as Navi in Melbourne and Igni in Geelong are suggesting half pours, pouring every second wine, or tucking in the occasional glass of kombucha, sake or beer where it makes sense. Less lovable: sommeliers who expect you to share a single glass when you split a wine match with a friend.
What I loathe Look, I get that some thoughtless restaurant customers have given us all a bad name by making bookings all over town for the same timeslot, then not cancelling unwanted tables. And I get that people who reserve a table for 10 then show up as a four-top can wipe out a night's profits. But I'm not loving online booking systems that harvest all your details, an upfront deposit and the promise of your first-born before you even raise a fork to your lips. Add in a bunch of rules about forfeiting the deposit if you cancel less than 48 hours ahead and I start thinking almost fondly about no-bookings restaurants.
What I am looking forward to The launch of the third national Good Food Guide in October. It's 40 years since The Age published its first dining guide, with The Sydney Morning Herald following in 1984. It's always a great opportunity to reflect on how far the Australian food scene has come and where it's heading next.
Bay lobster with persimmon and shiso at Pipit in Pottsville. Photo: Supplied
What I love That dining and drinking in regional Australia is on an upwards trajectory that has no seeming end. That you can go to a wee town in northern NSW, Brunswick Heads, and find the duo behind two-hatted Fleet has opened La Casita, a Mexican joint with a courtyard designed for smashing pork and pineapple tacos. Then there's Pipit in nearby Pottsville, where Ben Devlin (ex Paper Daisy at Halcyon House) has launched his ode to all things local. Even the most far-flung destinations in Australia are in on this country party; Flinders Island Wharf has just launched with a cafe, restaurant, distillery and built-in bee hive. Pass the protective headwear and buy me a plane ticket.
What I loathe Cafes, restaurants and retailers who have not got or are ignoring the waste-minimisation memo. I love a Vietnamese place near our office for its heady pho; I hate the takeaway version which features two huge cups with lids, two condiment containers, sauce containers, wrapped chopsticks and a carry pouch. Just for soup. Guys, seriously. Cut it out.
What I am looking forward to The opening of Andrew McConnell's latest offering at the altar of culinary excellence. This will take the form of a fine-ish diner in a lovely old dame of a building at 33 Russell Street in Melbourne's CBD (due in November). Also, spring, because I can't wait to get zucchini seeds in the ground. I love all the heirloom varieties from diggers.com.au that I grate, mandolin and julienne into every dish possible all through summer.
Life-changing bread at the Summertown Aristologist in South Australia. Photo: Nat Rogers
What I love It's become pretty popular to call yourself a wine bar in 2019, to chuck a bunch of charcuterie and a grab bag of wines on the menu, add banquettes and hope for the best. But look for the ones where the personalities are big and the menus are tiny but tight as a drum. Like Lucinda, the offshoot of Dier Makr in Hobart (take note, Dark Mofo attendees), Adelaide's Summertown Aristologist, where the bread can change your life, powerful pasta bar Lulu La Delizia in Perth or the freshly cheffed Etta in Brunswick East.
What I loathe I am genuinely excited about the prospect of Sepia 2.0 at Melbourne's 80 Collins next year, and I love Congress Wine Bar and its new Italian sibling Lagotto (both part of apartment complexes), but I'm edgy about all these mega retail and residential developments that are about to drop promising to be packed to the brim with high-end fast food joints but also serious restaurants. Where will all the good staff come from? And the bums for all those seats? How will they get the new build smell out and the Melbourne soul in? We'll see.
What I'm looking forward to My season of eating like a goose destined for foie gras is almost over (this month I clocked up 20 restaurants in 13 days), and while I'm definitely counting down to a soup and juice cleanse, I plan to back it up with a Julia Child-style omelette dinner party. Seasoned eggs, cooked in 30 seconds in a hot, buttered pan, BYO toppings and gallons of wine. Three-ingredient dinner parties need to make a comeback. I also highly recommend a YouTube spiral of Child's videos.
Adam Liaw's cider pork stew (recipe here). Photo: William Meppem
What I love Winter eating. Raise a glass of red to a long cold winter fuelled by slow-cooked, rib-sticking, mega meaty one-pots atop buttery spuds (as seen all over goodfood.com.au), best consumed in tracky pants on the couch in front of the footy. When I do venture out it'll be for a long Sunday lunch by the fire at my favourite local, Neighbourhood Wine. At $40 for three courses, it's the best bargain in Melbourne.
What I loathe Paint-by-number cafes that come with the deal at every new apartment development. You know the ones: pithy quotes in neon, many monsteras, subway tiling and highly 'grammable brunch lighting with a menu featuring one or a combo of waffles, out-of-season berries, powders, petals and a single paltry slice of unbuttered toast with your eggs, served alongside a too-milky $5 latte. About as soulful as a Millennial's Spotify playlist. Give me somewhere dark with old records spinning and a great fad-free brekky. Espresso in Ballarat I'm looking at you.
What I am looking forward to Docklands finally finding its mojo. We're not exactly spoilt for choice in this draughty outpost of Melbourne – four years working in the precinct and still no go-to coffee or lunch spot. Outrageous! This could all change when Melbourne Skyfarm opens in 2020 – a ginormous rooftop urban farm next to the characterful old Seafarers building. Or when The Market – a sprawling "Chelsea-Market-style" food hall opens in District Docklands later this year, apparently.
Mushrooms with finger lime and macadamia cream at Paperbark in Sydney. Photo: Anna Kucera
What I love The chocolate-licorice comeback. Darrell Lea's new chocolate block littered with licorice bullets and shrapnel (aka aniseed-flavoured crisps) was a hit with the Good Food NRA (National Reviewing Association). Elsewhere, Jill Dupleix is still thinking about the nostalgically licorice-y flan with bittersweet cocoa sauce at Ester (Sydney), while Aria (Sydney) is pairing the "choc-lic" combo with passionfruit and Captain Moonlite (Vic) is scooping sensational licorice ice-cream. Katrina Meynink's dark chocolate, licorice and caramel loaf cake is locked and loaded on my winter baking list (recipe here).
What I loathe Bubble tea packaging makes my blood boil. The plastic cups and thick straws are bad enough, but to then place said cup in a plastic bag really is the final straw. Major chains should stock branded reusable cups and offer an incentive for refills. If BYO drinking vessel discounts can encourage us to kick our collective takeaway coffee cup habit, let's build it up, bubble cup.
What I am looking forward to Macadamia puree becoming the next bit-on-the-side. It's nutty, creamy and could be the new tahini. As seen with grilled broccolini at Melbourne's Park Street Pasta, paired with shiitake oil alongside fermented potato flatbread at Lesa, or for dipping squiggly mushroom skewers in at Sydney's plant-based Paperbark. Did I mention it's accidentally vegan?
Gnocchi al pomodoro at Peppe's. Photo: Wolter Peeters
What I love Instagram. Not for all the show-offy stuff, but for the sheer visual beauty of the dishes that appear on the "feed". Go past the hype and the humble-brags, and there is real information to be had – chefs and restaurateurs now use Insta to tell us they're opening or closing, to showcase producers and to reveal new dishes; and travelling foodies give us plenty for the bucket list. I also use it as a record of memorable meals and magic moments, especially on hols when I have more time to post (always staying within my self-imposed 15 minutes a day. One does have a life, you know).
What I loathe Those 60-degree soft eggs that chefs love (because they can control the temperature and timing, and do so many of them at a time). We should rise up as one and reject them outright, calling instead for the more personalised care and effort that goes into making the perfect fried, poached and scrambled egg to order. And while I'm at it, can you stop sending out toast that's only grilled on one side (the presentation side), leaving the other side steamy? That's just plain silly.
What I am looking forward to More crazy, quirky, passion-driven cafes, bars and restaurants that choose to do one thing well; whether it's ramen, fried chicken, falafel, jaffles, Macau's baked rice, negronis, or lobster rolls. We have so much diversity in our dining scene that when someone drills down to focus on one thing – vegan gnocchi at Peppe's Bondi, for instance, or grilled cheese toasties at Maker & Monger's new Chariot of Cheese at Prahran Market – it's a relief to stop making decisions and just dive in. Now if someone could open a restaurant that did only roast chicken.
What I love I love that our obsession with the pork belly bun is finally losing steam, and that chefs are elevating the bread roll to big-end-of-town status. I call as witness, the brioche roll encasing lightly tempura'd Moreton Bay bug, gem lettuce and spicy chilli mayo at Rick Shores, on the beach at Burleigh Heads in Queensland. The perfect round of soft, white bread encasing crisp pig's head schnitzel at Congress in Melbourne (pictured right). And the cutest little breakfast slider at Hobart's Small Fry – three bites of egg, bacon and onion jam and it's gone, but not forgotten.
What I loathe Queueing. I'll do it for a gelato on a stinking hot day, but don't make me queue for a civilised, elegant dinner with friends. You make us feel that we're at the all-you-can-eat buffet at the local pub, when in fact we're going to pay $38 a main course and order a beautiful wine. At the very least, take our name and give us an indication of when we can get a table. Otherwise, I'll be joining the far queue.
What I'm looking forward to I can't wait till August, when Linda, Eric and Billy Wong of Golden Century open XOPP by Golden Century in the striking Kenga Kuma building in Sydney's Darling Square. The Golden Century has been such an important part of the Sydney dining scene for three decades; imprinting itself on our hearts and minds with each and every late-night abalone congee, pippis in XO sauce, and king crab with noodles. Now for the next dynasty.
What I love That fish and chip shop-style potato scallops/cakes are the new blini. Dan Hunter serves golden-fried dutch cream cakes with delicate pearls of brook trout roe and cultured cream at Brae, while James Viles rocks a version at the Biota bar in Bowral. Swiping spud scallops through taramasalata topped with salmon caviar is the most fun you can have in the Southern Highlands with a local riesling in your hand. South of Bass Strait, potato cakes fried in a batter made with Rodney Dunn's sourdough starter keep Agrarian Kitchen guests warm on the coldest Derwent days. The ultimate in high-low deliciousness.
What I loathe Sommeliers who reckon it's A-OK to serve a $40 glass without telling you the price. BC (that is, "Before Coravin", the needle-through-cork gadget that allows wine to be poured in small amounts while the rest of the bottle stays in decent nick), most wines by the glass were reasonably priced. Now that somms can shift their big hitters hitherto gathering dust, we're experiencing more bill shock than usual when dropping the ol' "whatever you have by the glass to suit this chicken/lamb/magpie goose liver". A great sommelier should be able to pull the cork of a Puligny-Montrachet, say, and be excited about (and know enough about) that wine to move it over 24 hours. Being open about price is vital to that process.
What I'm looking forward to More feral animals on plates. Eat the Problem by American artist Kirsha Kaechele, featuring contributions from chefs David Moyle and Heston Blumenthal, created greater public awareness of how invasive species can be turned into exquisite dishes when it was published in March. Here's hoping chefs, environmentalists, scientists and forward-thinking politicians can capitalise on that buzz to see feral animal meat ethically available in restaurants. Existing laws prohibit the sale of many invasive species for food in Australia. However, new food safety regulations were introduced by the Victorian government in October that will allow for wild deer to be processed for human consumption. Times are changing.