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Sometimes when I sit down to eat an especially good meal at home in Australia, the national anthem pops into my head. It sounds odd, but there are three lines that replay automatically:
We've golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea.
Our land abounds in nature's gifts…
These oft-sung lines are the building blocks of our restaurants and dining experiences, which are as diverse as they are distinguished. My job takes me overseas regularly, but whenever I return home this country blows me away all over again. Here's my Australian dining bucket list, made up of both old favourites and others I plan to tick off in the near future.
Flinders Island Food and Crayfish Festival, Tasmania
Many have seen footage of lucky Saffire Freycinet's guests slurping oysters at Freycinet Marine Farm from a table in the water – a guest-only offer. More accessible and just as lush is the Flinders Island Food and Crayfish festival, held in April. A celebration of community and local food, well-known chefs gather to cook and explore. The signature event is a Saturday long lunch abundant with crays. During the year the new Flinders Wharf hub is worth visiting for its all-day cafe, provedore, distillery and monthly visiting chef program.
About an hour and a quarter-drive from Melbourne CBD, chef Dan Hunter's restaurant and organic farm is set on a hill in peaceful Birregurra. The degustation menu playfully highlights food from the farm and native Australian ingredients – think potato cakes made from thick-cut dutch creams with add-it-yourself trout roe and cultured cream. For the full experience, stay overnight in one of six guest suites, each with a record turntable, DIY cocktail bar and views across The Otways. Order the dinner plate – you'll still be snacking on it alongside fresh pastries the next morning.
Bennelong, New South Wales
Headed by Peter Gilmore in the Sydney Opera House, restaurants don't come much more impressive than Bennelong. The menu is a testament to Gilmore's long-standing relationships with farmers, fishermen and growers, while the architecture is cathedral-like with views of Sydney Harbour. Named after Bennelong Point, a tidal rock island in Gadigal country, it's been said that First Nation women would gather here to socialise and eat shellfish off the rocks. Their shell middens were used to build Government House, where a fellow called Bennelong from the Wangal clan was the front man during relations with colonists.
Gourmet Escape, Western Australia
One of the country's best culinary festivals hits Margaret River each November and attracts some of the biggest food personalities in the world. Extending to 10 days in 2019 with more than 50 events across Margaret River, Perth and Swan Valley, this year's line-up includes Marco Pierre White, David Chang, Danny Bowien, Carlo Cracco, Pierre Koffmann and more. Also look out for pop-ups by local outfit Fervor Dining, which is often involved in the festival and creates one-off native Australian-inspired degustations in postcard-perfect locations.
Orana, South Australia
During each 20-course degustation at Orana, chef and owner Jock Zonfrillo uses upwards of 50 indigenous ingredients to share the story of Australia's past, present and future, leading to a dining experience that's so much more than a meal. Zonfrillo works closely with Elders on country to ensure he does justice to the oldest culture on earth in dishes such as kangaroo with smoked potato, feral plum and wattleseed. He also established The Orana Foundation "to preserve the rich food culture of the First Australians."
Tali Wiru, Northern Territory
At $375 per person this experience doesn't come cheap, but can you really put a price on sitting in an open-air restaurant on an ochre-soiled dune with the vista of Uluru and Kata Tjuta expanding before you and the Milky Way above? The food here lives up to the setting. Each of the four courses is riddled with native ingredients and matched with premium Australian wine. And seeing as this is a bucket list, let's just go all out and arrive by chopper, bumping the price up to $795 per head.
Hubert, New South Wales
This Sydney restaurant is as atmospheric as they come. It starts when you descend the stairs and approach the counter, where if you haven't arrived early you'll be invited to the bar for a tipple until a table becomes available. It's all dark wood and dim lighting, the kind of place you might visit with a partner to role-play a jazzy French affair. The food is outstanding, from caviar service and escargots with XO sauce to a kilogram of Grilled Rangers Valley rib eye. Visit on Wednesday or Thursday for live music.
It would be an oversight not to include Ben Shewry's Attica on this list. In a class of its own, this Melbourne restaurant transformed the Australian dining scene with innovative and nostalgic dishes that seamlessly fuse tastes of growing up in Australia with borrowed, highly researched knowledge of native ingredients. The degustation menu changes with the seasons and at the whim of the kitchen's inspiration, but it might include sticky saltwater crocodile ribs and a black ant-dotted lamington. Bookings are snapped up fast, released 9am (AEST) on the first Wednesday of each month for three months in advance.
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