IF HISTORY HAS has taught us anything, it’s that major global events — like a pandemic — give rise to new trends. In the case of Australia’s hospitality industry, which was razed by COVID, this is particularly true. But rather than one dominant trend materialising, our dining zeitgeist seems to be moving in two equally exciting directions.
The first is defined by eye-catching debuts from established chefs flexing their reps. In Sydney alone, Mitch Orr’s Kiln at the Ace Hotel and Firedoor supremo Lennox Hastie’s Gilda’s are stellar examples of industry titans pushing the boundaries of their craft in cool new settings.
On the flip side, the pandemic has created space for more emerging chefs to make their mark. Having drafted their business plans as the rest of the industry was rebuilding, these operations feature pared-back menus with an emphasis on hyper-local ingredients. Their menus may contain fewer choices, but they are executed to impeccable standards and the sense of imagination is strong. Case in point: Melbourne’s Serai, where chef Ross Magnaye marries local Victorian produce with traditional Filipino flavours and everything is cooked over a wood fire.
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Another burgeoning trend is fine-dining cocktail bars, where the food shares equal billing with the drinks. Adelaide’s Dolly, for example, is a sliver of a room in Unley, yet its crab soldiers with chilli crisp and bottarga would stand up on any hatted menu in the country.
We’ve also seen a renaissance in five- star hotel dining. Located in Sydney’s new Capella Hotel, Brasserie 1930 is the brainchild of Bentley Group’s Brent Savage and Nick Hildebrandt – the team behind local stalwarts Cirrus, Monopole and Bentley Restaurant + Bar. Further south, the Lorne Hotel has executed one of the plays of the year as the first Victorian outlet of Merivale’s Italian behemoth Totti’s.
Before revealing our favourite new spots, a word on selection: all restaurants had to be less than a year old, innovative and worth the dollars they’re charging.
Pinoy perfection. Melbourne.
Of course, Australia’s best new restaurant is found in a nondescript lane off Little Bourke. Unlike some of the sea-splashed Sydney debutantes on this list, the wow factor here doesn’t come from ocean vistas, multimillion dollar fit-outs or investors.
Armed with a jackhammer and some paint brushes, chef Ross Magnaye and his colleague Shane Stanford and the crew have fashioned a bright industrial space where the focus is squarely on the food – albeit with a convivial bustle.
And the food in question is southern Filipino married with the Australian ingredients Magnaye discovered (and continues to uncover) after migrating here as a 15-year-old.
One such item is the McScallop, an unctuous umami hit with the seafood sourced from the Abrolhos Islands, 80 clicks west of Geraldton and teamed with crab fat sauce plus pandesal – a salty sweet Filipino bread.
The heaviest hitter on the menu is undoubtedly the pork belly in what could be a cliche in all but the most skilled hands. Magnaye sources his protein in the Western Plains region of Victoria, then roasts it to the point of crackling, the ribbons of fat just beginning to render. At that point, it’s garlanded with a smoked pineapple ‘palapa’ salsa, offering a bright citric counterpoint.
It’s in the cocktails that traditional Filipino ingredients shine. A standout is the Pandan White Negroni made with Settler’s Blood Orange Chilli Gin, house- made pandan liqueur and dry vermouth. All the better to go with a menu that has a category devoted to ‘crispy things’.
Like many of Australia’s top chefs, Ross Magnaye was born somewhere else. In this case, the Philippines, allowing him to infuse a love of Australian produce and seasonality with a sense of longing. “I create dishes that remind me of childhood, the nostalgia of occasions like birthdays and memories where special dishes were made,” he says.
The dish to which he would immediately steer first-time diners at Serai is the pig’s head taco sisig, which originated in the Pampanga region. “Sisig is a pork dish made from pig’s head and is typically fried, then served on a sizzling plate with calamansi [Philippine lime], ginger, garlic and soy, then served with fried egg,” he says. “Our twist is that we serve it on a soft taco with burnt onion jam, egg butter and calamansi.”
A bijoux wonder from the Firedoor supremo. Surry Hills, Sydney.
Lennox Hastie’s homage to his time in the Basque country is a small bar with massive ambition. It’s a collage of atmospheric lighting, marble countertops and crisply measured martinis. Date night perfection aside, the menu offers the flexibility of a few salty snacks (pintxo) throughout a 10-dish Basque menu for an astonishingly reasonable $89 per person. The charred leeks with romesco and lardo are ideal handmaidens for the dish from which the restaurant is named: a guindilla pepper, an olive and an anchovy served on a skewer (pictured above).
A Gallic statement exquisitely delivered. Sydney CBD.
When the Capella hotel recently opened in the honeyed sandstone Department of Education building, a grand dining room was always part of the plan. The powers that be turned to the Bentley Group, who have delivered an environment more marbled than the beef dry-ageing in the cool room, along with serried ranks of leather banquettes and brass fittings.
The place has already collected more awards and accolades than any diner so young deserves, but a dish like the whole roasted duck to share underlines just how assured the kitchen is. Think breast with skin the consistency of papyrus, neck sausage, roasted plum, fennel, spinach and glazed eschalot. This is classic Gallic fare that deeply respects its origins without being bound by them.
A shore thing by the sand. Bondi Beach, Sydney.
For a long time – some might say too long – Bondi Icebergs and Sean’s Panorama reigned over the famous beach’s culinary scene. This addition has hit the shabby-chic ocean enclave like a refreshingly bracing sea breeze. Ensconced in the colonnades of the newly refurbished Bondi Pavilion, it blends the aesthetics of Miami and Portofino. But the heart of the place is a wood-fired oven, from which emerges responsibly caught seafood, seasonal vegetables from small scale growers and ethically sourced cuts of meat.
The wine list runs deep and although the fare on offer here is premium, the atmosphere is as relaxed as the sandy setting suggests. Since we’re by the shore, exec chef Chris Benedet’s bougie take on fish and chips will always entice. We’re talking seasonal catch – at the moment it’s fried snapper – with yoghurt gribiche, finger lime, baby cos and potato scallops.
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A doppio of the Italian Riviera on the coast. Lorne, Victoria.
Merivale’s take on casual Italian dining – share plates brimming with wood- roasted fish, burrata, marinated peppers, anchovies, octopus and sardines – has spawned three Sydney venues and has now finally made it south of the border. The new outpost at the Lorne Hotel is a day-trip destination in itself. Executive head chef Mike Eggert recommends the chilli prawn all-vodka pasta and “the crumbed King George Whiting. It’s the best fish in Australia done as a schnitzel”. What’s not to love?
Such and Such
A considered campaign in the nation’s capital. Canberra, ACT.
The team behind the city’s much-vaunted Pilot restaurant has created an outpost where the quirk factor and lack of pretension is in perfect proportion to the care and consideration that has clearly gone into the menu. First up, a big ol’ green tick for “choosing to only list drinks from people who work to improve the land they occupy”.
There’s also the flexibility of the menu, which offers both an array of snacks (try the school prawns with devil spices and cashews) to accompany a quick drink as well as enough solid grub for a meal (we recommend the ‘whole flathead, just enough tartare’.) But leave room for dessert. Co-owner and executive chef Mal Hanslow notes, “Our coupe de cello (a limoncello sorbet with ginger and lemon balm) is a great way to finish if you’re starting to feel a bit full – it is both tart and sweet and a great refresher.”
Great Southern Land meets Northern Exposure. Melbourne, VIC.
Copenhagen’s Noma may be closing next year, but Australia has found its own standard bearer for ‘new Nordic cuisine’ in Freyja. You’d be hard- pressed to find a more innovative degustation in the country right now.
That’s largely due to the fact that executive chef Jae Bang – Korean-born, Culinary Institute of America-trained and with both El Bulli and Daniel on his resume – has tapped into the Nordic tradition of blending past and present. The former being preserved ingredients that sustained Scandinavians through brutal winters and the latter hyper-seasonal fresh ingredients – such a priority that Bang wanted to know the exact week we were publishing in order to recommend a dish in peak season.
“My favourite menu item right now is undoubtedly our mushroom dish, which combines the rich flavours of cheddar, egg yolk and sweet tropea onions.”
La Vera Cucina in the Apple Isle. Hobart, TAS.
Another debutante within hotel environs (in this case, The Tasman), culinary director Massimo Mele’s menu cleverly contrasts its five-star setting with a menu derived from past intimacies. “Peppina draws inspiration from Italian cuisine in the idea of simplicity and generosity in culture and tradition,” Mele says. “It also has a personal approach – Peppina takes its name from my grandmother, Giuseppina, who inspired me from a young age. My nonna has always been a huge food influence and this restaurant for me is going back and revisiting those nostalgic recipes from my childhood.”
The most memorable dish on a menu brimming with the likes of ricotta cavatelli – pork and fennel sausage, oyster mushrooms, chilli and parmesan cream – is the porchetta with salsa verde. “It’s flavoured with little more than black pepper, rosemary and lemon zest and served with a classic salsa verde of garlicky green herbs. This dish reminds me of the modesty and natural elegance of my grandmother’s cooking.”
An architecturally impressive restaurant and bar. Adelaide, SA.
The combined effect of chefs like Duncan Welgemoed (Africola), the burgeoning Peel/Leigh Street dining precinct and handy access to arguably Australia’s best wine region has catapulted Adelaide to the forefront of the nation’s dining consciousness – if you know where to look. Dolly is a cool concrete cube drenched in sunshine, elegantly occupying a position somewhere between small neighbourhood bar and destination restaurant.
It’s also succinctly defined by what it isn’t as much as what it is. Driving force behind the bar, Sam Worrall-Thompson, says, “In Adelaide the bar space seems to be filled with charcuterie and cheese boards, so we’re trying to stay away from that traditional style.” We recommend pairing the plumy smoke of the Barossa Valley John Duval ‘Concilio’ 2021 Shiraz with the kangaroo tartare served with saltbush, black garlic and peas or the grilled cheese sandwich with mushroom Vegemite and Beaufort cheese (which is kinda like Gruyere).
A brilliant find in the West. North Fremantle, WA.
You know the saying about under-promising and over-delivering? Al Lupo nails the brief. Modestly billing itself as ‘a bar by the beach’, owner Greg Leaver has succeeded in his aim of creating a menu “that suited lunch as well as dinner” with “simple uncomplicated dishes with an emphasis on local seafood”. You can practically smell the saline top notes of the nearby ocean as you slide into a golden timber bench beneath a slatted wall, that cleverly doubles as a wine display. Do not go past the local scallops cooked in the shell with chilli butter. Exquisitely simple and tied inextricably to the place in which you’re eating them.
A Levantine feast. Brisbane, QLD.
Although this gargantuan riverside complex has an overall capacity of 1000 guests, it’s riddled with laneways, parabolic alcoves and terraces that lend a sense of elegant separation. Head chef Ferdinand Sari’s menu draws on the history of The Levant (the eastern Mediterranean region that today spans Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan).
It’s food that’s designed to be shared and the premium tasting menu ($95) consists of a dozen dishes packed with zingers. The Tasmanian salmon served with arak, tarama, capers, peach and sumac will live long on the palate, as will vegetarian dishes such as a spiced fried cauliflower blended with lemon, black tahini and parsley. The finishing touch is ras el hanout, which is not the name of Batman’s nemesis, but rather a blend of cumin, ginger, cinnamon, coriander seeds, allspice and cloves.
One to watch. Byron Bay, NSW.
Byron Bay’s Karkalla has been on our radar for some time, with chef, owner and proud Bundjalung woman, Mindy Woods, recently becoming the Australian Good Food Guide’s first Aboriginal woman to score a coveted hat. Her mission has been to increase Indigenous representation in the hospitality and agricultural sectors, but the bottomline here is that her food is delicious and encompasses local ingredients too few of us know about. Try the ocean fish chargrilled over coals, served with crispy fried fish wing and organic mussels served in a curry sauce, which itself contains 32 ingredients such as lemon and cinnamon myrtle.
This story appears in issue 01 of Esquire Australia, on sale now.