The Wizards of Mod Oz

By Natalie MacLean

“Daaarling, come in, come in!” says Sophia Loren’s Australian twin, opening the door. Jeannice Kersh—big hair, big make-up and cat’s-eye glasses dangling from 12 strands of metallic pearls around her neck—takes me by the arm into her restaurant. Edna’s Table is the Niagara Falls of Sydney dining: a landmark, a wonder and a little kitsch, but you must go. How else can you regale everyone back home with stories of eating kangaroo and crocodile?

“When I was growing up, only the poor people ate ‘roo. The rich people gave it to their dogs,” Jeannice laughs. The restaurant is in the bustling heart of Sydney’s grey-flannel business district, its stark white walls warmed by enlarged black-and-white family Polaroids of Jeannice and her brother Raymond (the chef) as children. For 23 years they’ve run this restaurant named after their late mother, who used to feed them the “bush tucker” that Aboriginals had eaten for thousands of years before the white settlers arrived: kangaroo, emu, crocodile, native plants, herbs and fruit.

In the last few years, Raymond and other local chefs have been creating modern dishes using those traditional ingredients. Their flavour and texture is stunning, like taking a blindfolded walk through a rain forest with only your palate to guide you. My char-grilled fillet of kangaroo has a dark savoury taste, more robust than venison, and a perfect match for the bold shiraz I’m drinking.

“There’s no cholesterol or fat in the ‘roo. Have I ruined it for you, darling?” Jeannice asks laughing. “It’s best served rare; otherwise, it gets very tough.” She gives me a koala-bear hug as I leave. Her down-under, down-home hospitality and food are the perfect recipe for sophistication without pretension.

There’s a name for this distinctly uncolonial mentality, which is a long way from traditional British overcooked roast and two veg, or even shrimp-on-the-barbie and Vegemite sandwiches. It’s called Mod Oz, short for Modern Australian cuisine. While foodies are still debating exactly what defines Mod Oz, and whether it’s a truly national cuisine, no one denies that Sydney has joined the dining capitals of the world: It has a delicious blend of New York hustle, Parisian elegance, Californian cool and Asian exoticism. The Asian Wall Street Journal recently called Sydney “planet earth’s number one town for eating.”

Stepping back into the inky drizzle of the night, I walk toward the illuminated Opera House and the twinkling lights of the Harbour Bridge. Laughter and light spill out of restaurants and bars. Sydney is a town that likes a drink. Just two hours north is the Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest wine region. It produces vibrant, mouth-watering semillon and balanced, elegant shiraz, which I resolve to discover before I leave. Even Sydney’s name is a British contraction of Saint Denis,­ which, in turn, was a corruption of Dionysius, the Greek god of wine. My kind of town. The Establishment, the boutique hotel where I’m staying, has just 33 rooms and 12 bars. My kind of hotel.

The true measure of Sydney’s culinary maturity is that good food isn’t limited to dinner at pricey fine dining establishments. Bill’s, an open-air café in fashionable Darlinghurst, made its reputation on breakfast. Inside, regulars chat over steaming coffee at worn leather banquettes and long communal wooden tables. As I take my first bite of a pillowy ricotta hotcake with fresh banana and honeycomb butter, I’m filled with a marvellous melancholy: I know that this dish will be added to my lifetime list of cravings.

Later I wander through the Royal Botanical Gardens in the heart of the city. The giant eucalyptus trees (some of them originally planted in 1816) are alive with what sounds like chattering birds. But when I look up, I see instead hundreds of grey bats, known as flying foxes, hanging off the branches like burnt out Christmas light bulbs. Clustered around the base of the trees are fireball garlands of fushia, orange and red flowers.

Since Sydney is surrounded by nature—not to mention 20 kilometres of beaches—it’s hard to believe that it’s a city of 4 million residents. Beach-side dining, unsurprisingly, is a specialty. Icebergs restaurant, high up on the white cliffs of Bondi Beach, overlooks a kilometre-long surfer’s paradise. In the water, wetsuits flash like slippery black fish; on the beach, the bright yellow and red outfits of the Bondi Surf Lifesavers look like tropical fish. My entrée of Moreton Bay bugs sounds bit too beachy, but turns out to be delicious: tiny, tender lobsters served warm over shaved artichoke, peas, potatoes and labneh. A glass of Clare Valley riesling offers the invigorating refreshment of a riptide without getting wet.

No Sydney chef is better known for exotic, fresh seafood than Neil Perry, who opened his restaurant in 1989 in the historic Rocks district. British convicts landed here in 1788 after eight months at sea and soon its narrow cobblestone streets were lined with bawdy bars and brothels. Today it’s filled with gentrified, convict-chic boutiques (some still have iron bars on the windows), galleries and restaurants like Rockpool, where Perry describes his approach as “ocean to plate.” He minimizes stress to the fish, which are line-caught, brain-spiked (the kindest method because it’s instant) and laid on ice to preserve their flavour and texture. Shellfish get the full spa treatment: They’re kept alive in uncrowded tanks with individual filtration systems.

The result is on my plate: stir-fried lobster with shiitake mushrooms, hard-cut noodles and red curry sauce is ultra-fresh and deeply flavoured. Perry’s house riesling, full of lemon-lime intensity, pairs perfectly. Perry is one of a number of chefs influenced by the profusion of international cuisines brought to Australia by European and Asian immigrants. (Some 130 nationalities live in Australia today.) Unconstrained by any one tradition, chefs like Peter Doyle at est. and Dietmar Sawyere at Forty One create innovative combinations from a profusion of multicultural cooking methods and an abundance of fresh, local produce.

You can see some of that heritage driving through the pristine, 12,000-kilometre Hunter Valley, where many of the wineries still bear the old family names: Lindemans, Tulloch, Tyrell’s, Wilkinson, Drayton’s, McWilliams, Wyndham, McGuigan. The sun plays peekaboo between the gum trees. If it weren’t for the gentle afternoon cloud cover here, the grapes would fry in the 40o C summer days. Extreme heat, torrential fall rains and winter droughts mean that only one Hunter vintage in three is good, and most of it is sold locally at winery tasting rooms called “cellar doors.”

Looking out from the front terrace of Audrey Wilkinson’s winery, I can see why the early settlers stopped here in 1866. The ocean shimmers in the distance; the black fists of the Brokenback mountain range hold up the western sky. Many of the old vineyards are on Broke Road (presumably named after the fate of those Sydney financiers who had the bucks but not the expertise to fulfill their owning-a-vineyard fantasies.) In the hills below, 48 hectares of vineyards are filled with young vines decked in their spring foliage like children in lime-green uniforms, all knobby knees and elbows, lined up to go to school. Indeed, the fruit of these vines will be educated in this winery, where it will learn the discipline of the press and the manners of oak. Some of the old wooden fermenting vats are carved with the initials of men who worked there 100 years ago.

In the tasting room I sample the 2003 Audrey Wilkinson Semillon, a brilliant white wine that bursts with citrus zest. “The first thing you look for is whether the wine is stable, clear and bright,” says Steve, half of the tasting room tag team. His cohort Laurie jumps in, like a seasoned nightclub performer: “Yeah, not like Steve at all.” The minibus crowd touring the winery laughs as Steve adds, “Laurie’s working here as our ‘insultant’” When he produces the spit bucket, he says, “Pour the wine you don’t want into our export bin.”

Jokes aside, Australia is a leading wine exporter (after France, Italy, Spain and the U.S.). A new winery opens down under every 72 hours. Back in the 1980s, most Australian wines were heavily flavoured alcoholic jam made from overripe shiraz grapes. You’ll still find those ever-popular fruit bombs; but now vintners create wines with finesse and a strong sense of regionalism in a wide range of styles to pair with the innovative new cuisine.

“Semillon, it’s an odd duck of a wine,” a young helper at Tyrell’s winery tells me as I sip the award-wining 1997 Reserve Belford Semillon. “Crisp and clean when it’s young, but along about two to three years, it’s nothing. Best to hide it away, which is what we do ­ don¹t release the semillons until they’re ready at about five years or so. Then they’re fat with almonds and honey.”

Hunter shiraz is also worth aging, unlike the fruit bombs of other regions that don’t last much more than a year after bottling. The Graveyard Shiraz at Brokenwood Winery has a classic Bordeaux-like structure, and is redolent of violets and ripe red berry fruit. It’s a serious wine rated as highly as Penfold’s Grange (Australia’s top wine), though Brokenwood looks like a hobby operation, with its folksy tasting room covered in cricket memorabilia. The Brokenwood vineyard is planted with cuttings from the original 1830s rootstock that catch the first rays of the day, giving the wine full-bodied ripeness. More and more local wineries are starting to label their bottles with vineyard designations, so that the Hunter Valley starts to get the recognition it deserves.

When I return to Sydney, the city is draped in green and yellow, the national colours. Children wave flags on street corners and groups of people sing Waltzing Matilda. Clearly word has spread that I’m here to investigate the city’s food and wine. Then again, it might also have something to do with the Australian rugby team, the defending world champions, playing their first game of the World Cup tonight.

My dinner at Guillaume at Bennelong in the Opera House, the city’s most identifiable icon for the last 31 years, affords a spectacular view of the harbour through the large open windows. Ferries trimmed in white lights pull in and out of Circular Quay, while strains of cello drift into the restaurant. As I linger over my shiraz and casserole of rabbit with fresh pappardelle, fireworks explode on the harbour bridge in what looks like the shape of a wine bottle—or, perhaps, it could be a rugby ball. It seems to me that Australia now holds more than one world title.

WHERE TO STAY

Regent’s Court – A charming boutique hotel at the end of a leafy cul-de-sac that feels like a private residence. The apartment-style rooms with art deco furniture were designed by the same team who renovated Rockpool.
18 Springfield Ave., Potts Point 61 2 9358 1533

Establishment – A chic hotel with beautiful staff and an outstanding restaurant, Est. Walking distance from Opera House and Circular Quay, The Rocks.
5 Bridge Lane 61 2 9240 3100

Tower Lodge – This $16-million Hunter valley villa has 12 spacious rooms with 16-foot ceilings. Poached pears and rhubard confit flavoured with rosewater on toast for breakfast? Yes please.
Hunter Valley Halls Rd., Pokolbin 6 1 2 4998 7022

WHERE TO EAT

Sydney:

Bill’s – 433 Liverpool St., Darlinghurst, 61 2 9360 9631

Forty One – Chifley Tower, 2 Chifley Square 61 2 9221 2500

Guillaume at Bennelong - Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Macquarie St. 61 2 9241 1999,

Icebergs Restaurant and Bar – 1 Notts Ave., Bondi Beach 61 2 9365 9000

Ripples – 104 Alfred St., Milsons Point (Sydney Olympic Pool), 61 2 9929 7722

Rockpool – 107-109 George St.,The Rocks 02 9252 1888 www.rockpool.com

The Hunter Valley:

Robert’s – at Pepper Tree The best restaurant in the valley offers sophisticated French dishes with country charm in a converted 1876 pioneer’s cottage. Halls Rd., Pokolbin 61 2 4998 7330

Shakey Tables – Voted Modern Australian Restaurant of the Year Hunter Region in 2001 and 2002. Hunter Valley Lodge, Cessnock-Branxton Rd., North Rothbury 61 2 4938 1744

WHAT TO DO

Hunter Valley Cheese Company Terrific European washed rind and white-mould cheeses ­don’t miss the red cheddar. Also local olives, olive oils, mustards, preserves, honey, cold cuts and breads for a picnic lunch. McDonald’s Road, Pokolbin 61 2 4998 7744

WINERIES

Start at the Hunter Valley Wine Country Visitor Information Centre on Main Road. There you’ll find maps, directions and other helpful information. 61 2 4990 4477

Tyrell’s – Broke Rd., Pokolbin, 61 2 4993 7000

Brokenwood – McDonald’s Rd., Pokolbin, 61 2 4998 7559

Audrey Wilkinson – DeBeyers Rd., Pokolbin, 61 2 4998 7411

Evans Family – Wines Broke Rd., Pokolbin, 61 2 4998 7237

Tempus Two – Broke Rd., Pokolbin, 61 2 4998 7466

Hungerford Hill – McDonalds Rd., Pokolbin, 61 2 4998 7666

Lindeman’s – McDonalds Rd., Pokolbin, 61 2 4998 7684

Rosemount – McDonalds Rd., Pokolbin, 61 2 499 86670

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Sydney: www.citysearch.com.au

Australia: www.australia.com