Monday, December 31, 2012

How to eat a city: Brisbane

I’m getting pretty good at finding the best food in a new city. Here’s what you do: ask everybody you meet where the best food is, and then secretly rank their answer based on how much you respect their opinion. You might think that you could circumvent this approach by only asking for help from people whose opinion you trust, but you’d be wrong.
It’s from the ignorant masses that you hear the big names in town, places none of these people have been, but where they think you should probably go because the restaurants feature regularly in magazines, on billboards and namedropped at the nail salon. Not all of these places are any good, and not all of them are bad either – the important thing is that you need to know their names, so that when somebody you respect says ‘such-and-such is a good place for pizza’, you can say to them ‘what about this blah-dee-blah I’ve been hearing so much about’ and they can reply ‘it’s rubbish, don’t bother’ or ‘I’d forgotten about that one, you should go there instead’ or ‘it depends on how you feel about organised crime’.

Some of the most reliable people are waiters. Some of the least reliable people are taxi drivers. Unless the taxi driver is of a niche ethnic group recommending where to find authentic food from that particular niche ethnic group. And unless the waiter is a waiter at your hotel restaurant, trained to say ‘WE do a great curry!’ when you say you fancy a curry, or ‘WE’RE involved in organised crime!’ when you say you fancy a pizza.

So ask and ask and ask, and build up a picture. As a young man, nobody can tell you the formula for attracting women. But if your lonely alcoholic uncle says “toot at them as you drive past”, you quickly get a good idea of what not to do. Same with food – even a bad answer will tell you something.

After lots of probing and poking and judgmentally ranking, here are seven fantastic places I found and ate at in Brisbane over Christmas:

Ortiga is high end Spanish tapas, predictable ingredients presented in unpredictable ways (check out the ‘Ajo Blanco’ with green grape and eel, above). First class service, incredible wines in a beautifully refurbed restaurant – bar upstairs, serious eating below – and (here’s an idea) the small plates are delivered and consumed one at a time. No more stuffing an octopus tentacle in with a half mouthful of lamb’s shoulder. They described it on the phone as ‘degustation’ style, and I suppose that’s what tapas turn into when they come in single file.

Gerard’s Bistro is small plates as well, not far from Ortiga – you could do a decent tapas crawl between the two of them. This sort of thing: a charred, skinned eggplant and fermented yoghurt in one dish, a wagyu hanger steak rubbed with a mix of salt, cardamom and that eggplant skin in another. So, lots of clever tricks but always in the pursuit of flavour, and with staff who know their stuff, too.

Over in a K Road/Cuba St-style suburb called West End, you can find incredible pizza, coffee and craft beer at The Burrow. Surrounded by palms, with communal tables and big open doors and windows, Burrow feels like you’re somewhere tropical and exotic. And the pizza toppings are wild – try pulled pork with jalapeno, sourcream and pico de gallo.

Round the corner, brunch is good at Jam Jars, where the slogan is ‘Eat, Drink, Think’. The courtyard out back is all stencil art, home made furniture and mismatched doors and windows. The vego breakfast is so much more interesting than you have to endure at most places – herbed polenta instead of hash browns, tasty puckered mushrooms, caramelized onions, haloumi and plenty more.

In Brisbane's CBD, a dinky little lane is home to Survey Co, another small plate mecca where the flavours are cool and interesting and not always assignable to a particular food genre: chipotle baby squash with lime and oregano yoghurt (above), or roasted tomatoes with smoked eggplant, tahini yoghurt and lemon. If you’re staying in the city, this is your go-to restaurant.

Peasant is central but nowhere in particular, so far as I can work out. It’s a beautiful outdoor courtyard with fairy lights, cushioned booths and dark screens. The food is authentic Spanish tapa style with a few twists, with enough sherries and madeiras to please fortified wine bores like me. Peasant won ‘Best Restaurant 2012’ from a well respected local website guide – Weekend Edition – and I’d be happy to tentatively endorse that view based on the dozen or so places I visited. Go the sardines. Or the seared swordfish with green chilli and squid ink (top). Or the tomato, watermelon and goat cheese salad (it works).

If you like dumplings, and something tells me you do, be sure to stop at Brunswick Social. Everyone in Auckland is pretty excited about Barilla Dumplings on Dominion Road, where the service can be slow and grumpy and there’s nothing to drink. Plus, you can only order a couple of different things because everything comes in sets of about twenty, and you know you’ll get scowled at if you try to doggy bag. So, Brunswick is what a hipster dumpling restaurant should look like – almost as cheap, with great drinks, good air conditioning, great eye candy and I was going to say less of a slave-labour vibe, but I spotted a couple of Asian women in the kitchen who didn’t look to be particularly unionised, so maybe a bit of exploitation is just the price we pay for hand made dumplings.