Upscale Australian cafés – from Toby’s Estate in Brooklyn to Flat White in London – are showing coffee drinkers just how good the Aussie stuff is. Some eateries, however, attempt to show that we offer more than just a good latte. Witness Lantana, in London’s bohemian area of Fitzrovia, that specialises in “Australian-style cuisine”… whatever that means.
Lantana is owned by Aussies, and staffed by young Australians on their London pilgrimage. Glancing at the menu, the only Australian things are Vegemite and the Bundaberg ginger beer (which is imported, and hence costs three pounds a bottle). The food is fine, the coffee – courtesy of an Australian barista – excellent by London standards. But Australian cuisine? Fair go!
Outside the nation itself, the most famous “Australian-style cuisine” is on the menu of America’s Outback Steakhouse, a widely popular chain from Florida (naturally), presenting such delicacies as “Tassie’s buffalo strips” and sirloin with “grilled shrimp on the barbie” (Paul Hogan should really have made it clear that the word was “prawn”). Oh, and beer. Budweiser, mostly.
So what is “real” Aussie food? The best Australian cuisine in the UK is not in London cafés, but in the small Northern Irish town of Armagh, known for its historical buildings and two towering, long-standing cathedrals (one Catholic, one Protestant) called St Patrick’s. Next to the Protestant St Patrick’s, separated by a gate, is the award-winning Uluru Bistro.
It promotes itself as Northern Ireland’s only Australian restaurant, which didn’t really surprise me. Yet my waitress, bubbly and efficient, has a distinctly Northern Irish brogue. She is Sara Coppard, co-owner of Uluru Bistro with her husband, chef Dean. Now he’s an Aussie, formerly of Georges Fine Dining in Double Bay. They met in Bondi.
Once again, I’m not sure what “Australian cuisine” is supposed to mean, but it reads well, on the constantly changing menu. Crispy squid with Asian vegetables and lime mayo. Char-grilled venison with wilted baby spinach. That old favourite, rack of lamb with mashed spuds, has been transformed into slow pot-roasted shoulder of lamb with smoked onion mash, carrot puree and a rosemary jus. You never knew we were so exotic, did you?
Naturally, there is kangaroo on the menu – marinated, and served with braised red cabbage, kumera chips and a red wine jus. Sara says while lamb or beef are seasonal, the imported kangaroo is the only meat available throughout the year.
Even in Armagh, you don’t get awards just for being adventurous. As soon as I finish my wild mushroom risotto (with spinach, thyme and wild rocket), I’m eager to see the dessert menu. No pavlova. “We took it off the menu for now,” smiles Sara. That’s fine, as pavlova is so common in Northern Ireland that, if you must have it, you can probably get some at the local pub.
Over in Europe, Aussies are known as pub-dwellers rather than café connoisseurs. For 15 years, Crossfield Australian Pub has been a popular meeting spot in Vienna. “Is it owned by Australians?” I ask the waitress. “Close,” she smiles. “Austrians.” Still, many Aussies work there (though this waitress is a local), serving crocodile steak, “prawns on the barbie” (thank you!), kangaroo fajitas, grilled grasshoppers (“eight fair dinkum grilled Australian grasshoppers, without wings”) and ostrich fillets. (The waitress is surprised to discover that ostriches are not Australian.)
New York, of course, also offers some spots for homesick Aussies. The West Village has Kingswood, the classy from the owners of Ruby’s Cafe, which has been serving Australian coffee and Weetbix in SoHo for 10 years. Midtown Manhattan has The Australian Bar and Restaurant, an Aussie-style pub – more inner-city yuppie pub than country pub. The owners and staff are mostly Aussie, as though it’s part of the job description. The menu (pan seared barramundi, bangers and mash, sausage rolls) is authentic. You can get Coopers, or Jacob’s Creek, or even Fosters (though the staff won’t touch the stuff).
Over at The Thirsty Koala in Astoria, Queens, you can have Tamarama crab cakes or exotic jaffles, followed by lamingtons or pavlova. Lamingtons just might be picnic food in Australia, but in New York they’re wonderfully foreign. Besides, these ones are “sandwiching a thin layer of strawberry preserves rolled in chocolate ganache and coconut”, which makes them sound more elegant.
As most of our top chefs and restaurants specialise in Euro-style or Asian-style cuisine, perhaps we have to go overseas to find restaurateurs willing to experiment with our own local flavours and traditional cooking styles. If nothing else, they will probably serve you the best flat white in town.