Wednesday, 10 June 2009

My First Taste of Australia

Now don't bring out those steak knives, I can easily explain my absence from this blog once again! I was travelling in Australia for two weeks in May, so I kept myself low in April as I prepared for that vacation, and ever since my return I'd been tidying things up elsewhere, such as my personal blog, before I could finally update this blog. Fortunately, there have been instances from my Australia trip that require entries on this food blog, and so you'll see two more entries related to this trip. This, therefore, is the first of three entries, all restaurant reviews. If any of these entries attracts Aussie readers, welcome, and thank you for the wonderful Aussie hospitality!

Cairns, Australia is a veritable tourist town, and you may recall how I feel about dining in tourist areas. So, coming to this city I was prepared to make do with some unglamourous meals until I walked past an eatery near my hostel, Ochre Restaurant, which featured Modern Australian, or Mod Oz, cuisine. Mod Oz is basically the Australian way of calling fusion cuisine, and Ochre's menu definitely fit this category. Wanting to try things that are unique and/or special to Australia, I opted to try the Game Platter which when I ordered featured two dishes.

The first course, essentially the appetizer, definitely screamed Oriental influences. Featuring crocodile, it was cooked "salt and pepper" style, not unlike the salt and pepper ribs or prawns found in some Chinese restaurants, and served with Vietnamese-style pickled vegetables and some lemon aspen sambal (the sauce in the spoon). The flavouring was just right, and the crocodile especially was, thankfully, not too heavy on salt, a characteristic I'd experienced too often at some restaurants that do salt and pepper style meat dishes. My impression of crocodile meat is that it's as mild in flavour as chicken, though it has that watery undertone that one would notice when eating perfectly cooked white fish, but it is slightly tougher than chicken in texture. The vegetables provided a nice sour counterweight to the mildly greasy crocodile pieces that was sprinkled with pepper particularly native to Australia. I honestly can't say I could taste any difference between Australian pepper and pepper from other parts in the world, but this dish, from the pepper to the crocodile to the use of lemon aspen fruit, gave me an idea of how strongly this restaurant emphasized on using as many domestic if not local ingredients as possible.

The second (main) course featured two other animals native to Australia: kangaroo and emu. (Later on during this trip I learned that both animals are on the country's coat of arms, and Australia is the only country in the world whose coat of arms features animals eaten by humans.) Now, before some of you rail at me for eating an animal that's been idolized in Bugs Bunny cartoons, as an unofficial ambassador for Australia and even as the logo for Qantas, I must forward some trivia I learned about kangaroos. They to Australians are like what Canada geese are to Canadians. Both are symbols of their respective countries, yet both have become overpopulated, becoming grazing/foraging pests and vermin. If there are no qualms to eating geese (Canada or not), why fuss over a few kangaroos?

The grilled emu (left), cooked no more than medium, was a bit tougher than I thought it would be, but the flavour was nice, enhanced thanks to its reduction with mushrooms and topped with sliver-thin slices of pancetta. The grilled kangaroo, though, really caught my eyes and taste buds. Tender and cooked medium-rare, it was enhanced with a chili quandong glaze (pronounced with a silent "u") with halved (desert or sweet) quandongs, small, wild peaches, scattered about. The two types of meat were accompanied by some steamed bok choy, sweet potato fritter (julienned sweet potato in tempura batter) and, off-side, a sweet-potato and spinach gratin. I wasn't that crazy about the gratin, but it didn't dampen my enthusiasm for the kangaroo one bit.

Ochre gave me my first glimpse into both Mod Oz cuisine as well as Australian game and some unique ingredients, and did so quite satisfactorily. Though I now definitely expect higher standards when I reach Melbourne and return briefly to Sydney and try some of the fine dining joints there, this visit in Cairns turned out to be a promising start.

Name: Ochre Restaurant
Address: 43 Shields St., Cairns, QLD, Australia
Cuisine: Fusion (Mod Oz)
Price Range: Lunch AUS$20-AUS$50; Dinner AUS$60-AUS$80
Accessible: Yes

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