Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on 19 April 2015.
Clued-up food lovers are beating a path to Hobart’s world-class restaurants and markets. John Corbett follows the pack.
Last November, three of Australia’s leading chefs hosted a dinner party at MONA, the futuristic underground art museum whose adult-oriented collections have catapulted Tasmania on to the world cultural stage. Held in a pavilion on the Derwent River and then in the museum’s Nolan Gallery, the Invite the World to Dinner gala event showcased some of Australia’s finest food and wine to a guest list of 80 media influencers and food professionals from around the globe.
The innovative menu by Neil Perry, Peter Gilmore and Ben Shewry drew oohs and ahs, but attendees eating their way around Hobart in the surrounding days were also quick to note that many of the dishes served in local restaurants rivalled the best efforts of the culinary maestros.
Something extraordinary has happened in Tasmania. Once a byword for economic stagnation and gloom, the island state has in recent years undergone a creative revival based largely on its superlative food and wine. Cutting-edge restaurants now dot the streets of Hobart, and world-class chefs flock to work in them. Add in vibrant street markets and an indie-leaning cultural scene and it’s hard to disagree with the claim that Hobart now holds the title of Australia’s Coolest Capital.
Locals I spoke to during my stay say the renaissance has emerged, paradoxically, from hard times. Traditionally isolated and often neglected by mainland Australia, Tasmania has long been a place where people have had to rely on their own resources. In natural terms, these are considerable: the island’s temperate climate grows a huge variety of produce, the local beef and lamb are world-class and the surrounding seas are pristine.
Tasmania is also a place where individuals have always had room to follow their passions, whether it’s growing the perfect turnip or radish (I crunched into the best ones I’ve ever eaten at a stall in Salamanca Market) or following a hunch that the island could produce world-class sparkling wine or pinot noir – which it now does.
The island’s unique situation also encourages creativity, and the food I ate at several leading-edge restaurants reflects what happens when talented chefs sit down and completely reimagine ingredients, flavours, textures and techniques. It’s as good as you get, and dining here you could easily be in Brooklyn or Northern California or any other node of world culinary innovation.
None of this has happened overnight. Local food writers like Matthew Evans say that for much of its history Tasmania didn’t have a good reputation for food: the produce was always good but the chefs weren’t. What seems to have changed things a decade ago was the establishment of farm-to-table restaurants and cooking schools, which are now dotted across the island. Today you can also attend food festivals, shop at produce street-markets and follow food and wine trails through Hobart’s lush hinterland and well beyond. In three days in Hobart I felt I barely scratched the surface.
To see some of the small army of artisan producers that underpins Hobart’s food scene, take a stroll through the bustling Salamanca Market held on the Hobart waterfront every Saturday. It is reputedly the largest weekend market in Australia and a three-hour walking tour escorted by Mary McNeill of Gourmania Food Tours is a good way to see it. The tour includes a stop at a top-rated café for coffee, lunch (perhaps a kangaroo burrito?) and a visit to a cider-maker at the end for a tipple.
The big magnet for food lovers is the produce-only Farmgate Market which transforms two blocks of downtown Elizabeth Street every Sunday morning. Here, in addition to all the fresh produce you can think of you’ll find Tasmanian olives and olive oils, meats, cheeses, honeys, peanut butter, street stalls selling ravioli, breads, cakes and condiments, and incredible fresh seafood including big, fat oysters from Bruny Island. As with Salamanca Market there is a sprinkling of tourists, but Farmgate is an authentic local experience – it’s full of ordinary Hobartians buying their weekly fruit and veg.
An added bonus of visiting the markets is seeing the city up close. Hobart’s past acquaintance with hard times has left its wonderful stock of colonial-era buildings largely intact, so a walk from the elegant Georgian warehouses of Salamanca Place through the downtown area takes you past grand, Greek-columned Victorian public buildings and several fine Gothic-style churches. And fittingly in this resurgent city, humble buildings like stables and mechanics’ workshops now offer architectural as well as gastronomic pleasures through their transformations into fine restaurants. Here are a couple of standouts.
Ethos Eat Drink
A pre-visit look at the Ethos website might give you the impression that it is painfully hip, but it isn’t. The staff are friendly and attitude-free and the service is good.
A look at the first items on the dinner menu (Silver trevally, chrysanthemum, nettle and pickled daikon; Radishes, sunflower sprouts and beetroot dressing) might also make you worry about getting enough to eat – but the offerings become more substantial as you move through the set six or eight degustation courses.
Ethos is tucked away at the end of a 193-year-old carriageway in a former stable belonging to a long-defunct hotel. Much architectural effort has been made to respect the heritage-listed site and the décor also picks up literally on the history with a chandelier made from old chemist bottles (a chemist shop succeeded the hotel on the street front). The rustic/homespun theme carries through to ancient packing case timbers repurposed as a dresser, bread plates made of pressed tin, earthenware platters and bowls, and hessian napkins.
For the rest, Ethos is very modern. It has a blog and Instagram and an online map that shows the location of each of its food producers throughout Tasmania. Its motto is “Local. Honest. Fresh” and it is fully committed to supporting small-scale production, organic farming, heirloom foods and sustainability. The wine list follows the same road, with offerings from local producers and a few select imports.
The chefs at Ethos are skilful and clever. I was in a group when I visited and our table made several repeat orders just for the quenelle of cultured butter with a dukkah-like seasoning that accompanied the bread made on the premises – like the pickles and mustards and soft drinks and almost everything else. A charcuterie platter of smoked bacon, speck, salami and pickled vegetables was a standout, and the table goggled collectively at a dessert offering of rice purée, dragée rice and apricot whose juxtapositions of velvety smooth textures, sweet crunchiness and pops of flavour were like the ultimate deconstructed breakfast cereal.
The “new-generation” food created by the chefs at Ethos and at the brilliant (and just closed for a change of ownership) Garagistes often has an unearthly beauty. It is unconventional and sometimes challenging in its approach to presentation and textures and tastes, and those who like “traditional” food tend to find it confronting. It is too early to say whether it represents the future of food or is simply a way station, but in the meantime it is never less than interesting. I’m making a beeline for Ethos Eat Drink next time I’m in Hobart.
“Does the chef have kids?” I asked the sommelier, who smiled in assent as he poured a matched glass of Frogmore Creek FGR Riesling, one of the certified organic wines that is a speciality of this multi-award-winning vineyard at the southern end of the Coal River Valley wine region. What else could explain the presentation of a chicken liver parfait in a Lego shape? Wit and humour in food is quite often a good thing, especially when it is paired with high technique, and at my lunch at Frogmore Creek the culinary surprises kept on coming.
Head Chef, Ruben Koopman joined the restaurant in January 2014 with a wealth of European experience behind him, including working under the guidance of internationally renowned Michelin-starred chefs such as Raymond Blanc, Marco-Pierre White and Albert Roux. It certainly shows. The chicken liver parfait was followed by an elegantly presented dish of slow-cooked salmon loin with seared scallops, a timbale of potato salad, a tuile of crackling and swooshes of salmon roe and miso dressing. The sommelier poured me a different Frogmore Creek riesling to drink with it.
I suspect chef Koopman likes desserts because the wit was back in full force in Black Forest Buttons, a fantasy of ripe cherries, dark chocolate, kirsch, peppermint ice cream, cardamom sponge and hazelnut crunch. I also couldn’t resist Kings and Queens, a confection of white chocolate and liquorice moulded into chess-piece shapes on a chessboard of beetroot sherbet. A sprinkling of lemon balm and freeze-dried raspberries and a quenelle of cardamom ice cream made it complete.
For all of the haute professionalism of the menu, chef Koopmans pulls off the trick of creating dishes that work well in the relaxed, Aussie-style surroundings of the winery restaurant. It’s a generous-sized, high-ceilinged room with picture windows offering views over the vineyards to the estuary of the Coal River. In full view too, just a few hundred metres away, is the distillery of Lark, the world-renowned Tasmanian whisky. One of the desserts, naturally, features a Lark whisky air.
THE COAL RIVER VALLEY WINE REGION
One of Tasmania’s seven wine sub-regions is just a 20-minute drive east of Hobart. Used early in the history of British settlement for grazing, pastureland and crop growing, Coal River Valley is a lovely, 20-kilometre stretch of rural landscape between the towns of Cambridge and Campania that invites you slow down to “Tassie time”.
A cool-climate wine region that sits at a similar latitude to those of Germany and France, Coal River Valley contains approximately 70 vineyards planted with chardonnay, riesling and cabernet sauvignon grapes producing about 20 percent of Tasmania’s total annual wine output. Wine experts rate the region’s pinot noir as exceptionally good.
An added attraction is Coal River Valley’s collection of award-winning restaurants and cellar doors, each with their own delicious and distinctive stories. Some of the many highlights:
Frogmore Creek – Tasmania’s first certified organic vineyard also has an award-winning restaurant. Executive chef Ruben Koopman has worked in Europe and the UK for Raymond Blanc, Marco-Pierre White and Albert Roux. frogmorecreek.com.au
Pooley Wines – Not every winery has a cellar door in a Heritage-listed, Georgian stone mansion built in 1842. Pooley Wines also makes great rieslings and pinot noir. pooleywines.com.au
Domaine A Stoney Vineyard
One of the oldest vineyards in the valley and one of the best, producing acclaimed cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. domaine-a.com.au
Located on the fringes of the Coal River Valley near MONA, this very famous Tasmanian winery offers unrivalled views and a selection of eateries. A day visit may not be enough! moorilla.com.au
Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Qantas fly to Hobart via Sydney and Melbourne.
Where to Stay
Sullivan’s Cove Apartments
5/19A Hunter Street, Hobart
+61 3 6234 5063
Where to eat
Ethos Eat Drink
100 Elizabeth St, Hobart
+61 3 6231 165
Frogmore Creek Wines
20 Denholms Road, Cambridge
+61 3 6248 5844
Gourmania Food Tours
Photos: Tourism Tasmania; John Corbett.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Australia, Tourism Tasmania and Virgin Australia. #RestaurantAustralia