Just as well the century is young – because anyone wanting to outdo Tourism Australia’s extraordinary Invite the World to Dinner event in Hobart last month will need the rest of it.
BY JOHN CORBETT. 14 November, 2014. It was a scene from Bond. James Bond. On the Elizabeth Street pier in downtown Hobart there were glitterati, paparazzi, TV and radio crews and choppers buzzing overhead. Down the red carpet, past the lines of servers with goblets of Champagne, past the string quartet and the crowds of roped-off gawkers came possibly more international star power than Tasmania has ever seen at any one time.
As well as 80 hand-picked food and wine professionals from around the world (Alimentary was one of them), you could spot many of Australia’s leading celebrity chefs and food personalities. All were embarking for a gala dinner at MONA, Hobart’s internationally renowned Museum of Old and New Art, to celebrate Tourism Australia’s Restaurant Australia campaign.
Then there was more Bond – in the form of a high-speed ride up the Derwent River in a fleet of bright blue-and-yellow Naiad vessels from Pennicott Wilderness Journeys. Zooming under the soaring arches of the Tasman Bridge, the convoy came ashore at a sleek, super-modernist waterside entertainment pavilion that is part of the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park (aka GASP!).
In the first of many surprises during the evening, the first two “chapters” of the dinner co-created by Australian chefs Peter Gilmore, Neil Perry and Ben Shewry were served here, in classic Australian barbie style, at several open-air cooking stations. Even a rushing spring wind, that saw many guests wrap themselves in the blankets that had been thoughtfully provided in the boats, couldn’t lessen their enthusiasm for the offerings. There were wild Angasi oysters from Tasmania’s Bruny Island, Pacific oysters from the Freycinet Peninsula and delicate little Sydney Rock Oysters, washed down with Arras, the brilliant sparkling wine from Tasmania’s Bay of Fires.
There were the biggest, fattest and most delicious abalones I have ever eaten (they are the size of a bread plate and indigenous to Tasmania) – served charcoal-grilled, finely sliced and served with a liver, sake and mirin dressing. There were marrons from Western Australia, grilled on skewers over braziers and served with fresh wasabi butter in a roasted wallaby tail broth. And whole King George whitings cooked in paperbark, with grilled baby corn and anise dressing. And wood-roasted Tasmanian lobster in kombu butter. Accompanying it all were amply flowing wines from Tasmania, Victoria, NSW, South Australia and WA.
Next, like an emissary from Dr Evil, MONA’s giant black-and-white camo-painted catamaran sidled up to the jetty to take the guests a kilometre farther up the river. Seated around flourishing on-board bars, guests watched the long Tasmanian twilight fade, right on cue, for arrival at MONA. The welcome there was Mad Max-style, with big fiery balls of butane gas shooting into the night air as guests ascended the stairs from the ferry landing; you half-expected to see Tina Turner waiting, arms akimbo, in her Thunderdome corset.
Much has been written about MONA since its opening in 2011 but nothing prepares you for its sly impact. Its ground-floor entrance foyer is understated and even anodyne, but step into one of the glass-walled lifts or venture down the spiral stairs into the gallery spaces and you enter a futuristic subterranean world like the lair of Dr No.
Chapters three and four of the evening’s story, served in the Nolan Gallery beneath the famous Sidney Nolan Snake artwork of 1620 images of Aboriginal faces, continued the surprises. A trio of innovative main-course dishes – Salted South Australian Red Kangaroo and Bunya Bunya from chef Shewry’s own garden in Victoria; Smoked and Confit Pig Jowl from Byron Bay with Black-lipped Tasmanian Abalone and Shiitake Mushrooms from NSW (Gilmore), and Grilled Sirloin, Braised Cheek, Oxtail and Tea-Smoked Oyster Red Curry (Perry) – celebrated produce and ingredients from across the nation.
In keeping with the event’s roving theme, the arrival along a table-top of a Lady Gaga-type personage, lip-synching to Bizet and Puccini arias in a cloud of pink chiffon, took the party literally to a another level. The desserts included perfect little ice cream cones and “native Blue Wren eggs” (a Ben Shewry version of that Australian institution, the snow egg) which guests plucked from nests in the branches of artificial trees.
“See you at the whisky bar,” my dinner companion had said earlier. Ranged along the blue, glowing cleft of the Void Bar were tasting stations that showcased Tasmanian whiskies (Lark, Sullivan’s Cove, Nant) that have justifiably become world-famous, and for anyone who could fit in anything more, lustrous cheeses from Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria.
The last complimentary shuttle bus left for Hobart at 1.30am but the guests stayed on. Two am went by. And so did 3am. Alimentary hears from a reliable source that 4am was when special guest Heston Blumenthal and his entourage headed home from what was already being talked about as the greatest dinner party Australia has ever thrown. To which we say, fair dinkum. www.alimentary.co.nz #RestaurantAustralia
Photos: John Corbett