BRISBANE: We’re going north on an urban safari

Neither
floods nor cyclones can dent the relentless reinvention of Brisbane, with celeb
chefs and real espresso all over town.
In a city where, traditionally, the word
‘hip’ is automatically aligned with ‘replacement’, it’s been a tough slog to
otherwise convince to southerners and the hordes who’ve fled the northern
capital every decade that Brisbane now is truly a cool city.
“Hip Brisbane?” said a friend
who’d grown up in Brissy in the 60s, fled and never gone back. “Visit
first, then try to convince me.”
And with its reputation and streets taking
a battering in the recent floods, Brisbane has used it as an excuse to give the
city a good scrubbing to emerge gleaming in the late-summer sunshine.

If my Brisbane escapee friend had spent just a couple of hours with me one
sunny morning, she may have started to relent. My hotel, the newly opened Spicer’s Balfour, is a renovated Queenslander in inner-city New Farm, with
just nine guest rooms, wide verandas for breakfasting, a rooftop bar and
open-air reception with views across to the Story Bridge and into the neighbours’
capacious back yards.
As a schoolgirl in rural Queensland, my memories of
Brissy are of brawling with the siblings while dad drove in endless circles
around the city streets, cursing the Big Smoke and inevitably ending up out the
front of the XXXX brewery. Now, locals cruise the city on bikes, ferries, along
riverside promenades: Brisbanites
are no slouches – you’ll find them running marathons before breakfast, pounding
through the city’s lush parklands, riding the riverside trails or sauntering
the city streets. No wonder they’re mainlining big
breakfasts at eight: they’ve been up before dawn, catching the sunshine.
Remember the old Flo Bjelke-Petersen joke? No daylight saving, thank you. It
fades the curtains.
 
But
it’s not just me who’s rethinking Brisbane: Matt Moran opened his Brisbane Aria last year, Spaniard Pablo
Tordesillas moved up north by way of Woolloomooloo’s Otto to open Ortiga,
named the country’s top restaurant in 2010 and the town’s still talking about
its coup in scoring fashion designer Akira
Igosawa’s latest boutique and Hermes’ arrival in December. 
This
is not a one-way street of pale southerners heading north to woo the
white-pants brigade. November saw gong-winning Brisbane bar Byblos open in Melbourne, Nat-Sui shoes beloved by well-hoofed
celebs from Tara Moss to The Veronicas is coming to Woolloomooloo and Newtown’s
Campos Coffee opened a Brisbane outpost
long before coming to Melbourne late last year. 
In fact, the Brisbane café was recently named Australia’s best by Lifestyle Channel viewers, and the waiters
are as effortlessly condescending as any Sydney NIDA graduate-cum-barista.
Bringing coffee to the south? It just smacks of selling ice to eskimos.
It’s long been held you can’t get a decent espresso in Brissy, so I do a
double-take in front of the drive-through café by Brissy-bunch-made-good, Merlo, which churns out its daily-roasted
private blend to loyal locals who zip past, arms stretched out from their shiny
black BMWs and Audis to receive a hit.
Brisbane’s coffee aficionados tell me the new barista at French café Cirque is totally amaaaaaaaazing, but,
this still being Queensland, I miss lunch twice in a row because the kitchen
closes up, quick-smart, at 2.30pm. Not so much the Land of the Long Lunch, but
the Land of the Early Lunch. But I guess if you’ve been up since the crack of
dawn, you’re not going to wait till 3pm to eat.
I only just scrape in for a late lunch (after some begging) at the Gun Shop Café, Delicious magazine’s
café of the year 2010 and named in Gourmet Traveller’s top 20 brekkys. The
little 65-seat café, which endured a sluicing during the floods, churns out up
to 350 breakfasts each Sunday morning from 7am till 12.30pm (there’s that early
closing bell again). 
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Premier Anna Bligh or a homeless bloke
who’s scrounged enough for a coffee, everyone still has to queue,” says chef-owner
Jason Coolen, who is easing into dinners, starting with Friday and
Saturday nights and has just finished extending out the back, to the delight of
the mid-morning pram brigade. “I’ve got kids, (mate) Matt Moran’s got kids. Why
do we want to knock that market back?”
The service I get on the Brisbane food scene is, with the exception of
Campos, endearingly informal, with all the enthusiasm of a young Labrador who
just wants to be your friend and tell you their favourite dish on the menu,
with a large chunk of life story thrown in for good measure. They’re not
flirting, but it’s kinda cute, to wit the bouncy boy bringing out platters of
local snapper, Kimberley barramundi and Hervey Bay scallops at South Bank Surf Club, the new
restaurant by TV chef Ben O’Donoghue
of Surfing the Menu fame. Ben himself
delivers a starter rack of oysters to us three gleeful girls, who throw a
bottle of South Australian riesling into the mix and perch out on the veranda.
While we hoe in, the Brissy girls recall how they used to leap into
the nearby man-made South Bank beach
for a quick sobering-up swim, jeans and all after a night on the town. The
beach is currently closed while an army of trucks repair the flood damage, but
when it’s in the swing, sunny Sunday afternoons see this restaurant, which aims
to become carbon-neutral, pumps with hungry and thirsty swimmers. 
If we weren’t eating at Ben’s new joint, we could have popped into Sardine Tin for late-night tapas (yes,
Brisbane, like Sydney and Melbourne is certainly not immune to the charms of
Spanish food served in minutiae) or any
of the tiny bars along South Brisbane’s casual strip, where well-behaved
drinkers lounge on tables along the pavements in the warm evening air. 
It’s certainly more
lively than Brisbane’s Queen St Mall, which moves from Vuitton to Supré in just
two short blocks. Never have I seen so many bra straps and Brissy’s perpetual
fascination with mini-dresses means it’s well in style at the moment. It’s hard
to find the local gems unless you are tipped off. Totally this-minute menswear
is found in Dirtbox, relocated
beside its newly reopened sister shop Bessie
Head
in the otherwise drab Broadway Mall, and little ‘Tokyo-centric’ Apartment, stocking Comme Des Garcons
and US coolster brand Carhartt, is hidden in a basement on neighbouring
Elizabeth St. Brisbane’s own Easton
Pearson
lives in Fortitude Valley’s slick main drag, James St, near
fashion incubator The Tribune and local upcoming label Subfusco
In fact,
the Valley is back on the hot list, thanks largely to the The
Emporium
complex, home to
the second hotel I road-test here.  The suburb
is giving its spicy rep as a hotbed of dirty drinking dens the heave-ho, thanks
to such establishments as Emporium, which took out Gourmet Traveller’s best
small luxury hotel in 2009 and again in 2010, but one local still slips up: “Why,
it’s just a vomit’s spit from the nightclub scene,” they say guilelessly. I spy
a few clubs with that boarded-up look all nightclubs have in daylight, but the
queen on the scene is luxe, opulent Cloudland,
with its crazily lush organic theme complete with waterfalls, garden walls and
a retractable roof.
The Emporium hotel hits a few sour notes, with windows I can’t seem to
open, additional charge for wi-fi and a chilly lap pool, but the rooms are
well-designed and spacious, and it sits beside the current hottest meal ticket
in town, Tartufo.
 
This Wednesday night, Tartufo
is turning back those without bookings, which we sail smugly past. Chef Tony Percuoco’s kitchen must run itself, as he’s out on
the floor between courses, laughing and chatting, a more carefree chef I’ve
never seen.  Formerly of the Gold Coast’s
Ristorante Fellini and an
apprentice at Bennelong way back in the 70s, he’s always loved Brisbane. “It
just reminded me of Sydney when we arrived, back in 1972,” he says without a whiff
of condensation.
The catchphrase in Brisbane at the moment is ‘urban villages’, and Woolloongabba
is the hottest of the lot for antique and vintage shops as
well as some truly stellar eating houses, just down the road from that iconic
stadium, the Gabba. 
A word about the
Wollongabba strip: it’s small. It’s really small. It’s, like, a block long. Yet
you could quite comfortably spend a day there, starting with coffee at Pearl, then a poke amongst the antique
centre and emporium for vintage Chanel and retro homewares, dinner at Bistrot Bistro or 1889
Enoteca
(home of 2010’s best wine list in all Oz) and a cheeky little
post-dinner rendezvous at Crosstown Eating House’s new bar, or in sparkling
new Canvas, with tapas by Matt Moran (yeah, he’s loving Brisbane) and
rum-tastic cocktails. A hot tip: Tuesdays is tapas and tequila night, where $30
will get you two beautifully crafted marguerites and three tapas. 
Canvas is typical of
the new edginess in Brissy – its walls are handpainted by local street artists
Jimmy Bligs and Teibo, and the street grunge theme continues at Edwina Corlette’s edgy gallery, a
pleasant find as I’m tottering around New Farm in an attempt to negate the
calorie binge by way of window shopping. That’s her window, splashed in vivid
red, yellow and black painted roadsigns by Aboriginal-Chinese artist Jason
Wing. 
If you thought you
could see everything in Brisbane at home in Sydney, praps think again. We all
know Gallery of Modern Art’s (aka GOMA) coup with its recent Valentino Retrospective exhibition,
which saw more than 8000 visitors on one of the final Sundays, and the
afternoon I visit is packed with what appears to be the AGM of the Country
Women’s Association, dissecting sleeves insets and sable-trim armholes.
The riverside GOMA says
it was lucky to sustain only minimal damage, but the whole precinct, including
the Qld Art Gallery is currently closed, but expected to be open before the end
of the month. When it does open its doors, GOMA’s current exhibition, they
promise, will blow you away. The Tracey Moffatt photos and Minnie Pwerles are stacked
away and the whole space given over to 21st Century: Art in the First Decade. Opened 18 December until 25
April, it features 180 artworks by 110 artists from 40 countries, some on loan
from the world’s most prestigious galleries, others new acquisitions. We’re
talking balloons, swimming pools, live zebra finches, wormholes that snake
through the building…it’s even got its own blog, www.21cblog.com.
While I’ve spent most of my time in the
Valley, New Farm, West End and Woolloongabba, there are yet more booming areas to check out: Paddington
for its vintage strip, the post-flood scrubbed Eagle Street Pier for eating, the waterfront down at newly chi-chi
Teneriffe, the old jail that’s now The Barracks’ food and shopping haunt and
the café scene at Milton.
Does that mean a return visit? “Don’t
donate to flood appeals, come up and spend your money enjoying the Brisbane
sunshine!” the locals tell me. Dammit, it’d be un-Austrayian not to. So if
‘hip’ meant feeling angst, wearing black and not eating fresh mango for
breakfast, then give hip the heave. I’ll take New Farm, not New York.
ADDRESS BOOK
Ÿ 
1889
Enoteca
, 10-12 Logan Rd,
Wolloongabba
Ÿ  Bistrot
Bistro,
14 Logan Rd, Wolloongabba
Ÿ 
Brisbane
Aria
, No. 1 Eagle St,
Eagle St Pier, CBD
Ÿ 
Byblos
Portside Wharf 39 Hercules Street, Hamilton
Ÿ 
Campos
Coffee
, 11 Wandoo
St, Fortitude Valley
Ÿ 
Canvas, 16b Logan Rd,
Woolloongabba
Ÿ 
Edwina
Corlette Gallery,
2/555 Brunswick St, New Farm
Ÿ 
Gun
Shop
Café, 53
Mollison St, West End
Ÿ 
Merlo
drive-through café, 104 McLachlan St, Fortitude Valley
Ÿ 
Ortiga, 446 Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley
Ÿ 
Pearl
Café
, 28 Logan Rd,
Wolloongabba
Ÿ 
South Bank Surf Club, 30aa
Stanley Plaza Parklands, South Brisbane
Ÿ 
Tartufo, Emporium
Brisbane, 1000 Ann St, Fortitude Valley
STAYING THERE Best of the boutiques: Spicer’s Balfours (37 Balfour St, New
Farm, 07 3358 8888, www.spicersgroup.com.au)
Chester’s (closed in February for
renovation, 26 Chester St, Fortitude Valley,07 3852 2218, www.chestershotel.com) Limes (142 Constance St, Fortitude
Valley, 07 3852 9000, www.limeshotel.com.au)
and Emporium (1000 Ann St, Fortitude
Valley, 07 3253 6918,www.emporiumhotel.com.au
)
FOR MORE INFORMATION Get your hands on the excellent (yet
free!) Good Guide, a new series of
fantastic little guides on four Brisbane pockets. Find in the smaller hotels,
real estate agents or online with interactive maps, www.goodguide.net.au Check Travel Queensland for packages www.queenslandholidays.com and
download Brisbane Marketing’s new
online guide, www.visitbrisbane.com.au/Travel/VisitorGuide/

Dishing up the delish

Union Dining, Richmond

Ready, set, eat! Give your tastebuds a workout in Melbourne’s newest restaurants.
“DOES
she like it?” asks celebrity chef and restaurateur George Calombaris as
he hovers at our table with hands clasped, face concerned.

The
food critic puckers her lips and spits the spoon out, clean. Yes,
George. The 10-month-old baby does like your strained pumpkin. The baby
is happy. And George is happy, too.

“My mama is Greek. My baba is
Italian. This is my food,” reads a large banner in MamaBaba, the newest
addition to the Calombaris empire, which includes The Press Club, St
Katherine’s and the gorgeous Hellenic Republic. This night, MamaBaba is a
sea of South Yarra blondes and more than one instance of leopard print
but all eyes are on the TV star chef, who orchestrates my tortellini
filled with a prawn mousse with prawn saganaki, tomato and feta: a
bargain at $26, considering a $45,000 pasta machine had a hand in its
creation.

Calombaris’s restaurant, opened in January, is one of a battalion of
new eating houses to hit Melbourne in the past few months. Last year was
a blockbuster for restaurant openings in the southern city, from big,
brassy numbers (The Atlantic, Crown complex) to the oh-so-Melbourne
phenomenon of a glitzy cocktail bar up the back of what looks like a
trashed laneway (EDV, off Malthouse Lane).

And if all these
newcomers weren’t enough for the hungry hordes, the city is in the midst
of its 20-day food orgy, the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, where
chefs and winemakers from the world’s top restaurants indulge us: think
great Dane Rene Redzepi from Copenhagen’s NOMA, currently the world’s
top restaurant, or Spanish indigenous wine varietals champion Telmo
Rodriguez.

Eating there
Bistro Gitan, mains from $29, 52 Toorak Rd West, South Yarra, (03) 9867 5853, bistrogitan.com.au
Chin Chin, mains $17-$33, 125 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, (03) 8663 2000, chinchinrestaurant.com.au
MamaBaba, mains $19-$33, 21 Daly St, South Yarra, (03) 9207 7421, mamababa.com.au
Middle Fish, breakfast from $13.50, 122-128 Berkeley St, Carlton, (03) 9348 1704
Union Dining, Sunday lunch $55pp plus wine, 270 Swan St, Richmond, (03) 9428 2988, uniondining.com.au


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Schnitz gets the blitz as St Kilda hollers hola to Mexico

“Ah, remember the days when those older Russian ladies would do tits’n’schnitz at the Newmarket hotel?”

The barfly was seriously asking if I remembered. No mate, not me.

“It was a bit o’ fun. Just a bit o’ fun. And now the Newmarket‘s gone all gentrified,” he added with a sad sneer. “Some guy called Jules, Jules, has taken it over, and it’s yet another place doing Mexican.”

He was a remarkably well-informed barfly. Yes, Jules does own it and it is doing Mexican (like half of Melbourne), but what Mexican!

You know, I’m not a corn girl. Too many cans of sticky-sweet-smelling corn in too many bad salads cured me of liking corn. But this being Mexican, it’s all about corn, and I’m not running screaming. In fact, it was the most exciting menu I’ve seen for a while.

‘Exciting’ does mean a lot of ‘what the hell is…’ moments when reading the menu, but the Word Bin at the bottom was a glossary of such unfamiliar (to me) terms such as cantipalo (Portuguese salami), jicama (sweet root Vetetable) and that delicious new word in my vocab, huitlacoche (a corn fungus/Mexican truffle).

We started with the Latin street food: a soft taco with prawns, fragrant herbs and jicama slaw ($16) and a soft shell crab taco with guacamole, shaved fennel, spicy corn and tomatillo salsa ($17). See, that word bin comes in handy, don’t you think?

For mains, we went off-menu and took the roast of the day, a dreamy organic goat from Gippsland. Succulent little beast, the sliced meat was served with a salad that would be quicker to describe what’s not in it, rather than what is. Here’s what the menu describes it as: chopped Mexican salad: iceberg (who ever boasted about serving iceberg?), radishes, jicama, sweet tomatoes, cactus and queso fresco (fresh Spanish cheese). Did it mention it also had corn in it, like most other dishes? It was fabulous: fresh, cool and the ideal foil to the rich goat’s meat.

There were hipsters sinking pitches of Ashaninka (pisco, rum, lemon juice, jasmine tea, blueberry puree and lemonade), tables of sequins and t-shirts doing a swift run on the wine from the barrel and the Favela No. 34, a concoction of Brazilian rum, plum pisco, strawberries, lime juice and basil, hit the spot on a sultry eve.

The facade is its same old brick face, but after a few feet, it turns into an extravaganza of glass, steel and rustic brick and cement walls, still with the tradies’ scribbled measurements to add a bit of glam-crustiness. This is St Kilda, after all, and it’s down the end where heroin chic reigns.

Let me tell you, if those skinny inner-city types ate here too often, they wouldn’t be able to pull that look off for long.

Newmarket Hotel, 34 Inkerman St, St Kilda

Flight of the eateries: Turks are tops!


Sorry this blog is all about food at the mo, but travel search engine skyscanner has just told us what we already knew, that Turkish Airlines has the best food in the skies.

I’ve flown Turkish several times (last time, notably, to Tehran, which prompted a blog entry that had a Kevin Costner fan in a tizzzzz). What’s refreshing about this survey is that while Turkish might use Kev to suck some more American travel dollars into its coffers, it doesn’t use the big name chefs for its menu (eg. Singapore and potty-mouthed Gordon Ramsay, Qantas and old yellow fang, Neil Perry etc).

The airline simply relies on the simple fact that Turkish is one of the most fabulous cuisines on the planet. I have to say I’m surprised at finding Aer Lingus up at number four (the memory of hardened blood sausage and those strange little white, veiny bangers comes to mind) and Aeroflot one point behind Qantas, but am not surprised by the high-ranking Emirati airlines, Etihad and Emirates, though I didn’t expect Qatar to be so low. Here are the final scores:

Airline
Score
Turkish Airlines
86
Singapore Airlines
81
Etihad
80
Aer Lingus
78
Emirates
77
Cathay Pacific
75
KLM
75
Qantas
72
Aeroflot
71
Air France
70
Iberia
65
SAS
64
United Airlines
62
British Airways
60
Qatar Airways
57
Virgin Atlantic
57
Alitalia
54
Lufthansa
53
American Airlines
47.5

Land of the luscious long lunch

We love a long lunch, yes we do! And we love it even more when it’s long (three hours) and a long table (half-kilometer long table that seated 1200 guests.

The Long Lunch marks the beginning of Melbourne’s Food & Wine festival, from 2-21 March, and there were 30 lunches going on all across Victoria to mark the occasion.

After days of wild winds and rain, the weather gods took pity on us and turned on a day of warm, autumnal sunshine, and the white-clothed tables lined the banks of the Yarra River.

The logistics of the event are frightening – but it ran like clockwork, the waiters were students from the William Angliss catering college.

Three hours does seem a tad excessive for a Friday lunch in these post-GFC days, but I’ve always been a big-80s-shoulder-pads chardonnay fan and the long lunch is another 80s iconic event that I’d like to see come back.

I pushed through to finish dessert, and what a dessert: thank you, Annie Smithers, for your heart-attack-in-a-glass – a sensational cream and rhubarb confection that had me vowing to take up some sport that requires lots of sweating. 

More food and wine in the pipeline. Oh, come on, then.

Entree: Salad of Harrietville smoked trout and autumn fruits by Patrizia Simone, Simone’s, Bright (NE Victoria)
2010 Yering Station Village Chardonnay – sensational.

Main: Free range turkey thighs, tomatoes and tomatillos from George’s garden (which must be a bloody big garden, to produce for 1200 people), and Mexican flavours (natch) with a salad of avocado and succulents (love a good succulent) by George Biron, Sunnybrae-Birregurra, Bellarine Peninsula
2010 Yering Station Village Pinot Noir

Dessert: Rhubarb vacherin (pictured, a meringue-based recipe, though Annie seems to have replaced meringues with cream, a LOT of cream), Annie Smithers, Annie Smithers Bistrot, Kyneton.