Capital cuisine in Queensland
Brisbane isn't just a gateway to Queensland's beaches, it's now finding its place in the sun as a gourmet getaway.
For: Japanese fine dining
A meal at Sake (Level 1, 45 Eagle St) was a must for Jamie Oliver when he visited Brisbane earlier this year, which would make you think it's a pretty safe bet. You'd be right. Since opening at Eagle Street Pier in late 2010, home also to Matt Moran's Aria, this sprawling restaurant with views across to Story Bridge has picked up several awards. I'd give it one too if I were suitably qualified but I'll just make do with naming it one of my favourite restaurants of the past year.
A highlight of a night out at Sake is sitting at the chef's bar, watching the dynamics of the kitchen up close. Another is the salt and pepper tofu. It takes a lot for me to get excited about a dish featuring tofu and little else but Sake did it with bells on. More thrilling still were the raw Queensland scallops with ponzu sauce, which went beautifully with a Shisohito – Sake's take on the classic mojito. And the tuna with jalapeno perfectly showcased Sake's seamless blend of classic and modern Japanese cuisine. The menu features more varieties of fish than I've seen anywhere outside Japan and there's plenty for carnivores too, from standards like pork katsu and chicken terikayki to wagyu beef and quail.
As you'd expect, sake the drink is a big deal at Sake the restaurant. There are dozens available and to guide you through them, there's even an in-house sake sommelier, Miriam McLachlan, who trained at one of London's top Japanese restaurants, Zuma. She'll suggest a sake for any dish, using a vocabulary similar to that of a wine sommelier but possibly prettier. "You can't go wrong with sake and food," she says. After a meal here, I can't argue with that.
For: Japanese fun dining
Beer and dumplings may sound a humble combination but at Harajuki Gyoza (394 Brunswick St), Brisbanites are known to queue around the corner and down the street to enjoy this Japanese fast food combo. The restaurant is the ultimate in cheap and cheerful – one plate of five gyoza dumplings is a mere $8 – and the interior is bright, relaxed and seriously cute. Along with a range of dumplings – poached or grilled pork, chicken, duck, prawn, vege – there are also some heartier choices available including agedashi tofu, pork katsudon and chicken karage. There's a small wine list but this food is the perfect foil for an ice cold beer – Kirin or Sapporo should be top of your list.
For: A lingering lunch
For more than 20 years, Stokehouse (South Bank Parklands) has been a Melbourne dining institution. So for the opening of its Brisbane outpost last year in a quite gorgeous new building, what other day could they choose but Melbourne Cup Day?
Stokehouse sits right on the riverfront at South Bank, with floor to ceiling glass doors that sit wide open on a good day, presenting the city at its best. No wonder it seems to be such a popular spot for family celebrations and ladies-who-lunch get-togethers.
The menu features a lot of surf and a lot of turf but thankfully not on the same plate. I order off the specials board: a carpaccio of smoked tuna with a blood orange oil for starters and for my main, an entree-sized risotto of hand-picked Queensland spanner crab. Both dishes are fresh, flavoursome and quite superb. It's contemporary Australian food at its finest.
Time your visit to coincide with the weekend South Bank Lifestyle Markets, then, after lunch, visit the excellent Gallery of Modern Art, just a 10-minute walk away.
For: Barbecue bliss
It should come as no surprise that one of the most popular cooking classes at James Street Cooking School (Mezzanine level, 22 James St) n Brisbane's Fortitude Valley is Beer and BBQ. But forget undercooked sausages and overcooked steak; this is barbecuing of the highest order: duck and pineapple kebabs; Moreton Bay bugs wrapped in kataifi pastry (like finely shredded filo) and cooked till crispy; pan-seared Wagyu sirloin from western Queensland.
Chef John Meredith opened the cooking school 10 years ago above the James Street Market, an upmarket food store stocked to the brim with the freshest fish and seafood, fruit and vegetables, meat, cheeses as well as grocery and deli items, a bakery and florist. On this Saturday it's so busy, wardens keep traffic flowing in the car park. It's probably as good an indication as any of what happens when a cashed-up middle class, thanks largely to Queensland's mining industry, watches a lot of MasterChef.
Along with modern French cookery, the school has also made a name with its South-East Asian cooking classes. "Its cuisine is so relevant to our climate," says Meredith. "A lot of the products used in their dishes are grown here in southeast Queensland and a lot of those products are better there than they are in Asia. A lot of European food is over-processed but South-East Asian cuisine is fresh, clean, healthy and tasty and it's also achievable, especially from the home cook's point of view."
Brisbane's food scene still has a way to go to match that of Melbourne and Sydney, he says, "but there's plenty of potential".
For: Shared pleasures
Fortitude Valley is full of great places to eat and drink: from Lust for Life – a tattoo parlour that doubles as a cafe and gallery – to the incredible Cloudlands venue, the grungy but gorgeous Flamingo Cafe to the pretty-as-a-picture Lady Lamington. But its brightest culinary light is Ortiga (446 Brunswick St), a tapas bar and restaurant on Brunswick St. At street level is the tapas bar and underneath, a very smart dining room, with an open kitchen, where the chefs calmly and quietly assemble brilliant dishes like fried vegetables with romesco sauce, braised octopus, pork cheeks, lambs tongue and a sublime escabeche of rabbit. The wine list, suitably, leans strongly towards Spain but there's an excellent sommelier on hand if your knowledge of Spanish varietals is as patchy as mine. On a Sunday night Ortiga was humming, upstairs and down. It's not hard to see why.
Where to stay: Urban Brisbane Hotel, 345 Wickham Tce, Brisbane: Contemporary design and in a good location overlooking the city, with a park over the road. It's about a 10-minute walk into the CBD so leave the car in the hotel garage – parking in central Brisbane is fiendishly expensive. The climb back up the hill is a great way to walk off lunch or dinner.
Angela Walker was hosted by Tourism Queensland.
Sunday Star Times