Pimp my shrimp: Australia’s best foodie destinations, from Sydney’s restaurants to tropical Queensland
March 14, 2014 | By:
A gastronomic odyssey along eastern Australia, from fresh Sémillon to self-caught sushi. Plus: celebrated Sydney chef Neil Perry's five top culinary experiences
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So fresh it’s still wriggling! You can catch your own dinner in Queensland

Those travellers who regarded Australian cuisine as tossing a couple of shrimps and a piece of steak on the barbie have long since been relegated to the back of the class.

As every food buff knows, Australia is now one of the world’s great culinary centres. And it goes without saying that Australian wines are leaders of the New World wine revolution.

Celebrated Sydney chef Mark Best is Australia’s Chef of the Year many times over, and his restaurant, Marque, has twice been listed as one of the World’s Top 100.

As he told me: “Finally, Australia is sure of itself, of its place in the world. It’s a combination of no longer measuring ourselves against the Old World and recognising that geographically Australia is part of Asia.”

Sydney’s best restaurants

Sydney, not surprisingly, is replete with fine dining establishments. Neil Perry’s Rockpool Bar and Grill, for example, and Peter Gilmore’s Quay (last year named in the world’s top 50 restaurants).

This even extends to the skies above Sydney. Qantas was recently named best cellar in the sky by Business Traveller magazine, and best restaurant in the sky by The Luxury Travel Bible.

However – as if to demonstrate the sheer culinary range in this great city – for a unique dining experience, Mark Best recommends something completely different: the Golden Century in Sussex Street, a massive 600-seater Cantonese restaurant. It’s a favourite of Sydney’s top chefs and costs between $25 and $30 a head (about £13-£16).

The absence of snobbery remains an attractive Australian trait even in these days of haute cuisine.

Sydney’s other great advantage is its proximity to two significant wine regions. The Hunter Valley, less than three hours by car, has long been a wine tourism centre and produces the country’s most interesting Sémillons as well as the more familiar Cabernet Sauvignons and Shirazes.

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Love from above: the Hunter Valley’s vineyards. Photo courtesy of Hunter Valley Wine Country Tourism

The new wine revolution in Orange and Mudgee

Lesser known and somewhat further away is the so-called Central Region, of which Orange and Mudgee are emerging as exciting new food and wine centres. There is some irony here as Mudgee, a 45-minute plane ride across the Blue Mountains, is one of the oldest wine regions in Australia and has the longest unbroken history of viticulture in New South Wales.

Today’s Mudgee wine revolution is being led by Black Tongue, a group of young winemakers who are making modern, balanced wines that, if my tastings were anything to go by, are about to start winning awards.

There are 23 cellar doors within four miles of the town centre and, for such a small town, there are excellent dining establishments.

I particularly recommend the Butcher Shop Café for a hearty full Australian breakfast and a close-up of locals gossiping; and Sajos on Church Street, formerly the town’s pharmacy, for healthy modern Aussie cuisine in a stylish setting.

Catch your own grub

Head up to Queensland’s tropical north, and you’ll probably want to catch your own food. With its abundance of offshore treasures, there is no better place to do this, as you can learn how to catch and cook with a local indigenous guide: spear crabbing, fishing for Barramundi and tracking down bush tucker.

Apart from the unbeatable taste of freshly caught fish, the local cuisine – such as sweet mangoes and lemon myrtle – is equal to anything you’re going to find in a restaurant with three hats (the Australian Good Food Guide’s highest accolade).

Talking of mangoes, no gourmet break here would be complete without a visit to the Golden Drop Winery in Biboohra. Mango cello, port, liqueurs, sparkling and still wines (medium, sweet and dry) are all here for the tasting, and a guided tour of the process is a real eye-opener.

Or you can smell the coffee – literally – at the Skybury tropical plantation, Australia’s oldest coffee producer. You’ll learn everything about the brew, from planting to tasting (which you can repeat at your leisure in the stunning timber visitor centre). You’ll leave with coffee so freshly roasted it’s almost jumping back into the trees.

And stay among the trees for dinner. Flames of the Forest, ten minutes from Port Douglas, offers a unique repast. Under a chandelier-hung awning, surrounded by rainforest, it offers both dining and Aboriginal cultural experiences (the latter hosted by two indigenous brothers, on hand to explain their ancestral customs and practises). You’ll never taste smoked crocodile rillette or lightly seared kangaroo loin in such an awe-inspiring setting.

You see, up here, it’s not just what you consume but the environment in which you consume it. This is Big Sky Australia, a wide-open space of ocean and unpopulated land.

To enjoy a seafood smorgasbord while cruising over clear blue waters or enjoying a picnic looking out over the Great Barrier Reef is about as good as it gets. Add a couple of bottles of classy Australian wine and you understand why Australians use the proud term ‘the lucky country’.

Neil Perry’s five must-do food experiences

Take a tasting trip to the Orange wine region. In October it hosts a week of wining and dining.

Eat freshly caught coral trout on one of the Great Barrier Reef’s plentiful islands.

Visit up-and-coming Koreatown at the southern end of Sydney’s Pitt Street for some great value, authentic cuisine of the moment.

Sample great local produce in the stunning rainforest surroundings of the Atherton Tablelands.

Have an early taster or a farewell Aussie feast when you fly Qantas (disclosure: my team and I develop the airline’s menus!).