And that’s why duck lovers have reason to rejoice at Victoria, which gives us both halves of the duck story in one high-flying dish: Peking duck-worthy skin and a trencherman’s serving of full-flavoured, gently smoky meat.
Yes, chef, we know it all starts with great produce. “We’re currently using ducks from Milla’s at Mount Macedon because they’re consistently good year-round,” says Victoria’s Alejandro Saravia. “We dry-age the duck for 30 days, which helps reduce the fat and crisp up the skin.” Then, the bird is first cold-smoked over vine and stone fruit woods before being briefly hot-smoked to further render the fat.
The cooking is a doddle: the whole duck goes onto the charcoal grill, bone side down, until deep golden brown. Then it’s halved and dressed with a bone marrow and duck fat gravy.
“Not a jus,” says Saravia. “That would be too overpowering.”
From a strong flock of contenders at contemporary restaurants over the past year, this one was arguably Top Duck.
Blackened chestnut chawanmushi
Restaurant | Navi in Melbourne
Chawanmushi, the Japanese savoury egg custard, usually appears in some form at Navi, often as the last of the “snacks” section that kicks off the degustation menu at this elegantly understated fine diner.
When I visited, in September, it was flavoured with blackened chestnut and apple balsamic; at other times, chef and owner Julian Hills might use black truffle, or cuttlefish, or pickled celery instead.
Don’t imagine for a moment, though, that the quietly spoken Hills makes these decisions on a whim.
“We slowly caramelise the chestnuts at 60 degrees in the rice cooker,” he explains. “It’s a fermentation process that takes about a month.” (A month!)
“We do black garlic the same way. The flavour’s quite intense.”
While Hills’ approach speaks reams about the “waste not, want not” ethos that informs every part of his meticulously planned menu, it doesn’t prepare you for the sheer deliciousness of the food. And that chawanmushi? Silky, sweetly nutty and somehow timed to hit the table at precisely the moment your palate is ready for it.
And if you think that’s a coincidence, you just haven’t been to Navi yet.
Red emperor, radish, yuzu
Restaurant | Arthur in Sydney
Don’t fiddle with fish, as a well-known American chef once said (they may not have been his exact words). Or to put it another way, don’t waste your time in the kitchen on complex preparations for fish because a simple pan-fry or grilling is invariably the best treatment for such a delicate protein.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. At Arthur, in Sydney’s Surry Hills, the compact set menu routinely includes a seafood course that could be construed as tricky: “Red emperor [or coral trout], radish, yuzu.”
Basically, it’s a blanched broccoli-leaf parcel wrapped around a seafood mousseline wrapped around the steamed fish, served with a sea-foamy yuzu butter sauce and garnished with broccoli flowers. Yes, it sounds like a 1980s dinner party disaster but it tastes like heaven.
And that’s because everything chef Tristan Rosier does in preparation and cooking serves only to enhance the fresh, pure, flawless quality of the hero fish.
“We tweak the dish every couple of months, depending on availability,” says Rosier. “My preferred fish is coral trout; it’s the Ferrari of fish.”
And this dish, no question, is its Formula One.
Beef and oyster
Restaurant | Oncore in Sydney
“Oysters were once a poor man’s dish,” says Oncore head chef Alan Stuart. “And a pie is the classic comfort food.” So goes the thinking, apparently, behind this elaborate signature dish, created by Clare Smyth for her London restaurant Core and faithfully here by Stuart, her Sydney 2IC.
Humble ingredients, elevated by elegant technique? It seems a bit of a stretch, frankly: lobsters and caviar were once peasant food too, you know.
But never mind. You’re here to eat the dish, not swallow the story. And what a dish it is, bringing unexpected harmony to the often clunky pairing of surf and turf. On the plate, a rectangle of David Blackmore wagyu sirloin is the base for warm, poached Sydney rock oysters. Alongside sits the so-called “pie”, an oversized oyster shell filled with buttery pomme puree, 72 hour-braised beef stew and oyster, topped with warrigal greens and an oyster crisp.
Minerality of beef meets minerality of bivalve; it’s a remarkable achievement. So how does the kitchen pull it off?
“The whole brigade works on this dish,” explains Stuart. “We have 12 chefs, and each one is in charge of a certain component.”
So that’s how.