“If you look at the highly processed, globalised diets of the developed world – and the rapid emergence of fake foods from Silicon Valley – I have no doubt that freshly picked, sustainably grown local food will become the ultimate luxury.” So says Alla Wolf-Tasker of regional icon Lake House, where the menus are literally built from the ground up: over the past 12 months, her Daylesford restaurant has increasingly relied on produce grown nearby at the family’s fledgling 38-acre property, Dairy Flat Farm.
“Yes, there’s the daily ‘just-picked’ aspect,” says Wolf-Tasker. “The scent, the natural juiciness of the product. But there’s also the nutritional soundness. There’s no long transport, no storage time. And there’s the soil … if you care about health you have to care about the soil.”
It’s fair to say chefs have not always been this concerned about your health. Au contraire. Not so long ago, upscale restaurants were more usually associated with excess and overindulgence. But that was before wellness came along. And “plant-based” (so much sexier than dreary old “vegetables”), “sustainable” and “dietary requirements” – all now as much a part of dining at a good restaurant as proper sourdough and a curated beverage program.
Here, then, are some of the ways restaurants are looking after your wellbeing – while not overlooking your pleasure. Because at the end of the day, most of us still want dinner to be dinner, not a prescription.
There’s sourdough bread, and there’s the sourdough bread at Sydney’s Kitchen by Mike. Chef Mike McEnearney, an advocate of food as medicine, reveals his secret: “You only get those good lactobacillus cultures in bread after you’ve fermented it for longer than 12 hours. Forty-eight hours is ideal; that’s when the good bacteria breaks down the sugars in the grain so you don’t get the blood sugar spike that you get from eating what I call ‘white death’ [mass-produced white bread]. You feel so much better when you eat properly fermented bread,” he says. “The theory really only makes sense after you’ve experienced that.” At Oakridge in the Yarra Valley, the bread is made from biodynamically grown, freshly milled wheat. “Freshly milling retains all the plant’s natural enzymes and bacteria,” says the winery restaurant’s Jo Barrett. “It’s great for gut health.”
At the very pointy end of dining, fermentation is an extreme sport. Never mind miso and pickles; check out the “mouldy bread”, “rotten apple” and “fermented brains” at Spain’s lauded Mugaritz. Meanwhile, Heston Blumenthal is working on cultivating bespoke prebiotics and probiotics for a radical form of wellness-powered fine dining.
Also try: the sourdough at Orso, Adelaide; and Etta, Melbourne.
Where better to do the plant-based main course than at our capital of cashed-up wellness, Byron Bay? At Raes on Wategos, chef Jason Saxby takes a sugarloaf cabbage, roasts it slowly until it’s soft and sweet and adds local mushrooms, fermented black garlic, pecorino and puffed grains (quinoa and buckwheat). Perfect. There’s a vegan version, too, using scorched macadamias.
At the grand Fullerton Hotel, in Singapore – and opening in Sydney next month – you can take your veg at flagship restaurant Jade in one of two ways; new wave or old school. The former sees the controversial fake meat – in this case Omnipork, claimed to be “higher in calcium, fibre and iron” than the real thing – braised with capsicum, mushrooms, peach gum, eggplant and sesame soy sauce and served over rice. OK, so it passes the taste test, but it’s no match for a simple plate of “Stir-fried five-colour vegetable”, a Cantonese classic and as pretty as the Fullerton’s chi-chi dining room.
Or you could just eat your spinach. Who knew it contains a natural chemical that acts like a steroid? It can be hard to find in any quantity in modern restaurants, so three cheers for Di Stasio (Città and the St Kilda original) and their pan-fried spinaci saltati, served with parmesan slivers and lemon juice.
Also try: Romanesco cauliflower with green garlic and onion jus gras, Bea, Sydney; Tandoori malai broccoli, candied cashews and chilli, wild black rice, ISH, Melbourne.
One of the 22 courses served at dinner at the recent Orana in Residence, chef Jock Zonfrillo’s month-long Sydney pop-up, was razor fish with gubinge, a native fruit sourced from the Nyul Nyul people of the Kimberley region. “The dish contains the same amount of Vitamin C as two garbage bags of oranges,” says Zonfrillo.
“Gubinge [also known as Kakadu plum] has the highest natural source of Vitamin C in the world.”
The pop-up menu used 63 indigenous ingredients, many of which have been classified as superfoods, though it’s not a term Zonfrillo uses lightly. “Our definition of a superfood tends to be any food that has an abnormally high level of any vitamin, mineral or antioxidant,” he says. “And so many Australian foods do – they’re off the chart.”
Also try: Native fishes and green ant oil, Attica, Melbourne; Jilungin bush tea, Orana, Adelaide.
It’s not just the soaring price of fish that puts it in the luxury category. It’s all those Omega-3 fats, zinc and other minerals, too: you can just feel it doing you good. And is there any more perfect expression of healthy indulgence than a curated plate of raw and cured seafood, of impeccable provenance, served waterside? One of the best we’ve tried of late is at Manta, on the wharf at Sydney’s Woolloomooloo: think Hiramasa kingfish carpaccio, Jasmine tea-smoked Mt Cook salmon, Abrolhos Island scallops with fennel and wild oregano, and Albacore tuna tartare. Subject to availability, of course.
Sashimi is often first pick for the clean-eating set, but it’s not the only way to get your low-cal fish fix. The focus is on yakitori at Eazy Peazy in Melbourne’s Richmond, but they also do a lovely whole grilled baby barramundi, sourced from Humpty Doo in the Northern Territory and sauced with miso, ginger and brown butter, with a side of daikon and a dusting of yuzu kosho.
Also try: Four raw tastes of the sea, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne; the kaiseki menu, Ishizuka, Melbourne; Fraser Island spanner crab with pine mushrooms and nori, Bentley, Sydney.
Cocktails and ‘soft’ drinks
The strongest drink trend in modern dining is the wellness cocktail. Whether it’s based on a bespoke spirit, distilled with all manner of medicinal plants – such as Pickett and Co’s Native Gin, made with locally foraged botanicals – or it’s mixed at the bar with a seasonal fruit- or herb-infused syrup – such as the new Native Flamingo at Adelaide’s Stone’s Throw, made with lilly pillies grown on the property – the message is the same: yes, you can have your booze and feel virtuous, too.
Taking that one notch higher on the virtue scale is the “soft”, or non-alcoholic, drinks option popping up on contemporary lists. The best ones hold back on the sugar, such as the “spritzed umeboshi syrup, chilli and parsley oil”, or the “spiced cherry green tea”, at IDES in Melbourne’s Collingwood.
Also try: Gin with arak, cucumber, star anise and mint, Maha East, Melbourne; celery seed martini, Dinner by Heston, Melbourne.