The restaurant scene in Sydney and Melbourne is exciting, and it is easy to dismiss Hobart in Tasmania as a sleepy town down under Down Under.
But home-grown chefs who left to work overseas have come home to roost and those from other parts of Australia have also set up shop in the city, drawn by the area's pristine air, water and produce.
There is also the "Mona effect", a reference to the Museum of Old and New Art, the over-the-top and in-your-face museum privately funded by eccentric millionnaire David Walsh, who made his fortune from gambling.
It draws about 300,000 visitors a year from all over the world who gawk at exhibits that include a machine which turns food into excrement and the remnants of a suicide bomber cast in chocolate.
Mona has raised the profile of Hobart and encouraged the growth of a hopping restaurant scene.
Here are four worth visiting.
The writer's trip was sponsored by Tourism Australia, Tourism Tasmania and Singapore Airlines.
341 Elizabeth Street, North Hobart, tel: 61-3-6234-8805
After years of working as a pastry chef in London and New York in celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's restaurants, Alistair Wise decided to go home to Hobart with his wife Teena Kearney-Wise.
They set up Sweet Envy in 2010 with A$20,000 in savings and started doing what they have always wanted to do: connect with the community and know 90 per cent of their customers.
Kearney-Wise, 35, specialises in wedding cakes and they work side by side in the kitchen one floor below the shop. Their daughter Matilda, five, has the run of the place.
Wise, 36, says: "We can afford Hobart, it's our hometown and we have a support network."
These include a "gooseberry lady" who lives a couple of streets away from the bakery. The bakery buys about 50kg of the fruit from her each year. Other growers supply mulberries, griotte cherries, strawberries, boysenberries and red currants.
Instead of serving the elaborate plated desserts that he came up with overseas, his bakery serves the sort of sweet treats that is closer to his heart.
The place is charming and folksy, being decorated all in white, and the sign outside, which reads "I pity the fool that does not eat delicious cake" makes me smile.
It is a place where residents in the area can pop by for some cake and a chat, order a birthday cake perhaps, or a wedding cake.
Everywhere, there are temptations: beautiful cupcakes, sticky buns, doughnuts, ice cream, macarons and sausage rolls. The cupcakes cost A$3.50 (S$3.70) each, the doughnuts are A$4 and the sticky buns are A$4.50.
I snag a doughnut and it is plump, fluffy and filled with cream and lemon curd. Delicious. So are the sausage rolls with properly fiery harissa.
On the day I visit, there is an unusual pie on the menu: rabbit napped in Sauce Nantua.
The puff pastry is beautifully burnished and so crisp. Rabbit can be dry, but this is tender and luscious, made even better by the rich sauce, which makes me swoon. Chef Wise had been collecting lobster heads for the sauce in his holiday house, which he describes as a "tin shed shack" in Cockle Creek, about 148km from Hobart.
"Could I afford to do that in Melbourne? I think not," he says.
Moving home has been good for him and his wife.
He says: "There's nothing wrong with being a quaint cake shop in a country town. We are looser, a bit more relaxed. I think I'm a better cook now."
ETHOS EAT DRINK
100 Elizabeth Street, Hobart, tel: 61-3-6231-1165
A building that was once a carriageway and stable yard of The Old Hobart Hotel, and then a pharmacy, has been transformed into the thriving heart of a food empire run by two young Tasmanians, Iain Todd, 32, and Chloe Proud, 28.
Their restaurant, Ethos Eat Drink, which opened in 2011, has spawned a frozen yogurt shop called Vita; Providore, which sells house- made condiments and salads; and a bar in the basement called Ash & Besters, where diners can have cocktails before dinner.
On a sunny afternoon, the two owners talk about how they brought the building, which had no roof or floor when they took it over, back to life.
Timber salvaged from the building has been reused, old crates are now planter boxes for herbs and such, and old apothecary bottles transformed into chandeliers.
Proud says: "One look at the building and we saw the potential. We started from the ground up and engaged local craftsmen."
The result is a charming showcase for what they have built, a thriving business that focuses on local produce.
For instance, the milk for their frozen yogurt comes from a local dairy farm and the restaurant menu is drawn up every day so that chef Todd can use small batches of food.
He says: "This is truly boutique produce, from people who grow things in their front or back yards."
On the day I interview the couple, the restaurant has received elderflowers and that night at dinner, they appear in a dessert of little choux buns, strawberries and caramel.
He adds: "Sustainability is used so flippantly in food, but you are supporting the local community. We take boring ingredients and show how good they can be if grown properly and cooked with imagination."
A six-course meal at Ethos is A$90 (A$165), with wine pairing, and there are no boring ingredients on the menu.
Three snacks start off dinner. There are smoked mussels with herbs, house-made kimchi - more crunchy, less fiery than the traditional kind, and slippery milk curd topped with pepper. They whet the appetite for more.
House-made bread, made with a seven-year-old sourdough starter, is delicious with cultured butter and a sprinkling of black garlic salt.
They are great with a platter of charcuterie, also made in-house, with pork neck coppa, bresaola, lamb lomo, pork cheek terrine and the chef's version of lap cheong, which is far less sweet than usual.
I love the main course of goat, not gamey at all, in a broth with tomato, barley and leek. It is simple and comforting and the chef knows to leave well enough alone, when the produce is that good.
Todd says: "The premise is that if it's perfect, you just let it speak for itself."
103 Murray Street, Hobart, tel: 61-3-6231-0558
103 Murray Street, Hobart, tel: 61-3-6231-0558
The buzz in Garagistes is what you might expect of a smart, hip restaurant in Sydney or Melbourne. But here we are in laid-back Hobart.
It is located in a former garage and the restaurant name refers to that as well as to the garage wine movement of the mid-1990s in Bordeaux, France. That was when a group of winemakers turned away from the traditional way of making red wines and developed their own style.
Chef Luke Burgess, 37, and his team have their own distinctive style of cooking as well, putting out seasonal five-course menus (A$90 or S$95) with Tasmanian produce, paired with sake (add A$45). There is also a list of natural and biodynamic wines.
The meal I have there is easily the best of my trip.
People who dread long, sprawling tasting menus that take hours to get through will appreciate the precision and editing that have gone into the menu. Burgess, who has worked at Tetsuya in Sydney and Noma in Copenhagen, has just five plates with which to make an impact. Each dish is well thought out, with no stray courses to distract.
The first course of Robbins Island wagyu tartare comes with a tarragon emulsion, a tongue of rust-brown uni, nasturtiums and thinly sliced black-skinned radishes. It is a great surf and turf combination; the briny sea urchin paired with the minerality of the beef.
Another good course comprises sweet, buttery broad beans and roasted artichokes with burrata curd, with a drizzle of aromatic juniper oil to tie everything together. It is a taste of spring.
I also like a course of smoked eel, poached rhubarb and a quenelle of laver cooked with pickled hawthorn blossom; the tart rhubarb contrasting beautifully with the rich, oily eel.
If you want a taste of Garagistes, go to Hobart soon.
Burgess, who moved to Tasmania from Sydney eight years ago, says the restaurant is on the market as he and his partners want to move on to other things.
Success has taken a bit of a toll. "The pressure of success, you can't imagine," he says.
Burgess, together with sommelier Katrina Birchmeier and designer Kirk Richardson, opened the restaurant in 2010 and it took off immediately.
He is looking to open a smaller restaurant.
"It's time for a change, to apply what I've learnt elsewhere."
Restaurants take about three years to sell off in Tasmania, he says, adding that there is one more year to that deadline.
Time to plan that trip to Hobart.
1 Franklin Wharf, Hobart tel: 61-3-6231-5005
A cheeky little gnome holding a pineapple on his head sits on a table at the entrance of Frank, one of Hobart's newest restaurants. It is just weeks old when I dine there in November last year.
The little fellow, Frank, naturally, sets the tone for this chic Latin American restaurant by the waterfront.
Restaurants can be a little too earnest, a little too obsessive about sourcing and such, but this place has a playful and fun vibe, with a menu full of temptations backed by solid cooking.
But first, a drink.
On a day crammed with food stops, I am not particularly hungry for dinner, but my cocktail of cola and Fernet-Branca (A$8 or S$8.50), a bitter digestif, banishes any thought of eating light.
The restaurant is right on the cutting edge, as Latin American food is making waves around the world. Dishes are priced mostly between A$11 and A$40, with the priciest menu item being a large serving of skirt steak for A$64.
Sopaipillas, a fried bread, is made with pumpkin here and served with a little jug of chanco en piedra, a salsa of chillies, spices, garlic and tomatoes that comes together in a mortar and pestle. The bread is crisp and light, and the salsa has enough heat to make the lips tingle, without causing internal combustion.
It suits a chilli coward like me fine, as does the flavourful yellow chilli aioli served with cold smoked salmon and yucca chips. The aioli provides a counterpoint to the rich salmon without blowing my head off.
Other dishes offer contrasting textures and temperatures.
In one, smoky charred sweet potatoes are topped with cool goat's curd, crunchy chunks of almond and chopped coriander.
Queso blanco, a crumbly white cheese blitzed until it is the consistency of thick cream, is drizzled over crisp-tender green beans with a sprinkling of roasted quinoa on top. Crisp, crisp, creamy, it is a dreamy combination.
Instead of filling the menu with prime cuts of beef, Frank goes the way of smart restaurants and offers more interesting cuts such as hanger, short rib, skirt and rump. They are less pricey and a lot more flavourful than filet mignon.
For dessert, there is but one thing I want: A sweet banana, smoky and charred from the grill, served with salted caramel ice cream and a sprinkling of almonds.
Those contrasting textures and temperatures are in play again and I leave a happy camper.
This article was first published on Mar 1, 2015.
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