Tasmanian Food Safari

A guest post by my friend, Damien, who recently visited Tasmania…

The Hobart half marathon brought me to Tasmania this month, and it was always my plan to indulge in a food and wine extravaganza in the week afterwards as a reward for the (relative) self-discipline required during training. As usual I exceeded my biggest dreams – and budget – here’s my thoughts on a week of generally great dining in the southern isle…

The Source at Moorilla Estate: One of Hobart’s fancier dining establishments, this was my post-race celebration lunch because it is only a five minute walk from the Riverfront Motel (walking far immediately after a half marathon is generally not advised). First impressions are excellent: a very modern glass glass glass venue that takes full advantage of its perched location on the banks of the Derwent River. Service is deferential and polished, the Moorilla wines are good and even the plating of the food is top-notch. However when it came to the eating, the food simply didn’t meet the standard promised. Both the entree (a terrine of some sort so forgettable I forget what it was) and the main special, an assigini plate of scallop pie served in the shell, lamb and olive sausage on potato cake and cured salmon lacked the intensity of flavour you expect from top quality food. Okay, the scallop pie was nice, but the sausages were dry and salmon tasted merely salty. Dessert, a zuppe Inglese or Italian trifle, was nice and light but again lacked any sense of richness. My lingering impression was that there was simply not enough fat used in the cooking, a laudable aim when it works but a notable fault when it doesn’t. Prices though are good ($15 entrees, $30 mains, $15 desserts) and the Morilla wines are fine. Perhaps a different choice of dishes would be better, in any case as a package (the view is awesome) it’s certainly worth another shot.

Ebb Restaurant and Bar, Swansea: Arriving in sleepy Swansea at the lunching hour, I was planning to stop only for a few minutes to take a break and stretch my legs. This was the first properly hot and sunny day since I arrived in Tas, a beautiful day, and the sight of Ebb’s sun deck with spectacular bay views melted my resolve to have a cheap lunch. Five minutes later I’m on the deck, munching on excellent olive bread ($5.50), sipping Bay of Fires sparkling ($8.50) and gazing across brilliant blue water to the Freycinet Peninsula. The waiter adjusts the awning once in a while to ensure the shade is just right. Bliss. With such views the food could get away with being ordinary, but Ebb offers an interesting and tasty menu plus a well-thought-out selection of local and foreign wines. The lamb wrap ($14.50) was large and popular on this day, but I chose ocean trout ravioli with wilted bok choy, parmesan and roe ($28.50). Bloody good. Four very large hand-made squares of pasta with a healthy serve of fish in each, nicely seasoned and garnished, went beautifully with a very local Spring Vale pinot gris. Recommended; I’m definitely going back there when next in Swansea.

Daniel Alps at Strathlynn, near Launceston: This place has been on my agenda for a while, after seeing it profiled favourably in the Wine Magazine several years ago. It’s got a reputation as being one of the finer joints in Launceston, and it’s a fine place to dine though not as earth-shattering as I expected. Perched on a vine-covered hill with lovely views across the broad Tamar river valley, this lunch-only restaurant is large and bright and every table has a decent chance to look out the window. The menu is a short but enticing mix of standards, and I opted for Spring Bay scallops served in the shell with leek and potato gratin ($18), followed by seared venison with sauted potatoes, wilted spinach and beef jus ($28). The scallops were easily the best I’ve ever eaten – plump, juicy and sublimely textured – and the crunchy gratin quite oily but not too much so, both working together perfectly. The venison was also delicious, once again skilled cooking giving the meat a lovely, melting texture with plenty of flavour. The restricted choice of only Pipers Brook and Ninth Island wines is a disappointment, but the 2003 Pipers Brook chardonnay and 2004 Pipers Brook pinot noir ($10 each) went down well. Interestingly, I’d tasted both those wines at the winery that morning and was unimpressed; they came across much better with food. This is not cutting-edge dining, but nor is it meant to be. It offers uncomplicated food based on high quality produce, cooked superbly, in a beautiful location with efficient service. How can you not like that?

Stillwater, Launceston: After enjoying the stunning vistas on offer at Moorilla, Ebb and Daniel Alps, the outlook from this famed venue was a little disappointing. I was expecting somewhere right on the river, but Stillwater is set back a little distance from the bank. Most windows are partly obscured by trees, though the outdoor dining section offers uninterrupted views of the carpark. However it was very hazy due to bushfires – I’m sure on a clear day it would be more impressive – and it certainly has a better outlook than any other restaurant in the city. But it’s all about the food, in which case I should have come for dinner when the serious menu gets rolled out. Lunch offers a good range of interesting choices but nothing too adventurous, though the portions are very generous. Pesto crostini ($7.50) is served as six large slices of crusty white bread with obviously just-made basil pesto liberally daubed on each: the pesto is delicious. For main I opted for one of the specials, a thai-style omelette with chicken, prawns and aromatic herbs. It’s tasty and filling but doesn’t rock me, with the finely shredded chicken spread thinly and the prawns almost microscopic. Well balanced though, and good value at $23.50. The wine list is excellent by the bottle, less good by the glass. Happily I spot a half-bottle of Moss Wood 2004 chardonnay ($59) on the list, and I’m set. Why don’t more restaurants offer half-bottles of top quality wine like this? I order the second dessert of my entire trip here, in the process reminding myself why I generally don’t do sweets. The diabetes-inducing sticky date pudding with butterscotch sauce ($7.90) was extremely sweet, fortunately balanced by a very refreshing dollop of vanilla ice cream. It was huge too – I managed to consume a little over half of the pudding, all the ice cream and a teaspoonful of the sauce (which covered the large plate like an oil slick – way too much), and the waiter said I’d done “very well” to make it that far… Stillwater is a nice place, but is it worth the reputation? Without trying the dinner menu judgement must be reserved, however I’d certainly go there again. Expectations aside, it’s a very good place to have a long lazy lunch.

Luck’s, Launceston: This is a fairly recent addition to Launceston’s food scene, and it is clearly aiming to be at the top end of dining experiences. While good it’s ambition exceeds it’s ability, and therefore I came away feeling somewhat disappointed overall. Located in a converted butcher’s shop in the heart of the city, Luck’s is a very white on white kind of place with curved art deco windows allowing lots of light and views of passing pedestrians. The banquettes along one wall are extremely comfortable and on this Friday lunch there are plenty of free tables to choose from throughout the restaurant. The menu is very short, with just four options each for entree and main, and unfortunately the entree I choose simply didn’t work for me. Mushroom terrine with almond labne ($18) sounds enticing, but what’s served is a hard lump of transparent jelly with thin slices of shiitake mushrooms inside like fossils preserved in amber. It’s also quite flavourless. The almond labne comes as two small white almond-encrusted mounds atop the mushroom tomb, with nice creamy/chalky texture that reminded me like nothing so much as goat’s cheese minus the goat. Taken together it was such an odd dish that I did end up enjoying it for the experience, but wouldn’t order it again in a fit. Another entree served at a nearby table, sauteed speck with quail egg and frisee lettuce ($17) did look well done so perhaps I chose the dud option on the menu. The main was much more on form, but still lacked the wow factor. Ox fillet with marrow tortellini and parsley foam ($29) was minimally and artfully served, the fillet cooked perfectly and very flavoursome and tender. However the three small marrow tortellini were a little bland, and the parsley foam ethereal in texture but also – sadly – in taste. Not a bad dish by any means, but clearly one that aimed high and felt a bit short in the delivery. On such a quiet day you’d expect service to be good, and it was indeed very friendly and relaxed. So friendly, in fact, that the young woman serving me invited me out for a drink after service and introduced me to Star Bar (see below). A few hiccups with the wine were deftly handled, and when it was discovered they were out of vodka for the vodka and tonic I ordered post-meal they immediately went out and bought another bottle. That’s service as it should be. One brilliant innovation at Luck’s that I would love to see imitated widely is their approach to wine. Firstly it’s a staggeringly extensive list, running to many pages and including lots of obscure wines and regions of the world. It even includes a four-figure “ego” wine, and as a nice touch it’s not the typical Domaine de la Romanee-Conti red burgundy but a 1962 Dom Perignon Oenotheque champagne. Most importantly, Luck’s will open any bottle on the list priced at $60 or less and serve it by the glass. Given that there are dozens of wines in this category, it’s a brilliant idea for anyone wishing to expand their wine horizons. I chose a fine Dr L riesling from Germany, and as a special treat they had Dalrymple Reserve pinot noir 2004 by the glass for $24. That’s very pricey, but this wine is normally not opened as it’s $95 a bottle and anyway I wanted to try a premium Tasmanian pinot. Short verdict: I’d stick to pinot from Central Otago in NZ. It’s much, much better for the money. Overall I found Luck’s a nice place, and I’d certainly give it another go. However I think it would offer a much more satisfying experience if they lowered their goals and made the food a bit more generous. And with a such a good wine list, it’s the shame the menu choices are so limited. More choice would mean more repeat custom from those who like to explore different wines.

Fee and Me, Launceston: Despite its reputation as the best restaurant in Launceston (and one of the best in the country), I didn’t think I would get to visit Fee and Me. Partly because the budget was well and truly blown by this stage, and also because I hadn’t got around to making a booking. Surely a prestigious place like this would be booked out several weeks in advance on a Friday night? Emboldened by lunch at Luck’s and in the mood for more good food, I decided to try my luck (ahem) and rang Fee and Me just half an hour before opening. Yes they could fit me in! Now that the die was cast, I happily went a few houses down to a great vegetarian cafe for some coffee and relaxation before dinner. Located in converted house on the edge of the miniscule CBD, the ambience of Fee and Me is just right. Several separate dining rooms contain half a dozen or so very large tables, widely spaced, and the waitstaff are clearly true professionals, people into food service as a career and who are damned good at it too. Now, the food… The cleverly organised menu is based around entree-sized plates grouped by weight and richness, and the more courses you order the cheaper they become. The suggestion is three courses for a light meal ($58.50 in total), four courses for an average meal ($70) and five for a big one ($77.50). Given the quality of each plate, this is truly exceptional value. Of the 20 or so courses nearly all sound intriguing, but I settled on a light meal of:
– Tasmanian ocean trout tartare, tomato basil water and Tobika caviar
– sauteed abalone and shiitake mushrooms, risotto cake and white wine reduction ($9 surcharge)
– hare pie, parmesan chive souffle topping, sweet potato puree
The subtle, delicate yet sublime flavours of the tartare were a revelation, and the abalone and shiitakes were so superb that I immediately ordered a fourth course of confit loin of venison with shallot and beetroot salad and potato lattice. I didn’t want the enjoyment to end, and it also gave me the excuse to order something special off the wine list. After a couple of white wines from the short but thoughtful by-the-glass list, I spotted a half bottle of Mount Mary Quintet 2000 for $80. That may seem a lot for 375mls of wine, but it’s actually a sensational price for what is world class cabernet and the bottle was perfect on the night. The hare pie and venison courses, while utterly delicious, were not quite as amazing as the first two but I left with nothing but the highest praise for owner and chef Fiona Hoskin. The whole experience was so superior to all the other restaurants mentioned here that my comments on them may be a little harsh, but I can’t help but compare them to the standard set by Fee and Me.

Star Bar bistro, Launceston: After all the indulgence, I was looking for basic but good food on my last day in Tasmania. Star Bar doesn’t aim to be a top quality restaurant like all the others reviewed above; it’s claiming simply to be a good pub bistro. And like all good businesses, it under-promises and over-delivers: the food here is excellent. From a wide selection of options I go for herb, parmesan and olive bread ($7.50)followed by gnocchi with chicken and red capsicum in a creamy sauce ($22). The herb bread arrives as a thin freshly baked pizza of bread, crisp with a dusting of herbs, melted parmesan and several mounds of fresh olive tapenade. Most pizzerias would struggle to make something this tasty, and it was appetising in every sense of the word: I was looking forward to the next course eagerly by the time I’d finished. The quality continued as expected. No pre-packaged or frozen gnocchi here, each soft and springy lump was hand-made and filling without being heavy, the chicken moist and tender. A hearty dish, it was much better than it needed to be and all the more impressive because of it. I watched other meals come out of the kitchen while I ate, and each was plated with care and a good eye. Service is youthful but attentive, and the by-the-glass wine options included a couple of better ones including Vavasour sauvignon blanc ($8) and even Penfolds Bin 389 ($15). For top food without the fuss, this is a great spot. Very highly recommended. There are two other restaurants in Launceston which have had great reviews, but both were unavailable (either closed or booked out) when I tried them: Restaurant Synergy and Novaro’s. It’s good to have yet another reason to return to Launceston!

and for the other end of the spectrum..

Riverfront Motel restaurant – Berriedale, Hobart: I didn’t think restaurants like this existed anymore. Every main course option is either surf, or turf, or surf and turf, all with your choice of veges or chips and salad. And naturally, they all come with classy names such as “Captain’s Catch” or “Porky At Sea”. Generations of food trends, like the far-out influences of asian food, vegetarian options or simply carbohydrate-based meals, have been blissfully ignored in this prandial backwater. And what they lack in innovation, they certainly make up for in portion size… I ate there three times over five days, a pre-race hostage to the reality that the motel was 10kms out of town and the only other food outlet in the area (the local pub) offered exactly the same sort of food. My first mistake was to assume the menu exaggerated the size of the meals. Reading that the rump steak came as a 450gm portion (with veges or chips and salad, $19.90), I thought “that can’t be right” and ordered an entree as well. The damper with sun-dried tomato butter and garlic butter (just $4.50) arrived in the same shape and size as a deflated football – an enormous hunk of dough that could have fed four with ease. The whole haunch of cow – sorry, piece of rump – arrived just 15 mins later, and I resigned myself to leaving most of both courses on the table. Now better informed, my next foray into the dining room was for one course only: grilled pork fillet with tangy sauce (and veges or chips and salad, $19.90). Large but manageable, the pork was decently cooked and the salad surprisingly nice, though the sauce did overpower everything with its tangy goodness. Finally, I braved what the menu called “the specialty of the house”: blue-eye trevalla, grilled, crumbed or battered (with your choice of veges or chips and salad, $19.90). It was quite tasty grilled, though certainly nothing special, and the chips and salad bulked it out tolerably well. The wine list is okay and well-priced if you avoid the by-the-glass options, and the ability to take half-drunk bottles back to your room is a major bonus. This place survives, I presume, because the hotel owners wish to have a restaurant on site. I was certainly a captive market; if I’d had a car I would have been elsewhere – anywhere – for my meals.

  1. Wow, I have never been to any of these places (though I have heard of some of them). Next time you are in the south, Damien, do try Restaurant 373 (North Hobart) and Mud (Launceston).

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  2. highly detailed food critique that’s spot on – great stuff!

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