THE WORDS AND SENTIMENTS OF DAVID HEELEY - BROADCASTER | FOOD CRITIC | TRAVEL WRITER

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On top down under


Back in the nineties and on my first visit to La La Land – better known as Hollywood, I’d been recommended to stay at the Mondrian Hotel, the most chic, happening and in-place to be found at that time on the whole west coast.

Landing at LAX, I jumped into the first available cab and instructed him to “take me to Sunset Boulevard – the Mondrian Hotel”.

Now, at the time, I wasn’t entirely aware that Sunset Boulevard was one of the longest streets in the world, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because, so famous had this hotel become – as the playground for the rich and famous – that it would be bound to have huge external signage.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when, in the correct district of West Hollywood we drove back and forth up the boulevard past a range of hotels with not a sight nor sound of the Mondrian.  The fact was, we passed it many times, but I hadn’t realised then that hotelier extraordinaire Ian Schrager had determined that the more renowned a location, was the less you need to advertise its presence.  The idea was, that if you were part of the international cognoscenti you’d know where it was located and if you weren’t – tough.

I was reminded of this, on Friday evening as I approached the underground location that I knew to be home to Manchester’s latest and most talked about eatery, Australasia.  As we walked up The Avenue in Spinningfields, I overheard a couple of chaps ahead stop and ask a passerby did he “know where Australasia was?”.  He couldn’t help so I said “Follow us, we’re going there”.  The fact of the matter is, unless you were involved in the build, had been there before or have read this article, you simply wouldn’t find it.

For the record, the only visible manifestation of its existence above ground is a transparent glass pyramid similar to I.M Pei’s radical underground extension to the Louvre in Paris.  Onto this glass shroud is etched – in a particularly small point size – the name of this particular holy grail.

The concept was the brainchild of that most innovative of restaurateurs, Tim Bacon.  Over the years since founding Living Ventures, he’s conceived a range of establishments from the Living Room, right through to the Alchemist and via many others such as Gusto and Grill on the Alley.

Some have enjoyed huge success over a long period of time, whilst others have initially shone brightly before their lustre has rapidly diminished.  All have shared certain unmistakable traits, chief amongst them being a thorough understanding of the current restaurant goers needs as well as keen pricing, well trained attentive staff and above all else stylish, cutting edge interiors and in that sphere I feel I can safely say that Australasia Manchester goes right to the top of that particular tree.

The old shibboleths that “passing trade is pivotal” and that “underground restaurants never really work” have both been looked at and ignored by Mr Bacon and whether it was his desire to always have a down under themed restaurant “down under” or not, he’s got one and it’s a wow.

Far from being dark, damp and dreary it’s light, bright and airy, long and thin, with an open glass walled kitchen at one end and a vibrant bar at the other.  With more than a touch of the colonial Raffles Hotel about it, as well as a hint of French Indo China, it’s a true tour de force of restaurant design.

What’s more, what with super injunctions not being worth the paper they’re written on, there’s also a selection of secluded booth tables, should one or two prominent married footballers feel that discretion is the best part of valour.

The menu concept embraces the somewhat yawn worthy fusion cuisine, which usually doesn’t work but – perversely – it seems to work here very well.  With dishes from Mr Bacon’s home continent, Australia, as well as others from south-east Asia.

We started with nicely chilled and dressed oysters served with red chilli and lime and some lovely light and crispy soft shell crap tempura served with courgette flower.

With a menu that features small plates for sharing as either intermediaries or starters, we couldn’t resist the sensational roast foie gras and mango on toasted almonds.  Beautifully seared on the top – not as easy as it sounds, you try it – and with a lovely crunch from the almonds and a fruity contrast from the mango, it was wonderfully moreish.

Our mains were pot-roasted lobster with kaffir lime and Thai basil – which was meaty in the extreme having been farmed in Canada.  Still, fresh lobster is always lovely, farmed or otherwise and this was no exception.

Our second main of Wagyu sirloin with spiced beetroot and wasabi egg was a lovely creation, as easy on the eye as it was enjoyable on the palate.

The only discordant note came, courtesy of the crispy suckling pork belly which although beautifully presented in small cubes with nicely crisped crackling on top, proved far too fatty and a little undercooked.  Still, its accompanying pineapple curry was sweet and tangy and came with a wonderful crunch from its various al dente vegetables.

As I said before, Living Ventures establishments have always been characterised by a service culture that’s neither over fussy nor neglectful and where personality is to be encouraged.  Our food and wine waiters – respectively Leon and Aaron – were both graduates of this school and they were deserving of top marks.

For those of you who intend to visit Australasia – and to be frank I really think you owe it to yourselves – my recommendation is to chill, relax, let the evening slowly roll by with long pauses between courses, when you can satisfy yourself with a bit of the ever popular people watching, so that late in the day you’ll have room for a dessert because if you miss out on the mango soufflé, beautifully presented and served in its own mini copper sauce pan and accompanied by mango soup and coconut ice cream, you’re more foolish than I thought.

Niggles aside, Bacon’s on a roll (http://bit.ly/mPixIl) and Australasia Manchester is not only going to succeed in having tongues wagging, it’s going to have a lot of them tasting, licking, drooling and any other number of other things in what is – undoubtedly – Manchester’s most sexy and sophisticated dining establishment.

Did I enjoy going down under? – you bet I did.

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