October 2011

The Nation Reviewed

Garage alchemists

By Robyn Davidson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A dining experience at Hobart’s Garagistes

Garagistes wine bar is indeed housed in a garage. And the people who work there are techies of a sort – gastronomic alchemists. I had my doubts initially. A restaurant that uses ‘foraged’ food might value tricksiness over taste. It might be an upmarket version of those grim places that offer crocodile meat in bush solanum sauce. But no, this was avant-garde food at its best: fresh, courageous, surprising, scrumptious.

You cannot book at Garagistes, but we rang beforehand as we walked up Murray Street, to ask if a table for four was likely. We missed the entrance – minimalist metal – and there wasn’t a soul on the streets to ask. Hobart on a Thursday night doesn’t exactly swing.

But a friendlier world waited inside that door. The ‘garage’ is unfussy, elegantly renovated, with exposed beams above, an open kitchen, bar and wine stacks to one side, charcoal grey walls. The tables are long and made of local timber. Diners sit elbow to elbow. At the opposite end of the room is a wall with a single window displaying charcuterie made on the premises. The strongly lit sausages and hams hanging behind that glass look like something you might find exhibited at MONA, where, I suspect, a few of our fellow diners had spent the day.

The restaurant opened about a year ago, and is owned by three partners: chef Luke Burgess, sommelier Katrina Birchmeier, and Kirk Richardson, who oversaw the design. Burgess trained initially with Tetsuya Wakuda in Sydney, before a two-year stint with Noma in Copenhagen to broaden his culinary ideals. Those ideals include a veneration for local, seasonal produce (including any morsels that might grow wild in the Tasmanian hills), and then not mucking it about too much. The dishes he designs are revelations of liveliness and the unexpected, yet they are really quite simple.

The menu is not divided into courses but rather into ‘savoury’, ‘cheeses’ and ‘sweets’. The food comes in a procession – some dishes more substantial than others, all of them to be shared. I had to try some of that artful charcuterie: a board of finely shaved salami with a hint of fennel, served with a sourdough loaf baked in their wood oven. So uncomplicated. So very, very good.

Even better was a salad of little radishes and turnips, sitting on a smear of anchovy emulsion, with tea-brined quail eggs. The combined textures were exactly right in the mouth.

We shared grilled lamb ribs with lemon pepper and coriander-seed dressing, glazed purple carrots with almond cream and garlic confit, a snapper brandade with grilled leek that was so meltingly perfect it could almost have been a dessert. (All the fish is line caught, of course, and tastes as if it had jumped straight from the ocean into the pan.)

But the dish that did it for me was the crisp black pudding crumbs with roasted celeriac and apple aioli, on top of which perched a scatter of chickweed (which, as a child, I gathered to feed to our chooks).

It pleased me to see that the wine list did not share the ‘local only’ sensibility. I have nothing against Tasmanian wines, nor indeed Australian wines but, given a choice, I tend to go for French. The reason for the European bias in the list is that Birchmeier hunts down only bio-dynamic wines. We started with glasses of fine bubbly, Fleury Blanc de Noirs, and moved on to Domaine de L’R Cabernet Franc.

I noted that you could buy all their wines by the taste as well as the glass. So, if you wanted to change wines to suit different dishes, or if you wished for a sip of something that was too expensive to buy by the bottle, or even if you just wanted to learn more about wines – an endless and expensive education, alas – you could easily do so.

As it was, we ordered by the carafe, so by the time sweets came I was incapable of remembering specific ingredients. I hazily recall sharing panna cotta scattered with something like butterscotch, then a mandarin baba with mysterious honey flavours and heavenly ice cream.

You may be thinking that the price for so much pleasure would be astronomical. Not really. The total bill for four greedy people, including two bottles of wine and glasses of champagne, was $300.

Robyn Davidson
Robyn Davidson is a non-fiction writer. She is the author of the award-winning books Tracks and Desert Places, and the editor of The Best Australian Essays 2009 and The Picador Book of Journeys.

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