The Road to Oz

What's huge, loud, strange -- and smart enough to catch the eye of every passerby? American travelers gravitate to Australians the world around, but do all those street-strollers giving Bondi the eye even realize that it's an Aussie restaurant?

On a warm Saturday afternoon, one of the sidewalk patio tables was occupied by a middle-aged couple taking their two pet chinchillas out for lunch in a red canvas stroller. A service window from one of the bars opens out to provide drinks to the patio-sitters -- and it caught as many double takes as the silky little rodents. Behind the patio, a long, tall, tinted window running nearly the length of the restaurant lets diners watch the street while the street gets a peek at the interior. Once the weather warms up, the whole front will be open, to create one huge, merry, open-air restaurant-bar.

The decor combines natural and high-tech elements, a pretty fair visual signifier of present-day Sydney. Two large bars, each sporting multicolored taps spouting Aussie craft beers, face each other at opposite ends of a long, semidivided room. (There's a third bar in there, too.) The south bar sports wavy, hanging red-and-white tubes (I think they're lamps) that vaguely resemble sea anemone tentacles. A couple of semiprivate dining rooms are set off by silvery sculptures depicting baobab trees. Streaky hardwood and bluestone make up the floors, the tables are wood and unclothed, and near the front are cable-hung "pods" made of giant rattan Aboriginal-style fish traps, with small benches, low cocktail tables, and hanging globe lamps -- to be grounded as needed or lifted to the ceiling to provide more floor space as the bar scene heats up. Small lighted screens display ever-changing black-and-white photos of rural Australia, providing most of the illumination in the larger dining room in back. If you're seated close to the glassed-in kitchen, you may actually have enough light to read your menu.

A call from Sheila, the flying nurse from Oz, prompted a gathering of the posse. After months of trade previews and "rehearsals" as a private dining venue, Bondi (pronounced Bond-eye, like Sydney's famous beach) had finally opened to the public, seven months post-due. Cheryl, Sam, and I joined her for lunch. We'd been waiting eagerly. Australia has become one of the world's great centers of avant-garde cuisine, where French, Asian, and native ingredients mingle creatively on the plate. The chef, Christopher Behre, had worked at one of those futuristic restaurants, and I was hoping that Bondi would be a local outpost of that movement.

"Nao, it's not like that," said Sheila, in her crisp-nasal Down Under accent, looking over the lunch menu. "This is more like our regular upscale pub food." That is, the menu reads like Cal cuisine, except that the trout is Tasmanian, there's barramundi in the seafood pot stickers and wattle seeds in the desserts -- and you may need your own Sheila to translate your waiter's heavy Southern (Pacific) accent.

We started with raw Pacific oysters. New Zealand's oyster season had just ended, so these were magnificent Hood Creeks from Washington State, with a mouth-filling creaminess. "They taste almost like Kumamotos, but much bigger," said Sam. Neither of the accompanying sauces was worth applying. A golden chive-and-ginger sauce needed more ginger and more depth (e.g., a bit of soy), while a heavy smoked tomato mayonnaise was interesting but wrong in the context. (It goes better with fried food.) Sheila ordered Jantz Brut, Australian champagne, for the oyster course, and it was a perfect pairing. All the Aussie wines we tried that afternoon were worthwhile. Got a new wine country to explore now.

"If you want to taste Australian food, you must try bush dukkah," said Sheila. It's a spread of ground nuts, sesame, and Middle Eastern seasonings -- "from when Egypt brought the camels to Australia," the waiter cryptically explained. (Actually, they were Afghans building a railroad across the central desert.) Sharing the plate were olive and almond tapenade, extra-virgin olive oil, and grilled ciabatta bread. You dip the bread in olive oil and sprinkle on the dukkah seasoning mix. The spices were subtle, dominated by lyrical Australian river salt -- the same one mentioned (in the comparative salt tasting printed here several months ago) as "the Nicole Kidman of salt." The tapenade, too, was tasty and enjoyable, if not so exotic.

And of course no voyage to Oz would be complete without a taste of "Beef party pies with tomato sauce." A portion brings two small meat turnovers in a thin, crisp crust, with a savory, beefy-tasting filling. (The beef used here is from Aussie grass-fed, hormone-free cattle.) "These are perfect, the real thing," said Sheila. As for that "tomato sauce," it's Australia's version of ketchup, and at Bondi there's a bottle on every table. But it's not at all like American ketchup, but lighter, sweeter, with much less vinegar -- rather a treat. "Last time I went back to my home town, Adelaide," said Sheila, "I'd been in the States for so long I'd forgotten the lingo. I ordered a pizza with tomato sauce, and they gave me a funny look but went ahead and brought me a pizza covered with this stuff. Yick!"

Pot stickers filled with a gentle-tasting paste of shrimp and barramundi were cooked tender with crisped edges. The oysters' mild chive-ginger sauce reappeared, still craving soy. Until then, grazing at Bondi was rewarding, but when we didn't specify the doneness on the mini-lamb cutlets, the default proved wretchedly well done. The small rib chops were served with a likable "chutney" of diced apples, dates, and mints, but the meat was desiccated. "Tastes like something my mom used to cook," said Sheila dourly.

Since we still had wine in our glasses, we ordered the Australian cheese plate with fruit bread, almonds, and sliced pear. Good move: The Seal Bay triple-creme Aussie Brie is luscious, a Gruyère impersonator is fine -- and the velvety Roaring Forties blue cheese is spectacular, closer to a world-class Gorgonzola than to an ordinary bleu.

Returning for dinner (with Sheila's well-traveled neighbor Kent subbing for Cheryl), it was Rugby Night at Petco, and in Oz. One bar was occupied by a mob of young males -- chanting, shouting, jumping up and down. The other, coeducational, was equally thronged. "Is this...?" I asked Sheila. "Yes, quite." Of course, we couldn't hear each other, but yes, we were undergoing an authentic Australian pub experience, recreated by a combination of Aussies and rugby-lovin' locals. The evening's diners ranged from large extended families with tots crawling on the floor to senior couples, but the bulk were males with 'tude and backward ball caps. Of course, not every night is Rugby Night.

The grazing continued. A salad of spanner crab (from an Australian species) offers loose, sweet crabmeat with cress, mint, candied ginger, and long thin slices of papaya clothed in a lemon-myrtle aioli dressing. This is not the bitter-flavored myrtle of the Mediterranean, but citrus, with a flavor like lemongrass. It contributed to a light, pleasing dish.

Tempura tiger prawns are not exactly "tempura," since the coating is minimal and not puffed-up like true tempura batter. The meat is naturally sweet, and alongside are pea shoots, mashed avocado, and the smoked tomato mayo (better here than with oysters), all adding up to an amusing Asian-Aussie-Mex flavor combo.

"I had a suspicion," said Sheila, when our main courses arrived, "this place would be better for appetizers than entrées." She was eyeing a large char-grilled rack of lamb, where the char was not only on the grill but all over the lamb. Every surface of the three double-rib chops was black. "Tastes like they used an old, dirty Weber," said Kent, "which is strange because it's a brand-new restaurant with new equipment." Under the soot, the meat was medium-rare as ordered, and we did like the sweet-potato cake that came with it. In the future, the chef promises, the charring will be less overwhelming.

Our best entrée featured grilled Tasmanian ocean trout fillet, its coral flesh resembling a delicate salmon. It was cooked just tender, and we liked its roasted potato salad, frizzle of leeks, and the minimal sauce of parsley and roast tomatoes. The accompanying asparagus was flavorless, though, like end-of-season crop -- odd, because the local season had just begun. Maybe they were Chile's (or Australia's) tag ends.

Barramundi, an Australian sea-bass species, is a fine fish when well treated. Sorry to say, here it was not. It was cooked until dry throughout and (with no menu warning) dusted with hot cayenne. The accompanying corn fritters and corn salsa were spicy, too, leaving only a spinach-like pile of soft-cooked arugula for relief.

"Paperbark smoked pork chop: date stuffed with munthari berry and rosemary sauce" sounded intriguing. While subsequently searching Google for information about the ingredients, I found a near-identical recipe, "Pork Fillet Smoked in Paperbark with Munthari Compote," on the website of a major Australian food exporter carrying these very products (www.cherikoff.net). In fact, Bondi's chef and Vic Cherikoff, the exporter-chef, once collaborated on a dinner, and this is an adaptation of the result. Paperbark is the Australian melaleuca tree, best known as the source of tea tree oil. The Aborigines had many uses for its soft, papery bark, including wrapping food for cooking -- much like parchment paper. Here, the chef sets the pork in a wok and sets fire to the bark wrapping, then cooks it covered, like Chinese tea-smoked duck.

We ordered our pork medium-rare ("rosy"), and it arrived medium-well. It was a thick chop, didn't taste especially smoky, and we couldn't find the date stuffing in the dark. It did have a light sauce of the tangy berries. Alongside was a fresh blend of artichoke leaves and mashed potatoes, and a fiery orange colloid that we finally identified as carrot purée spiked with cayenne.

The Pavlova is the national dessert of Australia, invented in honor of Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova when she toured that country dancing her signature piece "The Dying Swan." It's supposed to be a baked meringue shell shaped like a swan's body, with a hollow center holding seasonal fresh fruits and whipped cream. Sheila was quite distressed at Bondi's Wattle Seed Pavlova: It wasn't hollow but a solid hunk of meringue with some soft, sweet stuff at the center (perhaps just unset meringue), a separate scoop of praline cream (whipped cream with finely minced toasted nuts), and another pile of assorted fresh berries. It wasn't a deconstructed version, but an unconstructed one. "When you eat it together, it tastes like a Pavlova," Sheila said, "but it's not a Pavlova when it's all in pieces like this. I want the chef to put it together for me in the proper proportions, I don't want a do-it-yourself kit." (It is, the chef told me later, easier for the staff to plate this way, given the huge numbers of dinners they're plating every night.) Wattle seed, by the way, consists of deeply toasted, fine-ground seeds of the native wattle plant, whatever that may be, and supposedly tastes like a combination of coffee, hazelnuts, and cocoa. (The owner of the food-export business cited earlier claims credit for its invention in this form.) I can't say I perceived all these flavor subtleties -- the meringue tasted like meringue.

Other than Pavlova, most desserts are outsourced to a contractor who makes them following the chef's recipes. Charming and unpretentious, if a bit mislabeled, the macadamia and apple "pie" wasn't a pie but a light, warm pudding topped with cooked apple slices and accompanied by a scoop of cinnamon-and-vanilla ice cream.

Wild lime brulée was served cold, its bruléeing evidently completed long before. It tasted like melted chewing gum, but the accompanying lychee sorbet was lively. And a small double-chocolate ganache tart with bittersweet chocolate syrup was intense. Warm, poached pear slices suited it elegantly. Its accompanying "wattle seed cream" was dense and heavy -- wattle seeds, the chef told me later, are themselves a thickening agent, like cornstarch. Alas, the weighty texture cloaked the flavor of the still-mysterious seeds.

This review does come early (although several web reviewers were earlier), so some aspects of the restaurant are still in their primitive stages. Service is friendly but can be discombobulated, and waitstaff can't answer every question about the food. Plating can be ungainly -- we had to spin the pork chop to make the cuttable side available to a right-handed knife. For a week, there were problems getting through on the main telephone number. The restaurant is going to make a bundle anyway, just because it's the right party place in the right party-hearty location. And given the vibes, the food is the right stuff, too. Graze, nibble, sip, or gulp, just don't get too earnest about it. It's Oz, man.


Australian-born Christopher Behre is from Sydney. "Twenty years ago, at 16, I decided I didn't want to go to school anymore. I was working in a restaurant as a dishwasher, and then worked as a waiter, but I noticed that the chefs were paid more money and generally had a much better time, and I decided that's what I wanted to do. Working in the kitchen, we'd spend all day at the beach and come in at three in the afternoon...

"I worked in kitchens for about three years, and then I went to culinary school in New Zealand, where my family's from, which at the time was developing a new culinary program for the Southern Hemisphere. Prior to that, all the culinary-education programs were based on the ones in London -- which didn't really relate to food in the Southern Hemisphere. On Christmas Day in Sydney it's 40 degrees [centigrade, over 90 degrees Fahrenheit], and you're down at the beach having a barbecue, so the glazed ham and the roast turkey don't really work. After that program, I went back to Australia and worked my way from apprentice upward."

In 1995, he went to work (for three years) as executive sous-chef for the renowned Tetsuya Wakuda, a founding father of Australia's avant-garde fusion cuisine. "Then I went to Shanghai and worked in a hotel over there," he recalls. "Came back to Sydney in 2000 for the Olympics and opened up the W Hotel. Tetsuya approached me again -- he was, in conjunction with the chairman of Millennium Hotels, opening up a restaurant in London, and he convinced me, and I opened up his restaurant in London. Then I became corporate development chef for Millennium Hotels worldwide, and that's how I came to the States -- opening restaurants for them in New York and L.A. Then I pulled out from the group and opened Cinch Restaurant in Santa Monica and ran it for three years. That's how I met the guys behind Bondi, who've all had extensive experience in the hospitality industry in Australia, although this is their first international venture."

The physical construction of Bondi was as costly as it looks, "but it was a good investment, because this Bondi is actually a pilot venue, a good training ground for us to open up other venues." That is -- our Bondi is likely to be the first of a nationwide chain, where the sous-chefs are actually in training to become the chefs-de-cuisine at future branches. "There's a certain amount of integrity and substance behind it. There's a reason for everything we did. There was a lot of thought behind it, including the food we serve and how we serve it, how we plate it and the ingredients that go with it. To have it come out fresh and the flavors come out on the plate, to do the food justice as much as the venue. The brief that I was given was, we wanted casual dining that reflected an Australia palate, what would be served in a bar and kitchen back home.

"For instance, at breakfast we have ricotta hot cakes with caramelized bananas and lime, the lightest breakfast we have in Australia. We have our paninis very common because of our Mediterranean immigrant heritage, not to mention our fantastic coffee that the Italians brought to Australia. And the fantastic grass-fed beef we ship over. We have a huge country, the size of the States, but with only 20 million people, so there's no pressure to rush food to market. We don't have to cram our cattle onto feedlots or use growth hormones. We have plenty of grass for them, and they can grow at a natural pace. We're using your local produce, organic when possible, and it's fantastic, and your local organic pork, but we really like to showcase our Australian seafood, and of course we use as many native Australian products and Australian artisan products as possible.

"For our service, we have all the structure you'll find in a white-tablecloth restaurant -- if you drop your napkin, say, a server'll pick it up -- but it doesn't have to be as constricting in the formality. We want this to be a place to come with your friends, enjoy some food and drink, have a good time together."

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