Friday, 18 July 2014

Restaurants in Darwin, Australia - Very Much Hit and Miss

I just returned from a week in Darwin.  Now, a week is a long time in Darwin, especially as I didn't have any plans to visit any of the Northern Territory's beautiful national parks.

Darwin is, in a word, expensive.  It's difficult to keep a simple meal of Chinese takeaway below A$15 (S$ 18) per person.  I visited a simple Chinese takeaway on the fringe of the city, and was charged A$13 for a single serve of fried rice.  These are prices that compare with, and in many cases exceed, what you would find in the international cities of Sydney and Melbourne.  And much like in Perth, where salaries were supercharged by the resources boom, the quality that you get does not justify the prices charged.

Another disappointing thing was what seemed to be the mirage of Darwin's multiculturalism, at least in respect of the food.  The "Asian-style markets" are often held out to be exemplars of Darwin's multicultural diversity, but have a close look at the Asian food on offer at these markets -it's really not much different from what you would find at a common takeaway joint in Sydney or Melbourne, or even in Darwin itself.  Tellingly, the longest queues at Mindil Beach Market were for a seafood and rabbit paella (which admittedly was very good) and a spiral-cut, battered, deep-fried whole potato which looked as tempting as it was undoubtedly artery-clogging.

Darwin's Best Restaurant?

Australia's smaller capitals often have a single stand-out restaurant which makes the city's gastronomic name.  For the longest time, Alain Fabregues' Loose Box was where Perth couples went for special occasions.  Cheong Liew's Grange in Adelaide was renowned worldwide for its inventive fusion cuisine, and Brisbane had its inner city icon in Il Centro.  Darwin has Jimmy Shu's Hanuman, which offers a heady blend of Thai and Indian (and a little touch of Chinese and Malaysian) flavours.

I crept out to Hanuman for a sneaky lunch one afternoon while The Wife was looking after The Baby with The Mother-in-Law.  Situated in an arcade behind the Hilton Doubletree, it is a casual, welcoming and surprisingly open space with no airs.  A large sign posted outside says it all: "Please maintain appropriate levels of dress.  No thongs or singlets please".  (I should clarify for the non-Strine speakers that in Australia, "thongs" are not the skimpy underwear that Cisco was singing about, but rather more mundanely, floppy slippers.

I like the staff here, who are very helpful and eager to please.  I tell my waiter (well, he was one of three who served me over lunch, which was probably the only minus in terms of service) that I am a visitor and will probably only be able to visit the restaurant once this trip, so what do I absolutely need to try?  He is on the ball: "Hanuman Oysters for starters, either the Thai Roast Duck Red Curry or the Hanuman Prawns for your main course.  I recommend that you order a naan bread or jasmine rice to mop up the sauce.  Dessert, sir?  You must have the black rice brûlée".

The food at Hanuman is very good.  The red duck curry is as good a version I have had, lightened with the use of fresh pineapple and the occasional sweet juicy bite of canned lychees.  The naan bread, light and crispy on the outside and glazed with just the right amount of garlic and butter, is an ideal mop for the luscious sauce.  Now before you decry the heresy of mopping up a Thai curry with an Indian bread, please remember that Thai culture is heavily influenced by Hinduism, so there is a perfectly valid historical precedent for bringing the two cultures together again (or so I was telling myself).

The dessert, Hanuman's signature black rice brûlée, is good but not great.  The nicely caramelised top adds a light caramelly bitterness and crunch, which stands out against the custard and al dente black rice, but the layers of custard and rice are too thin to properly appreciate the textural and flavour contrast.  On the side was some utterly nondescript fruit which had but the vaguest suggestion of rockmelon flavour.

All in all, I like Hanuman a lot.  Sure, a meal there is not going to change your views on food and life in general, but neither is it going to drastically change your bank balance.  It serves very good, authentic food in comfortable surroundings and at reasonable prices.  I don't know about you, but that ticks just about all of my boxes.

93 Mitchell Street
Darwin NT
Tel: +61 8 8941 3500 

With An Ambience This Good...

Because I am a sucker for punishment, I couldn't resist the temptation to visit John Kilroy's Darwin outpost, Char.  Regular readers may recall my disappointment with Kilroy's Brisbane waterfront steakhouse, Cha Cha Char.  Char was but a hundred metres away from my motel so it presented a convenient venue for a comfortable lunch that didn't involve chicken salt, meat pies or "dim sims".

It must be said that sitting on the outdoor terrace at Char, with a gentle sea breeze whispering and the August sun filtering through the trees, is one of the best restaurant ambiences I have ever enjoyed, period.  A browse through the menu looks just as promising, with a wide selection of steaks, each with their own unique accompaniments.  The staff are tall, good-looking and polished.  Even my entree, Hervey Bay Scallops with caramelised pork belly and chilli caramel (A$28), is delicious, except that the chilli caramel tastes a lot like a boring satay sauce.  And if you think this is starting to sound too good to be true, you would be right.

Time for mains.  On further enquiry, all of the steaks are wet-aged, which is regrettable.  I opt for a crimson snapper (A$42), whose bonito soy sauce is just way too salty to serve as a sauce for a Western-style main.  I complain to the staff, who unforgivably try to up-sell me a side to mop up the sauce!  A complaint to the manager and chef is likewise met with a "That is the way it is meant to be, sir".  Well, looking at the amount of sauce on the plate, I assure you that no, it isn't.  I eat the part of the fish which is not contaminated with the sauce and leave the rest, which is a shame because the presentation is as beautiful as it is dramatic.

I find myself back here a couple of days later for coffee and dessert with the wedding party.  While the crimson snapper experience has left a sour taste in my mouth, I quite enjoy my apple tarte tatin, which snugly wears a white spun sugar dome (A$18).  Caramel on caramel sounds a bad idea, but the apple itself is not the heavily caramelised version required by tradition, so the sweetness is controlled at all times, and the sugar adds a not unpleasant crunch.  The Mother-in-Law loves her dessert, while The Wife detests her banoffee pie (A$14).

All in all, there is enough here for me to like it, but the food is not consistent.  That said, it is also not particularly ambitious; the owner, longtime restaurateur John Kilroy, likes to trumpet that he is a nationally recognised beef judge, but he isn't bothered enough to provide dry-aged meat.  From where I am standing, it looks like he is catering to a market, and he is ensuring that his food is priced accordingly (dry-aged beef is a fair bit more expensive due to lost water weight, needing to shave off the dry exterior, etc.).  

I think Char is a great place to impress guests, clients and family, but if you are serious about your food, you need to choose wisely to avoid disappointment. 

70 Esplanade
Darwin NT
Tel: +61 8 8981 4544

Other Notes

 - I am not yet gauche enough to start reviewing wedding banquets.  I will say, though, for a wedding banquet, Pee Wee's at the Point served great food in magnificent surroundings.  Apparently, they are ranked as Darwin's #1 restaurant on TripAdvisor.  Now, I treat TripAdvisor ratings with as much contempt as the next food critic, but I can't quibble with Pee Wee's top ranking.

 - The Charcoal Oven Restaurant at Cullen Bay is an eccentric little space, run by an old Chinese lady who cooks exquisite Asian-influenced seafood dishes.  The live local mud crab is expensive (A$79 per kilogram), but the wonderfully sweet and tender pincer meat makes it worth the splurge.  A major con is that it doesn't serve any desserts at all.

 - Zorba's Cafe and Meze on Knuckey Street serves a heavy but suitably sweet baklava, and Italian-style coffee with the kick of an iron-shod mule.  Its location by Tamarind Park gives it a nice leafy ambience, although drunk squatters often make their unwelcome presence heard in the evenings.

 - Curve Restaurant does a great-value lunch, $18 for a main course and a glass of wine.  Given the lack of quality and value at the lower-end, paying a couple of extra dollars for a drink and comfortable surrounds by the Darwin Waterfront makes sense to me, and the food really isn't bad at all.

Lot 5434, Alec Fong Lim Drive
East Point NT
Tel: +61 8 8981 6868 

4/68 Marina Boulevard
Cullen Bay NT
Tel: +61 8 8941 3433

12 Knuckey Street
Darwin NT

Adina Vibe Darwin Waterfront
7 Kitchener Road
Darwin Waterfront, Darwin NT
Tel: + 61 8 8982 9709


Darwin seems to be largely driven by and for tourists and backpackers.  For the first day, I managed to visit various cafes and restaurants without being served by a single Australian.  As in, I was served variously by English, French and Italian backpackers paying their way by working part-time.  At an inner-city cafe one morning, there was some miscommunication between me and a waiter.  The only local waitress at the cafe came up to my table, sorted out my problem and exclaimed "This is what you get when the owner doesn't know how to hire Aussies!" All right then.

Maybe I shouldn't be too harsh.  Darwin only has a population of under 140,000, so there is is a limit as to how many good eateries the market can sustain.  Bearing that in mind, you won't starve in Darwin, but neither is it one of Australia's gastronomic jewels.

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