Sunday, May 01, 2005

Australian food in Guam - well, getting there, anyway.

April had me and Benjamin Christie in Cairns on the way to a Dining Downunder Australian Cuisine Promotion in Guam in the tropical paradise of Micronesia.

We were in Cairns for a day and took the oppportunity to visit my Cairns distributor, Garozzo Food Distributors at Portsmith and now one of the Bidvest flagships. We are involved in a food show they are going to hold later in the year but I'll let you know more closer to the event.

There's a very well known restaurant in Cairns which uses Australian ingredients as a marketing tool (there are a few actually but I won't mention specifics and why, will become obvious) and we kept asking taxi drivers, tourist offices and other locals where we could go for something interesting to eat in town. They all recommended this place so we kept asking if they had eaten there, what they thought and generally probed for some deep seated truths. Well. If you are a restaurateur, you really need to try this anonymously. After all. Your reputation is everything, including your future.

This particular establishment was top of mind but regarded as expensive when pressed. Most commented it was good for tourists even though many hadn't eaten there themselves. Various meats were often described (with the not so subtle implication of 'if you want to eat those'). So we had to try the fare for ourselves.

I introduced myself to the chef who was too busy to come out to say hello to Benjamin and a local commercial pilot who taught Benjamin to fly and who had joined us at the table. I asked what the chef recommended and he flippantly said everything on the menu. So back I went to order at the table where the tappas plates (2 varieties) were recommended. I asked that the message be conveyed to the chef that we were looking forward to his making us something special and the two tappas plates were perfect.

Have you ever had a meal which was so underwhelming that you resented paying for it? One that then annoyed you for the next 3 days as though you had been violated? Perhaps our expectations were unreasonably high that we actually anticipated some interesting flavours from this Cairns institution. I am now left with the challenge of thinking how best to approach the chef and tell him his flavours suck. It was a fine example of the fiddle factor where the price is directly proportional to the degree the chef fiddles with your food.

The tappas had a teaspoonful of salsa, albeit with perfectly diced mango but still, only mango flavour (why not some Wild mint or Oz lemon); and towers of some grated vegetables with no discernable flavour; a wonton of some dried mince you'd normally find in a chew and spew at the back of some fry shop right on clean up time. It was meant to be crocodile but even Steve (Crocodile Hunter) Irwin would have been proud of this as a way to turn anyone off eating Snappy. There were three of us but two of many of the smallest tastings I'd seen in a while and which defied cutting up. There was little to complement which disturbs me greatly for such an iconic establishment. The locals were right. You wouldn't go there again nor recommend it to your friends, only to 'tourists'. But why is it that we believe they can be ripped off and still think kindly of us?

A wild lime sauce was served next to some ponzu but should have been already mixed. How would any diner, visiting or local, know that the chef forgot to finish the lime sauce and provided the means in the neighbouring dish. I suppose it's the Cairns equivalent of those chefs who leave the pepper addition to their waiters, as the ubiquitous arm-long peppermill provides the final balance of tastes in a dish, irrespective of the intended flavour combinations. Funny thing though. The waiter never told us that we had to mix our own sauce.

I guess time will tell as to the continued success of this place. Market forces are all powerful when it comes to weeding out the businesses who do not add any real substance to the value chain. The chef may be big enough to ask for assistance and I'd be happy to give it for free. We shall wait and see. I was expecting to ask him to join our Ambassadour Chefs program as a representative of Dining Downunder but there's no way yet.

And as for Guam. It'll have to wait for my next blog. Incidentally, I wrote this blog while lunching on a home-cooked steak with crisp snow peas and a mushroom cream made heavenly with a generous sprinkling of aniseed myrtle and a nudge of my Wattleseed extract in the cream. The paperbark smoked beetroot provided colour and texture contrast and another flavour highlight on the plate. Did I mention that the steak had been marinated in Ozyaki (a trade marked sauce we are about to launch into production and full of Alpine pepper pungents, sweet soy and herb aromatics)? I just followed the tried and tested formula of a multitude of textures, all the seven tastes in balance*, concentrations of unexpected and different flavours and no fiddle factor.

* sweet, sour, bitter, salty, aromatic, pungent and Maillard or umami if you like, which are those toasted, roasted grill flavours as in Wattleseed, chocolate, coffee, toast etc

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