GT's best dishes of 2012: Michael Harden

Author: Michael Harden
Photography: Julian Kingma

1. Summer cassoulet, Albert St Food & Wine
The number of reasons to celebrate the return of summer increased by at least one this year thanks to Philippa Sibley's seasonal reworking of the traditional French cassoulet. In its classic form, cassoulet couldn't be less summery, but Sibley bases her hot-weather version on sweet, nicely acidic tomatoes to which she adds a confit chicken leg, a perky chicken boudin blanc, fresh green, yellow and borlotti beans, some white haricot beans and soft, sweet Vichy carrots. Toasted brioche crumbs add great texture to the list of fine attributes of this dish, one that truly understands the difference between hearty and hefty. Albert St Food & Wine, 382 Sydney Rd, Brunswick, Vic, (03) 8354 6600

2. Casarecci with chicken dumplings, Pei Modern
It's impressive how this ostensibly rustic peasant dish (pictured above) - semi-rolled hard durum wheat pasta served with dumplings made from chicken offal (gizzards, hearts and livers) - comes across as being so voluptuous, even luxurious. Perhaps it's the silkiness of the sauce - made from slowly cooking the house-made pasta like risotto in a mix of chicken broth, olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano and, finally, with the juicy little dumplings themselves. Or maybe it's the cheese and nutmeg flavours that add depth and weight to proceedings. Specifics aside, it's a cracker of a combination, a comfort-food marvel that immediately becomes lodged on the crave list. Pei Modern, Collins Pl, 45 Collins St, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9654 8545

3. Nettle soup with snails and Manjimup truffles, The Point
Colour and texture share equal billing with flavour in this one. The soup's vibrant green colour screams "I'm alive!", and it is, with the flavours of butter and leeks, chicken stock, garlic and, of course, nettles. The snails, lovely little garlicky, slightly chewy morsels, do the textural heavy lifting while the generous shavings of truffle add a level of earthy luxury that's perfectly pitched. The Point, Aquatic Dr, Albert Park, Vic, (03) 9682 5566

4. Clam and prawn stew ma po-style, Circa
Chef Paul Wilson is a big man who loves big flavours and this seafood-led take on traditional ma po tofu bears witness to that. Small chunks of prawn and clam meat are mixed with tofu and salty black beans in a wonderfully glutinous stew with a slow building but eventually hefty amount of background Sichuan-style heat. Served in a couple of clam shells (they're the large ones from New Zealand), it packs a punch for the eye, too. Circa, 2 Acland St, St Kilda, Vic, (03) 9536 1122

5. John Dory, shiitake, octopus, seaweed butter and sesame, Cutler & Co.
You can always tell whether a restaurant kitchen is running according to plan by the state of the fish it sends out. Things at Cutler & Co. must be pretty peachy because not only is the John Dory in this dish sous-vide poached to beautifully textured pin-up status but the rest of the dish - slightly sweet seaweed butter, grilled octopus, mushrooms and perfectly salty broth - is a masterclass in getting the balance right. Cutler & Co., 55-57 Gertrude St, Fitzroy, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9419 4888

6. Kenji's fried chicken, Izakaya Fujiyama
Yes, yes, maybe fried chicken is being pumped out of every food outlet in the country at the moment, but that doesn't undermine the fact that when it's done right - as it is at Izakaya Fujiyama - it can still make a body want to jump up and shout "testify!" There's nothing fancy in the kara-age mix here - pieces of quality chicken crumbed, fried and served on paper with lemon wedges and Japanese mayo. But the cooking oil is impeccable, the colour golden, the batter's texture miraculously crisp and the meat juicy and full of flavour. Add an ice cold Yebisu and say amen. Izakaya Fujiyama, shop g9, 52 Waterloo St, Surry Hills, NSW, (02) 9698 2797

7. Caramel cooked cream with pear and popcorn crumble, Trocadero
This is one of those dishes that, when forensically examined, reveals how close the line between sublimity and culinary car-crash can be. Here, sitting in one medium-sized balloon glass, are caramel panna cotta, caramel pears, caramel ganache and popcorn crumble. Also available is a rice pudding made into ice-cream, rhubarb in several forms (including pickled and gel), microwaved sesame sponge and miso-scented caramel. Defying restraint and logic, they both work beautifully, and have more than a little potential to reach destination-dessert status. Trocadero, Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 8698 8888

8. Poached spanner crab, cauliflower, walnuts and periwinkles, Garagistes
Trying to choose a favourite dish at Hobart's hottest restaurant is no job for the faint-hearted, but this combination of sweet spanner crab meat, tiny cauliflower florets, lovely salty periwinkles and delicate walnut shavings, all lying in an artful pile sprinkled with tiny flowers on a dark and beautiful plate should be a shoo-in for anybody's top five at least. Garagistes, 103 Murray St, Hobart, Tas, (03) 6231 0558

9. Charcoal-grilled seafood, Rosetta
A major part of Neil Perry's success is the way he combines a fanatical pursuit for quality ingredients with an instinct for knowing when to let those ingredients speak for themselves. The grills at his glam new Italian joint is a case in point. Pristine seafood - perhaps prawns, mussels, cuttlefish and octopus - is tossed over a fire made with mallee root then flavoured simply with garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt and parsley. Simple, but also sublime. Rosetta, Riverside at Crown, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, Vic, (03) 8648 1999
10. Kumara, purslane, Pyengana, Attica
There's so much good stuff happening with this dish that it's enough to bring tears to your eyes. Salt crust-cooked kumara is teamed with garlic and almond crumble, slow-cooked egg yolk, broccolini buds, purslane leaves and an astonishingly good "cream" made from Pyengana cheddar. It comes at you from all angles - salty, soft, crunchy, sharp, fresh, earthy - and leaves you feeling a little dazed and amazed in its wake. Attica, 74 Glen Eira Rd, Ripponlea, Melbourne, Vic, (03) 9530 0111

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