Gourmet Traveller's best dishes of 2012

Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Shane Rozario

Ah, December. A time when credit cards start to smoke and warp from friction, when the offer of complimentary gift­wrapping calls out like a siren song. It's also a time when critics' end-of-year lists start to pop up, a seasonal treat to be savoured just like the first of the cherries, or pointed reminders from the HR department about appropriate behaviour at Christmas parties.

We are not immune to the appeal of such discussions. Our review team clocked a record number of meals and miles over the past year, and fortunately quite a few of them were worth writing home about.

You'll find our state editors' individual top 10s in full on our website; here now, in no particular order, is a national top 10 we've gleaned from those lists. The cream of the cream, if you will. This is our call for seconds - we invite you to dig in, and then hop onto Twitter or Facebook, smoke signal or carrier pigeon, and share your own favourites of 2012 with us in turn.
 
1 Andalucia, Quay
If only everyone came back from a trip away with a "what I did on my holidays" essay as evocative as this one. It doesn't hurt, of course, that Peter Gilmore's paean to one of the highlights of his mid-year sabbatical is written in roast-almond ice-cream, almond crumb, orange and bergamot marmalade (pictured left). This, the nation's restaurant of the year, has many contenders for the list on its menu (I'm looking at you, pretty poached chicken, scallop, noodle, eggplant, wasabi flower thing), but this newest dessert just can't be denied. Quay, upper level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, NSW, (02) 9251 5600 Pat Nourse

2 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 Michael Harden

3 Roast pigeon, The Stackings
Its accompaniments change - one day onions and mustard leaf, another time sweet roast carrot and crisp saltbush, and a third time walnut purée and beetroot - but in essence this dish is a celebration of the unadorned bird. Its breeder, from Broadmarsh near Hobart, produces in tiny numbers, and the birds grace only a very few restaurant tables (Lebrina is another). In David Moyle's hands the bird's breast, served separately, is rare, rich and juicy. The leg, with each claw on each toe still immaculately intact (a sign of expert handling), is crisp-skinned and its slightly gamy meat succulent. The Stackings, 3435 Channel Hwy, Woodbridge, Tas, (03) 6267 4088 Sue Dyson & Roger McShane

4 Onion ice-cream, Loam
I like onions. I like ice-cream. But it took a trip to Loam, on the beauteous Bellarine, to convince me that I like them on the same plate at the same time. As the same thing, in fact. Proving that the kitchen's most familiar ingredient can, if handled with wit, have as much impact on a tasting menu as the more challenging-sounding likes of duck tongues, sea blight and freeze-dried olive oil, this dessert, accessorised deftly with honeycomb and a quinoa crisp, is a quiet riot. Loam, 650 Andersons Rd, Drysdale, Vic, (03) 5251 1101 Pat Nourse

5 Crumbed fish, bacon and chilli burger, The Fish Shop
The standout for me is a dish of simple aspirations: The Fish Shop's fish burger. Jeremy Strode was up for the challenge when he spread his apron over to the kitchen of the former Lotus site - but how could a measly fish burger hope to compete with the near cult-like status of Dan Hong's beefy cheeseburger? A soft white bun, a meaty piece of crisp crumbed fillet (sometimes mulloway, sometimes barramundi depending on availability), cos lettuce, Schulz smoked bacon, Japanese mayo, Sriracha sauce and a good whack of jalapeños is the answer. Add a side of potato scallops, a James Squire Sundowner and you have the definition of cult burger meal in the making. Just don't tell Dan Hong. The Fish Shop, 22 Challis Ave, Potts Point, NSW, (02) 9326 9000 Anthea Loucas

6 Campari, orange, curds and whey, Esquire
Like many of Esquire's plates, this flavour-bomb of a dessert with its zingy, bitter Campari crystals and sherbet and quirky curds-and-whey ice-cream is sharp yet whimsical and beautifully balanced - a wake-up call to the palate. A quenelle of tangy orange sorbet (made from juiced skins and orange pith) adds extra bite, contrasting smartly with the almost savoury ice-cream, which chef-owner Ryan Squires describes as a "fresh cheese sorbet". Deliciously wobbly orange jelly and freeze-dried mandarin segments tap further into the childhood nostalgia theme. Esquire, 145 Eagle St, Brisbane, Qld, (07) 3220 2123 Fiona Donnelly

7 Casarecci with chicken dumplings, Pei Modern
It's impressive how this ostensibly rustic peasant dish - 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 Michael Harden

8 King George Whiting marinato, Lalla Rookh
The customer is always right. And if guests at this slick new inner-city tavern want a tasty, lunch-hour-friendly meal, Joel Valvasori-Pereza is going to give it to 'em. Consider the bar indelibly raised for chicken schnitzels and steak sangers in Perth. But Valvasori-Pereza's talents run deeper than ace counter meals, his knack for flavour matchmaking best admired in this winning dish of dazzlingly fresh King George whiting briefly bathed in lemon, fennel and olive oil. Served on a bed of sweet, thumbnail-sized broad beans and fennel trimmings - shaved bulb, pollen, fronds - it's a rousing endorsement for our man's "La Cucina Westraliana". Lalla Rookh, lower ground, 77 St Georges Tce, Perth, WA, (08) 9325 7077 Max Veenhuyzen

9 Congee, ham and yolk, Momofuku Seiobo
How do you describe Momofuku Seiobo in a word? I vote "Australian". Sure, that freewheeling Momofuku attitude to food (and music) remains in full effect, but it's the way native ingredients are effortlessly, deliciously and respectfully incorporated into dinner that struck me most. Warrigal greens. Striped trumpeter. Bruny Island Cheese Co's ridiculously good C2 raw-milk cheese. Local heroes all of them. But don't think for a minute the kitchen has turned its back on its Asian roots. While this gruel-like mass of boiled rice rings true with conventional congee wisdom, the similarities end there. Bolstered with scraps of jamón serrano, a film of preserved egg yolk and savoury kombu doughnuts in an Earl Grey broth, it's a comfort food makeover done very, very right. Momofuku Seiobo, The Star, 80 Pyrmont St, Pyrmont, NSW, (02) 9777 9000 Max Veenhuyzen

10 Porcini, brodo and egg, Vincenzo's Cucina Vera
Vincenzo LaMontagna found out about the very first tiny crop of porcini mushrooms that sprouted in the Adelaide Hills last year and snaffled a few for his restaurant guests, to an overwhelming response. This March, LaMontagna laid hands on some more, and so diners who arrived for his unscripted nightly dégustation menu got to enjoy these intensely flavoured porcini only a few hours after they were picked. LaMontagna wanted to let the earthy flavours of these potent mushrooms do all the talking, so he simply allowed them to drink up some concentrated chicken stock, complemented by the contrasting soft ooze of a slow-poached egg. Luscious and intense, the flavours lingered as long and true as a fine Barolo. Vincenzo's Cucina Vera, 77 Unley Rd, Parkside, SA, (08) 8271 1000 David Sly







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