The Masterchef expert takes a leisurely trip around the Pacific Rim
Here Confidential's new recruit, former-Times, Independent and London Evening Standard food critic, author and Masterchef expert, Charles Campion, writes about his first visit to the Living Ventures crowd-pleaser.
TO EXPLORE Australasia you pitch up at Spinningfields, aim for Armani and then bolt down a high tech hole in the ground. Some folk would have it that restaurants with no windows are at a crippling disadvantage and the long staircase down to Australasia leaves you in no doubt that you are underground. When you do enter, the bar and dining room is surprisingly light and there's a high ceiling to help counteract any claustrophobic twinges. At the rear of the restaurant there's a large and bustling open kitchen where the arched brickwork has been painted black - a shrewd move as sympathetic lighting adds to the drama.
The food at Australasia is devilishly difficult to pigeonhole
Australasia also has the accessory that every chic restaurant seems to crave - a number of trees. Mr Cooper's has a tree. Sakana has a tree. Tattu has a tree. Down in London trees are sprouting everywhere. The trees at Australasia are rather drift-woody, elegant items that could pass as modern sculpture.
At the risk of over-simplification you would find a chunky proportion of the dishes here on the menu of many a chic Japanese restaurant. There's Sashimi, Nigiri sushi, Tempura, but most of them have been given a modern tweak by the kitchen. Best to order up a raft of dishes and be prepared to eat any mistakes. Seared teriyaki beef (£7.50) is a crowd pleaser, sweet, sticky, chewy, good. The smoked eel nigiri (£9.50) is very complex but the flavour of the eel is rather pushed to one side by the clamour of the other elements. Under Californian Rolls there's a smoked duck Dragon roll (£7) - a fairly bland affair. The service is sound, slick and attentive. Our waiter recommended the hit of the day with the Japanese curried potato korekke (£7.50). Picture one of those Spanish croquetas, crisp outside gooey within, then make it much larger and sprinkled with green herbs.
Ever since the late 1990's when Mark Edwards (head chef of Nobu) made it a signature dish, black cod has had an inexplicable allure. The black cod roast in Hoba leaf (£22.50) struggles to live up to its star billing. Good but not great. The cured salmon (£8, main image) is a much better bet, thin ceviche style salmon lots of sesame seeds, and a mandarin and artichoke salad. Delicate flavours and elegant presentation. Just when you think that you have a handle on this Aussie/Nippon grub you stumble across a dish like seared pigeon and mustard fruits (£9) - those power-packed, mustard-pickled fruits hail from Cremona and that's in Italy. No matter, the dish works well. Or there is the lamb cutlets with soured cabbage (£13) - perfectly cooked, pink and tender chops, herby spice crusted.By the time you get to dessert (all £7.50) you'll be ready for the lemon crème brulee with raspberry sorbet even though it is served in an irritating little glass pot with a foil lid. But the champion pointless presentation dessert has to be the garden butter milk pannacotta which comes buried in a box with chocolate soil... why are chefs so keen on elaborate presentations?
Australasia has a buzz to it, there are moody cocktails to be had and a couple of excellent Aussie beers (Little Creatures and Coopers). The menu is a long one, but you'd have to be very snotty if you couldn't find any dishes on it that hit the spot.
A menu of Pacific Rim flavours underpinned by European cooking tradition, an exotic blend of Indonesian and Southeast Asian influences. Australia's strong ties with Japan also help determine taste and style.