Australasia, Manchester, restaurant review by The Telegraph
Matthew Norman is impressed by the food and the surroundings at Australasia in Manchester.
Australasia, 1 The Ave, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3AP (0161 831 0288; australasia.uk.com).
Three courses with wine and coffee: £60-£70 per head
Experience counsels that the inhabitants of our great northern cities seldom warm to lectures about their shortcomings from soft southern Jessies like me. With this in mind, let us not indulge in generalisations about Manchester’s culinary traditions.
I might, on another day, dwell on its status as a drinking town favouring the ultra-blingy bar over the decent restaurant; on its contribution to global cuisine being condensable into “the chip butty”; and on my one unforgettable meal there lingering in the memory solely for the food poisoning it bestowed.
Having nimbly sidestepped the above, the one thing I will state is this: Manchester — such a vibrant contributor to modern culture by way of writing, music, comedy and art — has not one Michelin star.
The first time I drove there, less than 20 years ago, the car park was still strewn with rubble deposited by the Luftwaffe. On this trip, an electronic gate rose to allow access to a parking area (£9 minimum charge, thank you kindly) beneath a new shopping development. Back on ground level stood the most startling restaurant entrance I have seen… a vaguely pyramid-shaped block of glass rising from pavement, behind which lays the escalator down to Australasia.
This newish joint will not break the city’s Michelin duck; pleasing the inspectorate is not its aim. But it is impressive all the same. A vast basement, with the obligatory fancypants cocktail bar at one end and an open kitchen behind 12ft-high glass at the other, it seizes the attention. What the “concept” is, we couldn’t agree. With its albino brickwork, blond wood floorboards and array of ash-coloured, foliage-free Californian trees, it struck me as a stab at petrified forest. My friend thought it a nod to the deserts of the Northern Territory. Whichever, or whatever else, it is quite the Venus flytrap for footballers, their wives, and retired minor rock stars.
If that target market usually spells doom for the palate, expectations were not raised by a menu covering Japan, Australia and the Pacific Rim, even stretching across the ocean to California. Pans have their place in the kitchen, but pan as a culinary suffix generally prefaces disaster.
But not here. The food was consistently good, and with more rigorous attention to detail would be outstanding. The menu is split between sushi, tapasy dishes so beloved of restaurateurs for their profit margins, and main courses. We went for four small plates and two mains, and enjoyed every one.
Szechuan salt and pepper beef was superbly tender, and laced with a beguilingly potent sauce dominated by the tongue-numbing Szechuan peppercorn. Soft shell crab tempura was within seconds of being immaculately fried, but the crab’s freshness compensated for the batter’s minimal sogginess. The slight gaminess of blackened cod, roasted in a banana leaf, was more than neutralised by a delicious honey and soy dip. A salad of wasabi-infused pork was a textural pleasure for the crunchiness of the fine-shredded veg, resting like a dunce’s cap over the pig, and with a sharper, limier dressing would have been a triumph.
“This is not what I expected,” said my friend, a Manchester veteran, as the plates were cleared. “There’s real talent in the cooking, the service is great, and the only irritant is the wine list coming on a wonky iPad.” If ever a solution was desperately seeking a problem, this menu-on-an-iPad fad is it.
My main course, five fat and juicy chunks of pork belly, was fine, but all the intrigue lay with an accompanying pineapple curry… an oddly wonderful lucky dip (various leaves, chillies, peppers, those giant pealike orbs known in Thailand as aubergines) which so retained their flavours that each mouthful provided an entirely different taste.
My friend wanted a chicken dish for his main course, but our chatty waitress reported that the chef, dissatisfied with the meat, had thrown the lot in the bin. Ordinarily you would file that under the header “laughable excuses for an ordering cock up”. Here, such perfectionism was almost credible. He went instead for roasted barramundi, the subtly flavoursome white fish topped with a gentle pesto crust, and was, to borrow from the Hacienda lexicon, mad for it. “You’d be happy with this in one of the better places in Sydney.” High praise indeed.
Higher still was lavished upon an espresso-infused chocolate fondant, luscious in itself and sublimely complimented by salty walnut ice cream; and a sensational mango soufflé, served with mango juice in its own cute glass teapot to be poured into its heart, and ringed by little snowdrops of sherbet to offset the mangoey sweetness. “Two of the finest puddings I’ve ever tasted,” said my friend, patting his belly until it quivered, “and I have tasted many, many puds.”
The prices (though offset by generous portions) belong to central London, and a couple of minor technical problems need sorting. The waiting staff were delightful but overstretched, and that tendency to over-sugar was highlighted by the brilliantly balanced puds. For all that, Australasia is a hugely likeable restaurant I refuse to damn with faint praise by identifying it as the highlight of several dozen meals in the town that Michelin forgot.
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.