Eat: Western Australia

Melbourne and Sydney may steal the headlines but Western Australian cuisine is slowly emerging from their shadow with a wealth of regional produce and flavours influenced by its European immigrants and Asian neighbours.

By Andrew Purvis
Published 12 Apr 2012, 13:54 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 17:37 BST

At Kailis Brothers Fish Market and Cafe in Leederville, a suburb of northern Perth, I'm being given an impromptu lesson in geography. "These manna crabs are from Mandurah, to the south of here," says the young Greek who's showing me around. Delving into a mound of ice, he hauls out a fish the size of a small dog. "This is a dhufish caught off Geraldton," he says, "midway up the coast. Over there are prawns from Carnarvon and mussels from Exmouth, in the north. The mangrove jacks are from Broome, as far north as you can go."

On the flight from London, an 18-hour slog via Singapore, I'd noticed these places on the sky map as we left the Java Sea behind and flew south down the surf-lashed coast. All are towns in Western Australia (WA), but such is the scale of the country's largest state that Broome is further from Perth than London is from Rome. WA has an area of 965,250 square miles, and some of its mines and cattle stations are larger than European countries.

It's a vast larder from which to plunder the finest regional produce: free-range chickens and ducks; pork, beef and veal; and potatoes, beans and heirloom vegetables as good as any in Australia. Then there are specialities unique to the region, such as yabbies (plump, mud-dwelling crayfish that breed prolifically in ditches) and marron (freshwater lobster), not to mention wines from the Swan Valley and Margaret River that, in the past few years, have won international accolades and established a niche market in Europe.

Layered on top are Mediterranean influences from Perth's largely immigrant population — Greeks, Italians and exiles from the former Yugoslavia — and oriental flavours from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, only a five-hour flight away. The result is a melting pot of exotic ingredients, from Indonesian spices and Italian pastas to Thai fish sauces, Vietnamese vegetables, Israeli couscous and Greek olives. All artfully combined by a new generation of chefs who are breathing new life into Perth's restaurant scene.

Before arriving at Kailis Brothers Fish Market (established 1928), I'd visited another Greek family business in the bohemian district of Northbridge. Kakulas Brothers wholefood store (established 1929), stocks everything from cumin seeds and star anis to Italian cold meats and cheeses, Indian dahls and fresh bread. In the port of Fremantle, the family's other store, Kakulas Sister, occupies a prime spot at one end of the Cappuccino Strip — an area around South Terrace that's awash with Italian-style cafes and craft markets. Here, I watch Brazilian coffee being roasted by an Italian called George. Then, back in Northbridge, I browse Asian stores selling pak choi, eels and dried shrimp.

On a visit to Perth, you'll be told several times the city is closer to Jakarta than to Sydney. This geographical fact has resulted in a unique culinary culture but also a sense of isolation from the rest of the country. Perceived as an unsophisticated state of gnarled prospectors, pearl divers and surfers, WA has struggled to make its mark on a restaurant scene dominated by Sydney and Melbourne — but that's changing, thanks to increased prosperity and Perth's strategy of promoting itself as having a 'Mediterranean' lifestyle, based around sailing, fine wine and good food.

Last year, Matt Stone of Greenhouse in Perth was named the country's Best New Talent by Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine, for his bold melding of culinary idioms. One example is his 'hot and sour' dish of raw kingfish, green mango and peanut; another is his salted beef short rib with coconut, lemongrass and herbs. In January 2011, celebrity chef Neil Perry opened his Rockpool Bar & Grill in Perth, adding to a stable of six restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. It's hard to get more determinedly local than his West Australian rock lobster in herb butter, or more eclectic than his spanner crab and buckwheat noodles with jalapeños and chilled tomato broth.

Other rising stars include Perth's Balthazar (a sedate, European-style fine diner in a listed sandstone building), C Restaurant (revolving, on the 33rd floor of St Martins Tower) and Restaurant Amusé, featuring Hadleigh Troy's dazzling dégustation menu.

For my money, though, you can't beat outdoor dining on the harbour front or beach. At Indiana, a former colonial teahouse, I watch dolphins swim among surfers at Cottesloe Beach at sundown, and tuck into chargrilled Fremantle octopus with smoked paprika, lemon and garlic, accompanied by Vasse Felix sparkling wine from Margaret River. Then, at Kailis' Fish Market Cafe in Fremantle, I have my 'let's emigrate' moment. Sitting on a breezy boardwalk under a canopy advertising fish 'n' chips, I'm served a platter of deep-fried whiting, scallops, chilli mussels, calamari and lightly battered prawns, along with a glass of buttery, chilled Chardonnay from Leeuwin Estate. Everything came together — the boats, the sunshine, the clatter of rigging, the salty tang and rich, tannic tastes of the land and sea — in one big Western Australian fusion.

Five Perth food finds

Kailis Brothers Fish Market and Cafe: The best introduction to WA seafood. 101 Oxford Street, Leederville. T: 00 61 8 9443 6300. 

Kakulas Brothers: Wholefood store and deli offering a rich diversity of flavours. 183 William Street, Northbridge. T: 00 61 8 9328 5285. 

Restaurant Amusé: Rick Stein gave its dégustation menu a big thumbs-up. 64 Bronte Street, East Perth. T: 00 61 8 9325 4900.

Balthazar: Beef, rabbit, pork and seafood in a sedate setting. 6 The Esplanade. T: 00 61 8 9421 1206.

Rockpool Bar & Grill: Neil Perry's fine-dining steakhouse. Burswood Entertainment Complex, Great Eastern Highway, Burswood. T: 00 61 8 6252 1900. 

Four places to eat (& drink) well

Prices shown are per person

Clad in recycled plastic and insulated with straw bales, this groovier-than-thou Perth diner, in the Central Business District, is as green as its name suggests. Outdoor walls are covered in ivy and strawberry plants, water is reused and produce is grown in a roof garden. Chef Matt Stone has won awards for dishes such as shredded chicken and ginger broth with sweetcorn and broken rice, as well as shaved heritage vegetables, hard goat's cheese, hazelnut and honey. My choice was freshly shucked oysters with lime.
How much: Wood-fired pizza, about £8; mains, £7-19. 100 St Georges Terrace. T: 00 61 8 9481 8333. 

Overlooking Perth's Cottesloe Beach, Indiana is built on the site of a turn-of-the-century tea house, restored in the colonial Indian style. Diners in the bistro might start with kingfish carpaccio, citrus and chilli or crab gnocchi with coconut sauce, then progress to catch of the day with tarragon and fried capers. The beach bar has a good selection of craft beers and Western Australian wines; sit on the alfresco terrace and watch beach life go by.
How much: Starters, £6-14; pizzas, £15; seafood and grill, £22. 99. Marine Parade, Cottesloe Beach. T: 00 61 8 9385 5005. 

Kailis' Fish Market Café
This vast harbour-front cafe in Fremantle has an astonishing range of seafood, served wrapped in paper, or on a cardboard tray: from the fry/grill menu, try squid, snapper, cobbler or garfish with chips, or fresh catch of the day. There's also cold fruits de mer and, famously, a fish-and-chips-flavoured ice cream inspired by Heston Blumenthal. Sit outside to best enjoy a wide array of WA wines.
How much: Platters, catch of the day and grills, from £17; snacks, about £8. Fishing Boat Harbour, 46 Mews Road. T: 00 61 8 9335 7755.

Leeuwin Estate
Escape Perth and head to the winelands for a tasting, tour and lunch at this family-run estate in Margaret River. From the verandah, look out on meadows and karri trees and order local asparagus with organic duck egg, sprouts, chilli and umami dressing, then grilled Blue Ridge marron in butter with crispy egg noodle, cabbage and caramel salad, accompanied by Art Series Sauvignon Blanc.
How much: Starters, £11-19, mains, £22-33, five-course tasting menu, £65. Stevens Road, Margaret River. T: 00 61 8 9759 0000. 

Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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