Melville once quipped, "Nantucket is no Illinois," by which he meant that it's an island, not an immensely landlocked state but for Lake Michigan to the North.
A similar logic would have us say that Australia is no France, but here I'm referring to the lack of threat that one would feel the need to emigrate to Oz to satisfy one's all-consuming gourmandize. No, I suspect you haven't heard much about Australian cuisine (I barely demur from putting the last word in quotes), and that clearly is a function of enough people following the old maxim that if you have nothing nice to say, you zip your trap.
Now that isn't to say that you can't find good ethnic food in Australia; from what I'm told, that abounds and is quite passable. But as I was soon to be visiting the countries themselves from which said food would hail, I tried to focus exclusively on local specialties and oddities, like the quite nice wattle- (Oz-speak for acacia) seed "damper," a loaf traditionally made in the Outback, baked either directly on the coals or in a camp skillet and also, the gods of Wiki tell me, sometimes called "cocky's joy" -- a marvelous, if rather misleading appellation.
To maximize my exposure to the indigenous, autochthonous, and native, I twice visited North Queensland's most celebrated restaurant, Ochre, in Cairns. They specialize in all the synonyms I just listed and bring together tasting trays for those of us with mental checklists and inkpens itching to ex.
My overall takeaway from Ochre was that the food was terrible, but actually that's because the dishes my Swiss friends ordered -- veggie and a seafood samplers, respectively -- deviated both from the local injunction and from all attentiveness to the laws of flavor and texture (though the presentations weren't half bad) . However, the truly Aussie-only ingredients they did rather well, as with the platter above.
I had never had croc, though i have had gator, and the croc left a much more pleasant memory. The emu wasn't especially noteworthy one way or another, but I do think there's an extra transgressive pleasure in punishing creatures that are supposedly birds and yet remain flightless. (Poor things.) 'Roo I had eaten in virtually un-chewable and vile jerky form, whereas this pate was both palatable and admirably easy on the mandible.
But the star of the night was the wallaby steak. (What is a wallaby, you ask? As far as my zoology takes me, it's a small type of kangerooish thing that of course only lives in Ausralia).
Now if i could get wallabies to traipse through my brother's yard in Westchester, there's no doubt we'd be hurling boomerangs at them willy-nilly in hopes of eating more of these tender, slightly gamy, and simply yummy steaks. (Everything else on the plate was an icky purple goo drowning some couscous, but bless their hearts for trying...)
That was round one of Ochre. I went back a second time and started with a flight of local hooch: two gins, a wonderful rum called Iridium, and a liquor most unfortunately named "The Big Black Cock Whiskey." (We'll let that pass, per the aforementioned knowledge that my maturation was also slowed by lack of outside input; too much isolation and that shit just happens.)
Still feeling the need to get a kangaroo steak, I ordered that, but it proved true to the warnings: overcook it even an iota and it gets tough. Mine was overcooked an iota and a half.
Finally there was a dish on the menu that had really attracted my attention: "Gulf Bugs on Lemongrass."
Ooh, local bugs! Alterity for the honky-normative! Take a video; scare the children! Those of you familiar with these pages will remember the giant roach, the wallet-sized tarantula, the grasshopper, etc, so I was dying to see what entomological wonder some Australian gulf could come up with with a few undisturbed million years of evolution.
What I got were these:
(Sorry about the blurriness)
Good god! They're huge? Are they the biggest cicadas in the world? Biblical locusts? Ants that could eat Adelaide?
As it turns out, none of the above: they were absolutely scrumptious "bay lobsters," as they are called by their other name. Shellfish, not insects? I realize that I had the distinction of running a marketing team for Disney, but does it take insider experience to realize that with a predominately foreign clientele, Ochre wasn't really doing its star dish justice by calling it bugs instead of lobsters?
But there I go again, taking umbrage. So apparently here in my final hours in Australia, I had still missed the point. Shouldn't I instead have been taking a page from this sweet country's book and just sat back, chilling with a beer and a smile?
Alas, relaxation is not my strong suit, much less easygoing acceptance. I fear I was too much a New Yorker for this country and it too much a relic of the Commonwealth for me.
Time to move to duskier settings; next stop: the teeming chaos that is Manila.