Country Dining Goes Rogue
Claim to fame: A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll
Reason to go: An ideal marriage of technique and product, raw edges and smooth service
To look out for: Great collaborative dinners with Australia’s most interesting rookies
Country dining in Australia usually involves farms, forest or possibly the beach. Igni is by no means in the big city, this paragon of regional cuisine is found in a back-alley in the industrial port town of Geelong. Chef Aaron Turner’s credentials as a forager and a plant-whisperer are among the most assured in Australia, but the immediate ecosystem of the restaurant is the garbage bins and security gates of the alleyway it calls home. Think less hill and dale and skipping through the cowslips and more chain-link and corrugated iron, and skipping past the strip club.
The room, too, is a little austere – polished concrete floor, sharp lines of timber, lots of grey and charcoal in the palette. But then the real charcoal burning in the pit in the kitchen supplies actual warmth, while the floor team more than brings it in the figurative sense, assured, welcoming, knowledgeable and deep-down friendly.
Turner’s cooking is inventive but there’s nothing on the plate that seems forced, and never any sense of strain. Witness the battery of snacks: saltbush berries and squid in broth, pickled mussels delicately enfolded in the petals of zucchini flowers, a most elegant beef jerky, crisps of chicken skin served with cod roe. It’s a bravura overture, but the acts to follow somehow take things to the next level.
Beetroot “steak” is basted with goose fat, cut with whey and sharpened with nasturtium leaves. Marron, the mightiest of Australia’s freshwater crustaceans, the proteins of its flesh barely set over the grill, is paired with pilpil, the Basque emulsion sauce of butter and fish stock. It also comes with a couple of slivers of pickled cucumber for good measure. Hot and cold, clean and complex, and nothing superfluous.
King Edward potato becomes noodles, with a texture reminiscent of the barely cooked potato seen in northern Chinese salads, and an accent of allium flavor in the form of crisp slivers of garlic and pretty little society garlic blossoms.
Desserts walk the line between generosity and economy of gesture in just the right way, whether it’s a seaweed ice-cream sandwich between quinoa crisps or honeycomb with fresh cheese and a bracing hit of grapefruit.
And while you might be an hour from the center of Melbourne by road or rail, in the wine glass you might as well be in the heart of the laneway wine-bar scene, as you kick off with a petillant-naturel sparkler from cult producer JP Robinot, and close with a Temp des Cerises Fou du Roi.
As Igni so confidently proves, merely being in the provinces doesn’t by any measure mean you have to be provincial.