A long time ago in a land far, far away.
Well, not that long ago really; and not that far away.
I grew up in a small city in Australia called Adelaide (pronounced Radelaide by locals) but moved away in my very early twenties, to a slightly larger small city called Brisbane.
Anyhoo… I was recently back in Adelaide visiting some relatives and, as is my custom when visiting a city, I booked into one of the better restaurants for a dinner.
It might be a bit of an understatement calling Orana one of Adelaide’s best restaurants; it might be fairer calling it one of Australia’s best restaurants that just happens to be located in Adelaide. After all, Orana does have three Hats, has made the Australian Good Food Guide’s list of top ten restaurants, and even popped up in the 2017 La Liste 1000 Outstanding restaurants.
Not bad for a city with just over a million people.
That there is such a restaurant in Adelaide should not be a surprise, after all, the produce in that part of the world is second to none. What is surprising is that a small city like Adelaide would attract a chef of the talent of Orana’s Jock Zonfrillo. A native Scotsman, Jock had worked and learnt from the very best, including a long stint with Marco Pierre White.
Zonfrillo’s first solo venture landed him in Adelaide, opening a tiny little restaurant above a casual eatery in Rundle Street (probably the coolest street in Adelaide). Calling the venture Orana, which means ‘Welcome’ in some Aboriginal languages, Orana takes its culinary stylings from the local indigenous ingredients, with Chef Jock focussing on the abundance of interesting and quirky Australian native fauna and flora.
I was pretty surprised to score a table at Orana with relatively short notice, securing a 9pm sitting on a Saturday night only a week prior to my departure for Adelaide. Having scouted the location earlier in the day, I’d arrived for my sitting fifteen minutes early; after all, there wasn’t much else to do, so waiting for my table seemed like as good an idea as any.
What I didn’t count on was the earlier sitting running over, by quite a bit actually. Despite the regular apologies from the wait staff; I was feeling a bit miffed by the time my table became available; a full thirty minutes late.
It was going to be a late dinner; you see, Orana is a degustation only destination, normally a good thing, but not so much when starting at 9:30pm.
After a short explanation of the menu from my waitress, the menu which was titled ‘Alkoopina’ commenced with an interesting take on damper. A cast iron skillet was presented with smoking coals and a lump of potato damper, requiring my interaction to turn a couple of times over a two to three minute timeframe. Enough time to crisp up the bread and then use fingers to break apart and devour.
I was encouraged to dip the damper into a serving of Goolwa pippies and beach succulents, the sweet broth of the pippies soaking nicely into the damper. It dredged up memories of my youth combing the beaches of Goolwa, digging up the little molluscs and cooking them over an open beach fire.
Macadamia nut milk mixed with thyme oil finished off the first of the dishes on the tasting menu.
A rapid fire series of small bites peppered the table next, starting with KI scallops, chopped and sitting in its shell with samphire and covered with a kelp granita; the salty shaved ice working nicely against the sweetness of the scallops.
A wooden spoon contained chopped green mango with native honey and green ants, the latter looking a little like tiny little crunchy candy. There was a tartness from the green mango that provided a bite, balanced out by the sweet honey. The ants provided a little crunch and a little kitsch factor, but little else.
A quenelle of chicken liver parfait was on the final spoon of the current salvo; the creamy and smooth parfait was covered in dehydrated Moreton bay fig, which gave the tiniest amount of crunch as texture.
We quickly moved onto the intensely flavoured magpie goose (a type of bush waterfowl) wrapped around some wild garlic infused greenery of some sort (I never did catch what it was!). The texture of the magpie goose was a little chewy, but the punchy flavour was tasty and a little unusual.
A plump and juicy Coffin Bay oyster was next, also mixed with samphire, which seemed to be a binding ingredient through the meal so far.
Perhaps the most interesting flavours of the night, and my favourite, came next; an expertly cooked prawn was covered with a dehydrated Davidson plum, the bright powder casually disbursed the plate, some of it even covering the prawn. It was succulent and sweet with a sour punch from the plum. The interesting flavours were a little challenging, but ultimately rewarding (in this case).
It appeared as if the series of small bites to begin the meal were over; replacing the small but tasty morsels was a bowl of an intensely flavoured palate cleanser. Containing feral guava, charred apple, riberry, desert lime and tea tree, the concoction was a bright purple red colour and had gave me the most amazing sensation of chowing down on a bitter, bitter sherbet!
So far, all of the food had been pretty intensely flavoured bites; but it must be said, very small bites. So, as is the usual custom in restaurants with such tasting menus, out came a loaf of bread baked by locally sources and milled flour; with some soft hand churned butter. I decided to try a little of the bread, which was warm and crunchy; but I’d learned my lesson long ago, not to fill up on bread so much of it remained uneaten.
I didn’t expect to like the first of the more substantial dishes; the smoked pumpkin with toasted wattle seeds, grains with kutjera and a slow cooked egg. I’ve never been a fan of pumpkin, but thankfully the flavour was very mild and the dish was dominated by the creaminess of the yolk. There was a little crunch from the toasted seeds, but the predominant texture was of a firm custard jelly; I didn’t particularly love the dish, but not because of my initial fear of the pumpkin, but because of the texture.
As much as I didn’t care for the smoked pumpkin, I absolutely loved the marron with Geraldton wax, watercress and pandanus; the sweetness of the marron contrasting with the cress puree and the subtle hint of the wax. I loved the visual appeal of the red and green against the shiny black bowl.
It was hard to tell by the visuals, but the next dish was a grey blob bowl covered almost totally with Warrigal greens. Actually some Coorong mullet with Kris Lloyd’s day old chèvre, the concoction was hard to eat, a little challenging on the palate. I guess the combination of a fish dish and a cheese course was always going to be tough, I’m just not a cheese fan and personally am not sure that fish and cheese should ever go together.
The main of the night was a South Devon beef with quandong, smoked potato mash and leek. A fermented mushroom broth was poured at the table, giving the dish watery look that didn’t appeal to me visually. It was an incredibly bitter dish too, largely from the quandong, a natural fruit that I’m not really sure belongs on a plate. The beef was nice enough, but it was sliced too thin and for me, lost a bit of that beefy texture that I look for when eating meat.
The meal had been going on for some time, and by the time I’d finished my main, my palate had been challenged just a little too much and my patience had worn just a little thin. I’d become a little disinterested.
Dessert was duly served, including such ‘treats’ as paperbark, macadamia and zig zag wattle; native currant fool (whatever that was!) and set buttermilk with strawberry and eucalyptus. I ate dessert with an almost mechanical duty to finish a meal that was not sitting overly well; perhaps because of the ingredients, perhaps because of the time, it was nearly midnight and there were not a lot of people left in the restaurant.
I have to say, I’m not a stranger to eating at restaurants that specialise in Australian native produce; Brisbane’s two hatted GOMA being the best of them (see here and here), but I found the meal at Orana to be a little bit of substance over flavour. The meal was incredibly well cooked by an inventive and cutting edge chef, each of the courses being well put together, precise and with purpose.
It’s just that I didn’t get that purpose…
What the meal lacked for me was that ‘yumminess’ that I want when dining; being challenged all the way through a meal is OK, but it all matters for nothing if the meal doesn’t taste great. Given it’s one of the more expensive tasting menus going around, at $175 per head, I just found the meal lacking and almost pointless.
In a sign that I’d tested my patience; once I’d paid my bill, I skipped past the final ‘queue’ of diners chatting to the chefs on the way out (admittedly a great way to finish a meal )and just made for the exit.
I was tired, a little disappointed and still a little bit hungry
Given Orana’s reputation, credentials and accolades, probably not the way I’d thought the night would go.