• Christina Pickard

The Gastronomy of Perth

The second post to appear in my Down Under Series for Harpers Wine & Spirit, written in February 2013:

The first thing one notices immediately after arrival in any one of Australia’s major cities is how bloody expensive everything is. Those of you who haven’t made the trek to Aus. within the last five years or so haven’t got a clue what I’m going on about. Five years ago it was cheap here. Brits with their all-powerful pound lived quite well in Aus. Those were the good ol’ days. But my lordy how things have changed.

I also happen to be living in Perth, apparently the most expensive city in the most expensive country. And nothing reflects the economic boom like eating and drinking out in Perth. The city, whose population has risen by a massive 14% in the past 5 years, has made Western Australia the richest state in the country (thanks mostly to the mining boom). This sudden wealth has meant good things for dining out. Bars and restaurants of increasingly good quality are popping up everywhere, and most seem to be doing quite well for themselves. Perthians will grumble to themselves but they seem happy enough to fork out $25 (£16.50) for a burger. Or $10 (£6.50) for a pint of bottom shelf beer. The problem is, when you’ve come from the UK, and you are not yet earning the Aussie dollar, eating and drinking out is wallet-emptying on the best of days. If you’re part of an industry that requires it, it’s suicidal.

Despite this rather depressing fact, I have still managed to get myself out and about quite a bit (I’ll worry about paying off the credit card later). Just like in London, when a place is considered the hot new trend, you hear about it quite a bit. Because Perth, with a population of 2 million, is significantly smaller than London, you hear about it nonstop. And so having resided Down Under for a month and a half, I find I’ve ticked a few of these top spots off.

A lot of trends have made the rounds from New York to London to Sydney, and now to Perth. Considering we could not be further from Mexico, a surprising number of Mexican joints of varying quality are now scattered around the city. La Cholita’s lengthy list of tequila, which is served neat alongside a shot of sangrita and fish tacos, could stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of California’s fare, although portions are pequeños in comparison. Then there are the posh burger joints advertising ‘Cheap Ass Tuesday’ burgers for $10 (I must be even more of a cheap ass than I thought because $10 does not seem that cheap), themed cocktail bars (I particularly love the Tiki rum bar in Fremantle but that’s probably because I’m a sucker for a mini umbrella in my booze), speakeasy whisky joints (Helvetica is rockin’) and pop ups, the whiff of a tapas bar trend, and the imminent arrival of the food truck craze.

But what’s most exciting for me is the popularity of small wine bars. Plenty of money and thought seems to have gone into the décor of these places, each as lovely as the other. However, where the discrepancy lies, is in the wines themselves. This is where I find I’m let down by places so clearly in it to make the widest profit margin possible and nothing more, who have not taken the time to put together an exciting list. For me–and I know I may not be speaking for your average Joe here–if the list is good, I could sit on a cardboard box with a glass. I would prefer not to, but the point is, if you are a wine bar, the wines should come first.

That said, there are a few who seem to tick all the boxes. I’ll just talk about my favourite for now, and that is Lalla Rookh, which opened less than six months ago and is already a huge hit. It also happens to be the only natural wine bar in WA, and we all know I’m a sucker for wines of the cloudy orangey mineraly earthy persuasion.

Owner Jeremy Prus is one switched on guy. After treading the boards as chef/sommelier/manager for many of Perth’s most highly rated eateries, this certified sommelier managed to snag himself a large chunk of prime real estate in Perth’s Central Business District. Most of the space has been converted into a funky bar/restaurant serving up some of the best Italian small plate food I’ve had in Aus., accompanied by a wine list that is adventurous but not unrealistic. Jeremy told me he purposely kept the prices reasonable to set an example to other Perth restaurants who are clearly cashing in on the sudden wealth in the city.

Out the back of the restaurant, through a discreet entrance off a side street next to a parking garage, is where Lalla Rookh’s real gem lies. Down a few sets of stairs you’re met with shelves of Australia’s and New Zealand’s most exciting wines. Mostly natural and all from small independent producers, many of whom are considered the most boundary-pushing in the country. There are wines from the Natural Selection Theory boys who buried the ceramic egg underground in the Hunter Valley and played music to it, and there are wines from Jamsheed, Stefano Lubiana, Luke Lambert, and Pyramid Valley to name a few. There’re local producers; La Violetta in Denmark, Si Vintners, and the house wine is made by Ben Gould, the biodynamic producer of Blind Corner wines in the Margaret River. The rest of the wines are Italian–Occhipinti and Tedeschi, Roagna and Montevertine, Paolo Bea and Ca’Rugate. Jeremy tells me they’ll add some French and Spanish wines soon. You can pull up a stool at the bar or at the single communal table, grab a bottle off the shelf, pay a $10 corkage fee, and drink these gems for retail price. Food can be ordered off the restaurant menu to have in the shop. And the great part (for me anyway) is that for now, not many Perthians seem to know about the shop part of Lalla Rookh. The restaurant is always packed but the shop is peaceful and relaxed—a breath of fresh air in WA’s wine scene. I will most certainly be spending too much money and time in there.

I have many more stories to share about my first six weeks in Australia–I judged in a magazine wine competition, I flew to Sydney for Australia’s first natural wine fair–both of those were experiences in cultural wine differences well worth writing about. But I’ll save them for next time. I’m off to a blind tasting at the home of one of Australia’s top wine writers and judges, because that’s how they roll here in the land Down Under.

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