When people ask the now-tired but oft-repeated question “Is there really any such thing as Australian cuisine?” I often counter with, “Well, what is American food?” American food is the food of its immigrants, forced and unforced, influenced by the landscape and ingredients found in the New World. Australian food is much the same, with obvious historical and locational differences. But is there really regional Australian food in the same sense as there is regional American food?
Our colonised history is so much shorter, our population so much smaller, that the differences are far subtler than the sturdy pillars of Southern, Midwestern and Californian cuisines. Perth may have its conti rolls and Queensland can comfortably lay claim to the lamington, but — especially in modern cooking — regionally distinct Australian foodways are fuzzy at the edges, overlapping and fading into one another. I see that changing, in all corners of the country, slowly but surely. And the place I see it happening with the most assurance is in northern New South Wales.
There is a modern Australian cuisine taking shape along that coastline — forged by the ocean and rivers, the tropical abundance of its landscape and the culture of Byron Bay and its surrounding communities — which is unique to the region. One of the best examples of this is Pipit, a restaurant in Pottsville that opened two years ago but (particularly given the past 16 months of pandemic, lockdowns and border closures) still feels brand new. Here is a restaurant that is blatantly casual yet only serves tasting menus, that highlights the tropical fruit and bountiful seafood of the surrounding landscape and that is boldly creative in a way that speaks to the region’s countercultural history and its upmarket present.
It is only right that one of the chefs who is pushing this region’s narrative forward is a local boy. Ben Devlin, who along with his wife, Yen Trinh, owns Pipit, was raised in Byron Bay. He grew up thinking he’d make a life shaping surfboards, but a job at a cafe sucked him into hospitality. Eventually he moved to Brisbane, where he worked his way through practically every influential fine diner of the time: Lat 27, Restaurant Two, Urbane. From there he went to Noma in Copenhagen, where a two-month internship turned into a two-year job. When he returned to Australia, Devlin saw his home country with new eyes. He realised that in all his fine dining jobs prior to Noma, the food was guided by Europe but never Australia. The ethos of looking for inspiration right outside your door took hold.
I first ate Devlin’s food at Paper Daisy, the restaurant at Halcyon House, an old surf motel at Cabarita Beach that has been turned into a luxury hotel. In 2015, Devlin was recruited to launch that restaurant, and while he was there he reconnected with the coastline of his childhood. The whole experience of eating at Paper Daisy was dreamy, from the waves crashing on the beach just beyond the dining room’s wide-open windows to the assurance of the vintage nautical design and the feathery lightness of shaved squash with sea urchin and chickpea purée on my plate. It was not like the modern Australian food I’d eaten in Melbourne or Sydney, nor was it singular to the chef alone, in the way of Attica or Orana.
A narrative was being built, of a time and place, and I ate echoes of that narrative as I travelled down the coast, at Fleet in Brunswick Heads and at Shelter at Lennox Head, each restaurant different and thrilling in its own way, but each connected by a thread of freshness and purity of flavours and shared ingredients: sea succulents, macadamia, a focus on umami, stunningly fresh seafood. At Pipit, which opened in early 2019, the room is less themed than Paper Daisy, so much so as to be practically minimalist. Blackwood, poured concrete floors and teal and terracotta tiles give a rustic industrial feel, and the main visual element is the large open kitchen behind a counter where diners perch on high stools. On opening, Devlin offered both a tasting and an à la carte menu, but post-pandemic lockdown he has pared back and now only offers two tasting menus: a long version and a short version.
A meal begins with a flurry of small dishes accompanied by tart, springy sourdough. A crudité-esque dish of raw vegetables comes with “waste paste”, a dip made from kitchen cast- offs that is nonetheless delicious. Mamey sapote, a tropical fruit with a subtle, apricot-adjacent flavour, is topped with thin slices of salty duck ham. Dragon fruit is sprinkled with native pepper — all dishes seem designed to prime you to look twice, pay attention and then sigh with pleasure. I was lucky enough to dine during the pine mushroom season, when the kitchen had procured locally foraged mushrooms and served them with a rich roasted bone sauce. That richness followed an intensely fresh dish of bonito with tomatillo and choko, or chayote, that perfectly played the fattiness of the fish against the crisp, watery snap of the vegetables.
Many elements are scorched (eggplant, bonito), smoked (celeriac) or blackened (persimmon), and occasionally those elements overwhelm the subtler ingredients. On the scorched eggplant dish, for instance, the combination of peanut, gourd, eggplant and lobster was lovely, but the lobster served mainly as a textural foil, its sweetness and delicacy lost to the bolder flavours. But mostly, the takeaway from a meal at Pipit is one of newness, creativity and thoughtfulness.
That ethos is matched by the wine and cocktails, overseen by the sommelier Aaron Wigg. The wine pairing will take you through the wares of some of Australia’s best and smallest producers, and Wigg is a deft host who explains each glass with plenty of substance and zero snobbery. The food at Pipit actually tastes like the landscape around it — that is to say: beautiful, subtropical, with a saline hint of the ocean and dunes. If this is indeed what the next wave of Australian cooking looks like, then we are very lucky to be able to call it our own.
Address: 8 Coronation Avenue, Pottsville NSW
Contact: [email protected]
Must-Try Dish: Bonito with tomatillo, choko and cucumber
Cost: Degustation menus, $85–$115 per person
Need to Know: Open for dinner Thursday to Saturday and lunch Friday to Sunday. Online bookings essential. Visit pipitrestaurant.com