Tasmania: Garagistes

January 18, 2014

103 Murray Street, Hobart
Mr N and I have recently returned from a holiday in Tasmania – we had a fantastic time driving around the state in our car visiting lots of National Parks and wineries. We also made some time to check out the blossoming food culture, from the Bruny Island Cheese Company cellar door, to an apple museum in the Huon Valley, and to a local bakery in Battery Point. Upon the recommendation of friends, we booked dinner at Garagistes, which is generally considered to be the top fine dining experience in Tasmania. Needless to say we were both excited to try their locally sourced and seasonal food.
It had been a warm day in Hobart (in fact, the weather was so warm during our trip that we both came home with tans! Tans in Tasmania, who would have thought?), but by the evening things had cooled down a little. However, walking into the old garage that houses Garagistes we felt like we had been thrown in an oven! It was so hot and sticky and the air was so thick in there it was very uncomfortable. It didn’t improve much at all during our meal and we spent most of our time sweating uncomfortably and drinking water, which detracted from our enjoyment of the food.
Hot temperatures aside, the fit out is very industrial, with semi-exposed brick, blonde wood communal tables and high chairs, and one long bar and open kitchen. The staff were exactly split such that all chefs were male and all waitresses female, which struck me as odd. Our waitress was very friendly if a little stiff, but had excellent knowledge of the wine list when we asked for some guidance.
In addition to taking bookings, Garagistes has recently transitioned to a set five course menu for $90 a head, or $135 with matching saké. Not knowing much anything about sake, Mr N and I instead selected two carafes of wine to enjoy throughout the meal.
The first was a 2012 Semillon from the Dirty & Rowdy Family Winery in the Napa Valley. Quite dry with almost no nose at all, but it was very good on the palate once it had warmed a little. We were surprised overall that the wine list, which is all organic or biodynamic, was almost entirely sourced from overseas – we could only find one Tasmanian wine and two from South Australia. It was a tad disappointing because we were hoping to find some of the wines we’d sampled recently on our winery tours.
Seeded bread with smoked butter was delicious and together they reminded me of the smoked bread at Embrasse (RIP).
First was a dish of violet artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, anise hyssop, fennel pollen and cream. This was a nice dish, but not much more. I though the artichokes were beautiful and buttery, and I enjoyed the sweetness of the broad beans (a common but classic match for the artichoke). This seemed like more of a collection of ingredients than a proper dish. I suppose the cream was meant to hold everything together but I wasn’t convinced. Top marks for presentation though.
Along with our first course was a quartet of tiny baby carrots in a sweet sauce which were fun to nibble on (although as Mr N said, “$90 a head for raw carrots?”)
Fortunately, things picked up a bit with the second course. I had a dish of southern calamari with espelette pepper, angelica seeds and lemon basil. The calamari was incredibly tender and married well with the slightly spicy pepper broth. The basil gave additional fragrance and looked quite pretty. Unlike most of the dishes, I found this serve quite generous with lots of calamari, and gave Mr N several spoonfuls.
In stark contrast to my generous and tasty fish course, Mr N’s dish, the venerupis clams with kipfler potatoes, fresh peas, fermented lettuce and lovage, was a teeny, tiny bowl that was mainly potato and an overpowering pea broth with only two – count them – two clams. Two clams in a dish is, in my opinion, a joke: one less and the dish would read “clam with kipfler potatoes …”. Very poor effort with this dish, especially given the size and success of the other option from this part of the menu.
At this point in the dinner, having committed to $90 each plus wine we weren’t particularly enthused about what was to come next. Fortunately the smoked eel, white peach, samphire and brown butter was our favourite savoury dish of the evening. Beautifully presented, I loved the contrast of the pink eel with the blistered peach. I suppose the flavours in this dish worked in a similar way that smoked eel in teriyaki works: the sweetness of the peach balances out the fattiness of the eel. Samphire provided a contrasting crunch. A very inventive and well done dish.
At this point we moved onto our second carafe of Catarratto from Porta Del Vento in Siciliy. This was a beautiful wine, very honeyed and peachy. It matched very well with the eel and peach dish and our desserts. Mr N and I also spent some time admiring their beautiful stemware.
The people sitting next to us had their mains delivered a few moments before ours, and looking over, I couldn’t help but dismay at the tiny serving sizes yet again! Garagistes, don’t be so mean with your serves! It’s not called the hospitality industry for nothing!
Mr N had the “raw dry-aged cow” (aka beef, cheers guys), morello cherry, shaved laver and salt bush. I wasn’t a huge fan of this dish when I tried it: Mr N said the cherries worked quite well at setting off that beef but that he didn’t love it.
I had the other option from this course, the Flinders Island lamb sweetbreads with green almonds, celtuce and salad cream. Looking at the menu options, raw beef and sweetbreads, you’d think the dishes would be interesting, inventive and flavourful. What did I think of mine? Boring, boring, boring, boring. This dish bored me to death, it was like eating fried chicken with mayo and some greens. The salad cream tasted like salad cream out of a jar. Cute presentation, yes, nicely cleaned pancreas and all, but nothing thrilling besides the baby green almonds.
As you can tell, we were quite unimpressed on the whole at this stage. However sweet relief came in the form of dessert: Mr N’s fig leaf cream with sun crest peach juice, caramelised rye bread and dried blackberry was a well-balanced dish. The fig leaf cream (more like a soft ice cream, encased in white chocolate) was fragrant and matched well with the peach. A very adult dessert, I thought.
My dish was equally pretty: jewelled roasted cherry plums with a plum kernel custard, raspberries, buttermilk foam and frozen shortbread. The plums were deliciously sour, and the custard creamy and sweet. Given our earlier disappointments, this was a nice way to finish the meal.
I know this post seems particularly critical, but at $90 a head I’ve paid for the right to be critical. Save for the eel, the desserts, and to some extent the calamari, every dish left us asking, ‘so what?’ and ‘is that all?’ When I look at a dish, I like to imagine the chef putting it together and being generous with his plating, placing a small handful of highlight ingredients (such as the dried blackberry) rather than just two. Or four clams instead of one sad pair.
Mr N and I noticed that the menu comes with an optional saké pairing, and perhaps this would have transformed the meal but I think food at at restaurant should be able to stand up for itself without a matching.
I understand what they’re supposed to be doing here, I do. Unfortunately they didn’t do it very well this night. I thought this was meant to be gastronomic, modern, exciting food, and I was hugely disappointed.
Verdict? I wouldn’t return, and I won’t be recommending Garagistes to others.

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Filed under: Modern, Tasmania