Seafood and eat it — it's a philosophy that's easy to follow, writes Elisabeth Easther.
Tropical North Queensland is known as the part of Australia Where Rainforest Meets Reef, where you'll find two World Heritage Sites, Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, side by side. More than just heaven for nature lovers and adventure junkies, this region has also earned a reputation for fabulous food and, with seafood starring on almost every menu, it could also be dubbed The Land of the Fingerbowl.
Dundees, as its name suggests, is quintessential Australian dining, and yes they do serve crocodile. Smack bang on the Cairns waterfront, this busy bistro is an institution, fine dining with a relaxed twist and the queues outside prove its popularity with locals and tourists — so be sure to book ahead. Aside from the views across to the marina, from where the reef boats come and go, you're in the perfect position to watch the world go by.
Then there's the food. Confronted with so many scrumptious options, a tasting platter always makes life easy, with the platter for two featuring a beautiful selection of prosciutto scallops, tempura soft-shell crab, natural oysters, crusted calamari, smoked salmon and chilled prawns. The grill is also mouth-watering, with everything Wagyu to T-bone, cutlets to chook. How do you like it? Blue? Cremated? Chef won't judge. And who can say no to a bucket of bugs and prawns, served chilled with Mary Rose sauce? Sadly we were too full for pudding. Note to self: must remember to leave more room next time.
Don't be put off by the seemingly generic-looking menu because the images do not do the food justice but we had the place recommended to us. And besides, at Barnacle Bill's, diners enjoy a discount for eating early and, with our mild jetlag thanks to the three-hour time difference, we were the earliest of early diners, splashing out rather heartily to counteract any savings we might have made. Following a plate of oysters we headed for bugs then moved on to prawns, calamari, kangaroo, crocodile and the garlic bread was really amazing although possibly surplus to requirements and, once again, no room for pudding.
Any visitor to the seaside village of Port Douglas worth their salt has to stop in at On The Inlet to meet George, the famous potato grouper. The restaurant, built out over the water of the Dickson Inlet, makes the most of their star attraction and, every day at around 5pm, a staff member gives a talk while simultaneously enticing George, all 250kg of him, to make his appearance in exchange for food. And George really is magnificently monstrous, the size of a small car and, having seen him reveal his extraordinary bulk, it rather made us hungry for fish. Sorry George.
We watched as night drew in and the sun sank, the sea darkened while, from the bush, staggering clouds of starlings swarmed home in aerobatic clusters, the distant Mossman Ranges looking on. Unsurprisingly, this is another menu with a strong seafood focus and we started with oysters, done four different ways (we opted for au naturel and Nahm Jim with fried shallots).
Next came the sashimi plate, as fresh as you'd expect right by the sea while the salt and pepper pork belly with crunchy pickled cabbage, radish salad and apple sauce was the right combination of crunch, salt and sweet. Mohan's Famous Fish Curry followed and a spaghetti marinara potted with prawns, scallops and mussels — and again no room for pudding. When will we learn?
Zephyr Restaurant, Fitzroy Island
Forty-five minutes from Cairns by fast cat, Fitzroy Island is everything you imagine a tropical island paradise should be. Ridiculously blue sea, pristine white sands and palm-fringed beaches. Yes, you could do a day trip but your heart would break to have to leave so soon, so stay a night at the island's resort and don't even think about cooking dinner.
You could settle for casual dining at Foxy's, a sand-on-the-floor kind of joint but you'll have so much more pleasure at Zephyr's. Dine inside or out, right by the sea, the imaginative cuisine is described as modern Australian with a seafood focus. We decided, for our entrees, to sample the tempura soft shell crab (with sandalwood-smoked watermelon sorbet salad) and Kangaroo Carpaccio. For mains, a paperbark-smoked swordfish and a herb-encrusted lamb rack hit the spot, and while all the dishes were relatively unusual, they were delicious without being gimmicky. And finally, at Zephyr's, there was room for dessert — flourless orange pudding with dragon fruit sorbet and Persian floss — hurrah.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Cairns between April and October.
Further information: queensland.com.