SYDNEY - If I am fortunate, it happens about once a year. It is what I have come to call the Defining Moment in food. I all but stop midbite, and realize that I am in the presence of greatness. The room shakes. The most recent defining moment came in the Grange Restaurant in the Hilton International Hotel in Adelaide, Australia.
During a monthlong dining tour that included some of the best spots in Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, it was the Malaysian-born Chinese chef Cheong Liew's love poem for the palate that seemed to rocket me to another planet.
During the six-course tasting menu, Liew - who has been credited with the fusion of Eastern and Western flavors during the 1970s - provided food that fed the spirit, the soul, the body, and with each dish-and-wine pairing, I felt as though I was in the privileged presence of a genius who had complete mastery and control of his ingredients.
Like a musician with perfect pitch, this chef has an uncanny talent for balance, strength, harmony, nourishment. His food, which applies Asian methods to European food, has an extraordinary density of flavor, contrast of texture and a way of illuminating each ingredient without camouflaging the others.
So, his food is immensely satisfying. (When Stephanie Alexander, a top Australian chef, tasted Liew's food for the first time she announced ''I had just better stop cooking.'')
Shark in a Pouch
Such bold and complex dishes as shark's-fin pouch in venison consommé, spiced with tarragon, is a perfect example of his creative genius: A pasta-pouch filled with a sherry-tinged shark's-fin soup floats atop a rich venison consommé.
One is advised to consume most of the warming consommé first, then burst the pasta pouch filled with the soup, wild mushrooms, chicken and ginger. A garnish of tarragon makes this the perfect yin-yang dish, with the heat of the game and ginger, the coolness of shark's fin in a single, dramatic bite. Set off with a glass of Lustau Jarana Fino sherry, the dish creates a complete circle of flavors.
Another adventurous dish, red roasted barramundi (a firm Australian fish) teamed up with green chili, coriander, snow-pea shoots and calamari shavings, makes for a memorable meal that pleases all the senses, with its herbal aroma, dense flavor, visual appeal and burst of sensations. You could almost hear the sound of the sea in the dish. Paired with an Evans and Tate semillon, it was a dish to savor and remember.
Using Liew's romantic, almost ornate cuisine as a starting point, one can easily see that Australia - which inherited a drab Anglo-Saxon diet not at all fitting to the island's climate or ethnic diversity - is in full flourish.
With a strong foundation of adventuresome chefs, eager diners and a wildly expanding wine industry, there is nothing to hold Australia back. A visit 10 years ago covering the same territory suggested that there was promise. Today's Australian cuisine surpasses that promise.
The energy and sense of humor suggest that anything is possible here. Take the names of modern Australian restaurants - Salt, Dish, Tables, The Loose Box, MG Garage (yes, in an auto showroom) Fuel (yes, in a gas station), Café Sweethearts, France Soir, J'Febs (for the initials of the names of the owner's five children), Nudel Bar, Fishface, The Raving Prawn, The Little Snail, Medium Rare - and you see this is a nation that does not take itself too seriously.
The names of Australia's wines tell you a lot about the Australian sense of humor as well as lighthearted irreverence: RBJ Theologicum, Dead Man's Hill gewurztraminer, Diva sangiovese, Abbot's Prayer merlot cabernet, Nine Popes, Chapel Hill The Vicar, Hill of Grace. But it is no laughing matter that Australia boasts some 800 wineries, most producing very high-quality wines. By the year 2010 Australia hopes to produce 15 percent of the world market in volume (and more by value) putting it fourth behind Spain, France and Italy.
Today one finds a lot of substance in Oz. As the Australian food writer Cherry Ripe points out, Australia is a European culture in an Asian-Pacific location. With chefs whose heritage include Malaysian, Japanese, French, British, Greek, Italian and native Australian, true fusion cuisine is not only possible but perfectly natural. The chefs are also in the midst of creating their own trademark style, one that reflects the ethnic populations, the seasons, the oceans, the hills and the lifestyles of this vast nation.
As with much of the rest of the modern world, the food of Australia is ingredient-driven, and by that I mean that the chef chooses to honor the prawns from the sea, the chicken from the barnyard, the fruits and vegetables from the garden, making them taste as much like themselves as humanly possible.
There is an Australian look to food as well, large white plates serving as lovely, clean palettes for the chef's artistry. The Australians understand wine and food pairing better than most, with perfect matches almost every time.
As the Australian food authority Maggie Beer noted, ''We are learning from other countries' mistakes.'' And so this ecologically aware nation that is banning the caviar of the protected sturgeon, and pioneering fish farming as the waters' bounty is increasingly depleted, is also creating a lively exchange between growers and restaurateurs, experimenting but with an intelligent eye.
Traveling from city to city, it was clear that chefs leave no stone unturned. They are unrestrained by tradition and offer a cuisine that is at once vibrant, fresh, innovative and well crafted.
THEY do make mistakes. All too often, I found chefs insisting on an East-meets-West cuisine when they had no technical ability to carry it out. It seemed that menus were filled with such items as Vietnamese Pho soup or Indian curry or Japanese sushi because the chef assumed diners expected this exotic blend. All too often, the dishes fell flat and were far less exciting than the real thing in an ethnic restaurant.
I hope to grab those jars of truffle oil from every Australian chef's hands: The powerful oil is used in excess, often marring otherwise excellent dishes. Likewise, such appealing ingredients as arugula (almost always served with indigestible, weed-like stems intact) are used as a crutch, and Western-style breads often appeared simply awkward in many fusion menus.
Some practices - such as opening oysters beforehand and washing them under running water - seem simply naïve and lazy. And a government that bans the creation and the import of raw-milk cheeses is surely misguided.
The high praise is fitting for perhaps only a small portion of restaurants. As Alexander remarked: ''In Australia, if you know what you are doing, you can have the best of everything every day. But you will be alone.'' The circle, it is clear, needs to be enlarged.