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What a capital idea for a taste of Top End hospitality

A mini buffet, courtesy of Charlie's of Darwin

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What a capital idea for a taste of Top End hospitality

SHIRLEY SINCLAIR takes a seat at the table of some of Darwin’s most-innovative and popular dining establishments.

We’re drinking in the view of Darwin Harbour from under the shady trees at East Point Reserve when our ‘potential supper’  walks past.

The two magpie geese sauntering along the grass in the park don’t have a care in the world. They must realise they’re outside the public hunting reserves of the Top End season and certainly off the menu of our Darwin Gourmet Tours’ afternoon delight (darwingourmettours.com).

That doesn’t stop owner Darrel Trueman and tour guide John Schier from enlightening us further on one of Australia’s most-unusual ‘bush tucker’ items. John says the birds taste goosey (naturally) and a breast goes well on the barbecue with the saltiness of Malay belacan (fermented krill) paste.

He adds that the geese, like most of the nation, love summer mangoes (the Australian Mango Industry Association reports that the Northern Territory now grows more than half of Australia’s production of the stone fruit favourite).

This is just one of the tasty morsels of information we devour on the magical mystery foodie tour that sprinkles local knowledge, history and landmarks across four hours and adds a big helping of signature dishes, finger-licking share plates and moreish treats at a smorgasbord of ‘capital’ eateries.

We soon realise that Darwin serves  up modern Australian cuisine like nowhere else. Innovative chefs with national and global experience combine with the influence of the Territory’s Asian neighbours and immigrants, and abundance of bush foods and fresh local produce, to put Darwin on the cutting edge of contemporary flavours.

While an ever-changing itinerary of dining establishments is on offer on the tour, our afternoon takes the cake for championing local producers and presenting dishes that pique the interest of our tastebuds.

First stop is North African-inspired Moorish Café (37 Knuckey Street, moorishcafe.com.au), specialising in  tapas – and you can see why the  restaurant is still packing ’em in after 20 years in business.

French owners Marc and Gertrude Wagnon’s family recipe for steak tartine and Berber-spiced kangaroo (that tastes like the finest wagyu steak) with tomato jam has us salivating right from the start.

The local Lebanese eggplant, in a sweet-and-sour dressing using chillies and mint, is always on the tapas menu for its popularity and for being in season all-year round, courtesy of local farmers at the Rapid Creek Markets.

Another crowd-pleaser is the jewfish (caught around local reefs), marinated  in coconut and lime, served chilled  as a pick-me-up in the Darwin heat  and humidity.

John says Moorish is known for its consistency of excellence – as any newcomer can observe from the gold plate awards displayed on the walls from Hospitality NT – and the late-night ‘pop-up’ Poco Bar at the back of the restaurant.

Moorish Cafe owner Gertrude Wagnon

Next up is a quick coffee at Speaker’s Corner Cafe (15 Mitchell Street, speakerscornercafe.online) on the ground floor of Parliament House to take in the spectacular views from the Speaker’s Green (trust the politicians to have  some of the best waterfront views with their lattes).

We learn that Parliament House is built on the site of the former General Post Office: the first site bombed by the Japanese on February 19, 1942, killing 10 people (commemorated with a plaque in the Main Hall floor and, quirkily, the top of each of the corner columns of the building that look like torpedoes).

Next, at trendy Snapper Rocks on the Darwin Waterfront (7 Kitchener Drive, snapper.rocks), a hot tamale margarita cocktail is a welcome treat before we indulge in salt and pepper crocodile – as tasty as any calamari variety but ‘meatier’, plus a cool green papaya salad and barramundi ‘wings’.

Darrel says the large Humpty Doo barramundi farm, on an estuary in Darwin’s sprawling rural area, produces  90 tonne of premium, sustainably grown saltwater fish a week for the Australian market, including Darwin restaurants,  and “is easily the best-tasting barra I’ve ever had”.

As well as specialising in fish and seafood (I really wanted to try the spicy tuna poke bowl and Gulf of Carpentaria bugs), the popular restaurant also rocks a caramelised banana dessert with vanilla ice cream, wattleseed caramel, macadamias and mint.

Onward on our foodie journey …  to the site of a former Woolworths store.  A secret entrance – through an open laneway garage door, past the bins and up one floor – brings us to the final destination: Charlie’s of Darwin (corner Knuckey Street and Austin Lane,  charliesofdarwin.com.au).

At this speakeasy-style distillery, bar and restaurant, we could relax on a chesterfield lounge in the bar, or kick back in the Raintree Lantern Terrace al fresco area. Instead, we take a seat at a table where we can marvel at the working distillery operations with its 50-litre and 500-litre stills.

Charlie’s has a host of food and wine accolades and, in 2021, the rooftop bar made it onto the list of the Top 20 bars to visit in the world, alongside venues in London, Hong Kong and Berlin, according to UK newspaper The Telegraph.

Just as we sit down inside, a mini buffet of signature dishes materialises that is the best of Darwin in every bite.

Northern Territory Chef of the Year Sufendi Bong – an instrumental member of the team since 2021 and who was taught to cook by his Indonesian grandma – emerges from behind the kitchen benches. He comes to our table to explain each mouthwatering delight … croc dumplings, line-caught loligo squid, Skull Island tiger prawns, barbecue lamb ribs with a special chipotle sauce, barramundi belly in a calamansi (Philippine lemon) sauce, sticky chicken karaage bites (Japanese deep-frying technique after marinating), smooth-as-silk chicken liver pâté, cassava wedges and bullhorn pepper (a long, sweet variety of capsicum with little heat) .

As we slowly make our way through the platter, Brazilian Lucas Aquino, a former Australian Bartender of the Year finalist, tells us about the distillery’s sustainability cred where nothing is wasted – even down to the fruit skins.

Our gin flight begins with the signature Darwin Gin (Kakadu plum, water lily and native lemongrass), before moving onto my favourite: the sweet and sour, orange-coloured Salty Plum (garnished with an Asian native plum).

Then, we are blown away by Tropical Monsoon (a small-batch gin, launched for owner Rebecca Bullen’s birthday, infused with seasonally harvested makrut limes, pineapple, wild passionfruit and  dragon fruit), ending with a cheeky Lady of the North Navy Strength Gin (crafted with native turkey bush, Kakadu plum  and myrtles).

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the Darwin foodie scene. A memorable dinner the previous night at Cossies Restaurant in the Novotel Mercure Darwin Airport Resort, for example, (darwinairporthotels.com.au/dining/cossies-poolside-bar-and-bistro ) acquaints our palate with taste sensations including saltwater crocodile carpaccio, and steamed baby barramundi with Granny Smith apple and arugula lettuce.

Novotel and Mercure Darwin Resort’s Nadee Wicks

So, while our stomachs are full after four days in Darwin, the experience has certainly left us wanting more … please.

* The writer was a guest of Tourism NT, Bonza and Novotel and Mercure Darwin Airport Resort.

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