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January 17, 2017, Australia

Work up an appetite

North Queensland’s gateway city of Cairns is not just for thrill-seekers — it also has a bustling food scene

Esther Teo

SUN-dappled Cairns has a well-earned reputation as adventure central. Thrill-seekers flock there to dive or snorkel at the Great Barrier Reef, and to engage in an array of heart-thumping activities such as white-water rafting, bungee jumping and skydiving.

As a foodie destination, however, I will admit that the gateway city located in Australia’s tropical North Queensland was not top-of mind for me initially.

But when the thrills and spills eventually had me famished, I found the Cairns culinary experience a whole adventure in itself — a tantalising whirl of exotic tastes and smells not to be missed.

Fresh from the sea

Australia’s Sunshine State is blessed with plenty of sun, sand and sea, and Cairns’ seafood is fresh, bountiful and sumptuous.

For a hearty seafood meal that would not break the bank, I headed to Barnacle Bill’s Seafood Inn (103 The Esplanade). The charming and laidback eatery is situated right on the Cairns Esplanade, where locals bask and bake in the sunshine by a rippling saltwater lagoon.

The restaurant’s A$18.90 (S$20) lunch menu is great for those on a budget. There is also a wide array of tempting appetisers — fried calamari, seared scallops and mozzarella cheese balls — that are great for sharing.

For my main, I decided to go for the Karumba — the restaurant’s popular combination of fresh, baked barramundi fillet, topped with juicy prawns and hollandaise sauce, and served with vegetables and potatoes.

Hot tip: Order your food between 5pm and 6pm, and pay and vacate by 7.30pm to receive a 20 per cent discount off food and beverages!

Slightly on the pricier side, the sprawling Dundee’s Restaurant (Harbour Lights, 3/1 Marlin Parade) on the waterfront is packed even on weekday nights — for a good reason. Located right on the boardwalk, the restaurant had a lively, sparkling atmosphere, filled with  chatter, laughter and good cheer.

My jaw dropped at the sight of Dundee’s famed Ultimate Seafood Experience — it was the most humongous seafood platter I had ever seen.

Enough to feed an army, the hot and cold platters in the set offer an impressive selection of Dundee’s very best — chilled steamed mud crab, yabbies, prawns, oysters, mussels and bug tails with half a barbecued lobster, garlic prawns, grilled barramundi, oysters Kilpatrick, chilli bug tail spagettini, steamed black mussels in an Asian broth, prosciutto scallops, crispy calamari, fries and tropical fruit — all dipped in Dundee’s tasty sauces.

For award-winning contemporary seafood cuisine, drive to 2 Fish (Shop 11, Coconut Grove Complex, 56 Macrossan Street), located at Port Douglas, about an hour’s ride away.

With its stripped down, industrial themed décor, 2 Fish is über cool, and has a menu that will delight seafood connoisseurs.

The 2 Fish Seafood Platter for Two is great for sharing and features Australia’s “greatest hits” — you get a cold plate of six South Australian oysters, local tiger prawns, smoked Tasmanian salmon; and a hot plate of Tasmanian sea scallops, blue swimmer crab, Morten bay bugs and split scampi.

For the main, I was spoilt for  choice, but decided to have the line-caught coral trout. The fresh fillet had soft, flaky meat, and its texture and aroma were accentuated by the enlivening bean sprout and papaya salad, crispy lotus root and mango, chilli and coriander salsa.

It was altogether an unexpected medley of flavours, but very satisfying.

Go wild for meat

Exotic game meats are a must-try for tourists looking to add another notch to their foodie belts.

Die-hard carnivores will take to Bushfire Flame Grill’s (The Esplanade & Spence Street) churrasco experience — Brazilian-inspired, Australian-style buffet barbecue.

At just A$55 per person, I dined to my heart’s content on endless rounds of mouth-watering meats, such as beef picanha, grilled Cuban-style mojo chicken, seafood mocqueca, Mareeba Gold pineapple — and, of course, kangaroo rump.

While Barnacle Bill’s and Dundee’s serve a mean kangaroo steak, I was particularly impressed by Ochre Restaurant’s (Harbour Lights, 6/1 Marlin Parade) rendition of it.

The award-winning establishment is one of the top restaurants in Cairns, and whips up adventurous neoteric Australian cuisine. Ochre Restaurant recently moved to its new location on the waterfront from Shields Street, and its new décor reflects the Outback, with natural timber, and a four-metre artwork by local indigenous artist Shane “Woodinda” Wallace.

The restaurant’s Australian Game Platter is the best way to sample bushtucker fare. The platter features fillets of emu, kangaroo and crocodile meat, depending on what is available at the restaurant that day.

I had my first taste of kangaroo meat there, and after getting over my initial inhibitions, found it gamey and lean, yet surprisingly tender and juicy.

For my main, I chose a Tablelands premium beef tenderloin from the renowned Morganbury Meat Company.

Beautifully charred on the outside, and a perfect medium-rare pink on the inside, the steak was tender and flavourful. It was well-paired with sides of potato fondant, kale, onion puree and pepper berry jus.

If you are in Kuranda, a village ensconced in the scenic Tablelands region, be sure to drop by Frogs Restaurant (2/4 Rob Veivers Drive).

Located at The Heritage Markets, the restaurant serves up delectable Asian fusion cuisine.

Its bushtucker tasting platters feature crocodile, emu and kangaroo meat with tangy, smoked chilli satay sauce as a dip. You can also have tender chunks of crocodile meat, stewed with preserved lemon, in one of Frogs’ sumptuous curries.

Other delectable curries to try include spinach and chickpea, beef and eggplant and chicken coriander and coconut.

If you fancy fresh crocodile meat right off the farm, head to Lilies Restaurant in Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures (Captain Cook Highway, Wangetti).

Located at Palm Cove, 40km north of Cairns and en route to Port Douglas, the crocodile park has bred estuarine crocs for their skin and meat since 1989.

Lilies Restaurant itself is perched on a sturdy, wooden deck that overlooks the park’s crocodile-infested lagoon, so you get to watch the reptiles roving around below in the murky duckweed-covered lake as you feast heartily on their brethren.

GuideLines

I flew from Singapore to Cairns direct on SilkAir.

■ North Queensland has a thriving pub culture; many towns sprouted up around public houses in the Gold Rush age. Check out P.J. O’Brien’s, Cock & Bull, Salt House, the Woolshed Char-grill and Saloon Bar, and the World Famous Croc Bar.

■ Wine and culinary connoisseurs can join a food tour such as the recommended Food, Wine and Rainforest Tour by Food Trail Tours (www.foodtrailtours.com.au) for a comprehensive food and wine tour of the Atherton Tablelands.

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