Review: Australasia @ Spinningfields, Manchester

By David Keane

Less than two years old, Australasia is yet another interesting concept bar / restaurant from the imagination of the ever-inventive Living Ventures team.

Proclaiming to unite pan-Asian cuisine with modern Aussie cuisine, the restaurant boasts favourites from Indonesia, South East Asia and Japan.

And before even entering, it’s clear Living Ventures have had their thinking caps on from the outset – the restaurant from street level is merely a gleaming glass pyramid with a door in the side. To enter, you have to take stairs, quite literally, down under.

Once inside, the theme continues. If it’s not brilliant white, it’s driftwood and soft beige. The menu reads like a travel card with passport stamps, yet the wine list is on an iPad. They manage to create a crisp, clean modern restaurant juxtaposed the trappings of an Aussie beach bar (or at least what I imagine an Aussie bar might be like). Only a sprinkling, of course; this is still fairly fine dining all things considered.

But we’re not here for the interesting choice of décor. As much as it adds to the experience, we’re here for the food.

Since their main menu contains half a dozen items I’ve never tasted and no doubt double that number in combinations, you can be thankful that the recommended way to eat here is by a tapas-style selection of smaller dishes, brought to you in waves.

Waves? No, not more beach-themed niceties, rather the plates are brought to you in groups of two or three dishes, each ‘wave’ only coming as you near completion of the previous. Any early scepticism on such a way to eat multiple dishes quickly faded –it proved the perfect way to just sit back and enjoy a conveyor belt of tasty morsels, all brought steaming hot to you.

The lunch menu offers up a choice of 12 different dishes, where you can choose two for £11, three for £15, or four for £20. With two of you eating, three or four each was tipped as the recommended amount by the waitress, so we went all out for four each, meaning for only £40 you can sample eight of the 12 items on the menu – not bad.

I dread to think how long they agonised on how to condense their extensive main menu down to the chosen 12, but rest assured, there’s something for everyone and it represents the diverse elements of the menu well.

For meat lovers, the seared teriyaki beef with sweet soy and spring onion is a great opener – you can choose how much to let the beef sing, gobbling it down with no soy at all if you wish.

The Temaki seaweed rolls bring ‘surf and turf’ kicking a screaming out of the pub staples and pin it down as a delicious fine dining favourite, with one roll salmon and one roll glorious robata beef. This is must-have dish, so don’t miss out. The salty seaweed inevitably sits well against the pink salmon, but it is beside the beef that it really shines.

The Vietnamese pork egg with vegetable noodles is a delightful twist on a traditional scotch egg – but I’ll forever be comparing these to my favourite ‘Manchester egg’, so it’s hard to be objective here, and the sate chicken on a noodle salad with coconut dressing is surprisingly good served cold.

The red fish curry comes with tasty sticky rice, and while it could have had a little more bite to the chilli for me, it’s a particularly good-sized portion for a small dish and a good one to pick to ensure you’re full.

While not a fan of tempura anything to be honest, I was assured the crisp batter with still crunchy vegetables inside is the perfect way to enjoy tempura vegetables; so if tempura floats your boat, my dining partner assures me you’re good to jump aboard these ones.

The Collingwood dinkies are a nice idea – and the only overtly ‘Aussie’ aspect of the menu that I could detect, serving up three homely pies in miniature, one chicken, one beef and one salmon. Unfortunately, they’re the weakest item on the menu though. Don’t get me wrong, they’re far from bad, but their traditional, stodgy flavours don’t really sit well against some of the other dishes, and such small pies can mean pastry overload.

The lemongrass and tom yum fish cakes sit at the other end of the spectrum however. While not much bigger than a 50 pence piece in size, each one packs a punch in flavour that you won’t be forgetting any time soon. The chilli-infused soy sauce they are served with is razor sharp and even once the fish cakes are long gone, ensure you keep this next to you for dipping any of the other tasty morsels in – you won’t regret it. These fish cakes boast a supreme size-flavour ratio, no doubt being some of the smallest but most tasty treats in Manchester.

And let’s not forget the drinks menu.

Infused water is not something that could usually elicit much excitement in, well, anyone. Let’s face it, most things that are ‘infused’ are usually pretty delicate… so delicate, in fact, they’re bland. Australasia’s infused waters, on the other hand, are well worth trying. They come in a jug you can barely lift (but no worries, as your waiter/waitress will struggle over that for you each time your glass needs filling) and the kumquat version made for a most refreshing and effective palate cleanser. Make sure you get one to accompany your meal.

And the cocktails have clearly taken as much thought as the décor and the menu. Don’t be expecting many of the old favourites; while there’s the odd one, most boast an eastern twist – and for once it works.

The kumquat and lemongrass mojito could have so easily been overwhelmed by the lemongrass. Instead, this is a delicious, fruity long drink. And the hibiscus martini is a new favourite of my dining partner.

Overall, the Australian link gets a little lost on me – sure, Australians enjoy close ties with their Japanese and other Pacific rim neighbours, but this is largely pan-Asian dining for me – but then I’ve never been to Australia so don’t know in great detail what I should be expecting anyway.  

Australasia is one of those restaurants that is a real adventure for the palate, a dining experience. Where else can two people enjoy eight different dishes, fusing a wealth of tastes and flavours, for £40? It’s a dining experience worth every penny.

Exterior picture courtesy of dullhunk, with thanks.

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