The entrance to Australasia is marked by a glowing glass prism rising out of the ground just off of Deansgate. Locals will know that the restaurant’s tagline: a ‘laid-back slice of Australian life, down-under in Manchester’ should be taken literally, because your next move (after meeting the bouncer’s approval) is to descend, down some stone steps, into the dusky underbelly of Manchester’s glossy business quarter.
Bleach blond wood, sandy tones and soft, low lighting characterise this cavernous room. At one end, is a glittering bar where (even on weeknights) a cocktail-sipping crowd can be seen, bobbing along to the electronic beat cued by a tattooed DJ and his neon-lit, touch-screen deck. Down the other end, the kitchen team construct delicate, elaborate dishes in full view of all 142 eager diners.
Ordering multiple sharing plates from the menu is encouraged. If your table starts to overspill with an extensive, instagramable spread (see exhibit a) then you’re doing it right, apparently.
Opting for a more traditional, less chaotic approach, we kicked things off with the seared pigeon and Cambodian beef skewers hot off the Japanese Robata grill. The pigeon, presented on wafer thin slices of cucumber, looked like it was trying a little too hard to earn its hefty £9.50 price tag.
Yet, initial impressions aside, the gamey, seared meat was perfect. Strong salty soya with a fiery ginger kick was balanced out by cool squares of juicy mango and citrus-laced Thai cucumber – it might have been a small portion, but it packed a punch. The beef, on the other hand, wasn’t quite the same. Seared over hot charcoal, the slow-cooked, lightly seasoned meat had been left to speak for itself. But, next to the pigeon, the skewers just couldn’t shout loud enough.
Chilean sea bass with prawns in coconut and tom yam broth and tender roast lamb with goat’s cheese and basil jus followed in quick succession. Again portion sizes were a little on the small side, but the flavours and textures (and our creamy sweet potato and rosemary mash and roasted baby aubergines in smokey miso mustard sides) were there to make up for it. The aromatic fish flaked and fell apart with the lightest touch. And my soft and grassy lamb (with its generous helping of gravy) likewise yielded easily to the knife – just what you want.
Dessert is all about modern, trendy twists on classic treats. Instead of a traditional crème brûlée, my pot of kaffir brûlée was laced with lime and paired alongside a sharp pineapple sorbet. With the passionfruit cheese cake, there was no buttery base insight. Instead, a citrussy filling sandwiched between wheels of brittle, crunchy biscuits was served up on a rubble of sugary crumbs framed by dots of zingy fruit purée.
The service is friendly and well practised. Waiters can take a grilling and will recite the broad menu off by heart. There’s real effort in the delivery too. From the plates to the wine, everything is served up with a flourish (we spent a good five minutes watching one waiter grate fresh wasabi with more flair than Salt Bae).
While some things at Australasia (such as the beef and portions sizes) were a little disappointing, its easy to see how this place has managed to retain its reputation as one of the most popular places to dine out in Manchester.
Written by Jordan Kelly-Linden, February 2017
1 The Avenue