Welcome to my inaugural grand tour of Australia's finest restaurants. Please, come in and sit down, have a glass of Tasmanian Arras EJ Carr Late Disgorged bubbly.
As your tour guide and host, I have spared no expense in sharing my ultimate gastronomic fantasy with you and your fellow members of this small and exclusive group.
We will be travelling by private jet, luxury train and helicopter across the country, with icy-cold beers and refresher towels at every turn. I have woven in bespoke private tours with the best chefs in the country, vertical tastings of Australia's greatest wines, and pit-stops at some of the country's best food and wine producers.
It's going to be an incredible journey from one hand-dived scallop to the next freshly dug truffle. And the best thing about signing up for my tour right now, is that it will cost you nothing at all – until some clever tour operator actually packages it up for real, and pays me to lead it, which I am sincerely hoping will happen.
Ready? Let's go.
FIRST STOP: VICTORIA
FOR AVOCADO ON TOAST, PEKING DUCK, A GARDEN TOUR AND A FORAGE, AND THE ULTIMATE WINERY BARBECUE
It's Melbourne, so we kick off with coffee at Market Lane in the Prahran Market, followed by the signature avocado on sourdough with local kelp sea salt and lime at Kettle Black (thekettleblack.com.au) in South Melbourne.
Our private tram takes us on a tour of Melbourne's parks and gardens before dropping us at the legendary 42-year-old Flower Drum Cantonese restaurant (flowerdrum.melbourne). Master chef Anthony Lui will tempt us with his legendary Peking duck and mud crab with noodles, which his son Jason Lui silver-services down our throats with commendable skill.
A little snooze at the Langham before we join up for cocktails in the front bar of Andrew McConnell's informally luxurious Cutler & Co (cutlerandco.com.au), for the signature fruits de mer platter and some very fine Victorian chardonnay.
Day two sees an exclusive gardening masterclass with Ben Shewry of the three-hatted Attica restaurant (attica.com.au). A tour of his flourishing herb and vegetable garden at the historic Ripponlea Estate will be followed by an impromptu foraging session on the way back to the restaurant for dinner, using our gleanings to create a special eight-course tasting menu that will never be repeated.
Next day, it's a luxury high-speed train to Geelong that runs perfectly on time (this is a fantasy, remember) for lunch at Aaron Turner's wood-fuelled Igni (restaurantigni.com). It's a highly personal dining experience with a very hands-on chef, so expect surprises at every turn, from potato noodles cooked in chicken fat to flowering gum ice-cream with pine needle yoghurt, raspberries and Davidson's plum.
Then we get a cheeky chopper to zip us over the magnificence of the Great Ocean Road, swinging back to Birregurra for dinner at Dan Hunter's Brae (braerestaurant.com), Australia's newest entry (at number 44) in the annual World's 50 Best Restaurants list.
It's all about the local food system, as we eat vegetables from Brae's own garden and wood-fired bread from flour milled on the premises, on plates made from clay taken from the estate's dams.
Time for sweet dreams in one of the luxury guest suites, after playing with our personal turntable and record collection. Then it's wakey-wakey for Brae's sensational breakfast in bed (googy eggs courtesy of the chooks), followed by a tutored stroll through the gardens with the chef.
The helicopters then whisk us across to the Mornington Peninsula for a vineyard barbie. And what a barbie – personally cooked over wood-fired grills by former Rockpool chef Phil Wood in the midst of the contemporary sculpture park of the Pt Leo Estate (ptleoestate.com.au). And so we wave goodbye to the rolling vineyards and lush gardens and great coffee of Victoria, to head south.
NEXT STOP: TASMANIA
MODERN ART, OVEN-ROASTED SEAFOOD, HAND-MADE CHEESE, COUNTRY COOKING CLASSES AND A LUXURY CRUISE
Private jet to Hobart. Soon we are aboard the ferry to MONA (mona.net.au) where Museum of New and Old Art founder David Walsh takes us on a personal tour and chef Vince Trim opens a stack of Tassie oysters for us to have under the Armana pavilion, as artist James Turrell's light installation illuminates the skies.
Dinner is at Franklin (franklinhobart.com.au), where chef Analiese Gregory fires up the wood-fired oven and shows off some of Tasmania's finest produce, from wood-roasted cabbage with ricotta saltata and flathead butter, to roasted lamb rib with licorice and burnt honey.
In the morning, the chauffeurs line up to drive us to Bruny Island for a cheese tasting with cheesemaker Nick Haddow, where we learn that the quality of Bruny Island cheese is completely dependent on the quality of the milk. It's a day for kicking back and relaxing, in between a hands-on cooking class at Rodney Dunn and Severine Demanet's Agrarian Kitchen (theagrariankitchen.com) and a slow stroll around the farm and gardens, where we pick herbs and vegies for lunch at their newly opened eatery and store.
Then it's back to the sea, to board the luxury cruise liner Seabourn (seabourn.com) to sleep the sleep of the innocent and well-fed as we move gently through the southern ocean to our next tour destination, South Australia.
NEXT STOP: SOUTH AUSTRALIA
SCALLOP-DIVING, LOBSTER FEASTS, BAKED DAMPER, MAGPIE GOOSE, NATURAL WINES, AND HERITAGE FARMHOUSE FEASTS
The day begins out on the blue ocean as we meet up with huntin', shootin', fishin' chef Jock Zonfrillo of Adelaide's Orana (restaurantorana.com) and go hand-diving for scallops just off Kangaroo Island, followed by a beachside lobster feast garnished with native coastal plants.
Dinner that night is at Orana in Adelaide as Zonfrillo inspires us with his passion for native Australian ingredients, in dishes such as Goolwa pippies and beach succulents with native thyme, and magpie goose with native elderberry and wild garlic.
Next day it's a thoroughbred horseback trail through the Adelaide Hills to the Summertown Aristologist (thesummertownaristologist.com) – a perfect template for the small, independent, regional Australian restaurant – for an impromptu wine tasting (for us, not the horses) with anarchic winemakers Anton van Klopper and Jasper Button on the long communal table.
We drop in to Africola (africola.com.au), Duncan Welgemoed's rollicking fire-driven Africanesque bistro in Adelaide for peri-peri chicken, then fly out to the picturesque airstrip at Hutton Vale Farm (huttonvale.com) in the Eden Valley for a fabulous feast of farm produce in the lovely old farmhouse. The big night out is at Hentley Farm (hentleyfarm.com), where head chef Lachlan Colwill dazzles us with his "surprise" menu, a journey through the pick of Barossa produce.
At this point, the famed Ghan passenger train (greatsouthernrail.com.au) makes a detour to pick us up (not sure how, but it does) and whisks us through the night to Alice Springs in our super-comfortable Platinum Club staterooms.
NEXT STOP: NORTHERN TERRITORY
COCKTAILS AT ULURU, WILD BARRAMUNDI, SUNSET MARKETS, AND MUD CRAB TO GO
Oh joy. Neil Perry of the Rockpool Dining Group has parachuted in to do a special breakfast in the Platinum Club, just for us. Scrambled eggs, heavy on the Sterling caviar, thanks chef.
Then it's on through the ancient, raw landscape of the red centre to the luxurious Longitude 131 (longitude131.com.au) at Yulara, where we immerse ourselves in the World Heritage-listed wilderness, explore the local Indigenous culture, and join up for cocktails and canapes as the sun sets over Uluru.
We tootle off to Darwin on the Ghan the next day, grateful for the caffe lattes from our exclusive pop-up espresso bar run by the 2017 Australia Barista Champion Hugh Kelly of Canberra's Ona Coffee (onacoffee.com.au) and thankful that we have not had to ride any camels.
A quick stop to try the famed oysters and wild barramundi with fresh curry leaf and coconut at Jimmy Shu's ever popular Hanuman (hanuman.com.au) before being whisked off to the Mindil Beach Sunset markets for a barefoot dinner on the beach.
Our high-speed jet gives us just enough time to scoff a claws-and-all salad of Darwin mud crab smuggled on board by our private chef.
NEXT STOP: WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Tropical cocktails at Hanuman restaurant. Photo: Supplied
We check into COMO The Treasury (comohotels.com), home to Wildflower, a contemporary restaurant run by chef Jed Gerrard with a sophisticated menu inspired by the six seasons of the Indigenous Noongar calendar: Birak, Bunuru, Dieran, Makura, Djila and Kambarang. Expect coral trout, red emperor and tastings of Shark Bay caviar.
Lovers of well-built Negronis and hand-made pasta can opt in for a masterclass in both the next day at Lulu La Delizia (lululadelizia.com.au) at no extra charge.
Then it's a helicopter to the Margaret River for one of those long, lovely vineyard lunches that make life worth living. And yes, head chef Brendan Pratt of the magnificent Vasse Felix estate (vassefelix.com.au), promises there will be marron, the sweet, sought-after, local freshwater crayfish.
Jump on board the Kimberly Quest 2 (kimberleyquest.com.au) as she returns us to Perth in time for Chiang Mai chicken larp, spicy pork with rice cakes, and stir-fried softshell crab noodles at David Thompson's Long Chim (longchimperth.com). A fitting way to say farewell and head east for our final round of feasting.
NEXT STOP: QUEENSLAND
FOR JUST, YOU KNOW, QUEENSLAND. SUNSHINE, SEAFOOD AND SAILING
What is fascinating to our small but well-fed tour group, as the new Qantas Dreamliner gets us to Brisbane in record time, is how each state and region has its own unique tastes and "terroir"; how the clean, almost spiritual heat of fire fuels so many feasts, and how many top chefs driving our gastronomy are from second or third generation migrant families.
At the acclaimed Urbane (urbanrestaurant.com), we sign up for a seven-course vegan "herbivore" tasting menu from Peruvian-born chef Alejandro Cancino – a vegan himself. Think salt and vinegar saltbush with tomato tea, and shiitake consomme with porcini foam. Think meat-free deliciousness.
At the Moubarak brothers' Gerard's Bistro (gerardsbistro.com.au), we sample Ben Williamson's inspired take on Middle Eastern flavours, including burghul crackers with Paroo kangaroo, scampi caviar and coal-infused hummus, and Spanish mackerel with caramelised tahini, Aleppo chilli and karkalla (a crisp, refreshing coastal succulent).
Then we sail down the coast to Noosa in our sleek, elegant, 120-foot Quantum superyacht (quantumcharters.com.au) charter for a hands-on cookery class followed by a spectacular omakase at Danielle Gestlandt's Wasabi Dining Room & Bar (wasabisb.com), where chefs Zeb Gilbert and Jiro Numata send out wild scallops with native finger lime, sake-poached bugs with tempura zucchini blossoms, and aburi (seared) Mayura Station wagyu. Then we re-board the boat and sail down to the Northern Rivers.
NEXT STOP: NSW
AUSTRALIA'S NEW COASTAL CUISINE, A SIDE TRIP TO CANBERRA, CHAR-GRILLED STEAKS AND OPERA HOUSE PAV
We disembark at Brunswick Heads on the North Coast to see how Astrid McCormack and her partner, chef Josh Lewis, rewrite the idea of a North Coast ma-and-pa restaurant with charm and skill at their tiny 22-seater, Fleet (fleet-restaurant.com.au).
(But secretly, we are really there for the chips-and-dips – the creamy, smoked mullet dip with its frizzy crown of potato crisps.)
An overnight stay at the chic boutique hotel Halcyon House (halcyonhouse.com.au) in Cabarita Beach is a must, if only for dinner at Paper Daisy, for Ben Devlin's highly evolved coastal cuisine, including a brilliant paper bark-grilled fish. By unanimous vote, we stay an extra two nights and two dinners before heading for the nation's capital.
A fleet of Maseratis ferry us to Canberra for lunch at Australia's oldest and finest Turkish restaurant, Serif Kaya's Ottoman Cuisine (ottomancuisine.com.au), where we go full-on Turkish banquet while playing spot-the-polly.
Dinner is at Canberra's finest winer and diner, Aubergine (aubergine.com.au), for the joys of Ben Willis' wagyu flank with lentils and Jerusalem artichokes, and sommelier Cyril Thevenet's deep-diving wine list. The evening ends on a high note for a digestivo – and a sneaky late-night wood-fired pizza – at Canberra's sexy little wine bar, Bacaro (italianandsons.com.au), tucked in behind Italian & Sons in Braddon. Dreams are of Amaro and anchovies in our penthouse suites at QT Canberra.
The Maseratis growl along the highway to Sydney, pulling off at Bowral for a locavore lunch at James Viles' Biota Dining (biotadining.com), where the chefs bring dish after dish to the table that seem naturally rooted in their landscape. Dessert is performance art, as a young chef arrives at our table to twirl fresh honey from Biota's own hives over twigs of mushroom bark.
With the tour ending soon, there's a special frisson to our celebratory gala dinner amid the art deco marble columns of Neil Perry's mighty Rockpool Bar and Grill (rockpool.com), where we tour the aging rooms and choose our own dry-aged, grass-fed, marble-scored steak to slap on the mighty wood-fired grill.
Rib-eye on the bone at Rockpool Bar and Grill restaurant in Sydney. Photo: Christopher Pearce
Sydney is a whirl of good times and great food, from the scallop sui mai dumplings at Mr Wong (merivale.com.au) to the uncompromisingly wood-fired menu at Fire Door (firedoor.com.au), where Lennox Hastie treats wood as a flavouring ingredient, and not just a fuel, grilling aged beef over vine shoots, marron over applewood, and mushrooms over mallee root.
There's a memorable lunch at Fred's (merivale.com.au) in Paddington, where the dining room merges with the open kitchen, and former Chez Panisse chef Daniel Alvarez and her kitchen team tend their wood-fired grills, hearths and ovens to showcase sublimely simple, seasonal food.
Highlight is a Sepia (sepiarestaurant.com.au) pop-up sunset cruise on one of the world's most beautiful harbours, with a champagne tasting by sommelier Rodney Setter followed by Martin Benn's quietly theatrical marbles of ocean trout. The luxury yacht drops us off at the Park Hyatt for some beauty sleep in preparation for our final day of bridge-climbing and Bondi surfing.
Our farewell dinner is a Peter Gilmore one-two knockout, beginning at Quay (quay.com.au) with his meticulous mud crab with white turnip, kombu jelly and hispi cabbage, and continuing – via a fleet of water taxis – across Circular Quay to Bennelong (bennelong.com.au) in Australia's most celebrated building for the remarkable Opera House pavlova, its crisp meringue sails hiding soft, gooey poached meringue, raspberries and rhubarb.
The tour wraps up with an after-party at Restaurant Hubert (restauranthubert.com), where we tearfully say our farewells and make our way through too much wine, trying to process what an extraordinary country we live in and how well we eat and drink here.
Would we do it again? Yes, we would, and of course we can, anytime we like.
Terry Durack is a long-time Good Food Guide reviewer and Fairfax Media restaurant critic. He is a regular contributor to Traveller.
You're on the road. You will be needing snacks.
STEAK SANDWICH AT BREAD IN COMMON, FREMANTLE
How good is this? A nicely charred minute steak, comte cheese and creme fraiche, tucked into house-baked ciabatta bread from the wood-fired oven. See breadincommon.com.au
FALAFEL BURGER AT MIZNON, MELBOURNE
Israeli wonderchef Eyal Shani brings his fabulous street food to Melbourne. Do the pita bread stuffed with falafel, tomato, sour cream and pickles and die happy. See miznonaustralia.com
THE TIGER, AT HARRY'S CAFE DE WHEELS, SYDNEY
Harry's has been feeding Sydney's late-night crowd since 1938. Star of the show is the dream team of meat pie, mushy peas, mashed potato and gravy. See harryscafedewheels.com.au
BRATWURST IN A ROLL AT BRATWURST SHOP & CO, QUEEN VICTORIA MARKET, MELBOURNE
A lesson in how to be a Melburnian – wander around the historic Queen Vic Market clutching a smoky, meaty bratty roll for breakfast. See qvm.com.au
YABBY JAFFLE AT MONSTER, CANBERRA
Chef Sean McConnell created something of a monster, when he came up with this simple-but-lovely suppertime jaffle filled with yabby, gruyere, and creamy horseradish. See monsterkitchen.com.au
This story originally appeared on Traveller.