How to explain the clarity of light and air in Tasmania?It's as if, midway through life, someone removed your eyeglasses, wiped them clean on their shirttail, then handed them back to you. Hobart is a well-serviced city, and yet walking through it, the air crosses you with nothing but sweet things—the smell of roses and foxgloves and pencil pines and sweet alyssum. "There's nothing to the west of us," says Graeme Phillips, author of A Guide to Tasting Tasmania, the definitive resource for the island's food scene. "We miss all the gunk in the air."
Phillips has a gray drooping mustache, and hands so thick they could thumb open a bowling ball as easily as a warm dinner roll. Formidable as he is, Phillips appears pleasantly softened by years taking the sweet impress of "Tassie" food and wine. I met him at Lebrina, his favorite restaurant in the state. We sample a daube of lamb à la cuillère, "to be eaten with a spoon," as the menu commends, and a truncated cone of biting peppery eggplant that lies in a cooling pool of yogurt. Alongside these, Phillips introduced me to Tassie wine with an exquisite Chardonnay. "They have structure," he said of the island's wines. "I like that. This one, it doesn't have the in-your-face blossoming that most Australians have grown up with." It is tart, minerally, its undernotes more gunmetal than floral. Phillips sips, considers, then exhales with pleasure. "That cleansing core of acid."
Lebrina sits in an 1840's cottage that has never been gutted to create an open space. Instead, guests dine in homey, intimate, old-world rooms, surrounded by antiques. Lebrina's chef, Scott Minervini, started a modest revolution in 1998 when he insisted that the island's cornucopia of game, seafood, and produce should stay home. This flew in the face of history: Tasmania has traditionally been the butt of jokes from mainlanders, who consider it a backwater populated (as one old joke goes) by two-headed inbreds. Where others saw a haven for rubes in camper vans, Minervini saw culinary possibility: "You've got a network of small producers. In Tas, you know what you eat grew just down the road from here." My meal at Lebrina started with a blazing white kingfish—its interior flesh is the color of hotel linens—topped with piquantly fresh local garlic shoots. Later, as Phillips and I were tucking in to dessert—a chocolate-and-biscotti pudding with local hazelnut praline, a warm orange pudding with lemon curd—Minervini joined us.
"When a chef shows off with the food, I think something has to give in the flavor. There has to be a bit of selflessness involved." Minervini is a low-key man in dorky-chic glasses and a chef's apron. "What else do you need to do to a ripe tomato?"
"It's a lazy way to cook," adds Phillips. "You want to know what Tasmania is?" he says, laying down his spoon. "Five of us get together every year. We bring no food. We catch everything as we go. Crayfish as big as my arms. Scallops and crab. And just fifteen minutes up the river from here. That's Tasmania."
Well, that was Tasmania. The island is changing, from a target of snide putdowns into a chic eating destination. In the south, Moorilla, one of Tasmania's earliest modern vineyards, has opened a hotel—with glass-and-steel guest chalets suspended on a hillside over the Derwent River—to go with its winery, organic microbrewery, and restaurant. Meanwhile, up north at the brilliant Stillwater River Café, I had one of the finest meals of my life, a discreet smorgasbord of "Freestyle Australian" with dashes of Asian fusion: scallop sashimi with mushroom essence and truffle oil, sea-urchin roe with dashi jelly, grass-fed prime rib-eye fillet, vanilla-poached quince—and all of it, as the mantra of Tassie cuisine goes, local, local, local. At the lovely Daniel Alps at Strathlynn, Alps himself takes me back to his kitchen, where he slaps and tugs at the plenty stored in his larder. "In Singapore they can't even grow a carrot. I couldn't work somewhere where I couldn't see everything growing." Every day Alps drives up to the restaurant past the vineyard, and the vineyard tells him how to cook that day: the greener the leaf, the lighter his hand. He shows off his spring bay scallops, spring lambs, venison haunches, and organic herbs and vegetables, all of it untouched by middlemen.
The irony of frou-frou-ing in the name of "locally grown" isn't lost on Steve Cumper. He was until recently the chef at Peppermint Bay, the most ambitious expression of the burgeoning Tasmanian food philosophy. To get there, you board a deluxe catamaran in Hobart harbor, cruise up the Derwent River, between sedimentary mudstone cliffs populated by white-bellied eagles and peregrine falcons, past the occasional pod of migrating whales, then dock in the rural town of Woodbridge. Here you are greeted by a supermod glass-and-steel compound. "Too many city restaurants have misappropriated the gate-to-plate philosophy," says Cumper, who has cultivated a tart sarcasm when it comes to artisanal purity. "They've commodified it." Cumper moved to Tasmania to be the real thing: he lives on a 12-acre homestead with his young family, and, a former vegetarian, does his own slaughtering. Local producers provide him with everything from heirloom quince to water buffalo. "Tasmania is now a paradox," Cumper tells me over lunch. "The poor man's food is on the rich man's table. Unfortunately, the good-food movement is elitist."