Tis the question most commonly asked of waiters. According to Morgan Frazer from Fins, why so many diners want to know what constitutes the restaurant’s most popular dishes is because they do not want to have to choose.
I agree with Morgan, although I think there are other reasons as well. In a strange restaurant in a strange town the answer is a useful guide. Restaurant reviewers (whose view of popular taste is invariably dim) may not necessarily agree with the answer, but there has to be a lot going for something which pleases most palates, surely.
I did a little ring-around of local eateries to see what were those dishes perennially hot; my selection criterion was random and in no way intended to be representative of the region. Even so it yielded some interesting results, the most striking of which was the emerging pattern of familiarity and sweetness as determinants of dishes with staying power.
‘People love sweet things,’ says Christian Poulsen, manager of the Byron Beach Cafe. He is largely referring to the Salt & Pepper Squid which ‘it would be suicide’ to remove from the menu, ‘much as I’d like to!’ He tells me it is the chilli caramel, the complexity of aromatics in the sauce, the fact that ‘everyone recognises squid as something they know. And the szechuan pepper flour makes it a bit different’. Their other big seller is the mini-burger ‘because of our relaxed concept and people wandering in off the beach in swimmers’.
Juan Fernandez is the Spanish chef at Bangalow’s Utopia and cites his seafood paella as the most popular dish. Why? ‘It’s my Spanish heritage and the freshness of the produce,’ he replies, adding that Queenslanders drive down specifically for both that and his stuffed zucchini flowers with spanner crab and cherry truss tomatoes. At Muoi’s Feast in Byron Bay it’s the Wicked Duck that keeps luring the locals back. ‘I love it,’ Muoi tells me, ‘because it’s so easy. Also my Grand Marnier Souffle – people love the texture.’
At Lennox Head the Seven Mile Cafe’s Scott Frost nominates his Riverina eye fillet – ‘to die for. It’s got a 2 1/2 plus marble score and is almost like butter, it melts in your mouth.’ There is also his Lamb Two Ways: 12-hour cooked leg plus backstrap. At Figtree in Ewingsdale it’s the roasted pork belly. Che Devlin tells me it is their stand-out dish served with pear puree, crackling, cress and apple salad. ‘It’s a guilty pleasure,’ he says, ‘and something people won’t cook at home’. The chocolate mousse at Milk & Honey in Mullumbimby has been on the menu for eight years and sells out every night, chef/owner Chris Pellen tells me. ‘It’s a secret recipe.’ Another winner is his pumpkin and pesto pizza ‘because this is such a big vegetarian area. I’d never take it off even when it’s expensive, near summer, even when it got up to $15 a pumpkin. Even on hot nights that pizza walks out the door!’
At Byron Bay’s FishHeads it’s the Seafood Platter, a cornucopia of hot, cold, cured and smoked fish and seafood, as well as the Seafood Spaghetti with a preserved lemon butter base instead of the standard tomato. Salmon cured in ouzo with rye toasts, tomato marmalade and creme fraiche has become a signature dish at FatBellyKat in Brunswick Heads – and it’s not even on the menu. ‘People come in and order a side of it for parties or a plate of it for breakfast,’ owner Damian Williams tells me. And after nine years their Eggplant Fetta Balls remain permanent fixtures on the menu.
Three Little Pigs – pork cooked three ways – is the big stayer for the Restaurant at the Byron at Byron, served with caramelised pear, sage beignet and crackling. As for Fins, it’s the Tian of Tuna, a dazzling complexity of textures and flavours which has even been ordered for dessert on a number of occasions. ‘Many people have to have another go, it’s just that delicious!’ says sommelier Justin Leith.
May you be guided!