Putting girth into Perth

Perth Western Australia

I am deliberately writing about restaurants in Australia again (see Around and about in Melbourne) and plan to add a review of a fabulous Sydney fish restaurant three weeks from now. 

For me the meals we enjoyed were the highlight of our recent trip to Australia, other than being able to practise my Tai Chi in the early morning sunshine. And with a larger contingent of Brits in Australia this Christmas than usual, these places may seem of greater interest to cricket fans if the third Test, due to start in Perth on 13 December, follows the pattern of the first.

My previous images of Perth, Western Australia, or WA as the locals refer to it, were based on our visits there in the late 1980s: bright sunshine; lovely beaches; blue water on which yachts, in those days skippered by the likes of Alan Bond, cavorted elegantly; and not many restaurants at all.

In fact, the joke used to be that if you didn’t appreciate the restaurants that were then open for business in Perth, you were out of luck as the closest were a five-hour flight away in Singapore.

Back for my first visit since then, I have to say first of all what a lot has changed. There are vast numbers of new restaurants in a variety of different locations. There is a Rockpool, a branch of Silks and an outpost of Nobu all in the massive Crown casino development that is a homage to the lure of gambling, carefully constructed by Sydney-based Jamie Packer.

The casino plays to one theme that is common to all of Australia and another that is particular to WA. The former, obvious in most major Australian cities but most strongly in Melbourne, is the continent’s allure for Asians, primarily Chinese but also from Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. That these countries also provide many of the world’s highest rolling and most committed gamblers is, as they say, an added bonus.

To this must be added the very particular WA phenomenon of the presence of so much of the world’s natural resources lying beneath it, a phenomenon that has kept the country out of recession for the past 25 years. The latest flurry concerns minerals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel to make batteries for electric vehicles – another China-related craze, after their thirst for WA’s iron ore dried up. As we drove into Perth on a Sunday evening, the foreshore was overshadowed by a plethora of tower buildings that bore the names of the mining companies that have struck it extremely rich here: Rio Tinto Zinc, Woodside and BHP Billiton.

The city’s potential was unleashed by a far-sighted mayor playing to the demands from her fellow citizens who saw the changes in hospitality occurring not only outside Australia but also in Sydney and Melbourne and wanted these pleasures in their own city. The result has been the creation of numerous cafes, restaurants and hotels (pubs or bars in Australian), several with wonderful views.

The views have also been as inviting to those more interested in building apartments, many of which have found keen buyers among the Chinese community. A ‘waterside view’ seems to be the slogan most commonly used to sell these, although whether all of them will find ready buyers it is too early at this stage to say.

One exciting redevelopment that captures all of the above is the complex now referred to as the State Buildings in the heart of the city. Initially constructed as the Lands, Titles and Treasury Buildings, these interconnected buildings have been refigured and opened up as an elegant collection of 40-odd bedrooms and a fascinating array of hospitality from Telegram Coffee by the entrance to Wildflower, a restaurant specialising in Australian indigenous ingredients up on the top floor, to Petition, a more basic Australian eatery, to the recently opened Italian restaurant called COMO and a branch of David Thompson’s Long Chim in the basement that specialises in Thai street food.

On our first night in Perth we ate at Wildflower and on the last night at Long Chim. The former is extremely elegant, with a limited menu of four starters and four first courses and a very good wine list from which we drank two glasses of top-class sherry, thereby probably doubling the state’s annual consumption of this fabulous drink. (The wine throughout the building is the responsibility of the charming Emma Farrelly, who was recently awarded, quite justifiably, ‘the best sommelier in WA’). The red emperor fish that I was served as my main course was excellent.

Long Chim, to which we were welcomed by a Welsh-born doorman and where we were served by a Parisian who has lived Down Under for seven years, is located in the basement and even on a Sunday evening was pretty crowded.

The place smelt of Bangkok with its unmistakable aromas of ginger, lemon grass and sautéing onions mingling in the air. To this must be added the visual attraction of so many clever design features such as the many large glass jars filled with herbs and spices that sat on counters around the place. It reminded us of the way Dishoom in King's Cross reminds us both of India, authentic but unlikely. Here, however, there was the reassuring presence of a young female Thai chef in the kitchen and a number of waiters and waitresses scurrying about, each of them carrying colourful trays.

I had been warned that Thompson’s approach to Thai cooking is one that does not take any prisoners when it comes to the amount of chillies he uses but actually we managed to get off quite lightly. We began with four chive cakes with dark soy, garlic and chilli, that could have done with an extra 15 seconds on the grill, before moving on to some mellow roast duck with pickled ginger and a portion of soft-shell crab noodles that were definitely on the hot side. With this we drank glasses of Leeuwin Estate Riesling and a Domaine Naturaliste, Discovery Syrah 2014, also from Margaret River, as well as a great deal of water.

As though continuing a theme, two desserts stood out. The first was a banana roti, all succulent and sweet and full of condensed milk, and a serving of durian ice cream whose texture was an absolute delight.

Australian-born Thompson has opened branches of Long Chim (which means 'come in and taste' in Thai) in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth as well as in Singapore, where he says the locals are the most fastidious about how their Thai food tastes. Next year, he will open a branch in Bangkok and one day, he hopes, to return to London.

I, for one, cannot wait.

The State Buildings, Perth

Long Chim Basement level, State Buildings, Perth; tel +61 8 6168 7775