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Friday, June 24, 2005 | On a recent first-time trip to Australia, my eyes opened wide as I traveled the country from Sydney to Perth, then back to Sydney on the Indian-Pacific train. Australia and Southern California have much in common, including language, climate, flora and ethnic diversity. It is the diversity of culture that distinguishes Australia from San Diego.

Australia’s many cultures blend seamlessly because it is a country of immigrants from everywhere – England, India, Lebanon, Turkey, Japan, Greece, Singapore, China, Italy, among others – and the diversity of cultures offers an expanse of food experiences. Here one doesn’t necessarily go to a particular part of town for “ethnic” food. Rather, almost any street with restaurants looks like a mini United Nations – shish kebabs next to fabulous pasta next to Asian noodles next to the freshest sushi interspersed with the best espresso bars I’ve encountered outside of France and Italy.

Australian cuisine is fusion at its uncomplicated best – the freshest produce, meats and seafood meld with spices and herbs of the country’s many cultures. It’s not unusual that a restaurant menu have an eclectic choice of dishes. Also notable in Australia is the lack of tipping for service. If service is extraordinary in an upscale restaurant, a mere 10 percent tip is fine, otherwise the service is included in the price of food. Virtually every meal I had the servers were friendly, efficient and knew their job. Wine is always available from the many regions of Australia and it is not uncommon to bring your own bottle of wine to a restaurant if the restaurant is so licensed. Corkage may be minimal, if at all.

Perth and its smaller suburb of Fremantle (locals call it Freo) face the Indian Ocean in Western Australia (WA) and the area is well known for its seafood and wines from the Margaret River area, south of Perth by a three-hour drive. Restaurants of every size and shape abound and one of the best is Little Creatures in Fremantle. It is a working brewery known for its world-class beer (they make just three – a pale ale, pilsner and amber ale) and food in an industrial building set on the waterfront. The floor is cement, the wood topped tables are simple and the chairs comfy metal. Service is casual and food is terrific with choices such as tandoori chicken drumettes with raita, a rib eye steak with frites and salad, mussels with chili tomato or a side of pickled octopus. I had the marinated sardines (Fremantle is known for their fresh sardines) and a thin-crusted Moroccan marinated lamb, feta and eggplant pizza washed down with small pale ale all for roughly U.S. $21. Little Creatures, http://www.littlecreatures.com.au.

Just down the road at 72 Marine Terrace is Limoncello Café, with an Italian/Asian menu and an amazing wine list. Owned by Nunzio Gumina, whose other restaurant is in Bali, the food menu is mostly Italian with well prepared pastas and other dishes. My excellent calamari fritti were barely battered and feather-light – Nunzio explained that these were the smaller squid that need only a simple preparation to highlight the flavor. Limoncello Café,

Also in Freo is a street nicknamed “Cappuccino Strip” where among the numerous cafes for all manner of coffee and smoozing, Gino’s on the corner of Market and South Terrace is the place to be for breakfast, lunch, dinner or late-night dessert and espresso. They open at 6 a.m. and the espresso drinks are made with their own Gino’s roast coffee. Gino’s, http://www.ginoscafe.com.au.

In Perth for spot-on Turkish food Eminem is an intimate place where reservations are a must, the food clean on the palate and very good. Four of us had the mezze which included everything from a hummus garnished with toasted olive flakes to lamb and chicken, vegetables and rice. Eminem, 224 Carr Pl., Leederville (Perth neighborhood).

The Indian-Pacific railroad from Perth to Sydney is a three-day-and-night trip across Australia that is mostly the Nullabar desert. (Nullabar is Latin for no trees.) I found the train a perfect way to experience Australia’s vast uninhabited desert as far as the eye can see – imagine being in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight for a day – just open space, the flat horizon and a lot of nothingness. The bar lounge allowed passengers to talk while watching for kangaroos, emus, goannas (lizards) and eagles in the scrub of the sandy desert. We ate and drank quite well in the dining car (all tables seat four). Breakfast, lunch and dinner were two- or three-course meals prepared by two onboard chefs. Twice I had Tasmanian ocean trout (similar to salmon only lighter in color and texture) perfectly and simply prepared – poached one night and sesame-crusted another.

Back in Sydney, the Establishment Bar on George Street between Bond and Bridge Streets, is very much the happening place with a great twist: You order, you pay and you pick up your own food. And this isn’t fast food. This is a place packed for lunch and dinner with financial people from the downtown area. The building is historic and the main bar area retains an old world look with tall columns and a magnificent long marble bar while being chic and casual with bare white walls and a flat screen TV discreetly mounted to keep track of a rugby game. Once again the menu is deliciously simple fusion: green chicken curry and rice next to fish and chips and spring rolls.

For superb Japanese try Azuma, an upscale Japanese restaurant set in simple surroundings with food that goes beyond the usual tempura and sushi. A platter of Japanese amuse bouche included oysters, and bite-sized lettuce cup with fois gras, as well as many other delights. And the ginger slices themselves are to die for. Azuma, www.azuma.com.au.

The Australians have figured out how to make really good coffee … we could take a lesson or two. No matter where I was, a good espresso (not a watered down one unless you order it “long” which means that it is a shot with hot water) was close by. They take their coffee seriously. Espresso bars dot nearly every corner and alleyway in every city … even at the ferry stops in Sydney or on the ferry itself. You will need a crash course in coffee ordering though: short black, long black, flat white, skinny cap and many more are the lingo.

Marcie Rothman loves good food – no matter where it’s cooked – at home, a hole in the wall or a white tablecloth restaurant. Known as The $5 Chef on radio, television and in her two cookbooks, Marcie travels far and near with an eye on what’s current in food. You can find her at www.5dollarchef.com.

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