Toowoomba feels like a town right on the cusp of having all the food options a big city can offer. A recent dining boom has ensured that in the last six (or so) months, a vibrant, lowbrow dining scene has emerged. Burgers, fried chook, desserts, modern Asian – you can find them all in laneway locations, boasting funky fit-outs and a steady stream of patrons.
Toowoomba has also seen movement at the highbrow end - five months ago Zev’s Bistro opened up right on Ruthven Street. Sadly over the course of two visits, it didn’t seem to be attracting the same levels of popularity - a shame because, from the perspective of a Sydney diner, it’s terrific.
The look and feel of the place is very contemporary. Sydney is done with long meals and stuffy white tablecloths. We’re mad about Japanese tableware, menus offering three key ingredients, and share plates that allow us to dabble in more dishes. And that's exactly what owner/chef Kyle Zevenbergen has created here.
Arriving in a beautifully imperfect piece of Japanese tableware (imported by Melbourne’s Made in Japan) a lunch special of Roasted Whiting ($35) comes with a quality glass of German Riesling that would set you back fifteen bucks in Sydney. The soupy mix of golden fish fillets, explosive pickled tomatoes, salted cucumbers and funky buttermilk is wet and cooling on a scorching hot Toowoomba day. It’s accentuated by an intriguing charry element created by burnt sourdough, making it unlike any fish dish I’ve had before.
By contrast, Chicken, Sweet Potato, Raisin, Curried Greens ($26) has a more comforting, sweet British familiarity – tweaked for a hotter climate - even if it’s not as picturesque on the plate.
The dish represents exactly what Zevenbergen does well: taking familiar things – carrots, beetroot, asparagus – and letting you see them in a new light. Beets, Anise Yoghurt, Hazelnut ($17) gives you a medley of treatments of the humble beetroot. It’s cooked sous vide (inside a bag in a water bath), roasted, dried, dehydrated, pickled and then toasted, making it into a leathery beetroot jerky you soften on your tongue. Arranged in a magenta garden on another of these beautiful Japanese earthenware dishes, it’s a wonderful way to explore a humble vegetable that you should already know very well.
It’s also a brilliant companion to Kangaroo ($28), cooked with sour berries, and presented wonderfully pink on a creamy bed of wattle spuds, adorned with crisp fennel chips.
Carrot, Hay Whey, Black Garlic ($17) works the same familiar turf – and shows off this chef’s comfort with burnt charry flavours.
Throw in Asparagus, Fermented Lime, Yolk ($17) sitting on parsley pesto, and you’ve covered all your vegetable needs, with some clever puffed rice taking care of your grains too.
You’ll also find quality oysters (market price), house-made Wattle Bread ($9) with honey butter and smoked salt, and a short but creative cocktail collection.
Dr. Feelgood ($19) takes Espolon tequila somewhere left of centre with a smidgen too much Midori, earl grey tea and Zev’s syrup, but a Juicy Gin-ger ($19) hits the spot with Noble Cut Gin, El Dorado white rum, cumquat, ginger syrup, lime and soda. Wines are also a strong suit, with the short list boasting many favourites. The 2015 Giant Steps Chardonnay ($69) is an excellent drinker, and comes without the usual Sydney price tag.
Yep, Toowoomba, this one is a keeper!
517 Ruthven Street, Toowoomba
Ph: (07) 4564 8636