What makes a dish iconic? It’s a combination of a few factors: longevity, reputation and, often, simplicity. But most importantly, it’s about downright deliciousness – dishes you eat once and instantly want to order again.
When compiling this list, we thought about which Brisbane dishes best meet the above criteria. Most of these inclusions have been around for half a decade, some are coming up to two decades. Safe to say, there would be revolts if any of these restaurants took them off their menus.
Broadsheet spoke to nine Brisbane restaurateurs and chefs about their signature dishes – including a rich duck pasta that once helped negotiate a better price for an apartment, and a fluffy double-baked soufflé that accounts for 50 per cent of a restaurant’s food sales – and why they’ve stood the test of time.
1889 Enoteca’s gnocchi
Dan Clark and Manny Sakellarakis’s 1889 Enoteca has been named among the world’s best Italian restaurants for its wine list. But its food is a mighty match. Since opening in 2008, just about everything has been made in-house. That includes the gnocchi and pork-and-fennel sausage in the pair’s signature dish.
Clark remembers that when they first introduced the gnocchi in 2010 – sometime during winter – it instantly took off. The comforting, rich dish was perfect for the cool weather, and it hasn’t left the menu since. Clark says there are two main elements to it: the gnocchi and the sauce.
“[Making the gnocchi] is a pretty laborious process and we’ve basically had the same chef doing it for 10 years,” Clark says. “That’s why there’s really good consistency to it.”
For the sauce, Clark says, parmesan and cream are heated together. Coarse chunks of pork-and-fennel sausage and truffle tapenade are then stirred through, before it’s all combined with the gnocchi.
Clark reckons the restaurant dishes out around 120 serves of gnocchi in an average week. For him, the dish’s popularity can be credited to both its texture and its taste. “There’s an element of rusticity to it with the soft, pillow-y gnocchi, glossy sauce and the chunks of pork-and-fennel sausage,” he says. “You’ve got a heap of textures going on there. But at the end of the day it’s about the taste, and there’s some real classic flavours.”
Happy Boy’s wontons
Ever since Happy Boy opened in its original Spring Hill location in 2014, the prawn and pork wontons in chilli broth have been a menu staple. Co-owner Cameron Votan says versions of this dish appear all over China, but it varies with each region. The Shanghainese version is a little sweeter, while the Sichuan one has a bigger chilli hit. Happy Boy’s wontons take what Cameron and brother and co-owner Jordan Votan consider to be the best parts from every version they’ve tasted.
For the broth, a reduced pork bone stock is mixed with soy sauce, Chinkiang vinegar (Chinese black vinegar) and Happy Boy’s own house-made chilli oil. Votan says dumpling fillings are often overlooked, even in China. Happy Boy’s are carefully made with the right proportion of coarsely ground pork (with a good amount of fat for juiciness), minced prawns, shiitake mushrooms and shallots.
“I’ve ordered dumplings from all over the world, and often one part of it is let down,” Votan says. “You might get a really beautiful sauce, but the filling or texture of the pastry isn’t good. We’ve focused on making sure all three elements come together to make a great package.”
Appearing on both the chef’s banquet and the à la carte menus, the Votans sell around 300 to 400 serves a week. “[Across Happy Boy, Snack Man and Kid Curry], we try to create dishes that are affordable,” Votan says. “It’s a $12 dish – there are no bullshit ingredients like truffle or lobster in it. It’s about familiar ingredients cooked perfectly.”
Damon Amos’s Kentucky Fried Duck might be Brisbane’s most controversial dish. The chef first introduced KFD in 2012, when he was cooking at the now-closed Public restaurant in the CBD. Amos left Public in mid-2015 to open his own diner, Detour, but the dish stayed behind. A custody battle ensued. In the end, Amos copyrighted the dish and Public agreed to change the recipe.
The origins of the dish date back to when Amos was a kid. His favourite meal was his mum’s Southern fried chicken, taken from a Belle magazine issue. Since then, Amos has made many versions of that fried chicken, but it wasn’t until he started at Public that he tried it with duck.
Amos sources his duck Marylands from a farm in Wimmera, regional Victoria. He brines them in rosemary and saltwater overnight, cooks them sous-vide for 12 hours at 68.5 degrees Celsius, crumbs them in a secret mix of herbs and spices, and fries them in canola oil at 165 degrees until crisp.
The secret spices include black pepper, sage, rosemary and thyme, Amos says. “The rest you’ll have to beat out of me.”
The dish is served in an old fashioned brown paper bag, alongside some cornbread and a smoked habanero sour cream. The latter adds vital moisture to the dish. Here’s a tip from Amos: “Butter the cornbread with the sour cream.”
Taro’s Ramen’s tonkotsu
Taro Akimoto came across his first bowl of tonkotsu when he was eight years old. It was a dish he ate when visiting his grandparents, who lived in the southern island of Kyushu – where tonkotsu originates. Later, Akimoto used these memories to create his own version.
After moving to Brisbane, Akimoto noticed a lack of ramen shops and left his corporate job to open Taro’s Ramen in the CBD in 2010. There are now three other locations: one in Ascot, one in Stones Corner and another in South Brisbane that's temporarily closed due to flood damage. While there’s more competition now, Akimoto’s tonkotsu is certainly the yardstick for ramen in Brisbane. Akimoto believes it’s important to start with good quality pork bones. He uses Bangalow pork, which has a lovely sweet flavour.
“We boil pork bones for hours and hours to get a traditional creamy stock,” Akimoto says. “The collagen, bone marrow and cartilage [in the bones] acts as a binding agent, and it makes the pork stock and fat emulsify. That’s why it tastes creamy.”
The noodles – thin and straight with a rough edge – are made in-house with an imported machine from Japan. The dough is dry to soak up the soup. For the toppings, Akimoto adds highly marbled Bangalow pork collar char sui, soft boiled soy-marinated organic eggs from Mary Valley, a drizzle of black garlic and squid ink dressing (to add a slight bitterness), nori, fresh sliced shallots and sesame seeds.
Across Taro’s stores, Akimoto sells around 4200 bowls of tonkotsu a week. But he warns that the dish should be enjoyed in moderation. “It’s addictive, but it’s definitely not something you should eat every single meal,” he laughs. “I often say to my regular customers, ‘I love you sitting here, but you’ve got to watch out for yourself.’”
Same Same’s coconut and turmeric curry
The coconut and turmeric curry was a staple on the Longtime menu, before the enormously popular restaurant closed in 2019. Thankfully, it reappeared at Longtime’s successor, Same Same, and hasn’t budged since. The dish has gone through numerous iterations over the years, but the base has always remained the same.
The curry paste is made with turmeric (both fresh and powder), ginger, roasted shrimp paste and galangal. Same Same’s head chef Jason Margaritis says the diner goes through roughly 30 to 40 kilograms of the paste a week. That’s enough for hundreds of serves.
The curry paste is cooked with palm sugar, “heaps” of fish sauce, Kara coconut cream and Rasaku coconut milk. Margaritis likes to use Queensland banana prawns for their sweetness and texture. Lastly, the dish is garnished with fried makrut lime leaves and Asian celery.
“The beauty of it is the base of the curry is quite complex but the execution is quite simple,” Margaritis says. “It’s the coconut cream, the beautiful curry base and then the prawns – which speaks for itself.”
Perhaps the most important part of the dish is balancing the seasoning. “Achieving that balance between sweet, spicy and salty is extremely important,” Margaritis says. “It leans towards sweet and that’s what really appeals to people, that creaminess and sweetness. It’s definitely a crowd-pleaser.”
Since 2004, Beccofino customers have been returning time and time again for the restaurant’s home-style Italian cooking. But no dish is as beloved as the rich duck ragu with pappardelle pasta.
Originally, it wasn’t available all year round. It used to appear on every second menu – until Beccofino chef and co-owner Cordell Khoury went to buy an apartment.
“The guy who was selling it said, “If you keep the ragu on the menu [all year round], I will negotiate a better price for the apartment,” Khoury says. “And it’s never come off since.”
The dish is fairly simple. “Lots and lots” of duck legs, Khoury says, are slowly braised in a rich tomato sauce made with onion, carrots, celery, garlic and tomatoes. The ragu is then mixed through the pappardelle and topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano.
“Like most great [dishes], it’s incredibly simple,” Khoury says. “It’s rich and satisfying. There are few things as enjoyable as tucking into a bowl of pasta.”
The double-baked crab soufflé has been the signature dish at Montrachet for over 19 years. The recipe has mostly remained the same, even after Thierry Galichet sold the restaurant to Shannon and Clare Kellam in 2015.
Shannon says the key to the dish is in the preparation and quality of ingredients. It’s a three-day process to make the crab bisque, which uses premium $100-a-kilo crab. Then there’s the nutty 36-month-aged Comté, which gives the soufflé its golden brown top.
The dish is so popular that it accounts for 50 per cent of dishes sold in the restaurant.
“Some people come on a Friday and have it for lunch,” Kellam says. “Then they’ll be there for that long they’ll move to the bar and have it again for dinner before they leave. We actually have some clientele who have it for entrée and main.”
This may be the newest dish on the list, but it’s built such a reputation in a short space of time that it deserves to be here.
Three years ago, Otto head chef Will Cowper came across champagne lobster. It had been caught as bycatch near Mooloolaba, and the supplier was gauging interest from Brisbane chefs. Cowper decided to test it out as a special and it sold like hotcakes. Eventually, he was able to secure two tonnes of the lobster per year and placed the dish permanently on the menu. It hasn’t come off since.
The dish starts with spaghettini, which is handmade fresh each day. Next, the lobster meat is separated from the shell and the head and body roasted in the oven until golden. It’s then added to sauteed leeks, onions, carrots, celery, fennel, tomato and parsley stalks, which is all boiled down to make a stock.
For service, garlic and chilli are sautéed in olive oil and deglazed with white wine. The stock is added and reduced a little bit, before the pasta is added along with the lobster meat. Finally, chopped parsley and dill are mixed through with a spoonful of lemon butter. The plated dish is garnished with a scattering of bottarga (dried mullet roe), which adds some extra saltiness.
“Nothing overpowers in this dish; you can taste every element, which is important,” Cowper says. “It’s not trying to be too tricky – it’s about letting the lobster be the hero of the dish.”
Zahra Ali Askary learnt how to make mantu from her parents in Afghanistan as a child. She says the dish is made in every family household, usually for special occasions.
“In Afghanistan, there are no cooking classes,” Zahra says. “Everyone learns to cook from their parents when they are around nine years old.”
Zahra’s mantu have been on the menu at Bamiyan Camp Hill ever since she opened the restaurant with her husband, Nawab, in 2014. It’s also on the menu at Bamiyan New Farm, which the couple opened in 2019. She says it’s the most popular dish across the two restaurants.
The dish consists of two main elements: the dough and the filling. The dough is made first, with flour, water and salt. Then it’s left to rest while the filling is prepared. The filling is made with beef mince (in Afghanistan it’s traditionally made with beef tripe as well), spices (paprika, turmeric and Indian curry powder), onions, spring onions and salt. Zahra says it’s important to strain any leftover liquid.
The dumplings are formed into little flower shapes and steamed. They’re then topped with two different sauces: one made with split lentils, onion and tomato, the other with yoghurt, dried mint and salt. A pinch of chilli powder finishes the dish.
“Mantu means ‘me and you’ because it takes a lot of time to make the dough, make the filling and fold the dumplings,” Zahra says. “At home our speed is really slow, so we make it together – me and you.”