Sunday 17 February 2008

Darwin Days

We arrived home from Darwin last night and I am glad to be able to cook again in my own kitchen. It is good to get away for a break. I was there for business meetings but managed some leisure as well with E. Highlights were swimming in the hotel pool beneath palm trees at night, feeding the fish at Aquascene, and browsing at Parap Market.

But it is the wet season which means the weather is hot, humid and wet. The frequent heavy monsoonal downpours made the outdoors a little less welcoming and the rain was very noisy during our planning meeting. I had the odd experience of a faceless face-to-face meeting when the hotel where the meeting was held had a power cut which plunged us into darkness. It was also a great historic day to be there on Wednesday when our Prime Minister Rudd formally apologised to the Stolen Generations (Indigenous people who were taken from their families in a bid to assimilate them into European families and destroy the Aboriginal culture).

Working in an organisation with an office in Darwin means that I have been visiting this tropical city regularly over the past few years. It is a place where the steak reigns supreme and a decent vegetarian meal can be hard to find. I have experienced the good (Cornucopia Café at the Museum, Mindl Beach Markets, Thailicious, PeeWees, The Wharf), the bad (‘vegetarian soup with chicken wantons’ at Casuarina Plaza, overpriced hotel breakfasts, Darwin Hospital café) and the ugly (plastic palm trees, homophobic taxi drivers with mental health problems, my hair going frizzy in the humidity). So here is a list of some of the good places we have been during this visit (with apologies that lighting and weather were not always conducive to photos).

Moorish Café (37 Knuckey Street, tel: 08 8981 0010)
I went here last year and it was so quiet. Last week it was buzzing with groups chatting over some fine tapas. We had basil bread with dukkah and oil, beetroot tsatsiki with warm pitta bread, haloumi and salsa on toast, patatas bravas, pumpkin with pinenuts, fetta and a pomegranate dressing (and E had some meat dishes he enjoyed). All were delicious and I could have eaten more of every dish. However, at the end, we were satisfied with our meal.

The service was good, given that it was a busy night. We weren’t without a dish for long, but I would have liked our dishes all served together rather than in dribs and drabs. I also liked the ambience of coloured lights, candles and small earthenware bowls. But I decided not to hang around for chocolate cake, even though I remember it fondly from my last visit.

Banyan Tree Café (69 Mitchell Street, tel: 08 8981 8577)
I discovered the Banyan Tree some years ago when trying to avoid overpriced hotel breakfasts. I appreciate that the hotel breakfast buffet is a matter of convenience, especially when rushing to business meetings. But as a vegetarian who just wants beans on toast, I get annoyed at paying one-price-fits-all for all the eggs, bacon, sausages etc that I will never eat. Even worse, on this trip, was when I asked for beans on toast to be delivered to my room (while I watched Rudd's apology) and got toast on a saucer, beans in a bowl and only a knife to eat these with. Is it any wonder I prefer an honest no-nonsense greasy spoon cafe!

The Banyan Tree is not fancy but it is friendly. It is a greasy spoon café that does good basic food for a reasonable price. Beans on toast will set you back $5.50. E could get a fry-up for under $10. The tables are covered in checked blue and white table cloths and decorated with vases of flowers. If you are lucky, you might find a copy of the Northern Territory News to read with their intriguing headlines (Naked Biffo, Thief Lord Mayor to Face Jail, Body found in Freezer).

Mitchelli’s Pizza Café (11 Mitchell Street, tel 08 8941 7500)
The Mitchelli’s Pizza Café claims to be the best pizza in Darwin. I am always a little wary of such self-aggrandisements, but I think there might be some truth to it. E had a yen to have pizza for dinner in Darwin and it took some searching.

The first night we went to another Italian place and said we didn’t have much time before going to see a film. We were told that pasta was faster than pizza. I have eaten their pizza before but would never have pasta there again. My pesto sauce was yellow and creamy - more reminiscent of bodily fluids than the green sauce I love. Even worse, was that it was served in a foil takeaway container with a plastic fork. I had never realised before how hard it is to swirl spaghetti on a plastic fork. (Happily, the film of the Kite Runner was very good so the evening wasn’t wasted altogether). After the spaghetti nightmare, I couldn’t face returning to this café for pizza.

We went to another pizza place a couple of nights later, only to be sat between the toilets and an annoyingly loud table. The menu wasn’t at all inspiring and we left without ordering.

So we found ourselves at Mitchelli’s which I had initially dismissed due to its lack of ambience – plastic chairs and tables lit by fluorescent lights. We were pleasantly surprised by the food. The vegetarian pizza was not the usual combination of tomato sauce, capsicum, mushrooms and olives. It was much better – sundried tomato, artichoke, onion, mushroom, broccoli, snowpeas, capsicum and fetta. This is the sort of ambitious combination that can be done badly but Mitchelli’s did it perfectly. I was delighted to have a delicious pizza piled with well cooked vegetables.

Speakers Corner Cafe (Ground Floor, Parliament House, 15 Esplanade, 08 8981 4833)
I remember Speakers Corner Café fondly from a visit to the Northern Territory a few years ago that included a three day trip through Kakadu National Park. It was so hot and humid that it was a relief to return to Darwin and sit at the outside tables and chairs looking out over green lawns, terracotta pots of flowers and the harbour, and enjoying the cool air of the sea breeze.

This week, we walked along the Esplanade to Parliament House, where the café is based. It was a rare period of brilliant sunshine and I looked forward to sitting on th Speaker Corner terrace with a drink. But as we got closer, we could see grey clouds gathering over the sea. By the time we arrived at Parliament House, the palm trees outside were being battered by the wind and there was rain in the air (as you can see in my photo). We purchased our drinks and sat outside under the verandah watching the torrential downpour until the rain sought us out and drove us indoors.

I can't remember if I have eaten at Speakers Corner and cannot vouch for how vegetarian-friendly it is but I think they make up decent salad sandwiches. But it is a pleasant place to have a drink if the weather is kind. Even if you don’t want a drink, it is worthwhile having a look inside Parliament House to look at the beautiful Indigenous paintings that make up the Meeting Place Mural, read the historic displays and visit the library. Parliament House is one of my favourite buildings in Darwin. It was built in 1992 and has a stark white beauty. I love civic buildings that are proudly modern rather than apologetic reproductions of historic buildings.

Garam Masala (Darwin Central Hotel, 21 Knuckey St, tel: 08 8944 9120)
We went to Garam Masala on a recommendation. I fancied an Indian dinner and it seemed an interesting place to eat. The first night it was booked out, so we booked and returned the next night. The service and the ambience were very good. The menu is interesting, if a little overpriced.

I naively ordered beetroot poriyal with channa dahl, chillis and curry leaves. I enjoyed the texture of grated beetroot studded with the occasional channa dahl. But my first mouthful left me gasping at the spiciness. E tasted it and said it was twice as spicy as his chicken curry. I had to pick through the grated beetroot and curry leaves to take out all the chillis – by the end of my meal there was quite a pile. I know that there are people who enjoy this much chilli but not me. Even with rice, roti and drowned in raita, it was far too hot for me. I would probably go back but only if I felt assertive enough to discuss the spiciness with the staff.

Parap Market (Parap Village Shopping Precinct off Parap Road, tel: 0438 882 373 or 08 8942 0805)
One of the best places to eat in Darwin is at the markets. We went to Parap Markets which are held on Saturday mornings (but I can also recommend the Nightcliff Markets on Sunday mornings and Mindl Beach Markets on Thursday nights in the dry season). There is a fine array of stalls selling crafts, soaps, hammocks, clothes, jewellery and artwork. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. And the food is fantastic.

Much of the food is of the South East Asian cuisine. Many stalls have bain maries filled with spring rolls, dim sims, fried rice, rice balls, fried tofu, sticky rice cakes. Tubs of noodles and bean sprouts are piled high waiting for orders for laksa soup. You can get fresh green paw paw salad made in front of you. Even the fruit is different to what I might expect at a Melbourne market. Stall holders sell fresh local tropical fruit - bananas, mango, pawpaw, dragonfruit (pictured) and rambutans.

We were there for breakfast which is too early for deep fried foods, so we headed to the crepe stall where I had a magnificent wholemeal crepe filled with cheese, salsa and avocado. Watching the crepes being made is wonderful entertainment. We also managed to buy some souvenirs – incense, clothes and presents. But the find of the market was the heavenly raspberry, boysenberry, cherry and apple juice. When E tasted mine, he suggested we share another one but it was too good for him to offer much to me!

Honorary mentions go to Bamar Café (Cavenagh Street) and Simply Foods (Smith Street Mall) for their lovely – and much needed – salads.

Lastly, I particularly dislike airplane and airport food. My all time low was a slab of plain tofu sandwiched between bread and butter on an Ansett domestic flight many years ago. Last year, Qantas went into competition for the worst airplane food ever by handing out bars of rice bubbles in a sweet goo as a vegetarian and gluten free snack. It felt insulting to be offered these overly processed and sweet snacks.

I was pleased on the flight to Darwin this week that the food seemed to have improved. We had roasted chickpeas for a light snack and then I was pleasantly surprised to be given delicious small gluten free cakes made from quinoa flour, bananas and raspberries. Maybe there is hope! Now if only they could offer some decent vegetarian food in the airports…


  1. Looks like an amazing trip! I am still giggling at the idea of you eating a bowl of beans with a knife!

  2. Moorish Cafe sounds amazing! I have yet to try patatas bravas.

  3. Sounds great - I've been away too, though not quite so far. It's really wonderful to come home to one's own kitchen.

    God, that pesto sounds horrible - a perfectly awful description! Parap Market on the oher hand sounds amazing. The Dragonfruit photo is just gorgeous.

  4. Welcome back, Johanna! The place looks absolutely beautiful--who cares about rain when you've got palm trees?! And glad to hear that you could get at least some good veg food there. But it was your photo of the market that really got me--all those amazing tropical fruits! Just gorgeous.

  5. thanks Scottish Vegan - luckily there were teaspoons with the teamaking paraphernalia that I could use!

    Thanks Eat Me - Moorish Cafe was great - the patatas bravas were quite spicy and worth a try

    thanks Lucy - hope you had a nice time away. I think pesto sauce is something that is done so often that it is hit and miss as to whether you get a good one or not - this was definitely not - I would have been happier eating the dragon fruit!

    thanks Ricki - for a steak-loving town, darwin can serve up some great vegetarian food - especially at the markets - it is great just to view all the wonderful fresh fruit and veg even if I know I can't take it on the plane.

  6. I'm hoping to visit the NT for the first time next year, and will tuck away your recommendations for the trip. Thanks for sharing the highlights (and some of the lowlights)!

  7. thanks Cindy - I haven't seen much of the rest of the NT but have been to Darwin quite a few times so am happy for you to get in touch when you go for advice. It has quite a different feel to Melbourne so is worth visiting.


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