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Dining in Brisbane : Throw Another 'Bug' on the Barbie

February 14, 1988|PAUL LASLEY and ELIZABETH HARRYMAN | Lasley and Harryman are Beverly Hills free-lance writers

BRISBANE, Australia — "Hello, Possums!" a cheery voice said as we walked into the small dining room, walled in wooden fencing. Chris Chapman greets everybody in an equally familiar manner when visitors come to Possum's Australian Food, her casual, home-style restaurant.

Possum's is just one of the treats in store for visitors to this city near the coast of Queensland during World Expo 88, a six-month tribute to "Leisure in an Age of Technology," May through October.

"What I serve here is real Australian food," Chapman said as she ladled out steaming bowls of freshly made pumpkin soup. "Not kangaroo tails and 'Wichity grubs.' We never ate those things. This is the kind of food I was brought up on. Pumpkin soup is a very traditional dish. Everybody's mum had a favorite recipe."

Chapman's enthusiasm for old-fashioned Aussie tucker (food) is infectious, and soon we were sampling such English-derived dishes as steak and kidney pie (called "snake 'n' Sydney" pie, in rhyming slang) and "swaggies," pork and veal sausages stuffed with cheese and bacon and cooked in a barbecue sauce.

"We even use vegemite in our gravy," Chapman said, speaking of that bitter-tasting yeast extract every Australian child is weaned on. Taken straight, it is definitely an acquired taste.

Modern culinary influences can be seen in such dishes as "possum's special," chicken breasts with ricotta cheese and apricots cooked in a ginger sauce and wrapped in filo dough, and "drover's dream chicken," in a plum and curry sauce.

"For dessert we have 'drunken wombats,' Chapman said, proffering a platter of rich chocolate, brownie-like confections. "I'll tell you how to make them, but the measurements aren't very precise.

"You take about 10 blocks of chocolate, about six cups of cake crumbs, a handful of walnuts, a big dash of rum--that's very important--a bit of butter, and two tins of condensed milk. Stir it all up and let it set for a while--no need to bake it."

Main courses at Possum's cost between $7 and $9 Australian dollars (about $5 to $7 U.S.).

"Shearer's soup," which changes daily, is $2.50 Australian, and the drunken wombats are $2.50. Possum's is not licensed to sell wine or liquor, but if you bring your own bottle, they'll serve it. "We call it, 'chateau de cardboard', " Chapman said.

Sampling traditional Australian fare is great fun, but the real culinary treasure of Queensland is its seafood.

Some delicacies can be found nowhere else in the world, such as mud crabs and the red emperor fish--a large tender white fish--and the famous Moreton Bay bugs.

Don't be turned off by the name. Bugs are a delectable shellfish, rather like a small lobster, but sweeter and more tender. They have a shovel-like snout and no claws, and they roam the shallows of Moreton Bay, near Brisbane.

Most restaurants insist on drowning their bugs in heavy cream or chile sauces, but Australians like them best simply grilled and served with melted butter.

The two most reliable seafood places in Brisbane are the Gambaro Seafood Restaurant, a family-owned eatery that has been a local institution for three generations, and the Coronation Motel--again, don't be dissuaded by the name.

Despite the excellence of the local crustaceans, many Australians still think a proper meal revolves around beef, and the best steak in town is at the Breakfast Creek Hotel. Founded in 1889 by beef-loving entrepreneur Gregory Cavell, the big, casual eatery is a Brisbane institution.

Choose Your Steaks

We went from the bar through a series of large outdoor dining rooms seating some 500 people. We found a table and lined up at a counter to choose our steaks from various cuts of raw Queensland beef that were piled behind the glass.

T-bones, rump, export fillet (like a sirloin) and other cuts were offered for between $8 and $10 Australian--for a pound of meat. Women in white aprons grilled the steaks in front of us, and added accompaniments of baked potato, rolls and huge beefsteak tomatoes.

While the Breakfast Creek Hotel is one of the oldest restaurants in town, Rumpole's, trendy and chic, is one of the newest and by far the best.

It's a sleekly modern room on the ground floor of the building housing the Inns of Court, and is named after John Mortimer's crusty old barrister, Rumpole of the Bailey.

Patio Dining

During the day there's patio dining under huge white umbrellas. Palms, ferns and orchids create a garden setting where patrons can watch Hungarian chef Peter Kovacs at work in the open-view kitchen.

Owners Doug and Anne Flockhart have introduced the concept of "grazing" to Brisbane, and visitors can savor moderate portions of such dishes as prawn won tons in a lobster butter sauce, tempura lamb brains with goat cheese fettuccini, rabbit braised with prunes and leeks, and stir-fried Moreton Bay bugs with a watercress salad.

Designer Pizzas

An array of designer pizzas are offered, and the desserts are spectacular.

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