The recent discovery of the COVID-19 mutated superstrain caused the Brisbane area to go into a weekend of lockdown. Whist this stopped the spread of a the pandemic it has dealt a short term blow to my documenting of the Brisbane food scene. There is only so long you can sit at home and eating hummus out of a jar with your index finger, so it’s time for Plan B. Something closer to home, my backyard. No, this isn’t a backyard barbeque, the recent rains have turned my lawn into a fire hazard. Plan B is my home town – Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia.
Toowoomba hasn’t got the bright lights of a Brisbane, but it is a major regional centre whose size would surprise many. A Dolphin Torch to Brisbane’s neon assault – dependable in all else fails. Everybody knows that Toowoomba is famous for the Carnival of Flowers in September, but few realise that it has undergone a metamorphosis of late. A flurry of activity in the last twenty-four months – the major redevelopment of the city’s biggest shopping centre combined with the opening of many new venues run by passionate and hospitable folk. Their goal, to establish a new highpoint on the Toowoomba dining landscape. What better way than to road test them with a handful of friends to see which ones will stand the test of time?
Dining companions for this Saturday night are two couples and myself. I am the fifth wheel and like the spare rattling around in the boot of a Toyota Camry I may end up being the annoying background sound they can’t escape or the round thing that just might get them out of trouble and see them to safety. All are quality people so it has all the makings of a fun time.
A couple of pre dinner drinks at Volcanic Brewing was just the tonic. Locally brewed, they offer a nice variety of different artisan beers. The usual suspects are accounted for: IPAs, pale ales, sours and the mighty stout. Prices are fair and the beer agreeable to my tastebuds. The location screams out “Sunday Sesh” when that slight breeze pushes through the laneway between Duggan and Ruthven Streets. I am sure that the outside tables were on a fair slant but maybe that’s the idea, drink enough and the table becomes level? No need to bring a spirit level though, the table did its job and got everybody reminiscing about their time spent in manual arts class at High School. One sour and a stout later and it was time to abandon the empty glasses and cross the road to start the eating portion of the night. We could already smell the tomatoes cooking from across the street.
Piccolo Papa, an Italian ristorante was where we headed. Formerly at a suburban location, they had made the leap into Grand Central, Toowoomba’s biggest shopping centre. Given the high quality of their previous venue I was a tad skeptical. Worried that the ambience may suffer in the new surroundings. Unlike some other restaurants seduced by the increased activity within the Shopping Centre this place is located on the edge of the complex. Fortunately it’s easily accessible and you can get there without having to enter the bowels of the monstrosity (unlike the Bavarian). More good news, you shouldn’t feel guilty about overeating as there is a 24/7 gym directly upstairs.
Options aplenty on the menu but the one thing we all agreed on was the “FEED ME!” section. For $49 each, the staff bring out each of the starters for you to munch plus you get your choice of a pizza or pasta dish from the menu. With some pasta dishes nudging $30 and most starters around the $15 – $20 mark you don’t have to be a Mensa Society member to see that is -grande valore. Disappointingly, the Mozzarella Sticks didn’t fall into the FEED ME option. We couldn’t allow them to go unloved so we opened our hearts and mouths to them as well.
The Mozzarella Sticks came out piping hot, crumbed and ridiculously stretchy with a side of pesto. Wanting to test the limits of the stretch in the cheese, it comfortably made it from one end of the table to the other. Perfect for those wanting to recreate the famous spaghetti scene from Lady And The Tramp. You shouldn’t play with your food kids!
The real winner was whoever got more than their share of the zucchini fries. Who would have thought that the oft maligned vegetable could more than hold its own on a jam packed table? The consensus was that the calamari was slightly chewy but not gumbootish. After devouring the yummy bruschetta I was content. Full marks to whoever decided that the serving size should be adjusted to the number of patrons at the table. A handful of times I have signed up for these tasting situations and been disappointed, where stares and snarls are the result of unfed bellies. Bravo team Papa.
Preliminaries done, the mass of pasta and pizza struggled to find enough room amongst cutlery, serving boards and wine glasses. The gnocchi was popular with the ladies and I could see why. I was fortunate to steal a spoonful of that mushroom sauce. Bottle that stuff.
The verdict on Piccolo Papa. Staff were chatty and knew about their way around the extensive menu, my food was uber enjoyable and the FEED ME option was great value/ However buying each of those dishes separately would result in a call from your financial planner. It was pleasing to see the move to the inner city seems to have started on a successful note. Like a newly transplanted organ that hasn’t been rejected, the patient’s vitals are strong and the prognosis is encouraging. Fingers crossed it stays that way as I need to return to try a full plate of gnocchi. They held up their end of the bargain, we didn’t leave hungry, the quality hadn’t slipped and most importantly the panna cotta had the right amount of wobble.
As last year was winding down a wine bar took over an old cafe and became the newest business in town. Cork & Lever, located in Margaret Street has been a hive of activity everytime I have driven past so we had to go and check out the commotion. The old Bon Amici’s site has had a facelift, the old coffee paraphernalia replaced with wines from all points of the globe. The lighting was ideal for the less genetically blessed amongst us which gave the space a Winona Ryder kind of vibe, dark and alluring.
No idea what wine we purchased as I handed out a fistful of money before hurriedly visiting the toilet due to a tear in the crotch out of my pants. The damage must have been inflicted striding out vigorously on route to Margaret Street. After inspecting the damage, thankfully I could carry on without embarrassment. the dark surrounds masking the split. My wine knowledge is limited, however the “surprise” half bottle of red I enjoyed was very palatable. The wine was like a drunken kiss at a bar, I opened my mouth and when it was all done I didn’t even get her name. Cork & Lever’s goal is to educate and introduce so I will be sure to take them up on their suggestions next time, assuming I have a fully functioning pair of pants
Given it was past 11pm it was time to return to my current favourite establishment, Sante. This gem is hidden in the laneway behind Volcanic Brewing (located at the former Cheslea Bar site for any locals). It’s cosy, low key, with an always welcoming vibe. What the owners Alexandra and Loic don’t know about drinks is not worth knowing. Smarts gained from serving behind cocktails bars in Europe and Australia. Their knowledge and creative flair means you give them a description of your night/mood and after a few rattles of the shaker they have invented your new favourite drink. Only one visit here proves that Bryan Brown and Tom Cruise were mere frauds.
If the classy decor and exposed brick inside isn’t your style, there is also expanded seating outside in the lane, perfect for this time of year. They make their own syrups and dried fruits – who knows they probably even manufacture those little tropical cocktail that were big in the 1980’s? The ideal spot for the last drinks of the night, it will not disappoint. My only question is what happens with all the egg yolks given the sheer volume of egg whites that are being used in the various concoctions? Would make good business sense for them to commandeer the kitchen across the lane at The Finch and pump out egg yolk omelettes for those with the midnight munchies.
Toowoomba now has a wealth of options for that relaxing beer or wine which hopefully continue to get supported by the local community. If you find yourself at a loose end you should start earlier than what we did and incorporate a lip smackin’ lunch at Chef’s Lab (serving out of the Volcanic Brewing kitchen). Follow that by wedging in a couple of sneaky drinks at Uva Wine Bar (part of the Walton Stores, Ruthven Street) as well. Uva also operate a tiny kitchen that punches above its weight to knock up stellar cheese and cured meat platters to compliment their wine offerings. Ladies, you could do it all in heels given the proximity to each other. The only test may be the balance towards the end of the night.
Pre-Dinner Drinks: Volcanic Brewing, Duggan Street, Toowoomba City (Craft Beer Brewer/Bar)
Dinner: www.piccolopapa.com.au, Grand Central Shopping Centre, Duggan Street Entrance (Italian)
Post Dinner Drinks: Cork & Lever, Margaret Street, Toowoomba City (Wine Bar/Kitchen)
Post Dinner Drinks II: Sante Cocktail Bar, Duggan Street, Toowoomba City (Cocktail Bar)
Shout Out: The Chef’s Lab, Duggan Street, Toowoomba City (Foodtruck/Volcanic Kitchen)
Shout Out II: Uva Wine Bar, Ruthven Street (Walton Stores), Toowoomba City (Wine Bar/Kitchen)