Bring me sunshine — a touch of Aussie cool is breaking new ground

Coastal cool: Milk Beach Soho (Adrian Lourie)

Chief among my questionable life choices while at university — which include the house share with a hole cut in the toilet door and a little sparkly earring — was the period when my friends and I became mildly obsessed with Outback Steakhouse. For the uninitiated, this was a strange, vaguely Antipodean US restaurant chain that emerged amid the post-Crocodile Dundee, boganmania of the late Eighties and burned briefly in a handful of glamorous outer London locations (Basildon, Romford, Staines) before ceasing UK operations in 2011. My main memories are of oddly mealy steak, the ‘Bloomin’ Onion’, and the kind of semi-offensive, flamin’ galah theming that made Walkabout look nuanced.

I say all this not just to exorcise the memory of that earring, but to note how far the popular notion of an ‘Australian restaurant’ has come. Where once, internationally at least, that phrase might have conjured cork-hatted cliche and ‘roo-burgers’, now it is synonymous with atmospheric cool, relaxed but fanatically passionate service, and food with a specific streak of brunch-adjacent vibrancy and ambition.

Now the dim-lit wine bars of Melbourne and Sydney are as much of a creative touchstone as those in Copenhagen or Paris or Brooklyn. And, most pressingly and pleasingly, we have Milk Beach Soho: a new, conceptually distinct spin-off of a popular Queens Park spot, already carrying itself with the swagger of a certified hit.

Messy thrill: Szechuan karaage aubergine (Adrian Lourie)

Messy thrill: Szechuan karaage aubergine (Adrian Lourie)

It is that rare Soho opening that can be said to have literally broken new ground. Accessed from both Greek Street and the connective Manette Street alleyway that flows beside the old Pillars of Hercules, Milk Beach Soho sits in a swish, gleaming new development, seemingly terraformed from nowhere. The vibe of the room is sun-bleached coastal cool — a textured colour-scheme of stone, taupe and beige. “It’s quite Tulum beach club,” said a friend, looking around as I sipped a chilli mango margarita. “And I don’t mind that at all.”

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The food evokes sandy beaches and Pacific Ocean spray. Devised by Queensland-raised chef Darren Leadbeater (with a heavy assist, you imagine, from Milk Beach’s Sydney native founder Elliot Milne), the menu — which runs from ‘raw’ to a grill-focused ‘robata’ section — has a kind of measured expansiveness. Cured sardines brought fatty, glimmering fish, sliced into neat little lozenges, and offset by an invigorating lemon thyme dressing. Elsewhere, BBQ pork dumplings were wrinkly little bombs of unctuous intensity. And while Szechuan karaage aubergine was a touch garbled, sweet corn with miso butter proved a messy thrill.

Unctuous intensity: BBQ pork dumplings (Adrian Lourie)

Unctuous intensity: BBQ pork dumplings (Adrian Lourie)

There is, obviously, a pronounced (and geographically logical) east Asian and southeast Asian influence here. But what makes Milk Beach’s food impressive is that the teetering balancing act of contrasting flavours never quite topples over. Partly, this is the vital through-line of Asian condiments and seasonings (even the quintessentially Aussie chicken ‘Schnitty’ has a koji marinade and fermented chilli mayo). Partly, it is also that the kitchen understands restraint — as evidenced by a whole grilled, lusciously soft John Dory, that comes with nothing so much as a pool of chicken butter and a spoon. That I was too full for the pudding section’s tricked-out spin on a Golden Gaytime ice cream, was genuinely the source of lasting, week-long regret.

If you have Australians in your life then you will know that they are not exactly shy about proclaiming the brilliance of their restaurant and cafe culture (I am convinced that disparaging British coffee is on their citizenship test). So let us say it quietly but say it all the same: when it comes to a certain mode of confident, culturally-nimble sunshine food, Australians might do it better. And Milk Beach Soho, with its breezy stylishness and aspirational cool, is a welcome reminder.

Ilona Rose House, Manette Street, W1D 4AL. Meal for two plus drinks about £160. Open Tuesday to Wednesday from 5pm — 11pm and Friday to Saturday from 5pm — midnight;

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