“You know who [expletive] up burgers more than anyone else in the world? Australians. Australia has no idea what a burger is,” he wrote. “They put canned beetroot on it, like a wedge of it. I am not joking you. This is how they eat their burger.”
That’s how they eat it at the new Clarendon restaurant Oz, too. The Australian restaurant, which opened in early October, aims to bring the true flavors of the country to a population whose impression of Australia has been formed by crocodile hunting and Outback Steakhouse’s bloomin’ onions. Please, keep the dingoes out of this — and spare your fellow diners your “Throw another shrimp on the barbie” impression.
Australians “hate that saying,” says owner Ashley Darby.
The TV references are all apt for Oz, which will soon get its own turn on the small screen. Darby, a former Miss D.C., has been cast on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Potomac,” the network’s attempt to revive the cat-fighting reality brand in the region where reality shows go to die. Also, never mind the fact that Darby and her Australian husband, developer Michael Darby, live down the street from the restaurant — in Arlington. Viewers can expect Darby to play the upwardly mobile “new girl,” and you can bet that the restaurant will be the setting for plenty of shade-throwing and, if we’re lucky, a table flip or two.
Restaurants owned by Real Housewives, if they become fan favorites, are critic-proof. Exhibit A: Lisa Vanderpump, whose Los Angeles hot spots draw guests in droves despite terrible online reviews. So if Darby proves to be more watchable than the other fame-hungry rich ladies on this show, nothing I have to say here will matter.
Even before the show was announced, Oz felt like a place that puts more effort into scene-setting than its food. Outside, guests are greeted with a glowing kangaroo sign in yellow and green, the colors of Australian sports teams. The restaurant takes the place of the ill-fated La Tagliatella, with a dining room outfitted in aboriginal paintings and a mural of a cloudy sky.
To dispense with the low-bar comparison, it’s a far more faithful experience of this underrepresented cuisine than the ubiquitous “No Rules, Just Right” chain. And, Chang’s opinion on its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink recipe aside, that Oz burger has been popular with curiosity-seekers.
“In Australia, that’s called the burger with the lot,” said Darby, who acknowledged, “Some people will ask for the beetroot on the side.”
The problem with the Oz burger isn’t necessarily one of flavor — though I could do without the pineapple — but rather, engineering. Put slippery beet slices next to even more slippery pineapple rings and tomato, with a runny egg further decreasing the friction, and you’ll be grateful if you can pick the thing up in one piece. “I’m lucky I didn’t end up with this in my lap,” said one friend. For an extra $2, you can add avocado. I’d recommend doing so only if you have the reflexes of a ninja.
Outsiders’ fascination with Australia is due to its unique wildlife, which makes its way to your plate here. For those checking off items from their culinary bucket lists, there is emu and kangaroo meat (from Australia and New Jersey, respectively), the latter in the form of appetizer-size skewers. Chef Brad Feikart marinates the marsupial in pineapple juice and spices, Darby said. “It’s not a culture shock to your palate.” When prepared badly, kangaroo can be a workout for your jaw muscles, so a friend who used to live in Australia was surprised when he was able to cut the tender kangaroo without a steak knife. Emu, on the other hand, will best be appreciated by those who savor gaminess.
Comfort comes in the form of meat pies, with a tumble of beef, bacon and mushroom emerging when you pierce the flaky pastry. Australian beers (Foster’s, Cooper’s, James Boag) are best accompanied by the spicy rissole egg, a barely set chicken egg that grows to the size of an emu’s when wrapped in sausage and beef. Pavlova, a treasured Australian dish of meringue and berries, is well-represented, too.
But there is room for improvement. The fish of the day (a very Australian barramundi, during one of my visits) was a fillet simply prepared with light seasonings — bland, but not as disappointing as its sides, which were downright lazy: plain romaine lettuce leaves next to a wan tomato salad drenched in balsamic. I hoped this was a fluke, but on a subsequent visit, I found a dish even more egregious: the crumb steak, a pair of breaded chicken breasts served in a puddle of ordinary mustard with skinned wedges of plain cucumbers, and yet another pile of romaine. It’s the kind of thing I might have made for myself as a broke college student. Here, it was nearly $15.
The minimal seasoning is intentional. Darby related it to Australia’s culinary connection to British food — or at least, stereotypes of British food.
“British food is known to be not super zesty, to put it that way,” she said. “That’s similar to Australian [food]. They like things to be what they actually are.”
Okay, but that doesn’t explain how some dishes seemed to be thrown carelessly on the plate. Others felt incomplete: A carrot-avocado-farro salad was in dire need of some acid, or herbs, or another ingredient or four. And because it’s a meaty food culture, vegetarians should not be surprised that their only options are a veggie burger and some salads — though carnivores, too, may be disappointed by the diminutive portion of Australian Wagyu and the single king prawn in the $40 surf and turf, the priciest entree. On busy nights, be prepared to shout your order.
You’ll be better off at the bar. As we head into colder weather, sunny drinks like the Oz Painkiller and the black pepper margarita will keep guests thinking of surfing, even when they’re surrounded by snow. After all, it’s summer right now in Australia.
Location: 2950 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington. 703-664-0693. ozarlington.com.
Open: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $4.50-$13, entrees $12-$39.50.
Sound check: 87 decibels / Extremely loud.
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