Forget the barbie — try the pie
Aussie Pie Kitchen puts a West Coast spin on a Down Under staple
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
It’s the fate of every cuisine to become caricature. People associate Italians with spaghetti, Germans with sauerkraut, Mexicans with tacos, and so forth. We Americans are so deeply associated with hamburgers that many foreigners think we eat them every day. (That is correct of some people, unfortunately — not very healthy people, but that’s another article.)
Australians get tagged with “shrimp on the barbie,” something you’ll never find on an Australian menu. That’s a coinage from a TV commercial. They eat plenty of grilled seafood Down Under, but any decapods large enough to be cooked that way are called prawns.
On the other hand, you’ll find meat pies served all over Australia, and those have a much better claim to being the national snack.
If you’d like to try that authentic Australian meal, there’s no better place than Aussie Pie Kitchen in Santa Monica. Authentic is a relative term here; this is a project of a Californian named Joe Youkhan, a veteran chef who brings a modern sensibility to an item
that has both a British and Australian heritage.
The Australian pie looks like an actual pie rather than a turnover, and when you see them in the glass case they appear small. This is misleading, as they’re filling by themselves — and even more so when used as the centerpiece of a “tiger stack,” in which they’re served over garlic mashed potatoes or dressing and topped with minted peas and creamy thyme gravy.
The tiger stack is an invention of a famous food cart in Sydney that started serving pies that way in the 1950s. It defeats the idea of eating the pies as finger food, but then again so does another traditional Australian habit — topping them with liberal amounts of tomato sauce. Of the two, I’ll take the tiger stack.
The most popular pie in Australia contains ground beef and onion in a sauce of beef stock with ketchup, Worcestershire and oregano. Upscale versions add wine to the sauce, but it’s pretty simple.
Since this is an Aussie pie place in California, there are many variations available (including vegetarian), and the basic pie sauce is made with Shiraz wine and a mirepoix vegetable mix. Among the pie fillings here are chicken in either wine-and-lemon sauce or green curry, lamb with rosemary, and a Greek-style ratatouille.
Our vegetarian dining companion seized on the ratatouille, my wife had the chicken, and I decided I wanted the classic. Two starches were available for the “tiger stack” — roasted garlic mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes. We tried both.
The pies arrived after a brief wait, mine almost invisible beneath the toppings of potatoes and gravy.
The gravy wasn’t vegetarian, so our companion’s ratatouille pie was without it. The sweet potatoes probably were better without the gravy anyway, because they had a simple natural goodness that would be hard to improve upon, while the mashed potatoes were more of a blank canvas.
The pies themselves were precisely what one might expect: flaky pastry with simple, wholesome stews inside.
The debt to British pub food was least obvious in the vegetarian pie, which was full of warm Mediterranean flavors and had a nice accent from olive tapenade.
The lamb and rosemary pie was simpler but no less enjoyable, the beef pie more hearty and with more vegetables, and all three were encased in a remarkably good crust. The bottom of savory pies is so often soggy, but that wasn’t the case here. We ate every crumb. Then we were at another layer of goodness, the sausage and pecan stuffing beneath — like the best Thanksgiving stuffing your mom never made.
We had arrived at Aussie Pie Kitchen near the end of the evening and only a bit of their minted mushy peas were left, but the sample I tried made me reassess mushy peas. These had plenty of fresh flavors of peas, shallots and mint, unlike ones
I’ve had in British pubs which are usually badly overcooked and heavy.
Beer and wine aren’t served here, but Australian soft drinks by Bundaberg are, as well as coffee in the “flat white” style invented in New Zealand.
We were just finishing our drinks and getting ready to depart when our server surprised us with complimentary samples of their croissant bread pudding drizzled with caramel and topped with whipped cream. I am not generally a fan of caramel but found this version very good, slightly smoky and not over-sweet. I’d still get it on the side next time, because this crisp, savory dessert was fine just as it came from the oven.
The pies cost between $9 and $12, plus $7 for the tiger stack, so our food ran about $20 per person. That’s a remarkable deal for a full meal in this neighborhood, and I’d happily return.
This Californian reinvention of Australian food is completely successful and worth a special trip.
Aussie Pie Kitchen, 2510 Main St., Santa Monica (310) 399-0743 aussiepiekitchen.com