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Downtown Under

Authentic Australian dishes like emu and kangaroo are rare even in Sydney these days -- who would ever expect to find them on Mulberry Street?

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You never wait at Pastis. When you call Babbo at the last minute, they don't say, "Sorry -- all we have available is 6 or 10:30"; they say, "Would you prefer upstairs or down?" So how come you've been thinking about seeing the movie Loser? Because you can't get into Ducasse, damn it. Every connection you thought you had short-circuited. What's worse, everyone you know thinks you're his "in." You've weighed leaving town for the summer. For the year. It's not like you care about the money. But what are you going to tell your friends when they find out you can't get their butts -- or yours -- into any of those 65 seats?

Okay, try this before you pull out the Samsonite. First, suggest that a ceremonial pen selection to sign a credit-card slip is even goonier than two-tone wing tips, or, say, David Bouley's crumb-trail-dropping bread cart. Then imply that even though getting into Ducasse is child's play, you prefer a downtown boîte that barely accommodates 25, where the menu goes beyond eight-star one-of-a-kindness. In fact, it's Australian. Ducasse may offer wild salmon, black truffles, veal sweetbreads. But come on, how many times are we going to go back to that old well? Who's for savoring emu, kangaroo, or skate wing dusted with bunya nut? Talk about being first on your block.

Ironically, dine at Eight Mile Creek and you could be the first on many a block in Sydney and Melbourne as well to sample these critters. Last year, I was in Australia for nearly two weeks and not one kangaroo I saw came within 40 hops of a hot plate. For the past few years, the host country of what will probably be the friendliest, sexiest Olympics ever (Aussies can't help themselves, which is why they captivate everyone who visits) has been caught up in wolfing down Mod Oz, its version of fusion cooking, a piquant, at times even acidic variation on Pacific Rim cuisine marked by an absence of fiery peppers and mustards and a partiality for passion fruit.

Despite the country's unique resources, local chefs admit that their desire to acquire classic French technique and interpret global trends has left them unsure as to how to incorporate such indigenous ingredients as quandong and lemon myrtle. In fact, the most fervent torchbearer of native Australian cooking, Jean-Paul Bruneteau, is in Paris, where his new place, Woolloomooloo, is a big hit. With a restaurant name like that, you can bet Bruneteau ain't wasting a lot of time garnishing cod quenelles.

Happily, there are now two more champions of pre-Mod Oz cooking, though their winner's circle wound up 10,000 miles from home. I doubt that Will and Frank Ford meant their railroad-flat-narrow, burnt-orange-painted, tin-wrapped space to be a bastion of nationalism. Talk to either of these easygoing charmers for five minutes, and politics does not spark their interest. Making the best margarita in town -- and they are simply sensational -- now, that's a priority. So is filling Eight Mile Creek with the food they've always found comforting. (And should you fancy Australian grapes -- if you don't, you don't know them -- their canny wine list will make you regret that the brothers don't sell bottles by the case.) Luckily, they have found an able ally in Ken Addington, who obviously learned a lot about balancing potent ingredients working under the underrated Geoffrey Zakarian at Patroon.

The result is a small but incredibly smart, incredibly unthreatening menu where each dish featuring an unfamiliar centerpiece is tempered by familiar surroundings, while each dish highlighting something soothing is framed by spirited kicks and quirks. Ubiquitous seared tuna is delightfully spiffed up with a wonderful marinade of sour orange atop seaweed noodles smacked with ginger. A dark, rich emu carpaccio, however, is bathed in a silken black-truffle vinaigrette. You swore kangaroo wasn't going to be this tender. It's briny spiciness is a treat, but that it tears like tenderloin is the sweet surprise. For so urbane a seafood, oyster "Meat Pie" sounds leaden, but a thick, unapologetically gooey sauce of salsify and leeks, sharpened with tarragon, inspired almost childlike satisfaction. Avocado-and-cucumber soup is neither too velvety nor too sharp, and the sprinkle of Thai basil leaves a refreshing aftertaste. Unfortunately, bunya nut is so dense a layering that skate could just as easily be flounder. But the tartness of quandong fruit keenly balances the sweet lacquer on a barbecued quail.

In too many places now, confit of duck approaches the commonplace. But braised in consommé with wood ears and a ring of foie gras dumplings, the dish gets a tender reawakening. Striped bass is frisky in a black-vinegar reduction, but it should have come with at least a pound more of duck-confit mashed potatoes. No one could get enough of them. Rib eye is neatly stung by sherried peppers. The heavy taste of char is counterbalanced by a light dried-shrimp risotto. A luscious lamb is encrusted in an herb polenta that's just a bit too thick, but what fragrant wonders lemon myrtle can do to a chicken! And how clever to pair it with a leg that's been stuffed sausagelike with dark meat and livers.

I don't like dates. Unless it's chocolate, I don't like pudding. But whatever you do, order the sticky date pudding (it's really like cake). The pink-peppercorn pavlova looks superb. Once the meringue is broken, it's really a mess. Don't let that stop you. No way were the blithely swaggering Ford brothers weaned on rose-water panna cotta. But don't hold that against it. And the chocolate-macadamia-praline tart is just uncandylike enough to make you glad you are too civilized to share.

Now, mind you, elegance here doesn't go far. There are no twee tables expressly designed for the ladies to put their purses. And the revelry of the late-night bar crowd could make you long for those hushed tones bouncing off thick uptown upholstery, though if you've downed more than one of those margaritas you may not care until the sun comes up, when, yeah, you're still going to want to go to Ducasse. If only for your ego, and the production number with the pens. Not that Frank or Will won't offer you one. It's just that theirs are usually behind their ears.

Eight Mile Creek, 240 Mulberry Street (212-431-4635). Dinner only, Tuesdays through Sundays, 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Appetizers, $8 to $13; entrées, $17 to $25. (Bar is open seven days a week, from 5:30 p.m., with its own bar menu.) All major credit cards.


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