HOBART, Australia - It’s a heat wave, residents are saying. The temperature may be in the 70s, but it’s unusually humid for December. My shirt clings to me as I climb the hills of West Hobart, an unfashionable neighborhood just outside the business district of Tasmania’s capital. In my hand I hold the address of Garagistes, the restaurant that is challenging the eating habits of this forest-fringed city.
I find it on Murray Street, opposite a discount pharmacy: a black door in a windowless frontage as wide as the car repair shop it was once (“garagistes’’ is the French term for a back street winemaker). Inside, all is cool, dark, and airy. Walls are black or scrubbed down to the brick in places. Four trestle tables are lined up perpendicular to a black bar and an open kitchen. At the far end of the stripped-out space is a charcuterie room, with a peephole window, where chef Luke Burgess, formerly of Noma in Copenhagen, cures his own salamis and hams. From behind the counter, he sends out platters such as veal sweetbreads spiked with sour cherry, and buckwheat, lettuce hearts, and nasturtium leaves, each designed for sharing.
Not long ago the idea of sharing nasturtium leaves at a Hobart restaurant would have been met with disbelieving laughter. Hobart, on the same latitude as Patagonia, has long been the sort of place where outdoorsy types mountain bike in the morning, kayak in the afternoon, and wind up having a Cascade or two, the city’s own brew. Logging trucks still rumble through the business area, a clue to the island state’s main - and controversial - source of income. But these days, the country’s poorest state prompts fewer jokes and more envious glances among mainland Australians. For Hobart, at the southern tip of Tasmania - next stop Antarctica - is transformed.
The catalyst arrived in the shape of a millionaire gambler. David Walsh, 50, is the mathematically gifted son of a single mother from Glenorchy, Hobart’s hardscrabble suburb. He made his millions figuring out formulas for betting successfully on racehorses in the 1980s and ’90s. In 1995 he paid $2.5 million for a peninsula of land with a vineyard, Moorilla, between Hobart and Glenorchy, later adding a boutique winery, a brewery, and accommodations. Ten years on and Walsh began to construct MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, on the peninsula. The design, by Australian architect Nonda Katsalidis, was typically contrary, building down not up: Some 60,000 tons of earth were removed and engineers cut through nearly 2 miles of rock. An elevator sinks into a sandstone-lined shaft and visitors begin at the bottom and make their way up three levels to Tasmania’s blinding sunlight.
Walsh’s curators describe him as a brave collector, interested in difficult works rather than trophy hunting. His $80 million museum houses a $100 million art collection encompassing his interests: Neolithic arrowheads and Roman, Greek, and Egyptian antiquities are arranged beside provocative contemporary art and key pieces by Australian artists Brett Whiteley and Sidney Nolan.
Some say MONA is a glimpse into Walsh’s mind. Walsh calls it a “subversive adult Disneyland.’’ Both are accurate descriptions. To grasp Walsh’s no-boundaries thought processes, know that he originally wanted a crematorium within MONA. Approval proved difficult so instead he has a space where, for an eternal membership fee of $75,000, your ashes will be displayed in an engraved urn.
MONA opened last January, preceded by an annual arts festival, MONA FOMA, that takes over central Hobart. This year, curated as always by Brian Ritchie, formerly of the band the Violent Femmes, it is running Jan. 13-22, having opened with a street party and closing with a performance by British singer PJ Harvey.
On MONA’s own boat service the next day, from Hobart’s waterfront along the Derwent River, I wonder to what other art galleries are visitors escorted by a pod of dolphins. Arriving on the plaza outside the museum’s modest entrance, I meet 80-something Mavis Robertson of Melbourne, who is a fan. “I like the sense of humor and I like millionaires who give something back,’’ she says. “Not everybody has the opportunity to see the art and riches of the world.’’
It’s another steamy day so with relief I take the elevator into MONA’s depths. On being freed at the base of a three-story chasm, my first sight is of a bar, complete with a neatly dressed bartender. My next is of New Zealand artist Julia deVille’s “Cinerarium,’’ complete with a neatly stuffed raven watching over an urn of human ashes.
An exhibition by Wim Delvoye, up until April 2, dominates the lower levels. But art here is not presented with explanatory labels, as is typical in museums. “I’m trying to build a museum that you discover gradually,’’ Walsh has said. Rather than a thread to follow through his labyrinth, visitors are handed an iPod loaded with exhibit details, idiosyncratic commentary, and the option to “love’’ or “hate’’ pieces. Later, at home, you can download your tour from MONA’s website.
It’s quite a jump from pulp mills and half-hewn old-growth forests to state-of-the-art museums and arts festivals, but Tasmania is mid-leap. Delia Nicholls, research curator at MONA, agrees: “The island has always been regarded by the rest of the country as a beautiful backwater. Now it has the cachet of a new cultural destination. But we can’t carry such a vision on our own.’’ Fortunately, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which fascinated Walsh when he was a boy, is being redeveloped and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, in the northern Tasmanian town of Launceston, was refurbished last year.
After experiencing the museum, many out-of-state visitors stop at Garagistes for a glass of biodynamic wine. “MONA has had a huge impact on the type of people visiting Hobart,’’ says the restaurant’s co-founder Katrina Birchmeier. “We’re now more of a cultural city and Tasmanians are getting more adventurous.’’ Birchmeier; her partner, Burgess, the chef; and cofounder Kirk Richardson moved to Hobart from Sydney five years ago, finally finding the right site in February 2010. “The aesthetics appealed,’’ says Birchmeier. “It was lofty and there was space for a wine cellar and a charcuterie room for Luke.’’
The great produce on their doorstep - “Foraging Skills and Cooking’’ is the title of a book on the shelf behind the counter - complements Burgess’s back-to-the-land approach. But it’s not only the ingredients that are local. The restaurant’s trestle tables are crafted from Tasmanian oak by Hobart designer Evan Hancock and Richardson’s father, a potter, throws the monochrome crockery.
“The best thing about Hobart is the people and the relationships we have with them,’’ says Birchmeier. One such connection is with Jay Patey, the owner and baker behind Pigeon Hole, a cafe 10 minutes away in West Hobart. Patey is another out-of-towner, arriving from Queensland seven years ago. If you want to sit alongside MONA’s architects, Hobart’s off-duty chefs, or Ritchie, this former butcher’s shop, fitted out with vintage furniture, is where to breakfast. The menu is short, the food simple, inspired by Spanish and Italian snacks. Eggs en cocotte with jamon and soused onions are a favorite. I order toasted slices of Patey’s delicious sourdough and his mother-in-law’s apricot jam, the first of the season.
“There are a lot of talented people in Hobart,’’ Patey says, “but no suits or city slickers. There’s not much pretension down here.’’
More filling meals are offered in Salamanca Place, a harborside row of sandstone warehouses dating from the 1830s and one of the best-preserved examples of colonial architecture in Australia. These warehouses are now filled with independent galleries, shops, and cafes such as the endearing Tricycle. In the square behind the warehouses, Smolt is a fish restaurant opened by Tasmanian entrepreneur Kif Weber and chef Scott McMurray, both in their early 30s, who migrated from Launceston. Many of their generation are returning home having worked around the world in their 20s, arriving back with ideas and ambition. Resident Tasmanians only half-joke that if too many people settle on the island it will sink.
That night the weather breaks with a deafening crack of thunder and flooding rains. Hobart too seems to have reached something of a watershed moment.
If you go...
What to do
655 Main Road, Berriedale
Landmark showcase from enigmatic founder David Walsh. Get there by rental bike, ferry, or bus from Hobart Harbor. Entry: $20, bus or ferry $15 return. Closed Tuesdays.
Annual festival that introduced Walsh’s avant-garde art to the city, until Jan. 22.
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
5 Argyle St., Hobart
Tasmanian art and artifacts. Free.
Where to stay
Henry Jones Art Hotel
25 Hunter St., Hobart
Harbor views, art and luxe furnishings. Doubles from $200.
Where to eat
103 Murray St., West Hobart
Pigeon Hole Cafe
93 Goulburn St., West Hobart
2 Salamanca Square, Hobart
77 Salamanca Place, Hobart
$5-$18.Robin Barton can be reached at www.robinabarton.com.