Sunburnt Cow is the worst name for a restaurant I can recall—though a now defunct place on East 6th Street called Anar Bagh gave the Cow a run for its money. This Australian spot opened two months ago on Avenue C, where nearly a dozen bars and cafés have turned the tree-shaded thoroughfare into a rollicking frontier town, sucking the patrons out of the Avenue B joints and leaving them half empty. I wondered what constituted an Aussie (or “Ozzie”) restaurant as I climbed the rickety wooden porch. The national propensity for drink and sport is demonstrated immediately by the expansive barroom and big-screen TV, making the back room a far better place to dine. Some plaster master has turned it into a grotto tinted the rusty color of Ayers Rock and the Great Australian desert. In fine weather the tarp that serves as the roof is rolled back, and the full moon sometimes washes customers in eerie light. A persistent bark is probably one of the feral mutts that haunt the tenement backyards of Avenue C, or maybe it’s a dingo.
What is Australian food? It harkens back to England, of course, and the restaurant’s short menu features the Anglo bar staple bangers and mash ($12)—only the sausages are made of kangaroo. While eating ‘roo is hardly an Ozzie tradition, any upscale bistro in Melbourne or Sydney is likely to have worked the marsupial into its menu. These sausages come planted in buttery mashed potatoes ringed with a river of caramelized onions, a combination that borders on the divine. More bratwurst than kielbasa, the sausage has an intriguing flavor reminiscent of juniper berries. Another Australian invention is the oyster shooter ($12), four shot glasses of sake, each with a raw shellfish flailing in the bottom, pinned down by diced mango, kiwi, and jalapeño. The sake is the only Asian flourish on the menu, though fusion cooking is all the rage back home.
Among appetizers, if you disdain the alcoholic joint of the shooter, you could pick barbecued shrimp ($10), a dish Crocodile Dundee made de rigueur. Here, four decent-sized individuals have been thrust onto a wooden stick and rubbed with salt and pepperberry—an outback herb, part of a bush-food revival that has seen native plants and animals incorporated into menus all over the country. Pepperberry imparts a faint metallic burn and mineral aftertaste and I wish the chef would have used more of it. Entrées include a trendy flatiron steak—a thick shoulder cut with a bit of fight to it—that comes sliced and spread over a lumpy bed of croutons and tomato sauce. There’s also a spring chicken named, in DownUnder dialect, “chook.”
But best of all is the Aussie fish of the day ($18), which is usually barramundi. In her natural state, this squint-eyed and hump-shouldered critter swims in both fresh and salt water. Odder yet, he begins life as a slender male, and switches to an obese egg-laying female in old age. I’m not kidding! Barramundi remains a passion among Ozzies, even though natural stocks are depleted, making the farm-raised type nearly universal. In fact, the barramundi-farming industry has had an overproduction problem lately. Making you think, as you fork tender morsels of firm and perfectly cooked white flesh mouthward: Am I being duped by an Aussie excess-fish-exporting conspiracy?