Taste Queensland with Salsa: Fine food with flair by Rhys Bawden and Bill Conway

Get your mojo back with a modern taste of the tropics from Salsa Port Douglas

By Robyn Lewis
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Aerial of Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas

Aerial of Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas

Port Douglas Marina
Salsa, Fine food with flair - Rhys Bawden and Bill Conway


It’s that time of year again in southern Australia. Winter has stolen your mojo. Sure, spring is in the air (sort of) but the long nights, damp cold and threats of flu are getting you down. Time to get some Vitamin D you say to yourself as you google Far North Queensland…. and with all those travel specials on offer right now, why not?

So, will it be the Whitsundays, Mission Beach, Cairns, Palm Cove, or PD as the locals know it? I admit a bias – as a former resident of the Far North, Port Douglas was and remains my favourite beach getaway, despite the changes that have occurred since I moved south. It’s still a lovely, laid back little tropical town, set amongst the sugar cane and every bit as welcoming as the day Christopher Skase first laid eyes on it.

Back then though the food choices were limited – it was the Mirage, the Nautilus and not much in between for fine dining. Sure, bags of fresh cooked prawns could (and still can) be had at the local garage, and along with a sundowner or two made for some fun feasts by the sea. Coffee and laksa in Macrossan Street were good, but it was dining at The Nautilus that was the peak memorable experience – think perfectly-chillied mud crab by flickering flamelight under the palm trees, preceded by cocktails and washed down with some very good wines indeed…. bliss.

Then along came the Marina, Zinc, Mojo, Star of Siam, and more – and Salsa Bar & Grill, originally in Macrossan St. Despite its Western-sounding name, for thirteen plus years now Salsa Bar & Grill has been serving ‘tropical modern Australian cuisine’ to locals and tourists alike. Fans include former US President Bill Clinton - to whom PD had become something of an escape - and a myriad of southerners who each year make the pilgrimage north and pre-book their Salsa tables well in advance.

Salsa relocated round the corner to Wharf Street in 2000, opposite the ‘little white church’ – a landmark building which was one of the few to survive the 1911 mega-cyclone. Salsa Bar & Grill is now housed in true Queenslander style, and is made for relaxing. Go for lunch and you’ll be there all afternoon.

So, what is it that draws them back? Salsa has a swag of awards and a string of internationally-trained chefs. Top that with great service and fabulous food, and you can see why some visitors to PD spend half their holidays there, working their way through the 50 dishes that loyal customers refuse to let them drop from their menu. If only every tourist town in Australia had a local like Salsa.

And now it has its own cookbook, Salsa – Fine food with flair. Authors, chefs and restaurant owners Rhys Bawden and Bill Conway have worked in and managed fine dining restaurants in the US, Switzerland, New Zealand and Australia, before reaching their nirvana in PD. Adding a further European dimension, head chef Gonan Zorai is originally from the Schwarzwald, and the team is global.

Conway’s experiences on stove saw him change his style from original French to the now all-pervasive but then groundbreaking ‘modern Californian’ cuisine, where vegetables are included in and on the main dish and plate, rather than as sides. Today at Salsa it’s multicultural fusion, melding Asian with Cajun, Moroccan with Mexican, Pacific with Italian, tandoor spices with soy – and judging by the happy clientele they continually carry it off.

Tropical cookbooks were scarce when I lived in FNQ; apart from very localised recipe collections like Cooking and Looking in Cairns and District, which contained 80s classics like ‘pork chops in wine’ and ‘mango cream pie’, Australian publications were non-existent – I had to make do with one from Florida (the excellent and still relevant Tropic Cooking by Joyce LaFray Young). However this was Caribbean Cajun fusion and lacked the touch of the Pacific that tropical Australian cuisine demands. It’s been a long time between drinks – twenty years – until our own tropical culinary volume of world class standard has appeared.

Salsa - Fine food with flair
exudes the tropics like a frangipani tree in full bloom. Despite this – and thanks to modern transport and our burgeoning food markets - many of the dishes can be made in much higher latitudes, and by the home cook/chef: seared half-shell scallops with vanilla and lime sabayon, shaved fennel and red cabbage salad; whitebait fritters given a new lease of life with wasabi aïoli, lobster bisque with garlic and chilli sautéed Moreton Bay bugs; citrus and Szechuan-crusted mahi-mahi with coconut and kaffir lime sauce and Thai capsicum jam  – the seafood list is long and mouth watering.

Slightly less tropical dishes to enliven a winter’s evening are the porcini mushroom risotto with nashi pear jam and confit garlic mascarpone; lamb tenderloins with pea and mint purée; chermoula-marinaded quail with frittata and burned orange glaze; and buttermilk chicken with sobu noodle salad and tom yum aïoli. Not enough fusion? Then try coriander späetzle with your bugs and sand crabs.

There are also some local specialities – crocodile tortellini, parrot fish (lemon and sage baked), and a fine use of indigenous Australian spices and condiments like Davidson’s plum, wild hibiscus and lemon myrtle. Desserts are very Asian-inspired: be torn between coconut and kaffir lime pannacotta and mango and chilli crème brulée. I haven’t seen such a multicultural melange for a long time.

To carry all this off requires considerable culinary skill and a great deal of imagination and experimentation, the results of which are generously shared in Salsa - Fine food with flair, along with a raft of techniques for the basic sauces and stocks, spice mixes – and even how to make baguettes (once unprocurable in FNQ).

The book ends as the true Salsa meal should begin, with some sensational tropical cocktails….  I only regret that the sommelier did not add some of his or her wine suggestions, as flavour matching to some of these dishes would be an interesting challenge indeed. But after a Salsa margarita or mango daiquiri, who cares? So get your mojo back - and if you can't make it to PD this year, then buy the book instead.

Salsa - Fine food with flair is published by New Holland Publishers (hb; 2009), RRP A$49.95, US$39.95 and is available from the restaurant, online through the Salsa Bar & Grill website and on Amazon.com.

Visitors to Port Douglas can search and book accommodation through VisitVineyards.com – just type Port Douglas into the search.

To reserve a table at Salsa Bar & Grill click here for their listing. Once you have received your confirmation either via email or phone, you will need to reconfirm your reservation with the restaurant once you have arrived in Port Douglas.


Get into the Salsa groove with this video of Salsa Bar and Grill and the cookbook launch (great music too!)


  • Far North Queensland (QLD)

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