Travel has been hard for me ever since spending a day unsuccessfully searching Paddington Station in London for a bear from deepest, darkest Peru. So I looked with trepidation towards thirty hours in transit to the land of Oz. But according to our Editor-in-Chief, we have two, count them, two, paid subscribers in Sydney. Who am I not to serve our readership?
So here I am, sitting on a balcony above Mosman Bay, an extension of Sydney Harbour. The haunting throb of local kookaburras echoes around the marina. A small group of rainbow lorikeets are perched on the railing begging for food.
Three and a half million people seems a small number for a melting pot when you’re used to New York City’s teeming masses. But Sydney is a stunning metropolitan area with everything from high-rises to bushlands to white sand beaches, and people from all over the planet have been wandering in for decades.
This is a country where a local chef informed me the typical citizen is likely to be happy consuming “bangers and mash” three meals a day, every day. It seems a contest at times whether the traditional Britishisms of the cuisine will give way to the onslaught of Asian, North and South American, African, and other European culinary invasions.
Native Australian ingredients do find their way into dishes from around the globe. Warrigal greens, wattle seeds and Balmain bugs are common enough on menus. On the other hand, the “bush” fare of the indigenous aboriginal population is unlikely to touch the average Sydney-sider’s palate. Witjuti grubs, blue-tailed skinks and fruit bats just aren’t on the daily bill of fare. With this in mind, I set forth to find out just what was happening at the local fine dining establishments.
Every major city has one restaurant that is a local secret shrine of incredible dining that natives just refer to as “the restaurant.” Sydney denizens have it lucky – hidden away in a back alley on a hill above Darling Harbour, theirs is aptly named simply, The Restaurant. Recommended by one of Australia’s most noted food writers, Stephanie Alexander, the choice was confirmed by my companion as his favorite in the city.
Down a flight of carved stone steps, a glowing garden of tables invited us to sit outside the slightly austere dining room. Alerted in advance to the presence of your faithful reviewer, Chef Stefano Manfredi greeted us as swiftly as his thoroughly competent waiters. At his suggestion we bypassed the menu and let him treat us to a stream of Aussie-Italian gastronomy not to be missed.
We started with a basket of fresh bread dipped in a glassy pool of olive oil and a bottle of one of the best cabernet sauvignons I’ve had (Plantagenet Cabernet Sauvignon, 1986, from Mount Barker in Western Australia), with a taste of ripe plums, cinnamon and toasted oak. Our plated courses began with seared Queensland scallops on a bed of linguini and sun-dried tomatoes tossed with garlic-olive oil. Sorry Long Island, but these scallops had more sweetness and flavor in their, ummm, little fingers, than a dozen from the Sound. For a second appetizer, a local delicacy, yabbies (something like what you’d get if you crossed a crayfish and a shrimp) served with incredibly light spinach gnocchi in a pool of browned butter.
We were then presented with a fish course of savory grilled kingfish steaks atop sauteed Chinese greens and accompanied by an olive puree and a basil, parsley, garlic and olive oil salsa verde. A meat course of baby lampchops from the Illabo region (you know, over near Wagga Wagga…) roasted with new potatoes and rosemary was good, but I must admit, baby lambchops don’t hold a candle to the adult ones in my palate. The final entree, roast pigeon (squab for the squeamish among you) was a stunning finish.
After a bit of time to settle comfortably, a platter of desserts was ceremoniously laid between us. A trio of baklava, an incredible pistachio mousse and slices of a delicious macadamia log was plated with scoops of outrageous pumpkin ice cream and tangy fruit sorbet. Scattered caramelized figs, and fresh rasp- and blueberries provided color and contrast. The Restaurant is a definite must-go when you visit Sydney.
The Restaurant, 88 Hacket Street, Ultimo, 281-2808. Cash or credit cards. Dinner $60-70 (US $40-45).
When the name of a restaurant comes up more than once in unrelated and unexpected conversation, I’ve been known to pay attention. A local chef had made a couple of his personal recommendations, and the young lady cutting my hair (and berating me for not doing it more often) announced firmly her favorite, a not to be missed, once-in-a-lifetime experience. So, on one of my solo nights out, I presented myself at Rockpool.
Located in the midst of The Rocks, Sydney’s version of the South Street Seaport, only much more so, this art deco establishment serves up top-flight “new Australian” cuisine. The waitstaff is competent and efficient, albeit slightly stiff. An eclectic mix of local and imported ingredients are prepared by Chef Neal Perry with touches of French, Middle Eastern and Asian style.
Ice water is not an automatic assumption in Australia, and is generally difficult to convince anyone to bring you. Rockpool won immediate American points by offering (and refreshing throughout the evening) a large tumblerful. This was followed by a first course perched on an ornate silver stand with a mound of shaved ice, a generous spoon of sevruga caviar atop a fresh Sydney Harbour oyster. A light squirt of lemon and I was primed for an impressive evening.
The first wine selected by the chef was a young, lemony Clare Valley Riesling with slightly grassy overtones (Grosset Polish Hill 1992 from Auburn, South Australia). Accompanying was a delicious dish of beautifully plated slices of steamed crayfish on a bed of braised looko and lamb’s lettuce and a sauce of olive oil, golden raisins, toasted pinenuts and strips of dried mango. A plate of crisp and savory pappadam triangles sat neatly on the side. This was followed by delightful sea scallops, seared and served with hummus and fava beans, all drizzled with a garlicky olive oil.
With a little respite to compose my appetite, my waiter delivered the next wine, a stunningly rich and buttery Chardonnay with a touch of toasted oak and crisp apples (1992 Pipers Brook Vineyard, from, oddly enough, Pipers Brook, Tasmania). the next course served up was the only disappointment of the evening. A Spanner crab and bean sprout omelette served in broth flavored with an Asian fish sauce. Unfortunately, the omelette became quickly soggy in the broth, and the sweet and delicate flavor of the crab was lost in the strength of the other flavors. However, this was immediately made up for with a main course of herb encrusted (turmeric, coriander, cumin, Spanish onion) salmon filet, pan-blackened and served with a red pepper sauce and savory roasted Szechuan eggplant.
The main course was followed by Rockpool’s signature dessert, a date tart, filled with plump California dates baked in a custardy pastry cream. Sighing contentment, I was unprepared for a second offering of caramelized nectarines layered with crisp waffles. the whole assemblage sat amidst a pool of caramel and vanilla bean sauce, with a scoop of nectarine ice cream at the side. I couldn’t have been happier, or fuller. Simply, add Rockpool to your Sydney itinerary.
Rockpool, 109 George Street, The Rocks, 252-1888. Cash and credit cards. Dinner $75-80 (US $50-55).
[A third review was omitted from the published version because of space issues. Here ’tis.]
The following evening, a trio of friends insisted we drop in on a more casual venue in the neighborhood, The Bathers Pavilion. The building is indeed a former bathers’pavilion, for many years now a delightful restaurant and soon to be a small hotel. It sits squarely on Balmoral Esplanade and looks over an attractive, sandy beach and cove. The atmosphere inside is as relaxed as outside, with customers sometimes climbing in the windows from the beach and the staff attired in jeans and Pavilion t-shirts. Don’t let appearances deceive, the young and attractive group working the floor are completely knowledgeable about the food they are serving and their sommelier is one of the best I have met.
Chef Genevieve Harris joined the restaurant less than a month ago after a stint as the executive chef at Amankila Resort in Bali, and it was generally agreed by the staff that she was the perfect choice. While she was not present this night, her second, Greg Smith, took exquisite care of us. Unlike the standard tasting series of small plates, he served up platters of food that allowed us to sample a rather extensive range of the kitchen’s offerings.
We opened the evening with a light, dry 1990 Riesling from Howard Park (the private label of Plantagenet Vineyards) in Mount Barker, Western Australia, tasting of under-ripe peaches with a slightly dusty finish. Our appetizers arrived on two huge stoneware ovals and were divided amongst our plates as the waiter described each dish. The cold platter contained three delightful selections: a salmon tartare, lightly dressed and served on toast; a timbale of roast eggplant filled with goat cheese; and tea-smoked river trout with caramelized onions, lovage and feta cheese. The hot plate provided us with two superb dishes, Yamba king prawns with “rag” pasta, tomatoes and olives; and Western Australia sea scallops with sauteed pine mushrooms on a parsnip rosti (basically, a latke).
Giving us a bit of time to digest and look out over the water, our sommelier stepped in with his next selection, a 1990 Chardonnay from Geoff Weaver’s Stafford Ridge Winery in Lenswood, South Australia. This turned out to be one of the more unusual chardonnays I’ve ever tasted with a strong flavor that I could only describe as burnt vanilla and what one of my companions thought hinted at aniseed. I was at a loss to guess what dishes might go with it, but the chef came through. John Dory fillets, crusted lightly with pepper and served on top of crisp green beans and a mound of babaganoush made a light and tasty fish course. Next to this was a delectable Victorian salmon fillet surrounded by roast peppers, prosciutto and caramelized figs.
Almost simultaneously, our third wine arrived, a last remaining half bottle of Mount Mary Vineyard 1987 Cabernet from Lilydale in Victoria. We were informed that this might just be the best cabernet ever to come out of Victoria. It was appealing with its strong flavors of tart cherries and pepper. The kitchen served up a platter containing slices of Illabo lamb with field mushrooms atop a smooth puree of garlicky potatoes and a wonderful roast breast of guinea fowl with spinach, garlic and almonds.
We were then allowed to sit comfortably and chat for long enough to recover from this largess. But soon, a small bottle of Petaluma 1988 Botrytis Riesling was brought to the table. This absolutely delightful dessert wine with its flavors of apricots and spice was a perfect close to the meal. Especially when accompanied by two platters of desserts. A fresh raspberry and clotted cream tart left my companions unimpressed, but I like simple desserts. The chocolate and hazelnut semifreddo gave us our chocolate fix without overdoing it. The cinnamon bakhlava with custard filling and nectarine, roasted almond and candied orange rind salad was superb. The crowning selection, however, was coconut lace wafers with slices of fresh mango, whipped mascarpone cheese and a scoop of mango sorbet.
What can I say? If you have a taste for suburbia, relaxed atmosphere, a pretty view, and good food and wine, drop in on The Bathers Pavilion.
The Bathers Pavilion, The Esplanade, Balmoral, 968-1133. Cash and credit cards. Dnner $65-70 (US$45-50).
CaB magazine was one of the first publications I ever wrote for. Published by my dear friend Andrew Martin, it covered the Cabaret, Theater, Music and Dining scene in New York City, long before slick publications like Time Out NY and Where NY became popular. We had great fun writing it, and some wonderful writers contributed to its pages. When the magazine folded in the mid-90s, Andrew disappeared from the scene, and rumors had it that he departed from this existence not long after. I was thrilled to find out in mid-October 2005, a decade later, that the rumors were just that. Andrew contacted me after finding my site via that omnipresent force, Google. He’s alive and well and a member of a comedy troupe called Meet the Mistake. Somehow quite fitting!