I don’t often write restaurant reviews. I’m happier writing about cooking and how the experience of food helps maintain the connection with my family scattered across three continents. But I’m writing this post on an Air China flight back to Beijing after a memorable week in which Claire and Mike pulled out the stops to create a unique taste of Sydney which would give us some sense of the range of cuisine this fantastic city has to offer and how it has been influenced by Asian and European immigrants over the years.
Writing about food is also a distraction from the inevitable sense of loss that comes with rising into the skies above Sydney and leaving behind our warm, bubbly daughter once again, content in the knowledge that she is happy in her world and has a lifestyle with Mike we could all envy but missing her, missing her, missing her.
Over the past week we have eaten in 6 very different restaurants in and around Sydney as well as having some lovely meals at home with Claire and Mike and drinking many excellent cups of coffee in the cafes of Clovelly and Bronte. The Aussies do coffee well. Making a great cup of coffee at home has plenty to do with buying excellent beans, but after that, it’s crucial to consider how you store them, that’s why coffee canister amazon can definitely extend your coffee’s shelf life and keep all of those delicate flavors and aromas ripe and fresh for another week. We shopped for groceries in the food markets at Westfield in Bondi Junction and the Asian supermarkets in Blacktown. We attended a Cookery Class at Sydney Fish Market and we got to the Taste of Sydney festival in Centennial Park. We had Asian, Italian and Modern Australian cuisine, some of it with distinct French influences.
We only scratched the surface of the food culture of the city but at least we tasted enough to appreciate the rich diversity of food styles and the quality of the fresh ingredients – seafood in varieties unfamiliar to us in the Northern Hemisphere, herbs and vegetables grown easily in this sub-tropical climate and oozing freshness, including the tallest lemon grass, coriander and spring onions I have ever encountered and lamb, beef and other meats rich in texture and flavour such as wagyu beef that pops up frequently on menus.
A word of caution – eating out in Sydney is expensive, eye-wateringly expensive – a combination of the strength of the Australian dollar, inflation which has continued while Ireland and Europe has wallowed in recession and the excellent value now on offer in Irish restaurants, meant that we noted a dramatic increase in prices for our euro compared to previous visits. Even coffees and brunches in neighbourhood cafes are now pricey. If you can get over the idea of wine at $15 a glass, starters upwards of $15 and mains well into the $30 and $40 range, you can eat very well in Sydney and in our case it helped that Claire and Mike had a spare room for us to stay in this time so high accommodation costs were not an issue.
Here’s a whistle stop tour of where we got to:
Republic 2 Courtyard , Palmer Street, Darlinghurst, NSW 2010, Ph: +612 9331 0709
I had wanted to visit Christine Manfield’s restaurant since Claire sent me her cookbook Fire – a World of Flavour for Christmas. This is a woman who understands how to play with spices and seasonings to create unique combinations and tastes. Once Christine announced that she was hanging up her chefs apron and closing Universal at the end of this coming April to concentrate on writing, travelling and the occasional pop up restaurant, it quickly became booked out and Claire did well to get us in for an early bird sitting on the evening we arrived jet-lagged from Beijing.
The restaurant is funky and fun, the staff are friendly and unfussy – our lovely waiter told us that for his next job he wants to work in a restaurant that has walls and a ceiling as this one opens onto an outdoor courtyard and, in occasional Sydney downpours, the waiters double as “mopper-uppers”.
There are no starters or main courses. Instead the menu takes the form of “tastes” – savoury, vegetarian and dessert – which you can combine to create your own mini tasting menu. Our waiter recommended that we have 3 savoury “tastes”, choosing from lighter and heavier options, and one dessert. Matching wines are also available for each dish as well as some wicked cocktails which can do serious damage to the final bill.
The food is intriguing and different, showing a variety of Asian and other world influences – Christine dislikes the label “fusion”. Perhaps it was jet-lag but some of the dishes worked better for me than others. Sichuan spiced duck with seared scallops, asparagus, lychee and smoked eggplant sambal was a well executed dish. Lamb rump with roasted pumpkin, spiced apple chutney, saffron rice, spiced chickpeas and smoked almonds chosen by Claire gave me a bout of food envy. On the other hand I found the roasted snapper, spanner crab, mint salsa and spiced coconut slightly overpowered by the coconut.
Christine’s signature dessert, “Gaytime goes nuts” is a tongue-in-cheek, deconstructed take on an Australian kids’ ice-cream. I’ve never had the original but I loved this version with its complex layers of honeycomb ice-cream, carmel parfait, chocolate crunch and salted hazelnut carmel.
Claire and Mike had met Christine at a class at Sydney Seafood School a few weeks earlier and so she came out to chat to us both before and after the service, a warm, engaging person who is not into celebrity or status but is passionate about her food and is very hands on in her kitchen.
She autographed copies of her most recent book for us – a Penguin Lantern Classic collection of her better known recipes – and I will have a copy as a prize on the blog when I get home. She also came back at the end of the night with a signed copy of the menu, a lovely souvenir of our first night in Sydney. Despite our early-bird booking we were allowed linger well into the evening. I’m really glad to have had the opportunity to dine at Universal before it closes and hope I encounter Christine in my travels again. Watch out for her. She has a habit of popping up in unexpected places.
545 Crown Street, Surry Hills NSW 2010, Ph: +612 9698 4355
10 Bligh St, Sydney NSW 2000, Ph: +61 2 8078 1888
A passing reference to writing a blog on Chinese food led me to this Neil Perry restaurant at Rockpool which was recommended by a colleague of Claire’s friend Leigh as a “must visit” for anyone serious about Chinese food. I was slightly dubious about a “Chinese” restaurant which was the brainchild of an Australian celebrity chef but it did not disappoint.
To start with it has the most interesting entrance to a restaurant that I’ve encountered in a long time – a door that looks like a constantly swirling curtain changing colours like a kaleidoscope. Steps lead you deep down into a basement restaurant where you lose all sense of time and a Friday lunchtime with lots of business diners could easily pass for a late weekend night. Read about Jimmy John Founder as well and know more regarding the successful sandwich joint. Tables are dark, lights are muted and the atmosphere is distinctly oriental with wonderful place settings of rice bowls and spoons in delicate colours and dark wooden chopsticks.
What singles this restaurant out from other Chinese restaurants in Sydney is an emphasis on regions that are less well known outside China and very dear to me – Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan, Xinjiang – with Guangxi and Jianxi thrown in for good measure. How could I resist.
On a short, lunch time visit we only had time to sample a few dishes but they were enough to convince me that this is exciting food with truly authentic flavours from those regions, presented in innovative ways.
An entree of Hot and numbing dry Wagyu beef delivered a genuine Sichuan punch and the wonderful texture of the beef had me longing to get hold of the recipe to attempt to recreate it. Stir fried cumin lamb with steamed bread pockets evoked the flavours of Xinjiang and Jiangxi and I made a mental note to ask MaMa for a recipe for these buns.
The highlight was Three shot chicken – a Hunan style dish slow-cooked in a clay pot and finished off by our waitress over a gas burner by dousing it in Tsingtao beer, home made chilli-oil and soy sauce and sizzling it for a few minutes. This recipe had me lusting after clay pots and gas burners and trying to understand what subtle spicing had produced such a delicate combination of fiery heat and flavour.
We had sides of steamed rice and a simple vegetable dish of baby peas stir fried with soy beans, mustard greens and twice cooked pork belly.
Our lovely waitress was passionate and proud about the food at the restaurant which is always a good sign. This is a place I will want to return to for a longer meal. Neil Perry’s Balance & Harmony is now on my Amazon wish list.
348 Victoria St, Darlinghurst NSW 2010, Ph: +61 2 9331 7871
One evening we went with Claire and Mike to a play in a wonderful, intimate little theatre in Darlinghurst called The Griffin. Afterwards they took us for supper to A Tavola a buzzing neighbourhood Italian which is a favourite with locals.
Here Chef owner Eugenio Maiale turns out simple and authentic Italian food with excellent home made pasta. We didn’t take photos that evening but we had a number of the “consiglii”, daily specials – Paparadelle con Ragu di Manzo and Mezzelune – half-moon shaped ravioli filled with fish, washed down with some good local red wine.
This lovely, relaxed spot has a cheerful and airy atmosphere and food that would not seem out of place in the heart of Tuscany, a great place to eat in Darlinghurst.
2 Anderson Pl, Cottage Point NSW 2084, Ph: +61 2 9456 1011
Our meal here formed part of our Sydney Seaplanes tour of Sydney and its environs which I blogged last week but it is accessible by road and ferry if you are exploring the national park on the Hawkesbury river north of Sydney’s Northern beaches. It serves excellent local cuisine with mediterranean and asian influences in a gorgeous setting. you can read about our meal here.
Lyne Park, Rose Bay, Sydney, Ph: +61 2 9371 0555
We finished our week of culinary adventures with a long, lingering lunch at Catalina on Rose Bay overlooking a corner of Sydney Harbour and watching the seaplanes come and go.
This classy place is a long-time Sydney favourite – there has been a restaurant here since it was a terminal for flying boats – and has become Claire and Mike’s spot for special occasions such as their Christmas lunch with friends. This is Sydney food served at its freshest with the light from the bay glinting off the sparkling white table cloths and silver cultery.
Head chef Mark Axisa trained here and has been at the helm for many years. Mediterranean influences and touches of classic french cuisine are evident in a menu which features lots of delicious seafood dishes but also some excellent meat dishes. Provenance is clearly stated. Master Sushi Chef Yoshi Fuchigami produces Sushi and Sashimi for a few days each weekend and, judging by Claire’s excellent sashimi, he is on to a winner.
After a bellini as an aperitif, I had freshly shucked Sydney Rock Oysters Tempura with seaweed and sesame salad and ponzu to start. My main course of Cone Bay saltwater barramundi with spanner crab parcel, sage and eschalot cream was a superbly executed dish.
Starters of pork belly and mains of pan fried snapper fillet with potato and garlic mash and lemon caper butter were also given the seal of approval. But it was Claire’s turn to suffer food envy as her pan fried john dory with tarragon aioli and crushed kipfler potatoes, roast truss tomatoes and asparagus didn’t taste as exciting as it sounded.
With a side order of chips and plenty of Western Australian riesling, this was a delicious lunch and we weren’t rushed through our three hour sitting despite the fact that there was going to be a wedding party in the restaurant at 5 pm. We spotted a strawberry soufflé which wasn’t on the menu being carried past us to another table and our kind waitress made our day by rustling up a few for us to finish off the meal.
Catalina’s was a great way to round off our too-short visit to Australia.
We had a few other food-related experiences in our week in Sydney which are worth mentioning.
Claire and Mike discovered how good this cookery school is when they attended a masterclass with Christine Manfield a few weeks ago. We got the benefit of what they learned when they served us a delicious seafood meal at home during the week based on Christine’s recipes.
The school is attached to the Sydney Fish Market which is the hub of the seafood industry in NSW and a visitor attraction in its own right.
They brought us along to a Friday night class which, rather randomly, was on Mexican Seafood Cookery. The set up is very slick and polished – a theatre style demo area with 3 large overhead screens and each seat equipped with a side table for taking notes on your recipes for the evening, a large “hands-on” kitchen where stainless steel work stations for groups of 4 to 6 people are lavishly kitted out with everything you could possibly need for your preparations (I found myself smiling at the memory of the much less sophisticated but equally enjoyable experience of learning to cook in Chun Yi and Chao’s kitchen in Hutong Cuisine).
On the night in question we learned to make Tacos de Camarones with various salsas and Ceviche. These were not complicated dishes but they were fun to prepare and eat and the four of us had a work station to ourselves. After you have cooked and cleaned up, you take your finished dish into the separate dining room, grabbing a bottle of wine on the way and eating at your leisure at bench tables under a gorgeous mural of Sydney bridge.
I was struck by the number of tourists taking part. What a clever idea of the fish market to use the school to showcase their produce and encourage visitors to visit and learn. It is also a good value way of having a pleasant meal out, cooked by yourself for around $80 per person. I could happily wander the world attending cookery courses in different cuisines as a way of getting under the skin of the local food scene.
We also got to the Taste of Sydney Festival in Centennial Park the day after we arrived. This follows the same model as Taste of Dublin and is a fun way of getting a feel for the food scene in the city as it showcases restaurants, chefs and food producers with demonstrations and tasting plates It helped that we attended on a glorious Sunday afternoon and we were glad of the shade of the Pimms tent by the end of the evening.
While there, we got to sample bites from a few of the restaurants we were not going to have time to visit including:
Roast Murray Valley Pork Salad from Longrain:
BBQ Prawn skewers from Peter Kuruvita:
Duck with snow pea sprouts, green mango and chilli jam from Three Blue Ducks in Bronte:
We couldnt get near Popolo because the queues were out the door for this popular Sydney italian. We had a nice chilled afternoon in the sunshine and a great cure for jet lag.
And finally, no trip to Sydney would be complete without at least one weekend brunch near the sea. We finished off our lovely week with Sunday morning scrambled eggs in various guises and mugs of skinny flat white coffee at Claire and Mike’s local Green Mango cafe before having a final swim in Clovelly Bay. Ah yes, there are harder ways to live a life… what’s not to like? Distance…
Thank you Claire and Mike for a lovely and very special week. We miss you guys xxx