Sydney by the Forkful

February 22, 2011

Opera House

I am freshly returned from a five-day trip back to Sydney dedicated almost exclusively to a whirlwind culinary tour of tried and true favorites and newly discovered treasures.  I’ve done my best to capture it all here, but highly recommend you test each and every one of these eateries yourself when you are next in the neighborhood.  This jaunt represents my first trip back to Australia since moving back to the States over two years ago and, after the unqualified success of this most recent experience, I cannot wait to go back.

Café Sydney (Lunch)

Café Sydney is the perfect welcome to a town besieged by picturesque panoramas and quality dining. It is hereby nominated as the official starter for all trips to the city as it went over a treat this time around.  Located on the rooftop of Customs House just across the street from the Sydney Ferry Terminal at the Quay, Café Sydney features photo-worthy harbor views and excellent Modern Australian (Mod Oz) food.  It is the ideal location for the first time visitor or seasoned veteran to shake off the travel and spend a leisurely lunch soaking up the sunshine on the patio wine in hand.

On this occasion I was joined by a friend and former work colleague who, unprompted, greeted me with a bag full of Tim Tam* in a variety of flavors.  As if that weren’t enough to ensure a favorable report, I also enjoyed:

chilled green pea and mint soup with prawn scampi and crème fraiche

tandoori roasted freshwater salmon with green lentils, buffalo yogurt raita and spiced coconut salad

In fairness, I had just come off a 14-hour flight and can be sure that the gift of Tim Tam and the idyllic setting each contributed to my ebullient mood, but the food was also outstanding – fresh ingredients translated into vibrant and exotic flavors evocative of the Asia Pacific region and showcased in a crisp, fashionable, but comfortable setting.  As I said, the perfect welcome and a convenient encapsulation of so much of what Sydney has to offer.

*Tim Tam are “Australia’s Favorite Cookie” and for good reason! These chocolate biscuits originated in Australia and are composed of two malted-chocolate biscuits surrounding a layer of chocolate crème and dipped in a textured chocolate coating.  They come in several flavors, but dark chocolate is hands down my favorite.  They are available in the US seasonally (from October to March) from Pepperidge Farms.

Sailors Thai Canteen (Lunch)

Another Sydney CBD institution, Sailors Thai touts itself as “Australia’s Thai food doyen” featuring authentic Thai cuisine in both canteen and fine dining formats. This was a casual lunch in the canteen enjoyed at the long communal table that dominates the narrow dining room punctuated by a palm-framed window overlooking the harbor.  A lazy breeze wafted in as my lunch mates and I dug into:

green papaya salad w/peanuts, dried prawns, spicy & sour dressing, coconut rice & sweet pork

stir fried chicken with pumpkin and wilted greens

stir fried noodles with egg, prawns, peanuts and bean sprouts

The communal table affords ample opportunity for perusing menu options as they arrive in front of your neighbors.  The food and wine offerings are all tempting but mercifully spare, allowing you time to relax, concentrate on conversation and work up an appetite. This is a great spot for a quick and delicious meal before or after a walk around the Quay and through the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Bentley (Dinner)

Bentley - Surry Hills

Bentley is a perennial favorite and never fails to please.  It has served as the venue for many wonderful meals and holds memories for us of fine food and friendship that have secured it vaunted stature in our hearts.  One of the more unique characteristics of this restaurant that I most appreciate is that it offers haut cuisine and an award winning wine selection in a low-key relaxed atmosphere without sacrificing quality or service. The food is characterized as Modern European, but incorporates local produce and protein, and flirts with a bit of molecular gastronomy. This is not an everyday meal, but it is a meal you will remember (and yearn for). One of our favorite Bentley starters while we lived in Sydney – alas, not on the current menu – was a marinated white anchovy fillet rolled in a coil, dusted with crushed pistachio praline and perched delicately on the end of a wooden skewer. Deceivingly small and humble in appearance, that one bite prompted an explosion of Technicolor flavor – the saltiness of the anchovy, the sweetness of the praline, the sourness of the marinade, and the satisfying texture of the crushed nuts – that continues to reach across time and distance as evidenced by the fact that, years later, I still remember it longingly.

This most recent meal was more of the same quirky but successful experimentation.  Our party of six agreed to begin with one of each of all of the appetizers and starters as follows:

smoked eel parfait with white soy, kombu & seaweed

pumpkin custard with pumpkin seed & goats curd

kingfish ceviche with pickled daikon & yuzu mayonnaise

beef tartare with liquid wasabi

duck liver foie gras parfait with puffed rice & pickled raisin

beetroot with red chard, horseradish and soy beans

jamon poached swordfish with kohlrabi, squid ink & black sausage crumbs

ocean trout with ocean trout mousse & fennel pollen

pork belly with wattle, garlic milk & rhubarb

cured venison and consommé with salsify, chestnut & scallop

What I identify most in Bentley’s food is its daring sense of fun – unexpected flavor combinations, unusual ingredients and whimsical plating techniques – that make your time there more of an experience than a meal.  The foregoing were no exception, but some were better than the rest.  My favorites included the smoked eel parfait, beef tartare, duck liver parfait and jamon poached swordfish.  The eel parfait was silky smooth and formed into a long cylindrical baton wrapped in a kombu gelée buttressed by seaweed – a cheeky juxtaposition of refined texture and hearty sea and smoke flavors. The beef tartare was served in a fine dice with green onion and pearls of liquid wasabi that burst in your mouth on contact and went down far too easy – a zesty reinterpretation of a much loved classic.  We ordered another two rounds of the same. The foie gras parfait was another stunner (not a surprise for us foie fans) and was well matched with malty puffed rice and the port-like sweetness of pickled raisins.  We ordered up another one of these as well.  Last but not least, the jamon poached swordfish was my favorite of all the dishes.  A firm round of fish was wrapped in a wide vegetable noodle impregnated with squid ink.  The texture and flavor of the fish signaled a pressed and preserved Japanese style and had a sweet saltiness that stood up to the thick chunks of kohlrabi and sausage crumbs.  Sausage crumbs!  If there was ever a better crumbing medium, it is beyond my imagining.

Pilu at Freshwater (Lunch)


After a scenic half-hour ferry ride to Manly and a short cab ride North, we arrived at an unassuming Sardinian restaurant perched above the beach at Freshwater.  As we situated ourselves at a table on the covered patio overlooking the ocean, a cool breeze wafted in through the parted floor-to-ceiling windows gently fluttering the starched white tablecloths.  The cerulean sea stretched out before us curly with spume and dotted with surfers.

We were besotted before we’d even had a bite.

After several minutes of staring speechless at the expansive view and bathing in the calming susurrus of the incoming tide, we finally managed to order a couple glasses of the 2008 Le Vigne di Zamo from Collio DOC in Friuli, an enticing blend of Ribolla Gialla, Tocai Friulano, Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, Riesling.  It arrived richly golden offering satisfying complexity and refreshing green and herbal notes.  Pilu garners continuing praise for its eclectic and hard-to-find wine selections focused primarily on offerings from Italy and Australia.

After some dithering over the primi, we ordered up a squid ink spaghettini tossed with spanner crab, chili, orange zest and bottarga, as well as scampi on the half shell sautéed with sea urchin butter and baby herbs.  We opted to start light as we had been advised not to miss the house specialty – porcetta for two slow roasted for several hours.  Each of the starters were good – simple but flavorful – however, as it turned out, neither had much of substance to say next to the suckling pig which was transcendent.  First arrived two plates featuring garnishes for the porcetta – salsa verde, poached spiced pears and mustard fruit jam. Next followed a knobby-footed cork platter nestled in the crook of the waitress’ arm on which sat, burnished and resplendent, six portions of lovingly roasted suckling pig served on the bone along with a generous serve of housemade pork sausage.  The smell of it alone was intoxicating, but the spectacle of that delicately crisp skin resting on a layer of unctuous fat atop meltingly tender pork was not to be believed.  It was positively Rubenesque.  The meal was rounded out with a serving of roasted baby potatoes and a salad of shaved root vegetables and celery tossed in vinaigrette.  I relished every bite.

After gorging ourselves on an unforgettable seaside feast of porcine delights, we slowly (ever so slowly) wended our way back along the coast to Manly beach with the sun on our shoulders and the wind in our hair just in time to catch the ferry back to the Quay.  It was a wonderful meal and a perfect afternoon.

Thanks to Chai and Alyssa for a most excellent recommendation.


Café Sopra (Lunch)

Across the street from Danks Street Depot (also not to be missed) in Waterloo and above Fratelli Fresh, you’ll find Café Sopra, a lovely locale for a leisurely lunch.  I’ve written about Café Sopra previously on this blog while living in Sydney, but it continues to be one of my favorite lunch destinations.  The daily menu is written on a giant chalkboard dominating one wall of the dining room where vaulted ceilings and French doors beckon in the sunlight.  On this visit we sampled:

salade of frisée with smoked trout and poached farm egg

oxheart tomato with boconcini and baby basil

pappadelle with green peas, mint and ricotta

rigatoni bolognese

marzipan cherry tart with white chocolate ice cream

The food was great, as usual, and the atmosphere relaxed.  It is clearly a local favorite as well, judging by the evident enjoyment on all the faces around us.  Also, as you pass shelves of Fratelli Fresh olive oil, vinegars, dried pasta and fresh produce, you can hardly help but shop on your way out. Not to be missed.

Rockpool Bar & Grill (Dinner)

We snuck this one in under the bar on our last night in Sydney after Friday night drinks at The Ship Inn.  Among the options for a late night meal, was this impressive dining room imagined in a converted bank with 1930s art deco styling.  The six of us were fortunate to score a private dining room where we could enjoy our wine and conversation (primarily focused on food) unperturbed.  That said, the marbled colonnades and belle époque details in the dining room warrant study, so I’ll be eager to return for the food and the architectural ambiance.

Dinner was enjoyed family style, so I’ll endeavor to describe each of the dishes featured, all of which were robust with flavor and presented with an elegant panache.

seared king prawns with goats cheese tortellini, burnt butter, pine nuts and raisins

duck ragu with pappardelle noodles

free range chicken with tuscan white bean, tomato and bread salad

36-day dry aged grass fed ribeye and t-bone

mushy peas with slow cooked egg

sautéed mixed mushrooms

passionfruit marshmallows

salted butter caramels

Each dish was well prepared and presented with raffish refinement.  Both cuts of beef were satisfyingly charred and rich with intensely beefy flavor.  The duck ragu was unctuous and appeared inviting, but was over-seasoned for my taste.  The chicken, slow-cooked on a rotisserie, was cooked perfectly and served with a pungently garlicky aioli that complemented the fatly juicy chicken.  Mushy peas were complex and packed an unexpected kick of heat.  Mixed mushrooms were woodsy and a solid pairing with the steaks.  We finished the meal at nearly midnight with light-as-air marshmallows and brightly buttery caramels.  Another memorable evening dedicated to food.

Din Tai Fung (Brunch)

Din Tai Fung Sydney

I am a sucker for a Shanghai soup dumpling, so when I learned that Din Tai Fung, recipient of a Michelin star, had an outpost in Sydney, it was immediately added to the itinerary, which took a bit of orchestration as, by this point, we had only hours left before catching our flight back to the States.  There isn’t much I won’t do for a good dumpling.

Shangahi Soup Dumpling

The restaurant itself is designed to promote efficient dumpling production and consumption.  There is a separate room adjacent to the dining room where no fewer than fifteen dumpling makers outfitted with gloves and face masks roll, stuff, crimp and otherwise contribute to the assembly line manufacture of what must be a mountain of dumplings.  We arrived fifteen minutes before the restaurant opened and, by the time the hostess deigned to seat us, a long line of eager adherents had already formed – an encouraging sign.  Din Tai Fung features other items on its menu, but their raison d’être is dumplings, and, of the many dumplings on offer, the “soup dumplings” are the clear star.  Shanghai soup dumplings are characterized by the inclusion of gelled or frozen soup or stock in the dumpling filling so that, when steamed, the soup is liquefied resulting in a surprisingly mouthwatering dumpling experience.  We ordered two varieties – shrimp with pork and the standard ground pork.  The shrimp and pork combination was my favorite.  The dumpling skins were tender but toothsome with a bulbous base housing a mix of ground shrimp and pork and a flavorful clear stock.  The cap of the dumpling was crimped around a whole small shrimp which acted like a cork sealing in the juices.  I could have eaten twenty!  In addition to the soup dumplings, we ordered regular dumplings with vegetables and shrimp, water spinach sautéed with crispy garlic and, for dessert, more dumplings with a sweet taro paste filling.  It was all delicious and this meal served to revive my dedication to the pint-sized but potent dumpling.

shrimp & pork soup dumpling

And so concludes this account of my week “forking” Sydney.  It was a fabulous trip of food and fun.  I cannot wait to go back and discover what else is on offer.  My sincere thanks go to all the Sydneysiders who contributed to the success of this venture.  It would not have been half as fun without you.


5 Responses to “Sydney by the Forkful”

  1. the dad Says:

    Sounds like you finally got the best of Sydney. A long long flight down under… but worth it when the weather co-operates. Glad you had such a fine time. Meals were all pretty splendid it seems. Love… the dad.

  2. Leslie Reynolds Says:

    Thanks for sharing your culinary adventures in Sydney! This post was certainly educational, enjoyable to read… and made my mouth water and my tummy growl. I’ll be looking forward to the next one! I want one of those soup dumplings right now!

  3. Uncle Rich Says:

    Thanks Nicole, just like being there, and without the Dinner Check at the end! bye, L, r

  4. Aunt Sandy Says:

    Okay when do we go. Everything sounded absolutely fabulous. I’m with you on the porcetta. Gotta love the pig. XOXO Aunt Sandy

  5. Nick Says:

    Nicole, great write up!
    Was awesome to have you guys in town and the 2 meals I shared with you guys were absolutely superb! To tell you the truth I was a little reluctant to go to Bentley “again” but once again they keep surprising me and keeping it fresh! Can’t wait to go back!

    Next time we do your country! Or perhaps meet half way? Say Italy/France!

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