December 13, 2011
Getting to watch some of the Harbour City’s most renowned chefs in action and sampling some incredible cuisine – it’s all in a day’s work for Australian travel writer Lara Dunston who has recently been delving deep into the world of Sydney’s top restaurants, of which there are many. If eating well and creatively is high on your travel to-do list and you’re heading down under this winter, let Lara guide you to some of Sydney’s ultimate dining experiences…
There’s no doubt about it, Sydney has become one of the world’s great dining cities. While institutions such as Tetsuya’s and Rockpool have led the fine dining charge for many years, Australia’s largest city now has an enviable number of restaurants recognised internationally. Distinguished by impressive talent in the kitchen as well as a high degree of professionalism front of house, Sydney’s restaurants are world class. The best chefs are using fresh, seasonal, and often organic produce from small local producers and delivering it to the table looking like a work of art. And as you’d expect from a city that has long traded on her good looks, restaurateurs are serving up their beautiful cuisine in equally gorgeous locations.
With a flourishing dining empire to oversee, including fine restaurants in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, Australia’s most famous chef, Neil Perry, no longer stands at the pass of his flagship restaurant Rockpool. Perry has placed head chef Phil Wood firmly at the helm and has let his charge go wild, taking the contemporary Australian, Asian-influenced menu (Perry has long flirted with Asian, and particularly Chinese cuisine) in some very tasty directions. The food may not have the frou-frou touches of many of Sydney’s other restaurants, but the flavours presented at Rockpool are like no other in Sydney.
Rockpool, 107 George Street, The Rocks, Sydney
Also unlike any other restaurant in Sydney – nor Australia for that matter – is Tetsuya’s. Tetsuya Wakuda arrived in Sydney in 1982 from Japan and quickly learnt about French cooking techniques. When he opened Tetsuya’s in 1989 his food was already unique.
Today he’s doing it at a much larger and more elegant address than his original modest suburban restaurant, and he’s still booked out weeks in advance. One of the reasons is his signature dish of “˜confit’ ocean trout that is so famous people travel half way around the world to try it. However, other dishes on the menu deserve equally lofty status, such as the steamed spanner crab with bean curd, foie gras and junsai.
Tetsuya’s Restaurant, 529 Kent Street, Sydney
There is a consensus amongst food writers that restaurants with splendid views generally have less than splendid food, but Guillaume at Bennelong, set within a “˜sail’ of Sydney’s iconic Opera House, shatters that notion. Chef Guillaume Brahimi was born in Paris but has been cooking in Australia since 1990 and his use of Australian ingredients and French techniques is the best of its ilk in Sydney. Elegant, thoughtful dishes such as his basil-infused, yellowfin tuna with soy and mustard seed vinaigrette show his love of France, Australia and Asia. Don’t even think about squeezing a meal in before a night at the opera – the cuisine and setting here are dramatic enough.
Guillaume at Bennelong, Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Another restaurant that could be forgiven for not focusing on the food due to a jaw-dropping setting is Quay. Gazing across the harbour towards the Opera House as ferries chug past, you’d probably be happy being presented with a bowl of pasta. However, chef Peter Gilmore makes sure your eyes will soon be focused on the impossibly beautiful plates, such as his sashimi of blue mackerel. There’s little wonder that Gilmore is considered one of the world’s best chefs, with wonderful, bold flavours and a mind for unusual ingredient combinations. Gilmore collaborates with farmers to grow small crops of rare produce and his attention to detail with every delicious dish is astounding. Desserts are a treat too, with one, the jackfruit snow egg, achieving legendary status.
Quay Restaurant, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, Sydney
Perhaps the only equals in Sydney to chef Gilmore in the creativity stakes are chef Mark Best of Marque and chef Martin Benn of Sepia. At Marque, the quiet, low-lit minimalist room, seating a maximum of around 30 diners, is one that forces you to focus on the food. Here you just want to let the chefs do their thing and be taken on a fantastic culinary journey. While Mark initially trained in traditional French restaurants, his style is thoroughly modern, utilizing the most avant-garde techniques but without ever putting form over flavour. Dishes such as his almond jelly with blue swimmer crab, almond gazpacho, sweet corn & Avruga (herring roe) are sublime taste sensations, while a spatchcock dish showed exemplary technique.
Marque Restaurant, 4/5 355 Crown Street, Surry Hills, Sydney
Sepia couldn’t be more different to Marque when it comes to atmosphere – a glamorous bar and be-bop jazz welcomes diners into what is a casually elegant space. No tablecloths and no hushed tones when I ate here – the room was just buzzing with chatty diners. Martin was at the helm of Tetsuya’s for many years and while the Asian influences and fascinating flavour combinations are apparent, Sepia’s dishes are overflowing with full, robust flavours, exemplified in dishes such as a crunchy, smoky soy-glazed eel, and a roasted scampi tail with shell fish custard, wild rice and fennel. It’s little wonder that these are the restaurants other Australian chefs are privately in awe of.
Sepia Restaurant, 201 Sussex Street, Sydney
While rooms like Quay and Guillaume at Bennelong boast amazing views, Rockpool Bar & Grill is simply one of the best looking dining rooms in the world. Located in a dramatic Art Deco space dating to 1936 in the heart of Sydney’s financial and legal district, this is another place that achieves the casual elegance so popular at the moment. Neil Perry’s take on the New York steakhouse is far more exciting than you could imagine, with Perry rightly paying attention to the entire meal, not just the main course. The beef is dry-aged on the premises and no growth hormones or antibiotic feed is used in raising the cattle. The best bit is, it tastes fantastic.
Rockpool Bar & Grill, 66 Hunter Street, Sydney
Also doing steaks to die for is renowned Melbourne chef Teage Ezard at his seductive new Sydney restaurant BLACK by Ezard at The Star, a revamped casino complex. It’s a European-slanted menu and while the steaks (cooked sous-vide and then flashed over a wood-fired grill) are the star of the show, dishes like the organic farm egg with potato cream, black truffles, Iberico ham and micro herb salad vie for attention.
BLACK by Ezard, Level G, Harbourside, The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont, Sydney
Another chef enticed to open a restaurant at The Star is legendary Australian-Italian chef Stefano Manfredi, who has been influential in promoting authentic Italian cooking since opening Restaurant Manfredi in 1983. With Balla, he returns with a restaurant inspired by the Milanese osteria, with an emphasis on clean flavours and impressively fresh ingredients. Seemingly simple dishes such as slow cooked octopus with potato and Tuscan olive oil or potato gnocchi with duck ragÃ¹ are to die for in his chef’s hands. The wine list (presented on an iPad) and Grappa selection are both impressive too.
Balla, Level G, Harbourside, The Star, 80 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont, Sydney
Keeping the Italian theme going, Otto Ristorante may not be new but it must offer up one of Sydney’s quintessential dining experiences with its relaxed harbourside location on the historic Cowper Wharf, Woolloomooloo, overlooking boats bobbing in the water with the verdant Botanic Gardens as a backdrop. This is a very modern take on Italian, with the dishes of chef Richard Ptacnik’s, such as “˜ravioli’ of finely sliced pickled beetroot with goat’s curd pistachio and horseradish, as exquisite as any fine dining plate in Sydney. The service is relaxed and personable, and the food is fresh and imaginatively cooked. A long weekend lunch here on a sunny spring afternoon is as “˜Sydney’ as Sydney gets.
Otto Ristorante, Area 8, 6 Cowper Wharf Rd, Woolloomooloo, Sydney
Header photo: The high bar at BLACK by Teage Ezard.