5 Bites of Sydney
Sydney is one of the great food cities of the Southern Hemisphere, a lively, cosmopolitan place with large populations of Asian and Mediterranean origin, access to great raw materials — abundant, richly flavored fish and shellfish; heritage-breed lamb and beef; top-notch produce (everything from world-class tomatoes and apples to "bush tucker" exotica like saltbush, lemon aspen, and sea parsley); a treasure chest of olive oil, wine, cured meats, and cheeses, both Australian and imported… It's hardly surprising that there's so much good food in the city. Here are five places that do their part to ensure Sydney's culinary reputation.
Soup Dumplings: Jonathan Gold had been in Sydney for about five minutes, this October, when he tweeted, "Kills me to admit it, but the XLB at Sydney's Din Tai Fung are better than the ones in Arcadia. Wrappers wisp-thin." (He and I were both in town for the Crave Sydney International Food Festival.) Arcadia is an affluent community in northeastern Los Angeles County in which a number of first-rate Chinese restaurants are located — including a branch of the international Taiwan-born dumpling bar chain Din Tai Fung, famous above all for its xiaolongbao (the "XLB" in question), which are the original version of what we know as soup dumplings (though they are technically not dumplings but buns). Gold has written admiringly of the xiaolongbao at the Arcadia establishment, but he quite rightly noted that their Australian counterparts are even better. I'm not sure which of Din Tai Fung's three Sydney locations Gold visited, though it might well have been the same one I did, in the food court attached to the Star Casino; in any case, the dumplings I sampled were pretty near ethereal, with almost translucent wrappers and perfectly salty-sweet pork in a bit of unctuous broth. There are other dumplings served, as well as more or less standard soups and rice and noodle dishes, but the XLBs are truly XLNT.
Instant Ice Cream: At his N2 Extreme Gelato in Sydney's Chinatown, a young ex-accountant named Min Chai produces ice creams and sorbets from a small weekly-changing menu to order. He makes the bases for such flavors as banana and peanut crumble, Earl Grey caramel, sour cream chocolate, and buttered popcorn, ages them in a refrigerated case for part of the day, then mixes them with liquid nitrogen, whirs them in a KitchenAid stand blender, and serves them up. Because they're made to order, he is able to serve them at a warmer temperature than normal, which brings out the flavors more vividly (the Earl Grey is nicely layered, with the tea coming first, then the caramel as a glowing finish; the sour cream chocolate has a remarkably intense chocolate character with an unusually creamy texture).
Greek Salad: You know that The Apollo is going to be something different, and something good, when you dig into the Greek salad at this stylish Greek restaurant in Sydney's Potts Point neighborhood. There's no feta foam or deconstructed cucumber here. It's just your standard, straightforward mix of tomatoes, cukes, feta, and olives in a tangy vinaigrette. What elevates it about cliché is that every one of these elements is perfect and full of flavor. This must be what Greek salad was like, you think, when some Greek first looked around and said, "Let's put all these delicious things together in a bowl." There's a lot more than salad here, of course. Silky taramasalata, crusty saganaki with honey and oregano, flaky "wild weed" and cheese pie, slow-cooked lamb shoulder with lemon and Greek yogurt… And warm, freshly made pita so good you'd eat it dry if necessary. The early promise of the salad is kept throughout the meal.
Thai Octopus: Before I had lunch at Longrain, a cool, sleek restaurant in Surry Hills run by German-born Australian-bred Thai food expert Martin Boetz (who once worked for the celebrated David Thompson at Darley Street Thai), I had never had octopus cooked Thai style. In fact, I'm not sure what I tasted there was really a Thai dish at all. But stir-fried with smoked pork belly, black beans, mustard greens, and ginger, this was one of the best octopus dishes I've ever had, regardless of cuisine. The fried whitebait were terrific, too, and the salt-and-pepper cuttlefish with sweet soy and lime, widely considered to be the best in town. I'm not sure how "authentic" this food is, but it sure is good.
Wallaby Siu Mai: Kylie Kwong is a third-generation Australian of Chinese descent who opened Billy Kwong, a small, warm, always bustling storefront restaurant a dozen years ago in partnership with noted Sydney restaurateur and food writer Bill Granger. (Granger is no longer involved, but his half of the restaurant's name remains.) It quickly became known for its first-rate non-assembly-line Cantonese cooking, then evolved into (as Kwong says) "something else" — i.e., a Cantonese-inspired highly personal cuisine based on lots of homemade and organic ingredients. Earlier this year, Kwong took a dramatic turn and began incorporating "bush tucker" into her food. This is a generic term meaning any indigenous Australian food that was eaten by the continent's original inhabitants, the Aborigines. For Kwong, that means plants like saltbush, lemon aspen, lemon myrtle, quandongs, river mint, Botany Bay spinach, wild bush tomatoes — and wallaby. Raised for food on Flinders Island, which was part of the ancient land bridge between Tasmania and the Australian mainland, these little beasts (which look more or less like pint-size kangaroos) are pasture-fed, virtually carbon neutral, and low in cholesterol and fat but high in protein. Wallaby has a mild, faintly sweet flavor, and Kwong serves it in various ways, including braising the tail and also combining the meat with pork and goji berries and steam it in light siu mai wrappers made by her uncle with biodynamic flour — delicate but flavorful. Likewise the Tasmanian sea-trout siu mai; the fried silken tofu with XO sauce, samphire, sea parsley, and chiles; the seared chicken livers with lemon juice and Sichuan pepper; the stir-fried greens (cobbler's peg, milk thistle, marshmallow plant, nettles, dandelion, and — not bush tucker — cavolo nero, with young ginger and shiro shoyu); the red-braised caramelized Black Berkshire pork belly with honeycomb, organic fish sauce, and lemon aspen; and the really extraordinary crispy saltbush cakes with homemade chile sauce — one of those simple but complexly flavored vegetable delights that would make the idea of a vegetarian diet seem not so terrible at all.
Colman Andrews is the Editorial Director at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @Colmanandrews