Roast Chook, Kinkawooka Mussels, And Other Great Food In Sydney

Sydney, the capital of New South Wales and the largest city in Australia by population, is one of the world's great restaurant capitals. It has all the fixin's: an affluent and well-traveled citizenry; a multi-cultural population that has introduced ingredients and cooking techniques here from all over Europe, Asia, and Latin America; and a ready source of excellent home-grown or -harvested raw materials, from exotic tropical fruits to first-rate grass-fed beef and lamb to some of the world's best seafood — oh, and wines of nearly every kind, as good as anybody's and, on occasion, better.

Roast Chook, Kinkawooka Mussels, and Other Great Food in Sydney (Slideshow)

From modest food-court establishments to elegant restaurants run by celebrity chefs like Neil Perry, Matt Moran, Peter Gilmore, and Ben Shewry, the city offers just about anything you would ever want to eat, done well.

When I was in Sydney several years ago, I was seduced by everything from the delicate xiaolongbao ("soup dumplings"), with ethereally thin wrappers and perfectly seasoned filling, at a local branch (one of three in town) of the Taiwanese dumpling chain Din Tai Fung to the impeccable taramasalata and slow-cooked lamb shoulder with lemon and yogurt at The Apollo, which serves more or less all the standard Greek specialties you can get anywhere but elevates them to gastronomy through the use of top-notch ingredients prepared with consummate skill.

The most amazing and illuminating meal I had on that trip, though, was at Billy Kwong, a small storefront establishment, now closed and in the process of moving to a new location (in the Potts Point neighborhood, near The Apollo), run by Australian-born Kylie Kwong (there is no Billy Kwong; the restaurant was named in part for her original partner in the enterprise, restaurateur Bill Granger). Here I ate imaginative Cantonese-emigré cooking that integrated purely Australian ingredients, like wallaby meat, saltbush, lemon myrtle, Botany Bay spinach, wild bush tomatoes, and Tasmanian sea trout.

On my most recent trip back to Sydney, with chef–restaurateur and Daily Meal Council member Jonathan Waxman, I regretted that I couldn't show him Kwong's cooking, so fresh and different from anything we have in the U.S. On the other hand, we found plenty to eat, most of it superb.

Our first lunch in the city was at Chiswick, a casual, greenhouse-like restaurant set in the middle of a garden, that reminded us of California (where we're both from) — in its airy, verdant setting, but also in its bright, straightforward, ingredient-driven cooking. The man behind the place is the aforementioned Matt Moran, who runs a number of well-regarded places around Australia, including his flagship Aria, looking out on the famous Sydney Opera House (with a second Aria in Brisbane), and a second, newly opened Chiswick in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Moran's chefs seem equally adept with the wood oven, the grill, and the deep-fryer, serving everything from grilled asparagus with sauce gribiche and crisp-fried quail with shallots and ginger to roast blue-eye trevalla (a fish much prized in Australia) with snake beans and gremolata and wood-roasted Moran Family lamb with eggplant and tomatoes. The kitchen sources some produce from their own on-site garden — tomatoes, zucchini, chiles, and various herbs when we were there in Australia's late spring (our late autumn) — but the whole menu, regardless of the provenance of the ingredients, seems garden-fresh.

We felt a different kind of California vibe from Sean's Panorama, across the street from legendary Bondi Beach — a loose, bohemian, artistic atmosphere that would have seemed right in Venice (the L.A. one) or coastal Marin County. With its dozen or so small zinc-top tables and its pegboard-pattern wallpaper, Sean's gave the impression of being the kind of place you could tramp into wearing flip-flops and a long t-shirt over your bathing gear — not that you'd want to disrespect the kitchen, which proved to be first-rate.

The menu at Sean's is arrayed on a handful of individual blackboard panels hung from the ceiling. The descriptions are brief and to the point (kingfish/ finger limes/salmon roe; rabbit/olives/toast; mango/passionfruit/ginger), if not always 100-percent reflective of what's actually on offer. (A server confided to us that that's because chef–owner Sean Moran is the only one who's allowed to change the blackboards, and if he's not in the house, no one else dares touch them.)

We were very happy with our puréed corn soup full of chunks of corn-on-the-cob, chorizo, and the tiny clams called pipis — one of the best things we found on our entire trip. There was nothing wrong, either, with an up-jumped-spring salad of asparagus, artichokes, and fava beans; wide homemade green noodles with flecks of miniature zucchini, zucchini blossoms, and basil; and roasted chook (Australian for chicken) with roasted carrots and spinach.

Tiny shellfish were a highlight at dinnertime at Rockpool Bar & Grill, part of celebrated Australian chef Neil Perry's Rockpool empire — in this case, steamed "new season" baby Kinkawooka mussels, in an intensely flavored broth with caramelized onions and sobrasada.

Rockpool Bar & Grill is quite possibly the most glamorous restaurant in Sydney, occupying a soaring, marble-columned space with 35-foot-high ceilings in the 1932-vintage Art Déco-style Mutual Building, as refitted by the top Sydney architecture and design firm Bates Smart. In contrast to the elaborate surroundings, the food is relatively simple and sure-handed. Steaks are the thing — for instance, a 36-month dry-aged grass-fed ribeye — but seafood is first-rate, too, much of it charcoal-roasted (for instance, marinated king prawns or the firm, tasty fish called rock flathead). Cocktails in the large, stylish bar are a must before (or after) dinner, and the extensive wine list must be one of the best-chosen in town.

Café Sydney, on the top floor of the mid-nineteenth-century Sydney Customs House, on Circular Quay, is all about the seafood — and the spectacular views of Sydney's immense harbor and its landmark Harbour Bridge. Impeccable oysters of several varieties, steamed and chilled Moreton Bay Bugs (Australia's remarkable sweet-fleshed flathead lobsters) with mayonnaise, and Cone Bay barramundi (another prized local fish) in various preparations are among the stars of the menu.

Pei Modern, a recently opened branch of chef Mark Best's Melbourne original, suffers from its lobby-coffee-shop location at the posh Four Seasons Hotel (in fact, the space is used by the hotel banquet department to serve buffet breakfast before Best's crew takes over daily before lunchtime), but the food is solid, confidently rustic, with a big-city finesse.

The inspiration is mostly Mediterranean, with nods to Italy (imported salamis and culatello; anchovy and Parmigiano shortbread) and Spain (woodfire-blistered Padrón peppers, salt cod croquettes), but also plenty of originality. We particularly liked the salmon tail, on the bone, with samphire and rouille; and the roasted Holmbrae chicken — which Best serves, provocatively, with head and feet still attached — was everything a good chicken should be, moist and delicious and full of flavor (and well served by its accompanying butter beans and roasted squash). Homemade breads from the wood-burning oven are an extra treat.

We had two disappointments on the Sydney restaurant scene. We loved the sound of the multicultural menu at Nomad — wood-fired sourdough with black salt butter, smoked pork empanadas with harissa, mixed grain tabbouleh with sour cherries and housemade ricotta, whole snapper with fennel butter and spring pea and feta salad — and stopped in without a reservation at 9:30 on a Monday evening. The restaurant, whose website says that it's open "till late," was bustling, but there were still a few open tables; the hostess informed us, however, that the chef had decided to close down the kitchen early that evening.[pullquote:left]

Our other disappointing experience, alas, came at one of Sydney's most famous restaurants, the one that is arguably the best-known internationally: Tetsuya's. Tetsuya Wakuda was one of the contemporary restaurant pioneers in Sydney, serving elegantly turned-out Asian-European food that at times suggested a Nobu-like imagination fused with a Keller-style attention to detail.

Our meal, though, seemed uninspired, full of tired ideas executed to a meet-the-contract standard but not much more. Apart from a "savory custard" with Avruga caviar that was more soup than custard and some mushy bigeye tuna with soy and young ginger sprouts, there was nothing really wrong with anything we ate in the restaurant's calm dining room, looking out on a beautiful Japanese garden. In fact, the restaurant's signature dish (Wakuda's equivalent of Nobu's black cod with miso, if you will), confit Petuna ocean trout from Tasmania with a kombu crust, fennel, and ocean trout roe, was very good. But the meal left us with deflated expectations. The cold-fish sommelier who chose wines to accompany each course — including two from New Zealand, though we specifically asked for Australian wines only — didn't improve the experience.

Several years ago, Wakuda opened Waku Ghin, a "modern European–Japanese" restaurant in Singapore's luxurious Marina Bay Sands complex (other chefs represented there include Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Wolfgang Puck, Nancy Silverton, and Australian Thai-food expert David Thompson), and people later told us that he spends most of his time and focuses most of his attention there. We'll have to try it the next time we're in Singapore.

Meanwhile there's so much else to like about the Sydney dining scene that Waxman and I agreed on our main takeaway from our few days eating around the city: More, please.


The greenhouse-like dining room Chiswick, where the surrounding greenery and vividly flavored Mediterranean-accented cooking evoke comparisons with California.

Roasted Lamb Shoulder

Whole roasted shoulder of Moran Family lamb, with mint sauce and a salad of chickpeas, red onions, cherry tomatoes, and flat-leaf parsley from the garden.