May 1, 2007

It's funny, everyone usually says Sydney is the can't-miss city in Australia, and while I found it beautiful, fun, charming, and unique, I didn't feel like I'd want to live there. It reminded me of a gourmet and slightly more scenic San Diego. VERY privileged city--you gotta have some cash. Rather homogenous too. Didn't click with as many people as I did in funkified Melbourne. Melbourne, heck, I would pack my bags tomorrow (and it's not just because of the hottie Greeks running around there).

"Don't want to live there" caveat aside, I definitely made some fab discoveries in Sydney, and there were a number of places I'd be thrilled to return to again. (And thanks to all the great folks who made recommendations for me! Good on ya, mates!) Note: all prices below are Australian. While everything was still massively expensive, the exchange did help lower the prices a little. Not enough, but oh well.

Since there are all kinds of unknown-to-me types of seafood in Oz, I wanted to get my fill of barramundi, Moreton Bay bugs, yabbies, and the like. ~FISH FACE~ in Darlinghurst was a total hit, and a swell spot to tuck into some fresh Aussie seafood, from Euro-style preparations to sushi. Since it's rather popular with the locals we had to wait a bit for a table, so we swung by the neighboring ~DARLO BAR~ for a drink (how convenient) in the Royal Sovereign Hotel. Total 60's kitsch, with groovy lights, low-slung tables, a padded bar, and a pool table in the back. Very "San Francisco garage sale" kind of vibe.

Back to Fish Face: dug the modern and clean look of this boisterous little place. The tiny kitchen works at a furious pace--just slammed. There's a counter and sushi bar, plus some tall tables and the de rigueur outdoor seating (Sydney's outdoor life was downright enviable). I loved that the menu didn't have any meat or vegetables, just fish. Was rather impressed with the whole meal, from the spanner crab linguine with shaved fennel, tomato, and lemon balm ($18.90) to the crispy skin kingfish with Sicilian caponata ($29.90). I personally couldn't resist the crispy fish and chips made with flathead ($25.90)--almost every other table had a cone of chips on it.

Also convenient is there's a bottle shop just next door--Aussies are way into BYO and charge about a third of what U.S. restaurants charge for BYOB. I'm all for supporting restaurants' wine programs, but the easygoing BYO policy provides a fun way to try more wines while you're there. Since Fish Face only charges $6.50 AUS for BYO, we were all over it.

Fish Face
132 Darlinghurst Rd.
9332 4803

One thing that really rocked me hard is Aussies really get breakfast. Or, I should actually say brekkie. (They love to shorten things: e.g. sunglasses are sunnies.) A trip to Sydney is not complete without the famous scrambled eggs ($12.80) at ~BILLS~. Yeah, I know, they're just eggs. But they are so not. These cream-laden and silken organic fluffs were total egg perfection. Our server told me they even have a special automatic whisk that keeps the eggs moving in the pan slowly while they cook on the lowest heat. I want one.

It's common to get some oven-roasted tomatoes ($3.80) with your eggs--since I was there in summer, I was lovin' the tomatoes. Oh, and they don't cook bacon like we do--if you like it crispy, you gotta ask for it extra-crispy ($4.50). The ricotta hotcakes were also pretty fab, but it's all about the eggs. The logo on their biz card even has an egg motif on it. There are three locations, but this original location was on pointe, with a clean spare look: industrial fans, wood floors, a sprawling communal table with magazines on it, handwritten specials on a blackboard, natural light, and a friendly staff. Word was they were renovating it in March, so I have no idea what it looks like now. Quite cool, I would wager.

433 Liverpool St.
9360 9631

The breakfast that turned me on my ear was at ~FORBES & BURTON~. It was so scrumptious I hit it again for lunch (separate days, mind you). The breakfast was just sick: some of the most perfect poached eggs on top of potato cakes with oak-smoked salmon and a "pash" (kiss) of onion jam ($16). Totally illegal. Oh, and the croque madame ($13) with double-smoked leg ham, Gruyère, chive mascarpone, and a fried egg on top made we want to cry. Ditto on the BLT ($8). Oh man, these people do one of the best BLTs I've ever had. It sounded so good we had to upgrade it to a BLTA ($9.50). The space was a cool corner spot, with thick stone walls, some 70's hot pink mirrored panels, smooth Sunday soul music playing, big windows, modern chairs, and a total neighborhood vibe. The staff was fun and funky and totally felt like they were Burners. The women's bathroom had a pink sink and toilet, with naughty limericks on the wall (the limericks were in the men's too). Sassy. They also serve dinner, I trust it's sublime.

Forbes & Burton
252 Forbes St.
9356 8788

Since we're on lunch, I had one of my most scenic lunches, ever, at ~AQUA DINING~. I think it should be everyone's first lunch destination upon arrival in Sydney. Aqua dining is positioned directly above the North Sydney Olympic Pool and is smack dab next to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, with views of the Opera House too. So while you're sipping your flute of Jansz bubbles from Piper Valley ($15) you get to check out some pretty nice physiques down below doing their thing. Butterflying hunks, you get the drift--I suddenly understood why the view was described as breathtaking. We dined alfresco, but admired the slick and moderne dining room, with a Calvin Klein kind of palette, and it's totally glass-walled so the view is unobstructed. The staff, outfitted in light blue shirts and black aprons, is friendly, easygoing, and knowledgeable.

Executive Chef Jeff Turnbull's contemporary Aussie menu was full of luxurious touches--we started with a bug salad ($29) paired with tangy segments of blood orange, and Parmesan-crusted lamb's brains ($27) on a caponata-esque bed of tomato, shallot, capers, pine nuts, and mushrooms (I know, a light lunch). We also started knocking back a bottle of 2004 Kooyong Chardonnay from the Mornington Peninsula, fab. My friend's main, the ridiculously stuffed crab omelette ($39) really took the cake--it was a three or four egg omelette, with dollops of cream, pesto, and tomato on the side. Portions were rather hefty--my snapper ($38) was dinner-portion size, so at least you're not paying $30 for three bites of fish. Great wine pairings by the staff, which adds to why it's a nice place to celebrate. Celebrate what? Heck, just celebrate having lunch outside in a dreamy place.

Aqua Dining
North Sydney Olympic Pool
Paul and Northcliff Streets
Milson's Point
9964 9998

Lots of folks were raving about ~HUGO'S BAR PIZZA~. Oh lordy, what a scene. It was like being in LA--lots of leggy model types, a supercilious hostess, dark and clubby lighting (so dark I couldn't even get a pic of our pizza), and don't get me started on our feckless server. But we were on a pork belly pizza mission--once I heard about it, we had to hunt it down--there was no turning back. The pizza did not disappoint: the pork belly was slow-roasted, and served with sweet and sour onions and ribbons of radicchio ($24). We also dug the chilli (it's how they spell it over there) prawn pizza with tomato, capsicum, and salsa verde ($24). The thin wood-fired crust had nothing on our local stars, but I will say the 13 different types of pizzas all sounded delish, inventive, and there didn't appear to be a dog in the bunch. There was even roasted lamb with potato, anchovies, and parsley with buffalo mozzarella. Too bad about everything besides the pizza.

Hugo's Bar Pizza
33 Bayswater Rd.
Kings Cross
9357 4411

Sometimes you just want a good burger, and man, did we find one at ~BURGER BAR~ on Devonshire in Surry Hills (no, it's not part Hubert Keller's burgeoning Burger Bar empire). I wish all buns were like theirs: fluffy, fresh, homemade tasting. Nice hand-formed patty cooked a perfect medium rare. Beautiful, this burger. I miss you.

Burger Bar
118 Devonshire St.
Surry Hills
9690 0465

We had to do at least one "fusiony" Aussie experience since that continues to be a big culinary theme over there. Huh. We hit up the hip ~JIMMY LIKS~ for an early dinner before catching a performance at the Opera House. I liked the long shotgun room with what was practically one big communal table (each table had room for eight or so), and then there was a completely different side housing the bar area. The modern Thai food here was fresh, tasty, and balanced--a few dishes were a little heavy with the garlic or the ginger, but I do wish we had more food like this here in SF. Great staff too. We scarfed down the fried salt and pepper cuttlefish ($18/$28), and the grilled baby octopus ($29) had a nice caramelization, which made the accompanying salad of pineapple, lemongrass, and mint an inspired combo. A few other dishes we ordered were all quite salad-y, just right for the warm Sydney summer nights.

Jimmy Liks
186-188 Victoria St.
Potts Point
8354 1400

One place we hung out a lot at was ~JACKIES CAFÉ~ in Paddington (or Paddo, as the locals say), smack dab in the middle of a 'hood full of cute boutiques and art galleries. (My friend worked here.) I gotta say it: for a country that loves espresso so much, I sure had a lot of lousy coffees. Lukewarm cappuccinos in the morning, watery espressos in the afternoon, ick. Not here. Jackie Milijash does not mess around. I especially loved my iced latte one hot arvo (afternoon), with its napkin that looked like a jaunty scarf! Jackies has a lovely little outdoor patio where you can watch the ladies who lunch, with a Champagne bucket and stroller parked alongside their tables, or you can read magazines in the sunken downstairs section (I noticed a number of places offer free glossy magazines for their guests to read). The menu is eclectic, with breakfast dishes like ricotta pancakes, or grilled sandwiches and pastas at lunch, plus a sushi bar with fab hand rolls (she also has a sushi place in Bondi Beach). And just to meet Jackie, you gotta go. She is a piece of work, in the best way possible. I loved her husky voice and crazy speech cadence so much I want her to call me once a month and just leave me a message saying, ""Daaaaaaaaarling, hi! It's Jacks!"

122 Oxford St.
9380 9818

Back to coffee: we luckily got steered to ~FRATELLI PARADISO~ after I complained to a local about all the lousy coffee I was having. She brought us to this super-slick Italian café that reminded me of Milano. Spare arty look, with simply ridiculously good pastry. Focaccias too. Coffee verdict: pretty darned good.

Fratelli Paradiso
12-16 Challis Avenue
Potts Point
9357 1744

So since we're all hopped up on coffee, let's recap some fun Aussie barista nomenclature I learned:

Short black=espresso shot
Long black=two shots
Flat white=with milk, no foam
You order your milk either skinny or fat.
They serve lattes in bistro glasses (never pints like they do here).

Of course we had to hit Bondi Beach during our stay. What a gorgeous beach--nearby Bronte was where we hung out, actually. Didn't get to eat at the famed ~ICEBERGS~ because as luck would have it, we were there on Valentine's Day. Everything was booked, so we just ate at a simple pizza place along the water. (We came up with some fun singles-themed songs for the night: Cars: Drive, or De La Soul: Me, Myself, and I.) Okay, enough of the lame Valentine's Day. What was more my speed was the sister restaurant, . What a fab space and dreamy-looking menu, full of salumi, offal, seafood, yum. Hot identity/look too--(check out the site for a peek). We only swung by for some post-beach beers. Oh well, another time.

North Bondi Italian Food
118-120 Ramsgate Ave.
Bondi Beach
9300 4400

We did have a smashing hangover breakfast at ~BONDI'S BROWN SUGAR~ just off the main drag, with a chill seaside vibe. Really moderate prices (for a change) and a decent coffee to boot. Sold. Seems they serve lunch and dinner too.

Bondi's Brown Sugar
106 Curlewis St.
Bondi Beach
9130 1566

Had some dranks at the ~VICTORIA ROOM~, an eclectic and sultry space chock-full of Victoriana, like brocade wallpaper, vintage settees and armchairs, low tables, and a lazy, loungey vibe. The place is quite huge, especially with the tall ceilings. There's also a restaurant--I was curious about the high tea weekend afternoons, sounds fun.

Victoria Room
Level 1-235 Victoria St.
9357 4488

To top it all off, I had one of the best cocktail experiences of my life at ~LOTUS BAR~ in Potts Point. Tucked in the back of the restaurant is an intimate lounge, with glam wallpaper, mirrored tables, and an insider vibe. You can peruse the thoughtful list, but even more fun is to work with the snappy mixologists and divine your drink. This particular night, Michael was our cocktail dowsing rod (although we were drooling over Ollie like a bunch of schoolgirls), who concocted four very divergent drinks for our group, each cocktail totally apropos for our different personalities. It was like having your tarot cards read. Funny, I ended up with a bourbon cherry cocktail, a frothy little number with some Maker's, Amaretto, crushed cherry and I can't remember what else, but I would drink if by the gallon, daily, if I could. My friend had the "Courtesan," with purple basil, vanilla, lime, and Muscovado sugar, shaken with hibiscus tonic and Glenfiddich Solera Reserve. Like, whoa. Yo. Sure, all four drinks came to $70 AUS, but it's a small price for the swell memory of a drink I am going to pine after.

Lotus Bar
22 Challis Ave.
Potts Point
9326 9000

Here are some other places I hoped to hit, either from recommendations, or discoveries while I was there but didn't get to try:

~TOKO~ is a new izakaya that just opened up in Surry Hills. Groovy ambiance and cool crowd at the bar and wood communal tables.

Didn't have the ducats to shell out for ~est~ (Australia cleaned me OUT) but it's supposed to be pretty top drawer. You can grab drinks downstairs--since it's smack-dab in the CBD (Central Business District) it can get pretty swamped with a randy post-work crowd.

~NOVE CUCINA~, the sister to ~OTTO~ just next door, looked slick, and it's right on the water--and hey, it's in Woolloomooloo! Say it! Woolloomooloo! Love it.

Didn't get a chance to hit ~BENTLEY RESTAURANT AND BAR~, but it's supposed to be pretty hot. One of my few regrets of the trip!

Wanted to go do some Aussie Outback-style feasting at ~DEEP BLUE BISTRO~, a beachside joint in Coogee (supposedly all kinds of kangaroo preparations on the menu).

~SOBO~ in Bondi looked pretty hip and I heard the eats are good--another one we couldn't get into on V-Day.

~SEAN'S PANORAMA~ is a Bondi institution--the bread there is supposed to be pretty fantastic. Dang, how did I miss this? I did. Oh well.

A few more tips:

Pick up a LUXE Sydney Guide before you leave, or at a bookshop when you get there--really helpful, full of snazzy and sassy info and tips on what's hot.

I also like the your Restaurants site, with small overviews and Yelp-like user comments.

Food lingo notes: tasty cheese is cheddar, capsicum is bell pepper, and if you're really drunk, you're "shattered" (hey, these are useful terms to know!). You'll find pumpkin and beetroot (beets) on everything, ditto on rocket (arugula). And don't let anyone get away with calling you a SEPPO (Septic Tank, rhyming with Yank).