Indulge me, if you will, just one more vacation/holiday post before it’s back to regularly scheduled programming.
Well, as any of you who head home for the holidays know, spending time with your family and friends in your hometown is technically not a vacation. In my mind it’s a visit, a way to keep connected with the clan and long-time friends who knew you way back when. Does that make sense? Probably the subject of another post…
But in the spirit of the old adage, a change is as good as a holiday, six things to love about the food scene in Sydney and beyond. Print and save for when awesome airline deals fly by again — these day $600 round trip SFO to SYD is not unheard of — and the Southern Hemisphere sunshine beckons during the rainy winter months just around the corner for those of us in the Northern climes. (Well, California hardly counts as a place with difficult winter weather and the two weeks I just spent in Sydney this spring were cool and wet, but you get the general idea.)
Even if the skies didn’t cooperate, the food didn’t disappoint.
My picks from the trip:
Where to begin? It’s fresh, local, and tastes like it was plucked straight out of the sea. Prawns that actually exude a prawn-like flavor. Fleshy white fish that flakes off the fork and the tongue. Calamari with just the right chew factor. I found myself devouring barramundi in a lovely bush setting at Echo on the Marina, enjoying the inventiveness of kingfish sashimi, Spencer Gulf prawns with wasabi, and jewfish in XO sauce at the fancy-pants glass brasserie run by Sydney celeb chef Luke Mangan, and chowing down on some decent street eats — salt and pepper squid — (what my niece used to call crunchy seahorse) at the Night Noodle Markets in Hyde Park. I’d be a full-fledged pescatarian (rather than a somewhat-lapsed vegetarian) if I lived in my hometown.
The cafe scene Down Under is simply marvelous, you get a real sense of a place’s unique personality the minute you walk through the door. I miss the Sydney cafe scene madly, hardly surprising since I dwell in the land of generic coffee shops such as Starbucks and Gloria Jeans, and chain eateries like Pasta Pomodoro and P.F. Chang’s (and these restaurants offer solid dishes compared with the ubiquitous U.S. fast food joints found the world over).
Sydney’s cafe culture runs the gamut from fine dining to cheap eats, and includes at least three distinct scenes, details follow.
2. Upscale Cafes
My last lunch in town was spent noshing with my long-time friend and her two hungry kids at a high-end (but not exxy) cafe in an artsy and industrial neighborhood. Cafe Sopra in Waterloo, is housed in a warehouse-like location above Fratelli Fresh, one of this town’s more interesting fruit&veg providores. The cafe boasts a blackboard menu and elegantly simple (mostly) Italian-inspired dishes with a few hearty English overtures here and there. The menu also includes an emphasis on top-notch produce (natch) and the service is pitch perfect, warm and professional, still something of a rarity in this otherwise sophisticated city.
Plus, I watched an eight-year-old plough through a plate of pan-fried sardine fillets perched on grilled bruschetta with braised tomato and a dollop of pesto like there was no tomorrow. If that’s not a ringing endorsement of this cafe’s gussied up home-style cooking I don’t know what else is. Oh, it was voted best cafe by TimeOut Sydney last year. Loved the antipasto plate with pickled beetroot and gorgonzola, along with roasted pumpkin salad and green beans with pesto. Not for the carb adverse, my galpal and I tucked into a bowl of tagliatelle brightened successfully with just lemon, chili, garlic, and broccolini.
3. Neighborhood Cafes
Sydney is also chock full of fabo spots to duck in for a quick bite for brekkie or lunch or a well-brewed coffee, especially in the inner-city suburbs (this oxymoron makes sense when you’re on the ground). I’ve always especially liked the cafes found in and around the inner west. This trip I was pleasantly surprised by what was dished up at Piccolo Padre in Rozelle; loved the salad of pan-fried haloumi with generous chunks of roasted pumpkin that I ate before taking a long walk with my screenwriter friend, who heads to the Piccolo for a post-school drop off coffee most mornings.
4. Beachside Cafes
See a theme emerging here? There’s nothing quite like drinking a freshly squeezed orange-carrot-ginger juice and eating Turkish toast smothered with rhubarb jam while you watch the waves and observe the locals at play on the sand. I’m partial to the cafes with ample outdoor seating at Bronte, Bondi, Coogee, or Clovelly in Sydney’s eastern beach suburbs. Die-hard northern beaches fans will no doubt weigh in with their own surf-side nosheries. And, of course, the perfect way to preface such a breakfast or lunch is to begin with a brisk walk. Last day in Sydney I hoofed it from Coogee to North Bondi to work up a decent appetite before I took a well-earned pit stop at Jenny’s cafe in Bronte.
5. Ethnic enclaves
A trip home isn’t complete without some local Indian, Thai, or Vietnamese take-away. I’m also a big fan of the cheese and spinach Turkish Gozleme, a type of savory crepe sold at several urban markets. And for a sweet treat with a cuppa tea, a Portuguese tart does the trick, with its flacky pastry base and light custard filling. Local food blogger Helen Yee, at Grab Your Fork does a stellar job summing up the range of ethnic eats in and around Sydney. The city also boasts chic modern Asian restaurants with a sustainable food focus like Billy Kwong; along with two more recent standouts, Red Lantern and Spice Temple, that, alas, I ran out of evenings to try. Next time.
6. Regional cuisine
Regional cuisine is on the rise around Australia. It wasn’t that long ago that you’d be hard pressed to find something edible in a small country town or seaside community. That’s no longer a worry. Case in point: A small, unpretentious seaside restaurant in Port Macquarie, on the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, fusion 7 serves Mod Oz cuisine worthy of inclusion in the Good Food Guide. Along with a gaggle of gals from high school, this out-of-towner was delighted to dig into some Aussie-inspired offerings such as rocket, parmesan, and macadamia nut salad, soft-shell crab with shitake-ginger sambal and peanut aoli on a bean sprout and coriander salad, barramundi with soba noddles and chilies, and passionfruit brulee.
Are you about ready to book a flight? If you live in Sydney, or will be there between now and October 31, enjoy the last week or so of the crave sydney event, which showcases local food at its best.
As for me, I’m back to hiking the hills around Berkeley in an effort to ward off any collatoral damage from my recent trip.