Sliding fairly seamlessly into a stylishly decked out space that used to house Bona Fides Café on Druitt Street, Spicy China presents the opportunity to explore Sichuan cooking.
It’s a far cry from the Chinese restaurants of my childhood, where this cuisine was always spelled Szechwan, and completely avoided 'ma la': the hot and numbing combination of fiery chillies and tingly Sichuan peppercorns. So, naturally, that’s exactly where I head...
Surrounding our table in an aromatic cloud, a large cast iron pot is carried in by the handle and placed ceremoniously on the table between us. We peer through the steam into a wonderful red tangle of freshwater crayfish, their claws extended as if they aimed to climb out of this fragrant mix. The Chilli Yabbies ($39.80) are cooked in more than just chilli oil (la) and Sichuan peppercorns (ma). There are also plentiful ginger slices adding pungency to the Sichuan peppercorns’ floral edge; smokiness from scorched dried chillies, and earthiness from fermented soybeans. We glove up and rip the heads off our yabbies, consuming their tail meat dripping with ‘mustard’ (the orangey-brown liver fat from under the carapace extending from the head) and oily broth. The end result is a symphony of flavour that enlivens all our sense receptors at once, pleasing mouth, nose and tummy.
Against such a hero ‘three-chilli’ dish, we decided to leave the menu’s more exotic offerings – pork aorta, intestine, braised blood jelly and beef tripe – for another day. We settled on a ‘one-chilli level' Stir Fried Shredded Pork in Hot Spicy Garlic Sauce ($22.80), which sadly was over-sweet, and made me wish I'd opted for the ‘two-chilli’ pork mince topped Mapo Tofu ($16.80) instead.
No matter, the broth from our yabbies is delicious eaten over Chongqing Style Fried Rice ($16.80) – a dish coming from a city by the same name in Sichuan Province, set on the Yangtze River.
Stay in China with their light, easy-quaffing TsingTao ($7.50) beer – with all these ma la flavours, you’ll probably need it.
70 Druitt Street, Sydney
With Sydney’s rents continuing to skyrocket, it was a relief to discover a surprisingly classy way to eat out for just twenty bucks. What’s more, it was particularly exciting to find out you can do so right in the heart of Surry Hills at Pizza Autentico.
The sexy concrete slab communal dining table has me harking back to Uchi Lounge days during the impressive sixteen-year tenure it had in this space. Though the table is where the similarity ends – the space has been taken somewhere thoroughly Italian using a fresh lick of white paint, a splashy red logo and 'the boot' of Italy inked onto the wall. The rest of the room keeps things stylishly monochromatic with a collection of framed black and white photography.
We’re quickly seated around the large communal table and given the lowdown on how things work. Our twenty buck spend gives us access to all the pizza and pasta we can eat, controlled by a clever adaptation of the Brazilian churrasco traffic light system - further improved by patriotic layer of white.
Early diners are also rewarded with a two-hour Happy Hour (5-7pm) where you can score your Birra Moretti (usually $8.50) or Fantinell Prosecco DOC (usually $9) for just five bucks, or kick things off the Italian way with a ten-buck Aperol Spritz (usually $14.50). While I'm down with aperitivo, I'm more a Negroni kind of gal, and Nonna’s Negroni ($16.50), based on Four Pillars Gin, is a smooth and well-presented rendition, complete with a dehydrated blood orange garnish.
The kitchen starts things rolling right away with a steady stream of ultra-thin crust pizza varieties, drawn from an ever-evolving menu of more than thirty types. Each pizza travels 'round the table on a wooden board borne by a friendly member of staff.
A classic Pepperoni wakes up your palate, before it’s pleasured by the utter simplicity of an Italian classic: an oregano-topped Margherita.
With so few toppings - yes, this is the Italian way - and ultra thin bases, there's nowhere to hide on ingredient quality. And I'm pleased to inform you that it's quality all the way, whether you’re consuming the flag on a beautiful Di Marcello topped with tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, basil, cherry tomatoes and Parmesan, or getting carnivorous with Prosciutto e Funghi, boasting ham, mozzarella and thinly sliced mushrooms.
Large, comforting bowls of simple pastas punctuate the pizza onslaught. A simple green Basil & Pine Nut Pesto Linguine is followed by spicy Penne Arrabiata and a classic Spaghetti Bolognaise.
And as you can see, this is one spot where vegetarian diners won’t feel they’re getting a bad deal.
Anyone questing for more flavour can doctor their dinner with on-table condiments that include Parmesan, pepper, chilli oil, basil oil, and chilli flakes.
By now you’re likely fingering your Italian traffic light and wondering if you should call it quits. I advise throwing it on its side to pause while you hold out for highlights, like a super-simple Melanzane that presents nicely-salted eggplant against a wonderfully crisp and cheesy base.
Taking a double hit of sharp gorgonzola – on both the winning Quattro Formaggi Gnocchi and a four-cheese pizza by the same name - sent me off into the night smiling (and plotting my return).
15 Brisbane Street, Surry Hills
Ph: (02) 9267 9992
When I go to Japanese restaurants for washoku, I’m generally seeking the perfect harmony of traditional Japanese flavours and beautiful presentation. However no cuisine is stagnant, so it should not be surprising to find out that even what is washoku evolves over time - and that contemporary Japanese fusion dishes can be washoku too.
If you’d like to see this in practical terms, head to Toshiya Kai’s eponymous restaurant on the north side of the harbour. In a contemporary black and red dining room – rammed on the night I dined – he’s dishing up a modern Japanese menu specialising in sushi, deep-fried, and grilled dishes.
And before you start reaching for the soy sauce – I should probably let you know, there isn’t any! Though I reckon where you’d ordinarily be reaching for soy, particularly on dishes like Seared Salmon Roll ($16.50/6), you’ll find them plenty saucy. Your inside-out avocado rolls capped by lightly seared salmon, spicy leeks and shallots, sit on a pretty sauce net of mayonnaise and sweet-soy.
An even better Spicy Volcano Roll ($19.50) turns saucing into a veritable eruption of seared sashimi tartar sauce and feisty teriyaki chilli oil, set around a mound of inside-out prawn tempura rolls.
You’ll also find saucing to be a strong suit on the dishes presented on the hand-written specials menu. Tenderly cooked Pan Fried Scallops ($16) gleam under a sticky, reduced balsamic, soy sauce glaze with a hint of red wine. The saucing is clever, adding a soft, woody earthiness to the intensely sea flavour of the pan-fried scallops, though visually I miss the golden sear usually so appealing on scallop dishes like this.
Covered in condiment, the Salmon Carpaccio ($15.50) dominates the salmon with a pleasant, big sesame taste, brightened by yuzu.
Even lightly seared Beef Tataki ($15.50) is slathered with chilli-coriander sauce, meaning by the time I hit an equally saucy raw tuna dish, my palate is pretty much sauced out...
Yet I'd also worked up a powerful thirst, so once more unto the breach I got on the sauce, this time with the new-to-menu Ryo Junmai Ginjo Sake ($22/180ml). This sake from the Tottori Prefecture is worth ordering, if only for beautiful twisted blue glass bottle.
The sake itself is smooth with subtle bitterness, but perhaps a bit too simple for my taste, though I have no such complaints about the full-bodied Takashimizu Junmai Daiginjo ($17/small). Those who prefer vinous libation will find a well-chosen wine list boasting Chablis, Chenin blanc and other Japanese friendly varietals like Muscadet. Though for me, it’s in the Japanese craft beers that Toshiya’s drinking options shine.
Ishikawa Brewery Bottle Conditioned Aged Pale Ale ($13/330ml) is refreshing, with good natural acid, and its bitterness, malt and hops in good balance. It’s quite the palate-cleanser against crisp gyoza skin Sashimi Tacos ($14/2), filled with juicy, raw sashimi-grade fish.
Ocean Kujukuri Pilsner ($12/330ml) is a bit heavier on malt, so it extends to suiting Soft Shell Crab ($12.50) with spicy leek, shallots, flying fish roe and chilli mayo.
Toshiya helped me to understand what attracts me personally to washoku cuisine - the simplicity and clarity of each key ingredient. What this restaurant does best is put forward an argument for the place of Japanese fusion cuisine; and with a ten-course banquet coming in under fifty bucks, it seems churlish to deny experimental cooking the room for hits and misses.
Shop 1, 283 Military Road, Cremorne
Ph: (02) 8969 6989
Three months shy of its first birthday, 84 Union St. was presented to Sydney’s food media at a launch party last month. Officially dubbed a restaurant/bar, the space really summons pub for me, with its relaxed attitude, kitsch Australiana, generous two-hour happy hour (4-6pm each day), television screens to broadcast key sporting events, and seven-day meal specials.
You’ll also be pleased to note that this venue runs contrary to Mike Baird’s vision for a sterile city by including a stage for our nearly extinct live music scene.
Richie Dia, who also owns Richie’s Hospitality, brings with him more than a decade of experience in professional hospitality consultancy. Originally from Japan, Dia has also racked up experience as a head chef, at venues including Donny’s Bar, a loft style bar meets restaurant in Manly. Here on the main Pyrmont thoroughfare between Darling Harbour and The Star, Dia has opted for a please-all selection of Aussie pub grub classics with a bit of an Asian twist.
Some dishes – like Crispy Chicken Dumplings ($14.90/7 pieces) – are made for sharing, while others like the 200g Wagyu Beef Burger ($17.90), are best enjoyed alone, under the venue’s creative starlit night sky.
Thanks to the work of artist Mark Butt, backyard diners will enjoy their meals peering into the windows of a typical Aussie fibro house, with iconic Aussie figures like Kylie Minogue, Paul Hogan and Dame Edna Everage staring back.
Butt has created quite a comic backdrop to the whole venue, from chalk outline shrieking larrikin cockatoos and Blinky Bill on one wall, to classic Australian dunny art by the loos.
It’s supplemented by a lot of greenery, from landscape murals to hanging vines and leaves, all quite pleasant in an urban landscape dominated by concrete and other hard surfaces.
I managed to sample a good range of cocktails at this event, and they proved to be a bit of a mixed bag. The Beluga Vodka Moscow Mule ($22) scrubbed up better than both the Burlito ($20) – which took the usual mojito somewhere strange with the addition of cherry herring liqueur – and a mango-heavy White Sangria.
The cocktail that had me reaching for a second however was the smooth Sloe Negroni ($19), which successfully tweaked the Italian aperitivo classic with sloe gin. It'd be great as a post-work pit stop drink, to get your stomach in the mood for dinner.
84 Union St.
84 Union Street, Pyrmont
Ph: (02) 8068 8476
Some restaurants fly quietly under the radar. I’m surprised to see it’s actually been more than five years since I last dined at Blue Eye Dragon. This is through no fault of the restaurant – which puts out interesting, well-executed Taiwanese food – I just only seem to remember it when I find myself starving in Pyrmont, and keen to avoid The Star. We popped through recently without a reservation, after the launch of a local bar left us hungry for more.
With an understated exterior, even knowing this restaurant, it’s still hard repress a gasp when you open the doors into the cavernous church school hall dining room. It’s immediately apparent that this isn’t the usual Taiwanese fast-food outlet you might have become used to in Sydney – though they do that too, at Grain & Spice on Union Street. And with nary a whisper, the team from Blue Eye Dragon also opened Wu-Gu in Zetland last year. At that spot they are trotting out many of the same dishes as this original space, including Eye Fillet in House Black Pepper Sauce ($36).
An exercise in extreme tenderness, these tasty hunks of eye fillet are a cut above what you’d expect to find in most of Sydney’s Taiwanese offerings. Their black pepper treatment begs for pinot noir, and the 2013 Lowburn Ferry ‘Skeleton Creek’ Pinot Noir ($78) is a beauty. With cherry, Chesterfield leather, spice and a whiff of smoky char, this is a wine for true pinot lovers, but that’s not to say it won’t work against lighter dishes like Prawns with Dry Chilli and Shallot in Gongbao ($32).
These toothsome crustaceans in syrupy spicy sauce on a bed of shallots, dried chillies and thin slices of ginger, eat best over Fried Rice ($22).
Choosing the veggie option here neatly takes care of your rice and vegetable needs in one dish.
A word of warning: main portions here are on the small side, clearly predicated upon you eating a multi-course meal. We didn’t because we’d already taken canapés and cocktails elsewhere.
Blue Eye Dragon
37 Pyrmont Street, Pyrmont
Ph: (02) 9518 9955
After eight successful years on the Comboyne plateau, Comboyne Culture has been moved to Taree by its second owner, Peter Jeffrey. This cheese making enterprise is now housed in the same building as standout German butcher, Mentges Master Meats. You'll find the factory outlet store - Cheese Cave - fronting the small factory. It offers Comboyne Culture cheeses, plus a small range of other local products, like Kingston Creek Creamery ice cream. This ice cream is made on local milk just up the road in Cundletown, and I observed it walking out the door during my visit.
Having mostly given up on flavourless Australian Camembert, I was pleased to find a bit more richness in the Comboyne Culture Camembert, made on local milk sourced from the picturesque Manning Valley. My mother-in-law, who generally eschews strong flavours, was also convinced to try the Bluembert. Even as a non-blue cheese eater, she quite enjoyed this creamy, surfaced-ripened blue cheese. My pick of the bunch was the blue vein cheese called Lindsay Blue, named for the company’s original cheesemaker. It edges out their harder, crumblier blue cheese called the Thone River Blue.
While I was at the Cheese Cave, I also picked up some Marrook Farm biodynamic fetta. It was gentler and less tangy than my usual fetta, making it particularly good with avocado on toast at breakfast time. I also tried out the Kingston Creek Creamery butter – it’s creamy though unsalted (which isn’t my preference) but a good option if you’d like to support the local guy, making their butter from cream sourced within NSW, over companies that rip off farmers.
Despite having Taree-based factory store opening on Thursdays and Fridays, on the weekends, the Comboyne Culture crew can still be found pimping their cheeses at a range of local markets, including Wingham Farmers Markets. Sydneysiders are not forgotten either - you will find their cheeses at the Moo & More stall at Orange Grove Markets in Leichhardt.
Corner Bushland & Kananga Drive, Taree
Ph: (02) 6550 4396
As day turns to night, the lovingly restored cottages along Wigram Street, Harris Park light up. A casual stroll along the picket fence line of this all-year-round light-up wonderland proves an aromatic adventure. Neighbouring cottages, each with their architectural features outlined in lights, also compete for attention using a heady mix of spices.
The warmer weather has their courtyards brimming with early diners, creating a vibrant hubbub of chatter and giving a festive atmosphere to the whole street. Despite their name belying the culinary significance of what is arguably India’s most famous style of dish, we settle upon Not Just Curries.
The deciding factor was their menu’s Northern Indian dishes, highlighting the cooking styles along the Indian-Chinese border. Gobi Manchurian ($12) represents this area of culinary adaptation, where Chinese cooking and seasoning is modified to suit Indian tastes. It presents cauliflower florets that have been battered in spiced cornflour and deep-fried, before being tossed through a gentle, soy-based vegetarian ‘Manchurian’ gravy. It's incredibly compelling to eat.
With a North Indian, home-style sensibility, Goat Curry ($20) presents tender hunks of lean, goat meat on the bone, in a dark, rich gravy. It’s a good advertisement for a dish that’s popular across both India and the Caribbean.
Everything we ordered arrives en-mass, moments after our beers land. We chose the popular Indian Haywards 5000 ($9), which turned out to be an over-sweet, malt-heavy Indian lager, and the Yenda IPA ($8), a better drop which balanced citrus and pine notes against caramel malts, resulting in an easy-drinking beer.
We round out our curry selections with two different takes on chicken. - a nutty, creamy yoghurt-based Chicken Korma ($18) that would be hard not to like, and a bright green Pudhina Murgh ($18) that takes chook somewhere minty and aromatic.
Plain Tandoori Roti ($3) and a selection of sides like Raita ($4) and a tangy Mango Pickle ($2), round out our meal at this Harris Park spot. Despite the cute exterior, the overlit dining room lacks ambience, and while all dishes were solid, nothing was exceptional. For me, it's only in the uniqueness of the Indian-Chinese borderlands dishes that a hint of magic can be found.
Not Just Curries
66 Wigram Street, Harris Park
Ph: (02) 9893 8202
With a dedicated play area in the rear, a kids menu and a fully stocked change station complete with nappy rash cream, Duck Duck Goose lives up to the promise of its childhood game name by being very kid-friendly. Throw in premium hand soap - L’Occitane Verbena – to ensure Mummy or Daddy come out feeling fresh, and you’re definitely in the hands of an experienced parent. (Owner Nick Porter has two.)
Porter also has a wonderfully collegiate attitude toward supporting other local foodies. Lining the shelves above your table you'll see a great range of hot sauces from Hot Sauce Emporium; plus there's eco-friendly Mr Goaty Gelato in the freezer; and meats from Lucas Meats taking pride of place on the menu. They're all drawn from Bronte and neighbouring surrounds.
Sitting in a space surrounded by so many hipster clichés – repurposed wooden pallets, exposed Edison bulbs in bike spoke mountings, and a hanging chalk board advising they’re selling Lexington jars – I’m pleased to report the menu is pleasantly artifice-free. Instead the wide, please-all selection of beverages and dishes eschews diet fads and gimmicks - I didn’t see a freak-shake, and the only way they’re serving cold drip is in an iced coffee.
Yeah, okay the juices are cold-pressed and pricey, but an Immune Kick ($9.50) with orange, carrot, ginger, garlic, parsley, honey and cayenne pepper, delivers the old-fashioned, nutrient-rich taste that juice had before we all bought electronic juicing gadgets. Enjoyed with a bowl of Coconut Bircher Muesli ($16) topped with fresh apple sticks and dotted with a texturally interesting blend of chia seeds, almonds, goji berries, fresh blueberries and cranberries, you've nailed having a healthy yet flavoursome start to your day.
Flavour also proves key in the Crispy Miso Cured Egg ($22) served on warm brown rice mixed with kale and umeboshi (Japanese plum) and topped with creamy avocado, nori and sesame dressing, along with a thick wedge of Sencha smoked tofu (that I could take or leave). It's nicely presented but also tasty enough to keep you interested until the last bite.
Vegetarian breakfasts aside, my dark carnivorous heart still beat fastest for the plump rounds Quatro Stelle Morcilla ($22) served on rounds of sourdough with organic fried eggs and roast pear, freshened by an apple, radish and dill salad.
And if you’re a robust coffee nut like me, you're likely to enjoy the signature Duck Duck Goose coffee blend, roasted in Alexandria. It's full-bodied with enough bitterness to mean I didn't need to order my Latte ($3.50) strong.
Duck Duck Goose
136-138 Avoca Street, Randwick
Ph: (02) 9326 7389
Sometimes the simplest combinations - like bread and olive oil – are the best. I recently got reacquainted with this fine pairing thanks to Moro, who sent me two new single estate extra virgin olive oils to try. Building upon their Seleccion Extra Virgin Olive Oils range that focused on oils made from single olive varietals, this new Moro range presents two different single varietal olive oils that each originate from the one estate.
Moro Single Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oils Lot No. 3 [RRP $10/500ml] comes from Toledo, Spain. It’s made on mild Arbequina olives grown on the Hualdo Estate, a family run business who planted their olive groves back in 1996. It’s a little bit green and grassy, with raw artichoke being the defining flavour. It’s quite subtle though, so use it on lighter dishes like chicken, or for those who prefer a milder olive oil.
I was more a fan of the Moro Single Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil Lot No. 6 [RRP $10/500ml] which comes from Priego de Cordoba in the south of Spain where the Muela family have been making olive oil for over seventy years. Made from the Picuda olive, this oil has a bigger kick. I found the round, peppery flavour to be much more to my taste. It would also lend itself to a wider variety of cooking applications, from salads to grilled vegetables and grilled meats. I used mine to good effect on a salad of burrata, basil and heirloom tomatoes.
The final selling point for me is you’ll only find these Moro products at independent grocers, like IGA, thanks to the good values at Conga Foods. This Australian family-owned business has been marketing and distributing Mediterranean products, like olive oil, here in Australia for over 65 years, and like me, they make a point of supporting family businesses.
Just a few doors down from their popular Chatkazz restaurant, turning out vegetarian street food, this restaurant has opened up Chatkazz Sweets & Namkeen.
Indian stores such as this one offer up a range of light food items, usually consumed with tea.
On the sweet side you’ll find counters full of orderly rows of Indian sweets, ranging from colourful kaju (cashew) rolls to gulab jamuns (deep fried milk solids balls in sugar syrup) to that delicious combination of carrots, sugar, milk, dried fruits and ghee known as gajar ka halwa. The word namkeen refers to them selling savoury snacks, like crisp, noodle-like bhujia made from besan flour and spices, which we'd commonly have as bar snacks with alcohol.
Bright orange jelabi (a deep-fried, pretzel-shaped treat soaked in sugar syrup) take me back to visiting Malaysia as a child, and biting into these tubular delights that explode in your mouth with fragrant sugar syrup. Nor have I seen this many flavours of barfi since I was an exchange student during high school in Suva, Fiji. This island was where I first developed my taste for this dense, milk-based sweet by walking from my exchange family’s photo processing lab to an Indian sweet shop each day to try out new flavours.
Nostalgia helps me decide on three different flavours of barfi. Kesar Coconut Barfi ($24.90/kg) is turned golden-orange with saffron (called kesar in Hindi) and flavoured with coconut and cardamom, and my dining companion's easy favourite. The more subtle Pista Barfi ($24.90/kg) is made with pistachios, and has a vague hint of mint; however it's the bright orange Carrot Barfi ($24.90/kg) that tastes both freshest and best to me. In an effort to be complete, I've earmarked mango, fig and chocolate to come back and try, before giving you my definitive barfi pick at this popular new Indian sweet stop in Sydney's 'Little India' (Harris Park).
Chatkazz Sweets & Namkeen
Shop 2/2 Station Street East, Harris Park
Ph: (02) 9035 0075