If Sydney has a shared religion, it’s food. Alexandra Carlton sets aside a weekend to worship at the altar and take a food tour of the best restaurants, cafés and bars in the Harbour City.
I’m sitting on a bentwood bar stool at a long black counter in a room filled with concrete and industrial piping. I’m at Poly, the supercool semi-subterranean bar beneath the Paramount House Hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills. But to be honest, this minimalist aesthetic is the unofficial interior uniform of many Sydney food and drink spaces and I could be at any one of them. Then I try my cocktail. The shell-pink sour with a soft cap of egg white served in a coupe – called a Poly Club (pictured below) – pings across my palate with notes of fresh strawberry and strawberry gum and I know I’m somewhere very special. Owner and chef Mat Lindsay is a shaman in the kitchen and the bar snacks here are also something else. He seems to throw a bunch of things he likes on a plate, yet every element finds harmony: mussels, bush tomato and wet rice is perfectly in tune, as is a golden pool of corn, popcorn and tiny marigold petals.
And that’s exactly what makes Sydney dining so remarkable. One minute you think you’re in just another cool-looking room that serves up the tried-and-true formula of “classics with a twist”. Next minute someone like Lindsay conjures flavours so extraordinary you want to throw your hands up in rapture.
My late-afternoon visit to Poly is all part of a grander plan: to spend a full weekend eating out for every meal, visiting eight spots in total. They’re not the most expensive. They don’t all have a queue three blocks down the street. It’s not about the newest or the poshest. It’s about getting out in my home city and reacquainting myself with the brilliant establishments that make it one of the great food capitals of the world.
I approach my task like an athlete, albeit one who doesn’t expect to look like an athlete when it’s all over… After fasting monastically for a day in preparation, I begin Friday night with a bang at Momofuku Seiōbo (pictured top) in the harbourside suburb of Pyrmont. It was a tough call between here and one of the city’s other big hitters, such as Quay or Bennelong, but Seiōbo wins for its surprise factor – after all, a three-hatted Caribbean restaurant isn’t what you’d expect to find in the corner of a casino food court. But there’s nothing casino-ish about executive chef Paul Carmichael’s wildly welcoming love song to his birthplace. The seven-course tasting menu sails around the region’s islands from a Haitian kalalou diri (a rambunctious gumbo-like stew) to a gorgeous take on roast pig, the Puerto Rican chuletas can-can. Carmichael is known for being one of the nicest people in the local hospitality scene and his personality shines in his generous food – food that loves you as you love it. I feel nourished, warmed-up and ready to eat my way through to Sunday night.
Where to eat on Saturday
On Saturdays, Sydneysiders drink coffee. Actually, we drink coffee every day but on the weekend we seek out caffeine with purpose and few places brew the beverage with the passion of Single O in Surry Hills. It’s been one of the city’s most favoured specialty coffee houses since it opened in 2003 and while I could, of course, order the usual long black or flat white, today I ask for the daily coffee flight, a selection of three specialty coffees served on tap like beer. General manager Dan Nutton pulls up a chair to tell me more about the delicious Colombian and Honduran varieties I’m sipping. “You guys must get tonnes of people in here who are really fascinated by coffee and want to find out more about what you’re pouring each day,” I remark. Nutton hesitates. “Well, no not really,” he says. Turns out most people just come in to get what is, without exception, bloody great coffee (double shot, one sugar, hold the backstory).
Before the caffeine has worn off it’s time for lunch and, as I often say to myself, what better way to kick things into gear than with an ice-cold shot of vodka and a mouthful of salty sturgeon eggs, slurped off my inner wrist? Kidding. This isn’t a thought that ever crossed my mind before seeing a “caviar bump” offered at Mimi’s, one of the glitziest jewels in the Merivale crown (the group is behind more than 70 restaurants, pubs, bars and hotels, including the luxe Fred’s in Paddington and Cantonese Mr. Wong in the CBD).
The elegant diner occupies the middle level of the Coogee Pavilion, with tables by the huge arched windows that look out to the Norfolk Island pines and beach below (worth requesting when you book). I order snacks including a duck leg pastilla and a scoop of bluefin toro piled onto a crumpet, followed by a refined plate of pipis before rounding things off with a tall glass of flavoured shaved ice, carved from a thick block of the frozen stuff right before my eyes. Between the views and the tableside theatre, Mimi’s is showy Sydney at its best.
Dinner that night is at superb European-style bistro Monopole, which has recently relocated from a shadowy bar in Potts Point to a bright and open upstairs brasserie in the heart of the city. The new space is as colourful as the old one was cool and contemplative, with shiny pink and gold wall hangings, granite columns and a copper bar that hugs the central kitchen.
Monopole is as much about wine as it is about food, its collection imaginatively curated by sommelier and co-owner Nick Hildebrandt. It’s one of those lists where almost everything looks unfamiliar and that’s why it’s so great. Go on. Get weird. Try that savagnin from Western Australia or that gamay from Lyon. Hildebrandt won’t steer you wrong and neither will the set banquet, which includes dishes such as a canapé of sour cream and salmon roe served on a finger of cucumber and a generous Angus sirloin with peppercorn sauce.
It’s a short stroll into the historic Rocks district for my final indulgence of the day, a nightcap at Las Vegas-style cocktail bar Maybe Sammy. All about classic service, Sammy has collected awards like a Hollywood rat-packer collects Oscars. A waiter serves neat little bowls of nuts and olives, relaying my drinks order to white-suited bartenders who shake and stir Martinis and Bellinis with finesse. It’s elegant and elevated and as I leave I feel I should be clicking my fingers for my fur coat before I sweep off into the night.
Where to eat on Sunday
I wake Sunday morning on the home stretch – literally. I’m pretty sure my stomach has expanded to two or three times its ordinary size. Luckily, my unimpeachable scientific theory is that the more you eat, the more you’re capable of eating. When I arrive for the bottomless brunch at Nour in Surry Hills at around 11am, it’s as though the nine-dish banquet menu at Monopole and the truffle cheese toastie that I may or may not have ordered in the early hours at Maybe Sammy never happened.
Bring me manoushe sourdough pillowed with sujuk – a Middle Eastern spicy sausage – and prawn fatteh sprinkled with nuts and spice! Pile high the fried eggs with lamb, tahini yoghurt and smoked almonds! Shower me in pressed watermelon with pistachio cream! And water me with unlimited Persian Spritzes, fresh with lime and elderflower and buzzing with sparkling wine! Nour feels like it’s about abundance and bonhomie – and the revellers at neighbouring tables, laughing and chatting to the sounds of Marvin Gaye and The Temptations, certainly seem to agree.
After my afternoon pit stop at Poly, I stagger valiantly across the finish line to hip pizza house Bella Brutta, home of – and I make no apologies – the greatest pizza in Sydney. The trick to eating the outrageous clam slice is folding it into a gooey, garlicky handkerchief before pushing the whole thing into your mouth and trying not to faint from happiness. It’s worth the trip to Newtown, in the city’s Inner West, even if you order nothing else. If you’re with a group of four or more, choose the gigantic banquet that includes a generous range of shared starters, several pizzas depending on numbers, wood-roast chicken – why not? – plus salad and two desserts. “Even I think that’s a ridiculous amount of food,” my waiter confides.
In truth, the whole weekend has been a paean to ridiculous amounts of food. And what food it was. Delicious fare, cooked with casual cheer, is the lifeblood of Sydney – as essential to its identity as the Harbour Bridge or the Opera House. My body may be heavy, I think as I reach for drawstring pants, but my spirit is light.
Image credits: Jason Loucas, Alana Dimou, Steven Woodburn, Kitti Gould