A world-class fine diner, an eclectic mix of international cuisines, photogenic desserts and a buzzing street food hangout – Chippendale's Kensington Street precinct is full of surprises.
Parisiens grab falafel in Le Marais and visit the 1st arrondissement for Japanese, while New Yorkers in the know skip Manhattan’s Chinatown and head to south Brooklyn for authentic yum cha. In Australia we’ve had Chinatowns, Thaitowns, Little Italies and Middle Eastern hot spots for generations but more recently it’s the crowd-pleasing multicultural food precincts taking up prime real estate in our capital cities. In Sydney, at the southern end of the CBD, Kensington Street has established itself as a regular hang out for hungry locals as much as a destination for food-obsessed travellers – in just six years. With boutique hotel The Old Clare at its heart, art galleries, boutique shopping and cinemas on its fringe and more than a weekend’s worth of bars, restaurants and cafes to get through, this vibrant inner-city neighbourhood has plenty going on.
Sydney isn’t short on incredible south-east asian food – from street-style eats to sophisticated night-out restaurants – and Mekong fits comfortably among the latter, its refined mix of Laos, Thai, Vietnamese and Burmese cuisines a foil to the casual fare at neighbouring Spice Alley. Start with eggplant masala tempura – the stack of crisp batons showered in salty-sweet pork floss – alongside the subtle luxury of crab meat crepes, then fill the table with Amok dry curry of shellfish in unctuous, chilli-spiked gravy and classic fall-apart massaman made with with beef brisket. Waiters will warn of spice levels and happily suggest a cooling drink if you overestimate your threshold, such as the Mekong Refresher of lychee and kaffir lime, a glass of local or French white, or a beer from Thailand, Vietnam or Laos. While Mekong may lack the bustling atmosphere of Spice Alley, its menu of nuanced regional dishes served up in a relaxed and elegant dining room makes for an exceptional meal you can linger over.
Order the salt-crusted barramundi at Olio (if you see it on the specials menu) and chef Lino Sauro might be the one to wheel it to your table on a cart, break through the briney coating and portion the tender fish. It’s about as showy as things get at this elegant southern Italian spot on the second floor of The Old Rum Store building, where the cool Scandi styling is a match for warm Sicilian satisfaction. Stick with seafood and you can’t go wrong, from the capasanata (plump scallops in a buttermilk bath spiked with chive oil) to the traditional Sicilian pasta with fresh sardines, saffron raisins and pine nuts, and another exquisite special: a pool of golden bisque, a tangle of spaghetti and a crown of sweet Moreton Bay bug meat. There’s a deft pappardelle with pork ragu and a charred Wagyu sirloin, too. Sit by a window in the loft-style space with a glass of prosecco and heed this warning: if you don’t order your own tiramisu, request two spoons.
From the get go – a dish of razorfish, oyster emulsion, marigold – Automata’s chef Clayton Wells seems to delight in doubling down on the essence of an ingredient, the emulsion more redolent of oyster flavour than the bivalve itself. By course three, tasting the most tomato-y tomatoes of your life, pickled and swimming in a fragrant tomato broth, is a forgone conclusion. It’s hit after hit at this minimalist two-hat Kensington Street stalwart (including tunes by David Bowie, the Black Lips and Ween) and while Wells can magic the best from everything on a plate, his eight-course tasting menu never feels tricky: rich wagyu tri tip with the sharp relief of pickled gherkins and bamboo; steamed murray cod in a creamy bug roe coat finished with the kaffir-lime tang of Geraldton wax; and jerusalem artichoke ice cream that’s surprising, malty and wildly yummy. If you’re dithering over the optional drinks pairing, don’t – it’s one of the most diverse and delicious in the city (consider a smoky 2019 Mt Etna rose matched with grilled southern calamari and lardo).
In Paris, there’s a Gavroche on virtually every corner: a classic bistro where well-dressed waiters whisk plates of steak frites, escargots and canard confit to diners eager to indulge in traditional French cuisine. Lucky for Sydneysiders – and anyone visiting – this beautifully-styled spot inhabits the second floor of The Rum Store Building, all exposed timber beams, patterned floor tiles and delightful Gallic details (check out the rooster below the kitchen’s service window). Complement three courses – say, tartare de bouef, sole meuniere and creme brûlée – with a glass of 2016 Denis Jeandeau Viré-Clessé Chardonnay or the Mademoiselle martini made with French gin and vermouth. Santé!
“We regularly make 1000 G&Ts on a Friday and Saturday night,” says Grant Collins, Gin Lane’s co-owner and master mixologist. Dressed in a three-piece suit, he brings his old-school London charm to Kensington Street at this elegant, moodily-lit bar where smoking, foaming, colourful and classic cocktails are sipped around marble-topped tables. While taste-testing is heartily encouraged, learn more about the spirit at a gin class with Collins (for two or a bigger group) where he’ll explain the intricacies of gin distilling, describe its often wicked history and even help you mix your own drinks. But back to the G&T: with more than 200 gins and 12 different tonics on the shelves there are thousands of combinations to sample.
If you mean to stop by this petite cafe for a quick coffee, don’t look at the menu. Sure, there’s the relative virtue of an “Energiser” fresh juice (apple, carrot, lemon and ginger), or smashed avo on toast with poached eggs and ricotta salata. But just try and resist the 3 Ronin brekkie roll, decadent with smoked bacon, a fried egg, aioli, cheese, house relish and fresh rocket (yes, that counts as a serving of greens). Coffee comes however you like it – hot, cold and with most milk variations – and though there aren’t many seats inside, the best spots are out on the street watching the parade of passersby.
Koi Dessert Bar
The good news about the everpresent queue at this wildly popular destination dessert spot is that the wait gives you time to consider your order. And once you reach the counter, the friendly staff will forgive you for instantly forgetting your plans: a glass counter filled with neat rows of elaborate sculptural confections can scramble the most decisive of sweet tooths. Go for a crowd-pleaser – the nomtella, strawberry pillow and berry cheesecake are bestsellers – or try something a little left of centre, such as the black sesame, with its subtle savoury flavours and tangy hit of yuzu freshness. Whatever you choose, join the sugar-high crowd upstairs, at the terrace tables or sitting on the lawn out front. Oh, and don’t forget to ‘gram it.