Trips to Australia now find me constantly comparing their restaurant offerings to what we have in New Zealand, trying to get a measure on what we do well and what opportunities might exist to increase our rating as a must-visit culinary destination. With the Cuisine Good Food Awards 2018 fast approaching, I took advantage of a quick trip to Sydney earlier this year and turned to the Aussie Good Food Guide for 2018, looking at some of their best dining experiences that have earned those all-important hats. Kelli Brett travelled to Sydney as a guest of Destination NSW and QT Hotel Sydney.

QT SYDNEY

49 Market Street, Sydney; qthotelsandresorts.com

Fabulously central, surrounded by the very best of Sydney culture, fashion, theatre and art and full of edgy intrigue and city swing, QT Sydney was the perfect base for my extreme eating tour. A blend of Gothic, art deco and Italianate-influenced architecture teams with a luxurious accommodation experience that provides just the right mix of relaxation and fun. Parlour Lane Roasters is the ideal spot for your early morning barista coffee or late afternoon aperitivo and Gowings Bar & Grill is a buzzing European-style brasserie with a menu that hits the spot should you decide not to stray too far from your room. If like me, you are on a mission to hit as many of the local restaurants as is physically possible on a three-and-a-half-day trip, you’ll be pleased to know that QT Sydney also houses a secretive, late-night pleasure centre, the Gilt Lounge. Before you get too carried away, I’m talking cocktails…

SEPIA

201 Sussex Street, Sydney; sepiarestaurant.com.au
Score: 18.5 / 20

The bad news for Sydney is that Sepia will deliver its final service on 15 December. The good news for Melbourne is that the masterminds behind Sepia, Martin Benn and Vicki Wild, are Melbourne-bound with their award-winning team, to open a new venture that will be “very different”. Unfortunately, I was not able to pry any more out of them so it remains to be seen whether Benn will continue with his deep connection to Japanese cuisine.

Benn is a magician. My first exquisite dish resembled sparkling bite-sized jewels. A tempura oba leaf intricately decorated with smoked-prawn mayonnaise. What appeared to be a licorice allsort turned out to be smoked eggplant dashi gel and egg white tofu. A mini pleasure bomb of raw bonito with dashi cream crowned with vibrant purple linaria flowers. Salmon with smoked roe and sour citrus perfectly crafted into a shiny bliss ball. Renowned Australian Good Food Guide reviewer, Terry Durack, described these same morsels as “culinary bling”. Perfect. Until they reach their last supper Benn will present small seasonal dishes that change frequently in what he calls his own style of kaiseki. One word – magical. No wait, a few more words – get there before 16 December.

BENNELONG

Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point; bennelong.com.au
Score: 17 / 20

Peter Gilmore (of Quay fame) took the reins at Bennelong in 2014 and along with chef, Robert Cockerill, presents a definitively Australian menu in an undeniably iconic venue. Go early. Head to the magnificent lower level under the smallest sail of the Opera House, where the view at sundown is spectacular. Gilmore and Cockerill have given the Bennelong menu a taste of everything that is great and good about the Aussie food story. Moreton Bay bugs in a dumpling with hispi cabbage, buckwheat, finger lime, nori udon, and brown butter; crispy eggplant, sea scallops and an XO streaky bacon that is distinctively deep and spicy; prime lamb from Margaret River, WA accompanied by Jerusalem artichoke and broad beans in scorched leaves; whole roasted Tiger flathead tail with grilled cucumbers, verjuice and coastal greens. Resist the obvious pavlova (I hear the Kiwis do it better) but don’t leave without trying the crème caramel vs mille-feuille. A clever battle of the classics that is forever on my last supper menu.

CIRRUS

23 Barangaroo Avenue, Barangaroo; cirrusdining.com.au
Score: 17 / 20

Sydney will tell you it does Aussie seafood better than anywhere else. I’m not entirely sure about that, but if it’s a Sydney seafood restaurant you are after, Cirrus is one of the best. Located in the increasingly popular waterfront dining precinct, Barangaroo, chef Brent Savage and his multi-award winning team deliver an incredible spin on all of your fishy and crustacean favourites. And that wine list! Co-owner Nick Hildebrandt, one of Australia’s most awarded sommeliers, offers more than 500 wines from around the world with a particular focus on wines that enrich seafood. Champers, chardy, sauvignon, semillion, chenin blanc and especially chablis. Having been the recipient of many a good seafood platter over the years, I’d say Cirrus serves up one of the best. Be prepared to pay $160 and be prepared to say, “WOW”.

LUMI DINING

56 Pirrama Road, Pyrmont; lumidining.com
Score: 17 / 20

Oh my lord, if you are a traditionalist LuMi Dining is not for you and, sadly, you’ll be missing out.

Traditional Italian plates are turned upside down with the addition of miso dashi and shiso, and carpaccio moves dangerously close to sashimi. Although inspired Asian-Italian fusion is a focus, it’s not the whole deal. My views of Pyrmont Bay were a little traumatised by the undeniable presence of the Fairfax building but that’s another story. You do need to know that a tasting menu divided into small, lunch or the full LuMi experience is your only option. The snack-sized bowl of Italian-style chawanmushi will make you wish that LuMi had an NZ equivalent. The traditional Japanese steamed custard is served up by chef, Federico Zanellato, with a parmesan consomme base topped with shredded button and enoki mushrooms dusted with porcini powder. While still retaining that must-have silken touch, Zanellato’s version delivers a flavour intensity that is unforgettable.

ROCKPOOL BAR & GRILL

66 Hunter Street, Sydney; rockpoolbarandgrill.com.au
Score: 16.5 / 20

I knew I was off to a good start with the arrival of the off-menu Rockpool wagyu slider (usually reserved for regulars) and glad to be back at one of the most decadent dining rooms in Sydney. Art deco at its best with abundant marble, crisp white linen napkins and, dare I say it, silver service. Yes, silver service delivering food by Neil Perry and Corey Costelloe to a room packed with the young and trendy as well as the long-term players, so don’t start down the old-school track. I loved the coconut water and curry-leaf ceviche of tuna, kingfish and yellow-eye, but the Rockpool menu leaves you in no doubt that steak remains their holy grail. Iconic steakhouse that it is, I hear that Perry tried to remove the seared king prawns with goat’s cheese tortellini, burnt butter, pine nuts and raisins from the menu and put it back on for fear of lynching. I tried them – perfect pillowy parcels of comfort. I’m glad they have stood the test of time.

SAINT PETER

362 Oxford Street, Paddington; saintpeter.com.au
Score: 16 / 20

Chef Josh Niland has Saint Peter pitching firmly as another one to watch in the Sydney seafood heavyweight stakes. As my night started with the Saint Peter version of an Aperol Spritz made with all Aussie ingredients, I realised that I was in for a level of flavour layers that were not the usual. Niland’s menu changes daily and I was hooked from the start with the Flinders Island calamari with BBQ enoki and ink sauce. Coorong pipis, nasturtiums, shellfish dressing and fried bread followed, and then blue mackerel with sweet and sour radicchio and macadamia. Don’t expect spacious and super-comfortable surroundings, but do expect fish-to-tail, sustainable genius and a very good time.

FIREDOOR

23 – 33 Mary Street, Surry Hills; firedoor.com.au
Score: 16 / 20

Firedoor was my last stop for lunch before heading for the airport. Situated in a 1911 heritage building, the urban space features an open kitchen centred around two custom- made wood-fired ovens, three grills and an Australian-made hearth.

Lennox Hastie honed his impressive wood-, smoke- and fire-cooking techniques over the coals at Asador Etxebarri, just outside Bilbao in the Basque country, a place where the art of fire cooking is taken to extreme levels. I sat at the counter in front of the open kitchen and it was hot, (but not uncomfortably so) smoky, pure Aussie flavour heaven. No airs and graces or rock star attitudes here. Conversation and interaction flowed freely across the kitchen from Hastie and his team as they worked with premium Australian ingredients to present them in their purest form. Shishito peppers flashed over the coals with guanciale and pepperberry were the start to a lunch that was one of the best I’ve had in a very long time. The most beautiful marron were presented live in a basket, to show their premium condition, then halved on the bench in front of me, grilled and served with finger lime and fresh native herbs. Octopus served with smoky potato and red pepper, pipi’s and garlic shoots was tossed through an indigenous salad vegetable called munyeroo. A 43-day dry-aged grain-fed rib of beef was served simply on its own in all of its smoky goodness, an experiment that Hastie was working on that needed no apology for the lack of sides. I left wishing I had allocated more time for chef Lennox Hastie and his passionate and impressive team. They blew me away.

The Ones that I couldn’t Fit In

QUAY

The Rocks
18.5/20
quay.com.au

As one of Australia’s most famous restaurants, Quay was top of my list but unfortunately was closed for a nip and tuck! Word is that Peter Gilmore and his team are back with a stunning new-look restaurant – no more tablecloths, less seating and the same spectacular views. The famous snow egg has been retired, and a fabulous new six- or 10-course menu is on offer. At the time of writing, Quay is booked through till December.

FREDS

Paddington
16/20

Chef Danielle Alvarez is widely talked about for sourcing absolutely premium ingredients and cooking them very, very well. Freds is not a restaurant for bells and whistles and I’ve heard some grumbles about the higher-end prices, but I’ve also heard that the food is exceptional. Expect it to be driven by the produce, mainly Mediterranean style (with an occasional Asian nod) in a cosy and elegant setting.

TETSUYA’S

Sydney
17/20

I couldn’t get to Tetsuya Wakuda’s benchmark fine diner, so I left Sydney feeling guilty. It was at Tetsuya’s that I first began to understand complex simplicity in food. That perfect balance between incredible technique and restraint, Japanese precision, threaded with French expertise. Tetsuya is one of the hardest- working chefs in the biz and one of the first to put the Aussie restaurant story on the global map. Service of the exquisite degustation is seamless, with a side serve of great humour. One for the bucket list.

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