- duck liver pate at Sean's Panorama. Had one bird liver you've had 'em all, right? No no and three times no. Imagine the deepest, darkest, richest chocolate ice cream you've ever had. Imagine it's spooned from the tub with a long, heavy ice cream scoop and lands on a plate in a thick, wide, ribbon. Now imagine it's liver. Liver pate -- the richest, smoothest, light-but-not-fluffy liver pate you have ever in your life eaten. And it's served with delectable sweet and sour onions en agrodolce and "pulled sourdough" which is -- get this -- sourdough bread that's been literally pulled from the inside of a big, fat loaf, resulting in unevenly-shaped, jagged-edged pieces of bread pockmarked with cracks and crevasses, all the better to catch dribs and drabs of the extra fine olive oil that's been dribbled on top. This dish was not a dream, but I'm still pinching myself whenever I think of it.
- smoked butterfish at Yoshii. This sleek little Japanese spot near Circular Quay is supposedly where Sydney chefs go when they want knockout sushi. Yes the sushi is good, but Yoshii is, seemingly, an artist in the kitchen and this place is about so much more than raw fish. A perfect fillet of butterfish, graced with a single, highly fragrant mushroom of one variety or another, is sandwiched between two paper-thin slices of Japanese kigu wood and placed in a very hot oven. The wooden packet arrives at the table edges charred and still glowing embers, and it encloses an exquisitely flavored fillet imbued with the unfamiliar smokiness of the kigu and the musky essence of the mushroom. The fish's texture is indescribable -- firm yet gelatinous, charred yet moist. Part of 6-course set lunch menu that included other masterpieces such as tuna belly marinated in soy and truffle oil and a soft-shell crab salad served with a chilled but still-runny poached egg. My biggest regret about this trip? That we didn't have an opportunity to revisit Yoshii for dinner.
Dave and I disagree on this one. I vote for Manta in Woolloomooloo. It's a matter of technique; Manta serves theirs with the muscle uncut, so eating the Pacifics or Sydney rocks requires a couple twists of the fork tines, which can be a bit laborious. But made worthwhile, I think, by the unwasted oyster liquor that can be slurped from the shell after the bivalve has been ingested.
In this category, Dave's vote is with Doyle's at Watson's Bay, a Sydney institution that's been serving the freshest seafood for over a hundred years. In fact, our entire lunch at this place was stellar. Besides deliciously briney Pacific oysters,
we devoured seafood salads (house-smoked salmon, more oysters, a few plump, juicy prawns -- admittedly, I might have done without the mayonaisy "cocktail sauce" that made an appearance more than once during this trip -- and half a gorgeous avocado at its absolute peak of ripeness),
and griddle-BBQ'd fillets (barramundi, below, for Dave and John Dory for I). I've been cooking fish for many, many years, and I've yet to figure out how to turn out a fillet as beautifully done as this one. Cooked through yet supremely moist and tender.
There's a Doyle's at Circular Quay now, but if you've a few days in Sydney it'd be a shame to give the original a miss. The ferry ride is pleasant and there are some nice walks in the vicinity. The old building is a gem, many of the waiters are vintage -- go on a weekday when it's quiet, grab a window table upstairs, enjoy the view and some very fine eats.
Actually, our only disappointment in Australia, so perhaps I shouldn't complain. But Icebergs at Bondi Beach is so vaunted, so lauded, so praised in the press (not just the Australian press -- it received very favorable mention recently in both the New York Times and the LA Times) that I will allow myself to be the lone dissenting voice. Food? Good, I think. Service? I've had better service in a state-owned restaurant in early-reform era Communist China. For me, the two are intertwined, and the finest grub in the world served in the most exquisite surroundings isn't worth a ringgit if it isn't accompanied by something other than complete incompetence, which is what Icebergs dished up for us from start to finish of our three-hour ordeal (that's only up to and including entree -- we literally fled the place before dessert and coffee). I'm talking 30 minutes to get a drink in the bar, where we waited for our table. I'm talking finally getting the drink -- just one, not both -- and then waiting another twenty minutes to get the other. I'm talking a frosty waitress (it's not named Icebergs for nothing, apparently) who repeated her polished disappearing act whenever we had a course coming up. I blame whatever else it was -- besides adreneline -- that was coursing through her veins (I was tipped off by her bizarre fidgeting and the fact that she kicked me under the table five times while reciting the evening's specials ...without noticing). I'm talking a starter that arrived before wine, water, or any other beverage did (and was finished before we could flag someone -- anyone -- down to remedy the problem); a rocket salad that spent so long waiting to be picked up (AWOL waitress again) that the leaves were limp, soaked through with dressing by the time it arrived at the table; and I'm talking entrees that had to be inquired after twice -- waitress responded to our first inquiry with this witty reparte: "But this is only the first time you've asked about it!" -- before they finally made it to the table 45 minutes after appetizers were picked up. I guess we should have been tipped off when we called that morning to confirm our reservation (made by email two weeks earlier; email acknowledgment by Icebergs in hand when call was placed) and were told it didn't exist.
So, Icebergs -- wasted evening, wasted money, and --- what pisses me off the most --- with only 6 dinners to be had in Sydney, a precious one wasted.
Let's not end this on a negative note. On our first night in Sydney -- the night of the Melbourne Cup, the race that stops a nation (and, apparently, gives it a legitimate excuse to get tanked) -- we sought one thing that's hard to come by here in KL: a top-quality, wood-fired oven baked pizza. Our concierge sent us to Arthur's, and for this alone I plan to write a letter of thanks to our hotel. Arthur's is a joint, not a fancy-schmancy pizza "bar" or "cafe". It's long and narrow; at the front, prep counter and ovens on one side and tables on the other, with more tables in the back. The door is manned by a couple of old Italian gents -- a good sign. Pizzas come in three sizes (facilitating sampling), and there's nothing weird like Thai curry pizza or some such on the menu. Pizzas are thin-crusted, brown and blistered from the fire, topped with quality ingredients. Surprisingly, for a pizza joint, salads are delicious -- for example, a rocket salad made with fresh, crisp greens mounded on a plate, simply and lightly dressed with good olive oil and topped with shavings of aged parmesan reggiano. Arthur's is BYO. Conveniently, there's a bar and bottle shop a couple doors away. And service -- provided entirely by young Japanese waitresses, not sure what's up with that -- is friendly and quick.
Icebergs management might consider taking a lesson from this place.
Best Way to Spend Your Last Day in Sydney
If the weather cooperates, which it did for us. After our fair share of rain during the trip (not complaining; the nice thing about rain is it doesn't prevent you from eating) we were blessed with a final day that was not too hot, not too cool, sunny but for the occasional shadow created by a whispy puff of a cloud. So how to pass such a glorious day? Ferry out to one of the 'burbs, rustle up a picnic lunch (easy to do when every little town in the area seems to have a gourmet deli and a lovely produce market) and while away the afternoon eating, napping, and just generally relaxing under that deep blue Australian sky.
Sean's Panorama, 270 Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach. Tel. 9365-4924.
Yoshii, 115 Harrington St. Tel. 9274-2566.
Manta, The Wharf, Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo. Tel 9332-3822.
Doyle's Watson's Bay. At Watson's Bay! The older building on the beach, not the one right next to the pier.
Arthur's, Oxford Street steps from the Ormand St. intersection. Open till 11-12pm.