Sydney’s harbor and beaches might have basked in the limelight for years, but the city’s casual dining scene has recently stolen the spotlight. Here’s where to sample the local delights
It was inevitable. With the bounty of the South Pacific Ocean right at the city’s doorstep, bringing new ideas quite literally to the table, Sydney was always destined to become one of the best places to eat.
As a multicultural city filled with influences from Asia, Europe and beyond, it’s well known that the Sydney food scene has mastered the art of borrowing ingredients, techniques and inspiration from other cultures. No longer happy to hang its hat on tacky, overpriced seafood restaurants geared towards tourists, Sydney has evolved into a city where seriously good eats can be found at affordable price points almost everywhere.
Spending much of her time eating her way around the city, Sydney local Lee Tran Lam is the writer behind The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry blog and podcast. Interviewing industry heavyweights such as influential restaurant critic Jill Dupleix and one of Italy’s greatest chefs Massimo Bottura for her top-rated podcast, she is the unofficial authority on the Sydney food scene. She believes that Sydneysiders like to keep things casual, so there’s been a significant shift towards more laidback dining experiences. “In the last decade, Sydney has moved on from good food being expensive, AU$200-a-head French menus to a more casual style of eating,” she said. Good news for anyone with an appetite for affordable eats: Sydney’s focus on all things fresh, accessible and inventive makes it a dining destination that’s easy to connect with.
Sydney is home to one of the most health-conscious populations in Australia, and the city likes to start the day strong with a menu that focuses on all things fresh, free range, natural and organic. The city is obsessed with brunch, and one ingredient stands out as a mainstay on all brunch menus — the avocado. While the avocado’s origins lie in Central America, Australians have taken a shine to this nutrient-dense fruit. Grown in farms in Queensland, northern New South Wales and coastal Western Australia, Australia’s love of the avocado has become a talking point thanks to a tenuous link with Sydney’s rising real estate prices. A media commentator triggered a genuine uproar when he suggested that young Australians weren’t able to save money for a home because they were spending too much money on smashed avocado. But with a single avocado often costing up to AU$6, the debate isn’t exactly unwarranted.
You’ll find smashed avocado (or “avo”) on toast on brunch menus everywhere in the city. Far from being a simple dish of mashed up avocado on toasted bread, café owners often experiment with this evergreen dish. Many incarnations of the dish incorporate regional twists and nods to different cultures, with additions like haloumi giving the dish a Greek flavor and green additions like baby spinach, watercress and sprouts satisfying all the clean-eating, vegan yoga enthusiasts everywhere.
A quintessentially Sydney form of this dish can be found at Bondi café The Nine. The Coastal Avocado Smash features tahini, feta, smoked salt, shaved celeriac, kale, citrus and seaweed foraged from local beaches. While the sea has long provided Sydney’s restaurants with prawns, fish, oysters and more, foraged seaweed is a relatively new addition to the plate.
The modern Sydney plate is a triumph of flavor mashups and reinterpretations of old favorites turned into something completely new. Take the classic American-style burger — various local takes have given it an elevated status in the city’s pantheon of great bites.
Sydney’s best burgers are made with top quality ingredients by chefs of impressive pedigree. At UME Burger, a polished offering serving Japanese-inspired burgers, sodas spiked with shochu (Japanese distilled liquor), Hokkaido-style soft serve ice cream, sake and local beer and wine, chef Kerby Craig has created a premium burger experience in response to what he initially saw as a shortfall in Sydney.
“We’ve got many well-trained chefs doing their own thing with burgers, like Kerby Craig at UME Burger. He’s serving Japanese-style burgers which is funny because Japanese burgers are inspired by American burgers, so you’ve got this burger which is an Australian translation of a Japanese translation of an American burger,” says Lee Tran. UME Burger’s menu pleases the locals’ current obsession with all things Japanese. With record numbers of Australians heading to the Land of the Rising Sun, UME Burger’s Japanese ingredients like fish katsu, rice vinegar pickles, nori mayo and tonkatsu sauce are familiar to well-traveled Sydney diners. A Japanese-American burger made by an Australian, served by the harbor with a glass of Gentle Folk Village pinot noir from South Australia’s Adelaide Hills — it doesn’t get more Sydney-style than this.
When not lining up for burgers, locals can be found in envelope-pushing restaurants featuring deceptively simple menus. Giving classic dishes a modern makeover is considered “very Sydney”, and hip eatery ACME’s ability to draw on many influences has impressed Lee Tran and a long list of other food critics. “ACME serves what could loosely be called Italian food that’s gone through quite a few remixes, served in a place that plays really loud hip hop music,” she explains. Responsible for creating dishes like “macaroni, pigs head, egg yolk” and “linguine, black garlic, burnt chilli”, chef Mitch Orr has brought surprising — sometimes even surreal — dishes to the inner eastern suburbs of Sydney. Reflective of the mishmash of cultures that call Sydney home, it’s this strong mix of influences — traditional Italian food, contemporary American music, Australian produce, Asian flavors — that makes boundary-pushing ACME so very Sydney.
If mixing and remixing the classics is Sydney, then vegan incarnations of Mexican standards served with small-batch natural wines is peak Sydney. Located in the restaurant-saturated inner city ’hood of Surry Hills, Bad Hombres is a popular taqueria that quietly transitioned its menu to plant-based ingredients without much fuss or bother. Open Wednesday to Saturday, chef Toby Wilson (who previously ran pop-up taco joint Ghostboy Cantina) has a legion of vegan and non-vegan fans who can’t get enough of his surprising menu featuring stripped-back tacos made with ingredients like globe artichokes and left-of-center wines from small, out-of-the-way wineries like La Petite Mort in the Granite Belt of Queensland. Breaking all the rules and proving that vegan food can be outrageously delicious in the process, Bad Hombres is good eating.
Once considered a sneaky treat for children to indulge in sparingly, desserts have recently been elevated to greater heights in Sydney. While specific dessert trends come and go, it’s safe to say that Sydneysiders are mad about gelato, shakes, donuts, cupcakes and pastries all year round. Whether it’s lining up for macarons at cult pastry chef Adriano Zumbo’s flagship store in the inner west suburb of Balmain or snapping the highly Instagrammable strawberry watermelon cake at Newtown’s Black Star Pastry, Sydney locals are happy to splash a little cash on a worthy dessert experience.
One person responsible for raising Sydney’s dessert game is Reynold Poernomo. As a contestant on Australian television juggernaut Masterchef he was dubbed the “dessert king” thanks to his talent for creating colorful, theatrical desserts. Believing that Sydney was ready for a fine dining restaurant focused on desserts, Reynold opened KOI Dessert Bar in the inner-city suburb of Chippendale in early 2016.
“We saw a gap in the market, so we set up the first dessert bar in Sydney to offer a sit-down degustation experience as well as a more casual space for coffee and cake,” says Reynold. With KOI Dessert Bar proving a runaway success, Reynold has demonstrated that Sydney diners value the quality ingredients and labor intensive processes that go into making next-level desserts. In Sydney, it’s not just food critics who appreciate quality — everyone is a foodie regardless of their background. Reynold notes that locals have well-developed palates and are currently keen to embrace a wider spectrum of flavors and ingredients than what’s been served in the past. “At KOI, we’ve kept the classics like black forest and tiramisu but also have desserts that incorporate trending Japanese ingredients like white peach, and citrus fruits sudachi and yuzu,” he says.
The phenomenal success of KOI Dessert Bar led Reynold to open Monkey’s Corner, a small bar next to his dessert kingdom, as well as another KOI outlet in Ryde. Indicative of Sydney’s thirst for exceptional food experiences in interesting yet easy-to-reach places and spaces, Reynold hopes to open a small restaurant focused on concept dining in the next year or so. Food-obsessed locals will be queuing up in no time.
This story first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Smile magazine.