Devouring Sydney

Australia’s harbor city is known for its crashing waves, iconic architecture, and sun-drenched afternoons. Not surprisingly, its world-class restaurants are equally big, bold, and brash.

In Melbourne, they ask you where you went to school; in Sydney, we ask you where you live. In Melbourne, they’re interested in the flavors of Europe and the Middle East; in Sydney, we’re enthralled by Asia. Melbournians may claim to have the best bars, but Sydneysiders make the best drinks. Melbournians say they have better style, but Sydneysiders have the hotter bodies. We have the sunny days; they have the spangled nights. And the rain. I’ll give you the clichés; you sift for the truths.

Yet despite our historical animosity, we share a common vocabulary, opaque to outsiders, of ANZAC biscuits, Pavlovas, Lamingtons, Vanilla Slices, Tim Tams, and salad sandwiches. (New Zealanders, incidentally, will tell you they invented all these things. Just ignore them; we do.) We both came from colonial staples of tea, mutton, rum, and the unleavened bread we call damper, and we now collectively obsess over espresso, jamón, Wagyu, sustainably caught local fish, organic sourdough, and biodynamic Albariño. And although Melbournians might call lobsters crayfish, we both like them steamed with XO sauce or char-grilled with salsa verde. But if you want to get a picture of what the best Australian eating can be, Sydney is where it’s at.

With the unabashed exuberance to be truly memorable, Sydney is a town that isn’t afraid to dream the bigger dream, to have the cake and eat it, too, and then cut another slice. The food scene has these qualities in spades. Our good eating is on the beaches and the cliff tops, on our wharfs and promenades. At Icebergs, you can pop Gosset and Veuve among guitar heroes and CFOs while surfers ride the 12-foot breaks on Bondi Beach below you. Or you can go for the straight-off-the-sand sarong-tied paradise of Campari with fresh blood-orange juice and white fish carpaccio flecked with chile and fennel seeds at North Bondi Italian Food, at the other end of the beach. Between them, at Sean’s Panaroma, leading men and dolled-up nanas get equal airtime from tanned waiters dispensing silken chook-liver pâté and malt bread with aplomb. In Sydney, the big-view restaurant with good—no, great—food isn’t just a reality; it’s an expectation.

We’ve got the eye candy, but it’s stuff of substance. The waters seethe with boats (not to mention the odd shark), the intrepid climb all over the Harbour Bridge, and the sails of the Sydney Opera House play host not only to the hits of Puccini and Patti Smith but also to those of former Robuchon lieutenant Guillaume Brahimi—and his blue-swimmer-crab sandwiches are on key every time. You can discover elegantly rendered Sardinian food—snapper with green olives and Vernaccia, perhaps, or roast suckling pig on the bone, crunchy for days—in a grand old beach house at Pilu at Freshwater. The newly revived Berowra Waters Inn, in the city’s northern reaches, offers a different sort of water view. Pritzker Prize–winning architect Glenn Murcutt designed the building, sandwiched between a cliff face and the Hawkesbury River, to all but fade into the background as diners immerse themselves in the magical setting (and Dietmar Sawyere’s roast squab with langoustine pastilla and fennel). It’s accessible only by water, via the restaurant’s own ferry or the more glamorous likes of your own launch, and there’s nothing quite like seeing the chef himself help push a seaplane out from the jetty to know you’re really somewhere else.

If seafood is the ultimate test of a chef’s skills and resources, Sydney stands alongside Barcelona, Tokyo, and Hong Kong in the abundance of its catch, the intelligence with which it is prepared, and the gusto of its consumption. Australia’s biggest fish market is here, and short of throwing in a line yourself, there’s no better place to find richly marbled toro from Port Lincoln’s tuna ranches, Geraldton’s spiny lobsters, whopping barramundi and bone-crushing mud crabs from the croc-infested waters of the Northern Territory, and abalone and delicate trumpeter from the chilly channels off Tasmania. And let’s not forget the famed Sydney rock oyster, as much a part of the dining landscape here as its cousins are in New York City and Paris. Familiarity, in this instance, has bred respect.

Sydney’s diners and chefs know what they want and don’t like to compromise. It’s something you can taste and feel in the barely set proteins of the fish at the city’s best restaurants: the John Dory, pot-roasted whole with black pepper and garlic at the attractively addled Fish Face; the pan-roasted barramundi with caramelized endive, bitter orange, and serrano ham at Pier; the dozen different oysters from around the country with rye bread and butter at The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay; the sous vide swordfish steak with foie gras jus at Rockpool; the lobster sashimi accompanied by frosty Tsingtaos at Golden Century, eaten at midnight by chefs, gamblers, showbiz types, and other night owls. Each of these dishes speaks of iki-jimi spiking, precise cold-chain management, dry filleting, and other practices unmatched outside Japan. And, hey, where else can you eat Balmain bugs?

Subscribe to Gourmet