“Good food, like good wine, should be shared among diners and the days of eating a whole main by yourself in a restaurant, may soon be over.”
~ Chopinand, co-author of ChopinandMysaucepan
Sydney restaurant closures – a sign of the times?
Sydney’s restaurant scene is going through a shake-up during these cold winter months.
We have already witness the high profile closures of Bilson’s, Berowra Waters Inn, and both of Dietmar Sawyere’s Ad Lib restaurants in Double Bay and Pymble. More recently, Matthew Kemp’s Montpellier Public House in Randwick and Greg Doyle’s Pier in Rosebay, reputed to be one of Sydney’s finest seafood restaurants have shut their doors for the last time. Justin North’s Becasse in Westfield Sydney has been placed in voluntary administration while his city diner Etch has also been closed for business.
In view of this spate of closures, I believe restaurateurs are going back to the drawing board about on how to make diners return to their restaurants. The complex equation of good food, service, price and conviviality is further tested when my mother decides to leave Dad at home in Malaysia and travel with her three girlfriends, Janet, Margaret and May for a food safari in Sydney.
Our Food Safari in Sydney
“What’s new around town?” she enquires having been a regular Sydney visitor over the last 30 years.
I ponder about my choice of restaurant recommendations to Sydney visitors and in most instances, it’s almost always about what’s on the plate, followed by a complex and intuitive mix of ambience, service and price.
Instead of recommending a particular restaurant, I would invariably ask my friends what they feel like eating and recommend a particular dish that would satisfy their craving.
On hearing that mum will be in town, my sister Alice who lives in Perth, also gets excited and decides to join our Sydney food safari too.
What we ate over six days of feasting tells a fair bit about our tastes in food, how adventurous we are given time constraints and how to eat well without busting the bank account.
I believe Sydney has a lot to offer in terms of good food but the choice of restaurants during our food safari might give some clues to restaurateurs on how to juggle that complex equation of offering customers good food, service and a memorable night out in town.
Sydney is a seafood mecca and there is no better way than to spend an afternoon at the Sydney Fish Market, tucking into fresh Pacific oysters, prawns, sashimi and a vast array of seafoods.
On the first day of our food safari, we feast on sashimi, cooked prawns and lobster as well as fresh oysters which would cost a lot more in a Japanese, Chinese or seafood restaurant, although granted it is essentially self-service at the Sydney Fish Markets.
I understand the logic behind some restaurants imposing a group surcharge during festive seasons to cover the ever increasing penalty staff wages during public holidays. It is also well-known that many diners “over-indulge” at restaurants during the silly season as a result of alcohol consumption resulting in extended hours incurred by restaurant staff. Neither do I have an issue with a minimum spend for certain fine-dining restaurants to weed out “stayers” that sip on a glass of wine and nibble on an entree all evening just to enjoy the water views or a fabulous ambience.
However, I do have an issue with some leading restaurants in the city that impose a surcharge (regardless of time of day or week), sometimes up to $10/person for a party exceeding a certain number of diners, especially during these lean and cold winter months.
Being a relatively quiet Tuesday winter night as far as restaurants go, I am told by a leading Japanese restaurant in the heart of Sydney CBD that we have to pay a surcharge of $80 for our group of 10 diners tonight. Their restaurant policy is to impose a surcharge of $8/person for any groups of 8 or more diners. Get this – $80 just to sit our bums at this restaurant.
Restaurants in and around Sydney CBD would invariably pay a higher cost for rental of their premises in return for higher customer traffic over their neighbourhood counterparts. By imposing a surcharge on group bookings for higher customer traffic they have expected in the first place, these restaurants are indirectly telling their customers – “If you bring a large group of diners to the restaurant, you are creating more work for us, so we are going to charge you extra for creating this work for us”. It will be difficult for me to justify supporting these kind of restaurants especially during these lean economic times.
Chinese restaurants around Sydney CBD appear to be doing well and a fresh lobster stir fried with ginger and shallots would cost you upwards of $168/kg at most leading Chinese restaurant in Sydney’s Chinatown. However, you can get a very similar dish for around $80/kg at the Sydney Fish Market, complemented by a beautiful view of Blackwattle Bay albeit with self-service and pesky seagulls trying to pinch a bite. But to the enthusiastic tourist, this is all in the fun and enjoyment of al fresco dining around Sydney harbour on a beautiful sunny day.
For restaurants looking to reclaim their glory of good food and a good dining experience, I believe they need to not only look at a local clientele but a address a formula that would attract tourists who are willing to spend good money on good food.
More than half of my restaurant recommendations to mum and her friends during this Sydney food safari were on neighbourhood eateries that dish out good, honest food coupled with attentive service at reasonable prices.
Oh, and they don’t slap you with a $8 surcharge for bringing more than 8 friends to their restaurants.
Here’s a sample of what we ate during a fun and absolutely mouth-watering 6 days of a Food Safari in Sydney.
Restaurant 16, Neutral Bay
Located in the heart of the restaurant strip along Military road in Neutral Bay, Restaurant 16 dishes up elegant Italian food with a twist.
Japanese head chef Toru Ryu used to be behind the kitchen burners at prominent Italian eatery Buon Ricardo with Armando Percuoco. We were impressed by some exciting flavours on our previous visit and decide to try a few new dishes tonight.
The scallops with balsamic and pesto looks like some eclectic art piece on a dinner platter with the jagged drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
It is not easy to cook scallops to perfection – slightly charred on the outside and succulent inside. At $36, these scallops are the equivalent of a main course but the chef has obviously designed this dish to be shared among our party of 9 people.
Whilst tucking into these succulent scallops, we promptly request for more bread to mop up all that deliciousness on the plate.
Instead of having an entire steak as a main course on its own, I believe sharing these scallops among diners is such an enjoyable way of dining. In our experience dining out, restaurants are becoming more aware and receptive to this new trend in dining and the more innovative restaurants are heeding towards sharing main courses practiced in many Asian cultures.
BYO wine is allowed at this restaurant at $8 corkage per bottle. I believe this is another reason that neighbourhood restaurants are holding their ground against their city counterparts many of which are fully licensed.
Food and wine is a big part of our dining culture. As the choice of restaurants become even more competitive in the future, I strongly believe fully licensed premises that disallow BYO wine would be fighting an uphill battle against those restaurants that allow flexibility for diners to drink their favourite wines at their premises.
We bring a 2011 Pierro Semillon Sauvignon Blanc and a 2001 Leeuwin Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Art Series and these two Margaret River heavyweights do not disappoint.
The crisp and citrusy flavours of the SSB is refreshing with the cured trout with konbu seaweed, lemon, lime, orange zest & EVOO.
Again, I commend restaurants that give flexibility to provide additional portions of a dish to cater for more diners. The cured trout comes in standard 6 pieces and our wait person promptly advises the dish can be modified to cater for the 9 of us tonight.
A beef tripe and parmesan is tender and subtle in flavour. Beef tripe do not have much flavour on its own and I eat it for its soft rubbery texture. Personally, I would prefer tripe in a hearty stew with more flavoursome ingredients.
Bottarga adds so much flavour to pasta and the linguine with scallops and bottarga is salty and gritty and the slightly pungent aromas of the fish roe bring this dish alive.
A special linguine pasta with sea urchin arrives with the unmistakable aromas of the sea. The sauce has the distinct flavours of sea urchin with a few fresh strips laid on top of the pasta for good measure.
An abalone risotto comes with thin slices of abalone and sprinkled with chopped chives. It is sufficiently gooey which is how it should be whilst the rice is nicely al dente.
A papardelle with beef ragu, ricotta, tomato and parmesan comes with a heavier and flavoursome sauce. Thick al dente ribbons of pasta and a generous sprinkling of parmesan make this a hearty and wholesome winter dish.
A spatchcock is juicy and tender while the mixed mushroom risotto inside has soaked up all the flavours of this small bird.
We were impressed with a chocolate mousse with berries sauce on our previous visit and relive the soft and pillowy texture of this wonderful dessert again.
Restaurant 16 seems to be doing all the right things in creating food that is familiar but with an exciting twist.
I do not believe the signature scallops with balsamic and pesto and the cured trout are dishes that may be too complex to replicate at home. What makes this restaurant special is food that is well executed and pleasant service each time we are here.
We shall be back again, Toru.
Eastwood Garden Peking, Eastwood
We have been coming to this neighbourhood restaurant in Eastwood mainly for its xiao long bao, aromatic duck and northern Chinese style noodles.
The Peking duck today is good but not great because the skin can be a lot more crispier than it is.
One of the reasons we are here is because Alice and I are big fans of the aromatic duck.
Given a choice, I think I prefer this aromatic deep-fried duck style to Peking duck because of its crispy skin and tender strips of duck meat which is shredded with a fork and spoon by the wait person at our table.
Deep-fried to a golden brown, the small bones are also crispy and edible.
Alice is also a big fan of the shredded beef Peking style. However, the strips of beef here can be a lot crispier with more carrot strips too.
The service today is average at best when we are among the first diners to arrive at 11 am and the food standard seems to be slipping from our previous visits.
This restaurant also needs to clean up its act because the toilets are filthy and this alone is putting me off from returning again.
Ginger & Shallots Chinese Cuisine, Eastwood
In keeping with the spirit of a food safari, we immediately wander across the road to Ginger & Shallots Chinese Cuisine for its congee and deep fried whole flounder after our “entree” at Eastwood Garden Peking.
Crispy with its salt and pepper flavours, this deep fried fish is good with a steaming bowl of hot congee on a cold winter day. However, I felt the deep fried flounder was a lot more aromatic and crispy during our previous visit to this restaurant.
Congee lovers will find at least half a dozen variety of congee at this restaurant that can be paired with many dishes.
One of my favourites is a stir fried beef with ginger and shallots and this place does a good interpretation.
Golden Century Seafood Restaurant, Sydney
Located in the heart of Chinatown, Golden Century Seafood Restaurant is one of the stalwarts of Sydney’s Chinese restaurants.
For many years, it is one of the most consistent for classic Cantonese style and live seafood dishes such as lobster, mud crabs, oysters and a variety of fish, prawns and other shellfish.
Any live seafood that you order will be presented to customers prior to cooking to ensure customers are happy with the weight, specifications and freshness.
A serve of Chinese roast pork belly for entree is crispy and succulent.
A stir-fried pippis arrives with generous amounts of the flavoursome XO sauce.
The pippis are unmistakably fresh from its succulent texture and sweet taste. The XO sauce is extremely tasty and goes wonderfully well with a bowl of hot steamed rice.
The mud crab with ginger, shallots and noodles is delicious and I believe this restaurant does this dish as well as any Chinese restaurant in Sydney.
Steamed oysters with ginger, shallots and special soy sauce at Chinese restaurants are usually relatively large compared to the oysters eaten fresh.
Tonight, these oysters are quite huge. Its creamy texture delicious with thin slivers of ginger and shallots in a savoury soy sauce.
The shredded beef Peking style is a little disappointing because the beef strips are bordering on soggy. Then again, this is probably not the best dish to order in a Cantonese restaurant.
Chinese restaurants do not have a good variety of desserts which are usually given complimentary with the meal.
A disposable towel is always handy after tucking into seafood with your hands and fingers.
Jurin, Crows Nest
The sister restaurant of HaNa-JuRin, Jurin is one of many Japanese restaurants that have sprung up in the lower north shore suburb of Crows Nest.
An entree of Caesar salad with wasabi mayonnaise is fresh with the zingy flavours of the wasabi and the crunch of corn flakes while tempura zucchini flowers are crispy and light.
We enjoy a light 2011 Teusner Rose and a 2006 Watervale Rieseling that go so well with sushi and Japanese food.
John Vickery’s art of making good riesling is clearly evident and this bottle will benefit from further cellaring.
A grilled marinated cod is delightful with the taste of sweet miso. The pairing of the soft white flaky fish with the gently sweet miso works so well and it’s no wonder this dish is on the menu of so many Japanese restaurants now.
A cold roast duck is a little chewy and tough though the flavours are appetizing.
A wagyu steak arrives boldly medium rare and each piece is succulent and juicy. I find eating steak this style with a twist of lemon juice and tangy ponzu sauce to be extremely tasty.
Two bowls of chirashi sushi with a mix of the chef’s choice of salmon and tuna sashimi, small cubes of egg omelette, tobiko, crispy strips of nori and rice is wonderfully filling and we have hardly anymore room for dessert.
The abundance and variety of seafood in Sydney means the freshest sushi and sashimi at Japanese restaurants are almost taken for granted these days.
With the hordes of ex-pat sushi chefs in Sydney, I enjoy coming to these friendly neighbourhood Japanese restaurants mainly because the food is honest and good. Secondly, your local Japanese joint always have a homely feel and prices are competitive.
Marigold Restaurant, Haymarket
This food safari is not the first time that mum and her friends have come to Sydney to sample its variety of good, hearty food. I was not as much a food blogger a year ago than my mum and her friends are lovers of good Chinese seafood.
So we find ourselves at Marigold Restaurant to sample a different array of seafood from our dinner at Golden Century a few nights ago.
Tonight, we are drinking a 2004 Penfolds Cabernet Shiraz that is bold with aromas of ripe berries and oaky with soft tannins.
It is the “poor man’s Grange” as it is affectionately called because the American oak barrels from the flagship Penfolds Grange are re-used for the BIN 389, this wine can obviously be even better with a few more years of careful cellaring.
Just like in Golden Century, we are shown the live baby abalone, live eel and live pippis that we ordered for dinner tonight.
The abalone and pippies are obviously more sedate than the eel that is wriggling away in the plastic bag in front of us.
The steamed baby abalone with ginger, shallots and soy sauce is a classic Cantonese sauce for steaming seafood to bring out its fresh taste and flavours.
The abalone is firm and has a soft rubbery texture and is delicious with the subtle sweet savoury soy sauce with ginger and shallots.
One of the standout dishes for me at this restaurant tonight is the steamed eel with black bean and soy sauce.
The eel is neatly sliced into bite sizes and arranged in a round bowl. Each piece of eel is firm and the skin is slightly rubbery with very tiny bones that are edible. The meat itself tastes a lot like a regular white flesh fish but what brings out the flavour in the eel is the tasty black bean and soy sauce.
Another platter of stir-fried pippis in XO sauce is just as good as the one we had at Golden Century. This time we have crispy seared vermicelli at the bottom to soak up all the flavoursome sauce.
A silken tofu hot pot with soft pillowy tofu and a delectable sauce is great for winter.
A special soy sauce spatchcock is a lot tastier than the usual soy sauce chicken because the meat is more tender and flavoursome. I especially enjoy the sauce from this spatchcock for its hearty chicken and soy flavour.
Braised Asian greens with Chinese bacon is another good dish for winter because of the warm stock that comes with it. The strips of Chinese bacon adds more flavour to the crunchy vegetables.
The dish that my mum and her friends have been looking forward to is a lamb hotpot, another good winter dish because of the steaming hot soup. A large claypot is left simmering beside our table.
This hotpot comes with bite size chunks of lamb, tong ho vegetables, tofu skin and the hearty soup that has fermented bean curd as a dominate flavour.
Our meal at Marigold is comparable to any leading Chinese restaurant in Sydney. The food is good, hearty and service prompt and efficient.
Chat Thai, Westfield Sydney
On the penultimate evening of our food safari, mum and her friends are craving for something different and we decide on Thai food for a little change in tastes and flavours from the Chinese and western food that we have been having over the past few days.
Chat Thai has taken Sydney Thai food to another level with a dizzy array of sweet, tangy, sour and spicy flavours on its menu.
A green papaya salad comes with thinly julienne green papaya that is mixed with palm sugar, fish sauce, lemon juice and crunchy peanuts for texture. This is such a classic and appetizing Thai entree with its zesty and zingy taste and flavours.
A serve of Mhu Bhing comes with skewers of nicely charred pork that is sweet and savoury. A sour lemony dipping sauce makes you more hungry with each mouthful.
I have always liked the green chicken curry at Chat Thai. The curry sauce is thick and creamy with mouth popping bits of eggplant the size of little peas and strips of kaffir lime leaves and chilli complement the tender pieces of chicken beautifully.
A crispy whole snapper in roasted chilli and garlic sauce is another classic Thai dish. The fish is deep-fried to a golden brown and crispy while the curry sauce is thick, tasty and and aromatic.
Chat Thai is well known for some delectable Asian desserts and the crispy thin wafers of a Khanom Buaing complements the coconut cream and candied herbs beautifully.
A sticky rice and coconut custard is a sweet and delightful end to the meal and our food safari.
So dear readers, have you been on a food safari and if so, where did you go and what was your favourite dish?
Sydney Fish Market
Bank street, Pyrmont, Sydney
Tel: +61 9004 1100
Trading hours: 7am – 4pm everyday except Christmas Day
236 Military road, Neutral Bay
Tel: + 61 2 9909 0160
Monday – Saturday 6pm – 10.30pm (last order 9.30pm)
Sundays & Public Holidays closed
Eastwood Garden Peking
167 Rowe street
New South Wales 2122
Tel: +61 2 9804 1289
Everyday: 11am – 10.30pm
Ginger & Shallots Chinese Cuisine
Shop 25/1 Lakeside road
New South Wales 2122
Tel: +61 2 9874 8066
Golden Century Seafood Restaurant
393-399 Sussex street, Sydney
Tel: +61 2 9212 3901
Business hours: 12 noon – 4am
Minimum charge: $9 per head
Private room minimum charge:
10 people or less: $800 (On food)
10 people or more: $80/head (On food)
316 Pacific Highway, Crows Nest
Tel: + 61 2 9966 5811
Business hours: 7 days a week
Lunch 12 noon – 2.30pm
Dinner 6pm – 11.20pm
Levels 4 & 5,
683-689 George Street, Haymarket
Tel: + 61 2 9217 6090
Business hours: 7 days a week
Lunch 10 am – 3 pm
Dinner 5.30 pm – late
Chat Thai, Westfield Sydney
Shop 6002, Level 6
100 Market street, Sydney
Tel: +61 2 9221 0600
Business hours: Open everyday
Lunch 10am – 5pm
Dinner 5pm – 10.30pm