Eating her way through Sydney, Australia, Preeti Verma Lal discovers an explosion of flavours, textures and a memorable culinary experience.
“How much do you weigh?” Would you be offended if a weight-y question was thrown at you just as you finished knotting your halter for a $500 Fly & Dine lunch? Not offended. I was befuddled. The mirror tells me I am petite. Thin. I can sin on a ladleful of extra calories. But why was the pilot of Sydney Sea Plane counting kilograms? The chef of Jonah’s, the restaurant, should have been worried sick of a diner’s weight, right? Wait! Let me get the weight in place. In Sydney, I was to fly on a seaplane from Rose Bay to Whale Beach, take a dinghy from the jetty onto the shore, then hop into a 4W and drive to Jonah’s, one of the oldest restaurants in Sydney for lunch. In Jonah’s, it is not its antiquity that really matters. It is here that Mick Jagger, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier-types dined. And the kilogram count? Well, that’s because a sea plane can only carry so much load. Too much lard and the plane could tilt, roll, slant, nose-dive… Hence, the ‘how much do you weigh’ question.
However, the moment I stepped into Jonah’s, I forgave all fat/thin/obese questions. Set on a cliff, the former 85-year-old roadhouse has the best window view in Sydney — the waves froth white, the surfers roar and on a good day even whales and dolphins swim by. That the food is stupendous adds to the charm of this luxurious resort. $500 to fly and dine is stealing from the pocket, but the cliff view and the top-down angle of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge from the sea plane would jingle your heart. I am ready to bite into the fly/dine again.
That was not my only great-view/empty wallet moment in Sydney. It happened again on the 36th floor of Shangri La Hotel in a bar called Altitude. As the clock struck 5 pm, I slipped into my little black dress, slumped into the black chairs, and peeped out of the five-metre high floor-to-ceiling windows. In evening, when Sydneysiders walk by the pier and the Opera House shimmers, it calls for a martini. Be careful. Look at the price list. There’s one for $10,000. No, not merely for the drink. Comes with a diamond ring for your beloved. That’s paying through the nose to utter “I love you”. Three words were never so expensive. Were they?
If a drink can be so pricey in Shangri La, in Four Seasons, water choices get too complicated. Don’t flinch if the humble water metamorphoses into tongue twisters. Semillon. Verdelho. Shiraz. Cabernet Sauvignon. Waiwera that comes from New Zealand. San Benedetto from the Veneto aquifier in France. In Kable’s restaurant, water comes with delicate pairings. Effervescent with your salad. Classic Sparkling with red meat. Remember, here, Antipodes is not a millipede cousin. Antipodes is euphemism for plain spring water!
If the name Antipodes lends opulence to mundane water, the degustation food at Marque Restaurant is, well, sublime. Actually, intellectual — the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper calls food at Marque intellectual, while New York Times goes a step further to describe it as “possibly the best food in Australia.” The dainty macaroons, chaud-froid free range egg, sauternes custard, parmesan gnocchi and bitter bon bons get rustled by Mark Best, the owner-chef, with an alluring crow’s feet. A former electrician in the gold fields, Best has more food awards than his mantelpiece can ever hold. When the dark red macaroons came laid delicately on a warm plate, I wanted to wrap them in velvet and when the exquisiteness repeated over the eight-course meal, I wondered why anyone would use a prosaic ‘degustation’ to detail the romance of a food so poetic.
In Hotel Australia, food has no such superlative pretensions. The 95-year-old pub revels in its Edwardian architecture, double brick walls, polychromatic brickwork and the undying myth of the murder of John Williams Manners, a rogue. On the menu is a complete menagerie — saltwater crocodile, emu wings, pepper kangaroo, barramundi pie, beef and bock pie and lemon lime bitters, another favourite Australian drink.
In Sydney, I, the frugal eater, was sinning, joyfully immoral as an epicure. As if a perfect accompaniment to my sin were restaurants and cafes where temptations galore — on streetsy cafes and ornate restaurants. Perhaps one of the classiest is the Tetsuya, touted as one of the five best restaurants in the world. Housed in a heritage building and complete with a Japanese garden, Tetsuya is French-Japanese fusion food; its signature dish being the confit of Petuna ocean trout served with konbu and fennel, followed by terrine of Queensland spanner crab with an avocado soup. If Tetsuya is all sit-down and propah, Harry’s Café all meat pie and rambunctious — it is pie destination for all Aussies. Made with lean meat, rock salt, pepper, herbs and spices, for 70 years the pie recipe has not changed. And it is still absolutely scrumptious.
In Sydney, food choices never cease. When morning came, I could find a little chair for myself in Darling Harbour and slather my focaccia with Vegemite, an Australian spread made of brewer’s yeast. Or, I could just be lazy and go cheese mongering in tiny 150-year-old Fort Denison where an old cannon actually booms before Willowbrae goat curd, Piano Hill Ironstone Gouda, Tarwin Blue and other delectable cheese made of goat, cow, sheep, buffalo milk gets sliced with graceful knives.
That day in Sydney, I could eat no more. I just rolled over and pretended stuffed.