The drinks have always been a draw at 10 William St, and for the vine-dedicated there's the chance to get lost in a deep list of minimal-intervention wines from Italy and from people doing exciting, preservative-free things at home and further afield. But waiting in the street out front, jostling for space between the tiny tables, and swiping the seeded pretzel through the whipped bottarga dip has become as much a necessity as ordering a glass of something fresh and juicy from the chalkboard. The few signatures – that pretzel, the ragù, the tiramisu – remain on the food front, but newly installed chef Trisha Greentree, fresh from working the kitchen garden at Brae, has made a point of befriending local growers and producers, and making their produce the defining factor of her menus. Stracciatella from Vannella in Marrickville, perhaps, spread with anchovies and blackened spigarello leaves, or white corn from Boon Luck Farm under a grating of cured egg yolk and lime. Come dessert, the flan – rich without being eggy, and covered in orange and Partida Creus vermouth caramel – is a new bitter-sweet classic that's all her own. One to savour.
10 William St Paddington, Sydney, NSW, 10williamst.com.au
A venue for all day and all comers, A1 has settled into its role nicely, servicing pre-, post- and mid-work crowds with cut-above breakfast, lunch, dinner and plenty in between. The design, which might be described as private-school-cafeteria-comes-to-the-big-city (luxe plastic chairs and tables; marble accents), looks its best during the day, but the kitchen shows both substance and style the whole way through. This might mean a crab and XO sauce omelette paired with good coffee in the AM; salads, such as couscous with burnt honey and pomegranate, accompanying the likes of roasted lamb shoulder at lunch, or top-notch sandwiches from the takeaway window; and a succinct share menu at night, with enough twists and turns to keep you sitting up straight. Enormous mussels on fat slices of toast, say, with a tomato base and an anise accent from licorice herb. Or a plate of kingfish collars sauced in ghee and a coconut cream flavoured with curry leaf. Drinks land as a more clipped, more affordable, more local spin on the list over at neighbouring sibling Automata, and service is just as sharp. Throw in intriguing desserts built for comfort and there are plenty of reasons to stay back after class.
2-10 Kensington St, Chippendale Sydney NSW, a1canteen.com.au
Alberto's embraces its billing as Restaurant Hubert's Italian cousin with gusto: same soft-lit charm, smooth service, plush carpet and wood panelling, but a little more bustle, a little more jostling for space, and (just maybe) a little more fun. It's a return to new-wave Italo form for chef Daniel Pepperell, too, who keeps one eye on tradition and the other on how to advance it. The Amatriciana is proof of the former: house-made bucatini in a sauce of guanciale and its rendered fat with pecorino, chilli and tomato that's both rich and slippery, in a good way. For the latter, take the trippa alla Romana, melting into the sauce the way it might in a trattoria in Testaccio, but spun in the direction of butter chicken with deft deployment of cream and spice. Sommelier Andy Tyson's wine offer is more natural than at Hubert, but excitement is the through-line, be it from one of many bottles under $100 or back-vintage Barolo from a section labelled "Il Rosso Divino". A crisp cannolo is a cracking finish, but daily changing gelati – mango and sticky rice, perhaps – capture Alberto's in a single scoop: technically astute and bristling with adventure.
17-19 Alberta St,Sydney, NSW, albertoslounge.com
First, Aria is an ambassador. There's the view straight down the barrel of the Opera House. The wine list that positions exceptional local bottles alongside international benchmarks. The menu that shows off pristine Australian produce, and a chef, Joel Bickford, set on eking the very best from them. But as much as this has always been a place that sets a bar for Australian dining, that hasn't meant standing still. Aria 2019 is a restaurant of kangaroo tartare concealed under delicate folds of beetroot, of yabbies curled in tomato broth with ribbons of jamón, of skinned snapper fried crisp and served with beach greens, finger lime and a lick of beurre blanc. Desserts – and a course of Moreton Bay bug with congee, broth, shiitake mushrooms, and silky sheet made from smoked scallop – can have a lot going on, but the flavours are clear, the presentation refined, and when things are good, they're spot on. Sure, floor staff can miss details and be distracted by shiny things, but gloss and sparkle have always held sway here. And who can argue with that view?
1 Macquarie St, Sydney, NSW, ariasydney.com.au
What's in a name? Automata, as machines, function seamlessly without any hint to their inner workings. Here, in an industrial setting warmed by buzz and hum, layers of depth and nuance lie behind a veneer of simplicity. Take the beef rump cap – pink, with a dark crust – for which the accompanying grains, called Job's tears, have been inoculated with koji for added savouriness. Or the circle of raw yellowfin tuna, covered with burnt watermelon dressed with tamari, which hides a centre of cream turned sour with kefir. The 5-course prix fixe may have crept to over $100, but based on the level of skill and the speed of thought, this is still one of the best-value tasting menus around. Marvel at the delicacy of beetroot slices pinched around spheres of sheep's curd and served in a broth of crab apple and fennel, or the depth of flavour in the ink sauce underscoring arrows of cuttlefish. Add a killer drinks list with a fondness for the rare and unusual, and staff who are both switched-on and relaxed, and this is a place that's ticking over nicely. Well-oiled, and running smoothly.
5 Kensington St, Chippendale, automata.com.au
Special occasions and Bennelong go together. Set within the concrete belly of an Opera House sail, the hushed dining room spotlights Indigenous art, brass-gold Tom Dixon lamps and lantern-lit tables with leather chairs, a long side a floor-to-ceiling harbour view. It's a stellar stage for an assured take on event dining conducted in three succinct acts. The show might open with brown butter playing as a nutty backbeat to lemon emulsion accompanying just-cooked Moreton Bay bug, then follow with pull-apart confit duck leg that reaches a higher note amid a textural harmony of brittle skin, sweet persimmon and pickled black fungus. Come dessert, the signature pavlova, meringue sails soaring, borders on kitsch and cloying, but is kept in check by a sharp passionfruit sauce. Better to order the Neenish tart, a wafer-crisp pastry shell filled with bittersweet chocolate cut with a raspberry ripple and covered with yin-yang icing – a sophisticated coda expressed with mirror-glaze precision. The hefty wine list leans strongly Australian, ranging from renowned shiraz viognier to single-vineyard Beechworth roussanne. Service is confident and charming, perfectly in tune with the whole production, ensuring any occasion at Bennelong is just that little bit extra.
Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney, bennelong.com.au
Ever since their earliest model, the Bentley crew has steadily stayed ahead of the pack. From the Surry Hills original (Bentley) where casual but clever drinking came with anything but casual food, to today's modest empire of seafood with a view (Cirrus), fine dining without meat (Yellow) and good food-with-wine or the other way around (Monopole), this city is all the better for their work. Under a black-splashed ceiling laced with intersecting steel frames, their flagship restaurant and bar is an unlikely hotel dining room except for the city folk at many of its dark wood tables. They're here for Hildebrandt's seamless wine list and pairing flair, and Savage's determinedly modern menu made up mostly of prime seafood and often curious vegetables: scallop tartare with plum, almond and lemon verbena, say, or apple cucumber with green kohlrabi, hazelnut and camel's milk curd. Fresh, herbal, astringent flavours are offset cleverly – with the likes of a creamy smoked pil-pil sauce (with just-cooked bass groper), perhaps, or a deeply meat-like onion broth (served with WA marron). And it's all mighty pleasurable. Right through to soft cones of pumpkin curled around sweet pumpkin curd with faintly bitter brown-butter ice-cream alongside.
27 O'Connell St, Sydney, thebentley.com.au
Enter Bert's and step into a seaside fantasy. One of Chablis and Burgundy and post-lunch Brandy Alexanders, where everything is clothed in linen and the ceilings are made of wicker. This is not a place to do things by halves. The (yes,$125) opener of hand-picked mud crab, dressed tableside with a tomalley emulsion and a lemony mayonnaise, is still essential ordering. But there's fun to be had around the edges; the toasty fingers of brioche smeared with chicken-fat butter and overloaded with trout roe, for one. Ruffled reginette pasta with red mullet and sea succulents and a pretty mandarin and yoghurt slice show off Jordan Toft's eye for invention, underlined by a sure touch. With the grill and the Josper oven, he lets good produce lie, elevating it with a few spare details and focusing on precision and timing – properly roasted flathead comes with a brown butter and caper sauce cut with lemon; a blushing duck crown is glazed with quince. Add floor staff perfectly at ease in the setting and Bert's is a destination to settle into – for a good time, and a long time.
2 Kalinya St, Newport, NSW, merivale.com/venues/berts
When the sun's up, this is a place of Australian-Thai mashups, where flat whites accompany bowls of crab congee, pandan custard flavours croissants, and green juice is topped up with turmeric shots. Lunch might rove through Brickfields sourdough sandwiched around Thai classics (the chicken-cashew-chilli-jam number remains a staple), som dtum, and rice bowls dressed up with the likes of crab cakes or spicy eggplant. Jarern Chai, the onsite grocer, plays background to the bustle, where the shelves heave with dry goods and the coolroom is packed with Thai produce from sibling Boon Luck Farm near Byron. Come night, however, things take a turn for the Isaan, with funk and heat at the forefront. Start with guen gai yaang, gristly skewers of chicken gizzards with a dressing of fish sauce and smoked chilli and ground rice, then add a side of sticky rice to a spicy and fragrant pork-and-herb sausage to cool burning mouths and fingers (follow with house-churned gelato stuffed into a brioche bun if the fire keeps raging). Service is workmanlike, but a clipped list of natural wine and sake add even more excitement to a place that brings together the best of Sydney into one neat package. A boon for the city.
1/425 Pitt St, Haymarket, NSW, booncafe.com
Trust Brent Savage to serve Sydney's fanciest fish and chips. The fries are properly seasoned, the tartare sauce textbook and the handsome whole flathead – boned, barring the head and tail – is crumbed with panko, puffed rice and amaranth. And trust Nick Hildebrandt to propose a spot-on pairing from his perfectly pitched wine list – a textural, oxidative macabeu blend – and pour it from a fetching Brian Hirst decanter. When these guys commit to a theme, they really commit. At Cirrus, the duo's shrine to seafood, every detail is given its due, and the execution across the board is of the highest order. Inventive, artfully plated starters make a strong first impression (how is that seductively smoky eel custard so insanely silken?), while generous, equally faultless main courses like roasted swordfish steak crowned with sweet slivers of fennel, bottarga and toasty buckwheat play it straighter. Though just metres apart, the airy, free-flowing space feels miles away from the fast-casual frenzy that is Barangaroo, thanks in no small part to informed and intuitive service from an experienced team. Cast those worries aside, splash some cash and drop anchor.
23 Barangaroo Ave, Barangaroo, Sydney, NSW, cirrusdining.com.au
Peter Doyle may have retired from the kitchen, but Est carries on. The world could be burning outside and the staff wouldn't miss a beat, pouring flutes of blanc de blancs from the Champagne trolley and checking the creases in the linen to the very last. The room itself almost demands it. Pressed-metal ceilings soar, soft light spills through the front windows, plush banquettes are strewn with cushions. On the plate, chef Jacob Davey presents dishes concerned foremost with classic flavours and polished execution. A meaty tumble of spanner crab topped with trout roe and a chiffonade of cavolo nero and underscored by lemon jam, say, or roasted abalone on a collagen-rich braise of pig's trotter cut through with capers and served with a crisp toast shipping abalone-liver butter and herbs. Sous-vide baby snapper with a buttery sauce is sweet and fresh, while a side of deep-fried potato flavoured with wagyu fat takes hash browns to their upper limits. And the wine list is the best fun you'll have with an encyclopedia. This is a place that transcends trends – whether that lands as hushed or stifled, classic or stale, or polished or stiff in 2019 is in the eye of the beholder.
Level 1, Establishment, 252 George St, Sydney, NSW, merivale.com.au/venues/est
Oysters, warmed in the woodfired oven, come swimming in sake butter. Jerusalem artichokes, fried in a lacy batter, arrive with something called egg butter. A roasted prawn shipping crumbly capers drips with fermented shrimp butter. Cured bonito lands with whipped pork fat. Restraint may not be the word that comes to mind here(more like oof), but Ester's ability to take one or two main ingredients and distil them into a plate that pays close attention to texture, temperature and just a few supporting flavours is nigh-on unrivalled. (That said, add a simple salad – a garden of white cucumber, herbs and leaves that's wildly bright and acidic – to take the edge off.) Signatures, of which there are plenty, show off Mat Lindsay's approach best: the boudin noir on steamed bread is still the best sausage sanga in the country, and the charry potato bread with kefir cream, trout roe and dashi jelly – hot, cold and very addictive – beats out all imitators. The room, bones laid bare, buzzes happily, the wine list skews strongly natural and service is sharp yet laid-back. Together, it makes a place that's excelling in its own skin, a local restaurant with international credentials. Lucky Sydney.
46-52 Meagher St, Chippendale, NSW, ester-restaurant.com.au
The elements are at play at Firedoor. Dishes often require hands and hand towels, firewood decorates the room, and Lennox Hastie is at the coalface in an open kitchen fuelled by fire, embers glowing. This is a restaurant that allows ingredients to speak for themselves, with a focus on pristine produce, prepared with fierce attention to heat and timing, and seasoned sparely– whether it's a marron, presented live to the table before being split and grilled, subtly smoky and sweet and accented with green finger lime and salty ice plant, or a pile of strawberry clams from Eden topped with blackened garlic scapes and 'nduja. Sliced marbled rump cap, served with pine mushrooms and a herb sauce, is an exceptionally handled piece of beef, but when the whir of the bandsaw and the couple at the next table are screaming "order the 185-day aged rib-eye" it's probably worth listening – just save your pennies. Service could use the same level of attention Hastie gives his craft, and a seat away from the grill can feel a step too far from the action, but the wine list is astute, and a smoked buttermilk panna cotta for dessert rightly jiggly. Burn, baby, burn.
23-33 Mary St, Surry Hills, firedoor.com.au
From ex-pollies enjoying an espresso over the paper to couples in need of a late-night bowl of scampi spaghetti, this café-turned-trattoria is woven into many a local's weekly routine. There might be a wait. A glass of Tuscan sangiovese from the mostly Italian, largely natural wine list might take a while to arrive. But such insouciance is all part of the Italo charm this Potts Point staple exudes. When the waiter is there, they're there – accented, crisply uniformed and prepped to decode the Italian scribbles on the blackboard against a soundtrack of jazz and a room of soft lighting. They'll explain the entrée simply listed as "polipo", perhaps, as thinly sliced, tender octopus dolloped with vibrant capsicum purée and lifted with cups of pickled Cipollini onion. Or how the sheets of green spinach pasta in that bubbling-hot, cheesy lasagna are made daily on the marble bench that, come dinner, becomes a communal dining table. Glide a spoon through the marsala-spiked tiramisù, order an Amaro Lucano and sit back to revel in the wonder that is this neighbourhood favourite.
12-16 Challis Ave, Potts Point, Sydney, NSW, fratelliparadiso.com/
Fred's has the magic formula figured out. After three years, a fire side perch around the dreamy hearth-centred kitchen is still a coveted booking, in no small part because of chef Danielle Alvarez's intelligent, provenance first cooking. She's transplanted her Chez Panisse sensibilities to Sydney's Eastern Suburbs, such that bright, seasonal produce shines with vitality on the plates in the elegant French farmhouse room. A light touch with precise technique supports, rather than outshines, the ingredients: grapes, vibrantly sweet from roasting, tame the melty richness of a crusted, playbook perfect charcoal-grilled rack of lamb; while bitter castel franco leaves chime with the nuttiness of thinly shaved slices of raw Jerusalem artichoke, with sweet balance from a Meyer lemon dressing. A visit to Fred's would be incomplete without experiencing the rustic finesse of the house-rolled pasta and pastry, be it the agnolotti – umami bombs filled with white Bolognese – or the miso chocolate tart, with a buttery crust that shatters into a just-set custard, its deep cocoa flavour offset with burnt honey. Let the consummate staff guide you to the gems on the wine list and happily, willingly fall under Fred's spell.
380 Oxford St, Paddington, Sydney, NSW, merivale.com.au/venues/freds
Why exchange the conviviality of Golden Century's 30-year-old dining room for the staid, hushed surrounds of its newly-refurbished third level? Sure, the newly opened Golden Century Wine Bank, just a lift's ride away, is impressive for its feature wall of Vintec fridges, updated crockery and polished service, but it's nowhere near as fun as the ground floor. Luckily, on the plate, the renowned GC goodness flows through the whole venue, no matter which level you're on. Whole steamed parrot fish from the live tanks – one of the pricier options on the market-price fish menu – with soy, ginger and shallots is a masterclass in Cantonese simplicity and elegance, while a hot-pot braise of beef brisket and turnip shows the kitchen can do rich and comforting, too. The salt and pepper tofu – on paper all crisp and crunch – lands a little flabby and saggy, but those signature XO pipis with crisp noodles show no sign of quitting. Three decades on, Golden Century is showing a little wear, but there's still plenty of glimmer. With the Wine Bank, and a new restaurant, XOPP, due to launch in Darling Square, the future looks even more lustrous.
393-399 Sussex St, Sydney, NSW, goldencentury.com.au
A plate of blushing tuna tartare, dotted with beetroot-pickled radish, fennel pollen and trout roe is set down by a waiter in a white jacket. There's loud applause. But it's not for the beauty of the dish, nor the theatre of mixing it tableside. It's for a proposal, the second of the day. There's much to love about Icebergs – where else can you feel the ocean breeze on your face as you fork hand-rolled spinach spaghetti with nubs of slow-roasted lamb, eggplant and juniper spice? Or pesce del giorno: perhaps blue-eye trevalla with skin of glass-like crispness, and scales of anchovy-buttered kipflers, oxalis, cime di rapa, radish and briny Alto olives. There's a brightness to the modern Italo-style menu, matched by an equally spirited floor team, wine list and soundtrack. Tiramisù for two, meanwhile, is well worthy of its Icebergs legend status, a treasure chest of jelly cubes, coffee sorbet and more. What on earth is in it? "Everything," says the sommelier. Don't wait for an occasion. Just say I do.
1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach, Sydney, NSW, idrb.com
At Lankan, even the most humble ingredients are transformed into something special. The cabbage mallung sees the quotidian vegetable thinly sliced, tossed with mustard seeds and ghee, and transformed into a sophisticated dish worthy of multiple helpings, while the red lentil dhal comes thick, scoopable and heady with coconut cream and curry leaves. Even the suwandel rice, an heirloom variety sourced from a Sri Lankan not-for-profit, is notable for its exquisite fluffiness. There are fancier dishes, too: pan rolls, those crisp crêpe cylinders, stuffed with curried minced beef, and a dark and broody goat curry fragrant with cardamom and clove. Lacy hoppers, primed for tearing and dipping, are as unmissable as ever, as are the sambols, such as the coconut number (pol sambol) that's complex and funky with dried Maldive fish. The waitstaff are agile in more ways than one, deftly ducking and weaving through the narrow space while replenishing hopper supplies, though orders can go missing if not taken through the tick-the-menu system. On paper, the desserts don't sound like much – curd with kithul, say – but the appeal is in the execution, and one bite of that sharp, silky buffalo curd with rich palm-sugar syrup will convert the doubters. It's a final, masterful lesson on how simple is best.
Ground floor, 58 Riley St, East Sydney NSW, lankanfillingstation.com.au
Sudachi and zibibbo. Suckling pig and shishito. Sashimi and gnocchi. "You are confined only by the walls you create" reads the text printed on the glass walls hemming in LuMi. It's a little hammy, sure, but the mood is right on: in bringing a Japanese mood to bear on Italian cuisine, Federico Zanellato treads territory few chefs dare to. But his scope is far wider: a single scallop, sliced and put back together with interleaved slivers of rhubarb and jalapeño, for example, is listed on the menu as ceviche, but plays like sashimi, and spins in a new wave crudo direction with a base of buffalo curd and rhubarb vinegar. A pumpkin and goat's curd tartlet capped with crunchy pepitas, or a single raviolo filled with liquefied pecorino and celeriac and coated in duck jus? That's just good eating. LuMi is a package deal, the technique near faultless, the room warm, the service relaxed, the pacing spot on, all complemented by a drinks list that does classic and interesting in both wine and sake territory. For dessert, a simple buffalo milk ice-cream with popcorn and coffee caramel keeps creativity close, but deliciousness closer. If these are the walls, LuMi's bounds are endless.
56 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont, Sydney, NSW, lumidining.com
The Underground isn't about burgers, or fried chicken, or potato and gravy (although if you stay late and stay at the bar, it can be). What it is about, though, is the same principles that have made the Mary's team so celebrated: sound flavours, solid execution, and an unrivalled commitment to good times. Loud, dark, brash and buzzing, this venue (once home to The Basement) thrums with excitement, with jazz bands on stage every night, and classic cuisine taken in fun directions. Strawberry clams served raw on ice with a chaser of fermented tuna vinegar. Hot little dinner rolls with a wickedly silky duck-liver parfait sharpened with pickled cumquat. Chocolate-mandarin bombe Alaska burning blue with flaming mezcal. Cocktails (Rum Uppercut! Left Hook! Rock 'N' Rose Jab!) are tall and punchy, and former GT Sommelier of the Year Caitlyn Rees has put together a winning wine offer that's decidedly low-intervention, but sidesteps funk in favour of wines from makers who know their product. On the floor, meanwhile, the team has clearly imbibed the brief that having a good time is more about being engaged than pleases or thank yous. The rôtisserie duck, pasture-raised, dry-aged and served with a persimmon sauce and slivers is plenty engaging, too. Throw in the late-night license, and the prospect of lobster Australienne, and Mary's is a new model for Sydney dining coming right when we need it.
7 Macquarie Pl, Sydney NSW, jmarysunderground.com
Seiobo does fine dining like no one else, concerned not with fuss or fronting, but with exploring the breadth of cuisines in the Caribbean, unpicking threads of flavour in home-style dishes and spinning them with Australian produce to create something entirely new. The range is impressive, branching out from chef Paul Carmichael's roots in Barbados and Puerto Rico into wider island territory– Haitian creole tops crisp green banana, and coconut rundown, a Tobagonian specialty, underscores Tasmanian sea urchin brightened with horseradish. More impressive is the evolution. Where once marron was split and grilled over charcoal and decorated with leaves, bells and whistles, it's now chopped, piled into a bowl and sauced in a spicy, chunky Puerto Rican-style sofrito. Fried coconut bakes showered in fresh coconut come alongside for dabbing and mopping. A central kitchen backed by a gleaming cabinet stacked with tropical produce keeps the focus here and now, staff presenting dishes with deep knowledge of origins and preparations, the drinks offer bright and exciting. This is dining freed from convention, humble and elevated all at once, a third way. What a time to be alive.
The Star, 80 Pyrmont St, Pyrmont, seiobo.momofuku.com
Mr Wong sure knows how to roast a duck. Beside the open kitchen, the birds hang raw and resplendent in a glass display, quietly awaiting the five-spice and roasting treatment. They arrive shiny and crisp-skinned, with an excellent fat-to-tender-meat ratio, primed for rolling in pancakes with cucumber and hoisin sauce. Duck is a top order at this Merivale behemoth, where the extensive menu shows a grab bag of Chinese influences under a loose Australian-Cantonese banner – there are wins in excellent fried rice and braised mushrooms that sing with Shaoxing wine sweetness, for example, or with the likes of Sichuan-style crisp battered eggplant in fish-fragrant sauce. In the seafood stakes, pipis in a vibrant XO sauce win out over steamed cod fillets for both interest and execution – a whole fish might be a better bet. There's plenty to see in the two-level dining room, from the Shanghai colonial-era accents to the glassed-in wine cellar where staff ascend a ladder to reach the bottles above. There may be a couple of draughty pockets, and the somms might steer you towards the pointier end of the Burgundy-heavy wine list, but these are small losses, because as that final, memorable deep-fried ice-cream shows, at Mr Wong, when you win, you win big.
3 Bridge La, Sydney, NSW, merivale.com.au
It could be one of the darkest dining rooms in town, but eight years in, the ideas on the plate and in the glass at Monopole are brighter and sharper than ever. This is a playground for discerning palates, where cashed-up couples canoodle on soft leather banquettes over Champagne and oysters while solo diners on spartan bar stools pore over Nick Hildebrandt's riveting wine list. Even if the game plan involves nothing more than a glass of dusky sangiovese and some house-made charcuterie, snacking here feels just that little bit smarter. For the bolder, and the hungrier, Brent Savage's intricate, idiosyncratic share plates hold the answers. Just-seared strips of kangaroo loin collide with toasted hazelnuts and pickled lilly pilly in a provocative riff on carpaccio. Woody Sichuan spices lend depth of flavour to a flawlessly roasted, dry-aged duck breast dressed with cherry wood oil. Even potatoes get the luxury treatment, salt-baked and crushed into a discus drenched in slushy seaweed butter of eye-opening intensity. The fine line between wine bar and restaurant is no easy path to tread, yet Monopole follows it right to the end, elegantly and effortlessly.
71a Macleay St, Potts Point, Sydney, NSW, monopolesydney.com.au
The smell of salt and money wafts through open bifold windows that frame a million-dollar view of svelte powerboats with matching crew. Beyond the marina is a sparkling slab of Middle Harbour and Mosman. While the scene is quintessential Sydney, the menu is A Trip Through Italy – literally, the name of the dégustation. The wine list, too, is a tribute to Italy's powerbroker regions, and a large by-the-glass list suits the theme of Italian discovery. The trip might start in Campania with quattro bottoni, moreish pasta "buttons" filled with rich eggplant parmigiana in a Parmigiano-Reggiano consommé, then head north to Lombardy with a fillet of beef with Tuscan cabbage, turnip and black garlic. Italo-Australian connections are made in a dish of peak-condition white asparagus flown from the Veneto atop macadamia cream, with cured egg, shaved nuts and crisped dill adding crunch, and fussily presented cutlets of Murray cod in concentric pools of puréed capsicum, toasted rice and marjoram oil, topped with fish crackling. End in Piedmont with cultured cream panna cotta and strawberries four ways. And because it's Sydney, at meal's end you can buy one of the runabouts bobbing outside from the adjacent brokerage.
D'Albora Marinas, Spit Rd, Mosman, Sydney NSW, ormeggio.com.au
The sun and the sand must leave a lasting effect on the waitstaff at Pilu, such is the warmth radiating from the team. There's confidence and know-how, too. Staff reel off producers and steer through the wine list with ease – an impressive feat, considering it clocks in at over 300 bottles, of which the comprehensive selection of Sardinian wines is the beating heart. Flavours are big and bold: the signature suckling pig with apple sauce is still a knockout, even if it could use a lick more acid, and al dente malloreddus with sweet, earthy veal ragù and pecorino is as near-perfect as a bowl of pasta can be. And how about that seadas, a crisp disc of pastry filled with ricotta and sultanas with floral honey that nails the dessert trifecta of crunch, creaminess and sweetness. Some dishes could drop a portion size – the fregola, heaving with prawns, appears to never end – but it seems farcical to complain that a restaurant at this pricepoint is too generous with its food. The initiated know to nab a table by the windows, with views of sea and sky, but luckily for the rest, at Pilu the sun shines through in more ways than one.
Moore Rd, Freshwater, NSW, pilu.com.au
Surry Hills meets Palermo Soho – the twin neighbourhoods of Sydney and Buenos Aires – over steak and malbec at the long marble bar at Porteño. The soundtrack steers clear of tango but there's a retro, sepia-toned glow over parquetry and chequerboard tiles, and charming waitstaff in black waistcoats, bow ties and white muscle shirts channel a Porteño vibe. There's theatre, too, in the holy trinity of kitchen heat positioned centrestage – whole cauliflower smouldering in the wood-fired oven, short ribs smoking on the parilla, a suckling pig on the asador. Plates are shared and flavours robust, the likes of pickled daikon spicing charred octopus; aged rib-eye sliced atop salty, garlicky rice; sirloin with house-made chimichurri, jalapeño mayo and mustard. The stand-out dishes, though, are just as likely to feature vegetables: wood-fired zucchini with ricotta, eggplant cooked over embers until molten, and moreish deep-fried Brussels sprouts doused in vincotto and mustard. The savoury-leaning wine list follows suit, featuring a cracking malbec collection, though too few by the glass. Finish with the dulce de leche flan, a sweet, simple taste of BA.
50 Holt St, Surry Hills, Sydney, NSW, porteno.com.au
Nowhere at Quay is the interplay of texture and rare ingredients so striking than in a small bowl of hand-harvested seafood dressed with virgin soy sauce, aged brown rice vinegar and laver. Coating buttery scallops, crunchy baby octopus, slippery strawberry clams and crisp slivers of palm heart, the dressing enhances and underlines each aspect. As a whole, it's complete; a lesson in taste and judgement. And this is just one in a flurry of courses, each presented to a backdrop of Harbour, Bridge and House in a space that's still revelling in the lightness given to it by last year's renovation. It's big-ticket stuff, and the staff are suitably informed and generous, the drinks offer extensive, the set-pieces timed to the second. Precision rules on the menu, too: marron, prised from its shell, is filled with yuzu jam and topped with shellfish emulsion and a bloom of edible flowers; pork jowl, soft and giving, is crowned with curls of abalone and served with a rich pig's trotter broth. Truth on the palate, beauty on the plate, a little levity in the desserts – Quay still holds court with pomp and ceremony. Bow down.
Upper Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, quay.com.au
Whether midday or midnight, a frisson of celebration is ever-present in the parallel universe of Hubert. Descend the winding staircase and come hither into a faux Belle Époque salon of perpetual candlelight and popping Champagne corks. Lovers canoodle in the tête-à-tête booths; a band limbers up for jazz and chansons; a magnum of Louis Roederer arrives at an already lively table of revellers. The hefty magnum collection is part of a stellar cellar that ranges wide and wisely. The party starts with a bang, perhaps an extravagant mouthful of trout roe, avruga caviar and sea urchin, or a deep-fried molten ball of Gruyère. The French-ish menu nods and winks at tradition: roasted snails with house XO sauce, and gratin spicy with kimchi. The crowd-pleasing whole roast chicken, however, needs no twist. It's straightforward and superb, tender from brining and steaming, golden from frying, with a simple bread sauce and a dash of green garlic oil. Just when you think the party has peaked, out come a couple of support acts, a slice of banoffee and a Gallic crème caramel, which prompts another look at the wine list. No, the party has barely started.
15 Bligh St, Sydney, restauranthubert.com
Neil Perry's flagship fine-diner has no shortage of frills and thrills, from the dramatic Art Deco building and the luxurious Riedel glassware to the 3000-plus bottle wine list and, it must be said, the hefty bill at the end. Fads, however, are in short supply, especially when it comes to the food: the entire menu works in service of a stoutly confident theme celebrating classic cooking and exceptional ingredients. Beef, which is the headline act on the carte, is sourced from sustainable producers, aged in-house and, if the dark-crusted Cape Grim Scotch is anything to go by, cooked with a trained eye and steady hands, but there's almost never a foot put wrong anywhere else either. Layers of complexity push an entrée of chicken soup far beyond the realm of simple comfort food, and a side dish of woodfired creamed corn with chipotle chilli butter and Manchego arrives hot and juicy. The clientele is one of the few surprises; the CBD power players are out in force, but there's also strong representation from more casual diners who know there's nowhere else in Sydney offering such a reliably excellent and timeless dining experience.
66 Hunter St, Sydney, NSW, rockpoolbarandgrill.com.au/
Swordfish belly bacon. Murray cod-fat caramel. Albacore eye chip. Welcome to Saint Peter, where chef-owner Josh Niland gives as much reverence to fish offal as prime flesh, and every day is another opportunity for ingenuity. Go open, curious and ready to try Australian seafood species that are seldom celebrated, often wild-caught, and undoubtedly prepared in ways you've never seen before. The experience, from what's on the plate to what's in the glass, can be as classic or adventurous as you wish. Margaret River chardonnay or a wild-fermented beer? Six varieties of oyster, served simply, or rounds of snapper throat on toast with a zingy salsa verde? Coffs Harbour kingfish stomach is sliced into tender ribbons, sauced with fish heart and offal XO and sat atop doughy crumpets. Niland pushes fish to the edge, dry-ageing bass groper for 25 days, say. Served grilled with a tangy VB mustard, its robust flavour is divisive – but on another day, in a wintry pie, it's just right. The ever-changing menu means waitstaff don't always have the detail this level of innovation calls for, but stop in at Fish Butchery, just a few doors up, and the dedication and knowledge is peerless.
362 Oxford St, Paddington, NSW, saintpeter.com.au
Sean's feels like home, or a home away from home, one where Bondi Beach is so close you almost feel the sand under your toes. It's aided, no doubt, by hospitality with a sense of ease that only comes with experience, as well as the charming mismatched furniture, local artwork, fresh-cut flowers, scallop-shell decorations and a menu recited from the chalkboard. Bric-a-brac beach house chic, let's call it. On the plate, Sean Moran does nothing more than good food done right: a plate of mostly raw baby vegetables from his Bilpin farm simply dressed with vinaigrette trumpets produce at its peak, as does a sweet sweetcorn chowder topped with a clutch of pipis and loaded with chorizo. Elsewhere, properly roasted chicken and crumbed Murray cod, "Mum's style" with mash, elevate home comforts. The prospect of BYO bolsters the modest but righteous Australian wine list and many, celebrating or not, bring something special to go with their best linen. The simple pleasure of fruit in season with peach-leaf ice-cream and a pastry twist speaks to the greater theme that the luxury of wholesome food prepared with care and attention wins out over fuss and frills. Any day.
270 Campbell Pde, Bondi Beach, Sydney, NSW, seanspanaroma.co
Sixpenny's references to colonial Australian cookery have become more oblique in recent years, but this corner restaurant in sleepy Stanmore still manages sly nods. Gone are the pumpkin scallops and the mutton, but a kangaroo tartare, topped with a dainty sweet potato crisp and given oomph with dried cheese and malt, riffs on good old meat and potatoes in the most refined of ways. A piece of steak with onion plays on, well, steak and onions, but distils it to dark-crusted, pink-centred chuck-tail flap, charred pickled onion and a sticky mushroom-Marsala sauce. There's an ease here, and a willingness to update old favourites that rewards return visits, tomato butter coating spanner crab topped with salmon roe and purple daikon in the latest spin on a signature an example. Tomato reappears in a deep green broth where John Dory plays backup to zucchini and snow peas. Flavours are clear and bright, dishes realised with precision and delivered with enthusiasm by kitchen staff, who are ably supported by a front-of-house team that revel in pouring wine from a list that has scope, but above all emphasises quality over quantity, which, in this tiny spot, is pretty apt.
83 Percival Rd, Stanmore, Sydney, NSW, sixpenny.com.au
Several Chinese provinces can be found down this darkened stairwell in Sydney's CBD: Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan and Shaanxi among them. In the bar, a suited lunch crowd tuck into bowls of crunchy chow mein, its accompanying fiery pork-mince sauce poured on cue. Whatever time, whatever table, the lamb pancake, a Spice Temple stalwart for a decade, is heady with cumin and ginger, the bubbly dough pan-fried Emperor golden. If "fire water" and "hot and numbing" aren't enough of a clue, or staff are lost in the dark corners of the dining room, a large part of the menu (the hottest part) is written in red font. But don't sweat it. Sweet relief is never far with the likes of abalone mushrooms in a garlicky broth, or one of the neat 100 wines. The fried rice, refreshingly, plays with smoke rather than fire, and makes heroes of smoked bacon and peas. Another wine, or another cinnamon-dusted spring roll filled with velvety duck-egg custard? It might be dark, it might be pricey, but this is Chinese worthy of the spotlight. Thankfully, each table has its own.
10 Bligh St, Sydney, NSW, spicetemple.com.au
Stanbuli may be housed in a former hair salon (bubblegum-pink façade still standing) that plays 50 Cent and remixes of "Sexual Healing" but this Turkish restaurant still serves meze like the best of them. Inside, the design is clean, sharp and come via the Levant: patterned tiles, dried sausages strung above the bar, staff with vests or neat moustaches (or both), and arak lining the walls. Said spirit is a fine place to start, matched with small plates: rice and spinach topped with hung yoghurt to go with flatbread, perhaps, or whole roasted eggplant, soft and giving and stuffed with sweet onion and tomato. Tradition is kept close, but it's made modern. A special of zhi kofte, the raw beef spiced with cumin and shaped into twisted logs, is plated with an array of herbs and vegetables to wrap into iceberg lettuce – sang choi bao comes to Istanbul. Main courses are big, spiced, and char-grilled – lamb chops, octopus, chicken skewers – and built for conviviality and comfort, as is a wine list preferencing local and Turkish varieties. Take a group, go heavy on the arak, finish with a bang with a borek milk pie and plot your return with relish.
135 Enmore Road, Enmore, Sydney, NSW, stanbuli.com.au
The things that once made Tetsuya's such a coveted booking may no longer be as revolutionary for a national palate now more attuned to Japanese flavours, but that doesn't mean the food is any less alluring. It's still a thrill to behold the signature confit ocean trout, draped elegantly over matchsticks of green apple and witlof, to feel the pop of the unpasteurised trout roe, to savour the length of flavour in the crumbled kombu coating. Elsewhere, sharp Pacific oysters dressed with soy and rice vinegar might be $12 a pop, but this is a place where classic pleasures (extending to an elegant wine selection, lush carpet, polished service and, yes, valet parking) come first, even if they come at a price. Plates range between raw and poached, sashimi kingfish accented with dashi cream and cucamelon, perhaps, or lamb cooked sous-vide and served with watercress purée and charred leek. Sound, if a little safe. Abalone with oyster dashi and wakame is more like it, nicely to the bite and dressed up with iceplant and seablite. This is cooking rendered with as much attention as the Zen garden that anchors the restaurant. Just imagine if it could train both eyes on the future.
529 Kent St, Sydney, NSW, tetsuyas.com
Fun, vibrant and endlessly shareable, Totti's is a place for everyone. Litres of Negroni for the primed and primped Sunday-sessions crowd, orange cordial for the kids, big charry pillows of wood-fired bread with snacks – San Daniele prosciutto, burrata drenched in olive oil and heirloom tomatoes among them – for all and sundry. Enthusiastic waitstaff encourage sharing, and it's a good idea, but dishes as moreish as an al dente linguine coated in bright green pesto and smothered in herbs and parmesan may convince otherwise. Vegetables continue to shine in sides of broccolini jazzed up with anchovy and almonds, or in a creamy, chilli-spiked corn polenta, accompanying mains such as a whole roast chicken from the wood oven, crisp of skin, juicy of flesh. Come dessert, classics with a sense of play are the main brief, but the highlight is the simple tart of the day with buttery, shortcrust pastry encasing seasonal fruits – autumn plums and pear, perhaps. The piazza-like courtyard, complete with gnarled olive tree, is transportive and abuzz, the room warm and welcoming, and then there's the no-frills pub, The Royal, at the front. Indeed, a place for all. Bravo Merivale.
283 Bondi Rd, Bondi, Sydney NSW, merivale.com/venues/tottis
Housed in a former gallery and bohemian artists' collective, Yellow exhibits vegetables with a cutting edge honed with a sharp sense of focus and creativity. Thin cones of fermented pumpkin and scattered wattleseed arranged over buffalo-milk curd, say, or bright heirloom tomatoes poached and served in a sweet-savoury dashi broth and adorned with garlic flowers. Mini tortillas with crisp sweet potato, blackberry and lime yoghurt are a lesson in balancing seemingly disparate elements, while zucchini flowers stuffed with water chestnuts, lightly fried and topped with glimmering pearls of lemon gel, present a vegetarian staple in a new light. There's much of interest to drink, too. Nick Hildebrant's wine list leans natural with bottles Australian and international, familiar and rare. Case in point: a glass of funky, crunchy Cota 45 palomino from Sanlúcar in Spain's sunny south. And to finish? The sweet, sour flavours of honeydew sorbet with yuzu and peppermint recall the fizz of corner-shop sherbet. Paired with the laid-back feel of a wine bar, cool interiors and smart service, it spells good times – and Sydney's best fine vegetarian.
57 Macleay St, Potts Point, Sydney NSW, yellowsydney.com.au