Three months and more than a few dollars later, Quay emerges from a major renovation. Relax: it's still great.
It's as luxe as ever, glowing afresh, but the interior is now oriented towards intimacy, and makes more of the view of the bridge (and is less at the mercy of cruise ships at port). The menu is all new, but Peter Gilmore's style is clear in concise plays of texture conjured in rare and unusual ingredients cooked with precision. The texture of oysters probably isn't improved by turnin gthem into a cream, but a dusting of caviar and crumbled crisp chicken skin raises no complaints. A little dish of fish maw, smoked salmon roe and cured egg, meanwhile, makes an inspired DIY condiment to lush steamed sea-urchin custard.
Service is much improved both in focus and manner, and while the drinks offer swings wide and pricey, its gusto is admirable. A higher Quay.
Upper Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, quay.com.au
Whether in New York or Los Angeles, Momofuku restaurants have always been tricky to classify; Seiobo goes a step further, splicing the flavours of Paul Carmichael's upbringing in Barbados and family in Puerto Rico with tropical Australian produce at a gleaming corporate-Japaneseish dining counter tucked in a corner of a casino.
It's a high-gloss production, and service and wine rival those at Momo's Manhattan HQ for smarts and polish. Rock-meets-reggae describes the menu as much as the soundtrack, from a play on ducana that spices up the sweet potato dumplings with "Caribbean XO" rich in habanero and salt cod, to a marron curry served with coconut bakes, sweet buns ideal for swiping through the luscious sauce.
The world's premier haute Afro-Caribbean restaurant is in Sydney? Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. And tastier still.
The Star, 80 Pyrmont St, Pyrmont, seiobo.momofuku.com
The wild scrawl of the paint job over the fine old bones of the building, and the jagged pick-up sticks dividing the excellent bar from the dark, handsome dining room provide some clues: there's an irreverent streak at work here.
There's delicious tension between the fervour sommelier Nick Hildebrandt and chef Brent Savage share for quality ingredients and their refusal to follow the crowd. When they offer a Serbian riesling or spike the raw kingfish with slivers of cape gooseberries and pink pepper they're not simply being obtuse.
Everything earns its place at the table, from the black sesame in the butter to the frozen pomelo beads on the coconut sorbet; mere shock value doesn't count. Witty, unflappable service and serious prices reflect Bentley's evolution into one of the city's culinary landmarks – and the best place in Australia to drink wine.
27 O'Connell St, Sydney, thebentley.com.au
Could we be in danger of taking this splendour for granted? No, it's not possible. Even for the most jaded Emerald City citizen, the walk across the forecourt reveals the wonder of the Opera House anew. And you could also credit the team from Quay with working a similar magic inside. Sure, they've packed in the tables, service can feel more of a hustle than simply well-paced, and some of the glass prices on the wine list beg belief.
But the food just gets better and better. Eggplant in lacy batter paired with seared scallop and an XO sauce chunky with streaky bacon is an inspired play of textures, while crunchy stone-pot rice rich with sesame and fermented shiitake challenges the glimmering roast quail it accompanies for star billing. Desserts are equally spectacular ("crème caramel vs. mille-feuille" is inspired), and the eat-in bar offers thrilling snacks for gilded grazing.
Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney, bennelong.com.au
Things are bigger at Bar & Grill. The ceiling of the superb Deco room soars off into the distance, while the kitchen teems with chefs, like a barbecue directed by DeMille, just as the floor is worked by some of the best waiters in town. The wine list is the War & Peace of serious bottles, the menu, drawn along golden-era steakhouse lines, runs to 70-plus dishes before you get to dessert, and the bills are no less substantial. Steaks are the drawcard, but seafood is handled with equal finesse, in simple grills or deft constructions like prawns and farro textured with green almond and pistachio.
Pasta is reliably excellent (not least the crab-rich semolina noodles), the bar makes a mean Martini, and the battery of sides is always worth a plunge. Big-business by day, big-night-out territory after dark, Rockpool is Sydney's top-dollar playground, and revels in its role.
66 Hunter St, Sydney, rockpoolbarandgrill.com.au/
Hubert is a restaurant with a fetish for restaurants. Descend the stairs and enter a world of tiny tasselled lamps, shelves heaving with vinous riches, an underground playground of bentwood and candlewax.
Though the menu reads French, it's a gonzo France of the imagination, channeling hand-tinted Time-Life photographs and Ricard posters, and shot through with brilliant flashes of irreverence. Roasted snails with XO sauce, and gnocchi Parisienne joined like a crisp sheet of potsticker dumplings, demonstrate the kitchen's knack for playing with tradition without breaking the golden-era spell.
Grilled bavette with Café de Paris, meanwhile, shows it can play a straight bat with just as much flair. Unlovely restrooms don't maintain the enchantment, but with one of the city's crack floor teams pouring from one of its best cellars, Hubert's magic remains strong.
15 Bligh St, Sydney, restauranthubert.com
7. The Bridge Room.
At one end of the long, elegant room, a table of silks roars at a joke from the senior partner. At the other end, the arts maven and the former premier collude on the banquette at half the volume and twice the intensity. This is a place for machers who like their dining fine, but want their whims to count for more than the chefs' whimsy.
Yet the food remains as accomplished as anything in town, with tight technique deployed to coax the best from a panoply of exotic ingredients. Sweet, firm yabby meat is sandwiched between the freshness of palm hearts on one side and the funk of tamarind and chilli paste on the other, biltong is the surprise accent in a silken scallop mousse, while a perfect canelé is more surprising still as the textural foil for duck and blueberries grilled over coals with surgical precision. Service? Variable. Wine? Expensive. The flavour? Unique.
44 Bridge St, Sydney, thebridgeroom.com.au
Though the decor celebrates the elemental, flames readily visible from the open kitchen, firewood stacked in the window of the raw but comfortable dining room, the food at Firedoor shows that letting fire and produce drive your menu doesn't have to mean surrendering precision and nuance.
Though all the cooking here is done over coals, Lennox Hastie doesn't like things raw or burnt. Instead he warms yellowfin tuna to bring out its flavour, framing it with pear and shiso, or cooks freshly killed marron until the protein barely sets, its sweetness shining through a discreet finger-lime dressing.
The music is a bit weird, but wine and service are thoughtful and apt. Dessert is no afterthought; of course they can't resist setting fire to the rhubarb bombe Alaska. Come for the fire, stay for the exceptional produce, and keep coming back for a restaurant unlike any other.
23-33 Mary St, Surry Hills, firedoor.com.au
What is it about Ester that makes a booking so coveted a thing? The room is stripped back and raw, in keeping with the grittiness of the street. Service is resolutely casual. But though the space is stark, it rings with merriment, and the relaxed feel on the floor belies the commitment and smarts of the staff.
Then there's Mat Lindsay's wood-fired food, which (as with the natural-leaning wine list) is as much about what's left out as what's put in. Hot potato bread with cool trout roe, kefir cream and dashi jelly is the perfect contrast of texture and temperature, smoked whey sauce is all that's needed to elevate a golden potato galette to centre-plate status, and recent forays into things on sticks (lardo and calamari, lamb intercostals with mustard) have proven rewarding. Ester has quietly staked a claim at the forefront of inspired Sydney dining. And it just keeps getting better.
46-52 Meagher St, Chippendale, ester-restaurant.com.au
Viking salt. Quandong paste. Dory-roe emulsion. At Automata Clayton Wells and Sarah Knights keep a more interesting pantry than most. But just as the design incorporates many industrial elements without becoming cold, it's testament to these chefs' gifts that their disparate shopping list comes together seamlessly on the plate.
The warmth of a seaweed broth and wasabi oil brings slices of lees-cured kingfish to vivid life, for instance, while black-pepper ice-cream has a cool burn that ignites custard apple cut with Granny Smith at the other end of the deftly paced tasting.
That love of rare and speclal things extends to the great drinks list and to the staff, who are empowered (and skilled) enough to show more than the typical amount of personality you'd expect to see at this level of dining. The Automata experience is all the more essential for it.
5 Kensington St, Chippendale, automata.com.au