The verdict is in: Sydney's dining scene is stronger than ever. Get your knife and fork ready, Pat Nourse rounds up the tables worth a visit in 2019.
Sáng by Mabasa
Hip design and clean, clear Korean flavours meet at this sliver of a restaurant on the fringe of Surry Hills. Co-owner Kenny Yong Soo Son is the creator of lots of the niftier pieces of design adorning the room and tables (that bill weight! Those coat-hooks!), while his partner, Youmee Jeon, is responsible for the desserts and the superb pickles lining the counter in jars. Kenny's parents, Jin Sun Son and Seung Kee Son, are in the kitchen, making sure the pancakes come out crisp, regardless of whether they're cabbage or kimchi, and keeping the fried chicken crunchy.
What to order: the stir-fried kimchi is not to be missed.
98 Fitzroy St, Surry Hills, (02) 9331 5175, sangbymabasa.com.au
Imagine the Love Boat and the Catskills resort from Dirty Dancing had a love child that loved Slim Aarons. Now imagine that it also had great food and one of the finest wine lists north of the harbour, and you're getting close to the very particular allure of Bert's. In a sumptuous sun-washed palace of Midcentury-inflected delight atop The Newport, chef Jordan Toft sets a new standard for Northern Beaches dining, and for what the Merivale group can pull off. Bringing together the best bits of Fred's, Coogee Pavilion and the Ivy, it's at once casual, ambitious, refined and entirely worth building a staycation around.
What to order: the grilled lobster with hojiblanca olive oil and lemon, and the hand-picked wood-roasted mud crab are entirely worthy of their cult following, but there's much to like beyond the top-dollar live crustaceans, whether it's a double pork rib chop grilled for two with a peach glaze and garlic flowers, or zucchini with stracciatella, lemon and basil.
2 Kalinya St, Newport, (02) 9114 7350, merivale.com
Lankan Filling Station
New Southern Asian food in Sydney finds a thoughtful and vigorous champion in the form of O Tama Carey. At Lankan Filling Station she presents the food of her Sri Lankan heritage packaged with her other passions: interesting wine, crisp design, smart cocktails, great tea and a well-run floor.
What to order: it's hard not to pick a winner, but seafood and vegetables are handled with notable flair. This being Sri Lankan food, it pays to load up on the accessories, be they the fragrant sambols, or the white chillies – sublime things that have been soaked in whey then made crisp, perfect for crumbling over pretty much anything at the table. Desserts are also excellent. The $60 just-feed-me option is worthwhile.
58 Riley St, East Sydney, (02) 8542 9936, lankanfillingstation.com.au
No matter how hard its owners try to sell it as a wine bar (or how stuffed with furniture the room feels) the diners of Sydney have chosen to treat Poly simply as a more central branch of its parent restaurant, Ester. It isn't quite as effortless as the original, and some of the mark-ups on the wine might sting a bit, but the quality of the booze is impeccable. Where Ester is all about the wood-fired oven, at Poly it's the grill that makes some of the magic, turning sourdough dough into a puffy flatbread served with a sesame sauce, and crisping up a fine sheet of cheese to scoop up spicy raw beef.
What to order: the menu changes often, but whether it's Brillat-Savarin topped with witlof and a marmalade made with poor man's orange, or a Comté doughnut, the cheese course is always inventive and a great reason to call for another bottle.
74-76 Commonwealth St, Surry Hills, (02) 8860 0808, polysurryhills.com.au
Iggy's bread and great oil! Hot salt and vinegar potato churros! Mushrooms grilled on sticks! Chef Joey Astorga doesn't use any animal products in his kitchen, but his is a cuisine of abundance, invention and diversity, not privation, and his plates are alive with broad-bean shoots and saltbush crisps, textured with roasted lentils and puffed black rice and electric with plum stocks and lemonmyrtle pickles. Throw in a wine list that's all about the most adventurous Australian winemakers, and plant-based dining never looked like so much fun.
What to order: Iggy's bread and great oil! Hot salt and vinegar potato churros! Mushrooms grilled on sticks!
8/18 Danks St, Waterloo, (02) 9310 1356, paperbarkrestaurant.com
It's only taken 10 years, but Sydney finally has something a little bit like Cumulus Inc to call its own – a place where you can walk in at any time of the day, whether you're in the mood for a snack and a Martini, several bottles and a feast, or perhaps just a sandwich and a good cup of coffee, and know that you're going to be well looked after. Dinner can want for atmosphere in the quieter parts of the week, but that doesn't dent the appeal of the superb roasted whole flounder with curry leaves and Espelette pepper.
Lunch is winningly rich in green, fresh things (as well as the richly meaty, Instagram-pleasing muffuletta). But it's at breakfast that A1 truly shines, in everything from the wiggling shavings of bonito on the green-onion and confit garlic omelette to the fermented chilli sauce in the grilled mortadella and fried-egg sandwich.
What to order: the muffuletta takes a great picture but is actually impossible to eat with your hands; go the salt-beef bagel or the fried prawns with Old Bay mayo on a otato roll if you're on the move. At breakfast, the bacon sandwich with cheddar, fermented cucumber and Branston pickle is the one to beat.
2-10 Kensington St, Chippendale, (02) 9280 3285, a1canteen.com.au
There's a bit of palaver to be endured at Bistecca. You're encouraged to surrender your phone at the door, and the restaurant only really serves one thing: the namesake Florentine-style T-bone, grilled over coals and served only (only!) medium-rare. But if you can get past the nonsense, you'll be rewarded with some nicely cooked beef, served in an atmospheric basement room with the winning accompaniment of some very good wine. And that's no bad thing.
What to order: bistecca alla Fiorentina, of course, with some rocket and parmesan, Tuscan-style white beans and roast potatoes on the side. And don't spare the Chianti. The tiramisù is worth a look-in, too.
3 Dalley St, Sydney, (02) 8067 0450, bistecca.com.au
Following the success of the Double Bay original, chef Orazio D'Elia and his backers have doubled down on its buzzy vibes and robustly flavoured, neatly plated Italian food with this CBD crowd-pleaser. In addition to very good house-made pasta, it offers a large aperitivo bar, outdoor seating, a mozzarella bar and breakfast. Happily for anyone who likes more than a cigarette, a mass-made pastry and an espresso for their morning meal, Matteo's breakfast menu is less about slavishly following Italian tradition and more about marrying Italian flavours to Sydneystyle café eats. Case in point: scrambled eggs alla cacio e pepe, or, better yet, the occhio di bue, fried egg and cotechino with asiago cheese on a milk bun.
What to order: any variation on the theme of mozzarella or burrata is a good move, as is the bucatini alla gricia.
20 Bond St, Sydney, (02) 9241 2008, matteosydney.com
As one of the architects of the original Mary's menu, Luke Powell has already shaped the burger culture of Sydney, and now he turns his attention to pizza. Taking an existing pizzeria, turning the lights down and the music up, reskinning it in the inimitable style of his partners at LP's Quality Meats, Porteño co-owners Joe Valore and Elvis Abrahanowicz, Powell has created an instantly likeable casual hangout for the city end of King Street. His pizza is wood-fired, and topped with the likes of the pepperoni and mortadella he makes at LP's.
What to order: tasty as the pizza may be, other good things come from the oven – charred Turkish pepper with romesco sauce, perhaps – while crisp celtuce, celery, chervil and sunflower seeds makes a strong case for sides.
135 King St, Newtown, (02) 9922 5941, bellabrutta.com.au
Kingdom of Rice
Natural wine and Cambodian food from a team best known for sort-of Italian food, served in a former drive through bottle-shop in Mascot? You can say many things about Kingdom of Rice, but it's by no means a tired concept. The Merivale group has handed Acme's Mitch Orr and Cam Fairbairn the keys to the former Mr Liquor site, and they in turn have got their colleagues, Sophia Thach and Lillia McCabe, fresh from a trip to Cambodia, turning on the flavour. The walk-in fridge full of interesting booze remains, but now it goes with pipis in Kampot pepper, skewers of caramelised pork, and water spinach with salted egg yolk.
What to order: a side of stuffed chicken wings with everything.
952 Botany Rd, Mascot, (02) 9114 7345, merivale.com