GT’s Restaurant Guide State Winner
Aalia’s signature waraq simsim could well be Sydney’s most photographed dish. Yet, no picture can convey the joy that comes with rolling the finger of uni-topped rice in a whole perilla leaf and popping it in your mouth. It’s approachable yet unfamiliar, as delicious as it is refined; a bellwether of Paul Farag’s novel and exciting cooking, which channels his Egyptian heritage and broader Levantine traditions. It’s easy to get lost in the gold mine that is the menu’s mezze section, where deeply spiced eggplant mes ‘a’ aha and skewered king prawns piped with tarama vie gamely for table space with impossibly tender cuttlefish and couscous tossed through a take on the Tunisian carrot salad, ummak huriyya. When it comes to mains, the endlessly juicy lamb neck shawarma in billowy saj flatbread is still the one to beat. The setting and service match the polish on the plate, completing the package deal at this standard-setter in the making.
Anchovy toast has gained peak popularity, but Alberto’s Lounge takes the road less travelled, serving up umami-rich sardine pâté on triangles of crisp-fried crostoli. It’s a snack that embodies head chef Elizabeth Mitchell’s fun-loving and singular spirit with aplomb. This is an old-school trattoria seen through a Spaghetti Western lens, complete with natural wines, retro posters, Italo-disco tunes and personable service to match. The assured menu combines Italian custom and personality, from an unmissable entrée of seared tuna doused in clear, tomato-fragrant acqua pazza to silky hand-cut pappardelle coated in gratifying beef short-rib ragù heady with saffron and red wine. It’s a place where you order dessert – scoops of ambrosian orange-and-bay sorbetto and buffalo-yoghurt gelato that summon memories of Weis Bar summers – and call for another bottle. And while it may no longer be the new kid on the block, Alberto’s is as exuberant as ever.
In bringing their interpretation of a Japanese listening bar to life, Ante’s co-owners Matt Young and Jemma Whiteman may have also inadvertently opened one of Sydney’s most exciting restaurants. So while bookings aren’t taken and you’d be unwise to rock up with more than three others, the limitations here pale beside the possibilities. Like the 2500-strong record collection, spanning Ethio-jazz to Austrian trip-hop, waiting for a spin on the big rig. Or the stockpile of 70-plus junmai sakes, poured from stunning vessels by staff who know the score. Then there’s the menu, which segues from perfect pickles and a knockout celeriac katsu sandwich to a cracking chawanmushi bucked up by brown butter and blue swimmer crab or tagliatelle with fermented mushrooms that outsmarts most Italian kitchens in town. It’s a fully realised synergy of so many strong and singular ideas, with uncommon transportive power.
Wine first. That’s the philosophy in this dim but rollicking Parisian-style joint on the south side of Byron Bay, where the menu isn’t handed over until you’ve chosen your first drink. Rest assured that every dish on that subsequent menu – from the opening crunch of crisp potato, Manchego cream and shaved local mushrooms, to the deeply satisfying bowl of pippies in buttery, pearlescent chicken broth – is built to harmonise with every drop on wine importers/co-owners James Audas and Tom Sheer’s heaving list of vin naturel. Chef Ollie Wong-Hee’s classic training manifests in rich bisques and emulsified sauces, while his Chinese heritage and interest in Southeast Asian cuisine glows in the knockout take on chả lá lốt: a bullet of grilled pork wrapped in a betel leaf with lettuce, pickles and charred pineapple-chilli sauce. Like most of the dishes, it’s easily eaten with one hand, so you never have to put down your glass.
Some restaurants like to surprise. Bar Vincent prefers to delight. Every plate that appears in the charming elbow-to-elbow room is a near-faithful rendition of a European standard – many Italian, all short on flourish and big on flavour. You might start with rich buffalo mozzarella on a flutter of shaved zucchini, jazzed up with little more than olive oil and a flinty, low-intervention vermentino. Freshly made pastas (which the kitchen divides into generous portions if sharing) are classically minded, too, sauced in rabbit and white wine ragù or alla Norma. Secondi are equally confident in their restraint: why mess with a flounder meunière when you don’t have to? Desserts aren’t listed on the handwritten menu, but you might spot clues if you scan the room; that crate of quinces near the door will almost certainly be transformed into the hero of tonight’s tart. Reliable excellence without frills? Perhaps that’s a surprise after all.
The nugget of rosemary-skewered kangaroo that opens your Bentley voyage might look simple, but a bite detonates a flavour-packed core: a miso-marinated lion’s mane mushroom. It’s a trick repeated throughout chef-owner Brent Savage’s laser-focused menu, with similar pyrotechnics deployed across the seven courses. Vibrantly sweet yet somehow crystal clear heirloom tomato water surrounds cubes of raw Great Barrier Reef coral trout and persimmon resting on punchy jamón cream, for example, while sour dots of Weissbier and pan-juice jelly glisten beside just-rendered slices of Blackmore wagyu oyster blade. Somm-owner Nick Hildebrandt’s cellar is also loaded with surprises, most joyfully showcased in the “Sommelier” pairing option, where a butter-smooth back-vintage chenin blanc is as likely to be followed by briny Sherry as it is youthful, fruit-laden Beaujolais. Celebrating a decade in its Radisson Blu location, Bentley has never been sharper, more coherent and more full of fireworks.
Livi’s dining room, in Murwillumbah’s arts precinct about an hour from Byron Bay, is a celebration of textures; the tessellated brick floor and coarse Venetian plaster walls framing leather banquettes and marble tables. It’s an interplay echoed on the plates, where a warm, rough paste of salt cod bathes in olive oil, ready to be scooped up with glass-thin shards of crisp-toasted bread. Ingredients are left to shine without superfluous adornment, like hefty bug tails swimming in vibrant vadouvan butter, and smoky-charred padrón peppers dotted with thick slices of cured garlic. Co-owner siblings Danni (chef) and Nikky (front of house) Wilson have returned home after a stretch in Melbourne, where Nikky worked with fellow co-owner/chef Ewen Crawford at tapas institution MoVida, but while there are lingering hints of Spain on plates of paleta Ibérico or Cantabrian anchovies, Livi – like the town in which it sits – feels welcoming to all influences and all visitors.
The signature restaurant at the swish new Capella Sydney nails the five-star hotel restaurant brief. On the ground floor of the lavishly refurbished former Department of Education building, Brasserie 1930’s high-ceilinged room – all marble, leather, timber and lots of art – delivers movie-set glamour in spades. Bentley Group co-founders Brent Savage and Nick Hildebrandt might be better known, perhaps, for more left-of-centre atmospherics, but they’ve adapted to this new environment seamlessly, with an offering that suits the luxurious habitat. Think impeccable oysters, caviar, lobster and top-end steaks to a pork loin chop with pickled prunes and salsa verde or thrilling pasta alla chitarra tossed with sea-urchin sauce and spanner crab. Careful attention is paid to details such as the quality of the fries and salad leaves, as well. Service is excellent, the location-appropriate wine list both approachable and pricey. The perfect backdrop, in other words, for a power lunch – real or cosplay.
What keeps Pasi Petänen’s border-crossing bistro top of mind year on year? Perhaps it’s the revelatory ravioli, where root-veg and truffle jus surrounds frilly-edged parcels filled with a rich yet restrained boudin blanc. Or thinly sliced plancha-grilled beef, cooked only on one side so it’s both rare and charred, dressed with smoked bone marrow vinaigrette. Or those must-try dishes that have been there since day dot: the velvety ox tongue tacos on malty rye tortillas, or the excellent, imaginative potato dumplings with trout-powered XO sauce. Then there’s the compelling drinks list that spans large format wines, house-made sodas and a page devoted to digestifs. All the while, Petänen is a reassuringly calm presence in the open kitchen, which adds just the right level of buzz to the slender and smartly appointed room. Everything’s just so considered, unbound by rules but tied together with absolute originality – and Sydney is all the richer for it.
In a city so packed with New York-style chophouses it’s starting to feel like Manhattan Lite, Clam Bar’s edgier riff on the genre is a welcome relief. Yes, you’ll find the ubiquitous Josper-grilled steak, seafood staples and classic sides plus timeless cocktails and mostly French and Australian wines, but the face-value simplicity of it all belies the flair. Zucchini-flower empanadas get clever with a gooseberry hot sauce. A satin-smooth corn and Gruyère gratin tones down its richness by way of chilli and lime. The clam spaghetti hits more familiar territory with a garlicky white wine sauce, but it’s cooked to such al dente deliciousness that it gives sister Italian restaurant Pellegrino 2000 a run for its money. As for the aesthetic, it’s a strikingly original, slightly irreverent brand of “pool-hall cool”: all veneer panelling, ’70s-style palms and even a giant marlin on the wall. A step back in time, with an eye to the future.
Mat Lindsay didn’t discover umami. Nor did he invent pickling, fermenting or wood-oven cooking. What he’s done, however, is meld these techniques and ideas into a cuisine that’s unequivocally his own, keeping Ester at the forefront of Sydney dining for more than a decade. Career-defining snacks, such as the blood sausage sanga and blistered potato bread with kefir cream, remain unimpeachable staples, but it’s the kitchen’s constant quest for depth of flavour that compels more than anything. Vegetable work is exquisite, evidenced by perfectly tender claypot-braised cauliflower in splendidly onion-rich sake broth. A roasted pork chop sprinkled with native spice, meanwhile, is meat at its most pared back, letting timing and temperature do all the talking. Stimulating raw wines and articulate service complete the picture – and if there’s a better dessert in the city for a tenner than the salted caramel parfait seasoned with a rubble of black sesame, then good luck finding it.
Chef-owner Frank Fawkner makes fearless moves at EXP. Take for example the decision to split macadamia cream with eucalyptus oil, which brings bush-walk sensibility to well-cured cuts of kingfish. Or the choice not just to make ‘nduja in-house, but to utilise local duck rather than pork, then serve it over dashi chawanmushi with charred corn and black garlic. Flavours are bold from the dégustation’s start to finish, with every detail scrupulously interrogated, right down to the striking custom cutlery and serving vessels. (Ever picked a choux bun piped with taramasalata off a banksia cone or plucked honey-infused petits fours from a beeswax plate?) Seats along the kitchen counter offer an up-close look at all the action, but the drama is palpable in every corner of the intimate, low-lit room and carried out with confidence and professionalism by manager Harrison Plant. An accomplished high-wire act in the Hunter.
If Ho Jiak’s neon-punctuated walls and joyously unfussy service don’t transport you to a cobbled Penang laneway, a forkful of the char koay kak will. Crunchy-fried cubes of radish cake, smoky with wok hei and coated in dark soy, are topped with blue swimmer crab meat – a finishing touch that encapsulates chef Junda Khoo’s gentle but gripping elevation of Malaysia’s street-food spirit. The recent abridgement of the once-Odyssean menu has clarified Ho Jiak’s mission to uplift Malaysian fare in service of a good time. And while purists are still serviced with the likes of gently aromatic Hainanese chicken rice or dark char kway teow dotted with crisp jewels of pork fat, it’s moments like the thick marrow-filled beef bones coated with thick rendang curry – begging to be scooped out with buttery roti – that take things so thrillingly beyond the street.
From its panoramic urban views to chef Mitch Orr’s smoke-kissed menu, Kiln brings a fresh perspective to Sydney’s dining landscape, proving hotel dining need not be rigid, dull, or overlooking the Harbour. Here, even stracciatella is made interesting, blanketed by velveteen dashi-braised leeks and studded with crunchy toasted hazelnuts. Start the party with some bite-sized bangers – Orr’s signature Jatz cracker, say, topped off with a thick smear of smoked butter and a curled Olasagasti anchovy, or meaty snowflake mushrooms, glazed and grilled, sitting on wasabi leaves. Refreshingly, vegetables receive star billing, backed by a seafood-heavy selection of larger plates including memorable whole southern calamari splashed with herby, citrusy salmoriglio. With DJ sets heavy on ’90s and ’00s R’n’B jams and a boisterous natty wine list courtesy of Mike Bennie, dining here feels like a proper night out (even if you don’t kick on at the bar or sunken lounges in the schmick lobby).
Every restaurant seems to be “produce-driven” these days, but Neil Perry’s Double Bay flagship delivers on the promise with conviction. Perhaps it’s hand-picked blue swimmer crab with bright shreds of green papaya and sweet pork belly. Or carefully diced tuna tartare slicked in punchy gochujang. Line-caught coral trout and a retired dairy cow fillet are each rendered totally delicious by the embers of the wood grill, with XO and red curry butter, respectively, amplifying the pleasure tenfold. Here, it’s all about the combination of show-stopping ingredients and pan-Asian flavours – which always enhance rather than overshadow. The room exudes a cool elegance that speaks to intergenerational good times, and exacting wine service hits the mark regardless of whether you’re keeping it low-key or pushing the boat right out over big-ticket Burgundy. Margaret’s magic lies in the synthesis of all these elements and in Perry’s sustained relevance.
Megalong looks well on its way to cementing itself as a marquee player in Australia’s destination dining stakes. From the offer of raw baby vegetables harvested just before service to a flawless fig tarte Tatin come dessert, chef and co-owner Colin Barker keeps produce front of mind inside this smartly restored homestead. And why wouldn’t he, when nearly every ingredient featured across the five-ish courses is organically reared on the surrounding 600 hectares? A frothy soup speckled with crisp saltbush leaves furthers the argument for potatoes and leeks, with an expertly poached egg lending creamy and buttery ballast. Fatty slices of roast lamb contain magnitudes of flavour, needing no more than a dab of black garlic and a tart braise of fennel and puntarelle for emphasis. Invested service and spectacular escarpment views will keep you pinned to your seat, but a roam around the grounds encapsulates the whole experience: a much welcome breath of fresh mountain air.
Josh and Julie Niland’s fifth and latest venture might just be their most ambitious offering to date. Australia’s finest seafood, of course, is the star, treated with unrivalled ingenuity and care. Preserved Jervis Bay mussels outshine what you’d find in the priciest of Spanish tins, steeped in a subtly smoky achiote vinaigrette; symmetrically sliced raw bonito could hold its own at any high-end omakase counter, dressed with soy sauce made from its own bones. Longtime Niland fans will rejoice in the revival of the cracking sea-urchin crumpets and brilliant lemon tart from Saint Peter’s early days, while clever large-format mains including a chateaubriand-style yellowfin tuna steak will no doubt attract new devotees. The drinks list is thoughtful, the service assured and the perfectly formed saltbush empanadas proof that the flair extends well beyond fish. You’ll leave wondering whether there’s anything this enterprising young couple can’t do.
Score a seat at Pipit’s counter, and your dégustation experience comes with a hypnotising display of culinary efficiency, centred around a wood-burning stove above which hang gently smoking fish and slow-drying persimmons. Owner-chef Ben Devlin’s innings at Noma instilled not only a love of the fermented and aged, but also an ability to see every scrap as the foundation of a new dish. Just-picked, cut-to-order veggies are paired with a luminous, umami-rich paste made of the fermented offcuts. Grouper bones become crisp biscuits holding caramel made from grouper fat. Smoked oysters lie in a bright dashi cream made from leftover oysters. The “use everything” practice crescendos in a celebration of duck: blushing crown-roasted breast over sake-marinated quince, a celeriac “taco” of richly spiced wing sausage, and leg prosciutto draped over blackened sunchokes. It pairs perfectly with a crunchy Tasmanian pinot meunier and a view of all the action in one of the country’s most exciting kitchens.
Where many bistros might see pork and think roast or belly, chef Nik Hill and the skilful team at Porcine see smoked hams and jowls, rillettes, pâté en croute and other bouchon staples. Not to mention the chance to employ classic French technique and charge the cooking with as much fun and theatre as fat. Creton, for instance – a coarse Quebecois pâté made of pork shoulder, liver and lard – is fresh and zesty thanks to vinegary Puy lentils and crème fraîche. Beyond le porc, vegetables and game shine. Darlings of the Jura, Comté and vin jaune, play beautifully with foraged pine and grey ghost mushrooms in a malty gratin. Garlicky whole roasted pigeon, meanwhile, glistens in sticky Madeira sauce (marrow on toast, a finger bowl and bottle of sappy Adelaide Hills cab franc, all elegant accompaniments). With passionate staff, an inventive oft-changing menu and good humour to boot, Porcine is the perfect excuse to be piggish.
Porkfat’s larb tells you a lot about why this CBD newcomer is being touted as Sydney’s most impressive Thai opening in several years. Fried nuggets of pork fat, a generous dose of herbs and a dousing of roasted rice powder make the usual pork mix textural, tart, earthy, fresh and ultimately unique. Owner-chef Narin “Jack” Kulasai – a David Thompson alumnus – is to thank. Not only is he remixing classics with premium ingredients (think a green curry enriched with fatty pork jowl and fresh lychees), but he’s also plotting them on a refreshingly short menu filled with rare, regional dishes such as a Phuket-style curry with meaty tiger prawns that’s surely one of the most aromatic in town. This is all served in a humble, 30-seat dining room that finds beauty in detail rather than décor – hand-painted Thai ceramics, cute coasters and a service style that switches between graceful, efficient and educational when needed.
Even if you’re well versed in Peter Gilmore’s leitmotifs – marine life, umami depth, elusive ingredients, the tension between cream and crunch – his cooking at Quay always holds you in its thrall. Hand-dived scallops, each as sweet and soft as custard, make gripping counterparts for shaved abalone, raw palm hearts and liquorice kombu in a hypnotic soy and vinegar dressing. Unctuous black-pig salami draped over creamy shiitake chawanmushi could be its own dish, but layered over confit pork jowl and smoked trotter broth it all becomes a dissertation on intensity and richness. Micro-seasonal greengage plums bring their tart-sweet taste to the otherworldly “White Coral” dessert, still as arresting as the peerless views. There’s still room for surprises in amongst the fine-dining trappings, too, from the unaffected nature of the on-it service to the value woven into the exhaustive wine list. Here, too much of a good thing never seems to be enough.
Whether you stop in for a signature burger and Martini at the bar or settle in for a grand repas – kicking off with escargots swimming in twangy XO sauce, perhaps, or lacy, parmesan-crusted gnocchi Parisienne – Hubert’s power to transport you to another lifetime never wanes. It remains the touchstone for brasserie dining in Australia, amidst a recent tidal wave of French openings. The menu may be a little light on surprise after almost eight years, but its ability to delight is endless, from the golden allumette potatoes that light up the wagyu tartare, to the velvety bone marrow butter that enriches rare Angus sirloin. For something special, pre-order the boeuf en croûte (48 hours notice) and marvel at the perfectly proportioned layers of crisp, buttery pastry and rich duxelles encasing the blush-pink eye fillet. Confident service and a cellar of Gallic-Australian intrigue complete the chorus line at this sell-out show.
Two years into his tenure, chef Tony Schifilliti’s fervent interest in fermentation has reinvigorated Sixpenny, dovetailing with chef-owner Dan Puskas vision seamlessly. Just look at a dainty tartlet of goat’s curd and Roman beans, jolted by a dressing flavoured with preserved lime and an egg-white garum. Or a fatty tranche of roasted Berkshire pork loin, rubbed in galangal-fragrant fermented pork paste, and served with a carrot cooked in barley koji oil. Indeed, every dish in the seven-course dégustation comes across with the same humble and effortless elegance as the bijou corner site, belying the Byzantine labour intensiveness behind it. Long-standing signatures like a malty slice of “yesterday’s sourdough” and the magical mead-vinegar custard maintain their relevance in the slow and steady procession, too. All the while, the tight-knit staff’s eyes for detail never blink, right till the very end when sudachi madeleines land with the bill, still warm.
It shouldn’t be so surprising that the food in Promenade’s Dining Room is this good. But a position as glorious as this one – the boardwalk of one of the world’s most iconic beaches – can breed suspicion that the views might get dragooned into doing most of the heavy lifting. Bite into superbly crisp sesame toast made luxurious with Moreton Bay bugs and brioche or haloumi roasted on lemon leaves splashed with chilli and coriander salsa, and it’s quickly apparent that flavour here is the equal of the ocean vista, backed by a beautiful sandy-toned room and relaxed, efficient service. Promenade’s is a “greatest hits” kind of menu – chicken cotoletta, blue swimmer crab pasta, tuna crudo, lemon delicious pudding – but careful cooking and excellent ingredients emphasise the great. Wine and cocktail lists match the approach, making this a diner where locals and tourists alike can experience Sydney being its very best self.
At $350 per head, Yoshii’s Omakase might just be the most expensive of its kind in the whole country. And it doesn’t help that landing one of the 10 stools at the counter requires Herculean effort. When you’re in the presence of Ryuichi Yoshii, though, none of this seems to matter. Over two and a half hours, the Nagasaki-born sushi master and his team present a masterclass in monastic attention to detail with rare artistic sensibility. His nigiri, of course, are impeccable – sweet local blue mackerel, perhaps, or trophy cuts of almost beefy bluefin tuna, anchored by rice cooked to the nanosecond. There’s just as much pleasure to be found in the cooked food, too, be it an ethereal tempura of WA snow crab wrapped in delicate tofu skin or even a seemingly simple bowl of miso soup rendered luxuriously complex by the addition of lobster heads. Every bit worth the buy-in.