This is a live post – it will be constantly updated as I eat out at more hatted locations in Sydney.
Food of 2013
The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide (henceforth GFG) shook things up once again this year.
While my opinions and the opinions of the GFG don’t always align (and indeed, it would be unusual if it did), I have to say that their statement on how Asian cuisine has begun to invade the palates of the masses seems on par with my personal observations.
In addition to this Asian trend, we see a continuation of the “dialing down” of fine dining – the closure/impending of Guillaume, Bentley, Claude’s & Universal (to name a few). A sign of the economic times? Perhaps, or maybe we’re simply funneling more value, and thus our time and money into the simpler stuff. Speaking of this simpler stuff, we’re talking simple, but superb – take Devon Cafe, with ex-Guillaume chefs at the helm, or Chur Burger, formerly Assiette (with a rather awkward Albion St Kitchen…rendered redundant by fire – literally). Strong talent serving food that won’t make you feel like your wallet needs shredding.
For me personally, what’s always been interesting, even from just a curiosity perspective, is the hatted system: three hats = near perfection, two hats = wow, pretty amazing, one hat = a great restaurant in its category. Yes, almost everyone finds fault in the hatted system, but I’ll bet that more often than not, one turns to the hatted restaurants as a guide for their next special occasion.
The listed of Sydney hatted restaurants this year can be found here. Alternatively, if you read the post, they’ll all be listed as you scroll.
Putting on my Chef’s Hat
So why am I doing this? Just for fun, really. But also, to provide any interested reader with a one-stop landing page if they ever have interests in eating at a hatted restaurant, but are unsure whether it would be right for them – a mere hat award system doesn’t guarantee taste after all? Titles with underlines have blog posts associated with them.
The…best (?) of Sydney.
Guillaume at Bennelong (no visit) [two hats in 2012]
It’s unfortunate that Guillaume is closing, and for me personally, more so as I don’t think I’ll be able to go before it closes. It gaining a hat just months before its closure is really something – going out with a bang, they say? Several of my friends have been, and the opinions are pretty raving.
Fare you well, Guillaume Brahimi – I hope your next restaurant will reach even greater heights,
Momofuku Seiobo (two visits)
If I could only pay one compliment to Ben Greeno, and I suppose by extension David Chang, it would be that they are not afraid to experiment. The end result is…mixed, but such levels of culinary playfulness is most welcome – how else are the boundaries pushed?
That said, the fact that several dishes will likely never work for me, as well as the occasional hiccups in service suggest that three hats may be too grand of an accolade for this restaurant. Two hats? Reasonable, three? It’s no Sepia…
I would still go again though – experimentation will always draw me back, as long as more dishes win than not.
Quay (no visit…yet)
Soon Quay…soon. November 13 will be the fateful day, to try out what’s been the best restaurant in Sydney, and quite possibly Australia. I’ve already heard way too much hype about this place, so at this point I’m effectively numb to it.
Can’t wait to put Quay through its paces.
Rockpool (one visit – no post)
I dun goofed, when I visited Rockpool without a memory card, and thus could not take proper photos and thus no post was ever made. However, I’m going to say something controversial – I don’t think it deserves any hats for the food. There was a pacing problem with their degustation, which very quickly (before half the deg was served) made us very bloated and not feeling appetised for more.
Simply put, the dishes were too heavy. Some of them were actually quite amazing, like the sea urchin, but as degustation, I was very much let down. My parents and I left feeling very stuffed, but not in the good way. To date, the only degustation I’ve had that really, really disappointed.
Service and decor though? Yep, on the ball there. Doesn’t mean much though, when what you go there for falls through.
Sepia (three visits)
So far my favourite three hatted restaurant. Entree and starter dishes are on the money in every way, couple that with unmatched desserts and you’ve got a seriously fine example of fine dining. Mains could use some sass, but else, it’s beautiful. Read the review for details
Aria (three visits)
I find it a little odd that I’ve had maybe…7-8 different groups of people express their negative opinion of Aria – usually pertaining to their service. Odd, in that in my three visits, I’ve never experienced the kind of service they describe. I guess I’m just lucky? Or they’ve been unlucky? In any case, I like Aria – their kurobuta pork belly is still my standard for pork bellies.
Its retention of its two hats in light of my own experiences seems fair and justified to me.
The Bridge Room (one visit)
This is simply a good restaurant. Ross Lusted’s robata grill will make a good morsel out of almost anything. Couple this with the exceptionally delicate cuisine, influenced from so many regions I don’t even know about, makes a winner. A few dishes didn’t jump out at me, which is perhaps its only weekness. Two hats? Yep, go for it.
As an aside, Ross Lusted also won Citi’s Chef of the Year Award. Good on him.
Est. (two visits) [three hats in 2012]
One of the bigger surprises at the GFG award’s show this year, Est lost a hat. Ah, bummer eh? I personally liked Est., though I suppose I wouldn’t be jumping to call it three hat material. That said, many of the dishes were still very enjoyable, with a seriously good dessert to boot.
If I had to hazard a guess – I’d say that Est.’s cuisine is actually too safe. “Vanilla” Modern Australian, if such a thing ever existed?
Some of my peers have also noted that Est. isn’t all that its three hats is cracked up to be, so its demotion to two hats was perhaps already incoming.
Four in Hand Dining Room (one visit)
FIH keeps its two hats for 2013, a move I agree with. A Modern Australian gastropub with hints of Celtic influences keeps Colin Fassnidge in the game in a very nice way. Their 12-hour slow-cooked lamb is still the lamb dish to beat.
Gastro Park (one visit)
My favourite restaurant of 2012, or at least, one of my favourites. Gastro Park is, more or less, everything good about a fine dining restaurant that pushes the boundaries. From the punchy granita & shredded foie gras, to the super soft, burst-in-your-mouth butternut gnocchi, to fish served with the scales, it’s an experience to be savoured.
Views? Check. Everything else? Not two-hatted level. I don’t know how Icebergs retained its two hats this year, but I imagine the view factored a lot into it.
The food was decent, where it was decent, but I felt $50 for 100g of fish to be quite a bit of a cash fleecing. I usually don’t give value much weight – especially if the food is marvelous. Icebergs however, is not.
Still unsure if I got food poisoning afterwards…
Marque (one visit) [three hats in 2012]
Another big shock to the fine dining scene this year, Mark Best’s flagship lost a hat this year. I have to say, this is an assessment I put my support behind. While the dishes were executed in a technically and visually proficient/beautiful way, very few of them were impressive.
A good measure of how good food is, is by seeing if you can recall the dishes – the more memorable, the better (or horrid) it is, right? I barely remember anything from Marque.
MoVida Sydney (one visit)
It may indeed come as no surprise that MoVida’s attainment of two hats within the first year of operation, considering Framk Camorra’s pedigree with the MoVida restaurants in Melbourne.
It’s expensive, but when the result is exceptional tapas on the level of fine dining, and you love your tapas, two hats it gets.
Mr Wong (three visits – review pending)
I’m going to be a little careful with this one – Mr Wong gets a lot, a LOT of flak. Common criticisms are along the lines of:
1) You can get same/better Chinese for less at many of the other already established restaurants in Sydney
2) “Fine Dining Chinese” is BS, and overrated
3) A place for foodies and hipsters to rave about (what is this one I don’t even)
4) Not authentic
Mr Wong unfortunately fell victim to the hype machine. The reality is more sane, and more so in its favour.
1) Mr Wong’s menu is very extensive – if you order the dishes that you can find at other Chinese restaurants (e.g. prawn har gau, shrimp siu mai etc.) then you have a case for Mr Wong being overrated. I would not pay 100% more for a dim sum that’s perhaps 20% better in quality.
However, Mr Wong has many menu items that you will not find at any other restaurant – sichuan steak tartare? Aromatic duck spring rolls (like a duck pancake, but fried!)? Char siu toothfish?
2) Anyone been to Hakkasan, or Lung King Heen? Fine dining Chinese is not BS, nor overrated. As with 1), the trick is not to only serve the staples (but you must have them), but to extend the envelope.
3) lolwat I can’t even discuss this one
4) I facepalmed when I read this. Not even sure where people get this from – because it’s suddenly really expensive it’s not authentic? Well, I suppose like in 1), where dishes that don’t traditionally exist you could say aren’t authentic – but doesn’t that mean a stagnating cuisine? I’d rather have dishes that push barriers than eat “authentic” food for the rest of my life, if that’s what authentic is defined as.
Anywho, I wouldn’t go to Mr Wong often, because in the end it is darn pricey for your casual yum cha stint – but if you’re going to impress people, it’s a great restaurant, hands down. Just keep one thing in mind: always order some dishes that catch your eye. i.e. you won’t find elsewhere.
Is it two hat-worthy? I would not say so, but I know that’s my own bias, borne from my Chinese heritage coming in. But that said, no other Chinese restaurant is, either.
Ormeggio at The Spit (one visit)
Attending Gabriel Bonci’s pizza fiesta for the Sydney International Food Festival last year at Ormeggio was quite the experience. The location is awesome, the food decent. I haven’t been to Ormeggio “properly”, so I’m reserved on this one. But nevertheless, bravo to Alessandro Pavoni and his team for retaining two hats this year!
Rockpool Bar & Grill (four visits)
That wagyu beef burger alone is two-hatted for me.
Keep in mind one thing – the burger is only available at the bar area, while the rest of the restaurant (featuring their great steaks) is the “classy” part.
Tetsuya’s (one visit)
I wonder what Tetsuya’s was like back in its three hatted days. Much different? Or has the hype machine ground down on it too?
I enjoyed Tetsuya’s, but I felt like sacrilege when I absolutely had to criticise their confit ocean trout. That didn’t work for me as much as an ultra-famous dish should have. Everything else was great though, and my goodness, the location and the service. You feel very special dining at Tetsuya’s.
No visits: Buon Ricordo | Claude’s | Spice Temple | Pilu at Freshwater
One day guys…one day.
Ananas Bar & Brasserie (one visit)
Possibly the hottest thing going on at The Rocks/Argyle Exchange at the moment, reinvented French-focused Ananas brings very sharp cuisine to the table. While their pork belly was awesome, I liked their steamed vegetables as much (wow).
I only tried two dishes, but if they’re all that great, I guess it getting a hat seems like a good decision by GFG editors.
China Doll (one visit)
Another hatted Chinese restaurant? It can’t be…jokes, why not? China Doll isn’t exclusively Chinese though – elements of south-eastern Asian cuisine can be seen in its dishes. The result is a cacophony of flavours that stands out from your regular joint. That said, if you are just going for your usual spring roll fix, find another restaurant.
Flying Fish Restaurant & Bar (one visit)
Still one of the best seafood-centric restaurants out there. I think it should be two-hatted. Service was impeccable, location is pretty cool too (on the edge of a pier), and the food delicious. Need to visit it again soon.
Foveaux ran a few Groupon promotions in 2013, though I’m not quite sure why they had to. The restaurant’s food should be good enough to attract enough customers to fill its tables on a regular basis. While not every dish was to my taste, they were quite unique, and it all well done.
Glass Brasserie (two visits)
I still can’t get over that omelette. Have I had a better omelette? Can’t be sure, but the one at Glass is the one I mentally compare to every time I’m chowing down my next omelette.
I hear that they have an amazing breakfast buffet, classy to the max. What other breakfast buffet gives you an actual honeycomb to pick from? Need to go back for that.
Kepos St Kitchen (one visit)
My favourite new cafe of 2013, Kepos has everything – great service, a lovely little location (albeit one that’s very hard to get to with public transport – drive!), and food that’s not the same eggs benny that’s available at every other cafe out there. Who knew Middle Eastern cuisine would work so well in a cafe setting. I welcome you with open arms, and will definitely visit soon, despite the arduous trek to get there.
Ms.G’s (one visit)
Basically, look at the same things I said for Mr Wong, and change the name to Ms.G’s. Not even kidding – once again, hype machine, authenticity detractors, yadda yadda.
What’s more important is the food – and it is good. Again, not stuff you can commonly find. Worth more than one visit.
Pendolino (one visit)
I think Pendolino was one of my first forays into fine dining. At that time, I didn’t even know you could take humble Italian food (it was just pasta, to me) to such levels. My outlook is naturally very different now. Glad to hear that it’s still doing well – keeping its hat in these turbulent years. I wonder what I would think of it when I go back – now I have so many more experiences under my belt.
I should probably do it, just to see how subjective and variable (and thus, infinitely debatable) my tastes have changed since then!
Sake Restaurant & Bar (five visits)
I’ve been hearing people complaining that Sake’s level of service has degraded in recent times, so I should be thankful that I have not experienced this yet. My latest visit (not posted yet) involves their chef’s menu (err…their degustation basically), and I have to say, it was pretty disappointing.
Luckily, I know Sake well enough to know what I like – and when I pick what I like from Sake, I like it A LOT.
Popcorn shrimp, you’re in for another ride.
Sokyo (one visit)
A contender for my favourite restaurant for 2013, Sokyo is Japanese fusion done deliciously. The lamb chops “are to die for” – for the lack of a more cliche’d term. They also have chu-toro and possibly o-toro sushi, which is almost impossible to get. Keep in mind that you’ll be paying through the roof. But if, like me, you survive on Japanese food, it will be well worth it.
Tomislav (one visit)
A second contender for favourite restaurant! If its service improved somewhat, then its food easily takes it into two-hatted territory. Why not three? Well, the flavour hits do tend to get heavy after awhile, but this is only a minor niggle. Still so good, I’m willing to call it a fave. That’s good enough, isn’t it?
Ume Restaurant (one visit)
A great restaurant for a Valentine’s Day dinner, if I don’t say so myself. It’s a small, but cosy restaurant, nestled in Surry Hills (only a 30 second walk from Bourke St Bakery). The cuisine is Japanese, but with heavy Western influences – that wasabi lamb – amazing.
Xanthi (one visit)
Superb Greek which only seems to be catching on this year. Xanthi is all sorts of cool – whether you’re in for the Sheftalia or your staple souvlaki fix, Xanthi is not likely to disappoint.
[Update] Berowra Waters Inn (one visit)
I was absolutely floored by this little-known restaurant that recently got awarded one hatted status. The food is just sublime but importantly - clean and palatable. Each dish had something I liked, which is rare for a degustation. The exotic location and methods of getting there, plus the splendiferous views of the idylicc Berowra Waterfront make it the perfect dating – nay – proposal restaurant. Quay is sure to get a run for its money.
(no visits) Aki’s Indian Restaurant | The Apollo | Arras | Balla |The Bathers’ Pavilion |
Berowra Waters Inn | Billy Kwong | Bistro Moncur | Bistrode CBD | The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay | Bodega | Buzo Trattoria | Cafe Sopra | Catalina | Clareville Kiosk | The Devonshire | Gowings Bar & Grill | Hartsyard | Johan’s Restaurant | Monopole | Oscillate Wildly | Popolo | Porteno | Sean’s Panaroma | Sixpenny | Three Blue Ducks | Uccelo
Losers of 2013
I was a little disappointed that 4Fourteen lost its only hat – I liked it as much as I did Four In Hand. It was GOOT.
Additionally, Black by Ezard also lost its only hat. This was a move I was less surprised at, but perhaps now that they have removed their (very poorly balanced) degustation, it can improve again for those who know what they want?
Another restaurant that lost their one and only hat this year was Asian-influenced Bar H. I went on a Groupon, and if I had to base my opinions on that visit alone, I would have to say that the combination of pacing and portion sizes made for an experience that was definitely subpar. Thus, I’m not too surprised to learn about the loss of a hat. Luckily, the restaurant doesn’t have to do much to improve itself – simply pace the dishes more appropriately, and jack up the portion sizes.
Wow, there’s a lot of these places, aren’t there.
I hope that this post has been fun to scroll through the pictures. Or, if you’re planning your next special occasion and don’t want to pass up an opportunity to try out a coveted hatted restaurant, I hope this post has been of some use!
Agree, disagree? Sound off in the comments!