SYDNEY - Foodies who have travelled to Sydney will be familiar with restaurants such as Marque, Tetsuya and Nomad - all excellent restaurants worth visiting.
But there are new and exciting places to discover too, as I found out on a recent trip to the Australian city. Three restaurants especially stand out with their take on contemporary Australian cooking.
The menus offer a selection of Western dishes that feature ingredients such as scallop, salmon, duck, beef and lamb sourced domestically, part of a global trend of restaurants focusing on local produce.
Except that in Sydney, the source may be as local as the backyard of the restaurant, which is the case of the restaurants I visited.
A small patch of land, a cluster of flower pots or even a wheelbarrow filled with compost is fertile ground for growing healthy herbs and vegetables such as basil, oregano, parsley, dill, rucola or kale.
The proximity of these food sources translates to a freshness in the food that you have to go to Australia to appreciate. Which is why, for me, Australian food just tastes so much better when you are there.
The Potting Shed
The Potting Shed is a restaurant within a cluster of cafe, coffee roaster, bakery and shops called The Grounds of Alexandria that was converted from a warehouse/ industrial complex two years ago.
The largely alfresco dining area is filled with plants that make you feel like you are dining in a garden.
The image is reinforced by the motley garden furniture and menus held together by clips in the shape of tiny shovels.
The food looks like it is from a farmhouse kitchen, with rustic fare such as The Shed Platter (from A$22 or S$24 for two persons), comprising cured meats and cheeses with fruit and marinated vegetables.
The Buttermilk Popcorn Chicken (A$12) is good, especially if you pair it with a salad of Roasted Baby Beets (A$19), where watercress, radicchio, hazelnuts and pickled golden shallots are tossed with apple balsamic.
The Kurobuta Pork Belly Sliders (A$16) pack a punch with the shredded meat mixed with kimchi and red-eye mayo, and stuffed in a charcoal brioche.
Where: The Grounds of Alexandria, Building 7A, 2 Huntley Street, Alexandria NSW 2015,
Open: 11.30am to midnight daily
Chiswick Restaurant, located in Chiswick Gardens in the upscale Woollahra suburb, has a big open kitchen next to a bar. The dining room is in an adjacent area with floor-to-ceiling windows that let in plenty of light during the day.
The windows also look out onto a pristine lawn and a kitchen garden in the back where a lot of the herbs and vegetables used in the dishes are grown.
I was there for dinner on a rainy evening, however, so all these could not be appreciated.
The focus, then, fell on the food that appeared on the plates, and it was excellent.
The menu is big for a Western restaurant, with sections for Nibbles, Small Plates, Mains, To Share, Sides and Desserts.
There is also a Collective Menu at A$75 a person comprising a four-course menu of the restaurant's popular dishes such as wood-roasted lamb and whole roasted chicken meant to be shared among a table of six people or more.
My favourite dish, Crispy Fried Quail (A$22), is found only in the a la carte menu.
Marinated with lime, shallot and ginger, it is perfectly deep-fried with its crispy and fragrant skin enveloping steaming, moist meat.
The ginger lends it a Cantonese flavour that resonates with me.
The Roast Pork Belly (A$33) is also expertly cooked, with its crispy crackling and fork-tender meat.
Here, aromatic shallot oil gives the flavours a refreshing lift, while a bed of toasted barley takes the greasiness down a notch.
If you're feeling peckish, get the Prawn Popcorn (A$14) while waiting for the main dishes to arrive.
The battered and deep-fried pieces of prawn are sweet and succulent, and delicious with a chipotle mayonnaise dip.
Where: 65 Ocean Street, Woollahra, NSW 2025
Open: Noon to 2.30pm (Monday to Thursday), noon to 3pm (Friday to Sunday), 6 to 10pm (Monday to Thursday), 5.30 to 10pm (Friday and Saturday), 6 to 9pm (Sunday)
Info: Go to www.chiswickrestaurant. com.au or e-mail reservations@chiswick restaurant.com.au
Three Blue Ducks
Located on a small street just a short walk from the popular Bronte Beach, this is a funky restaurant with colourful wall murals covering one wall of the dining room and wood panels covering another.
The food comes out of a tiny open kitchen in a smaller room separated by an open corridor. We were there for breakfast and it was good and hearty.
I ordered the Flaked House Smoked Salmon (A$22) and it was a huge plate with the fish hidden under pieces of toast and two poached eggs sprinkled liberally with dukkah.
Underneath was a lush bed of fried kale and labneh chilli (a spicy yogurt). It was one of the best breakfasts I have had in a long time, and a pretty healthy one too.
The Scrambled Eggs With Black Sausage (A$22) was tasty enough to overcome my dislike for black sausage. It came with a dill cucumber yogurt salad and red currant jam.
I will have to return for lunch, which includes promising dishes such as Steamed Mussels With Herb, Coconut Sambal And Chili Toast (A$28) and Coffee And Cumin Brisket (A$29).
The intimate dining room does not prepare you for the restaurant's spacious backyard. Follow a sign that says "Chickens, Bees and Bathrooms... this way" and you find yourself in a backyard garden with neat vegetable beds and herbs growing out of pots and wheelbarrows. There are even a few banana trees.
And yes, chickens.
Where: 141-143 Macpherson Street, Bronte NSW 2024
Open: 7 to 11.30am daily, noon to 2.30pm (Monday to Friday), noon to 3pm (Saturday and Sunday), 6 to 11pm (Wednesday to Saturday)
The Southern Highlands, located about two hours by car south-west of Sydney, is a charming rural area ideal for a short trip away from the city.
It is made up of small towns and villages linked by country roads with little traffic. Quaint shops selling local produce such as organic jams and honey line the main streets of the villages and towns.
There are excellent restaurants too, serving produce grown in the backyards or from farms in the region - sometimes brought "in a basket by the woman down the road", as one restaurant staff puts it.
A great way to see the region is to go on the Highland Trike Tours (www.highlandtriketours.com.au, from A$60 or S$66 a person for a 90-minute tour to A$290 for a five-hour tour). The trike is an odd-looking three-seater motorbike that allows you unimpeded views of the scenery.
Driver John Ford takes you to spots with the best views of the rolling hills and through various towns, including Bowral, where Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (1899-1996) lived from 1907 to 1917.
A whimsical statue of Mary Poppins from the 1964 film starring Julie Andrews can be seen in the town field.
Bendooley Bar & Grill
This is one of the most interesting restaurants I've dined in on the trip as the dining room is smack in the middle of a bookshop. It is a busy restaurant too, with a fireplace that is very welcoming on a cold day. The table beside the fire is, however, uncomfortably warm, so avoid it if possible.
While waiting for the food to arrive, you can browse the bookshelves, which are filled with a mix of new and antique books.
The bookshop, called Book Barn, is the home of the Berkelouw Book business which started in 1812. It sells anything from the latest bestseller by Haruki Murakami to old, leather-bound books written by former British prime minister Winston Churchill.
There is also a Cellar Door in an adjacent room where you can have a glass of wine from the restaurant's own vineyard, which has more than 3,500 vines planted in the 80ha Benndooley estate.
It also offers wine tastings and the Pinot Gris 2012 (A$24 a bottle), with its nose of green pear, citrus and honey, is easy to like.
The menu has a large section of wood- fire pizzas with interesting toppings such as blue cheese with apple, grapes, truffled honey, ground pine nuts and wild rocket (A$23). But I opted for the a la carte dishes, which were very impressive.
The Wood Roasted Harvey Bay Scallops (A$22) were expertly cooked. The scallops were evenly tender and sweet.
Served on the half shell with celeriac puree and chive oil, they were topped with avruga caviar - an exquisitely smooth blend of complementing flavours. A small side of pickled cucumber and red radish completed the dish.
The Roasted Pumpkin Tart (A$23) had a mealy texture but the dish was saved by the wild mushroom, pecorino and watercress salad heaped on top of the tart.
The mushrooms, which were plump and succulent, were especially good.
My main course, a 450g Dry Aged Ribeye on the bone (A$42, left), was the best beef I ate on this trip. Streaks of fat moistened the tender meat, which came from a nearby area called Cootamundra. It was very good value too, for such a big piece of steak.
The Confit Of Thirlmere Duck Maryland With Lentil Ragu, Braised Pork Belly And Vin Santo Prunes (A$34) would please meat lovers who like variety, as it was really two dishes in one. And both were good too, with the pork a bit more tender than the duck.
Where: 3020 Old Hume Highway, Berrima NSW 2577
Open: Noon to 2.30pm (Monday to Friday), 11.30am to 3pm (Saturday and Sunday)
This sprawling modern restaurant comprises a main dining room facing an open kitchen, a more casual room where brunch is served on weekends and a relaxing alfresco area with a fireplace.
At the back is a large kitchen garden filled with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees.
Biota Dining received two hats this year from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide, which is the Australian equivalent of the Michelin Guide. But we were there for brunch and did not get to try its award-winning set menus for lunch and dinner.
The brunch menu is pretty small and basic with an emphasis on fresh produce.
The House Smoked Trout - Avocado - Labneh - Grilled Sourdough (A$18) was simply an assembly of the ingredients but looked very pretty nonetheless and tasted good too.
So was the Creamed Hen Eggs - Serrano - Sourdough - Wild Fennel (A$18). And the cappuccino was excellent.
But I will certainly want to go back for interesting dishes such as Pasture Fed Beef - Molasses - Native Berries and Goats Milk Sandwich - Riverbed Sorrel from its lunch and dinner set menus priced from A$75 a person for three courses to A$135 for seven courses.
Where: 18 Kangaloon Road, Bowral NSW 2576
Tel: +61-2-4862-2005 Open: Noon to 10pm (Monday and Friday), 6 to 10pm (Tuesday and Wednesday), 5 to 10pm (Thursday), 9am to 10pm (Saturday and Sunday)
Info: Go to www.biotadining.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
From the outside, Eschalot looks like a country stone house and is in fact a heritage building.
Inside, the various rooms of the old house have been turned into smart dining rooms with starched white table cloths and beautiful charcoal sketches on the walls drawn by our server Eliza Overduin, who is also an artist who has held exhibitions in Sydney.
The food is just as lovely, with elegant platings that look like works of art. The restaurant has a vegetable garden and sources what it does not grow itself from local producers as much as possible.
The Poached Flounder Fillet (A$22) was delicate, with the fish cooked lightly and served with pickled carrots and fennel and a beurre rouge sauce.
But the Foie Gras (A$38) was an even better albeit heavier starter, with the rich panfried duck liver served with a roast quail egg, radicchio and watercress dressing.
I picked my main course from the "Favourites" section - Thirlmere Duck - Confit Leg, Sous Vide Breast, Puy Lentils, Witlof & Sorrel (A$38). Thirlmere is a nearby town and the duck was tender. Parts of the breast tasted a tad strong but the confit was good.
Another good option was the Seared Venison Loin, Venison Pie, Beetroot & Chocolate (A$40), as the meat was not at all gamey or tough.
The sides were great too, especially the Eschalot Onion Rings (A$10), which were fried to a lovely golden hue and not a single ring was burnt. It was hard to stop stuffing my face with them.
Where: 24 Old Hume Highway, Berrima NSW 2577
Open: Lunch: Noon (Thursday to Sunday), dinner: from 6pm (Wednesday to Saturday)
This article was first published on November 9, 2014.
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