25 Oct 2022 | Michael Harry and Rushani Epa
Welcome to our Sydney issue of Food for Thought! With a few exciting projects on the go, our food publisher Michael Harry and commissioning editor Rushani Epa found themselves in Sydney ready to explore a long and delicious list of must-try restaurant recommendations. Needless to say, their Instagrams feeds were unbearable (in the most delicious ways) for a solid week there.
Read on to get a taste of Sydney's best hidden gems and hot places to try with Michael and Rushani.
Michael Harry (MH): Sean's
Amid a wave of newcomers, I was excited to try one of the great Sydney classics, Sean’s. An institution overlooking the waves of Bondi, it’s like visiting the home of a rich, eccentric uncle, if you had one. The slightly ramshackle style is warmly inviting and casually beautiful: a mismatch of seashells and intimate tables with cane chairs and stripy tablecloths, crammed picture frames and patterned wallpaper. Diners choose from a set menu, with three options for entrée, main, and dessert, but pretty much everyone is there for the rightly famous roast chicken. It’s a brilliantly brined, precisely carved, delightfully burnished bird with all the trimmings, and one of the best things I’ve eaten in ages.
Rushani Epa (RE): Baba's Place
What’s not to love about a warehouse in a nondescript street that houses one of the city’s most delicious restaurants? The owners describe Baba's Place as an exploration of “suburban cuisine and the 'Wog' experience as it relates to art and food” and it’s an amalgamation of its Macedonian, Greek and Lebanese owners. Head chef Jean-Paul El Tom spoiled us with the whole menu and every single dish hit the mark. A highlight was the tarama on toast – a thick, crisp toasted slice of shokupan topped with tarama, bottarga, praline and whey-fermented pickles. Top it off with rakija aka rocket fuel and live DJs and you’re good to go.
Lennox Hastie’s Basque-inspired tapas bar was the first stop on my tour. I love Hastie’s smouldering diner Firedoor (and his HG cookbook Finding Fire) and his newbie around the corner instantly landed two hats in Good Food and a chorus of buzz online. I had to see it for myself! It’s impossible to get a booking, but half the seats are reserved for spontaneous walk-ins so I managed to get a spot at the bar at 6pm one evening. The short menu is snacky, sleek, and Spanish, with single bite pintxos including the namesake Gilda (an addictive spear of anchovy, pepper and olive named after the 1946 Rita Hayworth film), plus elegant larger plates and an excellent wine list. It’s brand new, but feels like a stayer.
RE: Restaurant Hubert
It could have been the joy of squeezing pulpy confit garlic out of its shell directly onto a medium rare rib eye resting with thyme, or it could have been the live jazz with local crooners busting out toe-tapping sounds. Or perhaps it was the allure of the loud room lit up by candlelight, emulating an underground post-war Paris bistro. Whatever it was, I loved it.
Another new opening on my dance card was this flash joint at the top of the Ace Hotel (which readers may remember I was keen to visit in a previous issue of Food For Thought). The 19th-floor dining room has an expansive retractable roof, so I’d love to return on a balmy eve. On this night the weather was howling, and rain-splattered windows framed a soggy metropolis. Inside, it was rammed with fancy folk on dates and doing deals. Mitch Orr (formerly of the wonderful pasta-ish bar ACME) is turning out fashionably contemporary bites, including the must-order, slightly ridiculous, utterly delicious, Jatz cracker with smoked butter and anchovy. File this one under: HOT SPOT.
RE: Sang by Mabasa
If there’s a must-visit spot in Sydney, it’s family-run Sang by Mabasa. The little Korean hole-in-the-wall dished up heavy-hitting homestyle meals when we arrived for lunch on a Saturday. Poached octopus tentacles were sliced thin and paired with fresh yet punchy flavours like radish, chilli and coriander; kimchi jjigae arrived bubbling at the table with steaming white rice; plates of banchan catered to the individual burst with colour. To top it all off the venue is BYO so you can bring your favourite drop or try one of the Australian producers on their list.
MH: Happy Chef
I’ve seen this hole-in-the-wall counter in a food court in Chinatown name checked by many chefs over the years, and finally made a pilgrimage.Dozens of menu offerings were illuminated on the wall, but after some deliberation, I went for a classic soup with pork wontons and thick egg noodles. The dumplings swished around like goldfish among a nest of noodles in a deep bowl of clear, salty broth, and I spooned spicy condiments into the brew – chilli oil, chilli paste, fish sauce and whole chillies. Oh my. It was so, so good. And $13 dollars. In this economy!
RE: Xi’An Cuisine
I was fortunate enough for a friend to take me to this Sydney institution for lunch. I was also fortunate enough for them to order for us and for the delicious times that ensued. Sichuan-style, braised, thinly-sliced pigs ears, braised beef in spicy noodle soup, crisped up shreds of pork and cabbage on hot white rice, I could go on. It was a feast I won’t forget! By night the venue becomes a three-table haunt for hospo slinging BYO bottles. Next time I go I’m going to try the roujiamo (a Xi’An staple) too.
A friend who is also restaurant obsessed insisted I visit this offbeat gem while I was in town. “It’s a vibe,” she said, and was absolutely correct. The cosy wooden hideout above one of the coolest natural wine stores in the city, P&V, was just the place to be on a chilly Saturday afternoon. The service was incredible – relaxed but authoritative – and the French-ish bistro menu was generous and original. Stand out dish? Great hunks of hot crusty bread with salty butter and a pot of rich pork creton (like a rillette) with seasoned lentils. Earthy and savoury and a dreamy match for lashings of cold Muscadet. Long lunch ahoy.
RE: Kandy by Sir Lankan Bites
You can take the Lankan out of Sri Lanka but you can’t Sri Lanka out of the Lankan. If I hear about good Lankan food I’m there so I had to pay Kandy by Sir Lankan Bites a visit when I got the chance. The venue dishes up roast paan which is incredibly difficult to come by in Australia. Roast paan is a thick slab of bread that’s taken out of the oven then roasted or grilled to give it its name. The result is crispy bread with hardened edges that mops curries up beautifully. If you go here, order the roast paan with pol (coconut) sambol, dhal and beef curry. You won’t regret it.
Hardie Grant’s food and lifestyle publisher, Michael Harry, fell in love with great food while working as a waiter at London’s Hakkasan restaurant in the early ‘00s. He has been the editor of The Age Good Food Guide, lifestyle editor of Good Weekend magazine, and worked behind the scenes on Ready Steady Cook. He is always on the lookout for the perfect chicken sandwich, a dirty gin martini, or a really spicy ramen.
Rushani is the commissioning editor in food and lifestyle at Hardie Grant Books. Outside of her role at Hardie Grant she's also a journalist and editor who specialises in food and culture that has written for publications like Time Out Melbourne, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, SBS Food and Acclaim Magazine. She also runs Colournary, a digital and biannual print magazine that celebrates and amplifies the voices of First Nations, Black and People of Colour through the lens of food and culture.