Review: Spice I Am (Sydney, NSW)

90 Wentworth Avenue
Surry Hills NSW 2010
+61 2 9280 0928
http://www.spiceiam.com/spice-i-am-surry-hills

When it comes to the battle of which city serves up the best Thai food in Australia, I’m sorry but I have to say that Sydney definitely beats Melbourne. That’s not to say that Melbourne doesn’t have great Thai restaurants. Nope, in fact, Melbourne’s Thai restaurant scene has caught up in the last five years or so. But when it comes to variety, accessibility and heat factor, Sydney definitely wins. And Spice I Am is one of Sydney’s darlings of the Thai restaurant scene.

I’m not saying that it’s the best Thai restaurant in Sydney. I’m not even saying that it’s the cheapest or most authentic but it’s a solid all-rounder that rarely puts a foot wrong. Spice I Am has several outlets in Sydney but I tend to stick to the original one on Wentworth Street, which is on the city-Surry Hill border. They do a lunch special from Tuesdays to Fridays where they offer a limited menu at slightly cheaper prices so if curries, soup and stir-fry dishes are your thing, then I highly recommend going for lunch. FYI, it’s cash only so leave your cards neatly tucked in your wallet.

In the past, I never ordered spring rolls at restaurants – they’re easy to make at home and being a typical Asian tight ass, all I think about when I see spring rolls on the menu is ‘EEEEK THE MARK UP!’ For some reason, I’ve ordered the mini spring rolls at Spice I Am several times and they’re always delicious. The filling is delicious and filled with a reasonable amount of pork mince and best of all, they’re actually bigger than ‘mini-sized.’

Deep fried mini spring rolls (six for $9.50)

The last time I visited Spice I Am, I ordered the po taek soup; it is a mixed seafood soup gently flavoured with fresh Thai herbs, lemon juice and a burst of chilli. Add some mushrooms for a bit of earthiness and a bit of rice for carb-loading purposes and you have yourself a meal. I love this soup because it’s so comforting, delicious and very light – a great alternative to the omnipresent tom yum (though that’s also available here). Meanwhile, my dining partner Bean loves to go for the curries – this time he had the kang ka ree (yellow curry) with chicken. It’s a delicious curry that’s packed with potatoes and red onion, perfect to mop up with spoonfuls of rice.

Po taek ($14.50); chicken yellow curry ($12.50)

You won’t find boat noodles or papaya salads during lunch service at Spice I Am but you’ll still find something that you’ll like – and you’ll definitely come back wanting more.

Spice I Am Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review: Paramount Coffee Project (Sydney, NSW)

80 Commonwealth Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
+61 2 9211 1122

Paramount Coffee Project (PCP) has been on my Sydney list for quite some time. Although I’m not a fan of paying $18 for boring brunches (smashed avocados bore me and I don’t believe in paying for bircher muesli), I do like brunch places that push boundaries and come up with all sorts of outrageous dishes.

PCP is one of those places so I made sure that we got a chance to visit during my Sydney weekend trip with fellow Melburnians, Nee and Sam. Sam is also a coffee connoisseur so he, too, was keen to see if PCP’s rotating list of guest coffee roasters were able to pull in the goods. Given that PCP happens to be an alliance between Mark Dundon of Seven Seeds (Melbourne represent!) and Russell Beard of Reuben Hills, we knew we were in capable hands.

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Housed in Surry Hill’s Paramount House, PCP was surprisingly quiet for a 10AM Sunday morning session. I wasn’t sure whether it was because Sydneysiders don’t go crazy over brunch like Melburnians or whether 10 is considered too late for breakfast (I know it is on the Gold Coast where 7AM breakfast dates are the norm). Either way, we were happy to score a table facing the window.

As mentioned, PCP has an ever-changing list of guest coffee roasters so rarely would you expect to see the same beans over and over. That morning, the Shakiso blend by Reuben Hills made an appearance. Unfortunately, the brew’s berry and black tea notes meant that it didn’t mix well with milk so my latte wasn’t the best – my fault though, not theirs.

Elvis in Cuba ($19)
Elvis in Cuba ($19)

Sam was interested to see what PCP’s infamous ‘diabetes’ dish was like. But when the waiter told him exactly what was in it (‘jam cronut with peanut butter ice cream and dulce de leche, all drenched in espresso’), Sam was like, ‘yeah, nah.’ After all, I think he’d rather not shave 10 years off his life.

Instead, he chose the curiously named Elvis in Cuba, an equally heart attack-inducing combination of pork, kimchi, bacon, Kewpie mayo, Swiss cheese and onion rings that was half-Kong BBQ and half-Dan Hong. I’m not exactly sure how the ‘Cuba’ bit came into play but it was certainly an indulgent breakfast.

Smoked trout buckwheat porridge ($15)
Smoked trout buckwheat porridge ($15)

Nee went for a more refined but nevertheless still filling breakfast. The buckwheat was accompanied with a generous handful of smoked trout, kombu and quail egg, all tied neatly together with a lovely court-bouillon and micro herbs for prettiness. It was nourishing and delicious, something I’d happily eat at home during the cooler months – that is, if I knew how to make it.

Coca cola ox cheek waffle ($19)
Coca cola ox cheek waffle ($19)

I don’t drink cola but I do love waffles and ox cheek/tongue/most likely butt so I ordered the waffles topped with ox cheek braised in coca cola. It also came with a lovely horseradish mayo along with corn and tomato salsa and coriander to balance things out.

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I’m not one to normally eat such decadent things for breakfast but this was amazing. The soft drink tenderised the cheeks to the point where they easily fell apart with the slightest prod. I also loved the kick that that the horseradish mayo gave, preventing the dish from being too one-dimensionally sweet.

Caramel popcorn milkshake ($8)
Caramel popcorn milkshake ($8)

I’m a sucker for punishment so there was no way I could leave without trying the caramel popcorn milkshake for dessert – because, you know, short term pleasure for long term pain, right? Regardless, the milkshake was delicious – so thick, so creamy and full of lovely butteriness and nuttiness (yeah okay, I went there). It was beautiful but I was also glad that I had two others to help me finish it off.

PCP is now up there on my list of favourite Sydney cafés. Sure, there are still heaps more for me to try but in terms of great service, excellent coffees (notwithstanding that I was a chump for asking for a latte when I should have just gone short black) and delicious envelope-pushing food, they have it covered.

The Paramount Coffee Project on Urbanspoon

Review: Nomad (Sydney, NSW)

16 Foster Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
+61 2 9280 3395
http://restaurantnomad.com.au/

I always look forward to weekends in Sydney. They’re always filled with great company, lots of laughs and wonderful food – and in most cases, food that you can’t find in Melbourne. Melbourne might do coffee, mid-priced dining and understated steez better (sorry, it’s true) but when it comes to fine dining as well as the weird, the wonderful and the totally out there, Sydney is your go-to city.

Nomad in Surry Hills is one of those places; it has also been on my radar for quite some time. First, you have owners Rebecca Littlemore and Al Yazbek setting up a cellar door right in the middle of Sydney with a collection of good quality and underrepresented Australian wines. You then have Head Chef Nathan Stasi (ex-Rockpool and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal) who pickles, cures, smokes, ferments and dries everything he can get his hands on to whip up a Middle Eastern-influenced by Littlemore’s travels and Yazbek’s Lebanese heritage. Throw in a chic warehouse in a little Surry Hills street and BANG! Nomad is born.

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Julie and I had dinner at Nomad one Friday evening. It’s a beautiful place – thick warehouse chic, sexy mood lighting and timber furniture all over. It’s spacious, yet somewhat intimate at the same time.

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It may have only been 6:30PM when we rocked up but the place was pumping like a 90s rave party; it was packed and noisy. With strict instructions to leave by 8:30PM, we were immediately seated at the bar where we got full view of the open kitchen. (and by that, I really meant the cute guys working in the kitchen)

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I honestly can’t remember what wine I had but let’s face it, it was most likely a Riesling.

Woodfired sourdough with black salt butter ($2.50 per person)
Woodfired sourdough with black salt butter ($2.50 per person)

Having been to Nomad before, Julie knew what to order. Being from Melbourne, I’m not used to going to restaurants and not getting bread free of charge. So when I saw that there was a price tag attached to the sourdough with black salt butter, I immediately thought: ‘Yeah, nah, waste of carbs.’

Julie, however, insisted that the bread was worth ordering. Plus, what’s $2.50 per person? I’m glad I listened to her for the house made bread was lovely with just the slightly hint of smokiness. And who doesn’t like house-churned butter?

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Nomad is big on curing and smoking so it would have been silly not to try their charcuterie board.

Housemade Nomad charcuterie ($26)
Housemade Nomad charcuterie ($26)

The contents change regularly and I’ve been told that horse meat was presented on the board served a few times. Sadly, horse wasn’t on the menu that night (we asked) but we did get mortadella, chorizo, kangaroo salami and several pork bits (neck, belly and shoulder).

BBQ king prawns with pine nuts, brown butter and parmesan ($18)
BBQ king prawns with pine nuts, brown butter and parmesan ($18)

To me, $18 for two bloody prawns seemed as tight as a guy who insists on going halves on an inexpensive first date. (sorry, I’m old fashioned)

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However, they tasted phenomenal – I loved how the prawn’s sweet flesh went well with the nuttiness of the dressing and the sexy smokiness that permutated all the way through.

Wood roasted pork with charred cabbage, served with sweet potato and cheddar gratin ($38)
Wood roasted pork with charred cabbage, served with sweet potato and cheddar gratin ($38)

The wood roasted pork was another standout dish. The pork crackling was beautifully crunchy against the soft fatty meat. And although I’m not a HUGE fan of sweet potato, the gratin was the perfect accompaniment to the pork – strangely enough, the sweetness effortlessly broke through all the richness.

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We really couldn’t finish the gratin.

Pedro Ximenez Magnum with salted peanuts ($7 each)
Pedro Ximenez Magnum with salted peanuts ($7 each)

However, we could still squeeze in a bit of dessert. It was approaching 8PM so we were well within time to finish our meal before they shooed us away. We were eyeing the bunuelos (South American donuts) that were making the rounds throughout the dining room so naturally we asked the waiter for some.

Unfortunately, they ran out (WTF? At 8PM?) so we ended up ordering a Pedro Ximenez Magnum each instead. They were no donuts but they nonetheless made us satisfied. (chocolate, a hint of liqueur and super salty peanuts to top it off – what more could you want?)

We thoroughly enjoyed our meal at Nomad; the food was exciting and delicious without being too complicated and left us wanting to return for seconds (or in Julie’s case, thirds). I also liked that in a city where people like to show off, there was none of that here; everything was refined yet unpretentious. Although we had a time limit, we did not feel rushed for the service was very professional, yet relaxed. It was the perfect meal to what had been a busy week in Melbourne for me.

Next time, there better be horse and donuts though.

Nomad on Urbanspoon

Review: Chur Burger (Sydney, NSW)

48 Albion Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
+61 2 9212 3602
http://www.churburger.com.au/

As far as I know, Sydney doesn’t do burgers as well as Melbourne. We have a list of great places to grab a fantastic burger at a reason price that’s longer than the number of Brownlow votes Matthew Priddis pulled last night. Meanwhile, I’ve only had a good burger twice in Sydney: one at Mary’s in Newtown (post soon to come) and one at Chur Burger in Surry Hills.

Chur Burger is a bit of a Sydney success story. Started by former fine dining chef Warren Turnbull, the diner started off quietly as a drive-thru. These days, there are three branches in Sydney, including one in Manly, and one in Brisbane. And let’s face it, it probably won’t be long before Turnbull opens a Melbourne restaurant to compete with the dozens of already awesome burger joints around town.

But back to Sydney. This was the time when my Sydney network wasn’t as wide as it is now; subsequently, I found myself with no one to have dinner with on a Saturday evening. Earlier that afternoon, I had been casually playing on Tinder – it was the afternoon when I discovered the joys of Tinder trolling too – and matched with a nice, vanilla Asian guy who lived way out west. I wanted a dining companion and he wanted a companion for the evening (not that in way) so we agreed to meet up over burgers.

Although nothing evolved out of my meeting with Peter, we nonetheless had a lovely meal at Chur Burger. And even though it was 8PM on a Saturday night in Surry Hills, we only waited 15 minutes to get a table in the loud, boisterous dining room.

Fish burger: crumbed fish fillet, picked cucumber, lemon mayo, dill; chips ($5)
Fish burger: crumbed fish fillet, picked cucumber, lemon mayo, dill; chips ($5)

All burgers at Chur are $10, a steal given how delicious and generously sized they are. Peter went relatively healthy with the fish burger, which contained a massive slab of white fish. ‘Delicious’ and ‘yeah, pretty good’ were the words that came out of Peter’s mouth as he was eating it – and no, he wasn’t talking about me.

Beef burger: beef, pickle, cheese, tomato jam and Dijon mayonnaise
Beef burger: beef, pickle, cheese, tomato jam and Dijon mayonnaise

I played it safe with the beef burger. It was a fairly solid burger with all the ingredients ticking the boxes – the beef pattie was juicy and both the tomato jam and Dijon mayonnaise gave the package a lovely kick. I guess if I had to be picky, I’d say the bun was just average. Yeah, it’s brioche but it didn’t have that lovely Huxtaburger-like buttery texture we all know and love.

Chur Burger was great and all, but it would find it hard to compete with the Melbourne burger talent. I’ve been told that Chur was once super-fantastically-amazing but since it started multiplying, the quality control has been all over the place. Even the Brisbane restaurant was off to a shaky start but I’ll be the judge of that when I do get around to visiting at some point.

Chur Burger on Urbanspoon

Review: Riley Street Café & Wine (Sydney, NSW)

222 Riley Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
+61 2 8093 9807
http://www.rileystreetwine.com/

Surry Hills is one of my favourite suburbs in Sydney; I love the abundance of restaurants, cafés and wine bars and I love the buzz it generates as soon as the sun dips beneath the horizon. It also happens to be within easy walking distance from the city, making it one of the most convenient places to get to.

I woke up one morning in Darlinghurst and decided to go for a stroll to Surry Hills for a bite and a coffee before a day of talks and stuff at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. There are a hundred of apparently decent places to have breakfast in the area but somehow, I ended up at Riley Street Café & Wine.

Latte ($3.50 or $3.80, or something like that)
Latte ($3.50 or $3.80, or something like that)

The café made news two years ago when they decided to serve takeaway coffees for $2.50, something that’s totally unheard of. I don’t know if they still do it now though. Either way, I paid my $3.50-or-$3.80 for my latte which is market price – and it was okay; not enough body for my liking.

Egg and bacon roll ($14)
Egg and bacon roll ($14)

Riley’s egg and bacon roll is supposedly what they do best. Here, a gooey sunny-side egg and two slices of bacon were enveloped in a warm seeded roll along with some caramelised onion, rocket and salsa verde. There was also the option to add provolone cheese for $2 which would have been sweet but at the time of ordering, I thought it was too much so I didn’t.

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Look, the roll (which was more of a sandwich, really) was not bad. It filled me up and everything but was it worth $14? Probably not. The bread was lovely and nutty but perhaps a bit too hard – and that pretty much ruined it. Everything else was fine though.

Given that there are places to enjoy a nice(r) coffee and breakfast in Surry Hills, I probably wouldn’t go here again. For a $2.50 takeaway coffee if they still had it though? Maybe…

Riley Street Café & Wine on Urbanspoon

Review: Gelato Messina Surry Hills (Sydney NSW)

389 Crown Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
+61 2 8354 1223
http://www.gelatomessina.com/

It’s Saturday afternoon in Melbourne and it’s a balmy 21 degrees (!) as we speak. We haven’t quite hit spring just yet but hey, I’ll happily take this weather! Warmer weather also means an excuse to eat more ice cream – and lots of it.

We Aussies might be a long way from Rome but we’re nonetheless blessed to have such wonderful ice creameries and gelati stalls to satisfy our demanding foodie tastebuds. Places like Spring Street Grocer in Melbourne have boldly pushed flavour boundaries with flavours such as fior de latte gelati while Gelato Messina have been doing the same in Sydney.

My first encounter with the famous gelati franchise was at The Star in Pyrmont one year. I saw people lining up for gelati, but for some reason assumed it was one of those dime-a-dozen Trampoline joints and thought nothing of it. It was only when Marty and I happened to be in Surry Hills one morning for a spot of shopping and market browsing one afternoon. We then happened to see a Gelato Messina store across the road so we decided to give it a go –okay not really, I deftly guided us to that general direction and did the whole ‘Oh look! What do we have here! Why don’t we try it out since it’s just across the road!’

There was a sizeable crowd when I entered the store. Despite the crazy amount of customers in the store, the service was pretty quick. Pushing aside my claustrophobia, I finally made my way through the front and ordered two cups of gelati.

Cup 1: Holy Goat; and Cup 2: Mr Potato Head and blood orange sorbet
Cup 1: Holy Goat; and Cup 2: Mr Potato Head and blood orange sorbet

I can’t remember how much I paid for each cup, but I don’t remember them being overly expensive. They were well-sized though, thus representing excellent value for money. Marty went for one of the special flavours on offer that day, the Holy Goat. It was a creamy goats cheese gelato punctuated by sticky fig and walnut brownie pieces and we loved it.

I ordered two flavours because I’m greedy like that. I went for one of their staple flavours, a very refreshing blood orange sorbet, and one of their special ones called Mr Potato Head.

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I dare say that the Potato Head was one of the most innovative – and one of the best – gelato flavours I’ve ever had. It was essentially a peanut butter gelato with white chocolate-coated crinkle cut potato chip pieces in it. Because a huge fan of peanut butter and being crazy in love with potato chips, this flavour screamed out my name in big, bold letters. What I really loved about the Potato Head was that it was an ice cream designed for savoury fans, but the white chocolate still made it sweet enough to call it a dessert.

If I had my way, I would have happily sampled 10 more of their flavours but unfortunately, common sense prevailed and we left the store as soon as we were finished. Messina definitely deserves its spot as one of Sydney’s best gelati spots, if not THE best. We were simply impressed by its wide range of unusual flavours – and their perfect execution of them. And here’s the best bit about this post: Messina will be opening a store in Melbourne later this year.

Gelato Messina Surry Hills on Urbanspoon

Reuben Hills (Sydney, NSW)

61 Albion Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
+61 2 9211 5556
www.reubenhills.com.au

I’m finally wrapping up my American-slash-Mexican series with a review of Sydney’s Reuben Hills, the first place I ate at when I was in Sydney earlier this winter. Like Melbourne, Sydney is also big on the American food craze at the moment but if Marty’s and my meal at Reuben Hills was anything to go by, I think Sydney does it slightly better than us. Slightly.

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Reuben Hills serve a quasi-Reuben sandwich, they also happen to be located in Surry Hills. That probably explains the name. Upon landing at SYD (but not without delays due to tarmac chaos at MEL earlier that morning – that’ll teach me to book a flight on the fifth busiest route in the world during the morning peak!), we were craving a solid meal – but nothing that would spoil dinner for us. So sandwiches, it was!

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Reuben Hills takes its design cues from Melbourne – think converted warehouse with retro kitsch artefacts and furniture all over, and lots and lots of hipsters. Reuben Hills may have been packed with students and Surry Hill’s creative types, but we were fortunate enough to find two empty seats on a communal table by the back garage door.

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Reuben Hills is all about comfort foods such as sandwiches, fried chicken and tacos. They all sounded pretty good, though I did think that they went OTT with the descriptions. For example, they wrote ‘that shit cray’ next to the affogato and described their cold pour-over coffee as ‘really fucking refreshing.’ They also claimed to serve ‘really fucking great fried chicken.’ ‘Pffft, what tryhards!’ I thought when I read the menu. However, their tactics must have worked for we ended up ordering two of the three aforementioned items.

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I loved how the water comes in retro drink bottles and served in cute colourful cups.

Finca Alcatraz Wilfredo cold pour-over coffee ($5)
Finca Alcatraz Wilfredo cold pour-over coffee ($5)

This is Marty’s cold pour-over coffee. Having enjoyed a similar style of coffee in Cairns last year, he decided to see if Reuben Hills’ version fared better – it did. It had a more intense flavour, with orange and cocoa notes complimenting each other.

Latte ($4)
Latte ($4)

I decided to be boring by ordering a latte. At $4, the coffee definitely isn’t cheap but it was delicious and, dare I say it, on par with Melbourne’s best.

The NOT Reuben sandwich ($16)
The NOT Reuben sandwich ($16)

Marty had the NOT Reuben sandwich – and by that, we mean Reuben Hills’ rendition of America’s famous corned beef, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese sandwich. With the rye bread being the only constant, this beauty was filled with wagyu salt brisket, pickled slaw, manchego and horseradish cream.

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It was a lovely sandwich (or in Marty’s words, ‘it was alright’); I especially loved how the piquant slaw and horseradish cream contrasted beautifully against the fatty slices of brisket. I guess the only thing I’d criticise would be its size – Marty wolfed it down in a matter of minutes.

Really fucking great fried chicken with chilli in a basket ($16)
Really fucking great fried chicken with chilli in a basket ($16)

I had the fried chicken because who can say ‘no’ to fried chicken?! I’d have to say that my dish stole the limelight from Marty’s fake Reuben sandwich. The boneless pieces of chicken were tender and we both fell in love with the seasoning – think KFC’s Original Recipe chicken with fresh herbs and a kick of spice. They especially went well with the two dipping sauces, both of which were excellent (chill mayonnaise and herb & chilli salsa).

I let Marty eat the two chillies, which he loved because it had been cured in vinegar. I also liked that a piece of fresh tortilla served as an edible paper towel to mop up what little grease dripped from the chicken. I don’t like to openly swear a lot but it really was fucking great fried chicken.

Our original plan was to just leave after finishing our food, but we couldn’t say no to some sugar. Reuben Hills has an impressive range of milkshakes including salted caramel and lychee, coconut & lime. On any other day, I would have happily ordered the second option but we had an ice cream sandwich to devour…

Root beer float with vanilla bean ice cream ($8.50)
Root beer float with vanilla bean ice cream ($8.50)

Marty decided to get a root beer float. For some reason, he expected something ‘really fancy’ (or in RH terms, ‘fucking absolutely awesome’ I guess) so he was a bit disappointed to be given a shake cup with instructions to ‘pour the root beer in.’

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The drink itself wasn’t terrible but after our amazing meal, I guess we were expecting a bit more. Still, we gave props to the lovely vanilla bean ice cream which looked lovely with its vanilla bean freckles all over.

Doggs breakfast aka ice cream sandwich with salted caramel ($9)
Doggs breakfast aka ice cream sandwich with salted caramel ($9)

I have no idea why this is called the Doggs breakfast but if breakfast tasted this good, I’d actually eat ice cream sandwiches more often. The sandwich itself reminded of those Peter’s Ice Cream Monaco bars that used to be popular when I was young. I loved the chewy biscuit as much as I loved the sticky salted caramel sauce that accompanied the little package.

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Oooh yeah.

I haven’t been to many ‘fucking great’ cafés in Sydney, let alone one that made a beautiful latte (any recommendations would be appreciated though). However, Reuben Hills proved that you can get a more than half decent latte – as long as you’re prepared to pay $4 for it. We both loved Reuben Hills so much that we planned to come again before we flew home – except we never did for we got too carried away with ramen and banh mi.

For now, this caterpillar says goodbye to American food and a BIG hello to Sydney. Yep, that’s right, for the next few weeks or so, I’ll be covering a list of Sydney eateries. Stay tuned for a Game of Thrones-themed dinner, one of the best udon dishes I’ve ever had and lots and lots of ramen.

Reuben Hills on Urbanspoon

Marque (Sydney, NSW)

4/5 355 Crown Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
+61 2 9332 2225
www.marquerestaurant.com.au

Our epic meal at the world’s number 61 restaurant almost did not happen.

Marty and I had a booking at Marque for the Friday night but due to plane issues, we had to cancel our booking. Of course, we were annoyed because we (well, okay, more like I) had been looking forward to this dinner for months so we were pretty devo not to be able to attend. Thankfully, God was on my side for not only did the dude on the other line seemed cool with the very last minute cancellation, he also told me that a couple had rang up literally 10 minutes earlier to cancel their booking for the following night and whether we’d like to take their table?

Uh, yes please!

The problem was we actually had a booking at the new Red Lantern restaurant on Riley Street that following night. And while we were looking forward to eating ‘reinvented Vietnamese food,’ we were more excited about being able to dine at Marque. So our booking at Red Lantern was cancelled – sorry Luke Nguyen. Next time, next time…

After sleeping off all that walking and eating (Surry Hills to CBD to Pyrmont to CBD), we walked again to Surry Hills. Surry Hills in Sydney is actually relatively hilly, which is more than I could say for Melbourne’s Surrey Hills. Thus, by the time we arrived for our 8pm booking, we were starving. What? No a la carte options on Saturday nights? Eight course degustation only? Bring it on!

It was a full house in this tiny dining room that can only seat 50. The setting may have been intimate, but we were also able to hear each other without having to yell thanks to some awesome acoustics. Not so great was the mood lighting which prevented us from being able to properly look at our food and forcing me to ramp up my ISO to 10 billion. Oh and in case you’re wondering, this photo was taken towards the end of our meal when all the diners had left, haha.

For those of you working in marketing, you will know that the word ‘marque’ is a fancy word for ‘brand.’ Very fitting, given that Marque’s head chef and owner, Mark Best, has somehow created a brand for himself; that is, a brand that represents innovative, well-crafted and sometimes daring mod-Oz cuisine with a French twist. It also occurred to me that the restaurant’s name might also be a play on Mark Best’s first name – remember when people in the late 90s used to go around saying that they shopped at Tar-jay?

The cynic in me also thinks that the Marque brand exudes a dash of authoritarianism. I, for one, would not like to be told that bread should be enjoyed without bread plates and that Marque’s food should be accompanied by water from a ‘chilled, filtered and carbonated water system’ – oh, here’s a charge of $5 per head for the water. Yes, I’m aware that filtered water makes food taste better and yes, I can understand why Best thinks that bread plates are a burden. However, we’re paying customers and frankly, we should be allowed to choose whether we’d like to adhere to his instructions or not. Mark, you may know best but you make yourself look like a bossy twat by doing this.

Thankfully, none of the waiters we encountered were douches. Marty and I were impressed by the way head sommelier Nicolas André and his team conducted themselves, with efficiency and lots of energy. We were especially lucky to have such a lovely sommelier who clearly knew his stuff. Unfortunately, we forgot his name but he’s the guy who has a ponytail and looks like Julian Sands in the 80s movie Warlock.

In addition to the chilled, filtered and carbonated water, we selected some alcohol. I had a glass of 2009 Heymann Lowenstein ‘Schieferterrassen’ Riesling from Mosel (I thought the $26 mark-up was ridiculous, though) while Marty enjoyed a drop of Springbank 18 year-old whisky ($25). We enjoyed them with our homemade organic sourdough bread (rye caraway and white bread options were available, both of which were sampled during the dinner).

The eight-course degustation is $160 per head, with the option to have matching wines with each course for an extra $85. I normally stick to one glass of wine when I dine, so I said no while Marty eagerly accepted. This later proved to be a great arrangement as I was able to have just a sip of wine from each glass so I can see how it went with each dish.

As we waited for our food to arrived, we listened to Hole courtesy of the restaurant’s sound system. Marty liked that Marque played commercial music in the background (we heard Elton John and Coldplay too) as it made the restaurant a more relaxed place to dine at. I liked this juxtaposition as well as that of the modern chic restaurant standing among the row of old terrace houses along Crown Street.

A bonito with foie gras, potato and olive truffle formed our amuse bouche. I found it interesting that they worded the dish like that for it clearly looked like two large potato chips filled with bonito, foie fras and olive truffle rather than bonito being the central ingredient, with everything else as trimmings.

That said, it was a great opening to what would be an epic dinner. Marty said that this amuse bouche was almost tailor-made for me as I’m more than obsessed with potato chips. The potato slices were crisp and translucent and would have been great on their own, but the umami-packed filling made for an amuse bouche that I’d remember for a long time. I’ve actually never had fresh bonito before, but I decided that I liked it – it was like yellow fin tuna, but perhaps slightly brinier.

We weren’t given menus at all so naturally I was furiously typing all this down on my iPhone. The waiter saw me do this and assured me that I didn’t have to for he’ll give us a menu after dinner. I don’t know why they couldn’t do it prior to the dinner (is menu-giving AFTER a degustation meal a Sydney thing? Because the only other time this has ever happened to me was at Sepia) but anyway.

Our first course was a Marque signature dish, the almond jelly with blue swimmer crab, almond gazpacho, sweet corn and avruga. I had this dish at Pei Modern a few months back, so I was surprised to see Marque’s version quite unlike the simplified version I had at PM.

The cone is made up of almond jelly, so soft and puffy. When you break into it, you can see small lakes of almond gazpacho, sweet corn, fresh blue swimmer crab meat and a tiny blob of avruga. And to finish it off? Popcorn dust sprinkled all over. It was so creamy, so sexy and so, so delicious, especially with the delicious apple, pear and floral notes courtesy of the 2010 Stift Goettweig ‘Goettweiger Berg’ Gruner Veltliner.

Next, we had the Manjimup marron with Buddha hand, carrot and saltbush, accompanied by the Sicilian 2010 Marco de Bartolli ‘Pietranera’ Zibibbo. Referred to by Mary as the ‘rookie-looking carrot dish,’ we both thought it wasn’t particularly impressive. Marty said that it looked like something a William Angliss cooking student would whip up to impress his teachers, not something a world-renowned chef would cook. He also said the dehydrated carrots ‘tasted like the ones you find in Vegeta soup stock.’ I also thought that the whole thing just lacked depth and flavour, though I did like the way the bubbly and springy zibibbo brought out the marron’s sweet flavour.

Next, we can another Marque signature (or should that be trademarque?), the Dutch cream potatoes with bone marrow, sea urchin and coffee which also makes the menu at Pei Modern. It was essentially the same dish (no weird interpretations by way of dehydrated cream or anything), but it was much better than the one Dave and I enjoyed in Melbourne. This version was creamier and brinier thanks to the heavier presence of sea urchins. The coffee gave it a sharp kick, thus making it a necessary garnish rather than something that would just made us go ‘WAH COFFEE?! REALLY?!’

This dish was super-filling, as you can imagine. Thank goodness, then, for the 2009 Heymann Lowenstein ‘Schieferterrassen’ Riesling’s sweetness and acidity which effortlessly cut through the rich carb-y dish.

Next, we had the Murray cod with shallots, fish milk, pomelo and roe. We both thought the fish was amazing. It was so fresh that it could only have come from the Sydney Fish Market earlier that day. We both loved the contrasting textures so explicit on our plate; from the crispy deep fried fish skin to the succulent flesh and from the light bonito flakes to the creamy roe, we were pretty much treated to a string of ‘best of fish’ hits. The long bit of shallot stem provided piquancy while the accompanying 2010 Mac Forbes ‘Gruyere’ Chardonnay brought in subtle cooling herb notes from the Yarra Valley (Victoria represent, yo!).

We were now into the ‘mains’ territory. Our glass of 2010 Bénédicte & Stéphane Tissot ‘Singulier’ Trousseau accompanied our Rosewood squab with boudin noir, pickled corella pear and rhubarb, a celebration of all things woody, gamey and old world. Now, this dish proved to be the most challenging of the night, despite the wine attempting to mediate the dish with cherry and currant notes.

Martin is not usually squeamish when it comes to unusual food but if he is, well, he puts on a tough Bear Grylls-like bravado when confronted by something like this so I can’t tell. Nevertheless, his weakness has always been bloods and liver. As much as he wanted to love the black blood sausage, his body just couldn’t handle the metallic taste of it – not even when eaten with the juicy squab breast, the pear and finally, the chocolate sauce that was meant to tie the whole thing together.

Seeing a bird’s head like this on a plate would scare anyone, let alone purveyors of fine dining. However, this head actually easier for Marty than the boudin noir. In true Bear Grylls form, he sucked out the eyeball and urged me to do the same thing too. As disgusting as that may sound, it actually tasted quite nice and tender.

Our final main was the Mandagery Creek venison with beetroot, liquorice, blackcurrant and nameko. At first glance, the dish just looked like black blobs on a palette. ‘Oww dear,’ we thought, ‘Another rookie-try-hard-looking dish?’ Well, sort of. The blobs you see are actually bits of tender and juicy venison covered in smoky liquorice dust. Marty reckoned that the whole thing made him conjure up images of what a Dickensian period chimney sweeper would have had for lunch while he was at work.

In a way, I did agree with him. While I thought the use of liquorice powder like this was interesting, it was a bit overdone as the smokiness almost overpowered the beautiful venison meat lurking underneath. A more subtle approach would have suited the dish, in my opinion. After all, that’s what makes Marty’s grandpa’s homemade beef jerky taste so good. That said, the 2009 Friends of Punch Syrah did draw out some of the flavour from the venison and made the dish taste that much better.

An optional cheese course was available for $14 per head. We were going to decline it but upon hearing its description – Pecorino Toscano Gran Riserva with parmesan gnocchi, pear, vanilla and artichoke – we found it hard to say ‘no.’ The parmesan gnocchi pieces were amazing. They were so soft and pillow-y that I almost wished that they featured in a main course somehow. If only La Porchetta made gnocchi like this! The main cheese, however, was the sharp pecorino Toscano Gran Riserva which collected on the plate like rain drops and married well with the dried pears and vanilla. As for the wine accompaniment? A 2006 Alvear ‘Findo en Rama’ Pedro Ximénes; one for Marty and one for me.

Our first dessert was the Jerusalem artichoke with chestnut, cynar and rye, featuring ‘artichokes that don’t come from Jerusalem’ said the genius waiter. Accompanied by a glass of 2010 Small Acres Cyder ‘Pomana Lee’ from Orange in NSW, it was a beautiful dessert. To be honest, we would not have given it a second thought if we saw it written on a menu (the name just didn’t excite us). However, it was a beautifully balanced dessert.

The dessert struck a perfect balance between nuttiness, earthiness and creaminess accentuated by the crunchiness of the rye that brought us back to reality after each bite. There was also a lingering caramel note thrown in there too. For a ‘first dessert’ though, I will admit that it was pretty heavy but thankfully, the beautifully crisp and tangy cider (why the hell called it a ‘cyder’?!) broke the dish up a bit.

The drink that was to accompany our final course was not a wine. Instead, the sommelier thought it would be more fun to show off his Tom Cruise cocktail-making skills in front of us. The result was a ‘Gentiane Sour’ to accompany our lemon and white chocolate-based dessert.

It wasn’t the most awesome cocktail we’ve ever had but because we both love sours, we eagerly welcomed the simple gentiane and lemon mix.

Our charred lemon with white chocolate and tarragon looked pretty damn amazing. Compared to our Jerusalem artichoke dessert, this one was pretty light with the white chocolate half-shell thing being the only relatively heavy ingredient on the plate. I loved the very intense lemon sorbet while a bit of tarragon lent a nice herb-y touch to everything. It was a beautiful dessert to finish the night off with.

Okay, we weren’t quite finished. To say ‘thank you’ the waiter gave us sauternes custard, which was presented in an eggshell. A quick dip of the spoon led us to luscious blobs of caramel-coated custard, making it the perfect ending to a perfect night ‘because Libby’s an egg’ … or so Marty thinks, pfft.

For some reason, we thought coffee was included as part of the degustation meal so when the waiter asked us if we wanted coffee, we said ‘yes.’ We figured that if we were going to run amuck around Sydney all night*, we were going to need lots and lots of caffeine. Marty ended up with a latte with a shot of goodness knows what (and I can’t text him to double-check because he’s running amuck in Broadbeach as we speak and won’t be able to give me a coherent answer) which was ‘okay.’ Now, I know that Sydney restaurants make terrible coffee but we did expect something better for $18 (so, $6 for the coffee and $12 for whatever shot of alcohol they put it in).

Yes, they did end up changing us for coffee. Now, I was more than slightly annoyed at this stage for having to fork out extra money for crappy coffee. Okay, so maybe it was our fault for not asking if the coffees were included in the degustation. However, we’ve dined at way too many restaurants to work under the assumption that more often than not (and by that, I mean on every. single. occasion.), coffee is included. It also didn’t help that we weren’t able to see the menu prior to the dinner; speaking of which, what’s the deal with that? And ohmygoodness, don’t get me STARTED on the whole bullshit water thing! *breathes in and out*

In the end, I got a peppermint tea instead because I am hardcore like that. It still cost me $6 though. D’oh.

So what did I think of Marque? I think despite the water and coffee issues, our dinner did leave a marque on us. Sure, it would have been nice to be informed about the coffee but I’ve decided to treat it as a lesson for next time (i.e. to ask if it’s included if it’s being offered post-meal). Apart from that, the service was what you’d expect at a three-hatted restaurant and more.

Of the dishes we had that night, the ones that were done particularly well were of OMGLIKEWOAH standard. Meanwhile, the dishes that we didn’t like as much weren’t so much terrible, they reminded me of a dish ‘in progress’ – in other words, they were not quite there yet it was like the kitchen decided to serve them to us anyway. That said, we would definitely go there again and hope that with the normal seasonal changes, the amazing dishes remain on the menu while the try-hard ones make way for new ones.

*Of course we didn’t; we just went to bed.

Marque on Urbanspoon

Bourke Street Bakery (Sydney, NSW)

633 Bourke Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
+61 2 9699 1011
bourkestreetbakery.com.au

After a spot of morning shopping in Surry Hills, we decided that to take a breather by treating ourselves to some pastries at Bourke Street Bakery, which quite a few of my friends and readers have recommended.

A few years ago, co-owners and pastry extraordinaires Paul Allam and David McGuiness opened up the tiny corner bakery and since then, it has become somewhat of a Sydney institution. The duo have also done well to publish a cookbook and expand to open up several other stores around Sydney. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before a Melbourne bakery opens up – and it doesn’t even have to be on Bourke Street in Melbourne’s CBD. Fat chance of that happening, though.


Although this place is barely a decade old, it somehow exudes old world charm in large doses. From the cursive iron ‘boulangerie’ sign above the door to neat little rows of pastries by the windows, it’s hard to believe that you’re actually in flamboyant Sydney and not Paris.

The bakery’s name may be written in neat gold cursive across the window, but the best way to tell that you’re actually in the right place is by spotting the never-ending queue of hungry customers wanting their pastry fix. Despite the crowds, however, you rarely have to wait too long to get served and in a matter of minutes, you’re at the front of the counter not really knowing what to order as THERE. ARE. SO. MANY. YUMMY. FINGSSSSS. Luckily, the patient cashier was on help to assist me with choices and I ended up leaving with a good selection of both sweet and savoury pastries which Marty and I got to enjoy on one of the few tables outside the bakery.

Allam and McGuiness probably won’t win any branding or marketing awards if their not-so-creative business name is anything to go by, however, their pastries are so out-of-this-world amaze-balls. We started off with an apple galette ($5). The pastry was perfectly crispy and buttery, while the tart apple filling had the perfect level of sweetness (i.e. not too sweet).

Next, we had a ham and cheese croissant ($5). I was disappointed to see it as flat as a deflated beach ball, but its taste made up for it tenfold. The croissant was so oh buttery and crispy with the ham and cheese, obviously of good quality, being a perfect second fiddle. Marty isn’t normally a croissant eater but even he had to admit that this one was ‘delicious.’

We both declared the pork and fennel sausage roll ($4.50) our favourite. Like, WOW. It was a fancy twist on the Australian canteen classic and while Marty normally rolls his eyes at ‘reinventions,’ even he had to concede that this was the star of the BSB show – and we’re not talking about Nick Carter from a certain boy band with the same acronym, here.

The pastry may have erred on the slightly oily side but all was forgiven when I bit into the buttery and very flaky pastry and tasted pork and fennel and cumin and coriander and all manners of wonderfulness (I know that’s not a word but whatever). It was the best sausage roll we’ve had. The good news? A recipe can easily be found online so I can attempt to replicate this at home when I can be bothered.

Next, we had the crème brûlée tart (back, $5) and the lemon curd tart (front, $4.80).

At this point, Marty was saying that he had just about ODed on sugar which I thought was funny coming from someone who eats four Bueno chocolate bars in a matter of hours. Still, he put up no fight when I asked him to bite into the crème brûlée tart. It was amazing and actually tasted better than a normal crème brûlée for some reason! We both loved the sturdy top layer which gave way to an ultra-creamy filling. It was sweet all over, with strong hints of custard and slightly burnt caramel flavours shining through, making this a delight to eat.

On the other end of the spectrum, the lemon curd tart was as tangy as the crème brûlée tart was sweet. Marty does not normally go out of his way to order lemon tarts (‘because Libby is one already, bwah!’) but he enjoyed this – and so did I. The filling was perfect; equal parts tangy and creamy, it was beautifully offset by a flawless shortcrust base. Delicious.

Marty then wanted something sweet to drink so I got him a large Belgian hot chocolate ($4.50). There aren’t many places, let alone bakeries, that make their own chocolate milk so we were sufficiently impressed when we found out that chocolate milk is made from scratch here and served either cold (bottled, and straight from the fridge) or hot (obviously served in a mug). Given the amount of food we ordered, Marty, in hindsight, thought the hot chocolate was overkill as it was pretty rich. Having said that, we both agreed that it wasn’t sweet compared to hot chocolates served at other places (cough cough Max Brenner) and that it was slightly malty, which was a nice touch. Marty also said that it tasted more ‘organic’ than the drinks MB also serve.

If we had our way, we probably would have stayed at BSB all day. We would have happily lined up for more pastries as soon as we finished off a set, and do it again and again until we are told to eff off. In a city that’s known for its amazing fine dining restaurants, I can honestly say that this is definitely one of my favourite places to eat and would not hesitate to recommend it to people. Nor would I hesitate to order five pork and fennel sausage rolls the next time I’m here.

Bourke Street Bakery on Urbanspoon

Pigeon (Sydney, NSW)

2/431 Bourke Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
(no listed number)

It was a beautiful Sydney morning when we decided to wake from our slumber and take a stroll from the CBD to Surry Hills, which is now my favourite suburb in Sydney. It wasn’t a terribly long walk but given how unfit we chumps were, we eventually worked up an appetite and decided to find a place that actually did half-decent coffees – no mean feat if you happen to be in Sydney.

According to Urbanspoon, there are places in Surry Hills that did a good coffee. The problem was trying to work our way through a list of nonsensical names and find one that would make us happy for the morning. In the end, I chose Pigeon, literally a hole-in-the-wall operation, purely because of the name. What kind of people would choose to name a café after an ugly bird that seemingly bobs its head involuntarily? And one that’s a known pest not just in Australia but all around the world? There is also another reason why we decided to go here – it’s one of Marty’s stupid nicknames for me (yeah, figure it out).

Pigeon may look at home in 1980s East Germany and the place itself is pretty small, but they certainly attract a steady stream of customers even though it’s sort of out of the way, hidden from the hustle and bustle of Bourke Street proper. We grabbed a few newspapers and sat outside on the coloured plastic chairs, watching dog walkers go by.

Bloggers who have been here in the past say that the coffee is proudly Campos, but the lady who worked there proudly told me that they (now?) use Double Roasters beans from Marrickville. While I do like Campos coffee, I do think it’s good that they’re slowly losing their monopoly status in Sydney and that other smaller players are getting a turn. Both Marty and I thought the Double Roaster beans were fantastic. With the aid of the barista’s touch, they produced two lattes ($3.50 each) that were full-bodied, velvety and sweet without the need for sugar. This was literally the first time I had a good coffee in Sydney.

Marty typically didn’t think a coffee was enough. He couldn’t resist the lure of the fresh juices on offer – $5 a pop with your choice of fruits or vegies as listed on the menu. He ended up with a deliciously refreshing tonic of apple, watermelon, carrot, orange and pineapple with a hint of mint.
Pigeon’s menu is simple and doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel. For breakfast, your standard egg dishes are available along with mueslis and omelettes while wraps, salads and sandwiches appease those who rock up a bit later. We belonged in the latter group so Marty decided to get a roast chicken wrap ($7.50). It was neatly packed into a wrap with Hungry Goats tomato chutney, mayo, tomatoes and spinach leaves. It was cheap, fresh, simple yet filling.

I went for the less healthy option of a Croque Monsieur ($7.50), their version being slices of ham, cheese and béchamel wrapped in Turkish bread. I couldn’t really fault it – it was certainly filling enough to keep me satisfied, but not to the point where I was bloating like a mofo. Oh, and it was delicious too; ‘the boss-est of boss toasties’, piped up Marty.

Just like your garden-variety street pigeon, this café goes about its daily business with little fanfare. I like the fact that Pigeon (as in, the café) is so humble and friendly, yet can still produce great coffees and even though their food is simple, they are of good quality. I’m still on the lookout for more good coffee-producing cafés in Sydney so it’ll be a while before I return. However, if my search starts getting futile, I’ll be back at Pigeon soon to nest.

Pigeon on Urbanspoon