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A Sydney food and restaurant blog

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    Paco's Pintxos pop-up at MoVida, 20 October 2013, Holt Street, Surry Hills
    As Good Food Month comes to an end already, I was glad that I at least made the booking months ago for the Paco's Pintxos pop-up event at MoVida Sydney a couple Sundays ago.

    The Paco's Pintxos crowd at MoVida, 
    Immediately taken in by the promise of Basque pintxos - that is, yummy San Sebastian-style pub/bar food, almost always with a skewer through it - it was a good deal at $55 a head for four hours worth of pintxos at one of Sydney's finest, two-hatted Spanish sherry and tapas venues, as well as two alcoholic beverages.

    The bar top, covered in pintxos
    The venue was comfortably jam-packed for the one-off long lunch event, which may well have been testing ground for a permanent gig, as the MoVida group is currently looking for a second Sydney venue.

    The pintxos concept is all about eating while you drink; helping yourself to tasty, alcohol-soaking morsels on a bar top while drinking and socialising, and then - in San Sebastian at least - paying for your eaten food by counting the number of toothpicsk or skewers you've left behind.

    Smoked salmon, avocado, cornichon pintxos
    At Paco's Pintxos however, it was an all-you-can-eat affair with two bar tops covered in platters of individually skewered tidbits, starting mostly with slices of bread topped with Spanish and other delicacies - and no menu listing.

    Chicken and chilli pintxos
    Indeed, I thought the Surry Hills venue worked exceptionally well as a pintxos bar with an additional bar set up at the far end of the restaurant and two areas for drinkers and diners to load up on pintxos.

    MoVida owner and Executive Chef, Frank Camorra (in the fuzzy background
    It was nice to see Frank Camorra, MoVida owner and executive chef, in the kitchen hustle and bustle as platter after platter came from the kitchen. There was no going hungry on dainty canapés here - this was going to be a pintxos feast.

    Sardine, tomato and olive pintxos
    Having had some simply amazing smoked sardines at MoVida Next Door in Melbourne last time, I made a beeline for the small, oily fish pintxos, paired most pleasantly with refreshingly sweet diced tomato on bread, skewered with a fat, meaty green olive.

    Potato bocadillos
    I got the carb-on-carb saffron-spiced potato mini roll unknowingly, but it was a great relief from the strongly salted pintxos like the olive and anchovy on a skewer with half a boiled quail's egg and pickled green guindilla chillies.

    Lobster and Russian salad pintxos
    I don't think I've ever refused lobster, especially not if it comes generously with a deposit of caviar on a creamy Russian salad.

    Lobster and Russian salad pintxos
    The lobster itself was cooked to perfection - firm but not overcooked - and enhanced by its fishy accompaniment, as too the carbohydrate ones.

    Jamon and cheese bocadillos
    I missed the jamon cured ham and cheese bocadillo mini bread rolls, which was a shame as that would have been a sandwich of two of my favourite things.

    Morcilla and truffled eggs pintxos
    I was happy to skip the dark slices of grilled morcilla blood sausage, positioned contrastingly with soft, fluffy truffled scrambled eggs on bread.

    Tomato salmorejo
    The subtle salmorejo chilled tomato and bread soup from Camorra's home town in Spain was a break from all the bread - well, in one form. The tiny cups of soup were topped with chopped egg white and served with a crunchy bread stick.

    Potato tortilla
    I couldn't go past the beautifully presented potato tortilla omelette, cut into wedges and speared with yet more green olives. The eggy tortilla seemed to also contain caramelised onion and was comfort food at its picnic best.

    Cheese croquettes and white wine
    There was a rush for the hot, cheesy croquettes which made for great friends with the sangria and cans of Moritz beer, as well as the quite acidic, young-tasting white wine or La Goya dry sherry.

    Crumbed mussels
    The golden crumbed mussels in the half shell were also in hot demand, though a little difficult to eat without a spoon. The panko crumbs hid quite the creamy: a diced mix of mussels and vegetables in a creamy sauce.

    Octopus pintxos with potato puree
    The hot grilled sections of octopus, impressively tender and full of caramelised herbaceous flavours, were served in a ceramic cup with a smooth potato puree in what seems to be a classic Mediterranean pairing.

    Anchoa and sherry
    To finish the savouries, trays of one of MoVida's signature tapas were brought around: the anchoa with a single fillet of super salty anchovy paired with a smoked tomato sorbet to try and balance the saltiness, all on a thin, crisp crouton.

    Having had this tapa before in a less salty version, it was a bit to take in, but washed down well enough with the dry sherry.

    There wasn't dessert as such - just little chocolate truffles, also on toothpicks - which was fine by me. I adore the concept of pintxos and if this is what Paco / MoVida want to do, I'm sure there's more than just a pop-up market for it.

    MoVida Sydney on Urbanspoon

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    The Season has started – definitely Spring Racing, but also party season. And for the entire month of November, recently re-launched The Langham in Sydney is celebrating with Laurent-Perrier and a range of champagne-centric events.

    Oysters at the launch of The Season, presented by Laurent-Perrier, at The Langham, Sydney,
    Kent Street, Sydney
    During November The Season, presented by Laurent-Perrier, will offer a 2-course Melbourne Cup lunch with prizes for sartorial excellence, daily Champagne Tiffin Afternoon Teas and a Champagne Degustation Dinner, as well as live music from Thursdays to Saturdays throughout November.

    For the horse-inclined, the Spring Racing action will be broadcast live from Flemington from 2-9 November 2013.

    Fountain filled with Laurent-Perrier Brut bottles
    At the launch of The Season, champagne lovers were greeted by a stunning spring floral display in shades of pink and white from Pearsons Florist, a fountain filled with bottles of Laurent-Perrier Brut, both Laurent-Perrier Brut and Vintage on free flow, and extravagant cheese and oyster stations.

    Pearsons Florist display for the launch of The Season

    Laurent-Perrier Vintage on pour

    The oyster station
    With two varieties of both Pacific (Coffin Bay and Hastings River) and Sydney rock (Port Stephens and Forster) oysters, a full set of condiments and dressings, and a smiling shucker, the oyster station was my favourite place to be on the night.

    Sydney rock oysters
    While the yuzu pearls were new to me, the champagne vinaigrette with a touch of chives was so irresistibly divine with the Sydney rocks, I may have visited the oyster station more than a handful of times.

    The cheese station
    I may also have visited the cheese station a few times, for gorgeously stinky washed rind and a blue that was simply divine with real honeycomb and crackers.

    The cheese station

    Laurent-Perrier Vintage
    Also on offer every day during November in The Langham's Globe Bar and Brasserie, a glass of Laurent-Perrier Brut and three freshly shucked Sydney rock oysters with the aforementioned champagne vinaigrette for $25.

    Laurent-Perrier's Paul Stenmark, prepares to sabrage a bottle
    To mark the end of The Season, a five-course Champagne Degustation dinner, served with matching wine or champagne, will be held on Wednesday, 27 November 2013 at the opulent Galileo Restaurant.

    Petit four platters
    See more information on The Season at the Langham events here.

    Food, booze and shoes attended the launch of The Season at The Langham Sydney as a guest, with thanks to Liquid Ideas.

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    Cracked freshly open on Friday, the boisterously fun, forward-thinking Drink'n' Dine Group have brought another restaurant to market: the double entendre-filled House of Crabs, upstairs at The Norfolk in the Redfern end of Surry Hills.

    House of Crabs, upstairs at The Norfolk, Cleveland Street, Surry Hills
    Part Louisiana crab shack, part Aussie seafood showcase and all Drink'n'Dine, House of Crabs is unlike anything we've seen in Sydney.

    As a Cancerian and having not ever experienced the southern US-style crab or seafood boil, I was very excited to attend a preview night at House of Crabs last week, just ahead of their Friday night opening.

    Crab neon sign at the base of the stairs
    The decor is retro kitsch and all about crabs and the sea. A neon sign lights the way from The Norfolk at ground level, leading up to a happy, welcoming red crab and the restaurant upstairs.

    Restaurant signage

    Dietaries list
    A list of dietary warnings greets diners at the upstairs restaurant, having a dig at today's world of diner allergies and intolerances; though I couldn't quite work out which menu item would have seafood extender as an ingredient.

    Peach Cobbler (left) and Arnold's Iced Tea (right) mixed drinks
    Mixed drinks feature alongside full-hit cocktails and American beers, like Budweiser cans.

    Both the Peach Cobbler with rye whisky, peach syrup and lemon juice topped up with soda; and the Arnold Palmer Iced Tea with vodka, tea and lemonade, were on the sweet and light side of mixed drinks that we sampled on the night.

    BBQ Creole corn
    There is a great range in the House of Crabs snacks menu, including buttery BBQ Creole corn on the cob and superbly smoky sausage with pickles and American mustard. However, for me, it's all about The Boil.

    The Boil menu
    A selection of seafood is available, priced per 500 grams. Pick a shellfish and one of four sauce options, and get your bibs on (latex gloves optional).

    The tables are ready lined with white paper and furnished with Budweiser cardboard six-pack containers of cutlery, including crab picks and crackers, and two bottled hot sauce options.

    A bag of crab
    It was sheer excitement when the bags of shellfish arrived to the tables, in plastic bags somewhat obscured by rivulets of sauce. It was going to be a messy, hands-on affair - and I couldn't wait.

    A long table for crab action
    Diners are encouraged to dump the contents of the bag into the middle of the table, which does make it easier to access the shellfish compared to sticking your arms into a large, saucy bag.

    Pile of king crab

    Blue swimmer crab in Cajun sauce
    We were treated to blue swimmer crabs in a buttery, spiced Cajun sauce with plenty of bite. Drink'n'Dine Executive Chef Jamie Thomas later confirmed that the deliciously addictive sauce contained "a lot" of butter.

    The relatively small blue swimmer crabs are great eating for those with patience when it comes to shellfish, with flesh in the claws and body, as well as in the legs and flippers with a little more effort.

    King crab in Cajun sauce

    Prawns in Cajun sauce
    Easier to devour were the well-sized Queensland prawns, cooked whole and served again with the Cajun sauce.

    The sauce made the prawn heads worthy of sucking clean, while the shells were quite edible too. The peeled prawns were best had after a re-dunk or two into the bag of sauce.

    House of Crabs window
    Post shellfish feast, hand washing is assisted by 'magical' wet towelettes although there is also a unisex toilet upstairs for the restaurant.

    House of Crabs is going to be an instant hit. I already feel like eating there once a week and while The Boil prices are a little heftier than what you'd see in Louisiana (Australia's higher labour rates, rent and all), it's guaranteed to be a good, finger-licking night out. Welcome, House of Crabs.

    Food, booze and shoes dined at House of Crabs as a guest.

    House of Crabs on Urbanspoon

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    With limited knowledge and experience in Philippine cuisine, it was with excitement that I gathered a group for dinner at La Mesa; a several-months-old, casual Filipino restaurant a few doors down from ever-popular, queue-covered Mamak in Haymarket.

    Lumpiang Shanghai from La Mesa, Goulburn Street, Haymarket
    I had previously sampled a few select Filipino desserts, but that was about the extent of my acquaintance with the cuisine. It's one of those mixing pot food cultures, taking influence from Malaysian and Chinese food, and also Spanish and American – the latter two post periods of colonisation.

    The Chinese influence was obvious in our entrée of lumpiang Shanghai: deep-fried spring rolls filled with unidentified minced meat and an array of vegetables, and served with sweet chilli sauce.

    While the shape and condiment were both familiar, there was an unexpected flavour profile or seasoning to the lumpiang that made it distinct from Chinese or Vietnamese spring rolls.

    Kare Kare
    The huge pot of kare kare was the first main to arrive, striking some fear that all dishes would be this big. The dish comprised sections of oxtail – a great, meaty cut with bone and cartilage – with chunks of pumpkin and eggplant, and snake beans.

    The vividly coloured peanut sauce had me thinking curry, although it wasn't spiced and despite looks, it was a little bland. One of the restaurant's most popular dishes, the kare kare was served with bagoong Filipino shrimp paste which added flavour by way of a fishy oomph.

    Adobo Chicken
    I've heard of adobo as being a classic Filipino dish, but I never actually knew what it was. We ordered the chicken version, which were thighs served on the bone.

    The chicken was marinated and cooked in sugar cane vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and black pepper which then formed a thin sauce. With steamed rice, the adobo chicken was a homely-tasting comfort dish that I wouldn't mind attempting to make at home.

    Daing na Bangus
    At this point, I should mention that La Mesa's menu is absolutely enormous with the seafood section particularly large.

    We ended up choosing the previously unheard of milkfish in Daing na Bangus; two serves for a total of four deboned, deep fried milkfish. The small fish themselves were marinated in vinegar and garlic, although most flavour came from the deliciously refreshing hot chilli and vinegar sauce on the side.

    Crispy pata
    We knew we had to get one of the signature pork dishes and it was very hard to go past the idea of a "deep fried pork leg with crispy skin". The crispy pata was as good as it sounded, if not better.

    A platter of pork – bone, meat and deep-fried, crispy skin – had me salivating on sight. The meat was impressively moist and tender despite the deep fry treatment.

    The crisp, cracking skin was undoubtedly the highlight of the crispy pata – some of the best pork skin I've ever eaten, with the layer of fat normally beneath the skin completely rendered. The dipping sauce of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and onion was barely necessary as the pork was so darn good on its own.

    We sought meat relief with pinkabet from the vegetable selection. The dish was flavoured with the bagoong shrimp paste and garlic, and actually came with large hunks of softly-cooked pork.

    Not so great for any vegetarians (the restaurant recognises and highlights the lack of pure vegetarian options), the vegetables included a pretty medley of eggplant, snake beans, pumpkin, bitter melon, onions and tomatoes in the fishy sauce.

    Leche flan
    It seems there are plenty of Philippine desserts, and we had room to share a few. Leche flan is the first thing I think of when talking Philippine cuisine so it was a must to try La Mesa's version of the egg custard pudding.

    Flavoured with vanilla and topped with lashings of caramel sauce and a wafer stick, the leche flan was unbelievably rich and thick in texture – no wobble – like softened butter or a really heavy pate. I could only bear a couple of teaspoons of this leche flan before conceding defeat and moving on to the next dessert.

    Ube yam
    The fantastic purple hue of the ube yam dessert was striking, served alongside white strips of jelly-like coconut. The scoop of ube – sweetened, baked and mashed yam – was a little grainy and thick with a texture not all palates will like.

    Cassava cake
    My unexpected favourite dessert of the evening was the baked cassava cake – itself a yellow, starchy and not-too-sweet pudding. The square of cake arrived smothered in sweetened milk, which was then baked or grilled to look like certain supermarket cheeses when they're grilled.

    Not cheese, the thick, sweetened milk provided all the saccharine kick to the cake, which was thankfully served as a small, rich portion.

    Having sampled the hits of Philippine cuisine, I'm looking forward to sampling more of the La Mesa menu, especially some of the more exotic-sounding dishes. As my first taste of the Philippines, La Mesa has got me wanting more.

    La Mesa on Urbanspoon

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    Sydney is about to be hit with another restaurant guide, awarding hats and scores out of 20 no less. Launched last night at food lovers destination, Salt Meats Cheese, with a crowd of chefs, champagne and canapés, Gault&Millau Australia's 'The Yellow Guide' for Sydney 2014 is the newest kid on the reviewing block.

    Gault&Millau Australia's 'The Yellow Guide' Sydney 2014
    Hailing from France, Gaullt&Millau (for us Aussies, phonetically pronounced "Go Me-yo") Australia recruited industry professionals and trained them to international Gault&Millau reviewing standards; evaluating more than 1000 meals for the inaugural Sydney guide.

    While scores out of 20 are pretty standard, no restaurant scoring less than 10 appears in the Yellow Guide; resulting in more than 300 of what are considered to be Sydney's best published in the guide.

    Gault&Millau Australia's hat system
    Hats are awarded differently to the current incumbent system, starting with 1 hat for a score of 11 or 12, up to 5 golden hats for a perfect score of 20. The addition of a score/icon for venues with 12 or more cheeses offered is a very French touch.

    The restaurant reviews are generally longer than the bite-sized ones in the incumbent guide, with some spanning whole pages but the majority being half pages of a smallish font size.

    Gault&Millau Australia's top hatted restaurants
    And while there are many similarities up the top hatted end, it's the three, two and one hats in Gault&Millau Yellow Guide that are particularly different; with hats awarded in much greater volumes from three hats and down.

    There are currently no 5 golden hat restaurants in Sydney, though I'm not sure that's even a realistic result. It's yet to be seen how Gault&Millau Australia will be received - by restaurants and diners - but another perspective can't be all bad. Congratulations to the Yellow Guide's hats in Sydney.

    Five hats (18.5 to 19 points)
    Momofuku Seiobo, Quay, Sepia

    Four hats (17 to 18.4 points)
    Billy Kwong, The Bridge Room, Chiswick Restaurant and Bar, est., Gastro Park, Jonah's Restaurant, Marque, MoVida, Rockpool, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sean's Panaroma, sixpenny, Tetsuya's

    Three hats (15 to 16 points)
    Altitude Restaurant, ARIA Restaurant, Arras, The Bathers' Pavilion, Bei Amici, Bentley Restaurant & Bar, Berowra Waters Inn, Bistro Boulevard, BLACK by Ezard, Busshari, Cafe Sydney, Cara & Co (closed), Catalina, China Doll, Clareville Kiosk, Cottage Point Inn, The Cut Bar & Grill, The Devonshire, Fix St James, Flying Fish Restaurant & Bar, 4Fourteen, Four in Hand Dining Room, Fratelli Paradiso, Kitchen by Mike, Longrain, Lucio's, Ms. G's, Otto Ristorante, Pendolino, Pilu at Freshwater, Pony Dining (The Rocks), Popolo, Porteno, Restaurant Atelier, Spencer Guthrie, Spice Temple, Tastevin Bistro & Wine Bar, Tomislav Restaurant, Uccello, Verde Restaurant + Bar, Vini

    Two hats (13 to 14 points)
    A Tavola, Agape Organic Restaurant, Almond Bar, Ananas Bar & Brasserie, The Apollo, Aqua Dining, Ash St. Cellar, Azuma Chifley, Balla, Bambini Trust, Bar H, Barbuto Restaurant, Baroque Bistro Patisserie, Barrenjoey House, Barrio Chino, The Bellevue Dining Room, Berta, Bishop Sessa, Bistro Moncur, Bistrode CBD, Blancharu, bloodwood, The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay, Bodega, Bondi's Best, Bronte Road Bistro, Buffalo Dining Club, Buon Ricordo, The Burlington, Burnt Orange, Buzo Trattoria, Cafe Lyon, Chef's Gallery, China Beach, Chophouse, Cipri Italian, Cucinetta Ristorante & Bar, deviate, The Dining Room, The Duck Inn Pub & Kitchen, Dunes Restaurant & Kiosk, Enopizzeria, Felix, The Fish Shop, Foley Lane, Foveaux Restaurant & Bar, Garfish Manly, Ginger & Spice, glass brasserie, Glebe Point Diner, Gowings Bar & Grill, Grecian Blue, Hartsyard, honeycomb, House, Hugos Manly, Icebergs Dining Room & Bar, il perugino, Intermezzo Ristorante, Jah Bar, Kabuki Shoroku, Kalevu, Kobe Jones Teppanyaki, Letoile, La Rosa Bar & Pizza, La Tratt, La Trattoria on Norton, Luke Benchmark, Malabar @ Darlinghurst, Manly Wine, Manta, Mexicano, Mission Restaurant and Bar, Morena, Mr Wong, Neptune Palace, Neutral Bay Diner, Nilgiri's, North Bondi Italian Food, O Bar and Dining, Ocean Room, Ormeggio at The Spit, Orto Trading Co, Oscillate Wildly, The Owl House, The Pantry, PaperPlanes, Pizza Mario, Pompei's, Public Dining Room, Red Lantern on Crown, Restaurant 16, Ripples Chowder Bay, Ripples Milsons Point, Ripples Sydney Wharf, Rocket Restaurant, Sails on Lavender Bay, Sake Restaurant & Bar, the sardine room, Signorelli Gastronomia, Sokyo, Spice I Am Darlinghurst, Starfish Avalon, Steel Bar & Grill, sugarcane, Sugaroom, sushi e, tapioca, The Tea Room Gunner's Barracks, Three Blue Ducks, Toko Restaurant & Bar, Ume, Verandah Restaurant & Wine Bar, Wilbur's Place, Wildfire, The Wine Library, Xanthi, Yoshii, Zaaffran

    One hat (11 to 12 points)
    Aki’s Indian, Angel Restaurant, Antoine’s Grill, BAHBW, Banjo Patterson Cottage Restaurant, Bau Truong, Beppi’s, bills, Bistro Bruno, Bitton Café & Grocer, Blue Eye Dragon, The Boathouse Palm Beach, Booth St Bistro, Brown Sugar, Café Sopra, The Carrington, Cavallino, Chairman Mao, Chat Thai, Chinta Ria Mood for Love, The Cook’s Garden, Courtney’s Brasserie, Danny’s Seafood, Delicado Foods, Din Tai Fung World Square, The Eathouse Diner, Efendy, Emmilou, Fei Jai, Firefly Neutral Bay, Fish Face, 42 Bannerman Trattoria e Bar, Galileo Restaurant, Garfish Crows Nest, Garfish Kirribilli, Gazebo Wine Bar, Golden Century Seafood Restaurant, Grappa Ristorante e Bar, The Grounds of Alexandria, HaNa Ju-Rin, Harvest Store & Kitchen, Hickson Road Bistro, High St Bistro, Home Thai, Hugos Bar Pizza, Iron Chef Chinese Seafood Restaurant, Izakaya Fujiyama, Jamie’s Italian, Ju Ge Mu & Shimbashi, Kazbah Balmain, Kobe Jones Sydney, Kujin, La Brasserie, La Grand Bouffe, La Grillade, La Pesa Trattoria, La Scala on Jersey, Lachlan’s Restaurant,, Lucio Pizzeria, Machiavelli Ristorante, Malabar@Crow’s Nest, The Malaya, Mamak, The Morrison Bar & Oyster Room, New Shanghai, Nostos, The Old Library, Oliveto Ristorante & Bar, Osteria Riva, Palace Chinese Restaurant, Palings, Parma, Pony Neutral Bay, Quattro Paste, Queenies, Radio Cairo, Red Chilli Sichuan Restaurant, Red Lantern on Riley, Rengaya, Ripples Whale Beach, The Riverview Hotel Dining Room, Safi, Sakana-Ya, Seven Lanterns, Spice I Am Balmain, Stella Blu, Stuyvesant’s House, Szechuan Garden Restaurant, Temasek, 3 Weeds Restaurant, Treehouse, The Union Restaurant, Via Napoli Pizzeria, Vicinity Dining, WAQU, Wildwater Grill, The Winery

    Food, booze and shoes attended the launch of Gault&Millau's The Yellow Guide as a guest, with thanks to Savannah PR.

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    Modern Greek cuisine exploded onto the Sydney dining scene over the last couple of years and it's been nice to watch it develop and grow, now into the eastern suburbs with Anatoli at The Eastern.

    Pork moussaka from Anatoli, Level 1, The Eastern, Oxford Street, Bondi Junction
    The Eastern in Bondi Junction, adjoining the mammoth Westfield shopping centre, has this year undergone a barely recognisable transformation; from multi-level pub to a multi-venue attraction with two distinct restaurants, four bars (with food) and a lot of good eating and drinking to be done.

    The bar at Anatoli
    Anatoli on Level 1 of the four-storied complex features a breathtaking, cliché-free fitout with a large, marble-topped bar splitting restaurant and bar seating for a significant 150 patrons.

    With an array of Greek wines on offer, it's hard to go past the very fruity recommendation of 2010 Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko Athiri from Santorini by the glass (tip: always get a recommendation when you can’t pronounce any of the wine labels or grapes on offer).

    The restaurant at Anatoli
    Chef Matt Fitzgerald (ex Bentley Restaurant & Bar and Bather's Pavilion) heads the Anatoli kitchen, as well as the upstairs Mexican venue, El Topo.

    The Anatoli menu is grounded in great local produce with classic Greek influences – proffering a uniquely modern Greek-Australian take on shared plates, which I think is the perfect way put together a menu for today’s modern Australian palate.

    Eggplant, tzatziki & hummus mezethes with grilled pita
    One of my all-time favourite ways to start a meal is mezethes dips and addictive, fluffy wedges of grilled Greek pita bread – a sufficient amount too, which rarely seems the case.

    The hummus, excellent as it was, was no match for the smoky eggplant dip, which in turn was no match for my absolute favourite dip – tzatziki, the classic Greek refreshing dip of yoghurt, garlic, lemon, cucumber and loads of fresh mint.

    Spiced school prawns & smoked chilli mayo
    Whole fried school prawns are becoming a regular sighting on Sydney menus, and I can say definitively that these were the best I've had across town.

    The generous pot of prawns had the crunchiest possible coating and pleasantly trimmed whiskers, themselves seasoned to salty, spiced perfection. There was the smoked chilli mayonnaise for the creamy condiment-inclined, while we also requested lemon wedges for some extra zing.

    Wild mushrooms, kohlrabi & roast pinenuts
    There was a sprinkling of Greek influence in the pan of wild mushrooms; I think oregano through the shiitake and King Browns, topped with raw enoki mushrooms. The fungi were supplemented by a creamy puree of kohlrabi, with added texture from roasted pine nuts.

    Pork moussaka with eggplant & gruyere
    I was seriously excited to try Anatoli’s moussaka – classic Greek comfort food drenched in a white sauce. The moussaka comprised with a high quality mince of pork, soft eggplant slices and home-style seasoning, all topped with rich, creamy béchamel sauce and gooey, melted gruyere cheese.

    The little cast iron pot deceived the eyes but not the stomach; densely-packed with the rich meat mixture and luxe, creamy sauce, it was a surprising struggle to clean up the entire petite pot.

    Slow cooked shoulder of lamb, roast onions, braising juices & tzatziki
    For our other main we elected the slow-cooked lamb shoulder, served as a neat block with sweetly roasted Spanish onions and hearty, goodness-filled juices from the braising process.

    The lamb had a delightful fall-apart texture, simply using the force of a fork. The flavourful meat was lightened and enhanced with the excellent tzatziki on the side in an array of classic and clean Greek tastes.

    Roast Brussels, hazelnut, haloumi & filo
    The order of roast Brussels sprouts came out logically with the mains, without request. Lightly cooked and arranged prettily with roasted hazelnuts, filo pastry shards and shaved haloumi cheese, they were a nice foil to our heavy mains (though hard to rank against my and Sydney’s favourite Brussels sprouts).

    Ouzo with ice
    We ended up with leftovers as we were warned early on to leave space for desserts. To help digestion along, I had a nip of ouzo, served however the drinker likes.

    I like to add a cube or two of ice to the liquor, just so I can play around and see the ouzo go cloudy, while the aniseed-flavours are perfect with dessert and as a digestive, especially post a big meal.

    Chocolate mousse, hazelnut & burnt Gerakas honey ice cream
    The chocolate mousse was a particularly pretty dessert arrangement featuring the creamy, dark chocolate mousse on the bottom, and scattered with roasted hazelnuts, delicate chocolate curls and an exquisite honeyed ice cream in a forest floor look.

    Milk pie, kumquat, honey & sesame halva
    The milk pie dessert was a less sweet option with a fantastic halva ice cream and glazed kumquat pieces adding a very unique citrus aspect. The milk pie itself was a soft, creamy square that matched nicely with the crisp bits of kataifi pastry.

    On the whole – food, drinks, atmosphere and service – Anatoli was one of the best nights I've had out recently. No one aspect stood out acutely but the entire experience left me completely satisfied and smiling. 

    The departing thought was that if this is the towering levels of modern Greek-Australian cuisine in Sydney, despite challenges in the industry, Sydney dining is in a really good place.

    Food, booze and shoes dined at Anatoli as a guest, with thanks to Savannah PR.

    Anatoli Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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    It's pretty impressive that in the space of just a few of years, a craving for tacos can now elicit a number of Mexican restaurant suggestions in most inner Sydney suburbs. I remember a time when I only knew one venue – a dingy space in Kingsford – but choice is aplenty now.

    Tequila at Mexico Food & Liquor, Randle Street, Surry Hills
    It was an interesting decision to morph what was previously chef Warren Turnbull's already 'casual'District Dining in Surry Hills into the more casual Mexico Food & Liquor, but the decision has proved worthwhile, with nightly crowds packing into the lavishly decked out Mexican venue.

    No wall is free of Mexican paraphernalia: from wrestling masks to vintage photos, which really works in getting patrons into a tequila state of mind. On that, there's a crazily extensive menu of 100% agave tequila with pages of bottle pictures in each Blanco, Reposado and Añejo categories.

    We sampled a clear Reposado straight, which warmed rather than burned with sweet vanilla top notes.

    Queso fundido with broccolini, black olive powder, corn bread
    On food, we started with a tempting-sounding cheese fondue: a shallow dish of a pale melted cheese mix sprinkled with a savoury powder of black olives and served with lightly-cooked broccolini and a very moist, crumbly corn bread.

    Our waiter also recommended an additional side of soft tortillas for dipping, noting that the broccolini and corn bread were never enough to mop up the somewhat bland, watery cheese mix.

    Pickled vegetables
    I like how Sydney restaurants are embracing pickles as they’re great appetisers, healthy and quite fun in their diversity.

    The stout glass jar here was stuffed full with cauliflower, large chillies red and green with some bite, beans and carrot sticks – all crisply pickled in a just-tart enough pickling mix.

    Pork, fish and beef tacos
    There are main dish options on the menu, but we were down this way for the tacos. I was most looking forward to the pan fried fish taco, served as a mostly boneless fillet with a gribiche sauce, spicy chipotle mayonnaise and a red cabbage coleslaw – the latter being the perfect vegetable addition to every taco, I think.

    The slightly chewy beef skirt steak had the most fantastic char flavour, complemented with a zingy salsa and fried onions.

    Braised pork belly with pomegranate, spiced cabbage, sesame
    Not to be outdone, the pork belly taco featured a fabulous Korean-style kimchi salad of very spicy cabbage and sesame seeds, with pomegranate for sweetness to combat the heat. The sticky, sweet and tender pork belly was worthy of being its own featured dish.

    Chocolate, orange & pink peppercorn mousse, Abuela’s sweet biscuit
    For a shared dessert we opted for the chocolate and orange mousse which was topped with more whole pink peppercorns than we could pick off.

    The mousse itself was a light, airy rendition with good citrus flavour, though completely overpowered and even jarring whenever one of the many peppercorns got in the way every mouthful.

    While the extensive tequila menu is all 100% Mexican, the food at Mexico Food & Liquor seems to have more of a modern and perhaps Australian fusion touch to it, but it's more than made up for with the decor and fantastic fiesta atmosphere. And as for for some great tacos, do come south of the CBD, down Mexico way.

    Mexico Food and Liquor on Urbanspoon

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    I haven't had a day off in a while - sick or otherwise - and I think I'd like one. While I wait for that not holding my breath, it was a treat to experience the 'Days Off' degustation menu designed by the chefs of Restaurant Arras for a couple of special dinners as part of Good Food Month last month.

    The menu, with matched wines, was about showing diners what chefs like to eat on their days off from the kitchen and unsurprisingly, it featured a lot of my lazy favourites too - just in fancy, fine dining style.

    "Pizza - no half and half, no pineapple!" from the Good Food Month 'Days Off ' menu at Arras, Clarence Street, Sydney 
    Pizza was offered as an appetiser in a deconstructed manner featuring crackers of pizza base bits, cheese foam, tomato paste, basil oil and powdered versions of both black olives and capers.

    The idea was to get a bit of every topping onto the cracker like a DIY pizza, although on the crackers that were very much like days-old leftover pizza crust to me, the whole thing tasted a little like Pizza Shapes - another of my lazy favourites.

    Soy and quinoa bread roll with butter and salt
    It was still fine dining so we were offered a selection of bread which are baked in-house daily and sold in the neighbouring Arras Too café by day.

    "All Day Breakfast"
    Our first course was named "All Day Breakfast" and I was expecting a rendition of a typical Aussie big breakfast which are available in many cafés as an all-day option.

    Instead, we got an intriguing Seinfeld-esque take on all-day food with a creative and probably pretty healthy cereal mix of puffed wild rices, flavoured with spices and cubes of apple, and dairy in the way of goat's milk crème fraîche.

    Eaten delicately with a teaspoon, this was an intriguing and light, sweet-savoury start to the 11-course meal.

    "Sushi Train"
    The fine dining re-imagination of a sushi train dish was my highlight of the degustation, featuring a thick but petite fillet of cured and torched kingfish, just a little raw within.

    Topped with puffed grains of wild black rice, the fish was accompanied by daikon white radish threads, a sheet of soy sauce jelly and the most fantastic puree of sushi rice, gari pickled ginger and a touch of wasabi.

    While demonstrating a lot of technique in their separate components, all together it was a deliciously, delightfully and cleverly constructed dish that was much more fine dining than conveyor belt sushi.

    Soup going into the "2-Minute Noodles"
    Instant and 2-minute noodles are definitely one of my guilty pleasures, especially when I'm sick. However, my mi goreng and Nissan "doll" noodles are nothing like these house-made Hokkien-style noodles, served with a complex, flavoursome consomme poured at the table.

    "2-Minute Noodles" with Arras seasoning
    Adding to the authenticity of the 2-minute noodle experience was the plastic packet of Arras-branded noodle seasoning that came with the course; an array of spices that were best not added at height and thus inhaled.

    The seasoning added a kick to the fatty, flaking salmon which was crisp on the surface while bean sprouts and sliced shallots brought freshness to the dish that usually comes out of a packet.

    "Prawn Tandoori"
    We moved on to Indian takeaway with a lobster-like king prawn cooked to perfection in tandoori spices, leaving it fragrantly red and full of well-rounded spiciness.

    The prawn was served skewered with a deep fried potato flatbread and a vibrant trio of sauces - cucumber, yoghurt and mint - in a deconstructed raita, with powdered coriander to finish it all off.

    "The Henry"
    The next course was inspired by a sandwich at Glebe café The Wedge. "The Henry" comprised bread crumbs, pesto, avocado, a googy egg yolk, holladaise sauce and pork cured and cooked to resemble the most amazing and soft ham; all topped off with a mysterious consomme of gruyere cheese.

    Eating the parts and eating the whole, it was a completely whimsical experience and most surprisingly, it was so true to the flavours of a sandwich it had me in happy awe.

    "Parma and a Pot"
    I'll admit that schnitzels (and close cousin, chicken nuggets) are one of my absolute favourite naughty comfort foods and I'm sure I'm not alone as the American-Italian chicken parmigiana is one of our nation's most popular - or at least common - pub meals.

    So it was "parma" and a pot of beer; not quite a Melbourne pot but a delicate sampler of Happy Goblin Pale Ale - a fruity brew from northern Sydney.

    The poussin schnitzel arrived heart shaped - just like a certain brand of processed chicken schnitzels.

    Served with the thin, pan-fried and crumbed schnitzel was a rather oily potato roesti and a puddle of intense tomato sauce covered with a non-descript circle of bacon jelly, all showered in grated cheese and herbs - by far the fanciest parmy I'll ever have.

    "Steak and CHIP"
    They weren't kidding when the menu listed a singular "CHIP"; perhaps the largest potato chip I've ever eaten. The impressive chip featured alongside a roasted mushroom, rump steak portion, onion rings and a crumbed cube of - wait for it - gravy.

    Cracking the thin shell of golden crumb was some of the most fun I've had at dinner in a while, with brown gravy oozing out, perfect for dipping both the chip and medium-rare cooked steak.

    "Beer Nuts"
    Getting pretty full by this point, the palate cleansing pre dessert was welcome reprieve. It played on the pub staple of beer and nuts: an accurately beer flavoured sorbet, topped with lime jelly and sugar, with a side of sweet glazed almonds and peanuts.

    "Burger with the lot"
    Dessert was essentially the piece de resistance of the meal. My younger days are very familiar with burgers with the lot; a uniquely Australian creation usually including egg, cheese, bacon, pineapple and beetroot in addition to a meat pattie and token salad offerings. I'm just not that familiar with the dessert version.

    Served on a miniature brioche bun, Arras' "burger with the lot" comprised a lot of fun and sugar, starting with a berry jam "tomato sauce" spread on the bun and dripping on the plate.

    A dehydrated pineapple thin and passionfruit sorbet "egg yolk" provided the refreshing flavours among a panna cotta "egg white", creme caramel "cheese slice", chocolate praline ganache "meat pattie" and berry jelly "beetroot slice".

    It was all too much for this non-sweet tooth after 10 courses, but the sheer fun and creativity made this "burger with the lot" a contender for Sydney's best burger.

    Arras petit fours
    And then to finish, the stuff of legends and dreams. For the sweet tooth, the Arras petit fours tray is heaven: a custom-made perspex tray covered in sweets, chocolates, biscuits, jellies, miniature ice cream cones and so much more.

    Indeed, so legendary are these petit four offerings that Arras offers them in takeaway boxes; popular with tourists and office secretaries, we're told.

    Arras petit fours
    Like a kid in a candy store, I dived in to grab an ice cream cone, a marshmallow, a Jammie Dodger, a piece of honeycomb and an earl grey tea chocolate. And all this for a non-sweet tooth.

    Arras interiors
    Completely and utterly sated, Arras' "Days Off" menu was a triumph in fun and creativity, for both the diner and the kitchen I'm sure.

    And with another year's Good Food Month over, we are now racing towards Christmas where, for me at least, a few days off are well overdue.

    Food, booze and shoes dined at Arras as a guest of Citibank Dining Program.

    Restaurant Arras on Urbanspoon

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    A 'zebra' at Paspaley Polo in the City, 16 November 2013, Centennial Park, Sydney
    I had to look three times. There was a zebra prancing around the middle of a polo field in Sydney's Centennial Park.

    It seemed about the same size as the polo horses and galloped about the same way, but those black and white stripes were strikingly unmissable (it was actually a pony painted in stripes by The Classic Safari Company).

    Kirin Lounge at Polo in the City
    I was at the Paspaley Polo in the City event in Sydney - my very first polo match - thanks to the Kirin Lounge.

    As part of this year's annual event, the cloud-threatened day in Sydney featured the Kirin Lounge - an area for the general public - in addition to corporate and VIP sponsor marquees; another step in making the sport of media tycoons more accessible and approachable.

    While the day's weather forecast wreaked havoc with planned wardrobes, the dress style was a leisurely, understated, ultra-classy smart-casual with footwear appropriate for grass, and soggy grass at that.

    Polo match in play
    Admittedly, the game of polo takes a bit of getting one's head around, with horses thundering towards a small ball flying up and down the field, with mallets whacking it into the air - hopefully between two posts.

    And like the races, there were inordinate amounts of time spent drinking, socialising and posing for photos, and somewhat less time spent on watching the game of men on horseback with white pants, helmets and long mallets.

    Kirin Lounge
    In its first year of event sponsorship, Kirin hosted the largest space, open to public admission with a popular cash bar and food by Fresh Catering.

    A little classier than General Admission at the races, there were plenty of tables and chairs beneath large umbrellas, with the front row, prime viewing seats gone in a hurry and the umbrellas proving useful for both sun exposure and varying levels of rain.

    Kirin Cider
    The recently-launched range of Kirin Ciders was made available at the Kirin Lounge. The range of ciders is made under licence in Australia and exclusively available in Australia, going some way to demonstrate our market for cider.

    Based on Fuji apples - one of my favourite varieties due to their crispness and tartness - there are four flavours of Kirin Cider: Fuji apple, Fuji apple and mikan mandarin, Fuji apple and ume Japanese apricot/ plum, and Fuji apple and ginger.

    Kirin Cider range
    (Image courtesy of Lion)
    What I like most about the Kirin Cider range, aside from the gorgeous hand-illustrated label imagery, is that they are not overly sweet. The Fuji apple has a nice dry finish with a tart kick; while the Fuji apple and mikan has a citrus bitterness - in a good, not too artificial way.

    The Fuji apple and ginger has quite a strong flavour of the spicy rhizome so it's closer to an alcoholic ginger beer than a fruity cider, while the Fuji apple and ume was my favourite with a well-rounded sweetness.

    Quinoa salad by Fresh Catering at the Kirin Lounge
    Food in the Kirin Lounge was done by specialty event caterers Fresh Catering, with great cold options like a hearty quinoa salad, brimming with colourful tomatoes, cucumber, beetroot, chickpeas and sauces of pesto and perhaps Greek yoghurt.

    Antipasto platter by Fresh Catering at the Kirin Lounge
    I was all over the antipasti plate before remembering to take a photo (cured meats have that effect on me).

    With crackers and breadsticks packed separately, this generous and varied platter featured salami and prosciutto alongside roasted capsicum strips, marinated artichoke, mixed olives, cornichons, roasted almonds, a little tub of hummus and a handful of rocket leaves - perfect daytime grazing food, if you ask me.

    Beef burger sliders by Fresh Catering at the Kirin Lounge
    The pack of sliders was perfect for sharing, being four cute little buns sandwiching a particularly chunky beef pattie. The super coarse mince was a nice testural surprise within the slider, with melted cheese and pickles making it a very satisfying few mouthfuls.

    Chroizo roll by Fresh Catering at the Kirin Lounge
    The chorizo roll was undoubtedly my favourite of the lot, served on a white bread roll with rocket and aioli of sorts. The red-hued sausage was perfection; perhaps not the most graceful for eating but so tasty with spices and a great coarse texture but no kick of heat.

    The first divot stomp
    I'm sure all the ladies had Pretty Womanin mind when the first divot stomp was announced; a polo tradition where the audience are asked to help return clumps of the torn up turf to its rightful position.

    There's a graceful art to it, especially in damp weather conditions, stilettos, and differentiating between what is turf and what isn't.

    Women's dash 
    With two polo matches on for the day, there was plenty of time for activities in between, including of course, a divot stomp or two.

    Most amusing would have been the dash for prizes, on the polo field for both ladies and gentlemen. Best achieved bare foot, the dash was essentially a sprint on the grass field with sponsor prizes up for grabs for the speediest.

    Women's dash  - go!
    There was no mercy in the dash, and perhaps just the tiniest lack of grace, all building a case for bringing polo to the people - or at least the ladies who weren't wearing pantyhose.

    Men's dash  - ready, set, go!
    The men's dash was just as entertaining, with a few pairs of light-coloured pants ruined for the afternoon.

    Men's dash

    Guests at Paspaley Polo in the City
    The day's intermittent rain didn't spoil too much: with my first day at the polo under my belt, being thoroughly introduced to the Kirin Cider range and a near zebra sighting, I'd call that a pretty decent chukka.

    See more photos of Paspaley Polo in the City, Sydney, on 16 November 2013 on my Facebook page.

    Food, booze and shoes attended Polo in the City as a guest of Kirin Cider and Lion.

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    The proliferation of small, casual eateries throughout inner city suburbs can only be a good thing. An alternative to full-blown meals (and matching bills), a quick and light dinner at Madame Nhu was just the thing after several drinks in Surry Hills recently.

    Grilled lemongrass Vietnamese pork sausages at Madame Nhu, Campbell Street, Surry Hills
    From the same people behind Xage restaurant on Crown Street, Madame Nhu occupies a small, tiered space on the corner of Campbell and Foster Streets, directly opposite Bar H.

    Despite an extensive pho noodle soup offering, of which I'll have to try next time, we elected a few lighter options like the Vietnamese pork sausages from the snacks menu.

    The skewered portions of the sweet, porky sausage highlighted with fragrant lemongrass flavours would make for a great bar snack, wrapped in leaves of butter lettuce and dipped into the sweet nuoc mam style sauce with chilli.

    Fruit soda (left) and young coconut juice (right)
    With a decent range of non-alcoholic beverages, we got on to two winners in the house made, super sweet passionfruit soda, served with ice in a jar and garnished with a mint sprig, and the young coconut juice with coconut flesh.

    The latter was a sweetened drink but so delightfully true to coconut flavour otherwise, unlike most commercial brands of coconut water.

    Silken tofu with Sichuan pepper salt and chilli
    A main dish, the salt and pepper tofu featured cubes of the soy bean curd in a crisp, crumbed coating that didn't quite have enough seasoning to justify its name. The chilli and coriander garnishes were entirely necessary help, as too a dunk in the dipping sauce.

    Grilled Hội An-style squid papaya salad, five-spice soy dressing
    We had a salad as another main, featuring lightly grilled rings of squid atop a shredded green papaya salad. There were plenty of peanuts, bean sprouts and little dried shrimp tossed through the salad as well as a generous and tender addition of five-spice and soy dressed squid.

    Madame Nhu doesn't mess about for a quick Vietnamese bite. There's a modern, if not Westernised, touch to the food and menu, but it is Surry Hills after all, and I think the more quick, easy and reliable places around here, the better.

    Madame Nhu Surry Hills on Urbanspoon

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    The French Riviera can be found in Sydney’s CBD – believe it. It may look out onto our iconic Harbour Bridge, but Café Nice is a slice of the Côte d'Azur hidden in a dated building in Circular Quay.

    Café Nice, Phillip Street, Sydney
    (Image courtesy of Maria Farmer PR)
    Part of the Fratelli Fresh empire and the group's first foray out of Italy and into France, Café Nice (as in the southern French city) can be likened to a French take on Café Sopra: a casual venue where freshness and lightness come first, supplemented with a friendly wine list and sometimes raucous atmosphere.

    Café Nice's upstairs entry is actually on Albert Street, near the corner of Phillip Street. Ignore the dull building it's housed in because the fitout inside is stunning.

    Café Nice interiors
    (Image courtesy of Maria Farmer PR)
    Mosaic floor tiles lead to the U-shaped bar where champagne flows and diners can eat at the bar. The smell of fresh flowers entices diners further into the bright restaurant where the dining space is split into three areas with varying views of the Harbour Bridge and quay (if a monstrous cruise boat isn't in Circular Quay).

    The view (sometimes)

    Dining room
    With more effort in the fitout than Café Sopras generally, Café Nice has a slightly less casual feel and perhaps a little less of the Café Sopra mayhem, although there’s a similar air of casual-ness to the table settings.

    Pommery Brut Royal NV Champagne
    No doubt, the room becomes loud with a cacophony of diner conversations bouncing off all the hard surfaces, but pleasingly, the Thursday night noise had a convivial, away-from-home feel to it (if you ignore the very Sydney City Rail trains that pass by, eye-level, every several minutes).

    The $10 tulip glasses of Pommery champagne, as also available at Café Sopra, help.

    Omelette de crabe with foie gras butter
    I struggled a little with the French-lilting menu – not for my limited French but because I wanted something from every section of the appetisers, entrées, pastas, seafood, meat and poultry, and sides.

    We settled on the luxurious-sounding entrée of crab omelette with foie gras butter. The soft and pillowy omelette, served quite wet, was topped with plenty of crab flesh and a rich brown emulsion of butter and foie gras, though it could have done with a touch more seasoning.

    Salade Niçoise
    A surprising winner of an entrée was the Niçoise salad; appropriately, a salad in the style of Nice. I'm sure we've all endured some form of Niçoise but this was hands-down one of the best salads I've had in a restaurant.

    Tuna in the Salade Niçoise
    Served generously in a glass bowl and ideal for sharing, it comprised julienned yellow and red capsicums, sliced green beans, cored tomatoes, black olives, perfectly salty anchovies and a googy-centred boiled egg, all arranged over two chunky pieces of cooked tuna with a vinaigrette dressing.

    The harmony of flavours and the salad ingredients was delicious and the tuna was utterly impeccable as it broke apart with the salad servers, while both the olives and anchovies added just the right amounts of saltiness to the overall salad.

    Casarecce with calamari, tomatoes and basil
    I found it hard to go past a pasta offering so we shared one as a course between entrée and main. One of my favourite pasta varieties, casarecce, arrived redolent with garlic in an olive oil-tossed combination with ridiculously sweet grape tomatoes and squid pieces.

    With the pasta cooked just past al dente, tomatoes bursting with sweetness and wilted basil leaves among loads of diced garlic, I almost could have done without the firm squid, tentacles and all.

    Sirloin grillé with pommes frites and roast garlic & crème fraiche
    From the mains meat and poultry menu, the sirloin steak option was served medium-rare as requested with a scattering of potato fries and elected sauce of garlicky crème fraiche.

    The petite and very tender cut of beef had great flavour from the grill while the crème fraiche tasted just like the sour cream and chive flavour typical in packaged potato crisps.

    Mulloway filet with celeriac puree & tapenade
    I was torn between all the seafood options but opted for the fillet of mulloway as something different from the Sydney standard of salmon (though the whole snapper for two was very tempting).

    Pan fried for a crisp skin, the large, firm fillet of mulloway sitting on smooth celeriac puree had enough flavour  and moistness to not be overpowered by the black olive tapenade.

    Asparagus with salsa verde
    Vegetable sides are recommended as the mains can be a little sparse of greenery. The thick stalks of asparagus, peeled at the bottoms, were served with a chunky salsa verde herb sauce and more whole leaves, making it green on green on green.

    Meringue with berries and crème anglaise
    We finished with dessert as a matter of experience more than hunger, opting for the lightest-sounding option – but what a stunner it was.

    The perfect rectangle of sweet meringue – marshmallowy soft and sticky within and topped with an impossibly thin crust layer – held afloat blueberries and ripe strawberry portions; all of it swimming in a citrus-scented crème anglaise. It was altogether heavenly and the perfect, floaty dessert on which to finish our meal.

    Café Nice entrance and bar
    For a slice of southern France in Sydney, Café Nice ticks most boxes. So the beach is a busy harbour instead and it's a bit loud and probably not ideal for romantic dinners, but the fresh, vibrant food leaves you wanting more; wines and champagne are reasonably priced; and the bright fitout and jovial atmosphere is sure to put a smile on your face – and that sure is nice.

    Food, booze and shoes dined at Café Nice as a guest, with thanks to Maria Farmer PR.

    Cafe Nice on Urbanspoon

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    With the rise of China's global and economic influence, it seems a timely development that modern Chinese restaurants are finally getting their time in the Sydney dining spotlight.

    The long-awaited China Republic has recently opened across two grandly-decorated stories in the World Square complex, just north of Chinatown.

    Entry to China Republic, World Square, Sydney
    Following many months of delays related to importing crucial bits of the restaurant from China, the restaurant has now opened for lunch and dinner seven days a week in the space that once was Equilibrium Hotel with its many beer taps.

    Pastry kitchen
    In many ways, there's a distinct feel of 'new' meeting 'old' at China Republic, particularly in the restaurant’s décor – much of which was imported from China.

    Terracotta warriors
    Replica terracotta warriors and handcrafted bamboo models of Beijing’s Forbidden City imperial palace stand next to boldly colourful oversized chairs and tables, teapot shelf displays and upturned umbrellas on the ceilings.

    I think it’d be pleasing for both modern Sydney-siders and Chinese traditionalists, which is probably also where the menu aims to be.

    Counter seats looking into the pastry kitchen
    Also a little different is that China Republic does not prescribe to one regional style of Chinese cuisine. Instead, the menu happily traverses the entire nation, as if taking a 'best of China - today' approach to its modern Chinese offerings.

    Dedicated duck kitchen
    The downstairs level features an ornate cocktail bar beside the duck kitchen and ovens – a dedicated Peking duck kitchen featuring two fiery, purpose-built ovens which can produce up to 20 ducks an hour.

    The elevated duck kitchen is surrounded by a moat-like goldfish pond, with real, live koi goldfish swimming about.

    The rest of the dining area is split between an corridor area with natural light and inside which is darker and moodier, while there is also counter seating in front of the glassed-off pastry and dumpling kitchen. All up, China Republic seats 250 diners.

    Entry to private dining room
    The spacious upstairs seating and décor feel a little more formal with four private dining rooms (including a super VIP room that can be accessed from the service lift) set around the central open space which can be used for functions or normal sittings.

    Private dining room

    Private dining room

    VIP private dining room

    Media launch table settings
    We were welcomed to one of the media launches with flutes of Moet and the sweet Concubine Yang cocktail, and tours of the restaurant before moving upstairs to settle in for 13 courses featuring dishes from Executive Chef and Co-owner Mei Sheng Yu's 'Top 10' menu – chef Yu's hand-picked special dishes, if you will.

    Beijing-style spicy and sour cucumber
    The meal commenced with cold entrées matched to 2010 Pegasus Bay Riesling from the restaurant’s premium wine list.

    Crisp pickled cucumbers are always a great way to start a meal, and these slightly spicy Beijing-style ones with kaffir lime leaf were no exception; readying the palate for more food and flavours.

    Eggplant and coriander salad with garlic dressing
    The eggplant salad was also a northern Chinese dish featuring soft, steamed logs of eggplant doused in a dark, thick, green dressing pungent with raw garlic.

    White cut chicken served with spicy lemon sauce
    We then headed south to the Guangdong province, which diners of Cantonese food will be much more familiar with, for a rendition of delicately poached white cut chicken thigh.

    The chicken was well cooked and served with an unusual, creamy lemon sauce that was a little a overwhelmed by Sichuan pepper.

    Tofu dish presentation
    As part of the restaurant's 'modern Chinese food meets art' ethos, presentation of dishes is immaculate and at times, astounding.

    Small bowls of cold tofu topped with tobiko flying fish roe arrived on an intricately carved wooden stand that certainly elevated the dish to a piece of art.

    Beijing-style tofu with shallots and fish roe
    Crumbly-textured, as must be characteristic for the Beijing-style, the tofu was particularly subtle in flavour, highlighted by thinly sliced shallots. The salty, smoky fish roe, popping on the bite, was the perfect accompaniment to the delicate tofu.

    Mushroom broth
    Chef Yu cooked and served the next course as two dishes, starting with a pleasantly earthy, herbal-style soup of six mushroom varieties including enoki and shiitake mushrooms.

    China Republic special coral trout hotpot with mushroom broth
    It was in the mushroom broth that chef Yu cooked boneless fillets of coral trout - a revered and favoured fish of many Chinese - infusing some of the mushroom flavour into the smooth, skin-on fish.

    Condiments for coral trout
    And not that the fish wasn't well flavoured but eight separate condiments were served with the coral trout, including chopped peanuts, soy sauce, vinegar, minced ginger and shallots.

    Flaming Peking duck
    There was a bit of fanfare when the whole roast duck arrived for the Peking duck dish, carved at the table as is traditional.

    Less commonly seen is the flaming of the bird, where the whole duck goes alight in blue for a bit of extra heat and crispness, and theatrics of course, before serving.

    Carving the Peking duck
    The speed, precision and neatness in which the duck was carved at the tableside was simply awe-inspiring, with the skin over the duck breast removed in a perfect piece within the first 10 seconds.

    Peking duck pancakes
    China Republic's Peking duck is served with a fabulous array of condiments and an accompanying instruction pamphlet on how best to eat your course.

    It starts with what I found to be a slightly unusual dip of duck skin alone into white sugar. It ends up being like roast duck skin candy, which doesn't do it for me despite the lovely, crisp and unfatty skin.

    Steamed bread pockets
    With options of both thin pancakes or little pockets of impossibly thin, steamed bao-like dough, the traditional Peking duck serving with cucumber sticks, shallots and sweet bean sauce doesn't disappoint.

    Another serving style with a salty pickled vegetable, raw Spanish onion and mustard sauce certainly changed my perspective on Peking duck, while the steamed bao pockets are definitely, and surprisingly, as good as the pancakes.

    Sliced roast duck
    The roast duck was good, very good even, without any overly fatty bits and while it was tasty enough in the Peking duck style packages, its overall seasoning was a little lacking in comparison to some Chinatown barbeque shop peers.

    Peking duck steamed pocket with cucumber, onion and sweet bean paste
    Even with a varied array of sauces and condiments, the duck was lovingly matched with the 2009 Etude Carneros Estate Pinot Noir.

    Sauteed banana prawns
    The huge head-on de-veined banana prawns, cooked in a sweet, spicy sauce, were impressive specimens with impressively tasty heads and as good a substitute for lobster as any.

    Kung pao chicken with peanuts
    Main dishes continued with a more sweet than spicy kung pao dish featuring boneless pieces of very soft chicken, capsicum and plenty of crushed peanuts in a thick sauce.

    Chef’s special sweet and sour pork spare ribs
    Familiar to anyone who's had Chinese takeaway will be sweet and sour pork, here served as tender, deep-fried pork riblets in a sticky glaze. This probably would have been nice with a bowl of steamed rice, and served at the same time as the vegetables that followed.

    Stir fried broccoli
    The stir fried broccoli, baby corn and carrot, in comforting ginger and garlic flavours, seemed like a vegetable afterthought; necessary but not quite on par with some of the impressive dishes of earlier.

    Sichuan-style dumpling
    It almost seemed a shame to finish on the boiled dumpling in vinegary sauce - it's one of my favourite Chinese foods and I was a bit full to really enjoy its well-flavoured minced pork filling.

    Glutinous rice ball stuffed with mashed fruits and sweet porridge
    If you can leave space for dessert the subtly sweet rice porridge, served cold and flecked with fruit, is an intriguing approach for a Chinese dessert.

    The softly sticky glutinous rice ball is surprisingly lighter, filled with a mixed fruity centre and just lovely with the lightly sparkling 2012 Banfi Sciandor Moscato d’Asti Strevic DOCG.

    Teapot display
    There's plenty of hype and fanfare around China Republic, which is great as it's bringing modern Chinese food to brighter lights - it has indeed opened my eyes more beyond Cantonese food and yum cha.

    It's the full experience at China Republic: the artful food, exciting atmosphere, amazing fitout, food theatre and more - it's all there for the people. Now, let's see if Sydney is big enough for it all.

    Food, booze and shoes attended the China Republic media launch, with thanks to Liquid Ideas.

    China Republic on Urbanspoon

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    On my trip to Melbourne earlier this year, I finally made it to MoVida Next Door, the neighbouring tapas and wine/sherry bar to the original MoVida restaurant in the CBD's grafitti-ed Hosier Lane. It only took about one attempt each four previous times I'd been to Melbourne and a 4pm late lunch.

    At the bar at MoVida Next Door, Hosier Lane, Melbourne
    Having had my first ever MoVida experience in Sydney, I was looking forward to a bit of laneway wining and grazing on small plates. It has to be said that this is my favourite way of eating: fresh and tasty morsels alongside endless glasses of wine, or indeed, sherry.

    The kitchen at MoVida Next Door, Hosier Lane, Melbourne
    We were seated at the bar at MoVida Next Door, next to the intimately-sized kitchen, where it was prime viewing of food preparation and even staff meals.

    The pull-down stairs that led up to either a larder or fridge above the kitchen demonstrates that big things are possible in small spaces.

    Ostra - freshly shucked oysters
    As we were right next to the fresh seafood cabinet, freshly shucked oysters were top of mind. I can't remember exactly where in South Australia the oysters were from, but they were extremely briny and nothing like a Sydney rock oyster in flavour.

    I was also disturbed by one of the oysters being pierced during shucking, which wasn't a particularly good look for the plate or the oyster-queasy.

    Padrón - deep fried peppers
    I'd seen the deep fried padrón green peppers at MoVida Sydney, served simply with a sprinkle of salt flakes. Somewhat comforted by the fact that only about one in ten are hot, I dug in, relishing the saltiness of the mostly capsicum-like mild, sweet peppers.

    Until I got a hot one. Holy MoVida, it was one of the most intensely hot things I've ever eaten with the most sudden impact on the palate. More bread and oil didn't help, white wine didn't help, water didn't help.

    With the beginnings of tears in my eyes and plenty of hand-fanning-face action, I heard the chefs have a bit of a chuckle as I pushed the remaining half of the hot padrón aside. Lesson learnt, but I still wouldn't refuse them in the future.

    Boquerone - White anchovy with tomato on crouton
    The anchovy boquerone is one of MoVida's signature tapa, with a single, salty anchovy lined up alongside a tomato gel and a creamy sauce, aioli perhaps, on a thin, crisp crouton. Baby capers added even more punch and saltiness to each bite, with microherbs garnishing the simple and so-right tapa.

    Smoked sardine and tomato salad
    A salad of smoked sardines and tomato was exactly and simply those two ingredients, with a bit of baby basil and oil-based dressing adding zing. The firm-fleshed sardines were perfection: salty and smoky, matched exquisitely with the ripe, sweet tomato segments.

    Brussels sprouts cooked with bacon and onion
    With our tummies intrigued over a special of Brussels sprouts, it was nice to be offered the option of a half serve, cooked with liberal amounts of butter, bacon and onion. The Brussels sprouts had a somewhat stewed but still firm texture, basking in the rich sauce.

    Despite the padrón experience, I still adored this light meal at MoVida Next Door. My persistence in getting there certainly paid off, as rhere's just something about the light, casual style of MoVida that has me hook, line and sinker.

    MoVida Next Door on Urbanspoon

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    The word 'biota' means a total collection of organisms of a geographic region or time period. It's with this beauty and depth of thought that owner and chef James Viles offers Biota Dining and Rooms in Bowral in the Southern Highlands.

    Biota's garden cabbage patch, Biota Dining, Kangaloon Road, Bowral
    This year crowned Regional Restaurant of the Year with two hats in the NSW Good Food Guide, Biota combines self-proclaimed "country boy" Viles' passion for local artisan produce and regional botanicals, with techniques to make the most of the plant and animal forms we consume.

    Biota's resident geese and ducks
    It's this respect for Bowral and Southern Highlands biota that has the restaurant tending its own kitchen garden behind the venue, complete with resident geese and ducks and a large greenhouse.

    Snow peas
    I love the idea that the five-course degustation dinner I had earlier this month in Biota's tranquil dining room was a snapshot of the local biota for November 2013; elevating an elegant dinner to some level of historical importance perhaps.

    Trout jerky
    The meal commenced with one of the most delectable amuse bouches I've had all year – an opaque, bright orange slice of cured and air-dried ocean trout in a salty, fishy rendition of jerky, served like a flag sticking out of a block of salt.

    With just the right amounts of smoke, salt, fishiness and chew, the jerky – eaten with the fingers – was something I would want to buy in bulk bags and consume en masse– just divine.

    It was a little while before drinks arrived, the first of my matching wines before my martini though; the latter well made with Hendricks gin and garnished with cucumber and olives.

    House baked bread and butter
    I'd seen chef Viles demonstrate Biota's house-churned smoked butter earlier in the year, served ingeniously on a river stone, and it was a delight to taste its creaminess slathered generously onto the soft, warm, house-baked whole wheat sourdough bread.

    Cucumber, native lime, oysters, bronze fennel
    Our first course was as green as our Southern Highlands surrounds with cucumber – raw with core and skins served separately, and in sorbet form – propping up a single, huge, minerally, raw oyster.

    Foraged bronze fennel fronds joined the plate with an airy foam of, I think, oyster cream for an overall clean, green flavour in what was a subtly-flavoured but impactful course to start, matched with the fruity, local Tertini riesling.

    Chickpea shoots, served at the table
    The next course was much fun from the time it hit the table with a terracotta pot of chickpea sprouts and little scissors for harvesting your own garnish.

    Egg yolk, cooked curds, rye, chickpea
    A dream of a dish, it starred slow cooked and still oozy egg yolk, cushioned on sheets of silky, smooth pasta and cooked curds beneath; pre-cheese, if you will that was creamy but not at all rich.

    Crunchy, butter-cooked rye crumbs added texture while the egg-on-egg encounter of bottarga cured mullet roe shavings contributed the perfect balance of saltiness and a hint of the sea.

    Lightly garnished by yours truly with the intriguingly-flavoured chickpea sprouts, the entire dish came together impressively – definitely a dish that was greater in its whole than the sum of its parts.

    This was served with the 5 Maddens Lane sauvignon blanc which had been pleasantly oaked for five months to dull the tropical flavours of the grape.

    Lamb breast, dried lactose, young oats, sorrel
    Meatier dished followed with the sticky, caramelised, fatty lamb breast topped with crisp thins of dried lactose – milky, slightly sweet and pretty much what one would expect of this entirely unexpected ingredient.

    Young sprigs of sorrel and puffed oats decorated the arrangement which was set on something milky and curd-like that was rather unmemorable, served with the also local Pulpit Rock chardonnay.

    Duck, pine, cauliflower, pear, white raisins
    A rare-cooked duck dish was the final savoury offering; a slice of duck breast paired with a jus of sweet white raisins and cauliflower foam. The sweet, earthy flavours of the dish were matched to a young Rotherwood shiraz from the Southern Highlands.

    Topped with impossibly thinly-shaved cauliflower and what I think was crisp pear skin, the dish was garnished with pine needles which added theatre although were a little difficult to eat. This dish seemed somewhat autumnal to me but had echoes of my experience at Marque many years ago.

    Liquid nitrogen mixed with meringue
    Having seen a few desserts head out earlier in the night, it was with pure excitement that we awaited our dessert being prepared at the table with the help of liquid nitrogen.

    Liquid nitrogen was added and mixed with an egg white mixture with rose petals that formed a frozen meringue served atop the rest of the dessert; its cold steam drawing looks from around the room every time it was served.

    Mum's roses: stonefruit sorbet, rose meringue, peach gel
    The 'Mum's roses' dessert comprised peaches and perhaps apricots in various forms: a firm gel, sorbet, a wedge of peach in its raw form and a creamy quenelle – all topped with rose petals from flowers grown by Viles' mother in the garden outside.

    Mum's roses: stonefruit sorbet, rose meringue peach gel
    Topped with the chilled rose meringue at the table, the dessert was made a dramatic and spectacular sight with flavours of summer and romance in one bowl. Indeed, the rose meringue was an amazing addition to the dessert and end to the enlightening meal.

    Biota Rooms
    We were able to catch chef Viles for a quick chat after dinner – he is clearly someone who enjoys what he's doing. It's been a great year for chef Viles and it's just onwards and upwards for Biota now.

    We also had a nosy peek at the huge kitchen and equally spacious bar area where diners can drink and eat from a separate bar menu. The Biota Dining space actually huge and with the new, added luxury of being able to stroll over to the adjoining Biota Rooms accommodation to sleep the off the meal and matching wines.

    And as for Bowral in November 2013, it sure was a special place and time.

    Biota Dining on Urbanspoon

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    If change is as good as a holiday, the Royal Randwick racecourse has been on a massive vacation that's rejuvenated its heart and soul.

    Having missed most of the bigger Spring Racing Carnival race days at Royal Randwick this year, I was delighted to be able to make the De Bortoli Wine Appreciation Luncheon earlier last month, which was as much a showcase for the rebuilt grandstand and ballrooms, as it was a wide range of De Bortoli Wines.

    BellaRiva Pinot Grigio Vermentino 2012 by De Bortoli Wines
    The beauty of the ballroom lunch was shelter away from the elements that General Admission would endure, access to the upper grandstand, in-room betting facilities and endless tastings of De Bortoli's broad range of wines under a number of labels and price points.

    For example, the BellaRiva label range with a Pinot Grigio Vermentino blend hailing from Victoria's King Valley is a great sub-$20 option with the latter grape adding intriguing complexity, differentiating itself from the masses of pinot grigio on shelves.

    De Bortoli Wine Appreciation Luncheon at Level 2 Ballroom, 9 November 2013, Royal Randwick Racecourse, Randwick

    Tea smoked chicken, fennel radish slaw, sesame seeds, dill
    Matched with the Pinot Grigio Vermentino was a mound of tea-smoked chicken slices; a worthy drop going up against strong smoky flavours. The breast was served with a refreshing slaw of fennel and radish with a dill and sesame dressing.

    Gnocchi con Ragu di Maiale - potato gnocchi with pork shoulder ragu
    The alternate entree was the signature dish of Locale, the restaurant in De Bortoli's Yarra Valley estate. Luciously light pillows of potato gnocchi were served up with a relatively light but flavourful ragu of pork shoulder and vegetables, topped with chopped herbs and cheese.

    While it could well have been a cool weather dish, the match with De Bortoli's Yarra Valley Estate Grown Chardonnay 2011 was a spring day's delight.

    Betting facilities in the Level 2 Ballroom, Royal Randwick
    I put down a few inter-meal bets on the day's races, with very little luck in what wasn't a big Sydney race day, although with a still dressed-up, jolly crowd: fascinators and glam dresses for the ladies and of course, shirts, ties and jackets for the boys.

    Seared citrus Atlantic salmon fillet, artichoke white bean mash, roasted cherry tomato chutney
    To mains, the seared salmon fillet was placed before me, interestingly with the Vinoque Gamay Noir 2011.

    Being an oilier, heavier fish, the light, cherry notes of the wine matched surprisingly with the salmon, which was served on a bed of artichoke and white bean mash with asparagus and a grilled lemon half.

    Oven roasted lamb rump, crushed rosemary potatoes, roast truss cherry tomatoes, green herbs
    The alternate main was a huge serving of roasted lamb rump, impressively medium-pink within for a large group lunch. The dark, rich jus was an absolute highlight, flavouring the meat, potatoes, beans and picturesque roasted cherry tomatoes.

    De Bortoli Yarra Valley Estate Grown Syrah 2010
    I have a penchant for big, bold reds like shiraz and the De Bortoli Yarra Valley Estate Grown Syrah 201 didn't disappoint. Peppery and rich with dark berry notes, the Syrah together with the lamb rump alone could have made the lunch.

    Lemon curd tart, vanilla mascarpone cream
    At dessert we were treated to De Bortoli's award-winning dessert wines: the deliciously palate-coating, honeyed De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon 2010 and the heavier, fortified De Bortoli Black Noble.

    I'm not one to say no to stickies and fortified wines, especially the Noble One being one of the best stickies out there. It went with dandily with the generously-sized lemon curd tart with a facinator-like tuille, passionfruit sauce and the most delightful, torched mini meringues.

    Layered dark chocolate tile, white chocolate ice cream, chocolate crumb
    The sophisticated fortified Black Noble matched beautifully with the sweet, moussey chocolate dessert without issue, although the white chocolate ice cream with violet candy was actually my favourite part.

    Miniature Royal Randwick signature scones with preserves and whipped cream
    As the races went on, the lunch concluded with Royal Randwick's signature miniature scones with jam and whipped cream so despite any losses it would all still end on a sweet note.

    While I always appreciate a good day at Royal Randwick and any opportunity to wear a fascinator, the De Bortoli Wine Appreciation Luncheon was another step up from that. Giddy up and keep your eyes peeled for the next one.

    Level 2 Ballroom at Royal Randwick
    (Image courtesy of ATC)
    Food, booze and shoes attended the De Bortoli Wine Appreciation Luncheon at Royal Randwick Racecourse as a guest.

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    The emergence of regional cuisine in recent years - from Italian to Chinese to Thai - signals a maturation of the Sydney dining scene.

    Being less common and familiar to us Sydney-siders, it was with excitement and intrigue that I visited Popolo in Rushcutters Bay, which opened to rave reviews earlier this year with its southern Italian offerings.

    Bellini at Popolo, McLachlan Avenue, Rushcutters Bay
    Popolo's two co-owners, formerly of Fratelli Paradiso, have taken on a space beneath a block of apartments in the pricey inner city suburb, introducing produce and wines from emerging regions in southern Italy to the people.

    Bright and airy during a Sunday lunch, it was entirely appropriate to start with a bellini, made with peach puree and topped with prosecco and an orange zest garnish that tried to poke the drinker's eyes out.

    Bread and olive oil
    A bowl of bread was brought to the table, foccacia and a hole-riddled white bread, with salt and an adorably small cast iron frypan filled with olive oil.

    Principessa pizza
    Continuing on the carbohydrate path, we chose a pizza to share given Naples in the south of Italy is regarded as the home of the modern pizza.

    Despite the base and crust of the pizza being a little thicker than I was expecting, the pizza still went a little soggy with the load of fresh and tasty tomato sauce and so was best eaten with cutlery or folded over.

    The stretchy, melted buffalo mozzarella cheese was an absolute highlight, of the day even, with the pretty but impractical whole basil leaf garnish.

    Carpaccio di gamberi - prawn carpaccio with housemade sour cream, capers, freeze dried mandarin
    The entrée special of the day was an irresistible carpaccio of prawns. Served raw and flattened, the prawns had a wonderful creaminess, enhanced with dabs of Popolo's house-made sour cream and and salty capers.

    Oil and a hint of vinegar lightly dressed the prawn carpaccio with segments of freeze-dried mandarin adding the finishing citrusy touch to an unusual but spectacular daily special.

    Fregola with blue swimmer crab and tomato
    From the pasta menu, offered in the one mains size, the fregola was the popular pick for its promise of crustacean goodness.

    Featuring picked blue swimmer crab flesh and a crab leg, the hearty and firm fregola pasta basked in a fresh tomato sauce with delectable hints of the sea and soft, squishy cherry tomatoes.

    Squid ink tagliatelle with heirloom tomatoes, poached tuna belly and bottarga
    I didn't taste the inky black tagliatelle which was a striking dish of wide, squid ink noodles in sauce of yellow-orange heirloom tomatoes with poached tuna belly hidden beneath and sprinkled atop with bottarga cured and dried mullet roe.

    Pesce - market fish of Spanish mackerel with cauliflower and white bean puree
    I chose the day's market fish of Spanish mackerel, which I was looking forward to as my only prior tasting of the fish has been in its raw nigiri sushi form. The Spanish mackerel was served simply pan-fried on a creamy white bean puree, circled by cauliflower florets.

    The thick fillets of Spanish mackerel were very well cooked with crisp, golden skin and its meaty flesh retaining moisture. While a beautiful fillet of fish, the mackerel dish could have used some bigger flavours and even a cheek of lemon wouldn't have gone to waste.

    Rocket and grana padano salad
    A medium sized bowl of oil-dressed rocket and grana padano cheese shavings completed the meal as our shared side dish.

    N & C - coffee-scented white chocolate, hazelnut mousse, hazelnut crumble
    Popolo's exotic list of Italian cheeses tempted me more than any cheese list I've come across in Sydney, but being a little too keen on the pizza earlier, I just couldn't do it.

    I could barely manage one mouthful of the deceptively petite dessert of chocolate cream, hazelnut mousse and nutty praline. It was both one of the smallest and richest desserts I've tasted, felling the rest of the table with its intense sweetness and creaminess.

    We could have sat and lingered with the chilled Sunday lunch crowd, drinking the afternoon away people watching, although there isn't too much of a view other than the well-heeled locals. While it's not a trip to Naples or the Amalfi Coast, Popolo's bringing a part of southern Italy to the people of Sydney.

    Popolo on Urbanspoon

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    I've always wanted to do the full Christmas table decorations and theming, but large family, outdoor Christmas lunches aren't really conducive to such festive pomp and finery.

    Nonetheless, I got to admire a few fabulous examples last night at the preview of David Jones' Christmas Lunch in The Lacquer Room; a fantastic event space on Level 7 of the Elizabeth Street, Sydney store that overlooks lush Hyde Park and onto St Mary's Cathedral.

    Christmas table settings on display in The Lacquer Room, Level 7, David Jones, Elizabeth Street, Sydney
    For the very first time, the David Jones Sydney store is putting on a Christmas Lunch from 18-23 December 2013.

    The Lacquer Room will be open to the public with lunch, morning tea and high tea offerings by Pearl Catering. The bright, airy space will be set for a maximum of 60 diners, serviced by a concealed pop-up kitchen.

    The Lacquer Room
    With Champagne Pommery on pour for the preview evening (normally $18 per glass; David Jones American Express Platinum Card members receive a complimentary glass on arrival), it was a fantastic opportunity to not only admire the Christmas table settings but also the Hyde Park tree-top views and classic herringbone parquetry floor.

    From the lunch menu there are four mains options - vegetarian pumpkin and ricotta tortellini, pan fried snapper, roast turkey breast and a grilled pork cutlet - and three dessert options.

    Crisp skin snapper with fennel puree, asparagus, sugar snap peas and sauce vierge
    The meaty snapper looked an absolute delight, fragrant with fresh dill and micro herbs. The skin pan fried crisply and the fish gorgeously moist, it was served with an interesting puree of fennel and green vegetables on the side.

    Roast turkey breast brushed with herb butter, potato puree and a terrine of macadamia and brioche with Cumberland sauce
    The roast turkey was served as two slices of tender breast, juicy even without the fruity Cumberland sauce and melting pat of fresh herb butter.

    Rather than traditional stuffing, the turkey was served with a clever bread-y terrine of macadamia nuts and brioche, with potato puree filling up the festive plate. A dressed green salad to share among the table was served on the side.

    Summer berries and mascarpone trifle
    We got to sample all three desserts on the menu, starting with the very light and subtle trifle of summer berries. Topped with chocolate shavings, I think the light mascarpone cheese made it an airier dessert than traditional custard would be, while there was also minimal cake in the stemless glass.

    Dark chocolate tart with Cointreau strawberries and chantilly
    On the other end of the dessert scale was the exceedingly rich dark chocolate ganache tart served as a thin wedge with a crumbly, short pastry.

    The Cointreau-steeped strawberry segments were a revelatory delight of fruit and booze, while the vanilla bean chantilly cream added even more luxe richness to the silky ganache tart.

    Steamed Christmas pudding with brandy anglaise
    Just right was the steamed Christmas pudding, packed full with sweet dried fruit. The warm cake itself was light and airy perfection, particularly when drizzled with the thick and creamy crème anglaise with just the tiniest hint of brandy.

    Christmas table setting display in The Lacquer Room
    The table service was exemplary, but you wouldn't expect any less from David Jones. Combined with the unbeatable view, thoroughly charming surrounds and a live string quartet playing Christmas carols (and oddly, songs from "The Sound of Music"), I feel like I've already had my traditional Christmas dinner for the year.

    See more photos on my Facebook page. For full details and tickets for the David Jones Christmas Lunch, see the website.

    Food, booze and shoes attended a preview of the David Jones Christmas Lunch in The Lacquer Room as a guest.

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    I love the way the Harajuku Gyoza menu gets diners in the mood: "You are like a hungry salaryman in a Japanese izakaya. You are thirsty and your appetite is big like Godzilla." All Japanese quirk and just a little bit of sense.

    Harajuku Gyoza logo, Bayswater Road, Kings Cross
    From Brisbane's Fortitude Valley comes this cute-as-a- button dumpling and beer joint, specialising in all manner of Japanese gyoza dumplings in the heart of Kings Cross, a couple of doors down from Hugos Bar Pizza.

    While more a cutesy, recognisable name than anything representative of the Harajuku area in Tokyo, the Sydney outpost of Harajuku Gyoza has a fittingly fun fitout that’s all wooden furniture and colourful plates and service that hint at the sometimes crazy Japanese pop culture.

    Sake being served
    One unnamed type of sake is served chilled, with great ceremony and noise, traditionally into a glass sitting in a masu box to catch the overflow.

    There's also Kirin beer on tap, beers by the bottle (including the pricey but one of my favourites – Hitachino Nest White Ale), Kirin's new Fuji apple cider and a few select wines.

    Cucumber and miso salad
    Food arrived pretty quickly after ordering, and you get the feeling it's really not a place to sit and linger over drinks.

    We started, healthily, with a small salad of peeled, raw cucumber dressed liberally in a sweet, strong yellow miso soybean paste, sprinkled with sesame seeds.

    Gyoza condiments
    Seated at the counter, we had a direct view to the gyoza cooking stations – both poached and grilled versions.

    Made daily and then frozen to avoid sogginess, the meat and vegetable fillings wrapped in dough were either dropped into a boiling pot or lined up into a custom gyoza grill press with a fair bit of oil for crisp bottoms.

    Grilled lobster tail gyoza 
    We sampled the special of lobster tail grilled gyoza: thin, chewy and crisp wrappers with a coarsely chopped filling that somewhat resembled lobster in texture though less so in taste. From the condiments selection, I added vinegar sauce and chilli oil.

    Poached duck gyoza 
    From the regular menu we went with poached duck gyoza and traditional grilled pork ones – both versions unexpectedly meaty.

    The duck gyoza were ideal poached, with a slight gaminess to the filling differentiating it from usual styles and quite tasty with the condiments.

    Grilled pork gyoza 
    Pork gyoza are about one of my favourite things in the world and it was probably high expectations that let me down.

    As odd as it may sound, I found Harajuku Gyoza's pork variety too meaty, with insufficient cabbage and other seasonings – minced pork overload, if you will. The dough wrappers though, I adored and could eat on their crisp lonesome.

    Tenpura eggplant
    To more substantial but still izakaya style dishes, we started with "tenpura" eggplant: lightly battered, pre cut into wedges for easy eating. Soft and squishy within, the oily fried eggplant was served in a pool of a vinegary sauce.

    Pork belly kakuni
    An impressively-sized serve, the pork belly kakuni comprised four blocks of rich, braised pork belly in layers of fat and meat, the latter unfortunately dry.

    It was heavy eating, even with steamed rice on the side, while an acidic condiment, mustard even, would have helped cut through the fattiness.

    Harajuku Gyoza exterior 
    We ended up having to take leftovers of the pork belly home, and it turned out a little better the next day. There wasn't room for dessert gyoza on this occasion, but that joins the basket I'd rarely touch anyway, along with dessert pizza.

    They make no apologies for being an eat-and-run venue, and I can see a fair few spontaneous meals and dumpling cravings getting sorted at Harajuku Gyoza, despite there being better dumplings around town.

    "It must be perfect or we get your sad face. We want your happy face," says the menu. It's gyoza and it's pretty darn adorable – you get the happy face.

    Food, booze and shoes dined as a guest of Harajuku Gyoza.

    Harajuku Gyoza on Urbanspoon

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    It's most certainly that wonderful time of the year: Christmas is almost here and even closer for the lucky ones who don't have to be at work these next two days.

    Christmas in Sydney is synonymous with summer, cold prawns, mango and pavlova for me, and I'm planning to have all this on the lunch table in two days' time for Christmas.

    Pavlova, made with ingredients courtesy of Aldi Australia
    I've had all sorts of pavlovas: completely store bought and dressed; store-bought bases and self-dressed; ones made from those little plastic egg things; and this year, one made from scratch by yours truly.

    Aldi ingredients (eggs excluded) mise en place
    Earlier this month I was sent a package of Christmas goodies from Aldi Australia supermarkets, with thanks to PPR.

    Aside from a huge range of Aldi's Christmas products like fruit cake, panettone, fruit mince pies and German specialties like marzipan stollen, glazed lebkuchen(so addictive) and pfeffernüsse, I also received most of the ingredients to make a pavlova - that iconic Australasian fluffy meringue cake, topped with cream and fresh fruit.

    Whipped meringue
    Having had some disastrous experiences previously with various types of meringues, there was trepidation and fairly exact measuring of caster sugar, corn flour and white vinegar into the stiffly beaten egg whites.

    In the end, I think I beat the egg whites on higher speed and for longer than the Aldi recipe suggested, but I felt safer for it.

    Meringue tower
    The very stiff, glossy peaks meant that I could pile the meringue high without it foaming and collapsing on me - and for me, that's an achievement.

    Shaped meringue in oven
    In any case it needed to be shaped as a round cake to fit into a new cake carrier I have, and so it was flattened and gingerly rounded before entering a low heat oven for an hour and a half.

    I seem to have issues following recipes but despite a slight hiccup in the cooking timing, upon removing the meringue after overnight cooling in the turned-off oven, it looked like a proper pavlova with a crisp outer shell, and soft, marshmallow-y insides.

    Finished pavlova
    However, it would need to be decorated and served up at a gathering before I could really know what the insides would be like - much more nerve-racking than normal cakes where you can just stick in a skewer.

    I was supplied with thickened cream for whipping, and punnets of raspberries, blueberries, strawberries and white peaches for decorating my pavlova - that skill of which needs a little work yet.

    And to the all-important fluffy centre and taste test?

    Pavlova innards (all that was left at the picnic!)
    Success. It was perfectly soft and fluffy within, and even a little densely so which is how I like my pav. There was a decent thickness to the crisp outside shell, which had gained just a little colour in the oven.

    The soft meringue itself was sweet, but not overly so while some commented that there was no minerally flavour that sometimes comes from the eggs.

    In all, a win - a great, simple recipe that with a bit of refining on my behalf will be perfect for Christmas Day.

    I'd like to wish everyone a very happy, merry and stress-free Christmas - I hope it's filled with great food and booze, presents, laughter and the love of family, friends and the jolly man in red.

    Food, booze and shoes received pavlova ingredients and Christmas products from Aldi Australia, with thanks to PPR.

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  • 12/26/13--13:30: A fond farewell to 2013
  • Another year, another 12 months of great food-ing and boozing around town. While sadly, there was no overseas trip this year, 2013 has been a period of steady progress, major birthdays, my fair share of weddings and events, and a general feeling of calmness before what I expect to be a hectic 2014.

    No doubt there will be changes next year - some, not really that big a deal; others, massive and life-changing. There will also be some changes to Food, Booze and Shoes following its half-decade milestone earlier this month, so keep an eye out.

    But before I get ahead of myself, here are my food, booze and events highlights from 2013.


    Bocata de buey– air baguette, Rost Biff wagyu, Tocino de Cielo, pickled and black garlic from MoVida Sydney, Surry Hills
    This was finally the year of MoVida for me. My first and third tastes of Frank Camorra's growing restaurant empire came thanks to their move north from Melbourne to Sydney's Surry Hills.

    The fitout, the vibe and the menu at MoVida Sydney are all incredibly spot on, but particularly the memorable air baguette crisp, draped with stunning wagyu beef and topped with garlic - easily one of the best tapas I've ever had the pleasure of encountering.

    Deconstructed cassoulet from The Owl House, Darlinghurst
    One of my favourite discoveries of the year has been small bar and restaurant, The Owl House. It's been around for a couple of years already but I came across the wonder that is its matching cocktail degustation.

    I may have rolled out of there but I certainly remember the very delectable, homely but fancy deconstructed cassoulet of a white bean stew, confit duck, braised pork shoulder and sausage. Matched with one of several cocktails, it's a guaranteed winner of a night out.

    Trout jerky from Biota Dining, Bowral
    I made the trip south to Bowral earlier this year and stayed at Biota Rooms; a new accommodation offering right next to Biota Dining, which received two hats in this year's Good Food Guide.

    Destination dining at its best, Biota's seven course degustation was impressive yet fun, and started with an absolutely banging amuse bouche: air dried, jerky style ocean trout that was dreamily smoky, chewy and salty.

    Pan fried fish dumplings from ShanDong Mama, Melbourne
    Many a dumpling was consumed this year, as in most years, with a standout being the pan fried, open ended fish dumplings in Melbourne's ShanDong Mama.

    A simple eatery in a Chinatown arcade, the north-east Chinese offerings include these home-made dumplings with an airy fish, coriander and ginger filling, wrapped in thin, chewy skins pan fried for hot, crisp bottoms.

    Ash grilled duck, Jerusalem artichoke, prunes in Banyuls, potato horns, truffle from The Bridge Room, Sydney
    As part of a product launch collaboration, I dined at two-hatted The Bridge Room and left a fan of chef Ross Lusted's restaurant and cooking philosophy.

    My favourite was his ash grilled duck dish, cooked then grilled over binchotan white charcoal and served most artistically with a jerusalem artichoke puree, prunes, potato skins and black truffle shavings. So special and utterly mouthwatering.

    Roasted oysters from Ester, Chippendale
    From someone who didn't eat raw oysters several years to now, a bit of a Sydney rock oyster fiend, I've had some great oyster experiences this year - none more so than the roasted oysters from Chippendale newcomer Ester.

    Plump and shell free, these lightly warmed oysters served with diced eschallots and vinaigrette were oyster eating heaven.

    Crispy pata from La Mesa, Haymarket
    The crunchy pork skin of the crispy pata at La Mesa was part of my introduction to Filipino cuisine and unsurprisingly, I want more. Audibly shattering skin with still juicy pork underneath, there's plenty to like about the meat-centric cuisine of the Philippines.

    Salade Niçoise from Cafe Nice, Circular Quay
    It's a big call, saying the Niçoise salad at Cafe Nice is one of the best salads ever. But it was definitely one of the freshest, tastiest and most exquisitely filling salads I've ever had featuring hunks of poached tuna and salty anchovies with a refreshing vinaigrette dressing over loads of delicately sliced vegetables.

    Chilli fries from Beach Burrito, Newtown
    This year chilli fries rose to the ranks of my favourite hangover food. The combination of fried potato, spicy mince, handfuls of (cheap) melted cheese and Tex-Mex style sour cream and guacamole on the side at Newtown's Beach Burrito soothed and fixed at least several seedy mornings-after over the last 12 months.

    Spiced school prawns & smoked chilli mayo from Anatoli, Bondi Junction
    Whole fried school prawns are definitely a 'thing' in Sydney now and the best I've come across are the spiced ones at modern Greek restaurant, Anatoli, in The Eastern adjoining Westfield Bondi Junction.

    Crunchy without too many sharp prawn head bits, the spice was just right on the fresh little crustaceans which were served with a chilli mayonnaise - possibly also Sydney's new favourite condiment.

    Banoffee tart from Cafe Sopra, Alexandria
    I've been a long time fan of the Cafe Sopra restaurants around town but it was only this year at the new Alexandria outpost that I tried their banoffee tart, which is firmly fixed on the Cafe Sopra dessert menu.

    It's a glorious construction of biscuit base, gooey caramel, whipped cream and thin slices of fresh banana. With a bit of everything in each mouthful, it's an orgasmic tart with a perfect balance of sweetness and textures.

    Booze and events

    Plan-ting cocktail from The Lobo Plantation, Sydney
    It was another great year for small bars, especially in the Sydney CBD. My favourite of the new lot, and CBD bars generally now, is The Lobo Plantation with its atmospheric, themed underground space and broad-ranging rum offerings.

    With complimentary plaintain chips and an excellent bar menu, I love perching at the bar while working through the cocktail list and watching the fun, friendly bartenders doing their thing.

    Dita von Teese for Cointreau at The Victoria Room, Darlinghurst
    It's not every year you meet the world's most famous burlesque star. Dita von Teese was behind the bar at The Victoria Room earlier this year, mixing Cointreau drinks and cocktails in her role as global brand ambassador for the liqueur.

    Opera on Sydney Harbour's Carmen, Sydney Harbour
    (Photo by James Morgan, courtesy of Opera Australia)
    I still get chills thinking back to this year's Opera on Sydney Harbour. The passionate love story of Carmen played out in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House is spectacle enough, but complemented with a wide-ranging array of Spanish-themed food options by Fresh Catering made it a night at the opera like no other.

    Mike McEnearney of Kitchen by Mike at Taste of Sydney, Centennial Park
    I think I say it every year, but Taste of Sydney just keeps getting bigger and better. Having attended at least once every year since the restaurant festival commenced, it's with a sense of pride that I get to attend, eat and drink from some of Sydney's finest restaurants in the (mostly) glorious Centennial Park outdoors.

    This year we said farewell to:
    Albion Street Kitchen (which turned into the wildly-popular Chur Burger), Alio, Aseana Food VillageCara & Co, Claude's, Concrete BlondeDanks Street Depot, Duke Bistro, Guerilla Bar and Restaurant, North Bondi Italian Food, the monorail, Restaurant Atelier, Roxanne, Selah, Spiedo, The Alibi, The Falconer, and soon, Guillaume at Bennelong.

    On the other hand, there have been plenty of new openings that have made2013 an excitingyear inSydneyfood anddrinking.

    I know I'll look back on 2013 fondly in years to come. Thank you to all my readers and followers for all your support and kind comments throughout the year here, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

    Here's to another great year - 
    I'm looking forward to sharing exciting news, and amazing Food, Booze and Shoes with you in 2014.

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