The stuff is fiery and complex; medium is hair-raising some days, less so others. Presentation is zero.
The quick lunch fueled my anticipation for dinner at Sailor's Thai, a contemporary Thai restaurant from Aussie David Thompson. He became so enamored of Thai cuisine when he visited Bangkok that he stayed and spent several years learning to cook from a master Thai chef. He has had several Thai restaurants, including one in London. Sailor's Thai, though, is unique.
Sailor's Thai, which is in an old sailors' home by the port in the redeveloped district along the wharves called the Rocks, has kept some historic details, such as the fireplace behind the bar and even a wall of crazy subway tiles, and added planes of Venetian plaster — pale pink here, watery green there. Gold silk covers one wall, and the waiters' station is tucked behind a silver leaf cylinder.
I wanted to order everything. A heart-shaped leaf held coconut rice and a single oyster drenched in lime and chile: You roll it up and pop it in your mouth. I loved the pink-fleshed trout and pork relish crowned with glistening trout eggs and paired with a lacy herb fritter, and I especially liked the gorgeous whole fried perch covered with scallions, green herbs, slivered chiles. Dessert was smoked coconut ice cream, with parings of the smoked coconut on top, next to a chunky pineapple ice cream. They're fabulous together.
This is thrilling cooking by any measure. It's not strictly traditional, more a riff on Thai food from a cook who marries a modern sensibility and top-notch Australian ingredients with traditional Thai techniques. The result is transcendent. Everything happens all at once — sweet, hot, sour, herbal. Days later, I was still mulling over this meal, trying to untangle the flavors in my mind.
Set in a sleek, glamorous space in Surry Hills and frequented by the fashionistas and people in black, Longrain is a contemporary Thai from Martin Boetz, a David Thompson alum. The bar scene at night is hyperactive, and on the weekends, there's a DJ.
Start with a Bloody Longrain, a bloody Mary fired with chile jam and an order of oysters on the half-shell with fried shallots, chiles and cilantro, the ocean trout hash on betel leaves or salt and pepper squid fried in elastic tapioca dough so they look like big puffy ears.
The dining room, with its one long communal table, is quite the scene. You may have to wait for a spot. Never mind; just order a sampling of first courses, and study the mains. Intricately spiced red duck curry with bright green chiles laid across the top looks just like Christmas, but it's so deliriously good, I can't stop eating it. Not that or the unctuous caramelized pork hock served with a bowl of vinegar and slivered chiles or the stir-fried prawns with long beans and chiles. And especially not the intense coconut sorbet for dessert. This is citified Thai — a bit sweet but still gutsy.
Australians love breakfast, and one of my first stops in Sydney is bill's, a sunny corner storefront with the menu scribbled on a tall blackboard and a big blond communal table spread with magazines and newspapers. Kids are hoisted on their dads' shoulders, the better to see the muffins, brownies and tarts lined up on the counter. Brown eggs scrambled with sinful amounts of butter and cream are dreamy, but it's the fluffy ricotta pancakes with honeycomb butter that draw me back, more than once, for breakfast. I'd move right in if I could.
Built on a narrow dock, Pier feels like a boat floating on the water. Every table has a view. But it's the seafood that stars. Flavors are clear and pure, the fish cooked mere degrees this side of raw.
When the waiter sets down a beautiful piece of barramundi, for example, he tells me to start at the thinner end, and by the time I get to the thicker end, it will be perfectly cooked. He's not kidding. The fish has an incredible custardy texture and is as fresh as I've ever encountered and cooked with the utmost respect. You can also get chips — fat golden fries — and a risotto of parsley and herbs or a ravioli filled with puréed artichokes. And for dessert, a perfect soufflé.
One of Pier's original chef-partners, Steve Hodges, recently opened his own place with a casual vibe and affordable prices in the more bohemian Darlinghurst area. Fish Face has just a handful of tables with a few more on the sidewalk. His kingfish tartare flavored with lemon oil, chile salt, egg yolk and capers is terrific, but his fish and chips are sublime. Fillets of silvery garfish are cloaked in the lightest batter imaginable (Guinness is part of the secret) and fried in fresh, hot oil.
When I stopped by later to see the prep kitchen at Fish Face, Hodges explained that he buys mostly fish that have been spiked (killed immediately after being caught) so the fish isn't stressed. He then stores the fish whole in a "static" refrigerator — no fans or moving air so the skin doesn't dry out. And that's inside a walk-in, so when he opens the door, the temperature differential isn't huge. He'll fillet a fish a couple of hours before serving, put the fillets back in the fridge and just before opening, cut six or so portions and take them upstairs to the smaller fridge in the kitchen. This way the fish stays as fresh and cool as possible.
I loved staying in Darlinghurst because I could walk to Fish Face and to bill's. I could walk to Surry Hills for breakfast at Book Kitchen, a new cafe and cookbook store that serves poached eggs on toast. The book selection told me a lot about Australian cooks. It is mostly foreign cookbooks, old and new classics. But I also found a cookbook from Maurizio Terzini of Icebergs and a wonderful book of essays by Gay Bilson, one of the founders of the food scene in Australia.
I worked up an appetite for Billy Kwong by walking there, expecting to find a line outside the door to the small modern Chinese restaurant, but we got lucky. We were seated on the low three-legged stools at a table near the window right away. The crowd is models, actors and hangers-on, tourists and food hounds.
Kylie Kwong is the founder. The restaurant is all-organic and expensive for a place where you sit on stools. Still, I liked some of the food a lot: scallop wontons in chile oil with trailing tails, pleated vegetable dumplings, home-style eggs with red chile, and duck with mandarin oranges and a sheaf of cinnamon sticks. The latter is very sweet, but Kwong's amps up the flavors. There's nothing wimpy about her Chinese cooking, but I was expecting a little more.
NEXT door, in another small storefront, is Marque, a French restaurant from Mark Best, a former electrician who got tired of crawling around trailing wires and decided to try the restaurant business. He fell in love with cooking on his first day on the job at the excellent Bistro Moncur in Sydney. Later, he went off to Paris and apprenticed for months at the three-star L'Arpège.