It could be the Amalfi Coast, maybe Capri, but it's not.
About zilch. Anywhere, that is, except Sydney.
Nobody does the sexy, beachy restaurant better. Funny thing is, Sydney seems to do practically every other genre spectacularly well too. So much so that this city of 3 million has become a mecca of sorts for anybody serious enough about food to get on a plane and fly 16 hours to get here.
Not only are those restaurants-with-a-view astonishing — by rights, they needn't be very good at all — but Sydney also has enticing candidates of nearly every ilk, including high-concept French, serious seafood houses, contemporary Asian and cafes that serve breakfast with such sunny optimism you feel nothing can go wrong again. Ever.
In the States, Australian food is construed as fusion. Far from it. Young American chefs love to take a taste from here, another from there and mix it up into one big Asian stew, often without knowing much about the cuisines they're fusing. Australian chefs tend to keep it pure and cook Thai or Chinese or Vietnamese with a logic and integrity that are impressive.
I'm convinced it's because many of them grew up on the Asian food found in the cities. Australia is so far from everything that it has become a rite of passage to go traveling, not just for a couple of weeks but often for a couple of years, staying abroad to work and learn. The best Australian chefs have caught the soul of a cuisine, so whatever they cook rings true.
When The Times asked me where I'd most like to go to eat in the world, I zeroed in on Sydney, which I'd had in my sights for a while, so much so that my list of restaurants to try kept expanding at an alarming rate. I also had to see whether the raves I'd been hearing about the restaurant scene there were the real turtle soup. Or merely the mock.
But back to the beach. I was sure that Icebergs, a blindingly white futuristic box built on top of a swimming club at Bondi Beach, would be a tourist trap, Sydney's equivalent of Gladstone's 4 Fish on Pacific Coast Highway. But in this sprawling seaside city, which melds the beauty of Seattle with the energy of L.A., the forces for good eating have somehow won out over the philistines.
At this sophisticated urban Italian restaurant, my husband, Fred, and I feasted on sweet little gamberetti (shrimp) with textbook aioli and grilled quail with verjuice (unfermented grape juice) and red and green grapes on a bed of vine leaves. But the pièce de résistance was chargrilled salt-crusted rib-eye on the bone, dripping with juices and served with a lemon wedge to cut the salt. Dessert was a phenomenal handmade torronne studded with hazelnuts and pistachios.
Sydney knows how to do the fun and funky thing too. On the other side of the beach is Sean's Panaroma, which is more Chez Panisse in spirit. Tables are crammed together. The dishes are scrawled on little blackboards hanging from the ceiling, and the waiters negotiate the happy clamor with good grace.
No table left? They'll give you a blanket to wrap yourself in and a table outside. The food is simple and direct: tiny golden fried whitebait and impeccable deep-fried swimmer crabs with lemon and aioli, guinea hen with chestnut stuffing and Brussels sprouts, and marvelous, tender veal scaloppine with chorizo and sage. We don't have anything like this at the beach in Southern California.
For my first meal in Sydney, a well-informed friend suggested the Boathouse at Blackwattle Bay. We could try some local oysters and the new chef, Martin Bonn, formerly chef de cuisine at Tetsuya's, the original restaurant from Tetsuya Wakuda.
The Boathouse sits on a quiet little bay atop the building where a women's rowing club stores its boats. It looks weathered and funky from the outside, but upstairs it's one big room with windows all around, a view from every table and a glassed-in state-of-the-art kitchen.
We started with a tasting of oysters, including the locally prized angosi. They are shucked to order and absolutely terrific. Some are brinier than others, some crisp and sweet, or more minerally. We tried a fragile seaweed custard crowned with slices of rosy barbecued bonita and a dish of bottle squid stuffed with braised oxtail. But I had my heart set on another local specialty: mud crab.
When I removed the carapace, I found a vivid bouquet of snow peas and scallions beneath, a palette of red and greens worthy of painter Chaim Soutine's brush. The crab, deep-fried and then tossed in a wok with salt and pepper, has a more pronounced flavor than Dungeness.
ACROSS the bay is the futuristic Anzac Bridge and Sydney Fish Market. I went early the next morning to meet Roberta Muir, who runs the cooking school upstairs, where some of Sydney's — and Australia's — top chefs teach classes in cooking seafood. On a walk around the floor, I saw all sorts of sea creatures I'd never encountered before — beautiful blue swimmer crabs, fish with leathery skins, others that were platinum-colored or pink, aqua and gold.