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Oz at the head of the table

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Put me at a table at one of the most spectacular beaches in the world where I can look down and practically see the stitching on the surfers' wetsuits as they angle to catch a wave. The light has the clarity of late fall. Not a shred of cloud in the sky. The glass doors to the terrace are open; the salt-laden breeze plays over the white linen tablecloth, across the sparkling silverware. I take a sip of light, fragrant red. I twirl the spaghetti around my fork, admiring the violet of the clam shells against the green-gold olive oil and the emerald parsley in my spaghetti alle vongole verace.

It could be the Amalfi Coast, maybe Capri, but it's not.

Think major metropolis. And what are the chances, really, that at this restaurant with a view, the pasta and every other dish would be so delicious in the moment — and the stuff of daydreams months later?

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.

Chefs' secrets 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.

We adjourned for lunch at Spice I Am, a hole in the wall in the Surry Hills district, which is on its way to becoming Sydney's Soho. Muir, and her husband, Franz Scheurer, are both food writers and this is one of their favorite Thai places. When they first found it, they made a pact with their colleagues not to write about it. Scheurer, though, couldn't resist describing it, and in food-obsessed Sydney, the pursuit was on.

The stuff is fiery and complex; medium is hair-raising some days, less so others. Presentation is zero.

We went to a little place around the corner called the Wall for coffee where businessmen in Armani suits sipped espresso while perched on plastic milk crates set out on the sidewalk. Some young cutting-edge architects designed the space using recycled materials. I liked the fact that the newspaper was posted on the wall so you could read it while you drank your latte.

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.

Electrifying cuisineNEXT 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.

The restaurant itself is so plain it's almost stark, but this guy really can cook and right now he's on a roll. A remarkable meal began with an Arpège tribute: a soft-boiled egg in the shell with maple cream and sherry vinegar to eat with salt-encrusted grissini. It was magic.

The couple next to us were celebrating their 44th anniversary and eating with noticeable attention and pleasure. It turns out they're Best's oldest customers; they've followed him from restaurant to restaurant.

There are many great dishes in the tasting menu: namely, blue swimmer crab with almond gazpacho and a fragile almond jelly garnished with freshly pressed prune oil and smoky herring roe. The almond jelly takes you to the edge of sweetness and then drops back, and it's wonderful against the crab. There is an exquisite foie gras crème caramel served with a julienned radish salad and pinches of dried olive with palm sugar to dip the edge of the foie gras.

Foam appeared just once in a lobster broth so intense that a spoonful stood in for the entire crustacean. Heaven with a dainty Parmesan custard submerged in the broth. The meal went on and on: lamb sweetbreads with sea urchin and winter purslane, squab breast with blood sausage and chestnuts, venison with a tiny amount of intense dark chocolate sauce, and for dessert, goat cheese marshmallow and custard apple, among others.

Best had a savvy wine list and excellent wine service, but the real pleasure of the restaurant was the highly personal food. When Fred called to make a reservation and asked whether the chef would be cooking that night, it was the chef himself who was on the phone. "I do a bit of everything," he said, laughing.

We added that reservation on the spur of the moment. The one for Tetsuya was made months before. Otherwise, it's impossible to get in. The setting is lovely, a free-standing building built in a contemporary style with a serene Japanese garden at its heart.

There's just one menu a night, and the food just keeps coming. It was all delicate and interesting but more familiar than I expected from a chef billed as one of the true originals. He probably is, but so many people have passed through Tetsuya Wakuda's kitchen that his style has penetrated far and wide.

Highlights included Tasmanian and South Australian oysters with ginger and rice vinegar, confit of Tasmanian ocean trout with konbu, daikon and fennel, and ravioli of lobster and spanner crab. The quality of his grain-fed wagyu (Kobe-style beef) is phenomenal, beautiful against the dusky flavor of chestnut mushroom. Like many Australian chefs, Tetsuya's palate registers subtle contrasts, and that is its sophistication. It demands your attention.

As the cab carried us back to our hotel that night, we passed Harry's Cafe de Wheels at Wooloomooloo Wharf, a stand that's known for meat pies. It's the equivalent of Tommy's Burgers in L.A., a Sydney institution where people go for a bite in the wee hours of the morning, after the opera or a night of club hopping.

That one, I'm sorry to say, got away. Along with a dozen other places on my list. But there's always a next time.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Dig in Down Under

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GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Qantas and United offer nonstop service to Sydney, Qantas offers direct service (stop, no change of planes) and Asiana, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and United offer connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,018.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 61 (country code for Australia), 2 (the local code for Sydney) and the number.

WHERE TO EAT:

Tax and tip generally are included, although at finer restaurants, leave a tip. Prices listed in U.S. dollars.

1. Sailor's Thai, 106 George St., the Rocks; 9251-2466. Very smart and contemporary with a relaxed, urban crowd. Entrees average $24.

2. bill's, 433 Liverpool St., Darlinghurst; 9360-9631. Homey restaurant with a communal table in the middle of the room. Breakfast items. $4-$12.

3. Fish Face Restaurant & Sushi Bar, 132 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst; 9332-4803, http://www.fishface.com.au . Adorable little fish restaurant from former chef at the Pier. Open only at dinner. A handful of tables on the street. The fish and chips are the best on the planet. Entrees $19-$24.

4. Tetsuya's, 529 Kent St.; 9267-2900. Probably the most famous restaurant in Sydney. Has an internal garden. Tasting menu is the only option: $138.

5. Longrain, 85 Commonwealth St., Surry Hills; 9280-2888. Open at lunch, but the real scene is at night. Entrees $19-$30.

6. Marque Restaurant, 355 Crown St., Surry Hills; 9332-2225, http://www.marquerestaurant.com.au . The restaurant is plain, but the French food is amazing. Entrees $23-$34, tasting menu $95 per person.

7. Billy Kwong, 355 Crown St., Shop 3, Surry Hills; 9332-3300. Great fun atmosphere and beautiful people. Chinese armoires, mysterious lighting, astonishing tropical flower arrangements, open kitchen. Entrees $17-$30.

8. Spice I Am, 90 Wentworth Ave., Surry Hills; 9280 0928. Hole-in-the-wall Thai place where people sit on plastic Chinese drum-stools. Entrees $5-$11.

9. The Book Kitchen, 255 Devonshire St., Surry Hills; 9310-1003, http://www.thebookkitchen.com.au . Fun — and new — place in trendy neighborhood. Entrees $9-$22.

10. The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay, at the end of Ferry Road, Glebe; 9518-9011, http://www.boathouse.net.au . Right on the bay. Entrees $29-$32.

11. Pier Restaurant, 594 New South Head Road, Rose Bay; 9327-6561, http://www.pierrestaurant.com.au . Greg Doyle cooks the best and freshest fish in town and serves it in a smart, glass-walled restaurant on a pier. Entrees in the $35 range.

12. Sean's Panaroma, 270 Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach; 9365-4924. Funky beach restaurant with beachy décor, fun atmosphere. Entrees $27-$34.

13. Icebergs on Bondi Beach, 1 Notts Ave., Bondi Beach (at Campbell Parade); 9365-9000, http://www.idrb.com . Lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Sundays. Spectacular setting on Bondi Beach. Entrees $24-$33.

TO LEARN MORE:

Tourism Australia, (800) 333-0262, http://www.australia.com .

— S. Irene Virbila

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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