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Rustic romp in Sydney
314 Illawarra Rd, Marrickville
ALEX Elliot-Howery and James Grant are latter-day merchant traders - rather like the general store owners in old cowboy movies where farmers might come by with fresh vegetables or livestock to exchange for sugar, flour or other necessities. In the couple's cosy corner cafe in the fast-gentrifying suburb of Marrickville, a blackboard is constantly updated with the names of people living in the neighbourhood who have supplied them with everything from tomatoes to figs and even eggs.
"We get produce from people who grow stuff in their backyard," says Ms Elliot-Howery. "They have too much, so they bring it to us and trade it for say, our homemade pickles or honey." It's a community effort she and her husband try to promote in what they see as the changing forefront of cafes in Sydney.
The cafe culture tends to be modelled after that of popular chef Bill Granger who created a brunch lifestyle of pancakes and french toast. But while cafes like that supposedly promote a laid-back "healthy" lifestyle, Ms Elliot-Howery says Cornersmith is part of a new generation of artisanal, responsible cafes where food is traceable, sustainable and healthy.
The poached eggs that come with your toast are sourced from a farm with "happy" chickens owned by a couple who have lived in the same neighbourhood for years. The figs might have come from another neighbour, or tomatoes from yet another neighbour's bumper harvest. The residential area is dotted with modest homes with gardens, many with fruit trees and vegetable patches. Nothing goes to waste at Cornersmith which has its own picklery which makes and sells pickles and preserves. It also has its own rooftop beehive, so raw honey is harvested and sold at the shop as well.
The cafe has a warm, homey atmosphere, with hearty simple breakfasts and cafe fare. Check out the breakfast bircher muesli, soups, ploughman's lunch and homemade baked goods and bask in the warm, positive vibes that permeate the space.
Bread and Butter Project
CHANCES are that if you're having a bite at a cafe or in an upscale gourmet store, you'll come across enticing loaves under the quirky label of Bread and Butter Project. The rustic loaves are the result of a social enterprise operation by the well-known Bourke Street Bakery, which offers refugees employment as well as a chance to pick up skills to help them find jobs after their stint at the project is over.
Head of production Laurence Kiely runs the project in an obscure warehouse space in suburban Sydney. There, former Burmese refugee Ma Du kneads, flips and rolls dough like the expert she is, three years after she became the project's first employee. She's stayed at the project ever since, helping to train the newbies from countries as disparate as Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Thailand and Iran. "Our project is self-funding," says Mr Kiely, who adds that the bread is sold only wholesale, to cafes and restaurants. They don't have a retail shop of their own.
"We don't require any experience at all," he explains of the entry requirement. "We train to a level where they can get a job at a bakery." They start work at 4.30am, handmaking bread that is all natural, requiring 36 hours, from the time they start till it gets delivered to the stores. So when you buy a Bread and Butter loaf, it's not just good bread - it's also baked for a good cause.
Black Star Pastry
277 Australia St, Newtown
NEWTOWN, like Marrickville, is yet another fast-gentrifying neighbourhood which used to be riddled with low-rent homes and shops and less-than-savoury residents. Now, more young F&B entrepeneurs have moved in with hipster concepts such that there's a charming dichotomy of old-fashioned dress shops or hair salons, and cool bistros or cafes such as the award-winning Black Star Pastry.
Pastry chef Chris Thé started out as a chef with a fine-dining background before he decided to apply his training to his real love, pastry. He spent a year as pastry chef at top restaurant Quay before striking out on his own in 2008 so he could better juggle his work and life as a new father. His priority as a pastry chef was to break things down to their simplest level and focus on pure, natural flavours. "I wanted to do something more real, stuff that I wanted to eat," he says. Black Star (named after his favourite rock band) Pastry's signature creation is an unusual strawberry watermelon cake - which started out as a wedding cake which was influenced by the Middle East, given its rose petal aroma. It's a fiddly-sounding combination but one that works incredibly well with its balance of flavours and refreshing watermelon that doesn't leak into the delicate sponge as you might expect. Instead, Chef Thé perfected his recipe to ensure that the watermelon stays firm and dry, although the cake will not last longer than a day, so it's best enjoyed at the cafe, which is the flagship shop.
There are other good cakes to try too, namely the Orange Cake with Persian figs or Pistachio Lemon Zen. He also does savouries, like an award-winning lambshank pie.
Continental Deli Bar Bistro
210 Australia St, Newtown
ABOUT one block down from Black Star Pastry is this achingly cool bar-bistro by hip restaurateurs Elvis Abrahanowicz and Joe Valore, who also run Porteño, Gardel's Bar and Bodega and LP's Quality Meats. The place is modelled somewhat after the kind of Spanish deli-bars which specialise in high-end canned seafood that they pop open and serve with potato crisps. At Continental, they can their own seafood using octopus from Fremantle, mussels from Tasmania and clams from Cloudy Bay, to name a few. They also carry a selection of speciality cold cuts and cheeses, and is a good place for a drink and nibbles before a heavy night of clubbing.
The Stinking Bishops
63-71 Enmore Rd, Newtown
THE whole of Enmore Road is an attraction in itself as you can see its evolution from cheap street to cool street, with its mishmash of 1960s/'70s architecture and old school stores, some of which have kept their facades even as the interiors have morphed into present day chic. The Stinking Bishops (named after an English cheese which sums up the main business of this modest eatery) is a charming place for a simple lunch that emphasises homespun flavours with an English spin.
Although cheese is the mainstay here - there's a small number of Australian cheeses out of a good mix of international varieties - but the small menu is well curated and very tasty. The cold pork pie features a dense but flaky pastry encasing a solidly packed meaty filling. If you're so inclined you could also try their pickled eggs, which taste as they sound - very vinegary, hard-boiled eggs.
We highly recommend the Mr Crispy toasted sandwiches which are so good, you may well renege on your original plan to share one with your dining companion. Incredibly crunchy toasted bread, fragrant with butter, holds a decadent mushroom and melted taleggio cheese filling. The wagyu Mr Crispy isn't available when we're there, but is supposed to be worth a try too. Macaroni and cheese is a real looker with its bubbly melted cheese topping, but is underwhelming with too soft pasta and bland cheese.
But the welcoming vibe and the hospitality of co-ower Kieran Day will have you happily coming back for a second Mr Crispy if your stay allows for it.
Hakiki Turkish Ice Cream
63-71 Enmore Road, Newtown
WE wouldn't have stepped into this Turkish ice-cream parlour two doors away from The Stinking Bishops if its co-owner Kieran Day hadn't insisted we just take a look. And we're glad we did as it's our first encounter with genuine, sticky, chewy ice cream that will easily convert you from Italian gelato. Hakiki is run by Turkish couple Nev and Zeynep Bagriyanik, who first came to Australia in 2011 to start their own ice-cream business. It's taken them a few years but the year-old store is now doing brisk business.
The ice-cream recipe comes from Nev Bagriyanik, who was born and raised in the ice-cream city of Maras in Turkey, where he learnt the art of making salep - a dried orchid root which gives the ice cream its unique chewy elasticity. Mr Bagriyanik makes the ice cream himself in their production kitchen at the back of the shop, and offers a range of flavours from hazelnut to Turkish Delight. You can also have the unflavoured ice cream so you can taste the original, unadulterated taste which has a delicate, sweet milkiness to it. You can't beat the texture and the way it keeps its shape without melting immediately.
While he makes the ice cream, his wife Zeynep also showcases her baking skills with baklava in a range of flavours from apple cinnamon to rhubarb.
Acme,60 Bayswater Rd
ONE of the city's hottest restaurants, Acme wouldn't be out of place in Keong Saik Road with its "non-Italian" Italian concept and tight premises which has its staff dressed in denim and diners packed into tight, high tables all trying to be heard amid the Chinatown restaurant din of the whole place.
While the food is sufficiently trendy, it doesn't really make a strong impression with its Asian-inspired pastas and anything goes menu. A baloney sandwich is a take on an Aussie childhood after-school snack and features a lovely soft bun but overly strong tomato sauce that overwhelms everything. What stands out instead is a very good tartare of chopped beef hearts and tuna lightly marinated and coated in mascarpone cream that lends a pleasant mouth-feel. Very al dente homemade pasta tossed in XO sauce is a bit of a yawn for us, although the slivers of abalone are a nice addition. There's also macaroni with a pig's head sauce that seems more like sweet-savoury braised pork cheek enriched with egg yolk and chilli.
It's hard to understand the appeal of this place with the kind of food that could be easily matched in Singapore, but it's a good indicator of the local hotspot scene if you're into cool eatery hopping.
Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
IF Acme strikes you as a wannabe hotspot, then Bennelong is the grown-up version that shows how the real pros cook. This is Peter Gilmore, of Quay's, new playground, and he's making his presence felt with a mature menu that retains all the hallmarks of the highly rated chef.
The flavours shine through even in a simple lunch at the Cured + Cultured Counter, which is essentially dining at a bar counter space within the cavernous opera house eatery. A friendly, chatty Argentinian chef entertains us with his endearing accent and humour, making lunch ever more pleasant. An absolute must-have - in fact there's more than one - is roasted organic carrot salad. It's a magical combination of tender-cooked carrots, brilliantly hued raw shavings, tangy sheep's milk feta, almonds and sweet sherry caramel. Such simplicity, yet an explosion of flavours.
Everything is at the peak of freshness, especially the cold cooked yabbies that you pluck from the shells and eat with little buckwheat pikelets that were freshly made in front of you just minutes ago. Also try the smoked wagyu tartare with 10-year-old soy sauce, fermented chilli paste, crunchy cultured grain flakes and puffs, and egg yolk to mix everything up into velvety, crunchy happiness.
And - a dessert to die for - is Chef Gilmore's take on the Australian lamington - a square of cherry ice cream, coconut cream sponge and cherries, covered in chocolate sauce and showered with flakes of shaved nitro-frozen coconut mousse. It is really divine with each spoonful of chewy ice cream and cake, chocolate and sour cherries.
3 Wood St, Tempe. http://pepesaya.com.au/
THE artisanal movement has spread through almost all sectors of Australian food, but oddly enough, there's only one artisanal butter maker. Maybe there wouldn't even be one if ex-marketing professional and passionate butter maker Pierre Issa hadn't taken the plunge to plug a hole in the local dairy market.
"Five years ago, none of the top restaurants were supporting the local industry," says Mr Issa, whose nickname Pepe and the Malay word "Saya" meaning "I" became the brand of the butter that is now served at the likes of Matt Moran's Aria and in Qantas's First and Business Class cabins. You can also find the distinctive handmade butter with the caricature of a Spanish man's face at farmers' markets and upscale grocers.
Mr Issa gets most of his cream from the family-owned dairy Country Valley, located 11/2 hours by car from Sydney in Picton, NSW. The ingredients are transported to his factory in Tempe where his 22 staff churn about five tonnes of butter a week, shaping and wrapping the butter all by hand, which explains why the butter is sold in round shapes rather than in slabs which are easily done by machine.
It took a year for Mr Issa to perfect the butter, and it was only when he did his research and added a culture to the mixture, which made all the difference and gives the butter its distinctive tangy flavour. It also means the butter contains probiotics which is supposed to be good for the gut.
The cultured butter is available in salted and unsalted versions, as well as in flavours such as garlic, seaweed and truffle. They also do buttermilk, mascarpone and creme fraiche, but good luck trying to get that safely home to Singapore. But the butter is worth carting back for its mellow, clean flavour that beats the commercial variety hands down.
132 Queen St, Woollahra. http://www.victorchurchill.com
VICTOR Churchill is like the Louis Vuitton of meat. It's where the well-dressed Sydney elite show up and leave with freshly cut steaks in designer paper bags. It's where the butchers are not kept behind a large counter but are on full display behind glass walls, standing at their wooden blocks carving shiny red carcasses into perfectly sized cooking portions.
Serving staff are also on hand to advise you on the choice cuts you can serve for dinner, whether it's full blood Australian wagyu, dry-aged or grass-fed, free range lamb, pork, terrines, sausages, hams and everything a die-hard gourmet can hope for. For kicks, there's a whole section of the shop dedicated to dry-ageing beef, with the discoloured hunks of meat hanging on hooks for prolonged scrutiny.
Victor Churchill started out with just the name Churchill in 1876, a family-owned butchery which had changed hands once before its second owner decided to throw in the towel around 2008. That was when Anthony Puharich got wind of it and stepped in. Mr Puharich is CEO and co-founder of Vics Meats, a wholesale butchery he started with his father Victor.
Wanting to save the store from being turned into some trendy cafe or some such, Mr Puharich bought over the premises with a view of expanding into the retail business. When he discovered that the original Churchill family patriarch's name was Victor, like his father, Anthony Puharich changed the shop name to Victor Churchill in honour of both.
He also took the bold step of turning Victor Churchill into the ultimate meat boutique and it's a gamble that has paid off handsomely. From the moment you push open the sausage-handle door, it will be hard to walk out empty-handed. The meats are all top-range, with the highest being David Blackmore's highest-grade full blood wagyu, aged and priced at around A$250 (S$257) a kg. It's got both the meaty beefy flavour that top-grade Japanese wagyu lacks because of its high ratio of fat, as well as the requisite buttery tenderness. The house-made sausages are also very good, full of meat and herbs without being too salty. Resistance is really quite futile here.
The Grounds of Alexandria,
Building 7A 2 Huntley St, Alexandria. http://thegrounds.com.au/
WEEKENDS are crazy with hour-long waits the norm, so you're better off trying to get a table on weekdays at this vibrant green space smack in the industrial neighbourhood of Alexandria. This is where you can get big breakfasts and artisanal coffee in a manicured park space, in one of several dining areas amidst flower shops and little kiosks selling doughnuts or candied nuts. Kids and adults alike can ogle the residents of the little farm, including chickens, billy goats and a whopper of a pig unfortunately named Kevin Bacon.
It's a very pleasant chill out space where you can walk around even in summer without feeling the oppressive heat that chases you indoors in Singapore.
Carriageworks Farmers Market
245 Wilson St, Eveleigh
ONE of Sydney's many farmers' markets, it's a great place to browse through a comprehensive range of artisanal food producers. The market is well-curated, with each tenant having an interesting story to tell about its provenance. You'll find free-range meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables, bread, snacks and just about everything to fill your larder at home with. Bring a trolley bag - you won't think you'll need one but you will.
Silvereye, 20-24 Broadway
THE hot new restaurant at the Old Clare Hotel is manned by Sam Miller, former head chef at Noma who presides over the open kitchen of this very Nordic-inspired dining room. It's quite clear he hasn't quite shaken off his Copenhagen influences as the similarities to Noma are quite uncanny. If you've been to Noma, you'll notice the many little appetisers that land on your table before the meal starts proper, the funky juice pairings, right down to the vintage biscuit tin used for petit fours - except this time it's an old Arnotts tin rather than Danish butter cookies.
Still, take away the insects and other odd twists and you have a saner Noma which offers innovation with "normal" ingredients. Snacks include delicate crispbread made from pigs trotters and wattle seed like a pork crackling keropok; sunflower and geranium flatbread topped with raw and pickled courgette slices and an unusual lettuce leaf topped with uni smothered in dark vinegar powder.
A whole fish deboned and fried to a crisp and stuffed with watercress puree and raw chopped fish meat is intricate and good (except for the local Aussies who aren't used to eating fish with the head still attached, thus wasting the delicious oyster emulsion within). Mains include braised wagyu oxtail with smoked radiccio blackberry compote with cuts the richness, while desserts are easily polished off when they taste as good as the peaches brushed with yeast caramel topped with comforting cultured cream.
Whether the Noma similarity is good or bad depends on how you look at it, but at face value, it looks pretty promising.
- The writer was a guest of Tourism Australia and Destination New South Wales
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