Category Archives: Reviews

The “new” Neild Avenue

It’s a mammoth task to reinvent a restaurant, anyone will tell you that, but things get even trickier with a restaurant that’s in the public eye like Neild Avenue. Since it first opened, Neild Avenue has been accused of being too dark, too noisy and too expensive. So after spending three million dollars on its initial design, what has owner Robert Marchetti done about the public response? He’s changed the interior, shaken up the menu and abandoned the no-bookings policy.

Start with drink in the suave bar area

Start with drink in the suave bar area

The “new” Neild Avenue is a happier, brighter place, thanks to the adept touch of Dinosaur Designs artist Stephen Ormandy. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know, Anthony Lister’s blurred superhero animalia remain on the front timber-framed ‘house’. Ormandy has painted a second ‘house’, which has been carefully decorated with the mod 60s shapes and bold colours synonymous with the Dinosaur Designs brand.

A long, elegant bar splits the restaurant space in two, with a suave lounge area to one side and the restaurant’s dining area to the other. A mini charcuterie counter sits at the entrance, where cured meats hang behind glass cabinets; visual reminders of Marchetti’s Italian background.

The new look is courtesy of Dinosaur Designs artist Stephen Ormandy

The new look is courtesy of Dinosaur Designs artist Stephen Ormandy

We start with a drink in the bar area. This is the perfect way to take in the unique space; perched on a soft leather lounge, dimpled beer mugs full of cold Birra Moretti in-hand. Efficient waiters, dressed completely in white, flit around the room. The bar menu puts a Mediterranean slant on your standard booze food – souvlaki mini slider buns, flashed fried calamari and sliced-to-order cured meats are substantial enough to call dinner.

The hip staff uniforms

The hip staff uniforms

The revamped restaurant menu has taken hints from sister restaurant, North Bondi Italian. There’s the “cartoccio style” crab spaghetti, baked in a bag with tomato sauce, and those light-as-a-feather arancini balls. North Bondi Italian Food may be one of my favourite restaurants, but tonight we’re here for Mediterranean food. Central to the menu is Marchetti’s stance on sustainability and simplicity. The calamari is line-caught, the lamb is milk fed, the chicken is organic and the meat is free-range. Seafood dominates much of the menu, with a range of whole fish main courses, served with bold salads such as frisee, mint, radicchio and zucchini. The coal grill takes the spotlight with various cuts of beef on offer, while the spit roast takes care of the souvlaki. Each dish is generously portioned, perfect for sharing.

Anna Lisle

Read more about Neild Avenue here 

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Kepos Street Kitchen: The happiest cafe on earth?

The first thing you notice about Kepos Street Kitchen (KSK) is the vibe. Maybe it’s the sunlight that pours through the huge front window or the lime green cups from The Grounds that are carried away by a steady stream of locals. All we know is, people here are smiling. Not the clients (they’re positively beaming), but the staff. In a Sydney cafe that’s pumping on a Sunday morning, that’s got to be some kind of record.

Tucked away on a quiet corner in Redfern

Tucked away on a quiet corner in Redfern

We think the positive chi comes from Chef and owner, Michael Rantissi, who can be seen in the open kitchen assembling Israeli-inspired dishes like a machine as he banters with the clientele. Michael, formerly Sous Chef at Bathers’ Pavilion, makes the kind of food you didn’t realise you’d been craving until you see it on the menu. Middle Eastern flavours play a huge role in keeping things interesting at Kepos Street. While the rest of Sydney felt privileged to choose between having their eggs boiled or fried, we departed from cafe food altogether with “dad’s favourite breaky”: a dish which combines hunks of schiacciata bread, falafel, hummus, a hardboiled egg, labneh and a pretty tomato salad with mint, sesame and olive oil dressing.

We loved Dad’s favourite breaky: schiacciata bread, falafel, hummus, a hardboiled egg, labneh and a pretty tomato salad

“Dad’s favourite breaky”: schiacciata , falafel, hummus,  egg, labneh and a tomato salad

From the falafel and hummus to the tabouleh and baharat tomato jam, everything here is lovingly made in house by Michael and his team. The rest of the menu is a showcase of inspired Israeli twists. Think za’atar with smoked salmon or a strawberry salad dressed with pomegranate pearls, mint and rosewater yoghurt. On a scale of one to delicious, I found myself texting friends between mouthfuls of falafel to say, “Get down to KSK for breakfast. Seriously. Now.”

Strawberry salad with mint, rosewater, yoghurt and pomegranate pearls

Strawberry salad with mint, rosewater, yoghurt and pomegranate pearls

Oh, and also, the coffee goes down a treat, but if you’re after a fruity pick-me-up, the kitchen makes lemonade from scratch and mocktails that arrive in cute jam jars with handles.

Cafes in Sydney, take note, this is how breakfast is done. We can’t wait to come back for dinner. What’s not to be happy about?

Elizabeth Fenech

Read more about Kepos Street Kitchen here
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Keep calm and eat chocolate

The Sydney food scene is serious business. Even hip, casual restaurants seem to warble in a state of self-reflection. Are we hip enough? Please notice our designer light fittings. That’s why it’s so refreshing to go to a place with a bit of carefree whimsy.

Max Brenner is like wonderland for grown-ups. A place where you can check your cool in at the door and wear a gaping grin as you wander past huge vats of warm chocolate and follow the maze of pipes that run across the ceiling with markings assuring you that their contents are “100% chocolate”. One corner of the Broadway store is styled as a vintage sweet shop, like something you’d find in Diagon Alley or at the end of the yellow brick road.

Max Brenner is like wonderland for grown-ups

Max Brenner is like wonderland for grown-ups

A place with a motto like “Chocolate by the Bald Man,” may seem ditsy, but this guy approaches the humble cacao bean with precision, innovation and overwhelming affection. For those of us who find ourselves mindlessly polishing off a packet of Tim Tams in front of the telly, Max Brenner’s brand of chocolate appreciation is a new world.

The restaurant has developed its own cutlery and crockery specifically for the needs of the chocolate connoisseur; a hug mug allows you to caress your hot chocolate made by the professionals or you can take a stab at concocting your own with the Suckao, a mug with a tea light candle beneath it, served with a jug of milk and a small mountain of chocolate drops for experimenting. It is Max Brenner’s signature straw-spoon, however, that is quite possibly the best thing since sliced bread. What could be more ingenious than an implement enabling you to drink chocolate milk through a straw, but also scrape the gooey chocolate goodness that’s left behind at the end?

Titti-frutti waffle – warm Belgian waffle, melted chocolate, ice cream,  strawberries and banana.

Titti-frutti waffle – warm Belgian waffle, melted chocolate, ice cream, strawberries and banana.

The chocolate dishes, too, are developed with imagination, but executed with a flair that comes with knowing how to handle the glorious bean. Of course, there are Belgian waffles drizzled in chocolate sauce and served with strawberries, ice cream and banana. There is a rich chocolate soufflé, oozing molten chocolate from its centre. Look out for the exploding chocolate shots, which involve popping candies suspended in melted chocolate. Then there’s the nostalgia-inducing I Scream Max-Wich, an enormous hunk of vanilla ice cream bookended by giant soft-baked chocolate cookies, served with melted chocolate and hundreds-and-thousands. It’s every (big) kid’s sweet dream.

A word of warning for the uninitiated; the servings at Max Brenner are very generous and it’s likely that your eyes will be bigger than your stomach (piles of sweets tend to have that effect on us, too). Bring a friend and wear stretchy pants, because everywhere you look, the Bald Man entices you to share in his love story. It’s a calorific affair, but hey, you only live once.

Elizabeth Fenech

Read more about Max Brenner in Paddington here
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For fried crickets, cactus plants and the Virgin Mary – head to El Topo

Bondi Junction’s El Topo is riding the taco revolution, which shows no signs of slowing. This isn’t your standard quesadilla joint, however. The unusual location, on the rooftop of The Eastern hotel, amongst the retail high rises of Bondi Junction’s Westfield complex, may be a deterrent for some but those put off probably aren’t El Topo’s target market, anyway.

There’s an indoor restaurant, which offers a colourful array of booth seating, plus there’s an outdoor terrace and bar

There’s an indoor restaurant, which offers a colourful array of booth seating, plus there’s an outdoor terrace and bar

There’s an indoor restaurant, which offers a colourful array of booth seating, plus there’s an outdoor terrace and bar. Hand-painted Oaxaca tiles make a colourful tabletop and glass sculls, imported from Mexico, are scattered around the space.

Like the location, the menu is unexpected. Rather than offering Tex-Mex or California-style fare, El Topo prides itself on serving dishes that are authentically Mexican. For the brave, there’s fried crickets and unusual accompaniments like jicama fruit and cactus. The chipotle chile prawns are not for the feint hearted, either; they’ve got a rich and layered heat, and they’re served whole (head, tail and shell). Just like you’d get in Mexico.

Soft shell tacos

“Taco de cerdo” – guallio chile pork, roast pineapple, lettuce and coriander

The tacos are soft-shell, not hard, and the mushroom quesadilla is filled with ingredients like Mexican truffle, salsa verde and queso oaxagueno (a white, semi hard chese from Mexico). It’s not overloaded with cheap fillers and it doesn’t ooze cheesy oil when you pick it up.

Homemade mango, strawberry and coconut paddlepops

Homemade mango, strawberry and coconut paddlepops

The mandate for authenticity comes from head Chef Matthew Fitzgerald. While his resume doesn’t list a host of Mexican joints, he has earned his stripes at reputable establishments including Bathers’ Pavilion and Bentley Restaurant and Bar in Sydney, and Oxo Tower and Fig Bistro in London.

El Topo is constantly buzzing with a cool Hispanic vibe, but on Thursday nights the volume is amplified; they’ve got the dinner and the party combination down pat. If only every night was late night shopping.

Anna Lisle

Read more about El Topo here

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Sshhhhh… T.H.E. is one of Bondi’s best kept secrets

From Sarah Hendriks and Michael Benson (of Porch and Parlour) and head chef Sam Smith (ex L’Etoile), this treasure-box-of-a-restaurant is constantly swarmed with appreciative locals.

The rustically-refined space is where you want to linger. Glass jars of fresh flowers sit on every table and vintage light fixtures hang from the restaurant’s ceiling. Menus come printed on mini clipboards, exposed ducts run along the ceiling and the wooden floor is unpolished.  It’s cool and fashion-conscious, without doing it in that ‘alienating-anyone-over-30’ kind of way.

The breakfast grazing board

The breakfast grazing board

Behold, there are no panoramic views of Bondi Beach (unless you consider street-side glimpses) and before you turn up your nose, take note; this also means there aren’t hordes of tourists. Instead, the restaurant is filled with groups of friends meeting for a late brunch and couples willing-away the afternoon with a few glasses of wine.

King george whiting, fried eggs, beurre blanc  and fresh lemon

King george whiting, fried eggs, beurre blanc and fresh lemon

The restaurant prides itself on sourcing local produce. Kate and Craig, from Old Man’s Gully Farm in Scone provide the restaurant’s organic meat, and their seafood is sourced from Chef Sam Smith’s dad in Port Lincoln. In the kitchen, the dishes are fussed over but not in a fine-dining fashion. The breakfast grazing board, served all day on weekends, is a generous feast for all the senses. Perfectly poached eggs, marinated feta, tomato and basil salsa and smoked salmon come with preserves and toast, perfect for dunking and dipping. A bowl of grilled whole prawns (yes, that’s head and shell) are served with a punchy harissa and the pork belly sandwich with an apple ‘slaw is serious hangover food. For drinking food, the locals come here for duck fat potatoes served with aiola, salted roasted almonds and pickled prawns served in a pretty glass jar.

Now open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week, every suburb needs a version of The Hill. 

Anna Lisle

Read more about The Hill Eatery here
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It’s the Côte d’Azur of Australia, Watsons Bay Beach Club

Tourist hotspots don’t generally appeal to locals. It’s something about those piercing American accents, bum bags and over-sized, under-used professional cameras. However, the recently renovated Watsons Bay Beach Club, may well be an exception to your anti-tourist radar.

The view from Watsons Bay Beach Club

The view from Watsons Bay Beach Club

Formerly the Watsons Bay Hotel, this new “beach club” takes you to a white-washed seaside oasis. It’s like the Côte d’Azur of Australia, except without the chic French accents. The “club” in the title refers to the multi-purpose use of the venue; there’s dine in or takeaway, a BBQ area, the “Miss Watsons” bar, table tennis, a bottle shop and accommodation plus various function spaces. You can rattle on about the colourful umbrellas and the staff’s Bassike blue-and-white striped uniforms but the main attraction here is the cracking view of Sydney Harbour, the city skyline and the Bridge. If you don’t get that tingly “wow-I-live-in-one-beautiful city’ feeling, then I suggest you hand in your Australian residency because it doesn’t get much better than this.

The nautical theme of the venue

The nautical theme of the venue

When you have views like this, you can’t expect the food to impress too, right? I bite my tongue as we sample Sydney rock oysters and a smoked Snowy River trout pate. Enjoyed with a chilled glass of Stony Peak sav blanc, the quality of the produce impresses. In the mains department, I’m not a tourist but it’s hard to go past the “famous” fish and chips. Sadly, the Coopers batter doesn’t have that light, crisp fluffiness but the chips give this dish a capital F for famous. From the “fresh and green” options, the char grilled chilli and lime octopus salad isn’t char grilled and the dressing could do with some work but it’s a kilojoule-friendly dish for the yummy mummies.

Chilli and lime octopus salad

Chilli and lime octopus salad

Leave your Jesus sandals and matching khaki outfit at home and throw your Polo knit over your shoulder, pull on your chinos and slip on your boat shoes because the Watsons Bay Beach Club is as good as Sydney gets to the French Riviera. If only Johnny Depp thought the same thing too.

Anna Lisle

Read more about the Watsons Bay Beach Club here.

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Hola, we’re off to meh-he-co!

Just when you thought good-ol’ Sydney town couldn’t take another taco… hola, Mejico! Swinging open its doors, right next to Jamie’s Italian on Pitt Street, Mejico has set itself apart from its fellow quesadilla-loving counterparts in various arenas.

Firstly, the name. It’s not pronounced Mexico, it’s “meh-he-co” – the way you say it in North America. I’m usually not one for silly restaurant names but just saying “meh-he-co” gets me all excited. I almost want to break into a Mexican hat dance and twirl my brightly coloured skirt. Almost.

It's a far cry from your usual Mexican restaurant

It’s a far cry from your usual Mexican restaurant

Secondly, the fitout. You may want to leave your feathered headdress at home because Mejico is no ordinary cantina. Owner Dr Sam Prince, of Zambrero Fresh Mex Grill, has spent over $4 million on a design that features fluro pink stools, leather lounges, an open bar and bold hand-painted striped walls. This vibrant aesthetic, together with a team of staff that strut around in fluro pink-and-white striped t-shirts mean that energy levels at Mejico are high.

 

Hiramasa kingfish ceviche with watermelon, radish and pepita on house-baked tostadas

Hiramasa kingfish ceviche with watermelon, radish and pepita on house-baked tostadas

Thirdly, Mejico does not serve Mexican street food. Chef Daniel Schai (imported from Singapore) has created an upmarket menu with dishes such as Achiote chicken and 24 hour smoked pork belly tacos. But the key component in all dishes is freshness. And this isn’t the standard claim-to-fresh-produce statement. It’s; “You want guac to start?”. Smack, bang – the wait staff mash it up right in front of you. “Need a corn fix?” Out comes the grill. Plantain chips are made by hand and the tostadas are baked in-house.

Chargrilled Black Angus sirloin with quinoa, black bean, pumpkin and green chimichurri

Chargrilled Black Angus sirloin with quinoa, black bean, pumpkin and green chimichurri

And lastly, there’s more than margaritas on the drinks list. In fact, Mejico has the longest tequila list in Sydney. If you don’t want to eat, guests can perch themselves at the open bar and enjoy a cocktail or two.

Restaurants love to make a claim but most are just that; statements that aren’t followed though. At Mejico, they practise what they preach.

Anna Lisle

Read more about Mejico here

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