The Taste With Vir: Visiting Australia? Don't go only for the food
The pandemic seems to have left its mark on Australia. In common with many other countries, Australia has difficulty coping with the influx of visitors. If you are planning to go to Australia, it might be worth considering delaying your trip till things settle down a bit.
This was my third trip to Sydney (and my fourth to Australia). On all of the previous occasions I had been invited by the Australian government to show off Australia’s food scene. This was right after the TV success of the Australian Masterchef and Tourism Australia wanted to establish that Australia was a great food destination — which indeed it was.
One trip was linked to a pop-up in Sydney by Copenhagen’s Noma in which the chef, Rene Redzepi, used local ingredients to create new dishes that accorded with the Noma philosophy. Another was for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
Since then, a lot has changed. Even before the pandemic, some of Australia's most celebrated chefs were accused of underpaying/mistreating/cheating/exploiting their staff and huge scandals followed. George Calombaris, a celebrity in India because of his role as a judge on Masterchef Australian got into trouble and was booted off Masterchef. The two other judges followed him out and the show now has a new line-up.
Neil Perry, one of Australia’s best known chefs also got into trouble and gave up control of some of his restaurants. So did many of the top Australian restaurant groups.
Even as the sleazy underbelly of the Australian restaurant industry was being exposed, the pandemic hit and Australia shut down. So extreme was the lockdown that the country closed its borders, preventing people from going out or coming in. Of course, like all such restrictions, it was of very little use. Covid arrived in Australia anyway.
And now, the country has swung to the other extreme. There are no Covid restrictions visible to visitors. Nobody asks for vaccination certificates, nobody wears masks, and social distancing is a joke.
But the pandemic seems to have left its mark. In common with many other countries, Australia has difficulty coping with the influx of visitors. Visas can take weeks to come through. The queue at immigration was long; it took me 90 minutes to negotiate Sydney airport when I landed. And though most Australians remain warm and friendly, the airport is run a little like a penal colony. (No. I am not going to make the obvious joke.) I had got into what seemed to be the shortest of the queues when an aggressive woman who was, I guess, the airport version of a traffic warden instructed me to move to another, longer queue. “If you don’t move to that queue,” she barked, “we won’t let you in”.
Even by the notorious standards of US immigration, this was remarkably offensive and unnecessary. That said, the immigration officials themselves were fine. And on the way back when the immigration checks were automated, the process was painless. Nevertheless, if you are planning to go to Australia, it might be worth considering delaying your trip till things settle down a bit. This is not the best time.
That option was not available to me because I had to be in Sydney for the World Class cocktail championships. This is an annual drinks competition organised by Diageo and I have been one of the judges of the Indian leg for years. Besides, who would turn down an invitation to a four-day-long cocktail party?
The last World Class competition was held in the grim environs of Glasgow (the next one is in Sao Paolo which sounds more exciting) so it came as a surprise to me to discover that Diageo had taken over the Four Seasons, Sydney for this year’s World Class. It’s a beast of a hotel (around 500 rooms of which World Class had booked over 400), which is huge for a Four Seasons.
But perhaps because it is run by two Indians (my old friend Uday Rao is the general manager and Kartik Kapoor is the hotel manager) it operates with the efficiency of the best Four Seasons properties, despite its size and the laidback attitude to service of most Australians. Every single request is met with split-second efficiency, the concierge team is fabulous and they manage to personalise the service for 500 room guests. God alone knows how they do it. But then, I guess, that’s why it is a Four Seasons.
The Four Seasons also has the best views in Sydney. My room overlooked the harbour and each time I looked out of my window I saw the stunning Sydney Opera House and the iconic Harbour Bridge. Nothing, seemed to be more than a 10-minute walk away so the location was great too. For instance, when I took an Uber to the lovely Botanical Garden, I was embarrassed to discover how near to the hotel I was and just walked back along the seafront.
Though my weather app had assured me it would rain every day, I woke up to bright sunshine on my first Saturday in Sydney. Robin, the Four Seasons concierge, found me a wonderful bay-front table at a good French restaurant (a seven-minute walk from the hotel) called Whalebridge where my wife and I ate Sydney Rock Oysters washed down with a Chardonnay from Australia's Mornington Peninsula.
The previous night Uday Rao had taken us for dinner to the buzzy and trendy Nomad, where much of the food had Middle Eastern influences. We ate empanadas stuffed with wild mushrooms and bone marrow, a flatbread with Middle Eastern flavours, burata with fennel jam, a dry aged pork cutlet and an unusual lamb’s neck pie.
On Saturday night, Robin suggested Rockpool Bar and Grill. I had been to the original Rockpool (which I don’t think exists any longer) when it was Neil Perry’s flagship restaurant. Perry started the Bar and Grill as a steakhouse but he is not associated with it any longer. It’s a large, dark, special occasion restaurant. We ate a wood-fired chorizo with vegetables (including bhindi) home-made sausages and a rump steak from David Blockmore’s farm. Given Blackmore’s reputation, the steak should have been better.
Mr Wong is the Chinese restaurant everyone recommended. Owned by the massive Merivale group, this may be Sydney’s most popular Chinese place. Though it has 240 seats, it was jam-packed when I went and everyone seemed to be having a good time.
I wouldn’t say I had a bad time but I won’t be going back. The dim sum had no delicacy. They were of takeaway restaurant quality, the kung pao chicken was neither the Sichuan original nor the global, Americanised version, the Angus beef in pepper suffered from the overcooking of the expensive beef (it's hard to get wok timings right when you are feeding 240 guests at once), and my wife thought that the ma pao tofu was ‘odd’. Which it was: It was a layer of a custard-like tofu on which a sauce had been poured. Odd but interesting. The French beans with minced pork, a Sichuan standard, must have been a Wong variation because it had none of the powerful flavours of Sichuan food.
But we kept going. We had lunch the next day at China Doll in Woolloomooloo. Some of the food was very good: oysters with a Thai dressing and steamed scallops Chinese style were delicious. There was a fun (but very large) version of Sesame Shrimp Toast and unusual chicken samosas, described as fried dumplings on the menu.
My quarrel was with the Australian contempt for delicacy. Though the dim sum were a lot better than the ones at Mr Wong, they were so huge that you couldn’t really pop a whole dim sum in your mouth. So, you had to cut them in half which destroys the point of dim sum.
We did one more (very good) big dinner at the Middle Eastern Nour, one of Uday’s favourites, before retreating to watching TV and eating room service burgers. But I was determined to go back to some of the places I had liked on my previous trips.
Aria is owned by Matt Moran, one of Australia's best known chefs. I remember having a quite stunning Peking Duck soup there six years ago. This time around, it was only a set menu at lunch and the soup was not on it. The food was fine: European techniques with Australian ingredients but not one dish was startlingly good or memorable.
I went to Firedoor by accident in 2016 after the Manager of Quay, one of Australia’s best restaurants, recommended it. We sat at the counter and watched Lennox Hastie, the chef, cook on the open fire. Lennox told us how he looked carefully for the sources of all the ingredients and cooked us what must have been one of the best steaks either my wife or I had ever had.
Since then, Lennox has become famous: Hee has his own Chef’s Table episode, and Firedoor is a global destination. Which is great, but I was disappointed to find that it had dispensed with the a la carte menu and only served a set menu, on which steak did not feature. You could get one but it came as an extra.
I guess that’s fine. All restaurants evolve and it was good to see a young Indian chef at the pass (Ahana Dutt from Calcutta) and the fire burned just as brightly as it had when we first went.
There was a fairly large Indian contingent at World Class: Diageo managers, judges, chefs, restaurateurs, media etc. At the end of our stay we compared notes.
Could you eat well in Sydney?
Yes, we all agreed. You could.
Was it one of the world’s great restaurant cities?
No, we were unanimous on that one.
It could be that we went to all the wrong places and that we were not there for long enough to judge. But between us, we had done all of the city’s best-known restaurants. Speaking for myself, this was very different from my two other trips where I had been blown away by the food in Sydney.
And then, a surprise. On our last night in Australia, Uday suggested we eat at Mode. This is a very well regarded modern Australian restaurant but because it is run by the Four Season, I had been slightly dismissive of it and had not bothered to eat there.
The food was stunning: The best meal I ate on the whole trip. We started with plates of delicious oysters from all over Australia. Then we had a roughly chopped tartare of Backmore Wagyu (it lived up to its reputation this time), there were potatoes with caviar; a top-notch asparagus risotto made with Acquerello rice and the single best steak I ate on the whole trip. I asked to see the person who had cooked it and he turned out to be a young Indian chef who had once worked with the Oberoi group.
So, this great food had been there in my hotel, all this time! And I had just been too stupid to notice.
Well, live and learn.
Do visit Sydney. Australia is a lovely country and Australians are very nice people. But don’t rush. Australia is not ready to receive visitors. And don’t go only for the food! Find other things to do.