Light and shade while eating in Sydney

Sydney street scene, spring 2019

A great Sri Lankan curry and a great view, but very varied service.

Of the many times I have arrived, bleary-eyed, at Sydney International Airport, the most recent occasion, late last month, was definitely the easiest to bear.

The sun was shining, a necessary stimulus to keep eyelids open that are otherwise intent on closing. The jacarandas were in bloom, their distinctive hyacinth-blue flowers everywhere. And the weather was gorgeous: 25 to 26 deg C, with a gentle wind blowing off the famous harbour. And, as this was spring, there was still some green in the grass across the city’s many parks as the drought begins to affect virtually the whole of this enormous country.

And, most importantly, our eating arrangements were spot on. Our friend Kavita Faiella, born in Kandy, Sri Lanka, had booked us a table for four at midday, only three hours after our plane had touched down, at the Lankan Filling Station for their special monthly Sunday lunch, a meal that revolves around a main course of crab curry. (Jancis took this picture of the street outside the restaurant just before we joined the queue waiting to be let in at noon.)

This is a monthly ritual that takes place on the last Sunday of every month, (the next two are 24 November and 22 December), and are the only occasions when the restaurant accepts bookings. Their seatings are high noon and 2.30pm and the price is an extremely attractive AU$60 per person. There was even the offer of a dry pink Lambrusco that nobody at the table had ever tried before.

Crab curry menu at the Lankan Filling Station

The restaurant itself is a long, grey sliver of a former industrial building with tables down both sides and an open kitchen at the far end. As a result, acoustics in this concrete and brick set up are quite harsh, but that does not stop the restaurant attracting a hugely disproportionate number of young women to its Sunday lunch. Of the 19 people sitting at four tables down one side, 16 were women.

A smiling waitress arrived with the small printed menu and asked for our drinks orders. As a sucker for a lassi I ordered a mandarin lassi that I willingly shared. The meal then got under way.

First up was a sequence of extremely good snacks, after a bowl of spiced seeds:  a Port Stephens oyster topped with lunu dehi, a traditional Sri Lankan pickle; some sweet sambol puffs; and radishes served with a particularly spicy butter.   With these and the crab, we drank a lovely bottle of Shaw & Smith Single Vineyard Lenswood Chardonnay 2017 supplied by Kavita. Then came our main course. This was a large bowl of crab curry with plenty of the spicy sauce, accompanied by a bowl of fantastic organic rice and lots of crisp papadums. The crab meat was not that abundant but the exercise required to extricate the sweet meat provided plenty of necessary exercise after 24 hours sitting on a plane.

Jaggary dessert at the Lankan Filling Station, Sydney

Then came what for me were the two highlights of this particular meal. The restaurant was very generous with their offering of ice cream, even including a bowl of one dessert that incorporated jaggary (above), the typical, very sweet Sri Lankan type of unrefined sugar, and bowls of rose ice cream and a hugely successful ginger and turmeric ice cream. Then came a surprise.

Having been warned by Kavita that Jancis was in our party, the staff offered us a glass of milk wine. This Sri Lankan speciality is made of arrack and milk and is invariably enjoyed by the women of this island while the men drink the harder stuff. Served with a thin slice of orange peel, this drink manages to be refreshing, sweet, creamily unctuous and yet still appetising. My bill came to AU$257.81 for the four of us and after a very satisfying couple of hours we were out in the sunshine, happy and tired.

It was also sunshine all the way to my second restaurant, Pilu at Freshwater, which came highly recommended by an old friend in New York. This was because we chose to go by public transport. The train to Central Quay; the ferry across to Manly; and then the 139 bus from right outside the ferry terminal to a bus stop within 200 metres of the restaurant.

It was opened 15 years ago by Giovanni Pilu and continues to this day as a showcase for the cooking of Sardinia. But while I had learnt of that via the internet, what I was not prepared for was the beauty of the building or the setting.

The restaurant occupies an old wooden building located on a fabulous beach.  The entrance is bedecked with jasmine and banksia. The views are quintessentially Sydney: a long, sandy beach; scores of surfers and paddle boarders; a blazing sun; lots of entertainment for anybody eating in the restaurant to enjoy – even before the helicopter practising air and sea rescue operations!

View from Pilu restaurant in Freshwater Bay outside Sydney

There should be plenty to put the staff who work there in a good mood, you would have thought. But no. Our welcome from the tall maître d’ was grumpy. We were then shown to a table inside with no view of the beach. I complained and when the waitress realised I was adamant she somewhat reluctantly showed us to one of their empty half-dozen tables outside that had the advantage of having a large white umbrella overhead. The setting was perfect. The weather was perfect. Why were these tables not in use?

Once we were handed menus and a wine list, the situation improved somewhat. Although none of us drank any wine, the list is impressive and has been justifiably acknowledged. The menu is quite fascinating in its acknowledgement of the producers the restaurant uses.

I began with the only pasta dish on the menu, spaghettoni with calamari and ‘nduja, the Calabrian spicy sausage paste. This made for an unusual but appetising sauce for the pasta that was, in our opinion, slightly undercooked.

Moreton Bay bug Catalan style at Pilu restaurant, Sydney

Our three different main courses, and the two desserts we shared were excellent. These were a fillet of kingfish with fennel; a fillet of snapper with sea vegetables; a dish described as a Moreton Bay bug, a local speciality, served Catalan style (above) that somewhat unexpectedly was served cold. But this was also extremely well cooked. We finished with a rich chocolate and almond éclair topped with chocolate ice cream and a more refreshing pastry case filled with luscious pistachio cream.

I paid my bill for three of Aus$265 which included 10% service somewhat reluctantly. Those who work front of house in such a restaurant should approach every day and every customer with a broad smile on their faces. In a world where so many work in restaurants that lack such fabulous views, they do not know how lucky they are.

Lankan Filling Station 58 Riley Street, East Sydney, NSW 2010

Pilu at Freshwater Moore Road, Freshwater, NSW 2096