All of the world's great cities today share many of the same physical characteristics.
Most notable is their proximity to water, essential for the shipping that was to make these cities great: London has the Thames, Paris the Seine and New York is conveniently sandwiched between the Atlantic and the Hudson. One of the bequests of the British Empire is that those in charge of their fleets at the time picked out the very best anchorages in which to settle: hence Hong Kong, Singapore, Canton and, perhaps most beautiful on the eye, Sydney.
And it was while spending a working week in Sydney that I became aware of another trait that binds these cities. That the villages which initially made up these cities have merged, bringing one closer to another and often negating a particular district's former individuality. And the oldest parts of these cities are currently being swiftly modernised – I could not help but be struck by the similarities between Barangaroo, the vast office development on the waterfront by Lend Lease north of The Wharf theatre, and King's Cross in London, even down to the presence of the former gas works that once graced these two initially working-class areas.
And finally, while hospitality – cafes, restaurants and bars – leads the way in which all of these areas are being gentrified, one other similarity is increasingly common: nobody can get away any longer with serving poor food. Chefs and restaurateurs may complain vociferously about quite how difficult it is to fill all the kitchen positions they seem intent on creating but this fact seems undeniably correct. Perhaps it is because of shorter menus based on seasonal and increasingly local ingredients but this is very much the case today.
Hence my four other recommendations from my four days in Sydney, on top of my wholehearted enthusiasm last week for Firedoor. Any of these would be the equal of their counterparts in any other great city.
First of all, and much to my surprise, was a return visit to Kitchen By Mike, a restaurant and style of cooking I had first enjoyed in 2012. And although much of the style of cooking by Mike McEnearney (pictured above) is the same as before, today's venue is completely different. Instead of making his customers wait in line, today's Kitchen by Mike has a full waitress service (in our case a hilarious Mary of Greek descent) and its location is as different from his initial location as possible: today Mike cooks in what is referred to as the CBD, at No 1 Bent Street in the city's Central Business District.
Natural light is the only missing ingredient from this otherwise highly successful transplant. Big Mike McEnearney is still there, although more in an executive role than when I first met him, standing between a big open grill and something I had never seen before: to the right of the kitchen is a large counter for customers but one facing not the kitchen but those customers seated at the numerous tables. 'A much more fascinating sight for them to look at', was Mike's immediate explanation.
The menu is pretty straightforward but exciting, the wine list far more diverse, with bottles from the Jura, Central Otago, the Rhône Valley and red and white wines made especially for Mike by Rose Kentish in the McLaren Vale.
We began and ended with two unmissable dishes. First up was a large serving of his sourdough bread with cultured, salted butter – the best in the city according to food writer Jill Dupleix of the Sydney Morning Herald – before a colourful dish of burrata cheese with peaches, nasturtium leaves and dukkah and then a twice-cooked goat's cheese soufflé served in a cast-iron dish together with a salad of heirloom tomatoes enlivened by a tamarind dressing. We finished with probably the best rice pudding with jam in the Southern Hemisphere complete with many, many remnants of the vanilla pods with which it had been cooked.
It is difficult to eat out anywhere in Sydney today and to escape the tentacles of the Merivale Group. Founded in the 1960s as a fashion house, the company, today under the leadership of Justin Hemmes, has morphed into a restaurant conglomerate with, according to its website, over 50 restaurants, bars and venues under its management. But where it appears to be different from so many other companies that have come to dominate their particular city is quite how independent and 'hands-off' they appear to be. And how laissez-faire their head office seems to be when it comes to the whole question of interior design.
Having said that, I have to add that one factor in every site they seem to acquire is its ability to satisfy one particular aspect of Sydney life – Sydneysiders' enthusiasm for alcohol. This proved the common factor between Fred's in Paddington, with a large bar in the basement, and Queen Chow, with its large and very noisy bar on the first floor, both of which opened in 2016 on Enmore Street.
Fred's has been tailor-made for chef Danielle Alvarez, who here brings to Sydney many of the techniques she learnt at Chez Panisse. An open kitchen, grills, lots of waiters dressed in white, an overall sense of calm about the place – all reminded me of Berkeley and perhaps more recently of what another female chef, Skye Gyngell, has introduced into Spring in London.
Alvarez's menu is brief and, as a result, fairly mainstream, but good, nevertheless. We began with spaghetti with pippies, bottarga and just the appropriate amount of chilli and an exciting salad of squid cooked in the wood oven with curry leaf and finger limes before progressing to a crisp chicken Maryland with capers and an enormous serving of organic Moorlands lamb chops before ending with a frangipane tart with blood plums and a delicious wild-fennel ice cream. The last dish was served from a separate dessert section, a key to this well-planned space that will stay with me as will the huge display of wooden boards that cover the large white wall that faces you en route to the busy bar downstairs.
The busy bar upstairs at Queen Chow on Enmore Street, an old pub which the Merivale Group took over and renovated and reopened late last year, is really the only similarity to Fred's. Building on the huge success engendered by Mr Wong in the CBD, which, according to a friend in the know, has annual sales of over AU$25 million, they sent a couple of chefs off to Hong Kong to enjoy this city's street food.
The result is obvious from the menu that doubles as a placemat and the view from table 43 that looks right into the kitchen. From a menu that read elegantly, from snacks to steamed dishes, roast meats, dim sum, stir fried and one headed simply mud crab, we enjoyed a late supper of a platter of steamed dim sum followed by a plate of South Australian pippies with black beans, chilli, and Young Henry Natural lager, the juices of which I lapped up with a bowl of jasmine rice.
Finally, to Cirrus in Barangaroo, which I can best describe as a very modern version of Canary Wharf in the sunshine and by the blue sea, and to a lunch by myself at table 11 by the breezy front door.
It was a splendid affair. A glass of Amontillado sherry from Equipos Navazos provided a familiar opening but the food was anything but familiar: leather jacket cheeks, similar to those of a monkfish, served with cucumber and buttermilk followed by one of my favourite Australian crustaceans, a grilled, split Moreton Bay bug spiced with a home made XO sauce which I devoured with my fingers.
Kitchen by Mike No 1 Bent St, Sydney CBD
Fred's 380 Oxford St, Paddington, NSW 2021; tel +61 (0)2 9240 3000
Queen Chow 167 Enmore Road, Enmore NSW 2042
Cirrus 23 Barangaroo Ave, Barangaroo NSW 2000; tel + 61 (0)2 9220 0111