Monday, March 24, 2014

Sydney Surry Hills Restaurants

One girl, 30 dishes and 24 hours in Sydney – Part 1/4

It started with a conversation about food poisoning.

I had invited myself along to the boyfriend’s Sydney business trip, eager to cram in as many meals as I could muster over our 24-hour stay. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, well aware of the imminent dinner crawl in Surry Hills. Flight TT608 was running on time – thank the gracious gods of gluttony – and was due for lift-off in 45 minutes. But my hanger* was beginning to cloud my judgement, and something had to be done.

The Tiger Airways terminal in Melbourne isn’t exactly renowned for its variety of food outlets. Villa & Hut, home of unpalatably sweet chai lattes, was closed. The café selling egg sandwiches that managed to be simultaneously frozen and soggy wasn’t an option. The only other retailer was Sushi Sushi. This Japanese chain served a maggot-infested chicken roll to a customer a few weeks earlier at Highpoint shopping centre. They were also fined $18,000 for not complying with minimum hygiene standards at their Glenferrie Road shop prior to that, and their Doncaster East store received a $25,000 penalty for poor food-handling practices in 2012.

“One prawn, one cooked tuna and one tobiko handroll, please.”

“You’re insane,” said my boyfriend, as he peeled a shard of ice from his sandwich. I swept aside the warzone of packaging left behind by other passengers (“Leave it, they’re paid to clean it up,” said the devil in my right ear) and inhaled my sushi. Damned if I wasn’t going to enjoy what could very well have been my last meal. I waited five minutes after I had finished, decided no harm was coming my way, and ordered another tobiko handroll. I’m a sucker for those tiny orange jewels of flying fish roe that pop in the mouth. Following a recent craving, I brought a frozen tub of the stuff from a specialty Japanese grocery store in Collingwood called Hinoki, defrosted it in the microwave, and sat on the couch with a spoon and ate the whole damn thing in a fashion typically associated with depressed women and ice cream. During take-off I felt what I later decided was psychosomatic nausea, not from the flight but from the sushi. All was okay in the end, but in hindsight I shouldn’t have risked what was to be a fabulous eating adventure.

Tobiko, my drug of choice, and pickles from Hinoki, Melbourne.

*     *     *

There is nothing worse than a wasted meal. The standard of dining in Melbourne – and for that matter Sydney – is so high that I rarely encounter a disappointing eat. On the odd occasion when I do, all hell breaks loose. Earlier this month I assumed a trendy new Lebanese restaurant in East Brunswick wouldn’t take bookings. We arrived to find it booked out. We walked a couple of blocks down Lygon Street before I made my second mistake of the evening: letting BF choose where we ate. I should have listened to the alarm bells: office-style ceiling tiles and live belly dancing but we sat down and it was too late. Dinner began with passable pickles and ended abruptly in cabbage rolls posing as human fingers that had spent three months in a lake. We were completely thrown for the rest of the evening: we couldn’t find the parked car, our frozen yoghurt was a flop, we felt ill, and if we weren’t out in public we probably would have cried. With only 24 hours in Sydney, I couldn’t risk it happening again.

Baklava from Teta Mona, Melbourne, the booked-out restaurant. 

I put the word out on Twitter, chased local bloggers, read all the big publications and hassled the deputy editor of Gourmet Traveller (to whom I owe a heart-felt thank you and my stomach may never forgive). I compiled a short-list of nearly 40 restaurants and cafés, crossed off the ones that were too far away, and concentrated on those we could conceivably visit given the time frame. At the end of my 24 hours in Sydney – 10 sit-ins, 5 peak-ins and 30 dishes later – I was less than a fifth through my to-eat list. I take comfort in the fact that I’ll simply have to return for the rest, and add an extra month or three to tackle all the new hotspots that crop up between now and then.

Zucchini flowers at Berta, Sydney. Photo: Berta Facebook

“Do you want to know where we’re eating?” I asked BF, buried in my digital notes. He told me he was happy for it to be a surprise, so long as we weren’t going to too many places, and how many were we hitting up, anyway – I’m meeting with a potential client tomorrow, remember? “Just a few,” I lied. I’d booked a small hotel room positioned perfectly between the train station and earmarked restaurants in Surry Hills. We checked in. BF had a five-minute rest. I twiddled my thumbs. Then I demanded we get going because it was nearly quarter to six and there was no way we could possibly fit everything in if we didn’t leave immediately. He shot me a look, but I was already half way down George Street.

I turned the corner and powered up Goulbourn Street, feeling the tension that arises from dating a ‘stroller’. Sydney’s business district was in weekend mode, spilling out of corner pubs with names like Maloney’s and Scruffy Murphy’s. We nearly walked past Alberta Street, and did walk past Berta. I gazed up at the building site beside me, overcome by the horrible notion that Berta had been knocked down before I could pay it a visit. The suffocating weight of my stuff-up started to set the tone for the evening, BF biting his tongue and silently reprimanding himself for listening to my directions. One last look, I thought. And then I saw it: tiny, blue hand-written letters transferred onto a glass door, set back from the street and uncomfortably close to the doorbells of the above apartments. I refrained from shouting “BINGO” as we entered; it didn’t seem the appropriate thing to do in this dimly lit bunker with brown leather banquettes and dark, moody finishes.

We were seated at a raised table beside the marble bar after explaining that we were only stopping in for a drink and a nibble. A menu was promptly provided, along with a friendly finger pointing towards the recommended wines by the glass scribbled on a blackboard. Our waitress (originally a Melbourne girl, not that there’s anything wrong with that) knew her stuff, and her food and wine recommendations were spot on. A mound of shredded and pickled Brussles sprouts were sharp with vinegar and lemon zest, and soft slices of kingfish crudo nestled beside slivers of crunchy salmon roe crowned cucumber put my airport ikura sushi handroll to shame. Two silky spheres of burrata were the highlight, served beside paper-thin pickled fennel, black olives and smoky charred bread. I could have easily stayed and drowned in the $75 banquet menu, but Bodega was calling. Next time.

From the outside looking in at Berta. Photo: Berta Facebook

Berta on Urbanspoon

To be continued…

*Hanger [noun] - an emotion displaying characteristics of anger, frustration and impatience, brought about by a violently rumbling gut

1 comment:

  1. I love reading your blog as I am a food lover myself and I love exploring new cuisines to experiment out from all over Australia and other countries. I am always at a self storage nearby handling mobile pods and its likes and after a hard day’s work, I like to try out something out of the norm to satisfy my tastebuds. I have a few friends who are as adventurous as I am, so that makes this food journey much easier.