It’s August now, which means it’s been more than six months since I left Sydney and moved to Seoul. This is the second last Sydney restaurant I have left to blog about, and I’ve deliberately procrastinated posting these last two because even though it breaks all the rules of food blogging to leave a six month gap between dining and writing, I’m dreading the sadness of typing the last word on my final Sydney food post.
But I can’t drag this out forever. It’ll be about a year before I’m back in Sydney, even for a visit, so I should learn to embrace my new identity as a Seoul food blogger. Though, for some reason, the food here doesn’t inspire me to blog as much as it did in Sydney. I’m not sure why. It may have something to do with the fact that every man and his dog is a food blogger in Korea. Even the most obscure, nameless, back-alley neighbourhood restaurant will have a blog post dedicated to it, complete with photos and a map. It’s a bit intimidating, but don’t worry, I’ll find my foodspiration and keep doing my thing.
For now, wind back the clock to Sydney, circa December 2013.
I planned my final meals in Australia very carefully. I held so many “farewell” dinners it got a bit ridiculous and people started to realise that this was just an excuse for me to tick off as many restaurants on my list as possible before I left the country,
For the farewell dinner I organised with my dear work friends, I wanted to eat somewhere iconic. I couldn’t afford Tetsuya’s or Quay, so I settled on Bills.
In recent years, Bills has been overshadowed by the hundreds of hipster cafes that have popped up all over the city, but I don’t think any of those cafes would even exist now if Bills hadn’t paved the way and envisioned a cafe breakfast that was more sophisticated than a bacon and egg muffin.
Did you know that Bills on Crown Street is open for dinner? It might seem a bit silly to have dinner at a restaurant that is famous for breakfast, but their signature ricotta hotcakes are actually on the dinner menu as a dessert option. There was also something else on the dinner menu that intrigued me and I was eager to check out: kimchi fried rice.
I LOVE kimchi fried rice. When you have over-fermented kimchi that is starting to smell alcoholic and week-old rice in the fridge, you would be justified in throwing both those things in the bin. But the smarter, less wasteful, more delicious thing to do would be to throw then in a frypan instead and make some kimchi fried rice. It is something people rarely pay money for, so I was very curious about whether Bills could pull it off as a proper restaurant-appropriate dish.
The restaurant’s interior is clean, simple and unaffected by the trends that dictate most other restaurants and bars in the area.
There is not a mason jar, clipboard menu or decorative heirloom in sight.
They do, however, serve wine in a small glass pitcher, with a stem-less wine glass. I’d never seen this before but I kind of loved it – it felt really retro, like I was drinking hard liquor in one of the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.
Everyone was coming from their respective offices, so we ordered an appetiser as we waited for late arrivals. This is the semolina-crusted calamari with lemon, parsley, green beans and fennel – $19.50
The dinner menu at Bills is quite multicultural, which would usually raise some red flags, but I think Bill Granger is one of the few Australian chefs you could trust with a variety of international cuisines. He was one of Australia’s first celebrity chefs, has more than ten cookbooks to his name and has had a long partnership with the awesome Kylie Kwong, which is the thing that gives him the most street creed. The above appetiser was a very light, aussie-fied version of the Chinese classic.
The mains we ordered were from all over the world.
From Italy, we enjoyed prawn and chilli linguine with garlic and rocket ($26.50)…
and also a really lovely, rich ragu with seashell pasta and a few handfuls of parmesan shavings. I think this was a special – and one of the best dishes of the night.
From Thailand, I chose the yellow fish curry with spiced pumpkin, peanuts, brown rice and cucumber relish ($28.50) – not something I would usually order, but I wanted something rich and full of flavour. The curry was a bit mild for my liking, but I love how soft, white fish soaks up the flavours of a curry.
There are, of course, some Australian classics on the dish like this massive parmesan crumbed chicken schnitzel, with creamed corn, coriander and fennel salad ($27.50). Good for hungry meat-lovers who want something a bit more substantial than typical cafe fare.
This is meant to be a a wagyu beef burger – but my health-conscious friend replaced the bun, cheese and fries with a salad. Not a life choice I could ever understand, but each to their own.
And finally, from Korea, the kimchi fried rice.
Or so we thought.
This is listed on the menu as “crab, chorizo and house kim chee fried brown rice” ($22.50.) Normal kimchi fried rice can be made with just kimchi and rice, but you can also add some protein in the form of canned tuna or diced spam. So when we saw this on the menu we were all like “Oh! Crab! Chorizo! This is going to be the fanciest, most delicious kimchi fried rice evvvveeerrrr!”
In hindsight, this was foolish and we should have known that we were setting ourselves up for disappointment.
First, but kind of a side note, Bills is OBSESSED with coriander. Seriously, coriander appeared on almost every single dish. The stuff must be growing like weeds in Granger’s backyard.
Second – doesn’t the way the the dish is described on the menu give the impression that all these delicious ingredients would be mixed together and fried with the brown rice? That’s what we thought too, so we were really surprised to see the dish come out with the kimchi served mainly on the side (covered by the giant heap of coriander in the photo).
The rice tasted like run-of-the-mill fried rice, with vague hints of chilli, crab and chorizo… and almost none of the spicy fermented cabbage flavor you should be getting from kimchi fried rice.
The kimchi on the side tasted just like … regular kimchi. Thinking about it, it’s pretty arrogant for a Western restaurant to boast “house made” kimchi on the menu, when there is perfectly fresh, perfectly delicious kimchi available from Korean grocers everywhere. Like, if you’re going to take advantage of the Korean food-trend by including a kimchi dish on your menu, it would be nice if you supported Korean producers and small businesses by using their high-quality, authentic products.
The yellow egg ribbons, I think, were meant to be a play on the fried egg you usually get on top of your kimchi fried rice, or the thin sheet of scrambled eggs that sometimes covers the whole plate omurice-style. But even egg could not save this sad, bland imitation of kimchi bokkumbap.
One disappointment led to another when I excitedly asked for the ricotta hotcakes for dessert and the waitress informed me that they had run out.
Erm. There are a few things I don’t quite understand about “running out” of ricotta hotcakes.
1. They are your signature dish. I don’t care if it’s dinnertime; it’s on your dessert menu, if you consider yourself a professional establishment you should have BUCKETS of ricotta in your cool room to deal with demand.
2. Even if you run out of ricotta… just send one of the kitchen hands down to the freaking Thomas Dux and buy some more!!!! Do you not realise that 90% of the people who walk through your doors are only there for the ricotta hotcakes?
3. THEY’RE PANCAKES FOR GOODNESS SAKE. This is not the type of thing you should run out of. A rare vintage wine, I understand. A whole suckling pig, also understand. Pancakes? No. Pancakes are something that you can still make even when you’re dirt broke and have less than five things in your fridge.
So here are the desserts we got instead of Bill Granger’s famous ricotta hotcakes.
Strawberry pavlova with yoghurt cream.
Some berry mousse thing.
All pleasant. All unspectacular. All NOT ricotta hotcakes.
Putting the hotcakes debacle to one side, Bills is quite a nice place to have dinner with friends. It’s quiet and comfortable, and the food is well-made and uncontroversial, in that there is something to please everyone.
359 Crown St
Surry Hills, NSW