Category Archives: Modern Australian

Last Supper in Sydney @ Bills, Surry Hills

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.

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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.

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The restaurant’s interior is clean, simple and unaffected by the trends that dictate most other restaurants and bars in the area.

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There is not a mason jar, clipboard menu or decorative heirloom in sight.

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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.

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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.

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From Italy, we enjoyed prawn and chilli linguine with garlic and rocket ($26.50)…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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So here are the desserts we got instead of Bill Granger’s famous ricotta hotcakes.

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Strawberry pavlova with yoghurt cream.

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Chocolate pudding.

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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.

The kimchi fried rice is still on the menu but please, don’t bother with it. Buy a small bag of kimchi from your Korean grocer and follow any one of these recipes and you’ll be better off.

Bills 
359 Crown St 
Surry Hills, NSW

Bills on Urbanspoon

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W.S.P. @ Circa Espresso

WSP is a subset of SP: Western Suburban Pride. There’s a big difference between simply having SP and having WSP. I know people who would happily eat Chinese in Chatswood and Korean in Eastwood (have SP), but are too scared to venture to Auburn for Turkish or Granville for Lebanese chicken (do not have WSP).

One cafe that is waving the WSP banner high is Circa Espresso. At the time I visited, it was only open on weekdays but I somehow managed to sneak in a lunch there (ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies…) – but hip hip hooray because it is now open on Saturdays from 8am to 3pm and will soon open Sundays too!

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The entrance to Circa is tiny but you can’t miss it – just look for the big brick wall covered in wildly coloured graffiti and western suburb hipsters sitting on op-shop furniture.

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In the tight space the shelves are stacked with all things coffee: bags and bags of beans, cups and saucers, grinders, pourers and cold drip coffee makers (which are like the ‘IT’ accessory to have in your cafe these days – if you don’t have one you may as well be McCafe). The message is clear: WE REALLY LOVE COFFEE AND WE TAKE IT VERY SERIOUSLY!

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A box of records – looks good, but do they actually get played? We’ll find out later in this episode.

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The menu and a curious logo that first looks like an octopus but is actually a hand with a coffee bean tied to each finger with string – an ancient tradition practised by Ethiopian tribes who believed that doing so would bring good fortune and a plentiful harvest.

Jokes – I just made that up. The lack of meaningful results for my “coffee beans tied to fingers” Google search indicate that this logo is simply a product of someone’s coffee-obsessed imagination.

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The decor becomes a bit less coffee-specific as you move to the back of the cafe – my favourite were the 4 Mr. Potato Heads and their Russian grandmother.

The bookcases are also filled with volumes of hard cover encyclopaedias which take you back the good ol’ days when you actually had to open up a book to research a school assignment. Nice to know that Britannica and World Book are serving a purpose other than adding to landfill these days.

And now moving on to the beverages…

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Not being a coffee fan – Matt ordered an iced tea. I don’t remember exactly what type (I should really start taking notes…) but it was exotic and floral and quite lovely.

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I ordered the drip coffee of the day over ice. As cool as it is to have a coffee menu as detailed as the food menu, honestly my unsophisticated coffee palate can’t tell the difference between a Colombian single origin and a commercial blend. So as beautiful as this may have tasted to someone who really understands coffee – it was wasted on me. I’ve only JUST reached the point where I can tolerate black coffee – but I still love my foamy capuccinos and I only ever choose the black option when I’m at a cafe like this where adding milk is so sacreligious the barista will probably spit in it.

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While waiting for our food, we opened up a tin of dominoes and played a round. I wanted to stand and topple them, but realised this might get us kicked out of the cafe.

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The day was steaming hot so I ordered a salad – in-house smoked trout salad with poached egg, blood orange, crispy pancetta, shaved fennel, pearl barley, zucchini ribbons & walnuts ($16).

Salad is a science. I think it really takes a lot of creativity, skill and a great understanding of flavours to construct a good salad because it’s all about balance. We want salads to taste healthy, but not to the point where we feel like we’re eating rabbit food – we still want something tasty and substantial. So you add some protein, carbs and dressing – but you can’t overdo this or else you end up with a salad with more calories and fat and less fibre than a burger, which defeats the whole purpose of a salad. You want a variety of textures and flavours – but these need to marry together and not just be a random mix of sweet/sour/savoury/crunchy/soft. You want it to be easy to eat –  all components fitting on one forkful so you can taste everything together. 

Overall, it just needs to be delicious in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you’re being punished for making the ‘healthy choice’ and sends you through a Maccas drive through after lunch.

I say all this, because this salad was the first salad I’ve had in a long time that I actually LOVED and made me wish that more places made salads like this. I rarely order salads because the health and nutrition benefits never outweigh the compromises I need to make in terms of flavour and enjoyment. But the kitchen at Circa proved to me that you can make a lunch-worthy salad that doesn’t make any compromises. It helped that it included some of my favourite ingredients – smoked trout, a poached egg and crispy shards of pancetta. Another thing I thought was really smart was that all the vegetables were shaved into ribbons, which makes them a lot more palatable. It’s the kind of thing you would do to make your kid each more veggies – but it totally works on adults too!

A lot of people who I talk to about Circa don’t seem to have a very high opinion of the food here, but I really hope the salad is still on the menu so you can try it – it is beautiful and it is genius.

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Matt ordered the HCAT (Barossa Valley double smoked free-range ham, avocado mash, vine ripened tomato, gouda cheese, house relish & rocket) which was one MAN-SIZED sandwich. So big I feel like they would need custom-baked bread to make this. It was actually quite simple, like a lunchbox sandwich your mum would make you, but on steroids. Even Matt couldn’t finish it!

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I love that Westies who are also coffee snobs, tea snobs, or brunch snobs have an option like Circa right in our backyard – and I hope this is only the first of many word-class cafes to pop up in the ‘hood. WSP 5eva!

Oh, and about the records…

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… they’re for display only. Elvis sings from the modern day gramophone – an iPhone dock.

Circa Espresso
21 Wentworth Street
Parramatta, NSW, 2150
Circa on Urbanspoon

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Belated Mother’s Day @ Public Dining Room

I had a horrific mother’s day. Not that I for any reason deserve a nice mother’s day – I’m not a mother, not even a pet owner. But I had a horrible Sunday May 12, which also happened to be mother’s day. Work blew up out of nowhere so it wiped out my entire weekend, including mother’s day dinner. In the words of Mrs Choi, I “ruined mother’s day”. Thanks mum.

We had originally planned a hot pot dinner, but had to can it. Mum ended up eating Nando’s and I ended up eating a Jimmy’s Kebab. It was sad times.

To make up for it, I thought I’d treat mum (… and myself) to a belated mother’s day lunch at the Public Dining Room. I have a big soft spot for Balmoral – being the closest beach to anywhere I’ve ever lived, I grew up having family picnics there. It’s a favourite date spot – lots of memories sharing mussels and pizza at Bather’s Pavilion (cafe) and almost making the walk of shame out of Bather’s Pavilion (restaurant) after we sat down and realised the menu was a lot more expensive than we expected. Matt and I even took our wedding photos on the esplanade.

The Bather’s Pavilion view is hard to beat, but Public Dining Room makes up for it with its beautiful interior. It’s the kind of interior that makes you feel like a wealthy lady of leisure brunching in the Hamptons. Everything is Scandinavian white from the marble bar, to the Eames dining chairs and the massive white orchids on display. The waitstaff are better dressed than the patrons – in crisp sky coloured shirts and spotless waist aprons.

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The view’s pretty decent too.

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We started with a shared entree of scallops, cauliflower puree, crispy pancetta, brown butter and sage ($26)

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The idea of scallops is always better than the reality. You see it on the menu and think “elegant and subtle seafood dish – perfect entree”. You see it on the plate and think “Okay, that’s 5 scallops, which means $5+ per scallop. That’s ridiculous. Should have gone for the pork belly.”

The last time I was here, I ordered the Brodetto (seafood stew – $39) and LOVED IT. I’m actually not a huge fan of seafood itself, but I love the intense flavour that seafood gives to stews and broths – spicy Korean crab stew is one of my favourites. Brodetto, the rustic Italian cousin of Bouillabaisse, a tomato based soup with whatever herbs and seafood you have available.

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It’s not the prettiest dish but tastes bloody good and once you’re finished with the generous assortment of seafood, you can mop up the soup with your complimentary table bread.

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I ordered the market fish ($38) which was snapper fillet . Disappointingly, it came out with nothing more than a few leaves. The reddish flakes on the plate are “Rooscuitto”, or Kangaroo prosciutto  which I would have liked to taste a little bit more of. But the fish was perfectly cooked so the lack of accompaniments didn’t bother me too much.

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My brother went for the strozzapreti with eastern king prawns, NZ clams, chilli, zucchini, sardinian bottarga (cured fish roe) ($36).

“Strozzapreti” literally means “Priest choker”, which is probably No.2 in the list of most inappropriate pasta names after Spaghetti Puttanesca (or Spaghetti of the whore).  There are a few different theories that explain the name, but my favourite is that the priests, overwhelmed by gluttonous desire, ate the pasta too quickly and choked themselves. And who can blame them – the pasta is long and curled up like paper scrolls as though it was deliberately designed for optimum sauce:pasta ratio in each bite.

(Side note: While researching the etymology of Strozzapreti, I came across this list of unfortunate food names which you may enjoy for your daily LOL)

Service here is a little bit uppity. We’re in Mosman so I get it.  But I did get a bit annoyed when the waiter made a strange, unnecessary comment when coming to our table to collect our dessert order about how I clearly knew exactly what I wanted. Um, if I didn’t know what I wanted to order why would I bother getting his attention? Was he implying that I was being demanding or impatient? Am I being oversensitive? Probably. But it just irked me because ever since reading this article about waiters’ pet peeves I’ve made a deliberate effort only to use my eyes when trying to get a waiter’s attention. Okay, there may be a distinction between making friendly eye contact and staring a waiter into submission, but I’m not waving my hands anymore which is a big improvement! Ugh, if restaurants would just adopt the wonderful Korean table buzzer, this wouldn’t even be an issue.

Moving on – for dessert, we chose the “1950’s bathing cap Bombe” – strawberry & chocolate ice cream, toasted Italian meringue, frilly bits

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It looks a little bit more like a hedgehog than a bathing cap, but the mix of chocolate and strawberry was a sweet and refreshing end to a lovely meal. Mum felt both loved and spoilt so it was mission accomplished.

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Public Dining Room
2a The Esplanade 
Mosman

Public Dining Room on Urbanspoon
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