There is an old image of what a top restaurant should be. Stiff, white tablecloths, perfectly polished silverware, and waistcoat wearing waiters serving delicate food to formalwear clad customers in hushed reverence. This is what a lot of people still think of as “fine dining”.
But really, where’s the fun in that?
Thankfully, the view in the current Sydney restaurant hit-list is nothing like this. There are no tablecloths, no waistcoats, and certainly no silence. The overwhelming sense coming out of dining in the harbour city is absolute joy.
Joy is seen clearly in the Dude Food movement in places like Duke Bisto and Ms G’s. Dude Food is basically restaurant quality food made from top ingredients, but with fast food sensibility. Think burgers, tacos, and the dish of the moment, fried chicken, but done better than KFC can offer. It’s food that “dudes” would eat, probably when stoned.
At Duke this dude-ism comes through most clearly in their veal shortrib pancake PARTY (and yes, the capitals are on the menu). Inspired by the great dish that is Peking duck, this is one of those “oh my god” bites of food. Slow braised veal, rich and sexy, is taken straight off the bone and placed in a feather-light pancake with a sweet, sharp sauce and some cucumber batons. If I could have a plate by myself, I would be back in a second. Hell, if I could have a bucket of it.
There was one other star at Duke, less obvious, but no less fun. There is something thrilling about grabbing a hot radish and wiping it through dashi infused melted butter, the umami rich sauce combining beautifully with the sharp radish. Thankfully there were some of the greatest, chewiest bread rolls to sop up the remaining butter. Again, joyful.
These were clear standouts in Thomas Lim and Mitchell Orr’s menu, because they were the ones that were fun. The rest of the dishes still tasted good, and they were interesting, but they were more cheffy and less fun. Lamb’s neck with smoked eggplant puree is interesting, and tastes great, but it doesn’t quite gel with the bustle and excitement of the quirky pub-like décor.
Dan Hong hits the mark more often at Ms G’s, where every dish matched the silliness of the name, the noise and the references to food additives. From the stupidity of bubble-tea style cocktails (the ‘Handsome Boy’ Lemonade with slippery slivers of orange jelly was my favourite) to the absurd Stoner’s Delight dessert, a pile of marshmellows, rice bubbles, peanut butter icecream and chocolate, everything here is a delight.
Here, they do fried chicken right. Tender chunks of baby chicken, crumbed with spiced and fried crisp, the meat alone would be enough. But when combined with the smooth spiciness of Kim Chi mayonnaise, this is the sort of dish that I wish the Colonel would serve. Egg noodles with braised duck and XO sauce, stirred together with a poached egg make for an unctuous mess, beautifully rich and coating your mouth.
Every dish I ordered involved eating with your hands, my favourite way to eat, or stirring a dish to add to the food, something interactive. The best dish of the night combined both of these things in the Vietnamese steak tartare. You coat the hand-chopped meat and spices in gooey quail egg yolk, then spoon them onto prawn crackers to eat. The crunch of the cracker and the cool, meaty spice of the beef were a joy to eat.
Dan Hong, with the help of his Merivale compadres, has taken the fun from Ms G’s, bought a Surry Hills pub, and created something every city needs: a great taco place. Situated mostly inside the Excelsior pub with hay bales and cacti spilling out the side door, El Loco is a tribute to the colour and life of Mexico, by way of an LA food truck and Hong’s own slightly twisted mind.
Open to 3am on weekends, this is a south-of-the-border party, replete with sombrero wearing skulls on the wallpaper and a very impressive tequila selection behind the bar. Also available to drink is a Pink Cuco frozen cocktail, which is worryingly easy to drink. The tacos, at a very low $5, come in beef, chicken, prawn, tofu, and wonderfully marinated pork cut strait off a spit, all covered in cabbage and pico de gallo, and wrapped in a supple tortilla. All were good, from the slightly Asian inspired beef to the plump, juicy prawns. But for me the charred edges of the fatty pork were the winner. I’m predictable like that.
Better even than the tacos were the Excelsior hot dogs. A meaty pork sausage in a pillow-soft bun, topped with pickled jalepenos, pico de gallo, mayonnaise and cheese, this was a snack worth going back for. The gentle heat from the jaepenos cut through the dual fattiness of the sausage and mayo. I had two. Probably would have had more if I didn’t need to catch a bus. If only Canberra had a place like El Loco.
The fun that can be found at these young, loud and a little bit silly restaurants is also being seen at places higher up the price scale. The newly opened and uncomfortable named Gastro parK is the plaything of Grant King, formerly of Pier. Here he takes the style of food found in many of the top end restaurants in town and makes it more relaxed. The room was open, bright, tablecloth free, and particularly appealing in the midday sun, which starts you off in a good mood.
The food continues this good mood. A small “macchiato”, really mushroom consommé topped with a cloud of onion and coffee foam, was served with a piece of caramelised veal sweetbread on top. The lightness of the offal with its gooey, sweet coating was perfect for dipping into the drink, and a more interesting update on something to dunk in your coffee. A main of crispy scaled salmon (literally the scales) with gloriously lush squid ink covered potatoes and calamari, both cooked and as crackling, continues with this whimsy.
But the pure giddy, childish joy really comes to the fore in dessert. The plate comes with a white sphere sitting in the middle, surrounded by mini-meringues, chocolate covered biscuit bites and liquid nitrogen-smoking chunks of chocolate. Cracking the sphere with a spoon a lava-stream of chocolate and honeycomb spreads across the plate. Every bite of this is ridiculous, packed full of the flavours that everybody loves. It makes me feel like an eight year old.
Not every dish was such a success, with a dish of oxtail and onion soufflé being a little dull despite some silken confit baby swedes, but overall Gastro parK delivers a serious amount of enjoyment.
I want food that leaves me giggling like a lunatic. I want a restaurant that doesn’t care when the food makes me start to dance, whether it’s a $40 main or a dirty post-midnight snack. Thankfully, the rest of Sydney seems to want this too, as these restaurants feel like the head of a joyful movement.
Let’s just hope the rest of the country gets it too.
Duke Bistro Ms G’s
65 Flinders St, Darlinghurst 155 Victoria St, Potts Point
02 9332 3180 02 8313 1000
El Loco Gastro parK
64 Faveaux St, Surry Hills 5-9 Roslyn St, Potts Point
02 9211 4945 02 8068 1017