*Note: Australian spelling will be observed here.
Surry Hills is a hive of culinary activity, a cluster of gourmet grocers, and a hotbed for the restaurants of celebri-chefs from Bill Granger to Kylie Kwong. The tree-lined streets are alive with shoppers carrying their edible cargo in recyclable bags, café-goers linger over the last sips of their flat whites, and couples peruse the menus outside the various establishments. I knew this was a place I had to be in, and now that I’m here, I love it already.
Crown and Bourke, two streets parallel to one another, are the epicenter of activity. Photo above shows Crown Street, where the restaurants tempt with titillating options, one after the other. Across the street (photo above), vintage-wear boutiques and funky shops are a siren call to fashionistas. At Crown Street Grocer, I’m bedazzled by aisles and aisles of Australian olive oil and vinegars, local cheeses, and dried pasta. But it’s this out-in-the-open tray of hot cross buns that gets me; I’ve never had one before. Baked during Holy Week, the buns are slightly heavy and still warm. A bite yields sultana-studded dough redolent with cinnamon and allspice. I’m excited to be at Bill Granger’s eponymous Bills. A restaurant that’s decorated in a manner as easygoing as his cooking is reputed to be, there’s a long line but my Bin and I manage to nab a table outside. Brunch at Bills is crazy-popular, headlined by an item that people want available even after 3pm. That dish is the Ricotta Hotcakes served with bananas and butter. The soft cheese imbues the pancakes with an ultra-soft texture, pointing up its dairy notes. After reading about this for so long, I’m exhilarated to be eating it. Bills special cake for the day is this Fruit-Topped Crumble Coffeecake. I’m crazy for anything coffeecake, love to bake it, love to eat it. I pick off the crumble topping – my favorite part – cluster by cluster, and revel in the cake’s soft crumb and lashings of fruit jam. Backtracking and making our way north towards Bourke (pronounced “Burke”) Street, we pass Oxford Street. Vibrant and flying its rainbow flags, the street is a major thoroughfare teeming with boutiques, adult shops, pubs, and restaurants. The area is also the centre of Sydney’s gay community and Oxford Street is where the Annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade begins its route. Tucked away in a corner at the top of Bourke Street is Christopher’s Cake Shop. Stepping inside is like taking a time out from the hubbub outside. Greek sweets piled high, scintillate behind the cool of their glassed-in interiors. I don’t have time for a Greek coffee, so I take away a few pastries. Kourambiedes, nutty almond shortbreads, crumble dearly like polvoron… … and the Cashew Fingers, drenched in sweet honey, flake and fall tenderly on my tongue. So taken am I with what I’m tasting that my knees buckle and I fall onto a bench outside to catch my breath. Wish I’d stopped for that Greek coffee…
It’s a walk that doesn’t seem to end but so pleasant it is – fallen leaves seem to lap at our feet and my Bin, architectural buff that he is, admires the Victorian designs of the houses we pass. This far down Bourke Street is more of a residential area but there’s a gem waiting at the end.
This is Bourke Street Bakery, a corner bakery turned artisan bread hotshot in Sydney’s gourmet bread world. “Tiny” doesn’t begin to describe the smallness of the space but people queue patiently for their turn because they know it’s worth it. Best to know what you want ahead of time because orders are dispensed here with military efficiency. Thank goodness for the tables outside, charming structures that seem to have been fashioned out of fallen tree trunks. Our order: beef meat pie and lemonade for my Bin, and a macadamia sticky roll and Callebaut chocolate milk for me. I don’t exaggerate when I say that this may just be the BEST chocolate milk I’ve ever had. A pool of dark chocolate sits on the bottle’s bottom; once shaken, the chocolate hit factor increases exponentially: milk, chocolate, sugar, and what I suspect to be a swirl of cream collide and collude into one killer drink. I want to air-freight bottles of this back home to Manila. While I’m purring with joy over my chocolate milk, my Bin proclaims his beef pie as “…the best I’ve eaten in Sydney!” Phenomenally flaky, the crumbs litter our mouths, preludes to a deeply flavorful beef filling made with red wine and herbs. Outstanding. Parts of Surry Hills are quiet, tucked away as they are in an area of converted warehouses stretching down to Central Station. On Albion Street sits Chefs Warehouse, indeed a warehouse catering to the equipment needs of restaurateurs. Everything is industrial-sized here and there’s a curated collection of cookbooks deemed indispensable to every cook’s library.
For my inner coffee geek
In every country I visit, I make it a point to visit at least one serious coffee shop, a boutique roaster run by coffee nerds who are meticulous beyond belief about their beans and blends. It’s from these people that I learn more about the beverage I adore . I believe that the more I learn about coffee, the more I appreciate it. It’s the philosophy I apply to food and how I write about it.
In Sydney’s Surry Hills, I seek out Single Origin Roasters, one of the city’s original boutique roasters. Their beans are shipped from farms in South America, Asia, and Africa.
The main espresso bar is at the corner where orders are taken and a sufficient brekkie or snack can be had. Down the street is where the coffee is made by two serious looking baristas. Unsmiling and efficient, they brew coffee in a variety of methods (French press, cold-drip, pour over, etc.) like their lives depend on it. As a coffee lover, I watch in wide-eyed rapture. See those two siphons in the centre? Gleaming golden, they’re fascinating to watch. The coffee is brewed within two chambers, one a vapour pressure, the other, a vacuum. This method produces a coffee that’s crisp and clean whilst retaining its smooth richness.
This is a cup ($AUD 10) of the Geisha Esmeralda-Special from the Peterson family’s “La Hacienda Esmeralda” in Mount Barú, Western Panama. Considered by connoisseurs as by far the best coffee ever produced, it’s taken the highest records ever in coffee auction history: $US 130 per pound of green coffee. I’d heard about this “Black Gold” of coffee before, and to those who know about it, it’s spoken about reverently in hushed tones.
My order of the Geisha is served with much veneration. The barista places the cup with much care on the table and announces solemnly, “We brewed this with the siphon method because we believe it retains the litany of flavours, from fruit to honey, to wildflowers.” I sit, stunned and listening, all my senses now stimulated by his words. My Bin is looking at me, quite amused.
Then a clay bowl of a deep grey is placed beside my coffee. The barista continues his spiel. “As the Geisha cools, its flavors of tangerine and peach come forth. We’ve highlighted those flavors in this jasmine rice horchata and a centre of poached peach puree.” My only encounter with horchata is the nut meat drink from Hermano’s, and since this one is made from rice, it tastes slightly like cool congee. The entire composition is clean and artful with the peach puree mimicking the yolk of a fried egg in appearance. It does complement the Geisha, which is indeed clean and complex. I sip it slowly, thoughtfully.
I see seafood
It’s hard to believe that the Sydney Fish Market is the world’s second-largest seafood market after Tsukiji in Tokyo. The place itself is quite small but pales in comparison nevertheless to the amount of seafood that passes through this great place.
There are over 100 kinds of seafood here harvested from Australia and New Zealand, about 14,500 tonnes annually. Am fortunate to try ocean trout which, with its rosy pink flesh, looks and tastes a lot like the more popular salmon but the former is somewhat sweeter and more tender. To the right of the fish market is the retail section. There are more fish vendors here too and plenty of food stores. Bread with seafood? Why not! The samples seen here are a good cross-section of traditional Australian breads.
Everywhere we look, it’s all about seafood: seeing, touching, buying, eating. The clean smell of frying fish fills the air as does excited chatter. Some people are here with ice-filled coolers, ready to cart the freshest fish back home.
Outside the Market is the Waterfront where people take advantage of the sun to picnic on deep fried fish and for us, sashimi.