Sydney: culinary capital of the world

What's bubbling up down under? Jenni Muir returns home to see what's happening in the Australian city's thriving foodie scene - and how we in the UK can expect to benefit (sadly, breakfast on the beach is not an option)
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's 10.30 Sunday morning, Balmoral Beach, Sydney. The heat is already searing and it's set to get hotter. The best thing to do is get out of the water and under cover for breakfast. And the only place to go is The Bathers Pavilion. Although there are plenty of others, this is where people are prepared to wait for ages near the bar or in the shade outside until their name comes up. A slender, tanned blonde in mint-green bikini and sarong strolls through the restaurant to sit down with friends, but only the tourists notice. The dress code is: there is no dress code.

It's 10.30 Sunday morning, Balmoral Beach, Sydney. The heat is already searing and it's set to get hotter. The best thing to do is get out of the water and under cover for breakfast. And the only place to go is The Bathers Pavilion. Although there are plenty of others, this is where people are prepared to wait for ages near the bar or in the shade outside until their name comes up. A slender, tanned blonde in mint-green bikini and sarong strolls through the restaurant to sit down with friends, but only the tourists notice. The dress code is: there is no dress code.

Nothing fazes the cheery maître d' either. "Don't worry, we'll seat you," he reassures the anxious few in the queue, mindful that the kitchen stops serving the famous breakfasts at noon. One woman audibly anticipates ordering home-baked beans with ham hock. "Hey, that's my dad's recipe!" says the maître d' proudly. For today, and every Sunday, the maître d' is Bathers Pavilion's executive chef and co-owner Serge Dansereau.

It may not be the very newest place in town, it may not be uppermost in the thoughts of the food cognoscenti this week, but Bathers is rated two out of a possible three hats in the leading local food guide and, to the rest of the world, is the consummate Sydney restaurant.

The contrast with similarly rated London venues could not be more extreme. In Britain, two-star chefs don't devote one day a week to greeting customers and working the front of house. They do not offer sensational, internationally-inspired breakfast menus seven days from 7am, nor make a special effort to welcome children, while adults lounge around on deep- cushioned banquettes for hours reading the paper. Oh yes, and you can't stroll in off the beach wearing a bikini.

Sydney is the best place to eat in the world right now, and knows it. The arrogance so frustrating in Australia's rugby players and cricketers has started to infect the food scene. So has the fashion crowd. More people are going out to be seen rather than to see, eateries and style bars with cutting-edge interior design are on the increase, as are skinny, strapless twenty-somethings who visit hot restaurants without actually eating. Prices are rising steadily, bolstered by rocketing rents and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax.

To foreign tourists, eating at top-end restaurants, particularly around the harbour, is no longer extraordinarily good value, despite the weak dollar. This is just part-and-parcel of Sydney taking it's rightful place on the international food stage. It's still cheaper than London, New York, Paris or Tokyo, and, culinarily speaking, more exciting. For that, thank an over-supply of excellent chefs, the outstanding quality of fresh produce and a proud multiculturalism.

Yet these factors are only part of the city's appeal. What the rest of the world really loves, but few seem able to articulate, is the inherent egalitarianism of the food culture. Here, great food is for everybody, all the time. Sydney says: breakfast is as important as dinner. It says: good Chinese cooking is as admirable as French. It says: if you wanna turn up in shorts on a hot day and order an eight-course degustation menu, no worries. After all, a top-flight restaurant (Aqua Dining) has just opened at North Sydney swimming pool. Best-known for its fusion or Pacific Rim cooking, which London has taken to with enthusiasm, Sydney also boasts many superb chefs dedicated to European and Mediterranean cuisines, as well as Chinese eateries on a par with the best in Hong Kong, and David Thompson, the world's leading authority on Thai food. Recently there has been talk about a revival in French bistro cooking.

Matthew Evans, restaurant reviewer for the Sydney Morning Herald explains: "Sydney stepped away from that kind of food for a while, partly because Australians were very against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. We're still Asian-crazy, but now we're saying: 'Hang on, French food is good, and there's a lot of it that can be simplified and made to suit our climate.'" His favourite example is Luke Mangan's Bistro Lulu. He also names restaurants Bonne Femme and Balzac. Luke Mangan, says Evans, "is one of the people who'll be defining Sydney style in years to come". Mangan's other restaurant, Salt, is a design-conscious and very fashionable Mod Oz venue, on the surface not unlike contemporary restaurants in London or New York, but, says Evans, it represents "the new vanguard of where food can go".

What's unique about the Sydney food scene, however, is that it is not entirely, or even primarily, chef-led. Food writers and stylists have a phenomenal impact and, in the case of Joan Campbell of Vogue Entertaining & Travel magazine, have inspired the chefs. Launched in 1978 as a hostess guide for readers of Vogue Living, VET has evolved into the world's most influential, most beautiful and most copied food magazine. It's now widely available in London, offering food-loving Brits a tantalising glimpse of coming trends. The future, by the way, is verjuice (see right). That is, unless you still haven't discovered orange flower water or pomegranate molasses.

Where VET has led, other Australian foodies have followed, making an impression in Britain, too. Donna Hay of Australian Marie Claire, whose stylishly mouthwatering books include New Entertaining and Food Fast, is a bestseller around the world. Critics at The New York Times, whose crushing assessments of British chef books have been known to make the front page, have described Hay as brilliant.

Equally inspiring is Jill Dupleix, whose New Food remains as fresh and directional as when it was published in 1994. Now that she's ensconced in Britain as food editor of The Times, and has brought along food-writing partner Terry Durack, you could be forgiven for thinking that Australian foodies had decided to make England a colonial outpost. Don't worry, you'll soon be asking for second helpings. Sharyn Storrier Lynham, editor of VET, sums up the Australian attitude that's putting Down Under on top: "Life is too short to have a bad meal."

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