"It's not much but it's ours"

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Well, I have come to the end of my time in Sydney and, if I am honest, I have been underwhelmed by the restaurant scene even if I have had some good things to eat.

Vibrant enough,with lots of new places opening, but small scale and lacking its own identity. The only element of Sydney’s eating I will really crave when I get back home is the array of food courts where you can pick up a plate of noodles or a pho for $10. Otherwise, there is little here to spark much nostalgia.

I, obviously, did not get to try everywhere I wanted due to time and budget. But, based on this visit and that of another recent foray, I can reasonably argue to have got a handle on what this city has to offer.

That is not to say that I did not have some enjoyable meals at Tetsuya, Bill’s, Bentley etc but nothing to actively miss when I get home and nothing to suggest that any of them was doing something I could not get in London ( though admittedly at twice the price).

Oh, and most of the wines have truly sucked. But, that is ever the way when one is playing 'Billy no mates" and drinking from the selection by the glass.

Thankfully the hateful “lemongrass and galangal with everything” school of cooking that seemed to exemplify so much of Australian cooking has faded to allow a more mature approach to ingredients and there are signs that Australia is truly trying to develop its own cuisine rather than be a pale reflection of its Asian and Mediterranean siblings. On this snapshot, however, I still think it has a long way to go.

Strange then, that the most enjoyable meal of my trip should be beholden to neither Asian or Med influences but to good old Mother England who otherwise is only represented by Fish & Chips and the ubiquitous pie.

Bistrode, on Bourke St in the achingly fashionable Surry Hills area is the result of a union between Jeremy & Jane Strode and just about every decent gastropub in London. It’s menu both in design and content owes just about everything to the contributions of Fergus Henderson and Mark Hix to English cooking. If I had been shown the menu without knowing, I could easily have suggested it came from The Anchor & Hope, The Rivington Grill, The Fox or St John Bread & Wine. It is little surprise that, when the waiter gave me a copy of the chef’s cookbook, it should have a quote from Hix on the jacket.

Warm Pig’s Head with a Pickled Egg Salad, Ox Tongue with Gherkins, Smoked Eel & Bacon, Seven Hour Shoulder of Mutton. Sound familiar anyone?

None of this makes it a bad place, of course and it is not. For what drags this from the danger of being an antipodean “nose to tail” wannabe is the quality of the cooking.

A starter of a baked duck egg came topped with slices of black pudding and tomato jam that combined to a pleasing mess when the yolk was broken and the blood sausage dipped in the result. Black pudding is seldom seen on menus in Sydney I was told and this example had to be purchased from the one butcher in Sydney who knew how to make a good one.

Main courses too were, shall we say, an homage to pubs back home of the gastro type and I plumped for Berkshire Pork Belly with Red Cabbage and a side of Brussels with chestnuts. Again, more than competent, with a good strip of belly pork, melting fat and crackling working well with a sharp cabbage and the crunch of the chestnuts.

I did not have pudding from a list which included Welsh Rarebit (the waiter had to explain that one to a few people) nor any wine ( after a liver challenging meal with Simon Thomsen the night before at Bentley ) and the bill came to $60 (about £26) for the two courses including tip which is good value for decent cooking and good service.

In the 18 months it has opened, Bistrode’s menu has made it one of the most popular places in town and it was packed to the rafters during my visit and every time I passed by on the way to my accommodation.

I can see why. It was a tasty well cooked meal that was also well priced. But, while unique to Sydney, hardly a sign of a city developing it's own identity.

Still, they have, at least not yet succumbed to the triple cooked chip, so there is still hope.

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