Food with a view: Cafe Sydney
On a warm Sunday summer afternoon, there are probably not many better ways to enjoy one of the world’s great cityscapes than to sit with friends over a great meal. Cafe Sydney, atop the old Customs House at Circular Quay, is a rather large restaurant with an exceptional view from its terrace – overlooking the harbour bridge, the Opera House and across the water to North Sydney. It’s literally food with a view.
Greedy Girl has dined there a number of times. While the service can vary and your tenure on a table (particularly out on the terrace) fleeting, generally it’s been a very positive experience. All the planets aligned for our most recent Sunday lunch there, to celebrate the wedding of friends. It was warm without being stiflingly hot, enough cloud cover meant we didn’t get toasted to a crisp by the sun and both food and service were excellent. Our tenure on the table? Three hours, with a final call for drinks around 30 minutes before we were expected to depart. All good. Our guests, for various reasons, were consuming minimal booze, so gluttonous husband contented himself with a couple of IPAs, while Greedy Girl indulged in a couple of strawberry daiquiris.
Sydney’s CBD is a strange place on a Sunday. It’s hard to find a decent coffee and most of the top restaurants in the heart of the tourist precinct (i.e., near the bridge/Opera House) close down of a Sunday night. We were fortunate enough to be escaping the city that evening and lapped up what was available during the day.
By any measure, Cafe Sydney should be a bit of a tourist trap. Certainly, in the elevator whisking us from the ground floor, there was a fair smattering of visitors, including a number of Japanese tourists who hadn’t quite cottoned on to the need for a reservation. While the inside space of the restaurant looks pleasant enough, it’s very noisy and doesn’t have the advantage of the view. When booking, it’s prudent to reserve a terrace table even if it is subject to the vagaries of the weather.
Summer in Sydney is a strange beast. It’s humid, stormy and can be very rainy – a far cry from the blistering dry heat Melbourne experiences. The big advantage of this location is it’s universally easy to get to, especially by public transport. A ferry, train or bus to Circular Quay is a simple commute, or it’s a short walk from pretty much any of the major hotels in the city.
So we found ourselves ensconced at one of the Rolls Royce tables – directly overlooking the water and the gigantic cruise liners docked at the Overseas Passenger Terminal and perused the menu. A relatively recent addition to the line-up at the restaurant is executive chef James Kidman, who used to preside over the fine-dining Otto from Woollomooloo’s finger wharf, as well as the highly-sought after reception venue Doltone House.
Apparently the chef has relationships with some of the best produce suppliers; this was certainly evident in what we received. Still a little full from the previous night’s excellent tasting menu at Kent Street Kitchen, Greedy Girl opted for two starters while gluttonous husband and one friend shared a dozen oysters to start and our other friend chose a goats’ cheese tart.
Sydney is an excellent place to visit for seafood lovers. Gluttonous husband shared the dozen natural oysters, a mix of Sydney rock oysters and Pacific varieties. He preferred the Pacific oysters which he found to be less unctuous in the mouth.
Our other friend took the ashed goat cheese tart with creamed leek, fennel, cress and an eschalot dressing. It was light, tangy and tasty.
Greedy Girl went for one of her favourites – wagyu beef carpaccio with truffle dressing, capers, aioli and baby rocket. Visually this was not dissimilar to a dish she’d shared with gluttonous husband in years gone by in Vienna except there it was topped with a rather large tempura prawn. This was a triumph – bold flavours combined brilliantly with the soft beef. Definitely a go-to dish.
We moved to mains or, in Greedy Girl’s case, a second starter. She went with the dish featured at the top of this post, grilled octopus from Coffin Bay in South Australia with smoked tomato confit, chorizo, Persian feta, olives, cucumber, oregano and basil. A pretty dish featuring intense colours, it was also very tasty. Octopus can be a little confronting for some people to consume. While Greedy Girl is squeamish about such things as fish eyes, tentacles hold no fear for her. They’re a lot firmer in texture than calamari which gives this dish not only a chewy quality but also makes it quite substantial. The accompaniments were all perfect – tomatoes are so good this time of year, the chorizo sausage had just the right amount of spice and the salt from the feta and olives was sublime. A great dish.
Gluttonous husband chose the swordfish, served with a pea puree, Dutch carrots, nasturtium and tarragon cream. Another vibrant-looking plate, the combination of flavours was again very good although the fish itself was a tad overcooked and had started to dry out. A chef friend of ours told us later that swordfish is one of the trickier fish to get right.
Both our friends took the Humpty Doo (a town in the Northern Territory) barramundi. This was a strong fish but cooked perfectly. It combined well with grilled baby fennel, salt cod, baby tomatoes, cucumber and, again, the tarragon dressing.
We all hoed into the duck fat roasted chat potatoes, sprinkled with rock salt and the rocket, raddichio, pecorino and red apple salad.
Time for something sweet. Between the four of us, we chose two. Our friends opted for a special – a Panettone bread and butter pudding with cherries, summer berries and vanilla ice-cream. They were well pleased with it although Greedy Girl declined to sample it – bread and butter pud not being her thing. It was another triumph of plating.
Greedy Girl and gluttonous husband went for the salted caramel and chocolate peanut tart with banana fritters and chocolate ice cream. The tart and the candied peanuts on top were divine. Gluttonous husband relished the ice cream. Both of us thought the sugar coating on the banana fritters was a step too far. Neither of us like overly sweet items and the dish didn’t need any extra crunch alongside those spectacular peanuts.
And we were done. Our friends ordered coffee with skim milk and recalled their efforts to find skim milk near the holiday home they bought last year in regional France. Apparently to the French, skim is not a word in their lexicon. Vive la France!
Cafe Sydney is a treat and visitors to this city could do a lot worse than to enjoy very good food and a world-class view. It’s a bit pricey but, all things considered, a real treat. Don’t deny yourself.
Customs House, Circular Quay