When people find out I spent several years as Good Food Guide editor, and a full-time restaurant critic, they like to ask me “What’s your favourite restaurant?”
My response is “What’s your favourite mood?”, because how you feel plays a big part in the right restaurant for the occasion.
The $10 bowl of laksa in a food court is great when you have a hankering for hot and spicy, but not so good if you’re hoping your wedding anniversary night out might end up the same.
Tetsuya’s is one of the country’s greatest restaurants, but a luxe 10-course $230 degustation over several hours is generally not the solution to saying you don’t feel like cooking tonight at 6.30pm.
So this list of my 12 favourite restaurants in 2017 below is an extremely quirky one, determined by chance and circumstance and the sheer pleasure of eating out. Looking at it, I suspect it reveals my own bias towards seafood and Asian flavours, although the two most outstanding meals I’ve had were in regional Australia – at Fleet on the NSW far north coast, and Dan Hunter’s world’s 50 best spot, Brae, about 90 minutes from Melbourne above the Great Ocean Road.
Both places were extraordinary for being deeply rooted in the landscape and a modern European sensibility.
And special mention must also go to Josh Niland’s Saint Peter in Paddington, a seafood restaurant it took me a year to get to, but was worth the wait.
So here are 12 greats – some old favourites revisted, some new shining stars. My favourite restaurant is the one I’m eating in at the time. That’s why we eat out in the first place.
The best dish I've eaten this year is Brent Savage's extraordinary whole baby kingfish with sorrel and smoked bone marrow at his seafood-focused harbourside diner at Barangaroo.
Savage and his wine geek business partner Nick Hildebrandt, of Bentley fame, run this seafood venue with aplomb, kicking off with several types of caviar and oysters, a seafood platter, and the ethereal smoked ocean trout parfait with fennel pollen and pickled onions. Sometimes there are subtle Asian influences, such as grilled WA marron with yuzukosho (a Japanese seasoning) and tomato oil, or it's a classy fish and chips using whole flathead.
The mind-blowing kingfish, with softly buttery and smoke flesh appears whole, until you realise it's been completely boned out, the citrussy notes of the sorrel offsetting the richness of the marrow.
Hildebrandt's wine list is a global treasure trove, so put yourself in his hands to explore it as you gaze out across the glistening waters of Sydney harbour.
10/23 Barangaroo Avenue, Barangaroo. Tel: (02) 9220 0111
Lunch & dinner daily
Magic happens in this narrow Oxford Street terrace (previously a sushi train) where young chef Josh Niland - Gourmet Traveller's 2018 best new talent - opened his first solo venture.
Saint Peter (the name Italians gave to the fish we call John Dory), rethinks seafood with a nose-to-tail approach and native flavours, taking the fish to the next level.
Thus you might start with the Albacore tuna (pictured) which Niland's aged for three weeks, chopped into a tartare and serves raw with condiments, including fried bread. Then there's the humble brilliance of barbecued Coorong mullet with corn and salted mullet roe before a perfect slice of lemon tart for dessert.
Weekend brunch heralds sweet-and-sour mackerel on toast, smoked eel pikelets, and scrambled eggs with marron.
This petite space with its exposed brick, bistro feel and warm team is a restaurant for all seasons, from casual drop-in, to date night, and celebration, with a small but impressive wine list, and a lot to love, even if you're a reluctant fish eater, as the salt and vinegar onion rings attest.
362 Oxford Street, Paddington, NSW. Tel: (02) 8937 2530
Brunch Sat-Sun; lunch Fri-Sun; dinner Weds-Sun
If you ever wondered what a pub bistro in Istanbul would be like, here's the answer, cleverly hidden behind the facade of a 50s hair salon. Stanbuli captures the bustling energy of Turkey's capital in this two-storey terrace with its skinny downstairs bar for snacking and pretty upstairs dining room for feasting.
A menu divided between a cold and hot meze, plus several wood-grilled dishes, leaves you spoiled for choice, so best go the $70pp chef's menu for a cavalcade of shared dishes, from the village-style bread with smoked butter and olives to Ahtapot - pickled octopus with black-eyed peas, sigara borek - spinach and feta pastry 'cigars', and tavuk - a small, paprika-sweet whole chicken, subtly smoky from wood-fired cooking.
It's fun, fast and plentiful, washed down by a small wine list stretching from Europe to here, alongside the anise-flavoured Turkish spirit raki.
135 Enmore Road, Enmore, NSW. Tel: (02) 8624 3132
Lunch Sun, dinner Wed-Sun
Something incredible happens in this tiny venue in a small town just north of Byron Bay if you're lucky enough to score a table. Hosts and partners Astrid McCormack and chef Josh Lewis run an all-day service four days a week with an ever-changing list of small dishes.
It's fabulously intimate, with just a handful of seats around the polished concrete bar counter with views of the adjacent open kitchen, and room for just 14 diners.
You can a la carte for lunch, but dinner is degustation only - 8 courses for $85 and you're better off letting Lewis bring the parade of treats, from a smoked mullet pate looking like a stegosaurus made from chips to a radish coated in sesame seeds and seaweed, salt and vinegar Jerusalem artichokes, house-made charcuterie, and braised lamb neck with kale and squid ink.
You're asked to choose a hand-crafted cup of matching sake with a fat local oyster in a surprisingly harmonious combination with sheep's milk yoghurt and grated macadamia, while the unexpectedly brilliant signature dish is a white bread sandwich of fried, crumbed veal sweetbread with anchovy mayo, served with a lager brewed in Sydney's Surry Hills.
This is like going around to a friend's house for a meal. Your new, very bestest friend.
2/16 The Terrace, Brunswick Heads, NSW Tel: (02) 6685 1363
lunch & dinner Thu–Sun
Melbourne's Chris Lucas brought his Flinders Lane Asian diner to Sydney, bringing the century-old, heritage-listed Griffiths Teas Building on the edge of the CBD back to life in the process. It's fun, fast and furious and pretty damned tasty, and a month in, the city's hottest restaurant.
There are a bunch of rules around booking - 6 or more, or lunch seatings at noon and 2.30pm (with out by), set menu, etc etc, so best ignore them, and turn up (early) to try your luck, for the 'roll ups' - a sort of pulled pork version of Peking duck, with an Asian slaw and plum sauce to add to the thin pancake wraps. The menu spans Asia, from Balinese duck to a massaman curry of beef brisket with chunks of potato and pineapple mopped up with roti, and stir fry of prawns, bug tails and egg noodles with a 'hellfire' chilli oil, before the wickedly delicious palm sugar and burnt caramel ice cream sundae with salted honeycomb.
The wine list includes a bunch of wines on tap, so you can get a $29 500ml carafe of Jim Barry riesling, and a crazy cocktail list where the 'ham and pineapple' - rum, campari, lardo and smoked maple, is a standout, so it's no hardship should you find yourself in the 100-seat bar with booths, rather than the main restaurant space with its warehouse vibe and Elizabeth Street views.
Veteran host Craig Hemmings leads an energetic floor team that makes dining here the culinary equivalent of the Nike swoosh.
Chin Chin Sydney
69 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills, NSW. Tel: 02 9281 3322.
Open daily 11am-11pm
I first fell in love with this neighbourhood bistro by Alex Kearns a decade ago as a full-time restaurant critic, even telling international food magazines it was my favourite place to eat. Life and circumstance change, but the simple fact is this unfussed inner west spot is as glorious as ever, and an any-excuse-will-do place to head for a quick bite or full-on feast.
There's a bunch of great blackboard specials and a Mediterranean slant to the daily menu in dishes such as stinging-nettle pappardelle with a rich shellfish bisque as sauce and studded with spanner crab and honey bugs, or steamed bass grouper with cuttlefish and snow peas, and duck with grilled radicchio, pickled grapes and parsnip puree, before a decadent chocolate mousse with Campari caramel.
It's a place where you want to be a regular and the welcome reminds you how good it feels to be valued as one.
Glebe Point Diner
407 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe, NSW. Tel: (02) 9660 2646
Lunch Weds-Sun; dinner Mon-Sat
Matt Moran gave his dress circle fine diner overlooking the Opera House and Sydney - which opened 18 years ago - a smart, textured makeover late last year to make it a little less North Shore dining room and a little more modern breezy. It's still Big Night Out or Long Lunch vibe, with the prices to match (tip - the set prices 2/3/4 courses menus are cheaper for midweek lunch), especially on the superb wine list, but you certainly get what you pay for and M&A deals are still toasted over.
If there's a more opulently, extravagant dish than the blood-thickeningly rich champagne lobster on French toast with caviar and finger lime, we've not tried it. But then you can have something as simple as grilled steak - there are five cuts to choose from - with all the condiments, or smoked duck breast, before popcorn cheesecake with caramel and yoghurt sorbet.
Aria proves anyone who claims fine dining is dead has no idea what they're talking about. Long may it live.
1 Macquarie Street, Sydney, NSW Tel: (02) 9240 2255.
Lunch & dinner daily
I wrote earlier this year that Dan Hunter runs one of the best restaurants in the world just outside a small country town, a 90-minute drive southwest of Melbourne, and soon after, the World's 50 Best Restaurants confirmed it, ranking Brae at 44.
Here's the deal: the $220 degustation meal over several hours in this old weatherboard farmhouse is phenomenal. Much of the produce comes from the farms, gardens or surrounding Otway mountains and nearby ocean. Expect nearly 20 different dishes: raw pea tart with lemon aspen, diced raw prawn wrapped in nasturtium leaves, with native finger lime, barbecued beetroot with honeycomb from the property and rainbow trout roe, a dessert of a parsnip 'cone' with freeze-dried apple, and apple and parsnip mousse.
It's a dizzying cavalcade made even more remarkable by drinks matches that range from beer to sake, and Australian and French wines. If you're really lucky, there are cottages onsite where you can sleep off the meal and dream of your return.
4285 Cape Otway Rd, Birregurra, Victoria. Tel: (03) 5236 2226
Lunch: Sat-Mon; dinner: Thu-Sat
I finally made it to the famed British chef's Melbourne outpost, which opened at Crown Resort in late 2015 and found it even better than his London original at the Mandarin Oriental, which is listed on the world's 50 best restaurants.
The antipodean version feels sophisticated, yet maintains a relaxed Australian vibe, looking across the Yarra River to the city. The Melbourne menu is also based on 700 years of British gastronomy, but adds Australian inflections, such as ice cream with Vegemite and macadamia, and lamington cake.
The famed “meat fruit”, a 1500s dish of chicken liver parfait, made to look like a mandarin, with grilled sourdough, is delicious theatre. The 14th century “Rice & Flesh” is made local with curried kangaroo tail.
It's a delicious history lesson that both rethinks and reinvigorates Australia's English cooking traditions, wrapped in a plush setting and service that makes you feel like you're upstairs at Downton Abbey.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Crown Towers, Level 3, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, Victoria. Tel: (03) 9292 5779
Lunch Fri-Sun; dinner daily
Chef John Evans and spouse Sonia Greig, who runs the front of house at this relaxed modern European restaurant in a pretty town two hours south of Sydney, are the seachangers the rest of us dream we'll one day be.
Evans cooks with an earthy sense of place, whether it's a steak sandwich for lunch, a chicken and quail terrine brioche or pork loin with cider jus like an elegant Sunday roast to signal his country credentials.
Greig champions local Shoalhaven wineries on a small list that's also excellent value, as the $55 Clonakilla riesling attests, and if the service doesn't already make you wish you were a local, the dark chocolate mousse with milk sorbet and macadamia brittle will have you checking the windows of the real estate agent just around the corner.
South on Albany
3/65 Queen St, Berry, NSW. Tel: (02) 4464 2005
Lunch Fri-Sun; dinner Weds-Sat
Taking my family to this stalwart Chinese - a favoured late night chef and celebrity haunt since it first opened in 1990 - for the first time in years was a reminder that even in a city as fickle as Sydney, greatness never sleeps.
There's now a younger brother, The Century, at The Star, but this Chinatown institution powers on, evolving with the times (except for the decor). The next generation of waiters appear to have shed the once notorious brusqueness - but this big bustling room, with its live fish tanks, is still the place to spin the lazy susan with a bunch of friends. The massive menu full of Cantonese classics - dim sum, 2-course Peking duck, BBQ pork, pippies with XO, san choy bow, steamed fish with ginger and shallot - will leave you giddy with desire and choice.
Bring a merchant banker buddy to hit the live seafood hard - expect to spent $1000+ on king crab 3 ways and wash it all down with back vintages of Grange.
393-399 Sussex St, Sydney. Tel: (02) 9212 3901
The Sydney Opera House always makes me feel special and whether I'm there for a show, a date night with my wife or want to show off the city to friends and visitors, this is my go-to setting - and you don't have to go the full meal palaver of the $130 three-course dinner, sitting instead in the upstairs space for cocktails and a few snacks, or watching the chefs at work at casual 'cured and cultured' counter while tucking into the posh suckling pig sausage roll with black garlic.
There's a $65 chef's menu if you just want to sit back and let the views wash over you, but try the red claw yabbies on buckwheat pikelets with lemon jam and cultured cream, and the tart of raw ocean trout with roe and yuzu. When chef Rob Cockerill announced recently he was replacing the carrot salad that became an unexpected hit since Bennelong launched two years ago we nearly freaked. But then we tried the salad of confit tomatoes, stracciatella, smoked almonds, sherry caramel and amaranth and all was right with the world.
Of course a top shelf wine list helps too. And the fact that you're sitting under the sails of one of the world's great modern wonders.
Sydney Opera House. Tel: (02) 9240 8000
Lunch Fri–Sun; dinner: nightly
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