Seeing, buying, & eating fish that are dryer than I am
by Thor Iverson
Rain o’er me
The morning dawns in fair decency. This will soon end, the air will liquify, and Sydney will become what each and every Sydneysider mockingly warned would be the sum total of the New Zealand experience. But En Zed is a skinny little country unprotected at any point, except maybe on the Canterbury plains, from swift ocean-borne ravages hurtling unchecked by anything closer than South America. What’s eastern Australia’s excuse?
Not itineraried for the oncoming deluge, our morning is spent rather more indoors than we’d expected, touring the triumphal colonialisms of the Central Business District…shopping malls decorated in exquisite Old World detail, somber war memorials, brilliant mirrored skyscrapers, colorful houses of worship. In terms of the latter, we greatly prefer the rich tones of St. Andrew’s to the stiff formality of St. Mary’s, and there’s some regret at missing all but the lobby of the State Theatre, but by this point any excuse to escape the drizzled misery outside is to be cherished.
Figuring that a good washing works better the more marginal the surface, we skim the exterior of one of Sydney’s saucier areas for lunch at the brazenly, if uncreatively, named BBQ King (18 Goulburn St.). It is, apparently, one of those restaurants to which chefs flock at the close of their own service, the kind for which Chinatowns ‘round the world are known for, and while there’s local disagreement on how good it actually is or whether it lives up to its reputation, my experience is more than sufficiently over-satisfying. It specializes, as the name suggests, in all the crispy, rendered-fat delicacies that one sees hanging in Chinatown windows, especially pork and duck. It’s the former that fills my plate, glistening with…well, look, it’s crispy pork skin to which is still attached a little anecdotal meat. Don’t question, just indulge. A soup of starchy mushrooms is perhaps a little over-filling as a prelude, but the thing here is the animal flesh, and the Rubicon between satiety and decadence isn’t even noted as it’s crossed.
Not now, Darling
As for the postprandial menu, Darling Harbour was on it. However, at the moment Darling Harbour is almost completely underwater (really…Venice would be thinking about throwing down some 2x4s and passing out galoshes at this point). So Darling Harbor is scrubbed from the list of daily specials, and instead we dash – weaving around rapidly-deepening puddles and pools, yet still soaking ourselves to the ankles and beyond – to the Sydney Aquarium, where seafood is always on the menu.
In terms of fishy content, there’s a lot to see here. However, the layout leaves something to be desired, suffering from some of the typical flaws of old-style aquaria (an endless series of deep, dark chasms). A renovation would not, perhaps, be entirely unwelcome. Nonetheless, it’s a way to pass the time while Noah continues his exterior work. And there’s a callback to a cherished New Zealand memory: yet another encounter with “Little Blue” Penguins, these considerably less underfoot than the last bunch.
We are not, I suspect, at one of the “good tables.” Those would appear to be in the back, and nearly everyone entering and exiting the restaurant is walking past us to get to those hidden realms. Ours is close to the kitchen, so we get waitstaff traffic as well. On the upside, our sightline goes directly into said semi-exposed kitchen, which is always interesting, and Neil Perry – the head chef here at Rockpool* – is manning the pass, poking and prodding the dishes as they transition from kitchen to floor. Such is the role of a celebrity chef running a famous restaurant. There’s mostly quiet approval, but from time to time there’s an angry gesture and a returned plate, though the quiet is maintained.
One of the other jobs of celebrity chefs running famous restaurants is greeting those guests that it is necessary to greet. And so when Perry is pulled from his post by the absolutely breathtaking blonde that walks by, no doubt on her way to one of those coveted rear tables, we’re not particularly surprised. Not that I blame him; every eye in our dining hinterland is also on this woman as she enters, passes, and disappears…Chef Perry in smiling tow. I only wish I knew who she was. (The next morning, the gossip pages in the newspaper give the game away: it was Naomi Watts. Well, no wonder everyone was looking at her. As usual, my ability to recognize celebrities on sight is nonexistent. Though I did recognize Chef Perry right from the start. I wonder what that says about me?)
Despite the fact that neither of us is a famous Australian actress, there’s nary a complaint to be had about what’s to follow. The service is perfection in action: efficient, helpful when asked and quiet when not, and everything is paced just beautifully…responsive to our hunger when we first arrive, then slowed down to a more leisurely graze as we settle in to the heart of the menu.
And what a menu! The first thing that one notices – it’s hard to escape, really – is a not-brief essay on sourcing that precedes lists of dishes. This is the first restaurant to which I’ve ever been that explains, in paragraph form and in not-for-the-squeamish detail, how its seafood is dispatched. Remind me not to take vegetarians here.
We opt for the longest tasting menu. From the initial “six tastes of the sea” to the final dessert, not a flavor is out of place, and everything is vivid and extraordinary. The restaurant isn’t a cheap date by any means, and yet I’d call it a “bargain” anyway, because it’s well worth the final tally.
Croser 2001 Brut (Piccadilly Valley) – Crisply acidic and clean, the lingering duo of Mr. Malic and Mrs. Tartaric lifting the basic fruit into the fun range. No depth, but I’m not sure any has been requested or promised.
Spring Vale 2004 Gewürztraminer (Tasmania) – More like a blend of gewürztraminer and riesling due to the petroleum and sharp acidity, though lychee and rose petal aromas are firmly in evidence as well. Not very appealing as a cocktail, but it really blossoms with food, proving a versatile and malleable companion.
Wilson “Leucothea” Gewürztraminer (Polish Hill River) – A fortified gewürztraminer, which I’ve not encountered before (or since). Oh, those wacky Aussies. Intense and bearing the aromatic and textural signatures of botrytis, though I don’t know if that’s an accurate assessment or not. Lychee-infused pear syrup, extremely dense and massively succulent. No hotter than many late-harvested gewürztraminers of my acquaintance, despite the dosing, with a persistent finish.
McWilliam’s 1976 “Show Reserve” Port (Riverina) – Faded and dusty, like an attic-rescued photo album. Nutmeg? Yes, and the dissolute scent of old cologne, as well. With air, there’s emergence: dried nuts, desiccated cherries. But then the wine goes away again, not to return.
Something fishy this way comes
Another day, another torrent. Relentless, it pools on the sidewalks just enough to make pedestrian touristing an irritating game of avoidance and penalizing sock-drenchings. Nonetheless, there’s no way to get to where we’re going aside from hoofing it, and so it’s oars to the ready.
Where are we headed? Middle Earth. Wait, weren’t we just there? No, this is the traveling version: the Lord of the Rings movie paraphernalia tour at the Powerhouse Museum, which – given our peripatetic ways, we missed when it came through our hometown – and which seems a good alternative to another twelve hours of foot-soaking plodding.
But still, we can’t stay inside forever. Yesterday, it was the Aquarium…today, it’s a rather more deceased form of aquatic wonderland, the Sydney Fish Market. (To which we take a taxi.) This wonderland of fishery, valvery, and crustaceanism – really, how many different types and colors of lobster-like bugs are there, and why are they all living…and then dying…in Sydney? – is like a piscatorial amusement park. Better yet, it’s not just about retail. There are myriad ways to consume both the squirming and the supine, and we nosh our way through several dozen oysters (both Tasmanian and Sydney Rock, and the latter still taste like oyster cream to me) for pennies per bivalve, sashimi just feet from the fish whence it was carved, sex-changing barramundi fried and slathered with yumminess, several variants on the clawed bottom-dweller theme…and then, stuffed to our very own gills, we leave with bags full of Tasmanian smoked salmon and some glistening redfish for later home cookery. Noah has granted a brief respite, and we’re able to walk back to the apartment.
From one Sydney icon to another. Actually, to the icon this time. Yes, the Sydney Opera House. Which (I feel I’ll be banned from future visits to the country after what follows) is really only beautiful from a distance. Up close, its tile looks dated and yellowed, its graceful arcs are more than a little oppressive, and as for the aggressively quirky interior…well, let’s just say that the only space that really feels harmonious is the one and only room they built to the architect’s specifications. Everything else feels haphazard and crazy-quilt, and to be honest I find some of the rooms kind of hideous. A mathematical feat, an engineering triumph, but honestly it’s a bit of a shattered illusion, for me. Though probably not nearly as much as it was for the architect who saw his plans committeed into such haphazardry.
After a guided tour (which skips all the performance halls; why did we pay extra for this, again?), we pause for drinks at the Opera Bar while everyone else on the tour rushes through dinner at Guillaume at Bennelong. Rain is still lashing the windows.
Ashbrook 2004 Semillon (Margaret River) – Ripe but tight. Crisp lime rind and herbs, and that’s about it. Liquid simplicity, and good.
Moss Wood 2004 Ribbon Vale Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc (Margaret River) – A mix of green and yellow citrus influences, gooseberry, grass, and herb. Ripe to the point of juiciness, and on the fulsome side, but not over the top. A pretty decent finish, too.
Petalon 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River) – Plain. An assemblage of dark berries, restrained and coated with the thinnest of structures. Wan.
Eventually, it’s performance time. A packed house, good seats, a somewhat dull performance hall with perfectly fine acoustics if you’re interested in hearing singing, less so if you’re interested in hearing the orchestra. Tonight it’s Carmen on stage, with the title role voiced and acted with chest-heaving brilliance, but the male lead possessing neither the verticality nor the French skills to do the role much justice (and also, he exudes wailing misery and seething anger from his very first scene, which leaves him nowhere to go by the end of the story…and nowhere is exactly where he goes). Intermission coincides, happily, with a mistily precipitate intermission, and we sip bubbly on the terrace despite the 112% humidity, enjoying the colorful Sydney nightscape. And then it’s back to an hour or so of “women are evil/no one asked you to fall in love with me, chump” bickering in lyric form. Ah, drama.
Domaine Chandon Brut (Yarra Valley) – Lurid with apple and rotted lemon curd. Clumsy and thick.
Post-show, the clouds have dialed themselves back to intermittent mist, and the walk home is a pleasant one. Unfortunately, tomorrow’s forecast is threatening to wash us all into the ocean, and we’re running out of indoor activities.
Bats, no belfries
Nice meteorology they have here in Sydney. Today’s predicted thundershowers? Absent. In their place? Infinite blue.
With this weather, the Royal Botanic Gardens are the only place to be. We get there via drop-ins at some of the historic buildings of the CBD (including an extremely beautiful library and its striking cartographical mosaic), but the morning is spent strolling the grounds. In a typically Australian touch, signs that are usually full of restrictions and thou-shalt-nots practically beg everyone to walk unhindered on the grass. And so we do. Majestic old trees (including one ancient fig bigger than many houses), colorful birds, massive spiders dangling from meter-wide webs, and the glistening sparkle of the Harbor…it’s a beautiful way to do not much of anything. The only disturbance, perhaps, is above the shady restaurant grove in the park’s center; amongst the tall palms overhead, hundreds of fat-bellied, leathery bats wheel, flap, and chitter (in full daylight, it must be mentioned). It’s decidedly creepy.
A full circuit of the Gardens brings us to Woolloomooloo, which – aside from the busy wharf itself, is much less touristed than the CBD. The epicenter of the exceptions is iconic Harry’s Café de Wheels, which absolutely everyone has said we must visit, even though the very same everyone agrees that the food is nothing special. The menu? Meat pies, full of peppery albeit mysteriously-sourced beef layered in mashed potatoes, gravy, and mushy peas. Are they good? The question’s rather beside the point, I should think. I suspect they’re a lot better at the terminus of a long night of drinking.
The rest of the day is just…walking. King’s Cross, littered with backpackers. A peaceful café near the El Alamein Fountain. Paddington, its lacy balconies reminiscent of New Orleans. Trendy Oxford St., every other store a closet full of adventurous fashion. Back, after a long day of striding, to the apartment. A quick gussying-up…even a tie, which I’ve carried around for almost six weeks without having unfolded. But now is it’s time.
What’s next? A restaurant that some call the best in the world.
*The restaurant previously known as Rockpool closed a few years ago, and a new one with the same name and ownership has since opened; these comments refer to the previous incarnation.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.