The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2015: The drinks awards

Best Drinks List: Eric Morris at Bloodwood in Newtown.
Best Drinks List: Eric Morris at Bloodwood in Newtown. Photo: Getty Images/Lisa Maree Williams

Some trends arrive fast.

You're only just finding your lips and minding your vowels around a ''mans-a-nee-ya'' sherry at the local tapas bar when in rushes a wave of delicious junmai koshu kijoshu dessert sake at the sushi joint down the road.

Then again, some trends arrive slow. Seems like the cocktail has always been with us, but in the past 12 months it has found renewed respect and appreciation, not to mention space on wine lists.

James Hird encourages wine lovers to have fun.
James Hird encourages wine lovers to have fun. Photo: Steven Siewert

It could very well be called a gin-led cocktail recovery.

New-wave British gin-makers started it and then the whole thing snowballed. Even Aussie gin makers - West Winds, Four Pillars, Melbourne Gin Co - are increasingly finding space on Sydney lists for hot-ticket cocktails such as the negroni and the classic (and not so classic) martini.

The cocktail boom was joined in 2014 by a less obvious but most welcome reappraisal of wines by the glass. Selections grew. We sense an unofficial sommelier challenge happening here to see who has the largest and most enticing grouping of wines by the glass. Of course, size doesn't really matter, but we can't help but be impressed by restaurants such as Sepia (65), Quay (46), Jonahs (47) and Felix (35). More choice is a good thing in our book.

Potts Point's Monopole.
Potts Point's Monopole. Photo: Jennifer Soo

Once, Australian wine lists could rightly be labelled xenophobic; now they are being criticised for going too far in favour of everything except Aussie wines. The internationalisation of wine lists is a strong indicator of Sydney's sophisticated wine culture; still, we sense a softening of the non-Australian wine list policy among some sommeliers and we welcome it. Every wine must earn its place on a wine list. Boring homogeneity - European or Australian - is the enemy.

Increasingly, the flag bearer for strong Australian wine lists is to be found outside cities, in country surrounded by vines. Regional restaurant wine lists in Canberra, Orange and the Hunter Valley deserve credit for the ambassadorial job they undertake for their local wine regions.

As for wine styles, prosecco, the lively Italian sparkling that hails from the Veneto, together with locally produced versions, proved a standout on 2014 wine lists. In fact, it was another strong year for any Italian or Spanish grape variety ending in the letter ''o'', from nebbiolo and sagrantino to tempranillo.

A New York sour from Gardel's Bar.
A New York sour from Gardel's Bar. 

And then there was the great debate over natural wine (does anyone really know what it means?) and orange wine (white wines that take a wild ride after crushing and/or fermentation on skins).

It divided, it sizzled and, yes, it occasionally flopped badly. too.

It rages still.

Pork buns from Momofuku Seiobo.
Pork buns from Momofuku Seiobo. Photo: Jennifer Soo

And the Wine List of the Year 2014 winners are:

Wine List of the Year

For an outstanding wine list that offers appropriate options at every level (including a focus on Australian wines), with service to match.

Aria, Sydney

Chicken yakitori at Sepia.
Chicken yakitori at Sepia. Photo: Edwina Pickles

We have long admired the food of Matt Moran at Aria, but this year we applaud the work of head sommelier Matt Dunne, and his wine team. The Aria wine list is a dream collection.

Which is not to suggest that it is dominated by the expensive and unobtainable; rather, it is mouthwatering. The word ''icon'' is used freely on some producers spotlighted, such as Best's and Henschke, but here we have no complaint. Aged Australian white and red wines from quality producers is a relative rarity on Australian wine lists today. We love that Aria celebrates this nation's wines while also acknowledging that it is a big, wide wine world that we now drink in.

Dunne, in his 10th year at Aria, says aged Australian wines have always been a big focus on his list. ''Having that intrigue factor but having wines that people know as well is a fine balance,'' he says. ''But, it's getting harder to find those wines.''

Best Short Wine List

For a list of fewer than 100 bins, best-suited to a restaurant's style and context.

Temporada (ACT)

How does a wine list remain relevant and intriguing with fewer than 50 wines? The answer - with attention to detail.

Temporada, new to the Canberra food and wine scene this year, keeps it small in many ways, searching out the world's boutique artisanal wine producers in just 49 wines.

It's an eclectic, bold, thrilling, enticing and even confronting bunch of wines requiring an open mind and a willing palate to fully explore. With 27 by the glass and glass prices ranging from $10 to $24, the cost encourages some enjoyable research.

A gruner veltliner from Austria, a Tuscan vermentino, a touriga-based red blend from the Barossa and a dry-as-a-desert champagne are just some of the choices set before us.

''The idea with Temporada, very much, was that the list should be diverse, should be something that you are excited to go to and try something different,'' says well-travelled sommelier Josh Donnelly who also oversees the wine list at sister restaurant Aubergine. ''We change the list regularly. We only ever buy two cases of a wine.''

It's edgy, but so is Temporada's European-inspired food. A perfect match.

Regional Wine List of the Year

For the most inviting wine list (fitting a restaurant's food and style) at a restaurant outside Sydney, with a considered showing of regional wines.

Aubergine (ACT)

Yes, Aubergine looks to its immediate area - Canberra - for inspiration in compiling its wine list. The wines of the ACT take a forward step, led by the region's fabulous rieslings and shirazes. Towards the end of the list there is a particularly mouthwatering selection of aged Clonakilla shiraz viognier and syrah (shiraz).

But importantly, the Aubergine wine list eyes further afield, too. There is a strong Australian and international component within the listing of 650 wines that simply can't fail to impress.

As befits the nation's capital, the 55-seat restaurant in the suburb of Griffith boasts a wine list that would not look out of place in Sydney or Melbourne.

Sommelier Josh Donnelly says his focus is on building a comprehensive wine list. ''It offers the benchmark styles of the world with modern and current producers and things that are new and challenging.''

Due respect is paid to Burgundy, Italy and Australian chardonnay and pinot noir, but there's some fun to be had, too, with some lively choices from Portugal and Spain, as well as a section devoted to those controversial orange wines.

And we love the serious intent behind the bunch of rose´s and gamays, so often given all the consideration of an afterthought on lists.

Best Drinks List

For a list that adds new dimensions to traditional pouring options.

Bloodwood Restaurant & Bar, Newtown

It was the ''Barrel Aged Martinez'' that first caught our eye: West Winds gin, Dolin bitter vermouth and maraschino ''aged to perfection'' in Bloodwood's own port barrel.

As drinks lists go, this one was off to an excellent start. Bloodwood in Newtown best exemplifies the excitement that surrounds our new- found fascination with the cocktail, the mixed drink and what could broadly be termed, others.

It might be an original cocktail, a bunch of gins you can't wait to wade through, a tequila with bite or the expanding range of craft beers from Australia and beyond.

American-born sommelier Eric Morris admits drinks lists by their nature tend to be a little more ''fashion''-driven, but says all of his choices must have a strong quality base.

We applaud Bloodwood's list because he has cherry-picked some interesting little beauties while not forgetting that sometimes we just want something familiar and welcoming.

That's why you'll see a Coopers ale and Bress cider - the familiar and the comfortable - alongside a Newtown natural lager or a Danish fruit lambic ale. The range of fancy beers and ciders at Bloodwood is particularly impressive. Sake, sherry and the odd fortified offer a nice run-in to the small - but equally thoughtful - wine list.

Champagne Pol Roger Sommelier of the Year

For an individual wine waiter and cellarmaster who demonstrates the ultimate in wine selection and service: knowledgeable, inclusive,  communicative and curious.

James Hird, Vincent, Wine Library

Leading an ever-evolving wine program at two very wine-driven restaurants, James Hird is a true wine professional. He's also a fun and inspiring sommelier with a great eye for matching and experimentation. As one of the brains behind the sustainable and artisan-focused Rootstock Festival, he plays a key role in encouraging lovers of all things grape-derived to broaden their horizons and palates.

BEST SNACKS BAR NONE

In days gone by, bar food was best bypassed unless you'd had a few. Today, some of the best chefs work in small bars - and you can tell, writes Rachel Olding.

Wait, is this a restaurant with some excellent drinks? Or a bar with some excellent food? It's a dilemma becoming all too common for Sydneysiders heading out in search of their new favourite bar.

Building on a trend that began in the city a few years ago, outstanding bar food took a front seat in 2014. Seasonal, local, homemade, house-cured, you name it. These bar owners must have been chefs in a former life, you say? Well yes, many were.

From the ever-changing menu of seasonal Italian fare at 121BC to the house-made sarsaparilla and spiced rum and molasses ice-cream in the root beer float at Miss Peaches Soul Food Kitchen, food has never been more important to the bar experience.

"When the small bar laws came into effect, a lot of people saw it as an opportunity to do something they really enjoy," says Monopole sommelier Nick Hildebrandt. "Myself and [co-owner and Bentley Bar and Restaurant chef] Brent [Savage] both come from fine-dining backgrounds but a bar gives you the opportunity to do it in really relaxed environment. It's friendly, there's no pretence, it's loud, it's boisterous, there's less pressure."

Monopole cures its own meats, serves salads of shaved heirloom vegetables and bakes its own bread to go with 600-plus wines.

And at Chester White Cured Diner, they pickle their own vegies and cure their own rich capocollo, nduja and speck.

Wine bar wow

Hildebrandt has been at the forefront of another trend showing no sign of slowing in 2014: the wine bar. Top chefs and sommeliers are increasingly ditching the high end to open their own hole-in-the-wall spots with just as much focus on what's in the glass as what's on the plate.

Hidden laneway bar Love, Tilly Devine could be someone's basement, such is the size and simplicity of its fitout. Ditto the tiny, low-ceiling Glebe hangout, Timbah, or the clean, minimalist Enmore enoteca/wine bar Cittavino.

Even the top restaurants are putting more effort into their bar menu than ever, no doubt spurred on by the wine bar movement hot on their heels. Ditch the main room for Sepia's bar-only wine flight with yakitori, Porteno's dapper cocktail room Gardel's Bar or Momofuku's five-seater walk-in bar.

In spirit

Wine was not the only thing on everyone's lips this year. There was a deep spirit awakening in Sydney with a rash of bars specialising in just one spirit. At the Barber Shop it's gin (and it's even on tap), at Ramblin' Rascal Tavern it's cognac, at Mr Moustache it's mezcal, at Baxter Inn it's whisky (sit tight for the dedicated whisky room in the former bank safe) and at the Lobo Plantation it's rum. And brewery bars are next on the radar with a string of boutique beer brewers such as Rocks Brewing Co and Young Henry's opening casual bars right next to their giant vats of beer.

Yankee is dandy

Lastly, the Mexican trend might finally be slowing but its northern neighbour, the United States, is not going anywhere. The deep south, the Prohibition era and New York-style dapper cocktail bars have provided us with more sliders, pulled-pork rolls, hot dogs, brisket, ribs, fried chicken, po'boys and whisky sours than Uncle Sam could poke a stick at. Shout-outs to the Blind Bear for their take on buffalo wings and Mary's for those never-fail burgers.

Best Bar for Good Food

To honour the unbeatable combination of a great bar with great food.

Gardel's Bar

With one of Sydney's best restaurants firing up the Argentinian asador downstairs, it's little wonder the cocktail bar above Porteno has some of the best bar snacks around.

Leading the way with the house-made trend, they churn their own fresh sorbet for seasonal Sgroppino cocktails, infuse their own whisky for a superb Banana Old Fashioned, cure their own meats and offer a nightly selection of bar plates such as pickled spiced octopus or stuffed piquillo peppers from the stellar kitchen team downstairs. It's a dark 'n' dapper spot with cocktails to fit the Evita-inspired mood and a fantastic wine list from sommelier Joseph Valore.

Best Bar

For the finest all-round bar experience - across drinks, ambience and service.

Bulletin Place

Bulletin Place is a testament to doing it simple and doing it well. The tiny, ramshackle 40-seater room, above a tattoo parlour and a coffee shop, offers just a handful of cocktails each night, listed on a sheet of butcher's paper and driven by fresh market produce. It may be a nectarine sour today, pisco with grapes, lime and absinthe tomorrow. "We always joke that we invested more in ice machines and freezers than furniture," owner/bartender Tim Phillips says of the lo-fi spot. "But we personally wanted to drive ourselves as far as we could with presentation and service style. You want people to have an experience that they can't help the next day but tell their friends about." This year, Phillips and co-owner/bartender Robb Sloan nabbed Thor Bergquist from Experimental Cocktail Club in New York to work alongside Adi Ruiz and Matt Linklater, making for a scary amount of bar talent in one small room.

Best Restaurant Bar

For the best stand-alone bar (and bar menu) within a restaurant environment.

Momofuku Seiobo

One of these days, someone will invent a device to crack Momofuku's treacherous online booking system. In the meantime, there is the five-seater black marble bar that takes walk-ins. The bar game is no second fiddle either, with street-style bar plates and snacks that reflect the same fun approach to flavour as the restaurant tasting menu. Yes, David Chang's famous pork buns are there. But there might be Korean rice cakes in chilli tomato or chicken katsu sandwiches in the mix too. Sip on sake or wine from Richard Hargreaves' outstanding list of worldly drops with a focus on small producers. 

FIVE GOLD-STAR BARS

Drinking in this city has never been more exciting, so special commendations must go to a few of the wild, wonderful and whisky-drenched bars that keep us going until the small hours.

Best for interesting beer

Young Henry's

You'd be forgiven for thinking Young Henry's is taking over the world. The Newtown brewers are popping up on the taps at every second small bar and now they've thrown open the back doors to their brewery on the weekends, inviting in food trucks and hooking the hand pump up to whatever takes their fancy - a Hop Van Damme one weekend, a Salted Caramel the next.

Best take on American

SoCal

Burgers, brisket and speakeasies aside, this north shore terrace bar has a refreshingly different spin on the American bar trend. Ben Carroll and Hamish Watts took their inspiration from the zingy flavours and washed-out colours of the southern Californian coastline. It has a lively menu of ceviche, tacos, raw food and, yes, sliders.

Best spirit discovery

Mr Moustache

Tequila's smoky cousin, mezcal, had a moment in 2014 and there's nowhere better to introduce yourself to this little-known, tough-drinkin' Mexican spirit than Bondi newcomer Mr Moustache. There are more than 60 varieties behind the bar manned by star cocktail shaker Mike Tomasic. And the Mexican street food is delicious too.

Best night out

Mary's

Burgers, beers and booze til late. It's a formula that owners Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham have nailed. There's a lush wine list and bartenders who can shake a cocktail or two but the line out the door of this rowdy booze barn is for one thing: those burgers. The patties are equal parts brisket, chuck and rump and the soft, shiny buns come from a top-secret bakery source.

Best wine education

121BC

It's not the newest or the fanciest wine bar on the block but the chic European 25-seater has well and truly cemented itself as a neighbourhood fave. Sommelier Giorgio De Maria's knowledge and enthusiasm for Italian wine is unmatched and he pairs exotic varietals with seasonal share plates.

The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2015 will be available for $10 with The ​Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, September 6 from participating newsagents, while stocks last. It can also be purchased in selected bookshops and online at smhshop.com.au  for $24.99 from September 2. #goodfoodguide

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