- Full coverage: SMH Good Food Guide awards
- The hats
- Inside chef of the year Brent Savage's kitchen
- Where (and what) to eat now
What a busy year it's been. Not only have our chefs been hard at work opening - and closing - restaurants, they've also been furiously hands-on reviving techniques from our colonial past. Few are the kitchens where there's not a bit of serious baking, fermenting, curing, smoking, pickling, charcoal grilling and good old-fashioned wood-roasting going on. And diners have been flat-out, too - grazing, sharing, perching, perusing unfamiliar wine and drinks lists. And queuing.
Where once we might have expected entree, main course and dessert, individually plated and served at double-clothed tables, in 2014 we're as comfortable on a counter stool, snacking from shared dishes, exploring everything from craft gins to low-intervention wines, and clamouring - whether online or in a line at the door - for a chance to be part of the action.
There's no denying it. The times they are a-changin' in this lively food town. And it's all the better for it.
When is a bar not a bar?
When plans for a glass of wine and a snack evolve into a bottle and a tasting menu, perhaps. That's how many evenings start these days. At Sepia, for example, where the stand-alone sashimi and yakitori menu at the bar allows you so easily to make a meal of it. Then there's the mini version of the Rockpool deg - a series of Phil Wood's smashing snacks, at the bar. And at 10 William St, 121 BC, Ananas, Bar H Dining, Berta, MoVida and oh, so many more. Snacking, grazing and sipping seem to be our preferred method of sustenance this year.
Drinks are getting crafty
Small-producer wines, biodynamic, organic and natural labels have edged out the big boys, including a swag of edgy imports. And then there are the craft spirits - gins, vodkas and whiskies, many from local distilleries, as well as an ever-longer list of artisan beers and ciders. Meals also come matched with juices, even teas - at Momofuku Seiobo, for example. Now that wine just isn't enough for some, we've created a brand-new award: Best Drinks List. And the winner is.
Meat, meanwhile, is mighty once more. Especially over a wood-fired grill a la Nomad, presided over by chef Nathan Sasi or in the wood-fired oven at Ester. Chefs are still slow-roasting everything from lamb shoulder to brisket - and ''pulling'' it, of course. But pork belly has finally given way to a new menu rival - pork jowl. Spot this softly braised gelatinous cut on fine-dining menus from Quay to Sixpenny.
Desserts in the vegie patch
Vegetables are definitely sharing the plate love. And none more so than the humble parsnip - seen smoked and roasted and pureed all over town. It's even popping up at the sweet end alongside pepper, carrot and potato. Think parsnip ice-cream with parsnip chips at Four in Hand, and with pear and hazelnut at Racine in Orange; and chocolate with smoked parsnip at Three Blue Ducks.
Seaweeds and succulents
Umami has become standard chef vocabulary as konbu and other seaweeds add proteiny zing to stocks, sauces and, oh joy, simple animal fats. (Thank you, Phil Wood at Rockpool for those konbu-butter chicken wings. And Subo, Newcastle, for chawanmushi with miso-konbu corn and popcorn powder.)
And that hit of sea-saltiness? Sea vegetables and succulents are the garnish du jour.
Ancient goes modern
Ancient grains and alternatives have become so everyday they're contemporary. Spelt, quinoa, chia, kammut and amaranth join forces with barley, rice - various species and colours - to add texture and spark across the menu. And let's not forget the crumb - yesterday's soils and powders have turned into crunchy, biscuity rubble, as in Monopole's sardine ceviche with eggplant and rye crumb; or Public Dining Room's calamari with pickled cucumber gel, puffed black rice and soy crumble.
And around the world we go
After several small starts (Momofuku Seiobo's bar menu, for example), Korean has been busily making its mark (Danjee, Kim, Moon Park). The Middle East continues to influence (Yalla Sawa, Pazar, Chic Pea) and every new Italian (lots of 'em, and we're not complaining) is an osteria. Or pizzeria. Welcome, Bondi's Da Orazio and Rosebery's Da Mario, who cover both. Beautifully.
Give us our daily bread. And butter.
If it's not hand-churned products from celebrity butter-man Pepe Saya, your restaurant is making its own set of spreads. From Rockpool's ricotta-y mix to Cafe Paci's sticky-crusted rye loaves and little mound of butter in a glass, fabulous bread-and-butter options are making a bought-in dinner roll and olive oil dipping dish seem soooo 2010.
Sharing and double dipping
We've heard it all year. ''These dishes are designed to share.'' All well and good, but we're also being asked to share our table - with the party that's booked for the second sitting. So we're getting used to turning up at nursery hour (6.30pm) or channelling our inner European at the 8.30pm slot.
WHAT WE'RE OVER
Good Food Guide reviewers can get a little picky. But we figure our gripes are commonly shared. How many of these affect your appetite?
1. Noise - too much. Perhaps we're hard of hearing. If not, we soon will be. When will restaurateurs work out that high decibels can affect enjoyment levels? Call us old-fashioned, but we like a bit of audible conversation with our table fellows. And lowering the surrounding sounds can eliminate the need for sign language. Or shouting.
2. Light - not enough. Low visibility and darkened restaurant corners may be flattering or just plain sexy. But getting out your phone flashlight to read the menu can really kill the mood.
3. Space - can we have more? Too close for comfort can be fun if you're bored with your date. But when the next table's so easily within arm's reach that you find yourself forking into their shared dishes instead of yours, perhaps packing in the customers has gotten a little out of hand.
4. Mexican - send it back over the border? Tacos, tortillas, quesadillas and guac are so last year. And as for sliders... we reckon it's time they slid right off the menu. Along with Persian feta, Kewpie mayo, puffed rice and pork belly. Let's celebrate our own food icons occasionally, too. Bring back the pie?
5. "Paddock to plate" and "seasonal local produce" - we love that just-picked freshness. But the expression is getting a little stale. A few herbs and salad leaves by the back door is hardly a genuine kitchen garden. And asparagus in winter isn't seasonal, it's imported.
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