Good Food Guide reviewing season is well under way. We have about 40 reviewers booking in, and chowing down, at restaurants across Sydney and around the state. Regional editor Barbara Sweeney is wrangling the obstacles of remoteness - is it worth sending a reviewer a further 250 kilometres west just to follow up a tip on a new cafe? - and I am sorting through my own reviews as well as fielding emails from the team and our readers.
There are question marks over some well-regarded Sydney establishments. I check in with our senior reviewing panel (Terry Durack, Guy Griffin, Lisa Hudson and Jill Dupleix) and commission a second review at the big-name restaurants in question. The full reviewing team will meet in late June to discuss all our findings, scores and recommendations, and the senior reviewing panel (or Star Chamber, as we call it) will revise all decisions accordingly. And book in a third - and perhaps fourth - ''check'', just to be sure.
Meanwhile, I'm heading out of town myself. I have several restaurants in Canberra and the southern highlands on my allocated list and I'm trying to work out how to get to them all over one weekend. Why is nothing open in Canberra for Saturday lunch? Looks like two trips. I take the train down for Friday lunch in Canberra with my colleague Kirsten Lawson from The Canberra Times. We are both impressed with Ottoman Cuisine, a stayer in the national capital. The owner insists on taking us on a tour of the bathrooms. I love the ornate Turkish taps and basins. The food is great and that long-standing hat looks secure for the 2014 Guide (NOT for the taps, but for the little details such as clean, pretty loos can sometimes say a lot about a place).
My husband is due to drive down to join me for dinner at a new pub-like diner that specialises in roasts. It also has an interesting selection of gins. I end up trying a few of them while my dining companion gets hopelessly lost in the maze of Canberra roundabouts. Sadly, dinner is not remarkable. That's one entry less for the national capital. The next day, we have breakfast at the ever-reliable Lonsdale Street Roasters. That box ticked. (We like to mention good breakfast places in every regional area.) I call Kirsten for help. She's just heard about a new place and it's right nearby. Eightysix turns out to be a real find - open, modern, fun, good food, with great wine and an exuberant co-owner who plies us with some special pours from his collection after getting into conversation with my wine-tragic husband.
I confess to having two dinners that night - at a suburban modern Asian, as planned, plus a late-confirmed wait-list booking at Aubergine, regional restaurant of the year in the 2013 Guide. Though this has already been officially reviewed by one of our team, I don't want to miss the opportunity, so we pace ourselves. And enjoy both. The next day, though, we skip breakfast ahead of what turns out to be a terrific Sunday lunch at Eschalot in Berrima (another confirmed hat) on the way home. That's five reviews (and a ''second look'' at Aubergine) sorted. Sunday night is omelet and salad, a great foil to six restaurant meals in three days.
Monday, thankfully, is a night at the computer. It's not a good night for reviewing. We like to see places when they are at least medium busy. Our reviewer guidelines set out criteria for scores as well as the ultimate criterion, ''Would you recommend it to a friend?''
We also tell the team to ''book early and at an appropriate time. Always review at dinner unless it's a noted lunchtime venue. If you go for lunch, try to mention the evening menu or dishes in your review. Avoid quiet or busy times.'' A 12-page handbook for all reviewers spells out everything from the bleeding obvious - ''Research, Remain Anonymous, Make a Checklist'' - to the subtler points of the gig: ''Keep a low profile. Sit so you can see the room and watch other tables. Don't disclose why you are there or discuss 'reviewing' with your dining partner (the walls have ears!). Be discreet.''
Terry has emailed about the change of chef at Ananas, in The Rocks. (It's Paul McGrath, once of two-hatter Bistro Ortolan in Leichhardt and the short-lived The Ortolan on Bayswater.) He's re-reviewing it for the Good Food section and says it looks promising. Indeed. Already favourably reviewed earlier in the year by a new team member, Ananas scores 15/20. A hat in its first year.
A reader has written to complain about her experience waiting for hours to no avail at a popular no-bookings restaurant. It's a familiar gripe about this place. It's going to affect the restaurant's score - after all, our responsibility is as much to our readers as it is to the restaurants. Such is the life of The Good Food Guide. It's a year of great finds and some (too much?) terrific eating, but with major upsets, too. It's a tough job … But we have an incredible team, our painstakingly thorough system, and 29 years of experience producing the Guide to do it.
The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2014 will be available for $10 with The Sydney Morning Herald this weekend, from participating newsagents, Coles and Woolworths, while stocks last. It will also be available in bookshops and online at smhshop.com.au for $24.99 from Tuesday, September 3.