Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year
This is the big one, the ultimate accolade for the place that sets the benchmark for creativity, ambience, service, wine and food - the culinary X factor. Envelope, please. And the award goes to ...
Like its subtly neutral, clubby interior, Sepia's star quality is something of a gentle glow rather than an in-your-face blast of blazing light. But check the room full of excited diners of all ages, stages and nationalities who flock here for lunch and, heaven help us, degustation dinners. And what about that equally mixed but lively crowd at the bar counter and tables, picking up slices of immaculate sashimi and sliding smoky chicken bits from yakitori skewers as they sip a premium sake or obscure Chinese wine? Take note: there is a perceptible hum to the Sepia action that, well, swells to a resounding chorus as the afternoon or evening wears on.
Four years old, Sepia is the sum of its parts, a light under a bushel in a field of incandescent establishments, such as Momofuku Seiobo, Guillaume at Bennelong, Quay and newcomer Mr Wong (finalists for the Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year title). In the end, however, this sensational fine-diner holds a swag of aces: chef Martin Benn's ever-surprising technical and artistic talent; Vicki Wild's focused front-of-house service; and sommelier Rodney Setter's super wine-nerd's knowledge and food-matching.
This year has seen Benn delve even deeper into his fascination with all things Japanese - sparked originally by his many years as head chef with Tetsuya Wakuda, cemented and invigorated by travel, tireless research and experimentation, as well as access to some of Australia's finest seafood through wholesaler George Costi, who is co-owner in the business.
There is a studied, kaiseki-like approach to the set-course menu (still the most popular choice here, despite much anti-deg debate among the global fooderati this year).
Tiny faux nigiri sushi pieces bubbling with puffed rice sit alongside the palest pink gels; a roll of immaculately scored squid is lifted with sorrel leaves and a squeak of yuzu; a sliver of winter bonito comes with ''flavours of roasted chicken, umeboshi, upland cress, green tea, nori''. It's a gradual progression, from sashimi tuna to seared venison (with the chocolate notes of boudin noir and cocoa crumb, and the tingle of macadamia yoghurt, blackcurrant and shichimi pepper), then the signature chocolate forest, or maybe yuzu and white chocolate ice-cream with a bouquet of violet and rose for dessert. This is original, extraordinary cooking, where presentation - on fine ceramics - tips the balance on flavour, texture and good old-fashioned technique. Setter adds the drinks flourish and Wild's team carefully brings it all together.
It's been a steady path to the top - one hat in year one (the 2010 guide), three hats by 2012, plus the Chef of the Year (2011) and Restaurant of the Year (2012) titles.
Here's another, well-deserved jewel for the crown.
Citi Chef of the Year
The granddaddy of our chef awards is for a kitchen whiz whose professional skills and talent place him or her at the pinnacle of Sydney dining.
ROSS LUSTED THE BRIDGE ROOM, SYDNEY
When it comes to this year's awards, it might seem like the year of the quiet achiever. But there's nothing subdued, really, about the buzz around The Bridge Room, and more to the point, its co-owner and chef, the self-effacing but exceptionally talented Ross Lusted.
It's two years since Lusted and wife Sunny joined forces with the Fink Group (Quay, Otto Ristorante) to open their own restaurant in a 1930s corner building on Bridge Street. There had been years as head chef at Rockpool and a stint at the Park Hyatt's once-legendary Harbour Kitchen & Bar before a 10-year world tour living and working from Singapore to Bali, Bhutan to Utah.
The Bridge Room is a Sydney homecoming for Lusted, who was born in South Africa, and a chance to bring to the felt-matted, pale-oak table a world of culinary influences, techniques and ingredients.
It's hard to pinpoint the Lusted style. In his 2011 review of the newly launched Bridge Room, chief Guide reviewer Terry Durack described it as ''instinctively modern, with a trace of new Nordic naturalism, a little '90s classicism and a touch of farm-to-table stoicism''.
It's that appeal, plus his truly global approach, that has cemented Lusted's place as a leader among an impressive pack of Sydney chefs.
''Living overseas for the past decade was hugely influential to me,'' Lusted says.
''In many respects my cooking has a European base, with technique that is heavily rooted in Asia. Texture and flavour balance has such a different emphasis in Asian cooking. Combined with the subtlety and softness of European food, I find this is where my path has headed.''
There is a lightness, cleanliness and wallop of fine flavour to every Lusted dish. Just-set custards, light sake cures, robata smokiness and a way with vegetables that sets non-meat eaters' hearts aflutter, combine to leave you with senses on high alert.
Lusted's thinking as a chef goes well beyond the kitchen, however. He also designed and had hand-made most of the tabletop pieces in the restaurant. ''I wanted them to reflect the style of food, ''he says. ''Everything has a tactile quality and texture. I have notebooks from my decade of travels, menu ideas, ceramic designs I have been refining, and finally this feels like the right space and the right time. This restaurant has been developing in my mind for many years. I've never wanted to cook more than now.''
And for that, Ross Lusted, we salute you.
Citi Service Excellence Award
A love of meeting people and learning their stories is her secret to success.
Louise Tamayo started working in the service industry 12 years ago while she studied at university. She loved it so much she set aside a year to ''see where it would go'' when she graduated.
She hasn't stopped. ''Coming from studying social work, I really enjoy getting to know people and getting to read them,'' Tamayo (pictured) says.
She says that when customers walk into The Bourbon in Potts Point, she makes them feel like they're at home, even if they're only having a drink for five minutes. ''I just love talking to people, and you get to meet so many amazing people,'' Tamayo says. ''Colleagues, guests - they all have amazing stories.''
The 30-year-old has a long resume´ filled with the city's most prestigious eateries, including Quay, Becasse and, most recently, Claude's.
But with Claude's expected to close this month, Tamayo started the next chapter of her career at The Bourbon, a contemporary New Orleans-inspired restaurant and bar.
As a former colleague described it, now she's playing with the ''big boys''.
Tamayo plans to eventually get involved in more restaurant administration, but she says she can't imagine herself sitting in an office from nine to five.
''That's why I chose The Bourbon; there's so many levels you can move up into and still be able to do the one-to-one, face-to-face part that I love,'' she says.
''I'm just trying to make the industry better. It takes a lot of passion and dedication.''
Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Presented by Kitchen Aid
Louis Tikaram Louis Tikaram chose to dispense one easy word when asked to detail his cooking philosophy: ''tastiness''.
LOUIS TIKARAM, LONGRAIN
Louis Tikaram chose to dispense one easy word when asked to detail his cooking philosophy: ''tastiness''.
''Before anything else, food has to be tasty,'' the head chef of Longrain in Surry Hills says. ''And following that, fresh, seasonal and unique.''
His submission of a page-long elaboration on the term helped him garner the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year award, which recognises Sydney's most promising chefs 30 years of age and under. ''Louis is driven by passion, totally honest and humble,'' says judge and chef Damien Pignolet, who set up the award in memory of his wife who died in a car crash 26 years ago. ''We looked for someone spurred by passion, who is genuine and unmotivated by ego.''
Tikaram, 28, took over the reins at Longrain when founding chef Martin Boetz departed in June to begin the Cooks Co-op in Sackville. Tikaram says his friends inspired him to pursue the award.
''Dan Hong [head chef at Mr Wong], Phil Wood [at Rockpool] and Dan Puskas [at Sixpenny] have won in the past, and I want to get to where they are now,'' he says.
Growing up on a 45-hectare farm near the coastal town of Mullumbimby, Tikaram developed an easy appreciation for fresh and seasonal produce. ''We drank our neighbour's fresh cow's milk and all our vegies were from everyone around the town.''
At age 17 and looking for extra pocket money, he worked as a kitchen hand at a ''rinky-dink'' Thai restaurant tucked in the corner of a shopping mall. His awareness of coriander, turmeric and cumin surprised the owner, and prepping and cooking duties soon followed. After graduating from high school, Tikaram drove 12 hours to Sydney, strolled into Longrain and asked Boetz for a job. He was rejected. Undeterred, he returned the next day and the day after that until Boetz relented and gave him a job.
Two years later, he bagged a spot as chef de partie in Brent Savage's founding kitchen brigade for Bentley. At 23, he fulfilled a goal to work for Tetsuya Wakuda, learning the importance of consistency. ''The first dish is just as perfect as the last dish of the service.''
Hungry to experience the world, he embarked on a two-year trip, eating and cooking his way through 30 countries. The day after landing in Sydney, he bumped into Boetz on the streets of Potts Point. This time Boetz asked Tikaram to accept a job as his head chef.
Tikaram says his Fijian, Chinese, Indian, Irish and Scottish heritage is reflected in his cooking, which embraces the techniques and styles of many cultures.
As the award winner, Tikaram receives $20,000, Shun knives worth $3000 and overseas flights. He plans to track Thai cuisine around the world, starting with David Thompson's Nahm restaurant in Bangkok.
'' I [also] want to learn how traditional Thai can be suited to New York by working with Andy Ricker at Pok Pok. Then I might go to one of Roy Choi's restaurants in LA,'' he says.
New Restaurant of the Year
In a year jammed with exciting openings (see hot and new, right), this is the one that thrilled us the most.
MR WONG, SYDNEY
From the minute we stepped from 19th-century Bridge Lane through the heavy doors of this opulent Old China-meets-Indochina-themed addition to the Merivale Group portfolio, Sydney was enchanted. Its post-modern tribute to retro Cantonese was so perfectly in tune with our suburban Chinese memories, we felt instantly at home.
Despite heightened noise levels and early service hiccups, fine renditions of Aussie-Canto staples - from salt-and-pepper squid to a marvellously sticky-crisp sweet-and-sour pork hock - soon won us over. With the added realisation that the wine list is well and truly up to the task (as if there was any doubt about group sommelier Franck Moreau's prowess), Mr Wong has quickly captured our hearts, minds and stomachs. It's become the place we go back to, again and again and again.
With dumpling master Eric Koh on the dim-sum station and Dan Hong on ducks and other dishes, the flames, sizzle and steam of the open kitchens simply adds to the effect - that this is where lunch and dinner is happening in Sydney right now.
From-the-tank seafood, a masterful poached chicken, pig's ear and jellyfish salad, and the finest, simplest steamed fish-of-the-day fillet with ginger and shallots (aka spring onions) all tick the ''classics'' box. The Mr Wong version of mapo tofu is heavenly. Deep-fried ice-cream, a magnificent mango pudding in season, and honey-lemon chicken wings (why not?) are tongue-in-cheek terrific.
Koh has done the modern Cantonese thing in London at up-scale, ultra-modern ''tea house'' favourites Hakkasan and Yauatcha (both Michelin-starred). A skilled creator of superb dim sum, he's in charge of passing on his more than 20 years of experience to his Sydney team.
''You must have passion for cooking,'' he says. ''I like to share my experience with my young chefs so they too can learn skills and food knowledge in my kitchen.''
As for Hong, he simply goes from strength to strength, putting a ''light and modern'' spin on everything from roasted meats to fried rice - and having plenty of fun along the way.
Mr Wong was built into what used to be Tank nightclub. So quickly has it established itself as our most exciting new restaurant, it seems as though it's always been there.
Vittoria Coffee Legend Award
The criteria for this hallowed award is nothing less than an outstanding, long-term contribution to the industry.
It took a rugby-loving French chef to tackle one of the Sydney's toughest hospitality challenges. Not everyone expected him to win. Some thought he was mad. The year was 2001 and this chunky, Paris-born, former first-grade footy front-rower had collected some gongs for his early work at his Kings Cross fine diner Pond. Late in the '90s, he'd carried the Fink family's Bilsons to three-chefs-hat heights, then single-handedly rescued Tattersall's dining room from mediocrity in time for the 2000 Olympics.
But the Opera House Bennelong site was a beast of a different order. Bigger players than Guillaume Brahimi had tried and been defeated by the iconic harbour location. But it was the naysayers who were defeated, as he garnered award after award during the noughties for his classy, classical Parisian take on contemporary Australian food.
Diners will long remember his timeless dish of yellowfin tuna, basil, soy and mustard seed; and Sydney's favourite addiction after caffeine, Brahimi's sumptuous Paris mash. Engagements, graduations, marriages, Guillaume at Bennelong has always been a special occasion restaurant, with an unapologetically fine dining philosophy.
Twelve years later, with two interstate restaurants added to his portfolio, Brahimi has called it a day at the Opera House, just as the restaurant has been restored to three-hat status in this year's Good Food Guide.
''I put my name to it and I made people happy,'' Brahimi says. ''It's an emotional time for me, but I'm not going backwards, I'm moving forwards.''
Spoken like a front-rower. In life, as in football, ''legend'' means a lot more than ''celebrity''. Brahimi wears it well.
The Sydney Morning Herald Award for Innovation
Recognition for 'Our Kylie', the mistress of reinvention
Every year we doff our hat to a forward-thinking individual who has added new direction and dimensions to the way we eat. Ms Kwong has certainly done that. Green tree ant anyone?
When Sydney food folk talk about ''Kylie'', it's a fair bet they don't mean a tiny blonde Aussie pop and gay-culture icon. They're most likely to be referencing this 20-year veteran of Sydney's competitive Asian dining scene. Kylie Kwong has morphed from a young, shy chef quietly burnishing Neil Perry's crown at Wokpool in the mid-'90s, into a successful restaurateur in her own right and a multimedia food educator who has demystified traditional Chinese cooking for Australians in their home kitchens.
An award for innovation might seem a little late in the day - Kwong has also been serving Australian organic and biodynamic fruit, vegetables, meat and poultry at Billy Kwong, her Surry Hills restaurant, since 2005 - but over the past two years she has been changing the game again, incorporating the intense flavours of indigenous fruits and plants into her dishes to create something she calls ''Chinese bush tucker''. Dumplings with warrigal greens anyone? ''Old man'' saltbush pancakes? Lately Kwong has added native critters to the menu: crickets, mealworms, wood cockroaches, witjuti grubs, silkworm cocoons.
''To my absolute surprise and delight people love them,'' Kwong says, ''and the 1 per cent who do not care for them, at least can't stop talking about the whole subject of edible insects. To me that's brilliant! At least we have helped in starting this very important conversation on global sustainability.''
Our Kylie's influence on the Sydney and national food stage as an innovator and mistress of reinvention continues. An overdue, richly deserved award.
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.