You know you're in a pretty exciting food city when: 1) A chef with a Michelin-star pedigree sets up a ramen shop in a Chinatown food court; 2) A three-hatted chef spends three months getting the sugar shell on his dessert right; 3) Our most glamorous restaurant's highlight dish is vegetarian; 4) a chook's bum takes the stage as a star in its own right; and 5) a whole new cuisine is created around Australian indigenous flavours. This year's best of the best have come from new faces and old, from upscale diners and down - signs the Sydney food scene is maturing nicely. But I think we knew that already.
The Pearl at Sepia
A crisp, silvery, sugar-coated orb that looks like a planet flying through a sugar-dusted space-scape; we dub thee the Pearl. You tap the shell just hard enough for it to implode and shatter into a delicious shrapnel of finger lime pearls, frozen ginger, lime sherbet and lime cream. It took Sepia's Martin Benn three months to get the shell as fine as an egg shell - and this is only the pre-dessert.
Sepia, 201 Sussex Street, Sydney, phone 9283 1990
Tokyo ramen at Ramen Ikkyu
Now that Harunobu Inukai has swapped his smart Potts Point restaurant for a simple noodle stall in Chinatown with touchscreen order pads, he - and we - couldn't be happier. With its dense, deep, soy-based broth, soft-cooked egg, bean shoots, seaweed, fresh bamboo shoots and springy silky noodles, his Tokyo ramen shoyu is all good things in a bowl.
Ramen Ikkyu, Shop F1A, 401 Sussex Street, Sydney, phone 9281 0998
Callos Madrilenos at MoVida
When Frank Camorra moved his restaurant brand to Sydney, the queues stretched back to the Victorian border, the phones rang hot, and counter seats were snapped up the minute the doors opened at 5pm. Why? For sensational, flavour-driven, Spanish-rooted, wine-friendly share dishes such as this hearty, paprika-scented mess of honeycomb tripe, chickpeas and chorizo sausage.
MoVida, 50 Holt Street, Surry Hills, 8964 7642
Shaved heirloom vegetables with buttermilk at Monopole
Bar food took on a new meaning when the Bentley's Nick Hildebrandt and Brent Savage opened the darkly seductive Monopole in Potts Point. Instead of bags of popcorn and carb-laden sliders, think artfully shaved heirloom vegetables and baby pink fir potatoes on a pure white buttermilk whey dressing that brings a touch of dairy to the just-picked garden freshness. Whey to go.
Monopole, 71A Macleay St, Potts Point, 9360 4410
Flourless chocolate cake at Cipro Pizza al Taglio
Sydney's queen of the dessert, Catherine Adams, along with fellow Rockpool Bar and Grillers Khan Danis and Angel Fernandez, gave up the restaurant high-life for a sturdy neo-industrial canteen serving up pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice), and Alexandria can't believe its luck. The flourless chocolate cake has been done before and will be done again, but this year marks its highest point; a mousse-like dark, redemptive cloud of chocolate air captured in cake form.
Cipro Pizza al Taglio, Shop 9/21 Fountain Street, Alexandria, 9698 4183
Scallop and prawn siu mai at Mr Wong
What was a nightclub is now a highly styled 240-seat Chinese eating den with a great wall of Cantonese roast ducks, finessed Chinatown favourites from chefs Dan Hong and Jowett Yu, and a brilliant dim sum master in Eric Koh. The prawn har gau, steamed barbecue pork bun and steamed cod and shrimp roe dumplings are testament to Koh's art and craft, but the crown goes to the sweet, squat, steamy pork and prawn siu mai dumpling, flat-capped with white scallop and flying fish roe.
Mr Wong, 3 Bridge Lane, Sydney, 9240 3000
Flinders Island wallaby tail with black bean and chilli at Billy Kwong
Chef and owner Kylie Kwong has given Australian-Chinese food a whole new meaning by cleverly integrating indigenous Australian ingredients into her cooking. Now Warrigal greens, salt bush and Coorong bananas taste as Chinese as they do Australian; a lovely evocation of both time and place. The Flinders Island wallaby tail is a great leap forward, slow-cooked with black bean and chilli and piled high in a dense, finger-licking pile of sweet meat and sticky bones.
Billy Kwong, Shop 3/355 Crown Street, Surry Hills, 9332 3300
Smoked linguine with braised cuttlefish at Ormeggio at The Spit
Owner Alessandro Pavoni and head chef Federico Zanellato combine a respect for Italian tradition with a need to push boundaries. So we've seen (and enjoyed) their mushroom-flavoured tapioca wafers, and reconstructed bricks of suckling pig. But we really sat up and took notice when the pasta went new-wave, emerging as a knitting ball of linguine finished in a smoked fish stock, served with tender squid bathed in squid ink, baby zucchini, and crisp batons of fried zucchini flower.
Ormeggio at the Spit, D'Albora Marinas The Spit, Mosman, 9969 4088
Potato, buttermilk, parson's nose at Momofuku Seiobo
It's been a year of intellectually restless, rigorously thought-through dishes on the kitchen bar from Momofuku Seiobo's David Chang and Ben Greeno, from a cheese course of fluffy grated pecorino sprinkled over honey liquorice and bee pollen, to the sticky glazed pork shoulder eaten in the hands, as petits fours. Now, the parson's nose of the chicken is the star; prepared confit, boned, fried and served with confit potato balls, ocean trout roe and shaved mushrooms.
Momofuku Seiobo, 80 Pyrmont Street, Sydney
Korean green rice, seaweed, buckwheat and sesame at Quay
Forward-thinking chefs are reinterpreting vegetables and grains in brave, new ways, even at our glammiest big-night-out harbourside restaurant. Peter Gilmore and head chef Sam Aisbett rework special organic green rice from Korea with 10-year-old soy sauce and black sesame oil, then tumble it with puffed buckwheat, shaved kombu, toasted nori, silken tofu, and rice flour ''lace'' that resembles delicate sea coral. A dish that rewrites the status quo and pushes us all forward.
Quay, Upper Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, Sydney, 9251 5600
Pig's ear, octopus, cabbage and green apple salad at Bodega
Things are rarely what they seem at this spruced-up Surry Hills hot spot, and this salad is no exception, with crisp pig's ear sliced and tossed through a tangy slaw of cabbage, octopus and snappy green apple with the clean bitey heat of jalapeno dressing.
Bodega, 216 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills, 9212 7766
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 today.