The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2015: the award winners
Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year ... Sepia (pictured: the Golden Egg dessert). Photo: Steven Siewert
- Best New Restaurant – Ester
- Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year - Sepia
- Citi Chef of the Year - Brent Savage, Bentley Restaurant & Bar, Monopole, Yellow
- La Maison Du The Regional Restaurant of the Year – Biota Dining (Bowral)
- Innovation Award - Pasi Petanen, Cafe Paci
- Citi Service Excellence Award - Vicki Wild, Sepia
- Sustainability Award - Fins Restaurant, Kingscliff
- Vittoria Coffee Legend Award - Peter Doyle
- Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year presented by KitchenAid - Julian Cincotta
For the most exciting addition to our dining landscape over the past 12 months.
Mat Lindsay is at his wood-fired oven. Again. This time, he's roasting fish bones left over from filleting the sashimi.
"The oven is very much the focus of all our cooking here," the owner-chef says. "We're trying to get everything touched by it somehow, even the raw dishes."
Hence the fish bones, whose fat (yes, fish has fat) is being rendered for use in a sprightly dressing for the raw fish with mandarin and nori. Order oysters here and they'll be thrown in the oven for just a minute or two and sent to your table warm and smoky with a horseradish dressing. A half-head of cauliflower is roasted until charred and served on a creamy almond emulsion with fresh mint. The restaurant's roast chicken, bone marrow, lamb, duck, steak and even blue swimmer crab come out of the oven touched with the sweet scent of mallee root. "Even the sourdough breads take on this lovely smoky quality," says Lindsay, who was previously head chef of Billy Kwong in Surry Hills.
It's all part of the ''use what you have'' Ester ethos that has made this former loading dock and garage in a Chippendale back-street one of the hottest finds of the year. "We're always trying to minimise any wastage," says Lindsay, who often layers in two or three elements of the same protein or plant in the one dish. A dish of calamari comes with a broth made of squid offcuts; bread has a second life in the roast chicken's garlicky bread sauce.
The space is a charmer, wrought from rendered concrete, painted steel and glass by Anthony Gill Architects, the graphic parabolic arches giving it the air of a Roman aqueduct. It's a drop-in, sit-at-the-bar sort of place as much as a book-ahead, take-friends dining room; much-loved by Chippendale's multimedia creatives. Sommelier Julien Dromgool's wine list is sourced from organic and biodynamic wineries. "There's a big natural focus with the wines," says floor manager Adam Hall. "It's the same with our beers and our teas."
The open kitchen, with the oven as its heart and its hearth, acts as halfway house for some of the city's most progressive chefs. Nic Wong worked the oven for months before moving to Cho Cho San in Potts Point. Ditto Luke Powell, now just around the corner at LP's Quality Meats. "He's bringing some smoked meats around this afternoon," Lindsay says. "We'll swap him some wood-fired loaves." Current chefs Ben Sinfield and Isabelle Caulfield are typical of Sydney's new kitchen breed, stepping lightly between age-old craft and new-age collaboration.
Fellow nominees for the Best New gong read more like brethren than competitors, from Redfern's Moon Park and Potts Point's Cho Cho San to Surry Hills' Nomad and Darlinghurst's Cafe Paci. Their shared commitment to local produce and wine, downright neighbourly rules of engagement, and inclusive, youthful spirit makes Ester not just a quirky one-off, but the poster child for a whole new way of dining.
Ester, 46-52 Meagher Street, Chippendale, 02 8068 8279
The restaurant that sets the benchmark - for creativity, ambience, service, wine and food.
Sepia is a proper restaurant. An adult's restaurant. Respectful service, elegant furnishings, and just-right lighting that's flattering to one's features without the need for a miner's lamp to find each plate of food.
The restaurant is owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Martin Benn and Vicki Wild. Benn helms the kitchen; Wild manages the floor with grace and aplomb. A tasting menu might feature dishes such as butter-poached king george whiting with smoked pancetta, white carrot, yuzu, lardo, konbu and wasabi, or perhaps charcoal-grilled David Blackmore wagyu karubi with Japanese pickles, miso mustard and ice plant.
Does Benn classify his cooking as contemporary or Japanese cuisine?
"Defining what I do is probably the hardest question to answer," he says. "It's not fusion cooking. Everything I'm doing is based around Japanese, but I use native Australian ingredients because they have such a great freshness to them that works so well in Japanese cuisine."
Sepia remains classified in the Guide as contemporary.
This is the third time Sepia has been awarded Restaurant of the Year.
"When we won the first time it had such an impact on our business that we literally didn't have time to think about the importance of winning," Wild says.
"Winning it the second time in 2014 was the most satisfying, because it showed the first win wasn't a fluke," Benn says.
The third time is no fluke either. Despite the prevalence of share-plate-heavy and tablecloth-light restaurants, Sepia is as relevant as ever. Its right foot is planted in the art of silver service, while the left foot kicks open the door of innovation. This is why you'll be waiting until next year for a Friday or Saturday night table.
The award is for a chef whose skills and talent place him or her at the forefront of Sydney dining.
Brent Savage - Bentley Restaurant & Bar, Monopole and Yellow
Chef and restaurateur Brent Savage is a multitasker. He presides over not one but three restaurants - wine-focused Monopole, French-bistroesque Yellow (both in Potts Point) and the new, more city and suitified Bentley Restaurant + Bar. And this year, he and his team have amassed a total of four chefs' hats.
Although only one of the three restaurants featured in last year's Guide, such success hardly comes from a standing start. In a previous life (and Surry Hills location), the Bentley consistently scored two hats after opening in 2006.
Savage is also no stranger to the Chef of the Year title, which he won in 2005 while at Surry Hills' long-gone Moog Wine + Food at the height of ''molecular'' madness.
"Moog's food was, well, a bit wacky," then SMH restaurant critic Simon Thomsen wrote, on reviewing the Bentley. "Savage has calmed down, but still knows how to challenge and delight without intimidating.''
Bentley alumnus Dave Verheul of Melbourne's Town Mouse (named Where to Eat Now winner in last week's The Age Good Food Guide awards), says: "One thing that always impressed me [about Savage] is that fashions and trends come and go, and there are people who go out on a limb.
''But everything Brent cooked was always saleable, even if it was pretty damn out there. His things always taste good. And there's always a reasoning behind it."
A master of both creativity and technique - and spectacular vegetable dishes (his wife is vegetarian) - Savage trained with the best: Phillip Searle at Vulcan's in the Blue Mountains, Mark Best and Andrew McConnell. In turn, he has inspired younger stars such as Dan Hong (Mr Wong), Louis Tikaram (Longrain) and Verheul. "Whether he knew he was doing it or not, he taught us how to think in a different way,'' says Verheul. ''And he's such a nice guy."
And in this year's awards, this nice guy finishes first.
For the best restaurant experience in regional NSW and the ACT.
Every second chef is banging on about local, seasonal, and sustainable food these days. For Biota head chef James Viles, those concepts aren't just niceties to sprinkle on the menu. They inform every one of the stunningly plated and delicious dishes at Biota.
''We try to focus on less is more,'' says Viles, who can't stand the word ''garnish''.
''The team and I ask ourselves, 'Is this enough for us? Does this food tell the story of our region and is it perfect?' There's such beauty in a perfect piece of duck. Why add anything that doesn't need to be there?''
Viles has built solid relationships with the local farmers and producers who supply the kitchen. He regularly forages for wild food in the forests of the southern highlands and beaches of the south coast.
There's also Biota's own kitchen garden on-site, which expanded this year by way of a 40-metre polytunnel greenhouse.
A community-based project to grow plant shoots in the greenhouse is in development. In an exercise in soil recycling, Biota Seedlings will deliver and collect trays of live shoots in the soil to other kitchens. Viles says he has the resources to do 450 trays a month.
Viles and sommelier Ben Shephard also switched to a fully Australian wine list this year, with many drops sourced from local producers. ''It just wasn't making sense to have international bottles with our food, so we decided to go down the all-domestic road with the wine as well,'' Viles says.
Restaurants that fly the localism flag but feature little to no NSW or Australian wine should take note.
Biota also has 12 rooms available for overnight stays.
Traipsing straight to bed, instead of waiting for a cab, after a five-course meal and a couple of nightcaps?
For a forward-thinking individual who has added new direction to the way we eat.
Pasi Petanen, Cafe Paci
He popped up in an unlikely space - a former Mexican-themed party restaurant - and made it his own, with a minimal and quirky refit and an equally original menu. Notes from his native Finland mingle with reworked Asian classics (the post-Viet, potato-noodle-based photato, for example), making this one of the most acclaimed and enlivening eating-out experiences of the year. And there are no promises anything will ever stay the same.
For the person who epitomises the best in restaurant service - appropriate, knowledgeable, personal and professional.
''Beautiful'' isn't a word often used to describe a restaurant's service, but take the time at Sepia to watch the floor staff in action and you'll see it's exactly that.
Waiters glide past each other to set fresh cutlery for each course, glasses are never empty (nor over-poured), and in this choreographed dance, no one ever steps on a partner's toes.
If the service at Sepia is a symphony, Vicki Wild is its conductor.
Wild says the staff training and logistics involved in making everything run smoothly are a lot of work. "But when the waiters are on song and everything works perfectly in the kitchen, it's fabulous. I love nothing more than to watch it."
Before opening Sepia with her husband, Martin Benn, in 2009, Wild spent 10 years at Tetsuya's, not actually working the floor, but dealing with media, looking after wait staff and general-managing the restaurant.
"If I hadn't spent that time at Tetsuya's there is no way I could do what I do now," Wild says. "I learnt a lot."
Wild is always at the door to greet diners with the warmth of an old friend, whether you are indeed an old friend or eating at Sepia for the first time.
"The importance of a good greeting is always underestimated in restaurants," Wild says. "If you leave someone standing in the doorway too long, they feel like an idiot.
"Sometimes customers will come in and they'll be in a foul mood, but I see that as a challenge. There's nothing more satisfying than seeing a person leave the restaurant with a smile on their face who was ticked-off at the beginning of the night.''
For a restaurant that has shown the greatest commitment to sourcing sustainable seafood.
Even the name sounds fishy. So it's no wonder it's the name of a restaurant that takes not only the cooking of its fish seriously, but also the provenance.
Provenance is everything with seafood. If you don't know what it is, where it's from, and how it was caught or farmed, you can't make any valid decisions about the sustainability of what you're eating. At Fins in Kingscliff, they not only tell you all that, but take the hard work out of sustainability research for you.
Steve Snow has long been an advocate of local fish. He's famed for knowing not just the species of fish he's buying, but also the names of the children of the fishermen who caught it. Ever since mobile phones came into being, he's had his local fishers on speed-dial, checking to see what they've caught and when they'll be in harbour.
''You will never see a specific fish written on our menu, as we do not know what the fishermen will catch each day," Snow says.
It's this kind of philosophy that underpins what they do.
For 23 years, despite the restaurant trading from more than one location, Snow has shown an unerring devotion to his great love - the harvest from the ocean. Be it Spanish mackerel, flame snapper or cobia, it's all line-caught wild finfish or farmed shellfish, sold by name, and cooked by someone who knows and cherishes his product.
In Fins you can fall in love with the pure joy of leatherjacket (a much safer alternative to the very similar-tasting and highly prized Japanese fugu, or blowfish). You can discover the brilliance of such underrated fish as albacore. In the right hands - and Snow's are the right hands - virtually any fish becomes a feast.
What makes Snow's efforts even more remarkable is that he's been doing it for decades, well before sustainability became a trend. He's a trailblazer who shows true leadership in the field.
If we can all emulate Snow's efforts, at our restaurants and in our homes, by knowing and caring about exactly what we're putting in our mouths, the world's oceans will continue to provide great-tasting seafood for generations to come.
For an outstanding long-term contribution to the industry, chosen by Les Schirato of Vittoria Coffee.
Peter Doyle does not actively seek the limelight but his food has always ensured he's in it. Anyone lucky enough to experience Doyle's food early in his career will recall the sheer finesse that The Peter Doyle Show brought to this town, first at his restaurant Reflections at Palm Beach (where as much attention was paid to the fact he was a surfer as it was to his cooking) and later, in the '90s, at Trianon, which morphed into the less formal Cicada, in Challis Avenue, Potts Point (on-trend well ahead of the pack).
It was a pleasure to take a seat in that grand front dining room on Challis Avenue, light filtering in through the huge windows, the room abuzz and the food. Oh, the food.
His light touch and his quiet Australian assault on fine French cuisine has endured. In the 2005 edition of The Good Food Guide, est., where he has been in residence for more than a decade, was described as a class act and Doyle as "not only one of Sydney's finest cooks but among its most unique". His ability in the kitchen has been described as deft, subtle, dazzling and even magical.
He has soared in one of the city's finest dining rooms in what has become trademark Doyle style: with restraint, elegance and simplicity. A fierce talent and a single-minded focus on quality have won Doyle the respect of his peers, loyal customers, and critics.
He is one of our great chefs, a recipient of The Good Food Guide's Chef of the Year Award in 2006 and a remarkable 72 Good Food Guide chefs' hats in his career to date. May there be many more.
Chosen by a panel of industry experts to honour a great young chef.
Chef Julian Cincotta's love of food was cemented early. ''I grew up in an Italian family - we were always around food,'' he says. ''My aunties would bottle tomatoes in the backyard; my uncle made wine."
Cincotta would help in his parents' cafe in Westmead, Sydney. An apprenticeship at Courtney's Brasserie, Parramatta, followed.
"From there I got lucky and ended up at Rockpool," he says. From time to time he'd return to Westmead to lend a hand. "But dad and I kept fighting. I wasn't allowed to cook on the grill; he wouldn't even let me change the oil," Cincotta says.
His first overseas trip saw him undertake stints at Charlie Trotter's, and at Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago, followed by time at Morimoto, New York. Returning home, he again lent a hand in the family cafe.
''I started making my own sourdoughs, jams and pies, experimenting with stuff," he says. "Dad wasn't very happy about it, but when he saw that customers were coming in for them, he calmed down."
Cincotta's sensibility impressed the judges, including the award's founder, chef Damien Pignolet.
"Julian has remarkable loyalty," Pignolet says. "To the chefs he has worked with, including Neil Perry, whom he speaks very highly of, and to his family, having returned several times to work in their cafe." Cincotta's considerable kitchen talent also made an impact. "Julian is a superb cook," Pignolet says. "At a dinner at Nomad, he cooked the Provencal fish soup that we served at Bistro Moncur for 20 years. It was the finest example of that soup that I have ever tasted."
At Nomad, Surry Hills, Cincotta is sous chef alongside head chef Nathan Stasi. The award is a bright note at the end of a tough year. "Since we opened nearly a year ago, both my dad and Nathan's dad have passed away," Cincotta says. ''It would have been great for dad to have seen this.''
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