Only two hours from central Sydney, the Blue Mountains in winter offer not only beautiful scenery and old-world charm, but also an abundance of culinary delights.
Winter time in the Blue Mountains is both exhilarating and totally exhausting; and that is without putting one hiking boot-clad foot on a walking trail. That's just from eating.
The further up the mountains you go, the richer the flavour when it comes to great food. There are dozens of places to eat, many of them listed in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide (see a taste of what our Guide reviewers are currently loving below).
To make the most of the Blue Mountains you need a good base camp. Parklands Country Gardens & Lodges (132 Govetts Leap Road, Blackheath) is a newish, very stylish addition to an accommodation landscape laden with gorgeous B&Bs and guest houses. It has two notable advantages: 1. being in Blackheath, one of the sweetest villages in the mountains, 2. having chooks at the bottom of the huge property which lay eggs for your omelette.
This 28-acre estate adjoining the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage opened in September last year. A gracious central lodging, which houses a conservatory for breakfast and rooms for lounging lit by elk horn chandeliers with fireplaces flanked by French wing back chairs, is at the high point of the property which sweeps down to a duck- and lily-covered lake.
Seven cottages are hidden among pine, cypress and Japanese maple trees, each with four double guest rooms, gas fireplaces and luxurious bathrooms and toiletries making them perfect retreats between eating engagements.
Blue Mountains-style feasting begins on the drive up. If you take the Bells Line and stop by Apple Bar (2488 Bells Line of Road, Bilpin) - a casual, family-friendly diner with a soundtrack of bellbirds. Just down the road, there's the Bilpin Orchard (2550 Bells Line of Road, Bilpin) where you can buy sweet, crisp apples straight from the source. They also sell the most amazing juice and there are regular farmers markets' nearby.
Spot the weekend fun-lovers who take their bikes on the train all the way up the mountains and roll back down, stopping by Anonymous Cafe (237-238 Great Western Highway, Blackheath) for a ristretto and a toasted sandwich - the coffee here is some of the best in the area.
Crawling back down towards Katoomba, the newly re-wazzed Hydro Majestic (5288 Great Western Highway, Meadlow Bath) offers high tea with a hell of a view. Very few buildings warrant the title "icon" but after a $30 million renovation over six years, this grand old mountains dame, stretching 1½ kilometres from one side to the other, almost does. Along its length are 54 small but charmingly decorated rooms (did we mention the Megalong Valley views?), the Winter Garden restaurant and the Shanghainese style Salon Du The and sumptuous Cat's Alley gin palace from where you watch the sun set, martini in hand. The Hydro is one of the greatest examples of grand Art Deco architecture outside of city limits.
Speaking of which, hit Katoomba Street legend the Paragon Cafe (65 Katoomba Street, Katoomba) - a coffee and chocolate shop that looks like it stepped out of a 1920s postcard. The Carrington's (15-47 Katoomba Street, Katoomba) is a great place to pause for a beer, as is the Hotel Gearin (273 Great Western Highway Katoomba). Not only do they offer a proper old school Aussie pub experience (with rooms!) they also feature an impressive roster of live music. All this, and only a two-hour country train ride or drive from the CBD.
A peak at our favourite Good Food Guide restaurants
In Sydney's east, Bistro Moncur has long been a sophisticated haven for modern French food and it's no surprise to see alumnus Steve Burman borrow their philosophy and design. Expect a warm welcome, attentive service and cafe de Paris butter with the steak. And a "who's who" of Katoomba in the evening. The chef's garden and a wood-fired kiln are big players in dishes like roasted beetroot salad with pear and feta or garlic prawns. Suckling pig has plenty of fine crisp skin, thanks to that kiln, while Atlantic salmon gets a bit lost fighting it out with fennel, celery, sun-dried tomatoes, roast almonds and basil. Desserts are rooted in France and the kiln-baked tarte tatin features apple with smoked plums, quince and ice-cream. C'est bonne.
Old-world charm has morphed from unappetising cliche to something of a novelty in the restaurant world. Gracious vintage dining rooms are now so rare they can feel refreshingly luxe. Darley's is all about old world charm - the flock wallpaper, butter yellow chairs, chandeliers and double-clothed tables. The menu, though, is peppered with things that are smoked, pickled and foamed. When the dining-room fire is blazing, duck should be ordered. In this case, a slow-cooked, crisp-skinned duck showered with scallop shavings, then bathed in a star anise and shiitake mushroom broth. It's food to match the richness of the room, staffed by super friendly, clued-up waiters, and of Lilianfels, the guest house attached. Take dessert, maybe a quince tarte tatin with salted lemon foam and local honey ice-cream, in a tiny drawing room, stoke the fire and revel in this taste of a slower, gentler time.
You certainly get a sense of the history of this part of Sydney's outskirts when you plan a stop at this old coach house. Its shady verandah, flanked by two rare kurrajong trees, is a welcoming place to pause. Inside, well-worn floorboards, tiny rooms reminiscent of another era and a cosy fireplace make up the internal space, but the courtyard at the rear is just the ticket to linger over an afternoon meal. A salad entree of leaves, fondant potatoes, tomato and anchovy could really benefit from a firmer hand with the dressing - a modest lick of tapenade doesn't really cut the mustard. Mains are more on the mark with an old-breed pork cutlet nicely sparked with pickled purple and orange carrots, onions and sorrel. Service is friendly and casual, albeit a little unpolished, though things sweeten up with a deconstructed "meringue" of curd, lemon verbena ice-cream and cheesecake.
For 20 years Silk's has been the go-to restaurant for white tablecloth dining in Leura - although these days there's a big white piece of paper on top of the tablecloth. Nevertheless, the service still remains all class, no sass and while a great deal of the menu is quite modern, a few dishes contain peeks of old country classics. Lamb's brains and sweetbreads come together with a mushroom ragu in Silk's best entree, a bold and brash dish that proves the kitchen really excels when it comes to all things meaty. They also excel at stacking all elements of each dish on top of each other, sending out plate after plate of highwire tall main courses. Things flatten out a bit for dessert - a medjool date tart is stacked only with a caramelised fig and a scoop of pistachio ice-cream.
Wood-firing is a trend in the Big Smoke but in this village they have been cooking like this for 120 years. Dishes from seed-laden bread, to fall-apart meats and old-school puddings are cooked in the black iron jaws of a scotch oven - regular cooking is mostly defunct here. Phillip Searle departed this Blue Mountains stalwart (then called Vulcans) in 2012 and the new team merely stoked the flames and wasted no time making it their own.
From a pass fringed with dried sorrel comes an entree of roast local beetroot with pancetta, blue cheese and pinenuts: it's earthy, simple, satisfying. Mains served in cast iron pans speak of a long, melting sojourn in the wood oven. A side of chicken comes burnished and bathed in a creamy corn sauce flecked with herbs. Even desserts are drawn from the embers - a "bread and butter pudding" sees chunks of Hominy (the local baker) croissant doused in custard with streaks of dark chocolate. This is everything mountain food should be.
Imagine yourself happily cruising the protea beds at Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, when you stumble across a restaurant you expect will have the culinary cred of a hospital cafeteria. You sit down, admiring the quirky tree branch table legs and the eye-popping view over the mountains, and it becomes apparent something special is going on.
This is the Blue Mountains outpost of one of Sydney's favourite chefs, Sean Moran. His food is the epitome of home-cooked comfort applied with restaurant level expertise. While Kemp's Creek chicken with tarragon, vegies and gravy is Sunday family roast fare, the flavour complexity of dill-cured king trout showered with shaved fennel, apple and finger lime couldn't be replicated at home. There are five desserts to choose from - maybe it'll be baked custard with rhubarb and shortbread: perfect mountain food. The service can be a bit shambolic - you may find yourself opening your wine and fetching glasses, but you may also find yourself craving this food long after you're back in the city.