Crazy for cult: The cult classics of Sydney dining

Eight-texture chocolate cake

Peter Gilmore demonstrates the construction of one of his signature desserts, the lavish eight-texture chocolate cake.

Winter is coming and the snow egg is leaving. Chef Peter Gilmore's signature dessert, which took on a life its own after an appearance on MasterChef, will be served for the last time at Quay on April 1. The three-hatted restaurant at The Rocks' Overseas Passenger Terminal will then close for a major renovation, reopening mid-July with a new-look dining room and menu that Gilmore hopes will take fine-dining to unexplored levels.

"Saying goodbye to our signature dishes is a way of forcing evolution to happen," says Gilmore, who is also calling time on Quay's much-loved eight-textured chocolate cake and famous congee. "It's great that people love these dishes, but sometimes the only way to move forward creatively is to leave that behind and start a new chapter."

Peter Gilmore's game-changing snow egg is making its final call.
Peter Gilmore's game-changing snow egg is making its final call. Photo: Nikki To

If you weren't one of the 4 million Australians who watched the 2010 MasterChef finale featuring the snow egg in a cook-off, know that the dessert is a perfect sphere of poached meringue and ice-cream served on fruity, refreshing layers of custard fool and granita. Seasonal flavours have included white nectarine, cherry, strawberry guava, custard apple and jackfruit.

When the snow egg made its television debut, Quay's website received more than 100,000 hits (it crashed) and by the next morning punters lined at the restaurant door for a takeaway version. (And were no doubt upset to learn it was available only as part an a la carte menu starting at $140, not in a sundae cup to be scoffed on the Manly ferry.)

More than 500,000 snow eggs have left the Quay kitchen since the dessert's debut in 2009 and it will be remembered as one Sydney's great signature dishes. It's up there with Tetsuya's confit of ocean trout, Rockpool's date tart and Phillip Searle's chequerboard ice-cream.

Once-upon-a-time, people wanted to be seen at a certain restaurant. Now it's about being seen with a certain dish.

The snow egg also stepped beyond the signature mantle to become a cult dish. That is, a dish diners will cross suburbs (or perhaps even time zones) for with the same excitement possessed by costumed cinema fans before a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Princess Bride.

A dish doesn't need to be "underground" or "underappreciated by the mainstream" to become cult. Cult status comes more often as the result of passionate fandom.

Although there is no fixed recipe for creating a cult dish, there are a few ingredients that can help. National media exposure is obviously good if you can get it, however if Gilmore had presented another dish for the MasterChef finale would it have had the same impact? Maybe. But, probably not.

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Australians love eating familiar dishes made with The Best Possible Ingredients in a fancy room. Look at the eternal popularity of Guillaume Brahimi's Paris mash. Bonus points if you can tip your hat to Aussie kitsch or evoke a childhood memory a la Christine Manfield's Gaytime Goes Nuts.

While a signature dish may be plated with splotches and swipes and a lot of carry on, cult dishes are often visually concise creations you might even be able to identify by silhouette. No one is mistaking Black Star's watermelon cake for a cronut in the shadows.

Cult dishes can pop-up anywhere from three-hatted restaurants to charcoal chicken shops in the suburbs.

Momofuku Seiobo's pork bun.
Momofuku Seiobo's pork bun. Photo: Jennifer Soo

A close and sometimes annoying cousin of the cult dish is the viral dish, which will be across every media channel for a short time before settling into normal life or fading from the public eye as quickly as it infected it.

Viral dishes existed before Instagram but with nowhere near the same frequency. The last pre-Instagram viral dessert might be Adriano Zumbo's macarons. When the pastry chef's macaron tower appeared on MasterChef (also in 2010), the ganache-filled treats immediately went from "occasional petit four" to "birthday party essential". A similar fervour hit homes around the country when Krispy Kreme started trading doughnuts in 2003. Now they're sold at service stations and no one cares.

A viral dish needs to be photogenic and accessible, but not too accessible. A novelty element helps and in 2018 there is myriad marketing teams trying to create the next ramen burger, sushi doughnut or raindrop cake. Once-upon-a-time, people wanted to be seen at a certain restaurant. Now it's about being seen with a certain dish.

Multi-coloured variations of Quay's snow egg.
Multi-coloured variations of Quay's snow egg. Photo: Nikki To

It's rare that a viral dish will become a cult dish simply because most of them aren't that delicious. Bourke Street Bakery's pork and fennel sausage roll will outlast any rainbow bagel and possibly religion.

Sydney loves a cult dish more than any other Australian city. Through the decades these dishes have had a huge impact on our dining scene and have propelled diners to visit restaurants they may have never considered. Quay was booked out for lunch six months after the snow egg's TV debut, for example, and Hartsyard's fried chicken had many diners visiting Newtown for the first time since the Whitlams played the Townie. For better or for worse, a cult dish will also spawn tributes and imitations. There's no telling how many dodgy baos are out there in the wake of Momofuku. Here are 10 classic cult dishes from the rich history of Sydney dining.

10 cult classic dishes of Sydney

Pork buns, Momofuku Seiobo, Pyrmont

Black Star Pastry's strawberry watermelon cake.
Black Star Pastry's strawberry watermelon cake. Photo: Steven Siewert

Propelled by international media and highly photogenic, Momofuku's pork buns had Sydney champing at the bit when they arrived here in 2011. Created by Korean-American chef David Chang as an eleventh hour addition to his Momofuku Noodle Bar menu in New York (a cool backstory is always good for a cult dish), the buns saw Chinese steamed bread stuffed with roasted golden pork belly, cool cucumbers and sweet hoisin sauce. A new benchmark in bar snacks, the pork buns left us when Barbados-born chef Paul Carmichael relaunched the Momo menu with a Carribean-Australian influence and equally fantastic results.

Snow egg, Quay, The Rocks

Let's put all the MasterChef hooha to one side and remember the snow egg's most important attribute: it's a bloody beautiful dessert. Refreshing and texturally balanced with a surprise change in temperature due to the egg being blowtorched to melt its maltose tuile shell. Crack through that warm coating and discover delicious ice-cream inside. Fun fact: the snow egg was going to be served on a plate until Peter Gilmore spied a couple of stemless chardonnay glasses Quay had just started trialling. "I saw them as I was walking past the bar and thought 'oh, wow'," says the chef. "Sometimes the stars just align." At the time of writing there are still a few tables left at Quay before renovations start on April 2 and the snow egg heads to that great restaurant in the sky.

Golden Century's pippies in XO sauce.
Golden Century's pippies in XO sauce.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

Strawberry and watermelon cake, Black Star Pastry, various locations

Black Star owner Christopher The says the multi-layered creation he whipped up for a friend's wedding a few years ago is supposedly the most Instagrammed cake in the world. After a social media gander at Black Star's four Sydney stores (Rosebery, CBD, Moore Park and the Newtown original), we reckon he might be right. The racing stripe cake of watermelon, cream and almond dacquoise topped with strawberries and rose petals sure is pretty to look at. Let's also take a moment to salute Sydney's other great cake: Pasticceria Papa's baked ricotta number. Completing Sunday lunches in Haberfield since 1988.

XO pipis, Golden Century, Sydney

Michael Scandiuzzo, whose restaurant No Name was famous for spaghetti bolognese and red cordial.
Michael Scandiuzzo, whose restaurant No Name was famous for spaghetti bolognese and red cordial. Photo: Christopher Pearce

These little clams on a bed of fried vermicelli have been a Golden Century essential ever since Eric and Linda Wong opened the doors to their live-seafood-focused Canto palace in 1989. The chubby, sweet pipis are bolstered by lip-sticking XO sauce and those golden-brown noodles are the ultimate late-night party on a plate. "I genuinely think it's the best dish in the world," David Chang told Good Food in 2016. The hospitality workers, politicians, celebrities and happy regulars who order kilos of them every night would agree.

Spaghetti bolognese and red cordial, No Name Restaurant, Darlinghurst

The most famous pastas in Sydney's history sit at either end of the restaurant spectrum. Buon Ricordo's truffle egg fettuccine, still tossed table-side by its creator Armando Percuoco, and this – a red sauce spag bol that was yours for $10. No Name Restaurant closed its doors in May last year after 63 years providing Darlinghurst diners with reliable pastas, schnitzels and stews. An oasis free of surprises and frills, few restaurants had as many daily regulars at No Names in its prime. The bottomless red cordial probably had a bit to do with it, too.

Fried chicken with sausage gravy at Hartsyard.
Fried chicken with sausage gravy at Hartsyard. Photo: Steven Siewert

Fried chicken and sausage gravy, Hartsyard, Newtown

Sydney had tasted southern-style fried chicken before Hartsyard opened on Enmore Road in 2012, but nothing quite as juicy and double-crust crunchy as chef Gregory Llewellyn's version. A three-day process of brining, vacuum-pack cooking and buttermilk marinating resulted in chicken that became a must for anyone keen on blow-the-diet-up excess made with high-end integrity (which is pretty much everyone). Llewellyn replaced the restaurant's deep fryer with a charcoal grill in January (cue Facebook outcry) but the chook will return when the Gretz becomes Wish Bone next month.

Ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter, bills, various locations

Bill Granger's ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter.
Bill Granger's ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter. Photo: Steven Siewert

Before Bill Granger started flipping hotcakes in the early '90s, most Sydney cafes were a bog-standard affair. Bills Surry Hills transformed breakfast from old tomatoes and greasy eggs into the fresh and simple stuff Sydneysiders now queue for every weekend. Scrambled eggs with next-level creaminess, corn fritters dressed with avocado salsa, and ricotta hotcakes the government should put on a postage stamp. Served with fresh banana and swathe of honeycomb butter, the puffball pancakes are as popular today as they were when it was announced the Harbour City would host the Olympics. And the winner is: Sydney brunchers.

Tonkotsu ramen, Gumshara, Haymarket

Mori Higashida was 48 when he quit his job as a jewellery company manager in Sydney to cook ramen. He spent 18 months working 18-hour days at Muteppou restaurant in Kyoto to master the art of making pork bone broth, before opening Gumshara in the back corner of Chinatown's Eating World food court. Higashida quickly became a hit for his thick and collagen-rich tonkotsu made with water, patient stirring and at least 120 kilograms of pork bones. True followers know to arrive early for the pork rib special.

Tonkotsu ramen at Gumshara Ramen.
Tonkotsu ramen at Gumshara Ramen. Photo: Marco Del Grande

David Blackmore full-blood wagyu burger, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sydney

Melbourne chef Shannon Bennett was offering a $100 wagyu burger with duck liver and a fried quail's egg in the early noughts, but it was Neil Perry who made the ultimate high-low dish something you could afford and actually want to eat. "Keen for burgs at RockBag?" was transmitted from more than a couple of Nokias in 2009 as finance district alphas flocked en masse to RB&G for wagyu patties smoky from the wood-grill. With Dan Hong's Lotus Burger causing a stir around the same time, a new breed of burger had hit Sydney.

Sirloin cafe de Paris, Bistro Moncur, Woollahra

The wagyu burger and Martinez cocktail at Rockpool Bar & Grill.
The wagyu burger and Martinez cocktail at Rockpool Bar & Grill. Photo: Supplied

What's the difference between steak and chips and sirloin cafe de Paris? About $30 and a boatload of herby, mustard-enhanced butter. Bistro Moncur opened in 1993 at the hands of Dr Ron White and chef Damien Pignolet and the grilled sirloin with cafe de Paris butter and thin, golden fries will never leave the menu. Moncur's loyal regulars aren't about Instagram likes and flashes in the pan, but the quiet pleasure of a perfect steak and glass of wine and giving thanks to the concept of lunch. And who doesn't love eating chips in a nice dining room?

An eater's field guide to cult dishes around Sydney and beyond

The high-low mix: When a hatted restaurant decides to slather foie gras on a burger or smudge caviar on fried chicken, people can become very excited. It doesn't work quite so well the other way round, like that time when Dominos launched a $50 wagyu pizza with truffle hollandaise. Ugh.

Damien Pignolet's sirloin cafe de Paris has been a menu staple at Bistro Moncur since 1993.
Damien Pignolet's sirloin cafe de Paris has been a menu staple at Bistro Moncur since 1993. Photo: Marco Del Grande

The fast-food unicorn: A "limited time only" junk item that causes 20-year-old males to lose their mind when it appears back on the menu (see KFC's Double Down or The McRib). American chain In-N-Out is the cult burger king, creating four-block-long queues every time it pops up in Sydney and Melbourne. There's still no plans for a permanent Australian store, thus increasing In-N-Out's exclusivity and cult following.

The suburban institution: Dishes from established local heroes that specialise in a particular cuisine such as Marrickville Pork Roll, Frangos Charcoal Chicken and Chinatown Noodle House. 

The student special: Anything that delivers maximum taste and kilojoules for minimum spend. See: Indomie noodles, anything from Breadtop and that place in Glebe that used to sell $5 pad thai.

The actual cult dish: Any sandwich from the Yellow Deli, a Katoomba cafe run by the Twelve Tribes followers who are pretty keen on the creation of a new Israel. Or something.

The national Good Food Guide 2018, in partnership with Citi and Vittoria, is available from newsagencies, bookstores and via thestore.com.au/goodfood, RRP $29.99.