Cafe Sydney very nearly missed its own 21st birthday. You might know the feeling – if you had a birthday under lockdown, did it really happen? As luck and good management would have it, the view-blessed restaurant perched on top of Customs House reopened just before its big day, on June 28.
So what's new? Credit cards are taken on booking. There's a concierge on the ground floor of the historic building who wants your contact details for tracing (scan with your phone, go to the app, sign in).
There's more space between tables, with 152 guests allowed, down from the usual 325. But the open kitchen still runs down the full length of the splendidly large room, the tables out on the balcony are still the most sought-after, and the tandoori oven – so exciting, 21 years ago – still stands pride of place, dishing up the signature naan breads.
The real estate is pretty impressive, and the views out to the harbour bridge more enticing than ever, especially if you've been staring at a brick wall for the past three months. The key to Cafe Sydney has always been out the back, however, in the long-term management team (the venue is owned by Hong Kong's Cafe Deco Group).
General manager Todd Cummins and operations manager Jan McKenzie are the starch in the spine of this big beast of a restaurant, along with James Kidman, executive chef for the past six years, and head chef Tony Sokraa.
And please put your hands together for the fact that all 123 existing staff have their jobs back in place for the reopening – including one of the most vital, tandoor chef Lal Mani Kharel.
Cafe Sydney's freshly opened oysters, tandoor-roasted ocean trout and the $165 seafood share platter also have their old jobs back.
"I'm here for the naan," announces my guest, specifying the caramelised onion version ($3.50), which comes hot from the oven. Gently sweet inside, it's more crisp than puffy. "Still good," she announces, piling it high with yellowfin tuna tartare ($29), a combination seen in no Indian state or province ever.
Dotted with tuna mayonnaise and spiced with caper seeds, it's more together than a hard-working if slightly outmoded composition of grilled prawns, chorizo and salt cod croquette, anchored by a terrific romesco sauce.
Humpty Doo barramundi ($38) is a good choice for lunch, notable for the crispness of its skin and the swirling camouflage of its accompaniments – confit garlic, parsnip puree, wilted spring onions, a buttery sauce of peas, and best of all, nutty, golden slices of crisp-fried garlic.
Duck pithivier ($39) ticks all the pie boxes, the plump round of tanned, etched pastry filled with shredded duck confit, underpinned with chopped silverbeet and mushrooms that lap up the pour-over of ducky jus. It's allowed to just be what it is, which is good.
The award-winning wine-list could be daunting, but having sommelier Simon Curkovic to hand is like having Einstein on your team at the pub's trivia night. It leads to a really fun Jim Barry assyrtiko ($17 glass), and an intriguing blend of pinot/noir and shiraz from Yarra Yering ($30/$135), redolent of roses and raspberries.
A glass of the Bleasdale rare verdelho ($21) is fruity enough to cope with the chocolate lamington ($20) a heavier, vegan alternative to the traditional light sponge, sent out with a delicious dark cherry sorbet and a gratuitous sugary crumb.
This 21-year stalwart of the Sydney dining scene has legions of regulars, thanks to its spectacular site, customer-first attitude and professional, crowd-pleasing cooking.
Sydney's corporate market isn't yet gathering in packs and throwing back the espresso martinis, but they will be, just as soon as they stop working from home. (September? October?)
Party on, Cafe Sydney. It would have been a bit sad if the restaurant that most celebrates Sydney, couldn't celebrate itself.
Address: Level 5, Customs House, 31 Alfred Street, Circular Quay, Sydney, 02 9251 8683
Open: Mon-Fri noon-late, Sat 11.30am-late, Sun lunch from 11.30am
Window: Two hours for early tables.
Protocols: Tracking details taken; well-spaced tables; hand sanitisers.
Vegetarian: Dedicated vegan menu.
Drinks: Everything's on tap, from well-engineered cocktails and house-made ginger beer to serious trophy wines (Grange, Hill of Grace, Rockford Basket Press Shiraz).
Cost: About $165 for two, plus drinks.
Score: Scoring has been paused while the industry gets back on its feet.