Terry Durack looks back on his favourite Sydney dishes of all time

Cafe Paci's chicken liver Paris-Brest with onion jam.
Cafe Paci's chicken liver Paris-Brest with onion jam.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

Terry Durack sends his mind where his body can't go: to revisit his favourite Sydney dishes of all time.

A few days ago, I was sent the link to a soundtrack called The Sound of Restaurants. It was created by restaurant reservations app EatClub to remind people of the feeling of eating inside a restaurant while chowing down on their takeaway.

People laughing, waiters talking, cutlery clacking, glasses clinking – come on, you remember.

Krug champagne paired with suckling pig sausage rolls at Bennelong in Sydney.
Krug champagne paired with suckling pig sausage rolls at Bennelong in Sydney. Photo: Nikki To

It's a cute idea to trigger happy memories from more social times, but it only succeeded in making me feel more isolated.

What gives me strength, instead, is remembering the great heights and heady flavours of my years of dining out, and knowing they will return. The benchmarks met, the minds blown, the "oh wow" moments like these.

The go-to dishes I can't get to anymore

I keep thinking about the agnolotti filled with liquid tomato and parmesan at LuMi Dining. The way it squished against my teeth and imploded into a sharp, sweet, acidic mouthwash; the way it taught me that umami was a border-crossing, passport-free, flavour junkie that made any cuisine taste more of itself.

Nik Hill's roasted chicken pie at The Old Fitz in Woolloomooloo.
Nik Hill's roasted chicken pie at The Old Fitz in Woolloomooloo.  Photo: Supplied

And the suckling pig sausage roll served at Peter Gilmore and Rob Cockerill's Cured & Cultured Bar at Bennelong, each slice topped with a dimple of black garlic like a tiny choc chip. And the chicken liver parfait and onion jam piped into a delicate ring of Paris-Brest choux pastry at Cafe Paci in Newtown.

And the spit-roasted, wood-fired lamb a la cruz (from the cross, or crucifix) cooked over the coals at Porteno. The scallop siu mai dumpling at Mr. Wong, and the sweet pond of seafood risotto at Ormeggio at The Spit.

The small, simple things, such as fragrant prosciutto served with thin spindles of Harry Levy's hand-rolled grissini at Don Peppino's in Paddington, and the anarchical classicism of Nik Hill's chicken pie at The Old Fitz in Woolloomooloo.


Gone but not forgotten

When your body isn't allowed to go to the restaurants to recreate the experiences it misses, then the mind just has to step up and do the job for it. Mine has been drifting back to restaurants that are no longer with us.

Cue many a happy Saturday lunch in the courtyard of Pulcinella in King's Cross, way back in the 1980s. Armando Percuoco (who went on to own Buon Ricordo) wouldn't open the restaurant on a Saturday night because, he said, he didn't like the kind of people who went out for dinner on Saturday night.

The gamberetti of crisp-fried baby school prawns, drawn from Sydney Harbour and the Clarence River and eaten heads, shells and all, became my symbol of all that was good about Sydney.

Tetsuya Wakuka's confit of Petuna ocean trout.
Tetsuya Wakuka's confit of Petuna ocean trout. Photo: Supplied

On Sundays, the biggest treat was lunch at Berowra Waters, where Tony and Gay Bilson had turned a restored guesthouse on the riverside into the country's No.1 foodie destination by sheer bloody-mindedness and astute use of poached bone marrow, brioche and red wine butter.

If that went on too late, which it always did, then it turned into a very late-night hamburger at Arthur Karvan's Arthur's in King's Cross, the site of the current Ms G's. I'm writing this with tears in my eyes now. All day lunches, midnight burgers? Where are you, the Sydney that I love?

The rise of the dragon

Certain dishes actually changed the trajectory of Sydney dining, knocking it off its track. Tetsuya Wakuda's confit of Petuna ocean trout, created at Tetsuya's in Rozelle in 1992 was an It Dish from day one. Gently confited in spiced oil and crowned with the crunch of dried kombu, chives and sea salt, it was neither French, nor Japanese, but ours, Australian.

Signature pippies and XO sauce at Golden Century Seafood.
Signature pippies and XO sauce at Golden Century Seafood. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Another great moment: when Golden Century's head chef, Leung Yung threw just-steamed pippies into a pungent, fiery, XO chilli sauce.

Then the scholarly and uncompromising David Thompson jolted us with the hot, sour, sweet shock of his Thai ma hor appetiser into an addict's immediate need for more, and Neil Perry used the Australian seafood he loves to elevate the humble congee into something rich and noble at Rockpool.

Now we have an entire generation of young Asian chefs cooking the food they love to eat, changing the trajectory once again.

As I look back at a lifetime of eating, it's the dishes that come unbidden to mind that I miss, and the people who made them, more than the actual soundtrack of dining. Then again, I could always play The Sound of Restaurants really, really, loud, and sit at home complaining about the bloody noise. There's something nostalgically comforting in that.​