From laksa dumplings to hiking for a bucket of prawns, our Sydney chief restaurant reviewer, Terry Durack, has found many food highlights to salvage 2020.
2020, you've been a lot to swallow. But whatever else happens in life, there will always be good food, and a great deal of pleasure to be had in finding it, cooking it and sharing it.
These are the magic moments – some stolen, some surprising, some you saw coming – that got me through this extraordinary year.
Oh, the joy of having a negroni made by someone else. It was my first meal out of captivity for 67 days, 6 hours and 15 minutes, and I felt both worried and excited, wanting to dive straight in to the world of dining that I had missed, yet wary of exposure to risk.
Chiosco, the casual, seaside baby brother of Ormeggio at The Spit was the perfect toe in the water, with its smart, no-brainer, menu of Italy's greatest hits, from a perfectly judged vitello tonnato and light-as-air focaccia to the coffee-scented tiramisu. chiosco.com.au
Woy Woy Fishermen's Wharf. Photo: Nikki To
2. Seafood by the sea
If I were a pelican, I, too, would hang out at Woy Woy Fishermen's Wharf. One of the great treasures of the Central Coast of New South Wales, the wharf is all things to all people – local fish shop, takeaway chippy, and a relaxed, easy-breezy dine-in restaurant hanging over the broad tidal waters of Brisbane River.
Jenni Cregan cooks the local flathead or gurnard with a light batter ("It's all about the fish," she says), and son Sam Clayton ferries platters of Sydney rock oysters, bugs and crisp school prawns to long share tables. Book ahead – it's not just the local pelicans who are drawn to this place from miles around. woywoyfishermenswharf.com.au
3. Bread that blew my brain
I know, bread, right? But Pasi Petanen's devilishly dark potato and molasses rye bread is so dense and rich and sticky, it's the cake of the bread world.
During lockdown, he sold it by the loaf, bringing joy to many, but now it's listed by the slice on the playful, intriguing menu of Cafe Paci in Newtown. cafepaci.com.au
4. Discovering a new meat
There's beef, and then there's wagyu. There's lamb, and now there's Margra.
The micro-marbled meat of the Australian White sheep, developed from four different breeds by Graham and Martin Gilmore of Tattykeel near Oberon, NSW, delivers sweet, luxurious lamby flavour while still miraculously light and clean on the tongue. featherandbone.com.au
Salt and gin-vinegar chips at Eileen's. Photo: Supplied
5. Meet you at the bar
To sit at a darkly romantic bar with a perfectly engineered cocktail once again, was another good moment. Eileen's, launched in June by the Yarra Valley-based Four Pillars Gin brand, demands attention for the passion and detail of its staff, gin-based cocktails that aren't afraid to have character and brightness, and Matt Wilkinson's steak-and-pepper party pies and salt and gin-vinegar crisps. fourpillarsgin.com
6. Crackin' it
There's a moment when you've just picked up a great big crab claw and cracked it at precisely the right spot with exactly the right pressure – twist, pull – and that juicy white crab flesh is suddenly dripping juices down your arm. It's even more fun when it's a bright, fruity, fire engine-red, Singaporean chilli crab from Simon Goh's latest incarnation of Chinta Ria, Buddha Love, in Darling Square, with roti bread for mopping-up services. chintariabuddhalove.com
7. Surprise package in Newcastle
I'm in a back street of Wickham in Newcastle, with the setting sun glancing along a streetside deck of tables and the slow-burning charcoal grill. Local wines, good bread, effortless hospitality, and a ripper dish of crisp-fried barramundi wings, coated in warm, fruity, peppery, hot sauce and encrusted with peanuts – Flotilla floats my boat. theflotilla.com.au
Ormeggio's meringue-topped Amalfi lemon gelato. Photo: Edwina Pickles
8. The art of sorbetto
Gelato is such a street-food treat that it's easy to forget it has long been an art form. At the reimagined Ormeggio 2.0 at The Spit, the marble gelato bar is more of an artisanal atelier, as head chef Gianmarco Pardini beats air into a shockingly tart Amalfi lemon sorbetto with a paddle, scrapes it into a coppa, tops it with Italian meringue, and scorches it with a blowtorch. ormeggio.com.au
Bastardo in Surry Hills. Photo: Edwina Pickles
9. The big night
Nostalgia comes so hot and heavy at Bastardo, the new Italian love child from the crew behind Bodega and Porteno, that it's like dining on the film set of Stanley Tucci's Big Night. If you're not happy sitting at Bastardo's long, lively, loud table with freshly baked focaccia, crisply-crackled porchetta and a glass of Ravensworth Sangiovese, you never will be. bastardosydney.com
10. That life-saving daily ritual
One moment, every single day, became very precious in 2020: getting out of the four walls of home and heading for a cafe, for a real coffee, in a real cup. The ritual of putting in the order, casting an eye over the day's cryptic crossword, and the magic of that first sip will never again be taken for granted. Thanks to my regulars, Gypsy Espresso, Zinc, Poolside Cafe and La Bomba, and all my new irregulars as well.
Taramasalata at the Apollo. Photo: Edwina Pickles
11. The rebirth of Apollo
When the Eastern Suburbs' favourite Greek, The Apollo, closed due to a staff member testing positive for COVID-19, the whole industry felt rattled. When it reopened, there were TV news crews, restaurant critics (well, me), and legions of loyal regulars to welcome them back. With rigorous protocols in place, it must have been the safest restaurant in Sydney, sending big, positive signals to the industry that there is life after COVID. theapollo.com.au
12. Date night with margarita
An icy-cold margarita, corn chips, salsa roja and guacamole all merged into a single magic moment in this sweet-as-pie little Mexican bar, La Farmacia, hidden behind a sandwich shop in Darlinghurst. lafarmaciasydney.com
13. When dumplings met laksa
Lilymu's Thai milk tea meets tres leches. Photo: Edwina Pickles
14. Parramatta takes the cake
A light, airy slab of tres leches cake is soaked in three different milks infused with Thai tea leaves, then frosted with mascarpone and white chocolate. More than just a new star dessert, it also heralds a new star pastry chef, Emi Echizenya, who works alongside Brendan Fong at Lilymu in Parramatta Square. lilymu.com
15. The power of toum
I've been told nobody would get sick if they ate toum, that glossy, fluffy, snow-white emulsion of garlic, salt, oil and lemon, every day. With Lebanese charcoal chicken being the order of the day and toum its mandatory sidekick – at newcomers Henrietta in Surry Hills and Jimmy's Falafel in the city – I'm going to live to 100. henriettachicken.com; merivale.com
16. Small town, big ambition
Hitting the road in June for the first time in three months was like being a budgie let out of its cage. I flew straight to Paste in Mittagong for dinner from Michelin-starred Thai chef, Bongkoch (Bee) Satongun.
Her coolly elegant salad of watermelon with salmon floss, fried shallots, galangal and salmon caviar – every bite a play of crunch, chilli, aromatics, salt and sugar – refuses to fade from the palate memory banks. pasteaustralia.com
The memorable watermelon salad at Paste in Mittagong. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer
17. The fish, the whole fish
Looking down at a platter of whole grilled rock flathead that has been dissected like a biology exam can't help but change the way you think about eating fish – which is exactly what Josh Niland of the new-look Saint Peter wants. saintpeter.com.au
18. New voices in food
Not so much a moment, but a movement. The pandemic opened a door to new and emerging voices on food, with a virtual buffet of small, cottage-industry magazines, books, videos and podcasts. Look for Cartilage, Take-Away, Counter, Nat's What I Reckon, Deep In The Weeds, and a very welcome crowd-funded compilation from Somekind Press edited by Lee Tran Lam, titled New Voices On Food. Not that I'm suggesting we get rid of the old voices, mind. somekindpress.com
19. Will hike for food
Walking the 3.6 km fire trail across Brisbane Water National Park from Pearl Beach to Patonga has its own rewards – birdsong, red gums, ocean views, and at the end, a bucket of king prawns and icy-cold Six Strings beers on the sunny deck at The Boathouse. theboathousehotelpatonga.com.au
20. Christmas dinner, 2020
I think it will hit me when I'm in the middle of making the gravy on Christmas Day. The year is over. Another one is about to begin. Most of us survived. We're stronger than we think. Then I'll pour another glass of sparkling shiraz, and silently rejoice.