I arrive in Sydney with three very important items on my agenda: Eat some of the best breakfasts in the world, swim like a saltwater fiend in the city’s gorgeous outdoor pools, and hug a wombat. That furry, bewhiskered marsupial—third fiddle to the koala and the kangaroo—has been on my to-hug list since I was a kid rifling through the W volume of the encyclopedia.
Thirty hours after taking off from JFK, I stumble into the Sydney sunshine, not sure if I’ve gained a day or lost a day, given the 14-hour time difference. In a sense, I’ve lost eight years, as this outrageously expensive city seems, at least superficially, to have avoided the global financial crisis that has ravaged the rest of the English-speaking world. I’m also here to read at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, which, for those who still like to read books, is possibly the classiest and best-attended of its kind. (I end up doing panels with both Amy Tan and Irvine Welsh, just to give you an idea of its breadth.) My hotel is practically beneath the quaint Art Deco monster that is the Sydney Harbour Bridge and a brief jaunt from the Sydney Opera House, about which more later. I walk over to the festival’s headquarters and ask if they can help me find a wombat. My previous telephone calls to the various zoos and wildlife refuges around Sydney have produced no leads. There are liability issues because wombats apparently have very sharp claws and are ill-disposed toward visiting American writers. The crack staff at the festival promise to do their best.
And so it’s time for breakfast, or brekkie, which contemporary Sydneysiders eat in fascinating quantities. I cab over to a restaurant called Bills on happy, hilly Liverpool Street in Darlinghurst, the hipster Victorian-terrace-covered “suburb” just east of the Central Business District, or CBD. (The weird down-under nomenclature refers to normal urban neighborhoods as “suburbs.”) The first restaurant of international food god Bill Granger, Bills is a blond-wood paradise where moms with Kato buggies and content providers with MacBook Airs cluster around a communal table covered with magazines like Sturgeon—sample article: “I Like Dachshunds, You Like Chickens.” But it’s the lighter-than-oxygen, honeycomb-buttered ricotta hotcakes, with a banana playing the supporting lead, that blow my jet-lagged mind. I slurp a delicious flat white, the region’s contribution to the latte family, as people around me talk brightly in the difficult Australian language. I am able to understand one discussion, two young men of working age planning the day ahead of them. Keep in mind that it’s 10 a.m. on a Monday. “I’m going to the beach after this,” one says to the other. “What are you doing?”
“I think I’m going back to sleep,” his tousled-hair friend says.
God, in my next life, please make me a Sydneysider.
Breakfast here is an obsession, but coffee-drinking borders on the hysterical. Sydney folk are convinced that at this point in the development of our civilization, Sydney has the world’s best coffee. Single Origin Roasters, in the even-cooler-than-Darlinghurst suburb of Surry Hills, just south of downtown, takes things to truly Portlandia levels. Coffee can be prepared with such abstruse methods as “the Syphon,” which uses water pressure and a vacuum in some mysterious way and was pioneered in Berlin in the 1830’s and then favored by Toulouse-Lautrec during his coffee binges at the Moulin Rouge. But “the Syphon” machinery is out of whack today, and I’m directed to a “pour over” of a Kenyan blend. “It’ll take ten minutes,” my adorably intense coffee professional tells me, her eyes gleaming with caffeinated vigor beneath her glam-nerd glasses. While I chew on banana bread with espresso butter, I study the veritable Talmud of coffee that serves as the menu. A “pour over…produces a cup of extreme clarity and roundness of body.” And finally it arrives, its nutty, sour taste depositing me on the banks of Kenya’s Kambuku River from whence it came; its texture is that of weak tea. “Such a clean way of drinking it,” my coffee professional nods approvingly.
Now that I’m full of jittery resolve, I wander north to the pretty Botanic Gardens, where one sign celebrates OUR CONVICT HERITAGE and another NATIONAL SORRY DAY, the day non-native Australians apologize to their Aboriginal predecessors for stealing their children during the 19th and 20th centuries and trying to turn them into “white” Australians. Every country, I think, should probably have a Sorry Day.
The gardens empty out onto the visage of the Sydney Opera House. I’m not one for guided tours, but a building with this much élan and iconic power deserves a ramble if only to marvel at the otherworldly concrete ribs that hold it together. The impressive main hall can be rented out for a mere $7,000; Miley Cyrus, it must be said, will be playing it soon.
And now it’s time to take a quick cab ride to the eastern suburb of Bondi for my first swim of the day. That’s the beauty of this town: one can go from Miley Cyrus to Bondi Beach in 20 minutes. Sydney is deep into the antipodean autumn when I visit, winter is beckoning, but the air is a ridiculous 72 degrees and the water temperature in the mid sixties. This means but one thing: the Bondi Icebergs. Jutting out into the Tasman Sea, the famous Icebergs swim club offers a year-round chance to dip into a true ocean pool, the temperature slightly colder than the actual water temps because of the pool’s concrete construction. The first freezing lap is deadly, the second feels like I’ve just drunk three cups of Kenyan “pour over,” the 10th is exhilarating, and by the 20th I don’t want to leave. When I surface, I glimpse the infinite stretch of sea just a stone’s throw beyond the pool. Kayakers brave the fearsome surf in the distance, while all around me kids squeal in their wet suits as fat-insulated older men do their best polar bear impressions, scampering into the pool as if diving off an ice floe.
After my laps, skin tingling with salt water and raw energy, I bound up the stairs leading from the pool to the spare and trendy seafront bar, where I slurp on some rock oysters, chow down on a basket of polenta chips with sour cream, and have a Campari drink lit up with sparkling blood-orange soda.
Desperate to keep the oceanfront magic going, I decide to do the two-hour coastal walk from Bondi to Clovelly Beach, hugging the eastern shore of suburban Sydney. Maniacal joggers and terriers, as well as beautiful tanned octogenarians, compete for the narrow space alongside oyster-shell- smooth rock formations. Below, children play in tidal pools, adept as seals.
The next day I get an exciting e-mail from the Writer’s Festival folk: my wombat is ready for hugging. I am driven 50 minutes westward to the Featherdale Wildlife Park, where a lovely young park worker named Kellie introduces me to Bumble, a two-year-old wombat whose sweet, wiry fur is coarse to the touch, and whose expression is one of deep marsupial tranquillity. Actually, she’s just coming out of a nap. Her claws are already formidable and there are the red beginnings of a pouch. I hold on to the 26 pounds of love that make up Bumble, and she looks back at me, her soft, plushy nose wiggling along with her thick white whiskers.
After I bounce around with a dusty kangaroo, I’m taken around to visit Kane the koala. This individual, who looks rather like a dazed exiled Russian intellectual, gets 18 to 20 hours of sleep per day and is visibly unhappy when I try to give him a back rub. Koalas are the punk rock stars of the animal world, stoned most of the day on eucalyptus oil and rife with chlamydia. “Given that they’re asleep most of the day,” I say to my driver, “how do koalas even have sex?”
“Very slowly, I imagine,” he says.
That, I believe, is an example of Australian wit.
In no time at all, I’ve knocked off the three items on my bucket list: saltwater swimming, wombat cuddles, and some grand, over-caffeinated breakfasts. Now I’m ready for something a lot more serious—dinner. Recently Melbourne has been stealing most of the thunder on the dining scene with restaurants such as Attica and Cumulus, but Sydney is no koala when it comes to dining, it’s fast awake and working hard.
I’d written to Pat Nourse, one of Australia’s preeminent food writers, and he suggested we do a bit of a food-and-drink crawl though Sydney. What I don’t quite realize he meant is that we will crawl through eight restaurants and bars in one night. I meet the handsomely bald and pinstripe-suited Pat at our first stop, Bentley, in the CBD. The restaurant is a wonderfully open and dramatic room done up by the irrepressible Melbourne designer Pascale Gomes-McNabb with a kind of floating space-age pick-up-sticks décor, perfect for Sir Ridley Scott, who is munching away at a table when we enter.
“He’s the best sommelier in the country,” Pat says of Bentley’s Nick Hildebrandt, who immediately sets us up with a glass of 2013 Jauma Blewitt Springs Sand on Schist, a South Australian take on Chenin Blanc that tastes more like antipodean spring than the autumn gathering strength outside. We chase the wine with potato crisps covered in beef and sage and amaebi prawns from Western Australia’s deep waters. By the way, when Pat describes someone as Australia’s best sommelier, I would listen. This is the kind of critic who complained of one restaurateur: “His plating is so 2008.”
Our next indulgence is steak at the Rockpool Bar & Grill, just a few blocks away. “Australia has had twenty-two years of unbridled economic growth,” Pat says as we enter the soaring interior of what used to be the Art Deco lobby of an insurance company, “and this is the result.” According to Pat, there’s a guy at the Australian Financial Review who writes a whole column about who’s eating with whom at this banker’s paradise. We order a spicy minute steak at the bar. “This is full-blood Wagyu, not the McDonald’s kind,” the bartender informs us of the steak’s august lineage. He’s right to be boastful. The perfectly seared beef will make you want to apply for Australian citizenship the next day.
With the sun now fully extinguished, we leave Sydney’s CBD—a kind of Toronto skyline plunked down by the gorgeous harbor—and head back into the dining paradise of sometimes-posh, sometimes-sketchy Surry Hills. What’s a good snack after a steak? Fish fingers, anyone? The ones at Bodega, the first brainchild of chefs and best buddies Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz—whose name I will have to appropriate for a future novel—feature pieces of toast upon which float a complement of cold wonders: yellowtail ceviche, diced cuttlefish, onion, and shavings of mojama, or salt-cured tuna. This is what fish fingers have struggled to be all along, if only we’d have let them.
Pat’s girlfriend, Myffy Rigby, who’s the chief food and drink critic for the local edition of Time Out, shows up wearing a floral dress and a fashion-forward red head-scarf. She insists on the steamed-milk-bun sliders, which hold a nice fat barbecued tongue topped with crabmeat and salsa golf, the vibrant Argentinean mayo. It’s an impressive choice.
Our next Surry Hills stop is a wine bar named 121 BC, after an ancient vintage mentioned by Pliny the Elder. In a darkly joyous, Felliniesque room with a long red wooden table and one wall taken up entirely with wines, 121 BC is a wine geek’s heaven. The geek-in-charge is Giorgio de Maria, an adorable Piedmontese whose next task is to set up shop in Hong Kong, or “Honkers,” as the locals call it. Almost every successful Australian I meet jets up to Beijing or Shanghai or Honkers on a regular basis. Indeed, selling its mineral wealth to China is how this country has kept ahead of most of the rest of the world, despite the fact that “the population of Australia is the size of a Chinese city you’ve never heard of,” as one furniture designer tells me.
We are now only halfway though our food-and-booze crawl, and I don’t want the night to end. Our fifth stop is Izakaya Fujiyama, a few blocks away. Everything in Surry Hills feels just a few blocks away, as if the neighborhood were one big gastrointestinal block party. We pour in for a sashimi nightcap at the cavernous Fujiyama just as they’re closing up. The master of ceremonies, Kenji from Hokkaido, does an amazing swordfish belly or a smoked bonito in soy sauce on a sweet-potato shell with popcorn. Yes, popcorn! Take that, every other izakaya in the world!
We walk up a few streets to Porteño, the latest venture from Milgate and Abrahanowicz. It’s hard not to love this retro-styled Argentinean mega-restaurant, with its large outdoor tables and a parrilla that’s always smoking. Open for only four years, it’s already a part of the global Meat- and-Malbec industrial complex, thanks to dishes like the gorgeously charred sweetbreads and the famed asado ribs. I return to Porteño a few days after my first visit, just to sit beneath a kitsch poster of Juan and Eva Perón, nose buried in a glass of thick red, marveling at the house-made chimichurri and the crispy fried brussels sprouts with lentils and mint. Grilled meats be damned, the best dish at Porteño is arguably this intense, nutty-tasting creation.
But for now we cab over to our seventh stop, a bar called Bulletin Place, back in the CBD. Ten drinks into the evening, things are getting a bit hazy, but if my shaky notes are correct, Bulletin Place is a cool, living-room-size, Berlin-quality bar that can be found behind an unmarked alleyway door and up a flight of stairs. Fruit rules the roost here; my Spiced Bird magically crams in Pampero rum, pineapple, ginger, Campari, and lime. The staff is composed of a duo of wonder boys, but I also got a chance to hear the obnoxious mating call of the head of information technology for a major Australian investment bank as he hits on Myffy. “Are we on a date?” he asks, leaning into her with his red-veined beak. “How many children do you want? May I taste your drink?” And then he says something so unprintable that I’m suddenly reminded we’re in Tony Abbott’s Australia, he being the dunderheaded prime minister who, during my visit, manages to wink when a pensioner tells him she has to work on a phone-sex line to make ends meet.
There is an eighth stop on this food crawl, as promised, a visit to the quasi-secret back room of a famed subterranean beer and pizza joint called Frankie’s, but I’d be lying if I told you I remembered anything that happened there. Apparently, at one point Myffy addressed my person with the exclamation “I want to pour a beer on you!” but she later confirmed that she meant it in a positive way.
The next day I feel like I’ve eaten just about everything Sydney has to offer, but there’s more. At the ethereal Quay, located smack in the middle of the harbor on the top floor of the Overseas Passenger Terminal, I take my time ingesting an untidy dish of baby octopus and shrimp soaked in some rich XO sauce and topped ingeniously with dried Spanish ham. An iconic green- and-yellow Sydney ferry named Friendship passes directly underneath, while the millions of tiles that make up the sails of the Opera House glisten in the near distance. Can anything match the view? Yes, a dessert called “the snow egg” that frankly shouldn’t be eaten, because nothing in the rest of your life will ever measure up to it. Suffice it to say it looks like something out of the snowy portion of HBO’s Game of Thrones and it tastes like a brain-freezing, heartwarming explosion of strawberry, guava granita, and custard-apple ice cream.
Dinnertime finds me at Ester, a muscular, arched space of concrete, wood, and brick in the ever-happening suburb of Chippendale, right next to the riches of Surry Hills. Continuing with the XO theme—there’s China and its influence again—I eat a very primal dish of bone marrow in XO; the fish sauce, marrow, and butter forming a heavenly mess of heat and spice, the whole thing looking like a detail in a Brueghel painting. Then there’s a kangaroo tartare in fried-egg sauce, a dish that benefits mightily from an aerial assault of deep-fried capers. As I ingest the air-dried meat of the marsupial’s shinbone, I feel mildly conflicted: just yesterday I was playing with a ’roo, and now I’m eating one. So it goes in swinging Sydney, where you always eat the one you love.
In the midst of all this feasting, I manage to get back into the water. Walking north across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, with the Opera House at my back, brings me right to the North Sydney Olympic Pool. What strikes me most about this almost-80-year-old Art Deco wonder is its democratic nature. On this breezy early evening, it seems that everyone is here, young show-offs in their budgie smugglers—the tight-fitting Speedo-like swimwear unabashedly worn by Tony Abbott in the fashion crime of recent years—grandmas in retro one-pieces, middle-aged perma-tanned Sydneysiders who look like they’ve been carved out of a single thick piece of red hardwood.
I do a mellow breaststroke for the better part of an hour, rewarded with a view of the pylons of the Harbour Bridge every time I surface. Sydney offers unpretentious good living, marsupials warm to the touch and sweet to the taste, and, yes, possibly the most advanced coffee in the world. I hereby resolve to do like the locals. I will wake up and gorge on my monster brekkie by the ungodly hour of eight in the morning. Life this good simply cannot wait.
T+L Guide to Sydney
Four Seasons Hotel Overlooks Sydney Harbour. 199 George St., CBD. $$$
InterContinental Historic hotel near the Sydney Opera House. 177 Macquarie St., CBD. $$
Park Hyatt A complete overhaul in 2012 updated this 155-room property. 7 Hickson Rd., The Rocks. $$$$
Bentley 27 O’Connell St., CBD. $$$
Bills 433 Liverpool St., Darlinghurst. $$
Bodega 216 Commonwealth St., Surry Hills. $$
Bulletin Place Level 1, 10-14 Bulletin Place, CBD.
Ester 46-52 Meagher Court, Chippendale. $$$
Frankie’s Pizza 50 Hunter St., CBD. $
Izakaya Fujiyama Shop G09, 38-52 Waterloo St., Surry Hills. $$$
121 BC 4/50 Holt St., Surry Hills. $$
Porteño 358 Cleveland St., Surry Hills. $$$
Quay Upper Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, 5 Hickson Rd., The Rocks. $$$$
Rockpool Bar & Grill 66 Hunter St., CBD. $$$
Single Origin Roasters 60-64 Reservoir St., Surry Hills.
$ Less than $200
$$ $200 to $350
$$$ $350 to $500
$$$$ $500 to $1,000
$$$$$ More than $1,000
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150
T+L contributing editor Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan, among other books. His latest, Little Failure: A Memoir (Random House), is out now.