Cooking with fire, heightened Thai food and a regional dining boom were key trends at at The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2023 awards on Monday night, returning after a three-year hiatus with a record number of hats.
The awards ceremony at Shell House Dining Room & Terrace in the CBD was attended by 350 chefs and restaurateurs who snacked on lobster rolls and oysters with finger lime.
It signalled a shift back to normalcy for an industry stricken by lockdowns and staff shortages in recent years.
“Restaurants are still opening at a rate comparable to pre-pandemic times, if not higher,” says Good Food Guide editor Callan Boys.
“Dining in NSW and the ACT has never been better either, with more hats awarded than ever before in the Guide‘s history.”
The gong for Oceania Cruises Chef of the Year was awarded to Annita Potter, who introduced the city to a bold and uncompromising vision of Thai cuisine when her Woolloomooloo restaurant Viand opened in March.
“In the same way her mentor [acclaimed chef] David Thompson changed perceptions of Thai food in Sydney and around the world more than three decades ago, Annita is forging her own path and creating something truly unique,” Boys says.
“Bashing, grinding and making all pastes and broths from scratch requires hard work and finesse, while only offering a tasting menu takes real-deal guts in a city where many people still expect Thai food to be cheap-ish and casual. It takes a lot of self-belief to open a self-funded restaurant at this level.”
Chefs attending the awards, hosted by Good Food Kitchen’s Adam Liaw included Neil Perry, Matt Moran and Kylie Kwong. UK-based Clare Smyth, executive chef of Oncore at Crown, flew into Sydney on Saturday evening especially for the event and surprising her team.
Smyth became the second chef in history to be awarded three Good Food Guide hats while also holding three Michelin stars in Europe (for her London restaurant Core). Only late French chef Paul Bocuse has also achieved this, when his eponymous fine-diner operated in Melbourne through the early 1990s.
Chef Lennox Hastie’s Surry Hills restaurant Firedoor was named the Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year for “burning particularly brightly” amid the glow of Sydney’s reignited restaurant scene.
The fine-dining establishment, made globally famous on the 2020 Netflix series Chef’s Table BBQ, works intuitively with fire and seasonal ingredients to create a sizzling five-course set menu, often booked out months in advance.
“The progression of Firedoor has been wonderful to see, starting with multiple a la carte options when it opened in 2015 to the current tasting-menu-only format where the lauded dry-aged steak is offered as an optional extra rather than forcing the rest of the meal to orbit around it,” Boys says.
“It’s not just the best steak you may ever experience, but the best coral trout, aged lamb and Hawkesbury school prawns, too.”
Firedoor’s top-notch wine list and smart service completes the three-hat package, Boys adds.
Also in Surry Hills, Kiln at the Ace Hotel was named New Restaurant of the Year for its daring menu and creative spirit.
The ambitious 108-seater restaurant opened in October and steers away from hotel dining cliches to provide a fire-powered culinary party.
“A sprawling rooftop space at a cleverly realised hotel, a maverick young chef in Mitch Orr, and a lively arts-and-crafts crowd make it hum with an almost visible creative force,” says Herald chief restaurant critic Terry Durack.
Eric and Linda Wong were awarded the Vittoria Coffee Legend Award for inspiring generations of chefs with skilled and soul-warming hospitality at Sussex Street’s Golden Century. The Wongs migrated to Sydney in 1989 and soon established a reputation for pristine, live seafood and pairing Cantonese food with high-end wine.
Regional Restaurant of the Year went to Pipit, a two-hatted restaurant run by husband-and-wife team Ben Devlin and Yen Trinh in coastal Pottsville.
Pipit’s menu is a celebration of sustainable Northern Rivers’ produce, and Devlin takes incredible care to showcase the potential of his ingredients, making everything from salami, to blue cheese, to fish bone flour in-house.
Murwillumbah’s one-hatted Bistro Livi received the inaugural New Regional Restaurant of the Year, created to spotlight the boom in great dining outside Sydney metro limits. The Northern Rivers and Canberra are both well represented in the Guide, with 10 restaurants in each area scoring at least one hat.
For the first time, the Good Food Guide also awarded critic’s choice “hearts” to restaurants that didn’t fall neatly within the hat scoring matrix, but offered something noteworthy to the NSW dining scene, often at a more affordable price.
“I do worry the top-end of dining is becoming bloated with high-end bistros and brasseries with too much caviar on their hands. With the cost of living projected to get worse before it gets better, the beluga bubble may soon burst,” says Boys.
“At least there’s still plenty of incredible new restaurants where you aren’t strong-armed into spending upwards of $200 a head. Thai chef Narin Kulasai’s Porkfat in Haymarket, for example, is a personal favourite, Ren Ishii is doing wonderful things with rice and sushi in Ramsgate, while the hot pastrami sandwich at Tothy Brothers Deli in Wheeler Heights is as good as smoked meat between bread can get.”
The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2023 magazine is available for $9.95 from newsagents, supermarkets and at thestore.com.au