Well Sydney, you’ve done it again. Congratu-fucking-lations. Of all the latest trends to hit the palates of this city’s culinary zeitgeist, the one I find most laughable is the internationally renowned import. Whether it’s a plane trip down to Melbs to see Heston Blumenthal sell out a pop-up before the cutlery’s even been ordered, David Chang selling hot dogs at The Star (formerly Star City – because you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter), or Noma briefly opening behind a dusty construction site we don’t want, tucked behind the beginnings of a casino we don’t need, we’ve become obsessed with the big brand name of the international chef.
And when you think about this obsession, it doesn’t make any sense at all. Most of these imports opening their little outlets in Sydney come from countries less produce-rich and less sustainable than Australia. Australian chefs are famous for leading the world in farm-to-table philosophy, working with suppliers and farmers directly, and sourcing produce as close to the final destination as possible. And Australian chefs are famously familiar with the produce as well. It doesn’t take a genius to scoff down a seventy-dollar steak at Rockpool Bar & Grill, for example, served with nothing but a napkin and a smile, to realise that the best Australia has to offer in the quality produce department begs for simplicity and, dare I say, elegance.
Kensington St Social is the latest shiny over-priced, over-hyped and flavourless offering in the Central Park collection of bars and restaurants, located in the laneway behind The Old Clare hotel. With the room designed by some allegedly famous Asian design agency, and famed for the fact that some bloke called Jason Atherton has overseen the opening and menu, we’re expected to wet ourselves with excitement over the notion that he once worked for Gordon Ramsay and is now onto restaurant number sixteen. Or nineteen. Or who gives a toss.
First thing’s first: if I’m expected to fork out north of $350 for a dinner for two, I expect a fucking chair. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request. The obsession with high-stools and counter dining in this desolate wasteland of pseudo-hospitality has extended way too far for this cowboy and frankly I’m sick of it. It’s not charming, it’s not clever, it’s tacky and uncomfortable. I shouldn’t have to prop myself up with a knee behind my elbow so I can lean on a freezing cold marble surface for long enough to peruse the fucking menu.
Which, in our case, was a long time to wait in this tall ceilinged, dimly lit, poorly serviced room. Upon finally ushering a waitress (albeit it can’t be easy walking through your section trying to gauge a guest’s needs when all their fucking backs are turned to you) we are informed that everything is designed to share and that for two people, three to four dishes would be ample.
This is a classic example of the ‘Sydney share plate’ mentality; that somehow it’s a modern and sophisticated way to try more things on the menu for less, whilst basically being pick-pocketed by the head chef while the dishy looks on with glee. I ordered seven things, re-assuring our server that I had the appetite of a fully grown human male and not somebody on a combination of the Jenny Craig program and chemotherapy.
As the dishes begin to arrive, I quickly learn that the minimalist design of the room extends to the flavour profile of the dishes. Where does one even begin? The goats curd radish salad is a lump of goats curd with some raw shaved radishes; the ‘social dog’ is a pork and fennel chipolata (to call it a chipolata is being generous) in a roll with some green apple and what I’m told is black-pudding crumb, but what I’m certain is the scrapings off the griddle from the previous service, and the Kingfish tataki is relatively flavourless grey flesh served with what tastes suspiciously like Kewpie mayo which, SPOILER ALERT: tastes suspiciously like sunscreen. It really does.
And they do pizza for fuck’s sake. Of course they do, it’s Sydney afterall isn’t it? Now you can’t even sneak in a cheeky little high-brow dinner in a back lane without having some wanker’s posh version of fucking pizza shoved under your nose. They call them ‘sourdough flatbreads’ but I know a fucking pizza when I see one, although I am generally accustomed to them being slightly larger than a compact disc (if these ones are modelled on any one compact disc I’m certain it’s the single version of ‘Shaddap You Face’ by Joe Dolce).
Skip through the over-seasoned rump, three dainty slices of rare beef with more sauces and purées underneath than you can fit on the fucking meat, and when mixed together taste suspiciously like vegemite, to the petit four of what they describe as ‘chicken fat toffee’ and you’ve really, really upset me KSS.
There’s a difference between being the kind of cunt that uses quotation marks on a menu by calling something ‘chicken fat toffee’ and actually serving a FUCKING lolly made out of FUCKING CHICKEN FAT. Nowhere in history has anybody opened the fridge and looked at the thin white layer of cholesterol on the top of yesterday’s chicken soup and thought ‘you know what? I might make that into candy. What a top fucking idea.’ And with good reason, it’s revolting. It’s the only dish you served me with a distinctive flavour, KSS, and the flavour was cold chicken fat. Why would anybody in their right mind put their name to this pus? What’s wrong with an after dinner mint? How did we go from individually-wrapped mint flavoured chocolates to a lump of fucking chicken fat?
As that final sticky, grainy morsel tried to slide down my throat, as the last nail in the coffin of this ridiculous experience tried to digest, I sat there feeling as deflated as my wallet, but somewhat satisfied in the knowledge that my theory on these Michelin-starred imports stands correct. Surely we could have found some young local whippersnapper to come up with a menu at least as white-bread as this, but perhaps with a little more sensibility to do it without the arrogance and self-absorbtion of which this smug restaurant reeks, and probably for a fraction of the price. Or at least one who could offer a whimsical spin on an honest fucking after dinner mint.
I’m not even going to think of a pithy opening sentence for this one, for Sydneysiders are split into two types of people; those who have dined at Café Sydney, and those who don’t believe in time-travel and have $230 more than the others.
Café Sydney, for those of you who don’t know it, is one of Australia’s true iconic destination restaurants. Seated atop Customs House in Circular Quay, diners (usually a mix of tourists who don’t know better and corporate wankers who should) can enjoy the sensational views of Sydney Harbour whilst tactfully being fleeced of their last dollars.
I have three words that pretty much sum this place up: tandoori ocean trout. You know what I mean. It takes the dark genius of any chef, still holding on to their training from 1993, to put two completely harmless items together to create a gastronomical abomination such as this. It begs the question: why does this restaurant even have a tandoor? Is it so they can offer a selection of traditional Australian Naan? Wait, it is. Flick your eyes over to the bottom of your menu and you’ll discover a bread offering so extensive it gives Subway a run for their money. As much as I am curious to try one of the many naans on offer to go with my modern Australian meal, I opt for a $3 sourdough roll so petit and rock-hard that Mel Gibson could have loaded his musket with these bad boys in The Patriot instead of having to melt Heath Ledger’s toy soldiers (may he rest in peace).
And then there’s the rest of it. The collection of borrowed ideas and remnants of menus past that haunt the walls of Café Sydney. I mean, restaurants learnt years ago that people prefer a delicious cut of red meat before it’s been tucked under a blanket of burnt, buttery mushrooms and enormous hunks of black-on-the-outside, raw-on-the-inside onion. And what exactly is celeriac cream? Taking something relatively flavourless and aerating it to have even less flavour?
I was certain that by this stage, the dessert menu would not let me down in the lazy nostalgia department, and I was not wrong. Each attempt at modern, original concepts pretty much follows the same formula; Fruit, nut, crumb, sorbet. A couple have chocolate as well as or instead of the fruit, one uses the word ‘crumble’ and a couple are ice-cream, not sorbet. But I see what you’re doing café Sydney. I still have no idea who thought that the word ‘crumb’ looked good on a piece of paper designed to elicit an appetite (other words I’ve seen on menus that turn me off food entirely are soil, burnt, gizzard, and once, just once, I saw a roasted steak advertised for $59, served with with a ‘pumpkin smear’. Yes, a smear.)
And I’m just as bad. I couldn’t resist the urge to try the brownie. With it’s hard, refrigerated construction, straight-from-the-tub vanilla ice cream and raspberry and passionfruit coulis swirls over the plate, I truly felt as though the $19 was worth every cent, for this is as close to time travel as we may ever come in this lifetime. Sure, the flavourless, tactless dessert was nothing to enjoy taste-wise or texturally, but I really felt like I belonged to this city for the 4 minutes I sat there and forked out $14.5 for a bottle of sparkling water and ate this disgusting abortion of a dish.
The funny thing is, for all my gripes with this place, I still recommend that everybody visit it. Because I genuinely find it fascinating that something can be this bad and still be so popular. It goes to show that people in Sydney will put up with literally anything for a harbour view, but in comparison with the countless other, decent options for excellent lunch with a view (albeit usually still requiring a new mortgage on the terrace in Glebe if you want to go for entrées and sides), Café Sydney is so old school it just don’t give a fuck.
Having spent the best part of the last three decades actively avoiding the eastern suburbs, it may come as no shock to you that Bondi is at the top of my shit list of suburbs I’d rather contract yellow fever than have to visit. Between the bad tattoos, bad facial hair, bad parking, bad public transport and bad breath of the Brazilian backpackers, I’ve frankly had better day excursions when I was thirteen to Royal North Shore to visit nanna when her tumour was well on its way into stage seven than I’ve had driving any closer to New Zealand than Paddington. The Taylor Square end.
This is not why I hate The Anchor, however. I made it there in a good mood. My Uber driver was a lovely fellow from Marseilles. My girlfriend’s 7/11 wee-on-a-stick pregnancy test was negative. My disposition was generally sunny. When I stepped through the nautical themed door and into the over-designed, half-cooked idea of a room that is The Anchor, I was prepared for a good time. Genuinely. Reader, believe me, I really was.
But I had let my guard down. How stupid of me! How, I hear you ask? Simple, honest fucking mistake. I tried to order a Margarita.
In most parts of the world, a margarita is obtained using the following conversation model:
Bartender: ‘Hi there, what can I get for you?’
Guy who just wants a fucking margarita: ‘Could I get a margarita?’
It’s usually followed by an exchange of smiles, 12-19 seconds of animated shaking, an exchange of anywhere between two and thirty-two dollars (Sydney’s further up that scale than not) and is repeated several times until I am texting an ex and licking the salt off the rim of somebody else’s glass, if successful.
But not in Bondi. Oh no you di’int *snaps fingers a la sassy black woman*.
Of course, how could I have known that the phrase ‘Could I get a margarita?’ was all too rude and dismissive, leading to a lesson in manners by the bartender, a four foot eight to-scale replica of the Shroud of Turin on meth, with Japanese tattoos on one arm and three pounds of metal dangling from his septum, giving the effect of a small silver scrotum on his face.
Okay, so you got me. I forgot to say please. I didn’t use the specific p-word. We both know I was still polite and that the smile on my face paired with the generally bright tone with which I uttered those five words was indicative of somebody there for a good time. But it wasn’t good enough was it, Ice, Ice Jesus?
Of course it wasn’t, for this is Bondi. Original home of the jumped up little shit hospitality professional who is doing you a favour just by showing up to work. And let’s be honest here, why should it be good enough? You’re not there to serve. Nobody tells you what to do. No, you’re nobody’s slave are you… You create experiences for lucky patrons on a daily basis and the truest reward of your job is the knowledge that it’s done your way, on your terms. Your bar, your rules. Just because technically it’s not your bar, you just get paid a clean twenty an hour to stand behind it, and that technically serving the general public’s every whim is the exact definition of your fucking job, you wouldn’t let that get in the way of making sure everybody leaves your workplace a better human for it, would you?
And it’s not just you, it’s the whole offering of such a fortress of majestic wonder. From the quaint Sailor Jerry branded chalkboard displaying your three whimsical twists on forgotten classics, to your sassy and snappy food offering. I mean, everybody likes tacos, right? Let’s just do that. That’s pretty much how the concept meeting for your shitty, shitty venue went down. ‘Let’s just do that’. It could be Bondi’s slogan.
And really, I should be thanking you. It’s your job as a bartender after all to educate and improve society one sober guy-who-just-wants-a-fucking-margarita at a time.
Except it isn’t your job. Your chosen profession is a cocktail shaker. It’s not hard to do. Just do that.
And reader, I can hear what you’re thinking, maybe you’re right, maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. Because I was in Bondi, so I got exactly what I should’ve fucking expected. Absolute turdwater. Because that’s what comes out of a sewer. Just turds.
It must be hard, trying to establish your cool, hip venue in a suburb about as interesting as the instruction manual for a 1977 Kelvinator Anything (if Sydney has about as much culture as an 85g tub of Yoplait then the eastern suburbs is the peel-away lid, sitting at the bottom of the kitchen bin, with a mere suggestion of the remnants of a dairy treat long-since enjoyed, still clinging on in vain.) I really do empathise with the venue owners of these suburbs, especially Double Bay. Well, I try to anyway.
I guess it may come as no surprise then that the whole concept of opening a cool, hip venue is just that little bit different in this corner of the world. Where other places aim for a low-key public interface (unmarked door) or a fresh, modern-Australian menu (raw fish, $34), or a fun, approachable gimmick to help set them apart from the pack (American diner), Mrs Sippy eschews all of the norms and gives a big middle finger to the notion that a venue needs to be friendly, have a simple concept and be consistent, instead offering an array of half-cooked ideas in a confusing format with little to no attention to guest experience.
The first thing I heard when joining the queue (yes, a queue) for this fortress of fuck-ups was the security guard (yes, a restaurant with a security guard) telling the gent in front of me that he couldn’t enter because he was wearing thongs, before he was promptly seated at a table outside (apparently the dress code doesn’t apply to those who dine al fresco.)
My group was seated outside also, amidst the tables of kids and constant flow of foot traffic, whist being serenaded by the sounds of club music blasting from the inside of the venue. I’m not sure who was in charge of music when the concept of Mrs Sippy was first floated, but I am certain that they took a lot of drugs. The juxtaposition of being sat at the kids table whilst scantily clad twenty-somethings lined up gripping their IDs, reeking of Axe body spray and STIs was too much to handle, even for me.
And then there’s what’s on offer, the pinnacle of what makes this place just so-fucking-Sydney. You know the menu – it’s the same menu from every other banal confused outlet of sub-par nutriment seen anywhere throughout the greater Sydney area. There’s a cheeseburger. I’m sure it’s on the menu as ‘THE cheeseburger’, but I couldn’t really care to remember. There’s a section dedicated to pizzas. There are fries. There are 14 different rosés. It’s just so. Fucking. Boring. At the end of the day, if you’re going to make me queue up, don the correct footwear to not have to sit in a sea of fucking kids and listen to So Fresh; The Hits of Ibiza 2012 then the least you could fucking do is provide a decent meal.
Mrs Sippy in Double Bay is a portrayal of everything wrong with Sydney’s dining scene of the most offensive kind. I can give you $432.5 reasons not to go, but it won’t stop you, Sydney, it’s in your DNA to frequent places like this. To order the espresso martini, to spend an extra $14 on the French rosé, to only drink Grey Goose. It’s your favourite thing, who am I to tell you not to do it?
But for the record, all rosé tastes the fucking same anyway.