If I Could Turn Back Time: Café Sydney – CBD

Tandoori Ocean Trout - 1993 called, they want their concept menu back.
Tandoori Ocean Trout – 1993 called, they want their concept menu back.

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.