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Sydney, more now than ever

An 'in' city that would be out front anywhere, it keeps Australia new and always notable

Email|Print| Text size + By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Staff / July 26, 2003

SYDNEY -- The Sydney I saw 10 years ago is no longer there.

Neither is the one I saw five years ago. Nor two years ago. The Sydney I saw a few months ago is probably still there, but if you want to see it, you had better get a move on.

Australia's biggest city is all about new. New buildings, new bars, new restaurants, new music, new fashion -- new everything. Trends that might pop up in edgy enclaves in other cities are pounced on, spread like a virus, and then wrung to exhaustion, often in a single season.

The Gucci cargo pants sported by diminutive Aussie songstress Kylie Minogue in the trend-spotting front sections of US fashion magazines this winter were all over Sydney in February, knocked off by everyone, from the high-end, trendster vendors of fashion-mecca Oxford Street to the crooked-seam, downmarket, discount stores in suburban malls. And within a couple of months, the pants, coveted from end to end in this metropolis of 4 million, will be so, so over.

Any bar that is truly serious about attracting the tanned, lovely, and exceptionally well-toned denizens of Sydney night life must also be serious about concrete right now. Few of the beautiful would be caught dead inside an establishment that did not pour out lashings of the stuff to cover bars, walls, floors, and whatever else it will stick to. Concrete is everywhere, as a bar-hopping night spent making yourself hoarse trying to overcome concrete's lousy acoustics will demonstrate. The really cool places are adding wood to the mix to absorb some of the noise and soften the vibes, but for the most part, Sydney bars and restaurants are a sea of gray.

My sister Carolyn sums up the design philosophy for the city's trendiest spots quite neatly: "The harder it is to turn the taps on in the loo, the better it is," she says.

The bathrooms in these places are also key in another way. There, overheard conversations can make patrons seem less precious and salvage the average person's self-esteem.

For example, Cargo Bar, at Darling Harbour, was hopping on the Sunday night I was there. Lithe women in cropped tops and super low-rise jeans swayed to loud dance music, tiny baguette bags tucked under their armpits, cocktail glasses held aloft. On a warm night, the whole place is opened up to breezes coming off the water, and the young crowd parks itself on red, gray, putty, and black banquettes to check one another out. It all seems hopelessly inaccessible, annoying even, until a visit to the bathroom yields this exchange:

"My boyfriend doesn't want to talk to me. I said, `Let's go outside,' and he's like, `Um, no,' " said hopelessly thin, Off-the-Runway Girl Number One.

"Just ignore it for the time being," offered her helpful friend, also impossibly svelte.

Which she seemed willing to do.

"My feet are, like, so sore," Number One continued.

"New shoes?"

"No, they're old."

And just like that, the stylish, seemingly impermeable facade went "Pop!"

It's the distance that does it.

Australians have long been obsessed with the thousands of miles that separate them from where the world does its business. And Sydney dwellers are paranoid they will miss something and be thought unsophisticated.

It was ever thus. Despite its prodigious resources, incredible climate, heavenly lifestyle, and high-spiritedness, the city, like the entire country, has always been inordinately concerned with how it appears to the rest of the world. They even have a name for this: "the cultural cringe," the abiding belief, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that Australian culture is somehow backward compared with other cultures. It could be that the nation's penal colony beginnings planted this inferiority complex, but despite the passage of 200 years, the thought is still deeply rooted.

So the city is designed for the style mavens in New York and London as much as for Sydneysiders themselves. Some lament the conformity that has wrought.

"Sydneysiders are so fickle about where they go and where they want to be seen," said retail designer Kate Mackarell. "Sydney is always desperate to be London or New York. Things have to change, but Sydney is still in its superficial era."

Jimmy Liks, just outside Kings Cross, Sydney's red light district, is so cool right now there's no sign out front, but you'll know the place by the concrete, and by the extremely cool clientele chatting away on wafer-thin cellphones. This bar has softened the minimalist aesthetic somewhat, adding a little wood to the mix, which means the place is cutting edge enough to have a few years left in it yet.

"Elements of warmth are coming back into design," said Mackarell. "It's minimal, but with timber, or color. The really cold, clinical, hard-edged restaurant design is on its way out, because of the noise factor."

Even for Sydney, the remakers have picked up the pace lately. Starting with the news that the city had won the 2000 Olympics, Sydney set about throwing up buildings and beautifying streetscapes at breakneck pace. It has transformed quickly for economic reasons, too: Over the past decade, it has become the nation's undisputed financial center, and traditional jobs have left downtown, leaving mostly bankers and lawyers, and the fancy restaurants and the luxury stores they frequent. Armies of the young and rich have moved in, filling the new luxury apartment buildings. There is serious money here.

That is just as well, because the food in those oh-so eateries will set you back some. But when you factor in the exchange rate, which will currently give you a 35 percent discount off Aussie prices, it's not so bad. Particularly when you consider the consistent excellence of the food, the stylishness of the surroundings, and the riveting people-watching. Sometimes, you even get breathtaking views as well.

Take Awaba, at Balmoral Beach, north of Sydney Harbour, for example. Across from one of the city's prettiest beaches, its wall-to-wall windows are flung open most days to catch heavenly breezes. It's a stylish place, of course, in one of the city's most affluent neighborhoods. It's a minimalist place, too: Concrete everywhere, with white Ant chairs, plenty of mirrors, and not much else to distract from the view.

The prices almost made me choke on my excellent fig, beet root, and prosciutto salad with arugula ($18.50 Aussie dollars, or about $12 US), but luckily, there wasn't enough of it to be life-threatening. A side of French fries will cost you $4.50 US. They had fish and chips with caper mayonnaise for $14.50 US that was pretty, but no better than the $6.50 equivalent at the fish 'n' chip joint two blocks away. But no matter how thrifty you are, do not leave Awaba without trying the incredible baked goods. The festive Mango Coconut Syrup Cake, impossibly dense and moist, is just about worth the six bucks US you'll shell out for it.

Though some restaurants might seem ridiculously expensive, the fact remains that armies of Sydney hipsters are prepared to pay through the nose at all of them. They have an unwavering dedication to the edge, no matter how much it costs. Another temple to minimalism and ridiculous prices, Catalina Rose Bay, is always crowded. On the water, Catalina boasts stunning views across Rose Bay, in Sydney's East. Which is good, because, again, there's not much to look at inside the place, apart from the parade of the fashionable rich, who are set against the asylum-chic interior of bare white walls. At Catalina, I had a gorgeous little bowl of corn and crab soup that set me back $17 US and a mixed Mediterranean Plate, of quail egg, red pepper and caper salsa, baked fig with prosciutto and blue cheese, fried cuttlefish with shredded lettuce, and braised octopus for $22.50 US. I could have gone for a Big Mac afterward. Or a meat pie.

You will find an antidote to the prices and portions of such chic Sydney restaurants at what may be one of the most magnificent dining establishments in the world: Harry's Cafe de Wheels, a caravan parked since 1945 by the harbor in Woolloomooloo, Sydney's wharf district. Harry's is open most of the day, and it serves what may well be Australia's national food, available in pretty much any form you can think of on just about every corner in the nation: meat pies -- warm meat and gravy surrounded by glorious pastry that manages to be flaky on the outside and soggy on the inside. Here you will find possibly the most ingenious dish known to humankind: the pie floater, consisting of a meat pie (you can get fancy ones, with mushrooms or onions or chicken inside, if you like) topped with mashed potatoes, smashed green peas, and gravy. At Harry's the name for this particular delight is "The Tiger." Whatever it's called, park yourself on a curb and bite into heaven.

Harry's got a bit of a makeover a few years back, when this part of Sydney was transformed, and the caravan is definitely fancier than it used to be, but it is still a delightfully no-frills place that never disappoints.

But you are not going to score any style points at Harry's. If you're looking for a relief from the minimalism, but can't bear the thought of separating yourself from the super-chic, you can hang among the Wallpaper* magazine set at Lotus, tucked into the back of a popular restaurant of the same name. This tiny place was the bar of the moment in Sydney a couple of months ago, but now, who knows?

At any rate, it can be quite a culture shock. Indeed, on the Thursday night I was there, it was such an altar to '70s revivalism that the sight of five couples pulling keys from a bowl would not have been jarring. The walls were covered in metallic bamboo-patterned wallpaper, and the ceiling was a glossy mocha color. Young hipsters with shaggy hair and disco-era jersey ensembles sat at mirror-topped tables, their cocktails delivered by waiters with moustaches, and ties that were sad-used-car-salesman width. Speakers belted out a remix of the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love." It doesn't get any less minimalist than this, and the place is a lovely, though no less self-conscious, respite from the noisy understatement elsewhere.

While nothing inside a building stays the same for very long, Sydney has been brilliant at preserving historic structures and fitting new spaces into places without sacrificing the feel of what was there before. Notable among such places is Establishment in the business district, the former George Patterson House converted into a bar, restaurant, and boutique hotel. The bar is spectacular, with its original 16 cast iron columns, pressed metal ceiling, atrium and very, very long (137 feet) marble bar. The place is packed all the time, especially after 2 on Friday afternoons, when the financial types call it quits and linger over cocktails. The place is a bit of a meat market on Friday nights. If you can get past the doormen.

Similarly, Wildfire, at the recently renovated Overseas Passenger Terminal, may be a sign of things to come. Its designers, widely acclaimed, have gone for the effect of an enormous old ocean liner, with plenty of wood and cozy, enormous banquettes.

We were given what might well be the best table in the place, up on the mezzanine, looking down on the enormous main dining room, and across the harbor. We arrived at sunset, and were bitterly disappointed to find an enormous ocean liner blocking the views. But at 8 p.m., the behemoth slid away, slowly revealing the lights of the boats reflecting on the water, and the magical Opera House.

You can choose between Aussie seafood and Brazilian churrasco barbecue here: We chose the eyes-bigger-than-stomach option -- six tapas followed by five kinds of roasted meats and seafoods brought to the table on swords.

But the grandest, and most successful, example of new restaurants in old shells has to be Guillaume at Bennelong, housed in the vaulted space in one of the Sydney Opera House's smaller sails. There's a lot of cement under those sails, and a restaurant could come off cold because of them. Not Guillaume, which opened in 2001. Designers added rich green carpet and chocolate banquettes to the space, sectioning off the vastness with little islands surrounding soft orange lamps.

The place is magic, the service is more attentive than most places in Sydney, and the location, with the spectacular harbor all around, and visitors to the Opera House rushing back and forth, is unbeatable. But the food tops all of this. The menu changes frequently. When we were there, we ate a fig salad with green asparagus and goat cheese, local rock fish soup with saffron, scallops, and mussels, and one of the best pastas any of us had ever tasted: black fresh ink papardelle with scallops, roasted Morton Bay bugs (a crawfishy creature), and blue swimmer crab meat in a sparky tomato and coriander broth. It seemed a shame to dig into the Valhrona chocolate souffle with vanilla ice cream and erase the lingering taste of the pasta, but it had to be done.

Guillaume, like so many Sydney restaurants, demonstrates one important fact that saves the place from coming off as hopelessly, annoyingly pretentious, and superficial: They take their food seriously in this city -- at least as seriously as they take design. No matter how often Sydney is remade, there's plenty of posturing, but folks here really know how to live.

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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