Sydney Food Diary: The Unicorn Hotel, Paddington

In May 2017, when I stopped by the Unicorn with my pal Trevor, it was on the back of some great reviews and a quite different menu. This time my friend James suggests that we have to try the place advertising Sydney’s best schnitty. We arrive early, just in case on a Saturday night, it is too busy to get in. It’s wild. Upstairs is packed with the retro music so loud that to enjoy it, you’d have had to come specifically for it. But downstairs is a little too empty, so it’s lacking atmosphere and the outdoors area is a mix of smokers and people sitting on the ground.

We split a jug of Young Henry’s Newtowner beer ($20; in fact, we go through another one of these). While there is still an appetizer on the menu with Jatz crackers, the menu has swapped up its fish dishes for standard (or so you think) pub grub, heavy on the meat. Our choice really is between the chicken scnitty and the chicken parma, but as James said, why would you have a schnitty when you can have the parma?

The ordering process at the bar is chaotic. It’s tiny. James says when he orders he gets attitude from the bartender. I get a nice one, but his tablet won’t work properly. The system is that you point in the general direction you’re sitting, which eventually means the waiter (a very cool-looking women with multiple colours of hair) comes in the vicinity asking if you’re Bob, Dick or Harry. It must be as frustrating for them as for us; everyone orders the same thing; they have to go to each table and ask as it comes out.

But voila! It was worth it, and we both agreed that very possible, this chicken was among the best we’ve had. Served on a modest bed of the crispiest fries possible (good that it was modest, this is such a huge piece of chicken, it was almost too much for me). They’ve left the wing on, cleverly, and the rest is, I’d guess, a half of chicken, pounded down and stretched out, super crisp and tasting very high-quality. Which, for $29, you’d want.

The parma topping was a delicate mix of sauce, ham and cheese, not too much, not too little, broiled to perfection James commented that the difference for him is that the whole thing tasted smoky, in a good way. I just thought it was pretty amazing: crispy, meaty, fatty, savoury and yes, tasting like an elevated version of the classic Australian dish and possible the best chicken parma I’ve had in Sydney.

Our only suggestion would be a pretense of a vegetable: maybe a few rocket leaves would have been a good garnish for this plate of protein and carbs. I see from the photo that there is actually the suggestion of green from some herbs, but that effect was rather lost in the sea of melted cheese.

(Review below from May 2017)

OK. I’m confused. Yes, I am. I had this on my list of places to try since Broadsheet lauded it as amusing updated takes on Aussie cuisine (prawn cocktail, Jatz crackers) after being taken over by some of the new breed of hip, young restauranteurs turning old Aussie pubs into gastro-pubs.

After escaping the very loud main floor (Saturday night…), downstairs is dimly lit. Casual, perhaps a bit too casual.

We treated ourselves to some drinks and figured out the menu. It’s order at the counter, but the counter is a crowded, little area; the staff seem to be trying valiantly, but something wasn’t working that well that night.

My dining companion opted for the grilled kingfish (which looks so much like a steak, doesn’t it) and two sides, a bean salad and cauliflower cheese. He liked it.

I’ve never had garfish before, and was curious (photo at the top!). They’re such strange looking fish. So, butterflied garfish with seaweed butter… So, two long snarly garfish, butterflied, with a rather hefty layer of nori seaweed on top and quite a pleasant buttery, salty, lemony sauce. It was also rather cheap, this menu item, $16 compared to the $30 or so for the kingfish. But the fish was rather bony (my fault for ordering it) but had quite a few scales too (not my fault…). On the one hand, I love that they were serving an unusual fish in an unusual way, and obviously fresh from the market. But I’m not sure whether I liked the result.

On the other hand, their version of the chiko roll was pretty fantastic. I tried a few of these when I arrived in Oz, and bleck. I couldn’t understand how this was a national food. Trevor told me that when he was young, and they were made properly (fresh, not mass-produced, nicely crispy and fried), they’re good, and that’s what this was, aside from gigantic, but it was a big tasty Aussie spring roll, and they have now redeemed the chiko roll in my eyes! So, a plus or two, and a minus or two: I wanted to like this place a lot more than I did.


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Sydney Food Diary: Spice World, Chinatown

So, this place was fun.

And if I start with describing the experience before the food, it’s because this was an EXPERIENCE.

The food was tasty and interesting but took a second place to a really fun evening with friends over a spicy hotpot. It’s truly been years since I last did this.

The first time, with foodies from Malaysia and Hong Kong, I learned about the ‘Ring of Fire’ phenomenon that some people experience after eating really spicy food. I’m not going into details (although I don’t suffer from this).

However, with three choices of spice level, we gamely went for the medium-level and … oh, we failed, reader. Yes, we failed. It was too spicy for us, though we tried valiantly.

So, what can I say? The place is beautiful and odd. There is a robot that goes around the restaurant at the end of the meal serving mints though we didn’t manage to get it to stop for us.

The decor is really quite striking. So it’s a fun atmosphere to eat in. It would be a great place to come with a large group of people, or a big party!

Even with the guidance on the menu, we weren’t quite sure of the best way to eat everything. The bowls of stuff to make your own sauce look beautiful and delicious but I think I should have gotten a little more guidance or studied up!

We chose a whole bunch of random stuff to put in the hotpots. The corn was weird. The various meats were delicious. The mushrooms also delicious. We lost track of how long we were supposed to cook things and just dumped things in randomly.

We thought the bear made out of stock was gorgeous. We watched as it slowly disintegrated into bear-nothingness.

We couldn’t bring ourselves to order the Lady Gaga in the meat dress dish. Because that would have been just too weird. And there was a vegetarian with us (by the way, it’s a fine choice for the vegetarians in your life with lots of veggie choices and broths).

But really, we didn’t pay much attention. The not spicy vegetarian soup was fine, though deemed not that interesting. The spicy soup was delicious, though as I said too spicy.

I ordered some more unusual dishes like winter melon and bean curd knots, I think we tried pumpkin too, but it was all a scramble really as we’d lose the food at the bottom of the pot and dig it out, or we cooked it too long and it fell apart, and we tried not to eat it while it was too hot, and not to eat too much of the spicy bits.

We were amused by the aprons, which did prevent food disasters, and we also loved that they brought the two of us with glasses little special glass cleaning cloths. Magic!

I’m wondering next time whether I might suggest ordering the individual pots, although the communal one (as you can see, divided into two) was pretty fun.

And while I’m pretty adventurous, I did kind of feel that going along with a hotpot expert (or someone who has more experience than we did) could have been helpful. But what a night!

I think I drank a little too much beer (following some wine) to deal with the spice. If you’re still with me: here’s my recommendation. If you’ve never tried a hotpot before, you are MISSING OUT. Get thee to a hotpot restaurant, and why not Spice World! It’s bright, cool, and tasty. You’re guaranteed to have a great time.

Spice World Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Zan Bou, Chinatown

I had a craving. My favourite Cantonese dish, from many different restaurants in Vancouver, is Beef Brisket Wonton Mein. It is a magical thing, with the super tender beef matched with plump wonton of prawn and pork (actually, I like Sui Gao, Water Dumplings even better than wonton, a fatter version of them), chewy thin egg noodles, and a clear, savoury broth.

Sadly, it’s never quite the same in Sydney. There just wasn’t the same influx as to Vancouver of those from Hong Kong and the large, settled Cantonese population there. Here, you can get beef brisket and noodles, but you have to ask for a special order to have them add in the wonton. And many restaurants, like this one, aren’t Cantonese, particularly (though I’m not sure which province of China Zan Bou is from!)

The beef was not quite the same either. I’m not sure why. The pieces are cut smaller and this one came with radish (which is fine, but it’s as stewed as I like it) and was also in a thick beef gravy, which was quite nice actually, and flavoured the soup well, although that means they didn’t have to put much effort into the broth! Still, it was tender and tasty.

I was pleasantly surprised by the noodles; better than other places I’ve tried as they were quite thin but with a nice bite. And the dumplings were not bad as well. So, for $13.20, on a Saturday at noon in the Sussex Centre Food Court, I did satisfy that craving more or less, while thinking: maybe it’s a good thing I can’t get as good a version of this dish as in Vancouver, as the occasion is always that much more special when I visit my old hometown.

Zan Bou Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Bad Hombres, Surry Hills

It seems to be vegan month here at andyville. My pal Cameron decided to drop by the ‘hood for dinner, and after seeing the Netflix documentary, The Game Changers, by James Cameron, has been vegan for a month. I wasn’t sure where to take him (though Yulli’s on Crown Street is always a good bet). So, Google then tells me that Bad Hombres, which I went to over 2.5 years ago, is now a vegan restaurant!

I’d noticed it, still going strong, whenever I walked down that way, past my gym at Anytime Fitness. My experience before, as you can still read below, was mediocre. I liked the idea, but it just wasn’t comfortable. So, it was great to be able to completely revise my opinion (and my blog-review). Tonight’s meal was delicious, with great service and a good atmosphere.

The thing is: I think it’s a great idea for the planet for all of us to eat less meat. And in order to do that, restaurants are going to need to serve delicious food so that people are eating vegan food for pleasure rather than being virtuous. And Bad Hombres is accomplishing that mission quite nicely.

Crispy eggplant tacos with small diced pieces of pineapple and a squeeze of lime was all kinds of excellent in terms of a flavour and texture combo. Really delicious.

The fries, with a fake cheesy sauce, were crisp and moreish.

Our main was oyster mushrooms in a black bean sauce that came with tortillas. It had a beautiful smoky flavour and was a substantial serving and we were both really impressed.

Add to that an interesting wine menu (we opted for the skin-contact chardonnay) and it was a great night. It was awfully noisy when we came in (at about 8pm) but quietened down. Nice, friendly service and we even got some advice on eating vegan from our waitress at the end. The only thing that was weird was that our table was sticky. Like everywhere. I don’t think it was dirty, but the tackiness of the red paint was off-putting. Or maybe someone is telling me I shouldn’t rest my elbows and arms on the table while I eat!

Bad Hombres Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Here’s my previous review from 17 March 2017:

Bad Hombres is so hip that it doesn’t have a website, nor Facebook page. It only has an Instagram page. The way you make reservations is that you find a mobile number on their Instagram page and then arrange a reservation by SMS. I think that’s pretty modern.

And the idea of pop-up restaurants is just as modern. I’ve been to Good Luck Pinbone lately, and managed to get to Broadsheet Restaurant on Danks Street before it closed. It makes a lot of sense to me. Offer folks something new. Put the focus on the food rather than the decor. Keep and maintain the energy of a cool place, and bow out leaving people wanting more.

Finally, can you get more now, more Sydney, then choosing two popular cuisines, and creating your own fusion, in this case Mexican-Asian? All served up with natural wines. This idea really appealed to me.

So, for all these reasons (plus a fun, buzzy atmosphere, retro Aussie music, and super cool wait staff), I predict huge success for Bad Hombres. Sadly (for us), the experience wasn’t quite as good as the idea. I love the idea of a limited menu, so between the four of us, we got each of the three share plates: a roasted cauliflower plate ($25), and slow-cooked beef short ribs ($38), and pork shoulder ($28), served with chinese pancakes, corn tortillas and butter lettuce. The flavours did have Asian influence with herbs and crispy shallots and XO sauce. But the portions were a bit small to split between four of us, and since we’d already ordered all three of the mains, we didn’t bother to order something else.

It was tasty, but in other ways, the flavours and concept (slow-cooked meat or grilled veg in a wrap) all melded together. The cucumber salad was tasty (always like that idea) and the mahi mahi ceviche tostada was also good. Two of us loved the natural sparkling wine, from Australia, but two didn’t, and one hated it. The dessert of coconut pandan sago pudding with watermelon granita, mint and Szechuan pepper sounded great (and was only $12) but wasn’t a huge hit (as you can see, it’s not a very pretty dish). And while I hail the hip, these old men were probably too grumpy a demographic, sitting in the corner with the speakers blaring music too loud.

I can imagine the review would have been much different if I’d dine here with just one other person, on a quieter night (not a buzzy Friday night), ordering more appetizers and the right amount of food (and I would go for the sparkling wine again…) and being delighted. But for some reason, that night, it didn’t work for us. On the other hand, I don’t think it will matter. I think Bad Hombres (great name also) will be as busy as it wants to me until the moment they pop-down from popping-up.

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Sydney Food Diary: Golden Lotus Vegan, Newtown

Is it bad, when judging a vegan restaurant, to start the review with saying how impressed I was that their beef rendang really did taste like meaty deliciousness? But really, it was awesome. My dinner at Golden Lotus Vegan, as suggested by my vegetarian pal, David, also supplied the biggest laugh of the day for me, as when we were waiting to be seated, a woman had gotten up from the back of the restaurant, where she was sitting (and it was so busy she would have had to have waited or made a reservation) and asked the waitress (before leaving): DON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING WITH MEAT IN IT?


So, as I said, this place is bustling! They seem to have taken over two old Thai restaurants and have enough clients to be busy on both sides. It’s great to see. I think we should all eat a little less meat these days, for the planet’s sake. And it didn’t mean sacrificing any taste. We had a crispy skin duck pancake (vegan of course), and the mock duck really did taste like a charred or crispy piece of duck. What I always want to know is which poor Buddhist monk did they force to eat meat in order to come up with the vegan alternative?

No matter. It was delicious. The rendang was my favourite, I suspect made of jackfruit: the flavours were rich and complex and salty. It went perfectly well with the rice pot, which had rice vermicelli noodles and strips of fungus and vegetables. It could have been a very plain dish, but it wasn’t. A great combo of textures and flavour.

We washed it all down with homemade non-alcoholic drinks ($6 a piece, I think they were). I did think the prices were a little high for casual Asian food, but I shouldn’t mind for food this good.

Golden Lotus Vegan Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: KOI Dessert Bar, Chippendale

So, way back when Reynold Poernomo competed on Masterchef in 2015, we paid attention, for obvious reasons, if you saw the show. So, it’s great to see what a success he’s made for himself.

Although we have been known to treat ourselves to a dessert here after a movie at Central Park, or if we’re dining elsewhere on Spice Alley, I also especially like to take overseas visitors here, because really, these perfect pastry creations are visually beautiful, creative and most importantly: super delicious.

They often glisten or sparkle with gold dust, and sometimes have Asian flavours of matcha, yuzu, pandan or more. I always meant to try the place out for dinner as well, but we just end up going for dessert.

If you haven’t been: treat yourself. And your favourite peeps.

KOI Dessert Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Tokki, Surry Hills

Described as a Korean, Japanese, Asian Fusion restaurant, just opened on Foveaux Street in Surry Hills, I thought: what’s not to love about that? I’ve really developed a passion for modern Korean food lately from some excellent eateries in Sydney (mostly in Surry Hills) and have always been a fan of Japanese food and Asian fusion. How exciting.

I can’t quite remember what would have been there before Tokki: an office building? It’s just renovated and has a lightness about the colour scheme, wood furniture and lighting which makes it feel amiable. We opted for the smaller of the ‘Tokki feeds you’ options, one at $65 and one at $85, though we did sneak in some extra kim chi and edamame to start.

The menu said it was assorted kim chi but it mostly tasted of the cabbage rather than the daikon. It had a rich, fermented flavour: husband said it was almost sparkling, and it was delicious, especially matched with some of the later dishes. We also had edamame which were salted with truffle flavour; tasty as usual though it was a type of bean that had a weird waxy sort of shard in the middle, that was easy enough though to remove from one’s mouth.

Ah, and I also snuck in a cocktail to start, a ‘Cactus Jack’ with Mezcal, lime, pineapple, ginger, agave and basil: it was lovely.

The first course was kombu salmon. Generous pieces of salmon sashimi swimming in a sauce of mandarin oranges, with kombu seaweed on the side. A really interesting flavour combo, which we both thought worked. The salmon was glistening.

The bao, made famous in this style by David Chang at Momofuku, I believe, come in three varieties. We got ours with Korean Fried Chicken and oh my god, it was perfect. So crisp and tender. At other tables, we saw the full serving of KFC and it looked enormous. Like you wouldn’t be able to eat anything else but the chicken! So we were glad to try the KFC in this way.

The next dish was called ‘Menbosha’ with DIY prawns yuzu siracha mayo and brioche, but to me it was basically a version of the Cantonese prawn toast that you get at yum cha, small crisp deep-fried toast, with shrimp on top, except these had a luscious sauce on them and also came with some nice guacamole.

We were surprised that the next dish was a platter of BBQ with sauces. Really, really tasty, and not a surprise once we found out that the chefs are two Korean brothers who have been serving up Korean BBQ mainly in the last years: this, I think, is their foray into contemporary Asian-Australian fusion. The meat was rich, heavy and delicious.

So, the next dish surprised us, pork belly with some deep-fried gyoza skins and a rather luscious peach pickle mixture. It was tasty (I mean, pork belly: of course) but after the meat tray was too much. We would have preferred a seafood dish or salad.

Our final course, the dessert, was also a surprise: a delicate tart filled with red bean paste and jam and whipped cream. Husband has never liked the very Asian taste and texture of the red bean paste. I thought it was fine.

So, a really beautiful meal, and an exciting one. The service was very quick, so I’m thinking it’s a more of a casual and fun night out, though the quality of food means you could treat yourself to a fine dining experience here. We’ll definitely be back.

Tokki Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

We dined as guest of Tokki (somewhat unexpectedly, I wasn’t sure how it would work on this night for media and food bloggers). While being treated made me want to post my review more quickly and more widely, it didn’t change my opinion of the food and drinks.

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Coffee in Sydney: Pelican Hills, Surry Hills

So, the Alta Building on Goulburn Street at Riley Street was finished at the end of 2011. Which means I’ve seen 7 or 8 years of restaurants and cafes come and go at the ground level. There was Pachamama House, a Peruvian-Japanese place. There was Pisco Pisco, which I assumed was a rename from the same owners. Could there have been Jazz City, a foray into American BBQ? MO Surry Hills, which was always a popular and buzzy cafe around the corner moved into this space and then disappeared not much later. My sense is that it’s one of those cursed locations. Possibly the strange shape of it makes it hard to run. Certainly the large outdoor area should make it inviting, but no one’s ever managed to do it. I feel sad for anyone there.

Out of sympathy, when my pal Davy suggested meeting there, I thought we should give Pelican Hills a go. And truthfully, I heard they had a really rough start. One friend went, intending to go for lunch, and the chef hadn’t turned up so they weren’t serving food. I heard something else negative, though I don’t remember the details. Also, I have cognitive dissonance with an image of a flamingo above the word “pelican”.

So, I was happy to find, for our mid-morning coffee, that the Pelican Hills served up coffee quickly with nice latte art. My large latte was delicious and Davy’s Golden Turmeric Latte was tasty and different. The service was very friendly and they asked me when I paid how everything was. ‘Great,’ I said, and I meant it. So good I’ll be back to try food sometime too.

The Pelican Hills Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Book Review: Jonathan Franzen’s Purity

PurityPurity by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For some reason, my review of Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion remains one of the most-viewed posts on my blog. I wonder why that is. Probably because there aren’t that many other online reviews, but I’m not sure. No one has ever commented on it, just viewed it.

I was introduced to Franzen through The Corrections, one of those literary moments talked about, so widespread that you could converse about it with people you just met, and with a quality where readers had a personal reaction or connection with the book that drove the conversation. I loved it myself, finding the characters unforgettable and relatable. No matter the crazy circumstances they were in, I recognised myself, my family and friends in this family.

From there, I’ve read most of the rest of Franzen’s oeuvre. I thought the early novels were enjoyable; found the collection of essays interesting, mostly for the insight into Franzen’s character; and I seemed to like Freedom a lot more than my friends did, though I didn’t like it as much as The Corrections. Hopes were high then for Purity; and the reviews that I came across were very positive. Strangely, I wrote up this short review at the start of January 2016 and never posted it. Why? Shyness? Self-doubt. I’m not sure, but will finally clear it from my draft emails, where I have been storing it.

The verdict? I didn’t get around to doing a review immediately, which allowed for more retrospection, though perhaps less recall of detail. That’s actually one aspect of the book I wanted to comment on. Franzen’s storytelling really is unusual for me: he delves into his long stories and histories of his characters as if in one monumental exhalation, without breaks between paragraphs or sections. It can be quite dizzying how, in this style of narration, time is compressed and condensed; there’s no need for particular order or pauses, because it is as if a guy at a bar is simply recounting one long story, and it does make sense, and is complete.

At the same time, I worry for what Facebook and other social media has done to my brain. I found it hard to digest such large pieces of text. I actually needed to take breaks and space out my reading, but then I seemed to lose track of some of details, which Franzen would come back to, thematically, leaving me to flip through previous parts of the book to try to find out whether there was something really important I’d missed (there wasn’t generally).

The other thing is that I didn’t connect with the characters as much as others of his. This does make the pay-off greater, when a particularly self-absorbed and aimless character shows such growth by the end of the book. But I felt some dissatisfaction. While critics rail against the primacy of ‘relatability’ for how we enjoy art, I did want to like the characters just a bit more.

What Franzen has always excelled at though is the zeitgeist, and capturing the spirit of the times (or at least, America, and how that influence pervades the world) and the novel’s primary themes – surveillance, security and exposure – as mainly embodied by the Julian Assange-type character, felt right for 2015 (and now 2016). I also was impressed how he created this character while name-dropping his influences: Assange, Snowden and even Chelsea Manning and putting his protagonist, Pip, in the context of them. Franzen’s intellect and inspiration really does feel, at times, boundless, making it a pleasure to spend time in his company through his books.

A final note: there did seem to be a particular point of view coming across, a working through of the theme and question of how ageing heterosexual men have sex and court women at a time when women are expressive of their needs and demanding of more social power. Even though some of these characters were meant to be icky or corrupt, I kind of was left with more of an ick factor than insight, though of course, I, as a gay man, wouldn’t be his target audience with whom he can explore this issue. It felt to me that Purity wasn’t as popular as some of his other novels. Was this true? If so, could it have been that at this time, the world doesn’t really need to read about the sexual anxieties of ageing heterosexual white men?

View all my reviews

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Sydney Food Diary: Tuyo, Potts Point

My friend Freddy was excited to bring me to this cafe, very close to where they live in Potts Point, which they have discovered and really enjoyed. And true: it’s hard to go wrong with good food and good service.

Also, it’s quite charming to be able to sit and watch the world go by, as we did. I’m trying to eat better after overstuffing myself on holidays in Italy, so had a perfect Acai breakfast bowl. How pretty.

Freddy had a yummy mix of eggs and beans and mushrooms and sauce, though he said the haloumi stack and the mushrooms lovers’ breakfast were also good options. My coffee was delicious.

I’m charmed to discover that rather than tuyo being the Spanish word for ‘yours’, it is in fact a combination of the two owners, Tu and Yo. I’ll be back to try more of the menu

Tuyo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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