Sydney Food Diary: Bennelong Restaurant, CBD

I think I may have managed to not dine, even once, during Guillaume Brahimi’s 12 years running the Bennelong restaurant at the Sydney Opera House, though I believe that I did dine there once, a few years before that, perhaps not long after my arrival in Sydney in 1999! I remember reading that it’s a difficult venue to run, something about the way the kitchen is located and the shape of the place, never originally intended as a restaurant (I think). In any case, I’d been reading about Bennelong under Peter Gilmore for the last few years, and how it’s been a huge success, and so what an amazing place to help a dear friend, Andrew, to celebrate his 50th birthday!

And really, this is the kind of restaurant you want to celebrate at. It’s one of those top-notch high-end restaurant experiences that is memorable, luxurious and expensive! It’s also not the kind of place to whip out the old iPhone and take photos for blogging and I suspect the lighting on the food would have done it a disservice too. So, you’ll just have to believe me.

The three-course dinner is $150, and each course covers all the bases so there should be something for everyone’s liking. It’s the kind of place where we all asked what each other ordered and then oohed and aahed over each dish: beautifully presented, with imagination, and flavour. My starter was a pasta of sorts made out of squid and mushrooms: a magician’s trick presenting a delicate, slightly creamy delight. There were bits of puffed rice on it too, which, while adding an interesting textural element reminded me of a breakfast cereal. Oh, I loved the little bit of crisp chicken skin hidden in the noodles. Surprise!

I also had a perfect piece of pork with a rich jus.

and for dessert, a combination of desserts:

Everyone was very happy with their meals, we ordered some beautiful fine wine, and lots of drinks and the view and atmosphere couldn’t be more special. I also like a bit of theatre, so when the waiter came and filleted the whole roasted John Dory for the birthday boy, that was fun, as was the chocolate cake where they spoon a sauce over the centre of it, which collapses into a perfect hole. I was actually a little jealous of everyone else’s desserts: elevated versions of pavlova and lamington. They looked really, really good.

All in all, a beautiful night, and Bennelong under Gilmore is well-deserving of its reputation!

Bennelong Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Alba Salentian Restaurant, Newtown

Our trips to Puglia, the heel of Italy, gave us some of our favourites memories of our Italian holidays, and that’s saying a lot! So, how exciting to find a restaurant opened in Newtown that is serving authentic food from the region.

I think there’s a perception problem though. The famous cuisine of the region is called cucina povera, it’s using humble ingredients (cooking of poverty) to make delicious, hearty and relatively simple dishes, but full of flavour. So, the food looks deceptively simple, but we thought it was absolutely delicious.

So, I find it a bit weird that some of the other reviews of the restaurant think it’s too expensive. Someone was complaining about $50 a head for a three course meal with an alcoholic drink. I mean: are you kidding me? This is Sydney.

The other thing is that the homemade pasta is made so finely and beautifully, it tastes like it could be storebought, because it’s a little too perfect. I noticed this complaint in another review, and my husband, momentarily, thought the same too.

So, I hope that they can manage to get across that they are making fresh pasta, and using fresh, high-quality ingredients, and that good food costs money, both to prepare and to eat!

In any case, we loved our meal. We asked for a special negroni, substituting campari with amaro, and it was interesting, and delicious. A stronger, darker negroni. We ordered the ‘feed me’ option, and got, to start with, the most delicious bruschetta with burrata, and then a specialty, pittule, deep-fried homemade balls of bread dough. Tasted better than it sounds!

Oh, we also had a delicious sort of savoury pastry.

A pork cutlet on super crisp potatoes was simple and tasty, served with a nice salad. The pasta, strozapretti I believe (priest-strangler is the translation), was a standout. The ragu was simple but full of flavour.

I was really a bit obsessed with pasticchiotto after I discovered it in Salento: a short-crust buttery pastry with a rich custard filling. Yum. Lovely to have one of these on Aussie shores. The other pastry was a little rich, but that’s the thing about Italian pastries.

Oh and to finish off crema di limoncello, a version of limoncello (made by one of the owner’s mothers, I think), which I think I like more than limoncello!

All in all, we loved our meal here and wish them all the success in the world (particularly in Sydney’s competitive dining scene).

Alba Salentinian Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Firedoor, Surry Hills

What does a 169-day dry aged rib of beef taste like, cooked medium rare, over fire, and costing $200? Well, it tastes like steak, the finest steak I’ve ever eaten. The crispy burned bits of fat melt in the mouth. The meat has some give and is tender and is not fall apart or melt in your mouth; it is not that kind of meat. It is juicy. It tastes intense and concentrated. It also tastes like ‘Yum. This is worth every penny.’

It was a good amount to split between us (it’s about 500 grams but that includes the bone) and I was very happy that we were seated in the very corner of the restaurant, so I ended up just picking up the bone in my hand and trying to gnaw off every bit of dry aged rib of beef goodness that I could. They served it with a simple salad, which was good, since I started to fall into a meat coma afterwards.

Firedoor has stood the test of time; I first came in November 2015 and then followed it up with a visit a few months later in January 2016. One of the reasons we came again was feeling that there are so many amazing restaurants at our doorstep, and we’re not taking advantage of them! So, for our 14th anniversary, this was a great meal.

I sort of like everything about Firedoor. I like the decor and vibe. I love the smell of the fire and grill. The gorgeous handmade ceramic plates. The service. The extensive wine list (and that they have Spanish sherry!). And of course the food.

We kept it simple this time. Some of the most delicious bread possible (is that butter smoked?) matched with some pipis, in a delicious and delicate sauce.

The afore-mentioned steak. Oh my god. And this masterpiece, a coral trout head and skate wings, which sort of exemplifies what I love about Firedoor. This food is a bit challenging (husband said it was the first time he’s had a fish head), and it looks scary! And it’s engaging. You really have to dig into to get out the good bits of meat from the head. And when you do: perfect fish bits, mixed with an XO sauce, and delicate charred bits of cabbage. This is really good eating.

I loved it. I should not be waiting another three years before I return here! Anyone up for steak?

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

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Sydney Food Diary: Caffe Bartolo, Surry Hills

Taking over from where Bill’s was located FOR 23 YEARS (before moving next door), Caffe Bartolo doesn’t necessarily have to compete with Bill’s, just welcome the overflow. After all these years and on a Sunday morning, the line-up for Bill’s was enormous! Not that we’d planned to go there. Caffe Bartolo beckoned: it has a charming fit-out, ye olde Europe and along with a build your own breakfast option (eggs and sides), there were a handful of specials on offer.

Anywhere that serves meatballs for breakfast has won me over already, so there you are. Matched with a poached egg, a rich sauce and super light, crumbly foccaccia, I was very happy with this.

Freddy had a sort of potato cake, with meat, and a sauce and seemed pleased with it. We both enjoyed our coffee and the charming service provided by, I assume, an Italian waitress. Hurrah for those working holiday visas.

In any case, brunch was so good, I’d be happy to try this on another evening: seems like they’re serving up good traditional Italian food … and cocktails too. I’m up for that.

Caffe Bartolo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Coffee in Sydney: Organic Bread Bar, Paddington

There’s something very charming about the Organic Bread Bar. To sit and have a coffee just outside the bakery, with a view of delicious baked goods, in leafy Paddington, is a charming experience. Even though it’s on South Dowling Street, it somehow manages to feel tucked away in a quiet part.

From what I can tell, German-born baker, Andreas Rost, opened it up around 2012 (when all their press on the website dates to). There is a more recent cafe in Darlinghurst (Organic Bread Bar Darlinghurst) and there seems to be another Organic Bread Bar in Paddington on Boundary Road, though I’m not sure if it’s the same folks!

I had a large latte, which, as you can see, managed the shape of latte art but not much detail. It was perfectly fine in taste, a touch bitter, not in a bad way. I missed the little sign advertising sausage rolls so went with an almond, chocolate croissant.

It was more of a pastry really, with a sweet layer inside, and a sort of crunchy topping as well on top, and almonds, pressed down into a square shape, I suppose the traditional shape of a pain chocolat rather than the crescent-shaped croissant. It was nice enough.

I liked the experience more than the coffee and pastry, and will have to buy a loaf of bread next time to try it out … or perhaps drop by the Darlinghurst branch.

Organic Bread Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Book Review: André Aciman’s Call Me

Find Me (Call Me By Your Name, #2)Find Me by André Aciman
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A ridiculous, overwritten ode to romanticism and wish fulfilment, it’s so bad it may have ruined my affection for the prequel.

If you are reading this, I am guessing it is because you liked Call Me By Your Name and have also bought the sequel Find Me. And I did like the first book, an awful lot. It reminded me of my own romantic yearnings, as a teenager and young adult, not only to find the love of my life, a soul mate, but also a time when all of Europe seemed sophisticated and wealthy intellectuals who lived in or travelled to Europe seemed like the people that I wanted to be like.

I liked the story of Elio and Oliver, so much that I was willing to forgive the excesses of the book: it felt like both the romance and the physical expressions of romance were a fantasy, made up and not tethered to reality. Later, I learned that Aciman is a straight man, and that all the scenes of gay lovemaking were imagined, not from experience, and that made sense to me as well in that Elio and Oliver didn’t seem like gay men either: the messy business of sexuality and being in the closet and the politics of being a minority were absent. The lovers could have been straight or gay or lesbian: they really were fantastic genderless versions of human beings.

I remember my big criticism of Call Me By Your Name was a scene near the end of the book, in a restaurant, where suddenly instead of the lived experienced of the characters, they all start expounding on philosophy and literature, pages and pages of it. It bored me out of my wits. It was a preview of the faults of Find Me, where musings on love and memory substitute for an actual story.

I heard that Aciman was convinced to write a sequel, of sorts, to Call Me By Your Name, because of the success of the movie, and the desire of fans of the movie (and the book) to know what happened to the love story of Elio and Oliver, unfinished as it was. So, I can’t imagine a fan feeling anything but robbed on reading Find Me as, spoiler alert, their story only comes as the last 10 pages of 260. Seriously. I mean, if the whole point of a sequel is to follow-up on the main characters of the previous book, this is a slap in face, a mean trick, a sorry disappointment.

Instead, the book is composed roughly of two equal parts, the story of Elio’s dad, falling in love with a much younger woman on the train, and then Elio, seeming to fall in love with an older man at a concert. There is almost no plot and what plot exists is not interesting. You know how bad films can be good because at least it gives you something to talk about. It’s rare that a book frustrates me so much that I immediately think about how I’d write about it, but this is one.

It’s less a novel with a narrative than a treatise on romantic love. It’s a version of love that I imagined when I was 16 years old, and while I was a hugely romantic soul, it didn’t take me many years to come to believe that love is built and deepens; that love is likely not at first sight; that there is no one unique soulmate available for each person in the world; that it not only impossible to know someone else completely, including a partner, but that it is also not advisable. I allowed Elio his fantasies because he was a teenager. But these characters are adults, Samuel, a 50-something university professor, a 30-something year-old Elio, and the late 20s or early 30s something photographer, Miranda, Elio’s father’s love interest, and Michel, Elio’s love interest (50s or 60s even), and even Oliver, when we meet him in his early 40s.

Moreso than a rom-com version of love, what’s strange is that it seems this book is about loving oneself, or at least a number of versions of oneself. This is not the idea that we are attracted to what is different from us, or what is unknowable, or even what a romantic partner might have to teach us or challenge us. In Call Me By Your Name, Elio and Oliver were distinct. Elio was a young romantic, dramatic and erratic. Oliver was charismatic and cool, brushing off attention with an aloofness. So, how come all the characters in this book feel the same? Even when we meet Elio and Oliver at the end of the book, you have to follow the ‘Elio said’ and ‘Oliver said’ to know who has said what.

The characters in Find Me have approximate ages and names, but none are described physically (except as beautiful in each other’s eyes). They are so vague that they could be anyone. Except they are all the same. Their attractions are not limited to age (both Samuel and Elio choose partners across a large age gap) or gender (Oliver seems truly bisexual, but also apolitical and not tethered to a context where it matters what gender you are attracted to).

They really all seem to be the same person. Each character is cultured and artistic: a musician, a photographer, academics and historians. They appreciate art, music and food and can talk about them in particularly intellectual (some would say obscure) ways. They adore each other. They are verbose. Miranda tells Samuel early on, “Call it another one of my paradoxes fished out of my overfilled bag of notions.” Overfilled. Yes.

It is hard to tell which person is speaking. At least three of the five romantically involved lovers comment, after sex involving bodily fluids, that they didn’t want to wash as they hoped strangers would smell it upon them afterwards. I mean, c’mon. One person was enough. Surely all of you can’t share this same proclivity. When a theme repeats so often in fiction writing, you really start to think it’s the author talking and not the characters. And where was the editor to point out how repetitive this is (and by repetition, less convincing).

Pretty much every character says about the other, “I liked this about them”, or “I loved the way they did this thing”. It’s maddening. The old writer’s rule about showing readers what’s happening instead of telling them: it’s broken over and over, as ridiculously, every few pages, Samuel says ‘I liked the way she talked’ or some variation. Oliver about a female object of desire later: “I liked hearing her laugh”. On only the page before about a male object of desire: “I love his glistening wrists”. Elio, holding hands with Michel, tells him “I do love this.”

Narrative sloppiness aside, I just can’t buy this version of romance. Let’s review the first. An older professor, Elio’s father, meeting a beautiful young woman on a train, and within 12 hours embarking on a mad and passionate romance. Their initial dialogue as they get to know each other is simply not how people talk to each other or get to know each other. They banter and tease each other, seeming to know what each other is going to say, and then compliment each other on how much they think the same.

The fantasy here is perhaps even more unrealistic than in the previous book. Here are two cultured, artistic people who read Dostoevsky and appreciate Italian sculpture, food and wine, who within a short time decide that ‘I am yours and you are mine’ and that the highest form of romance is to tell each other their most intimate secrets and to know everything about each other, as well as to promise each other their love, forever. Samuel says about Miranda, “I loved knowing about her life. I told her I wanted to know everything.”

(Later, Elio says about Michel that he “seemed to know me … better than I did, because he must have known it from the moment he’d [first] spoken to me”. Aside from the fact that Elio eventually dumps Michel: how can we know other people so intimately, without knowing them? This to me mistakes knowledge with projection).

In the meantime, Miranda and Samuel buy coffee mugs with their initials on them from a housewares store. They decide to have children. They plan to get tattoos at the same time. Listen, I’m not exagerrating. Elio, meeting them, less than 24 hours later, remarks that he can tell his father is in love. Samuel decides that because Miranda is reading Chateaubriand that he would now be happy to read this author for the rest of his life. Are you f*ing kidding me? I can forgive romantic fantasy in a teenager, but in a 50-something university professor?

The wish fulfilment also becomes creepy here, and reminds me of the endless Hollywood films where the male directors have aging male stars as their stand-ins, who effortlessly attract nubile, beautiful 20-year-old women. In this age of #MeToo, writing the fantasy of a beautiful young woman falling completely madly and deeply for a plain, much older man, and jumping into raunchy sex within hours of meeting is uncomfortable.

Elio falling for Michel in the second part of the book is less objectionable but doesn’t make much more sense. None of the couplings face any challenges. A short mystery is inserted into the romance of Elio and Michel, which is oddly academic and requires a technical explanation of the cadenza of a sonata (and Jewish liturgical music) to unravel. About the mystery, Michel tells Elio “I love that you’ve taken such an interest” to which Elio replies “I love it too, very much.”

Even at the end of the book, any conflict is skirted over. Elio dumps Michel to be with Oliver. Oliver dumps his wife and kids. They meet and talk not of the past, or of any problems with dumping their partners, but how madly and truly they are in love with each other, in spite of having almost no contact for 20 years. Though in visions, Oliver has imagined Elio saying “We’re still the same, we haven’t drifted.” Oh, how miserable I would be if I was still the same as I was when I was 17, naive, intense and erratic, sweet but unwise about the world.

These are fantasies that I can’t buy into, about a love that never dies, about people that never change, about love at first sight, about falling in love with someone because they are basically the same person as you. “For all I want is to think of you, and sometimes I don’t know who’s the one thinking, you or I”. This is Oliver imagining what he’ll tell Elio.

The book does strive for meaning, too hard. Miranda tells Elio about Samuel, “what I love about him [again, this obsession with describing what one likes and loves] … is the way his mind twists everything, as if life were made up of meaningless scraps of paper that turn into tiny origami models the moment he starts folding them.”

But this seems like a wish more than reality. These scraps of thoughts held no structure for me. They held together long enough only for me to want to write this review of disappointment and criticism.

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Italy Food Diary: Li Jalantuùmene, Monte Sant’Angelo, Gargano

Last year’s big holiday was in Italy, like the year before. We did some of the famous cities closer to Rome like Siena and Orvieto, before heading across Abruzzo (beautiful and natural) to spend some days in the Gargano peninsula, at the very north of Puglia. We’d read some travel articles about it being off the beaten path, and gorgeous, and indeed, it was. Monte Sant’Angelo was such a charming town, I wish we’d spent longer in it. It was all overcast and cloudy when we were there, so it would been good to catch it in nicer weather, but it was all very cosy with its narrow pathways and hills and many museums and palaces.

My husband had stumbled across the name of this restaurant, thinking it would be a good place for a special meal. Li Jalantuùmene means ‘the Gentlemen’ and also has a few rooms to stay in, which we would have, except they were booked out when we wanted to pass through.

We were having a look at it around lunchtime, worried that it might not be open, as so much of Italy seemed to be shutting down at the end of September and this was the first days in October. And lo and behold, the chef, Gegé, wanders out and invites us in. So, we made a reservation to come back that evening.

While we had a few memorable and wonderful meals that holidays, this one was my favourite. We were a little worried as we were the only ones in the restaurant! But Gegé seemed to be so honestly happy to share his beautiful cooking with us, and welcome us, and make our experience a special one, it was basically being invited to his home to eat, though not many home chefs could do what he does.

We left our choices in his hands, and he served up two local pasta, the famous orecchiete from the region and paccheri, plated in the most elegant way possible.

Our mains were a melt-in-your-mouth red meat, though it was so long ago, I can’t remember if it was beef or lamb.

And an amazing chicken dish.

For dessert, a delicious spumante, probably the most elegant version that I’ve ever had.

We washed it all down with a very beautiful (and expensive, ahem) local bottle of red wine.

It’s a bit of an injustice that I can’t describe in more detailed how much we liked the food. It was elegant but not fussy, full of flavour, and the dishes were of the region, made by a local expert.

The restaurant has one a new designation from Michelin, I think they’re calling it a ‘plate’ rather than stars, to recognise a very good restaurant. In any case, we loved it.

If you are anywhere in the vicinity, I highly recommend that you treat yourself for a special night there.

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Drinking in Sydney: Maybe Sammy, Harrington Street

Maybe Sammy is a ridiculously cool and fun bar, tucked away on Harrington Street in the Rocks. It has won a slew of impressive-sounding awards, such as making it onto the World’s 50 Best Bars list for 2019, as the only Australian entry.

Meeting a friend from out of town for pre-dinner drinks, this was the perfect spot. We grabbed a seat at the bar, and were treated to the hospitality of one of bar owners. It really makes an impression on you when a charismatic bartender is providing great service to you and obviously enjoying himself while doing so.

I love that you can order a little flight of mini cocktails, the special house cocktails named after the rat pack: Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin. So, that’s what I did. They are poured from their own branded bottles into cute miniature cocktail glasses, and they were smooth, interesting and delicious (and strong!).

The Sammy is made of Never Never Gin, Lillet, Apricot Brandy and Absinthe. The Frank is of Glenmorangie, Ardbeg 10, Campari, and Cacao White, and finally The Dean is Henessy VS, Calvados, Vermouth Rosso and Bitters, a bit like a negroni (which I love). Though I think I liked the Sammy the best: with both a lightness and body and a complex combination of flavours.

Get thee to Maybe Sammy. It’s a cool place. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.

Maybe Sammy Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Book Review: Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s an impressive feat, to tell the history of humankind, in a relatively short amount of pages, and Harari does it in a voice that is engaging, challenging and often funny. It is the sort of book that is so big and so intelligent that I sort of feel inadequate to review it, and indeed, checking out a review in the Guardian, I see that some take issues with some of his theses and interpretations, but really, you have to be on top of these issues to be able to give a critique. In any case, I found it fascinating and … depressing. Many of the systems we’ve created have done little to help a large group of people to be more content. Power corrupts. We’re destroying ourselves and our surroundings. I found his brief review of happiness research to be an amazingly succinct summary, and was particularly amused by his observation that Western thinking couldn’t really figure out the Eastern concepts of detachment as a way to be content, and so twisted it into ‘Find happiness inside’. I was also shocked to read about how pretty much our whole modern society and civilisation is based on the idea and concept of credit. Since doing basic courses in economics in university, I’d always wondered why we can’t come up with an economic model that is sustainable, one that is not built on growth, and therefore contributes to preserving the planet and our species. Three decades later, Harari spells it out for me. Our economy is built on credit. The idea of sustainability is pretty much incompatible. And there are many more arguments and theses, whether about the agricultural revolution, imperialism or religion, that are challenging, enlightening and big picture. The book is as good as I’d heard it is.

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Sydney Food Diary: The Northeast Restaurant, Chinatown

While it seems like they have two of these restaurants already in Sydney, in Kingsford and Eastwood, the branch we went to on Dixon Street in Chinatown, at the very north end, seems like it must be new, as there is no information about it anywhere on the internet.

But it didn’t look new: it was all nicely decorated, fully staffed and was full of customers when we went there on New Year’s Day for dinner. Yet no listing or mention of it on Zomato, Facebook or a Google Search.

That’s not the only mystery. If you come to this restaurant, and it’s certainly worth a try, you need an adventurous spirit, or some experience on how to order the food. I think it serves hotpots with soups that you can cook meat and vegetables in it, but I’m not sure. We ordered from the iPad menu, which had English names of dishes but the navigation was all in Chinese (which I don’t read or speak).

We were happy that they had an inexpensive but tasty bottle of white wine, though the looks of confusion were strong, as if we may have been the first ones to ever order a bottle of white wine in the restaurant. To get it first, to start with, we had to get the waitress to authorize it as a separate order on the iPad, before I got down to business and chose the food.

I basically recognised the dishes from other restaurants and experiences, and it was an interesting mix. The shredded potatoes were delicious, as was the spinach with peanuts and chili.

I liked their dumplings a lot, somewhat crude looking (say, compared to Cantonese yum cha) but delicious.

I like a chinese steamed egg custard, savoury, though this wasn’t delicate like the version at Ho Jiak, and in fact was a bit too plain.

The ribbon fish was tasty but the boniest fish I’ve ever experienced. Since it was the only fish on the menu (offered in two ways), this was a disappointment as we had a pescatarian with us that night. It was really too bony to bother with (though I made it into a congee the next day).

One of my friends made an analogy with the salt and pepper mushrooms that they were bland and nothing special, like Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, but I disagreed as I thought his analogy indicated that the mushrooms (and Prime Minister) were palatable, and while I thought the mushrooms were OK (better with the salt and pepper mixture on the side) and a bit bland, I think there is nothing palatable about Scott Morrison.

In other news, I ordered too much. Nothing new there. But Paul said he was glad, as we got to taste a wider variety of dishes (and I took home the leftovers). All in all, it was an enjoyable night. We appreciated the interesting flavours and food, the inexpensive wine, and loved the decor and vibe. I’d definitely recommend it as an unusual place to try.

(After more than a month, there is still no trace of this restaurant on the internet. But we ate there, I swear it! I’m going to try to create a Zomato listing for them anyways. I think it’s either replaced or is next to the Kiroran Silk Road Uygar Restaurant at Shop 3, 6 Dixon Street).

The Northeast Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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