We got to be part of a staff meal, listen to a front of house briefing, get a tour of the kitchen, watch the kitchen in action during busy service and then dine in the restaurant as customers!
Warning! There’s loads of photos in this post, so grab a cup of tea and come along for the ride.
The bar is the first thing we see when we come out of the lifts onto Level 5 of Customs House in Circular Quay.
We were pleased to check it out during the afternoon at around 5pm when the gentle sunset rays lit it up beautifully.
It’s also very cosy and romantic in the evening and there’s a large menu of posh bar snacks too. You’ll need them, because Tom Bulmer’s cocktails are amazing, he’s the Head Bar Man.
Mind you, I only had mocktails (due to having a baby on board!), but the flavour combinations were gorgeous and I can only imagine that they are further heightened by well-chosen spirits. I guess I’ll have to go back again in the new year! More info on the mocktails later in this post.
Every night the kitchen cooks up a staff meal for all the front of house and kitchen staff to eat before service.
I’ve heard this is the norm in most restaurants, but it’s really interesting to be part of one. There’s a fresh rocket salad and two choices of pasta bake; meat and vegetarian (although only meat is pictured above).
When asked which we’d prefer, Lorraine quickly pipes up with ‘a little of both?’. Nice one Lorraine, just what I was thinking! We were reviewing them after all…
So what did I think? Delicious! Really hearty and home-style. Once the restaurant fills up later, I can totally understand why they packed the staff full of carbs!
After dinner is the staff briefing. This, to me, was one of the most interesting parts of the evening.
It was conducted in the private dining room (see picture above on the right), which is a lovely space that backs onto the main balcony (yes, the one with the brilliant view of Sydney Harbour Bridge).
You can’t really see from my photo, but it’s quite roomy – there was about 25 front of house staff members (waiters, runners, managers) standing around it.
Tim takes everyone through the specials of the day and mentions which wines are running low. He also quizzes staff on how dishes are prepared and where the produce is sourced from.
Tom, the Head Bar Man let’s everyone know the cocktail special of the evening; Staten Island. It’s made with Rittenhouse rye whiskey, fresh lemon juice, egg white, maple syrup and a dash of Angustura. I love the way staff dip a straw into the drink and then place their fingers over the top to hold the liquid in before carefully transferring to their mouths, so hygienic!
I find this whole briefing session a fascinating insight into why waiters at top restaurants are always so well informed. Um, they are briefed daily! Makes sense really.
Earlier at the staff meal, I chat with a few of the waiters and find out that many of them are full time and have been with the restaurant for many years. Some going overseas for short stints before returning – it’s testament to the organisation, dedication and team spirit of the management staff in running the place so well.
Jan, the Operations Manager (and the lady who made this tour possible!), also mentions that they only have a handful of part time university students who work as runners, but they also are sticking around for the full 3-4 years of their degree.
Later in the evening when Lorraine and I dine as guests in the restaurant, we experience the warm and well-informed service and it really makes a difference. Other customers seem to love it too.
After the briefing, we get to pop on our chefs whites! Sorry, there’s no photo of me in them because I looked a bit weird. With my big pregnant belly I couldn’t do them up properly double-breasted and had to button it up in single row – it looked kind of awkward, but did the job.
The first thing we walk past is the signature tandoori oven. It’s a large bronze pit with the biggest exhaust fan I’ve ever seen and is run by Tandoori Chef, Ram Ghimire.
Apparently, the owners of Cafe Sydney also have another restaurant in Hong Kong where a tandoori oven is the main feature. When they built the restaurant in Sydney they wanted to have some sort of link between the two.
Their signature dish of tandoori salmon is famous and I tried it later for dinner.
We meet Executive Chef Matt Bates who then gives us a quick tour of the kitchen. He shows us the cool room (only 1 for the whole restaurant, that seats 300!), the tiny cleaning room (run by 3 men with their own little system for making the tight space work), the grill section, sauce section and cold larder (seafood!).
Desserts are made by the pastry chefs at 6am every day and then plated up to order in the cold section each service.
Special: Confit duck leg with duck cigar, pickled cherry, savoy cabbage, speck and jus $40.
Next is the fun part – tasting the specials of the night. The wait staff head to the kitchen where Matt explains the specials and how each one is made. He also goes into great detail about where the produce is sourced from and I’m pleased to hear he always tries to use Aussie produce.
The staff eagerly hold onto their knives and forks as he speaks and then tuck in as soon as Lorraine and I have had a chance to photograph them. It’s funny to see how each dish gets totally ripped into, although Matt mentions that everyone seems to be on their best behaviour tonight!
The duck special above is definitely my favourite… could it be the cherries? Very possibly :)
Special: Dry aged striploin with swiss brown mushroom, braised short rib pithivier and jus $58.
So much meat! I think this is a dish for a hungry man.
Special: Grilled baby octopus with crispy pancetta, shaved zucchini, red pepper, tomato vinaigrette $26.
This is usually a regular on the menu using baby octopus. As no baby octopus was available on the day, a large one was used and braised, hence why it’s at the briefing.
Matt runs us through the docket system and we watch in awe as the dockets start to pour in. He reads each one out to the kitchen staff (quite quickly!) and then they respond back with what sounds a bit like ‘hooray!’.
They don’t shout ‘Yes, Chef’ like you see on reality TV shows featuring Gordon Ramsay, it’s much more relaxed and everyone is working hard but seems to be enjoying themselves.
Matt also shows us how to wipe down plates correctly with a damp cloth dipped in vinegary water. Greg, the ‘Expediter’ and the runners are in charge of doing this before delivering the plates.
I’m especially intrigued to watch Greg work. He has the super-important role of checking all the dockets and telling the runners where to deliver the food – both which table and which position at the table. He also tells them whether side dishes are for particular people or to share.
Runners never touch a plate unless he has given them instructions on what to do with it. He is so focused and a brilliant multi-tasker. I love this behind the scenes look at why waiters in posh restaurants always know who’s having what!
Later, Jan tells us that there are set position numbers for each person on every table and that whichever diner is sitting with their back to the kitchen is position #1 and then the rest are counted clockwise around the table.
Nooooo! Someone orders their steak well done. Such a food crime!
Their special computerised ordering system is very high-tech. It allows waiters to put in lots of details about each table such as food allergies, special occasions and time restrictions (as seen above) among many other choices.
One of the supervisors, David Grace, patiently takes us through the system on the floor so we get to see the full process from waiter to kitchen to runner to customer.
(Left) The sauce section. (Right) The grill section – that’s a yummy piece of swordfish!
The deep fat fryer. I’d love one of these in my house – as long as I had someone else to clean it!
We saw crispy chips and perfect fried zucchini flowers made in here. Pictures of those coming up soon, so keep scrolling.
Oysters, crab, Moreton Bay bugs, scampi, prawns and marron on ice with mayonnaise and cocktail sauce $135.
2nd year apprentice, Jake Owens, plates up the seafood platter. Lorraine and I drool over how fresh it all is.
Spiced caramelised onion naan $3 and Goats cheese and spinach naan $3.50. Kiwi Crush Mocktail $11.
Time to eat! Lorraine and I change out of our chef outfits and get ushered to one of the best tables in the restaurant on the balcony – how lucky!
Tom, the Head Bar Man comes over to chat with us about our drink selection. All this personalised service makes me feel very posh indeed.
Earlier in the night we stopped at the bar for a cool drink and I tried the Elderflower Smash $11 with fresh mint and coriander shaken with organic elderflower, clear apple juice and lengthened with tonic water. It was deliciously nice and bitter!
Tom recommends I try the Kiwi Crush (pictured above) since I like sour and bitter drinks. It’s crisp and fresh with kiwi fruit, lime and passionfruit syrup; finished with Appletiser. Tom kindly gives it an extra twist by adding Kaffir lime as well.
We order our food and when it arrives we attempt to photograph it without much success (see shots above!). The romantic orange lamp is not conducive to good food photography.
We remember the small lamps we were given to read the cocktail menu in the dark bar and request one for the table (aren’t food bloggers annoying! Ha!). Our request is promptly agreed to and then we are on our way…
Special: Salt cod filled zucchini flower with seared scallops, shaved fennel and red pepper $26.
Better, but not great as it’s a fluorescent light. Don’t worry, it won’t affect normal people like you when you dine there!
My entree is the special of zucchini flowers, although I’m surprised to see them on the menu so early – usually they flower in Spring. Never the less, they are absolutely wonderful and the fresh fennel salad is the perfect partner for the salty fish and fried flowers. The scallops were also nicely cooked.
Prawns, served chilled in the shell with mayonnaise and lemon $27 (entree size).
The kitchen kindly peeled the prawns for Lorraine – how sweet! She says they are fabulous. I don’t try them as I’m meant to steer clear of cooked and chilled seafood while pregnant, although I do look on enviously as she polishes them off.
Tandoori roasted freshwater salmon with spiced globe artichoke, green lentils and buffalo yoghurt raita $39.
Cafe Sydney’s signature dish! The fish is sooo moist and full of flavour. The tandoori oven adds a wonderful smokey-ness and the yoghurt raita is a nice punchy, sour side kick.
I especially love the fried artichoke on top, there’s a great contrast between the crispy leaves and soft stem.
Twice cooked pork belly with caramelised pear, speck, pistachio and jus $38.
Mmmm, such a gorgeous combination. The perfect little wafer on top is the poshest presentation I’ve ever seen of crackling. We wish there is more and Matt even said sometimes people request extra crackling – darn it, we forgot!
The pork is sticky, sweet and totally moreish and the pear is firm but ripe and just lovely.
Yes, piggish! But we both love chips. And these are really, really good.
Baked cheesecake with glazed pineapple, coconut crisp and pineapple sorbet $17.
During my pregnancy I’ve had lots of cravings for pineapple so I had to order this dessert (although I was already full to bursting!).
It’s extremely good and the coconut crisp on top of the cheesecake is a nice textural surprise.
Warm hazelnut pudding with chestnut creme and praline $18.
Very much like a sticky date pudding (because of the sauce), but the pudding part was much lighter. I let Lorraine finish this as I was much too full.
After all that food, I pretty much waddled out of there! But it was a fantastic experience and I genuinely can’t wait to go back and take some international friends for dinner. It’s the perfect place to show off Sydney; for the view, the food and the service.
For even more pictures and to get a second view of the night, check out Lorraine’s post on her blog Not Quite Nigella.
A massive thank you to Jan and the team at Cafe Sydney and Renee at Stellar for hosting Fig & Cherry for the tour and the meal.