Sydney’s CBD is a compact section that is filled with post-mid-century buildings (after a longstanding height restriction was suspended). It evolved from mud huts of the late 18th and early 19th century to grand Victorian buildings of the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among the most noteworthy of the surviving structures are:
- Sydney Town Hall is a grand, 1869 sandstone Victorian structure, topped with a clock tower, was built atop an old burial ground. The interior foyer has stained glass, plaster detailing, coffered ceilings and a view of the Grand Staircase that spans the upper floors. The detailed carved plaster vestibule is used for receptions and official functions while the elegant Centennial Hall, with its stained glass windows, pressed metal ceiling and 9,000-pipe organ is used for concerts. Although certainly beautiful by day, the building takes on a different identity at night, when the outline is illuminated in lights that periodically change colors.
- St. Andrew’s Cathedral, a Gothic structure that while begun in 1819, took 50 years to complete. But by the time it was completed, the road behind the church (George Street) had become the city’s main street. So, rather than having the back of the cathedral on the main street, it changed the entryway. That resulted in the bell towers being on the back of the building.
- Queen Victoria Building, a huge, beautiful, block-long, multi-story 1898 Romanesque shopping mall that is adorned with sculptures, stained glass and 21 different domes, including a grand central dome from which the complex’s central clock and model of the building are suspended. While the original market closed and the building was almost abandoned in the mid-20th century, it was totally refurbished and reopened in 1986 as a truly grand, and still extremely popular memorial to the Victorian era.
- Strand Arcade, a grand Victorian glass-roofed shopping arcade dating from 1892. Although largely destroyed by fire in 1976, it was generally rebuilt to original plans.
- The Old Post Office Building, the ornately carved sandstone building (which has been repurposed as a hotel, still bears the city’s Coat of Arms (decorated with a kangaroo and an emu). It is located in Martin Square, which is also home to the ANZAC Memorial and, during Christmas Season, to the city’s official Christmas tree, which this year displays messages that have been texted to the tree.
- Marble Bar, with its ornately dual marble bars and intricately carved ceiling and shelving, was built in 1893 in an original hotel that was demolished in 1969. The bar, however, was dismantled and reconstructed as part of a new Hilton Hotel.
While these grand structures literally cower in the shadows of a sea of skyscrapers, one tower, for better or worse, stands alone: that is the 1970’s era Westfield shopping center that is topped by the Sydney Tower, a 309 meter observation tower that is topped with a nine-level, gold dust-coated observation deck and restaurant, a 162,000 liter water tank to reduce shaking and stabilize the tower, and capped with a 30 meter spire.
Beyond the shopping malls (Queen Victoria Mall, Westfield Mall, Pitt Street mall and the underground shopping mall that connects the three of them) lies a pretty mid-city park that, when it was originally designed, marked the outer edge of the city. It contains
- Hyde Park, which was originally used as a track for horse racing, is now a landscaped open space for use by all. The southern end of the park also contains the city’s ANZAC Memorial.
- St. Mary’s Cathedral, which was begun in 1851, was originally opened in 1882, and officially completed (albeit without its planned southern spires) in 1928.
Beyond the history and history of the city’s landmark buildings and commercial towers, the city also has a scattering of public art. Some of these pieces exemplify the city’s reputation for seriousness, in contrast with the more spontaneity and sense of humor in Melbourne’s public art and Art Lanes. Examples include:
- Birdcage Lane, which is strung with fifty overhead birdcages and where passers-by are serenaded by calls from each of the country’s native birds.
- Waiting–a realistic bronze sculpture of a man sitting on a bench, reading a newspaper with actual articles from the date of Australia’s founding.
Even in Sydney, however, some of the public art is quite tongue in cheek. Take, for example, the sculpture in the middle of an intersection beneath a steep cliff side in The Rocks: A red sports car that sits crushed under a boulder with a painted face.
The city is taking another cue from Melbourne, as by authorizing the opening of small, increasingly quirky and funky bars in its laneways.
- Spice Temple was our favorite Sydney dining experience, although we had only two dishes: the hot and fragrant prawns, with garlic and chili sauce was very good. Meanwhile, the stir-fry quail with peanuts, steamed duck egg custard and chili was extraordinary; fully integrated, subtle flavors, a texture that ranged from crunchy to creamy and just enough chili to add enough of a tang for Tom (although Tom would have preferred a bit more), but not too much for Joyce. We finished off with a mandarin chocolate filled with almond cream. Our wine was a Riesling—2016 Grosett from Clare Valley.
- Spice Temple No, this is not a mistake We enjoyed the restaurant so much the first time that we returned for our last Sydney restaurant dinner. And since the previous “spicy” dishes even passed Joyce’s heat test, we decided to dial it up a notch. We began with a Yunnan dish: hot pot of braised mushrooms (shitake, oyster, enoki and wild Chinese). Then two Sichuan-based mains that contained far more chilies and peppers than food: Kung Pao Prawns (with chilis, peppers and cashews) and Sichuan style leatherfish (mild, flaky white fish) in broth that was smothered in so many heaven-facing chilies and Sichuan peppercorns that the server had to strain them out before Tom could even reach the fish. Although none of the dishes were particularly hot, all (especially the prawns) were full-flavored and tasty. We were less impressed with the wine, another 2015 Clare Valley Riesling, this from Ministry of Clouds winery (in which we found tart green apples).
- est. is a high-end business restaurant where we had a business lunch. We started with very nice preparation of Moreton Bay bug tails with fermented pumpkin, black garlic and pumpkin seeds. This was followed with another delicious dish: steamed Murray cod topped with shaved abalone and snow peas, with black fungi ginger, shallots and a vinaigrette that literally made the dish. Joyce wasn’t as lucky with her John Dory with squid, confit fennel, zucchini, romesco and grapefruit emulsion. The dish arrived at room temperature and when replaced, the grapefruit overwhelmed the taste of the fish. The wine was another high point. We asked the sommelier for recommendations and then told him what we were looking for in the varietal (a chardonnay) that he recommended. The kickers, we were looking for a half bottle at about $60-$70. He recommended a full bottle and said he would charge us for whatever we drank. The wine; a 2015 Bindi Kostas Rind chardonnay from Victoria’s Macedon Ranges perfectly matched the dishes and our tastes. Although we know that he over poured the half bottle, he charged exactly half the bottle price. Amazing!
- Bentley’s is one of the city’s premier restaurants. We had three dishes, beginning with a tasty steamed Western Australian marron (a crustacean between the size of a crayfish and a lobster) with lemon aspic, wakame and pine oil. For our mains, Joyce had a delicious, tender sous vide Holmbrae chicken with carrot, parsnip and chamomile; Tom had nice, also very tender Kurbuta pork loin with macadamia nut puree and cabbage. Our sommelier recommended a 2014 Bindi Dixon pinot noir that was perfectly suited to Joyce’s tastes but with a bit too much bright red fruit for Tom. The dishes came with an amuse of smoked chicken parfait topped with dehydrated raspberry dust on rye crisp; and finished with pieces of cherry licorice nougat.
- Chat Thai, is a popular Thai restaurant where we had two dishes, with mixed results. The Pad Thai (with prawns, calamari and mussels) was quite good. That is more than could be said for the yellow curry with mud crab and betel leaf with rice noodles. The dish did have two things going for it. It had quite a bit of mud crab, which was itself, quite good. Second, the rice noodles made for an interesting alternative to rice. The curry, however, had more heat than a typical yellow curry (which Tom had no problem with), but the heat primarily served to mask the curry’s lack of taste—it was totally one-dimensional. Worse yet, it overwhelmed the delicate sweetness of the crab. We had two drinks with these: Joyce had a rather nondescript 2015 Eden Valley riesling from Domaine Barossa. Tom had a very good coconut milk with “pandan dumplings, which turned out to be mildly sweet, texturous gelatin-like strands that tasted of fruits.
- New Shanghai is a popular Sydney restaurant that focuses especially on dumplings and noodles. We had two types of soup dumpling (steamed crab and pork; and pan-fried pork) and a clam dish (stir fried with XO sauce), with glasses of 2015 Ad Hoc “Wallflower” riesling. Each of the dishes were quite good (although we would have liked more soup in the dumpling), without being among our most memorable.
We decided to end our Sydney stay with one more dim sum lunch. After checking menus of a number of Chinatown restaurants, we decided to return to New Shanghai where we had four dishes. Crab meat and sweet corn soup was disappointing. Although it had the anticipated consistency and some corn taste, the few crab pieces that were large enough to actually taste were old, and on the verge of turning. We were, however, very pleased with the three types of dumplings: Prawn wontons with chili sauce and peanut and sesame sauce; steamed pork soup dumplings; and lamb and leek dumplings. We washed this meal down with jasmine tea.
- Mr. Wong, a popular high-end Chinese dim sum restaurant at which we were only marginally satisfied. The wild mushroom dumpling had little taste and a doughy shell that stuck to the chopsticks, resulting in the filling falling to the plate. King crab crystal dumpling in golden soup sounded much grander than it tasted. Things got somewhat better with sweet and sticky ribs and hit a high note with the very good prawn toast stuffed with foie gras and coated with almonds. We had a couple glasses of pleasant German riesling (2014 Prinz Trocken) with our meal.
- Sky Phoenix. Another Chinese disappointment. The prawn and chive dumplings were fine, as was one of two Peking duck pancakes (the other had more fat than meat). Also okay was the duck lettuce wrap that came with the Peking duck (although it had too much filler for our tastes). The bad news came in the form of sesame prawn toast, which was dry and had so little prawn that we could barely taste it. Just as disappointing (or much more given the price of the dish) was the Szechuan prawns with green peppers, the taste of which was one-dimensional and lacking in integration or complexity. And this does not even take into consideration the service (not to speak of our ability to understand the heavily Chinese-inflected Australian in a crowded and noisy room). More importantly, the staff was so obsessed with speed that no one could take time to answer questions, and those that made cursory attempts did not have sufficient knowledge. All this, however, doesn’t seem to bother other people since the restaurant was packed, with a long line. In fact, the table next to us had just seated the third turn since we arrived. Overall, probably the least satisfying dining experience in the 45 days we have been in Australia to date.