For lack of a better term, cuisine in Australia's most cosmopolitan city has been labeled Mod Oz -- a melding of local ingredients with an international grab bag of culinary traditions, the birthright of this polyglot nation of immigrants. Even though it's hardly a new phenomenon -- the first Mod Oz menus appeared in the early 1990s -- its spirit still energizes the dining scene in this Pacific port, where ambitious young chefs become celebrities overnight.
Of course the pioneer Mod Oz restaurants are still outstanding and breaking new ground. The serene setting of elegant Tetsuya's (529 Kent St.; tel. 61/2/9267 2900; www.tetsuyas.com) -- two starkly contemporary dining rooms overlooking a traditional Japanese garden -- is a metaphor for Tetsuya Wakada's brilliant cooking -- a paradoxical blend of Japanese delicacy and maverick imagination. The only option here is the pricey, precisely choreographed 10-course tasting menu: Dishes might include a shot of pea soup with bitter chocolate sorbet, a leek-and-crab custard, a confit of seaweed-crusted Tasmanian ocean trout on a bed of daikon radish and fennel, or grilled Wagyu beef with wasabi and lime. Book 4 weeks in advance, and prepare to be wowed. Tetsuya's colleague Neil Perry at Rockpool (109 George St.; tel. 61/2/9252 1888; www.rockpool.com) is fanatical about sourcing, whether it be sustainable local seafood, his award-winning wine list, or his select cheese board. But what vaults this gleaming wood-burnished restaurant to the top is his globe-trotting range of preparations -- dishes such as grilled king prawns with goat-cheese tortellini, pine nuts, and raisins; a whole john dory pan-fried with Indian spices and served with tomato, braised silverbeet (Swiss chard), and cardamom sauce; or sautéed bass grouper with vongole, cabbage, serrano ham, tea-smoked potato, and herb butter sauce.
The city's most dazzling panoramic view, day or night, is at Quay (Upper level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, Circular Quay West; tel. 61/2/9251 5600; www.quay.com.au), with its wall of windows overlooking the harbor, Opera House, and Sydney skyline. But chef Peter Gilmore's subtle, playful cooking, with vegetables and herbs from Quay's own farm in the Blue Mountains, more than lives up to that view. Signature items include poached rock lobster with lobster-and-tapioca dumplings, crisp pig-belly confit with a braise of abalone and soft curds of handmade tofu, or his wondrous "sea pearls" -- tiny opalescent globes of sturgeon roe, abalone, tuna, scallops, octopus, eel, mud crab, and oyster pearl meat. The floor-to-ceiling harbor views at sleek Aria (1 Macquarie St.; tel. 61/2/9252 2555; www.ariarestaurant.com.au) are similarly eclipsed by Matthew Moran's intricate preparations -- dishes such as pan-fried jewfish fillets with globe artichokes and potato chips, a sweet pork loin with black pudding and apple-and-elderflower purée, or a lamb loin roasted with basil, ratatouille, and fennel. (It's worth forfeiting the view to book a seat in the kitchen at Moran's chef's table.) Set above a swimming club on the cliffs overlooking Bondi Beach, trendy Icebergs (1 Notts Ave.; tel. 61/2/9365 9000; www.icebergs.com.au) has its own breathtaking ocean view and a cool airy dining room with ice-blue frosted-glass dividers and crisp white table linens. Somehow that view makes you long for frutti di mare, and the menu obliges, with superb haute-Italian preparations such as risotto with coral trout and oregano or savory Ancona-style fish stew.
Coming down several notches on the price scale, take a CityRail train out to student-y Newtown, where the tiny black-and-white cafe Oscillate Wildly (275 Australia Dr.; tel. 61/2/9517 4700) has a history of hiring daring young future-star chefs. The latest, Karl Firla, started in January 2009. Molecular gastronomy experiments here include salmon roe on a dollop of pureed cauliflower and white chocolate; or beef cheek with watermelon foam and turtle bean. Need a break from kitchen wizardry? Go "down the loo" -- out to Woolloomooloo -- to Harry's Café de Wheels (Cowper Wharf Rd.; tel. 2/9357 3074; www.harryscafedewheels.com.au). Now an officially decreed landmark, this food truck has been serving hearty meat pies since 1938. Even the hippest of Sydneysiders can't resist an occasional late-night stop at Harry's for a meat pie topped with mashed potatoes, peas, and gravy.
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