This restaurant is closed.
What's huge, loud, strange -- and smart enough to catch the eye of every passerby? American travelers gravitate to Australians the world around, but do all those street-strollers giving Bondi the eye even realize that it's an Aussie restaurant?
On a warm Saturday afternoon, one of the sidewalk patio tables was occupied by a middle-aged couple taking their two pet chinchillas out for lunch in a red canvas stroller. A service window from one of the bars opens out to provide drinks to the patio-sitters -- and it caught as many double takes as the silky little rodents. Behind the patio, a long, tall, tinted window running nearly the length of the restaurant lets diners watch the street while the street gets a peek at the interior. Once the weather warms up, the whole front will be open, to create one huge, merry, open-air restaurant-bar.
The decor combines natural and high-tech elements, a pretty fair visual signifier of present-day Sydney. Two large bars, each sporting multicolored taps spouting Aussie craft beers, face each other at opposite ends of a long, semidivided room. (There's a third bar in there, too.) The south bar sports wavy, hanging red-and-white tubes (I think they're lamps) that vaguely resemble sea anemone tentacles. A couple of semiprivate dining rooms are set off by silvery sculptures depicting baobab trees. Streaky hardwood and bluestone make up the floors, the tables are wood and unclothed, and near the front are cable-hung "pods" made of giant rattan Aboriginal-style fish traps, with small benches, low cocktail tables, and hanging globe lamps -- to be grounded as needed or lifted to the ceiling to provide more floor space as the bar scene heats up. Small lighted screens display ever-changing black-and-white photos of rural Australia, providing most of the illumination in the larger dining room in back. If you're seated close to the glassed-in kitchen, you may actually have enough light to read your menu.
A call from Sheila, the flying nurse from Oz, prompted a gathering of the posse. After months of trade previews and "rehearsals" as a private dining venue, Bondi (pronounced Bond-eye, like Sydney's famous beach) had finally opened to the public, seven months post-due. Cheryl, Sam, and I joined her for lunch. We'd been waiting eagerly. Australia has become one of the world's great centers of avant-garde cuisine, where French, Asian, and native ingredients mingle creatively on the plate. The chef, Christopher Behre, had worked at one of those futuristic restaurants, and I was hoping that Bondi would be a local outpost of that movement.
"Nao, it's not like that," said Sheila, in her crisp-nasal Down Under accent, looking over the lunch menu. "This is more like our regular upscale pub food." That is, the menu reads like Cal cuisine, except that the trout is Tasmanian, there's barramundi in the seafood pot stickers and wattle seeds in the desserts -- and you may need your own Sheila to translate your waiter's heavy Southern (Pacific) accent.
We started with raw Pacific oysters. New Zealand's oyster season had just ended, so these were magnificent Hood Creeks from Washington State, with a mouth-filling creaminess. "They taste almost like Kumamotos, but much bigger," said Sam. Neither of the accompanying sauces was worth applying. A golden chive-and-ginger sauce needed more ginger and more depth (e.g., a bit of soy), while a heavy smoked tomato mayonnaise was interesting but wrong in the context. (It goes better with fried food.) Sheila ordered Jantz Brut, Australian champagne, for the oyster course, and it was a perfect pairing. All the Aussie wines we tried that afternoon were worthwhile. Got a new wine country to explore now.
"If you want to taste Australian food, you must try bush dukkah," said Sheila. It's a spread of ground nuts, sesame, and Middle Eastern seasonings -- "from when Egypt brought the camels to Australia," the waiter cryptically explained. (Actually, they were Afghans building a railroad across the central desert.) Sharing the plate were olive and almond tapenade, extra-virgin olive oil, and grilled ciabatta bread. You dip the bread in olive oil and sprinkle on the dukkah seasoning mix. The spices were subtle, dominated by lyrical Australian river salt -- the same one mentioned (in the comparative salt tasting printed here several months ago) as "the Nicole Kidman of salt." The tapenade, too, was tasty and enjoyable, if not so exotic.
And of course no voyage to Oz would be complete without a taste of "Beef party pies with tomato sauce." A portion brings two small meat turnovers in a thin, crisp crust, with a savory, beefy-tasting filling. (The beef used here is from Aussie grass-fed, hormone-free cattle.) "These are perfect, the real thing," said Sheila. As for that "tomato sauce," it's Australia's version of ketchup, and at Bondi there's a bottle on every table. But it's not at all like American ketchup, but lighter, sweeter, with much less vinegar -- rather a treat. "Last time I went back to my home town, Adelaide," said Sheila, "I'd been in the States for so long I'd forgotten the lingo. I ordered a pizza with tomato sauce, and they gave me a funny look but went ahead and brought me a pizza covered with this stuff. Yick!"
Pot stickers filled with a gentle-tasting paste of shrimp and barramundi were cooked tender with crisped edges. The oysters' mild chive-ginger sauce reappeared, still craving soy. Until then, grazing at Bondi was rewarding, but when we didn't specify the doneness on the mini-lamb cutlets, the default proved wretchedly well done. The small rib chops were served with a likable "chutney" of diced apples, dates, and mints, but the meat was desiccated. "Tastes like something my mom used to cook," said Sheila dourly.
Since we still had wine in our glasses, we ordered the Australian cheese plate with fruit bread, almonds, and sliced pear. Good move: The Seal Bay triple-creme Aussie Brie is luscious, a Gruyère impersonator is fine -- and the velvety Roaring Forties blue cheese is spectacular, closer to a world-class Gorgonzola than to an ordinary bleu.