It happens that I’m back for seconds at the Taste of Sydney festival at Centennial Park. The organisers must have been ecstatic that the temperamental Sydney weather held up for most of the festival – with only a bit of a shower on the Saturday night and a few light sprinkles on Sunday. Second time round, I have strategically marked targets throughout the festival and intentions to systematically review the stalls. And to taste as many samples as socially acceptable.
I was right the first time - there were a lot fewer stalls giving out tasters. But that doesn't mean that I didn't score a beautifully cooked hunk of salmon, drizzled with lemon juice and lightly tossed through pesto. I took one piece, and moved on - not what a lot of people milling about the City Tattersalls Club stall could say.
Congrats firstly to City Tatts for having the generosity and bravery to give away free food all day long - all four days long, I should say. Personally, I'd be scared. As for marketing, it was a winner; as far as accounting goes, I'm not so sure.
I was quite impressed with the quality and understated sophistication of their freebie offerings, especially the lab-whimsical apple, cranberry and cinnamon doughnuts which were, for starters, fresh and scrummy on their own. But with a self-administered injection of white chocolate or sour cherry filling, it was a new level of playing with your food, if not just a little over the top - no complaints though.
Small bits of soft shell crab were served and stalked in little paper cones, piping hot and just a little oily for it. This was washed down with complimentary mini cocktails: a sweetly innocent pink bramble cocktail and a killer white chocolate martini. Let me tell you, I've never had a free, or even happy hour, cocktail as strong as that white chocolate martini - if I were wearing socks, they would have been blown off over that way.
Our first dish of the day was the seafood paella from El Toro Loco, where I'm not sure how chef Miguel Maestre managed to cook anything for all the photos and girls simply fawning over him. The serving we got lacked seafood, unfortunately; just the one mussel in shell for the entire paper bowl. I was, however, a big fan of the zingy rice - not mushy nor hard, but surprisingly a great palate awakener. And stomach liner for that matter.
Nothing beats that first beer on a sunny afternoon - it's just the fourth and fifth beers that are problematic. Meandering through and around people is that much less stressful when one has a chilled James Squire Golden Ale in hand - if there's a queue of jam in front; just stop, sip, pause and let that stress dissolve away. But really, a hot day plus beer in moderation is a heavenly match - made only better with cured meat.
It's pure class at the Victor Churchill stand; delicious without even knowing what's on offer. It is after all a butcher, so there are a few cuts of not-inexpensive meat along with a few clubs of biltong. Further along the case are mountains of prettily packed charcuterie and within seconds, I have a posh plastic container in my hands.
Prosciutto, capicola, salame and olives; gherkin and sourdough bread in my hands - these are a few of my favourite things. Short of dancing around in curtains, we dig into the platter propped up against one of those astroturf blocks, ripping into the lovely chewy yet soft bread. The prosciutto is wonderously/scarily (you choose) fatty with flavour that strokes and fondles the tongue. The capicola is distinctly drier and less fat, but almost with a stronger flavour. But my favourite has to be the salame, red with capsicum I think, and hitting all the right fatty, chewy, meaty spots.
And who would think a butcher could put on such classy desserts. Victor Churchill is cleary not your average butcher. Every single chocolate mousse, creme caramel, strawberry trifle and creme brulee (freshly torched) looked perfect - though I admit the strawberry jelly is a little too pig's blood for me after prior witnessings.
The non-alcoholic break proves to be unwise - for it is expensive and crunchy with sugar crystals, which I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to be. No point being a sour lemon, but lessons to be learned.
Planet Cake workshop cupcakes as previously mentioned
The ticking of the hit list begins. Marque were definitely dishing up stylish yet generously-sized serves I notes, as I scamper off happily with my ocean trout. 'Astroturfing' next to a stranger with the tuna from Flying Fish, I could only pity their inability to cut the tuna with a knife (it seemed stringy...) while my ocean trout melted in my mouth with the pop-py roe. The jelly is not how I remember it, but rather a gel that miraculously seems creamy beneath the harmonious tones of lemon and dill. The fish is firmly perfect, making the coleslaw redundant other than as a comfy seat.
Suckling pig panino with apple, mustard and rocket served on Sonoma sourdough from Pilu at Freshwater
Tick. Giovanni Pilu smilingly hands over the panino himself in exchange for Crowns, appearing quite content without the celebrity. Maybe it's the suckling pig. The piggy bun is a wonderfully crisp square stuffed full of tender white flesh. The wholegrain mustard and rocket make themselves known although the apple seems to have gone hiding with the salt and seasoning.
Tick, tick, tick - I can't tick this dish enough. While in hindsight I should have gone back for seconds and thirds, Jonah's fries with eyes are right up there as potential festival favourite. Quirky name, deep fry, mayo sauce - what doesn't this dish have? Chef George Francisco notes the variable size of the prawns in my serving, saying the uppermost one looked like it ate schoolies as opposed to being one. Alternatively, there were ones the size of Chinese dried shrimp - the small sized ones.
Doused in lemon and the tasty remoulade, these crunchy critters were looking to please with their cholesterol-filled heads and to-be-carefully-eaten shells. These minor barriers to enjoyment are genuinely part of the enjoyment; and there's no peeling required and no wastage created. Very green indeed.
I'm looking for one of the final ticks at the Longrain stall but they've run out of fish cakes. Not placated with the replacement smoked trout salad, I console myself in the tropical tapioca pudding. The in-season rambutan is sweet; the wafer stick sweeter and the coconut tapioca mix sweeter yet. The jackfruit slivers provide momentary and welcome tartness while the lychees seem overwhelmed.
rambutan with sago pearls stuck to it
And so it's the dessert run. Well, sort of - broken up with one of the very last servings of Flying Fish's grilled king prawns with black pepper and curry leaf sauce, steamed rice and curry leaf malum. I genuinely like to alternate my sweet and savoury intakes, and don't even mind them together (hello salted caramels and ham on hot cross buns - don't knock it till you try it!)
A passing decision to drop in at the Four in Hand proves extremely wise. I love fresh cherries. I don't like anything cherry-related that isn't fresh. Liquer, maraschino, chocolate, lollies - no thanks. But I adore this sorbet. It's freezing cold, mild on the sweetness with a hint of darkness in a lingering bitterness - I've found a Cherry Ripe I like. The moistly fudgey dark chocolate cake crumbs certainly assist, but I find my spork ineffective in getting those last two crums of cake. I surely can not stick my face/tongue all the way into the bowl.
The Cherry Ripe has us in a fevered search for more. Of course, a second helping at Four in Hand would have been the easy option, but where's the challenge in that? After several samples of ice cream from the New Zealand tourism tent (and maybe some mussels, cockles, cheese and salmon), we settle on one of the numerous ice cream and gelato stalls. Movenpick's raspberry sorbet is not quite as mature as the cherry - sweeter and lighter - but the squinty-sour lemon is very satisfying.
And with a final visit to the Chef's Table to see a very passionate Jared Ingersoll of Danks Street Depot, Taste of Sydney is over for year two. What fun it's been to go back and back and back for seconds - and I get the feeling thirds will be even better. Second that?