October 26, 2012 7:10 pm

Sydney: the name of the game

Sean’s Panaroma, Catalina, Kitchen by Mike and Mr Wong: a display of the enviable Australian talent of cleverly naming restaurants
Restaurateur Michael McMahon at Catalina©Adrian Cook

Restaurateur Michael McMahon at Catalina

Australia has made a series of significant contributions to the world’s restaurants. The first has been the export of raw talent in the shape of young chefs and waiters. John Torode, Michael Benyan and Brett Graham came to London and decided to stay; Smiths of Smithfield, the Zetter Townhouse and The Ledbury are their respective contributions to the city’s reputation.

The exodus was accompanied by the export of some really excellent-value Australian wine that brightened up many a restaurant wine list. This has been superseded by the introduction of “flying winemakers” into what were often underperforming co-operatives in France, Italy and Spain, which has had a highly beneficial impact on their wines and raised standards throughout Europe.

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Nicholas Lander

But over a long weekend at the Crave Food Festival in Sydney, I began to appreciate another Australian talent: the enviable knack of choosing the most easily memorable and pertinent names for their restaurants.

This skill (and names are crucially important for a restaurant) first struck me as our taxi swept round the bay of Bondi Beach and dropped us outside Sean’s Panaroma, a landmark for the past 19 years thanks to Sean Moran.

When it first opened, the view would have encompassed considerably fewer building sites than today, but to any visitor it is still exciting. From the five tables on the pavement the sound of gentle surf was enhanced by a myriad of stars and the moon. Our cured kingfish, Spanish mackerel (a firm white fish that is no relation to mackerel) with scallops, and mulberry ice cream rivalled a Two Paddocks 2010 Pinot Noir from New Zealand and were almost a match for the view.

At Catalina, in Rose Bay, the proximity of the terrace tables to the sea is such that when restaurateur Michael McMahon walked past our table and noticed our empty Sydney rock oyster shells, he swept up the plate and poured the contents into the water below.

This restaurant takes its name from the Catalina flying boats that once made up the airline that flew from the adjacent shore. Seaplanes still take off here and the view of the water and nearby Shark Island is magnificent.

Prawn hand rolls©Adrian Cook

Prawn hand rolls

For anybody interested in restaurants, the McMahon family provides a fascinating case study. Michael’s experience has allowed him to assemble an excellent team: chef Mark Axisa; a sushi chef, Yoshinori Fuchigami, whose prawn hand rolls are exemplary; and, in Andrew de Vries, a top sommelier. These talents are enhanced by his wife, Judy, and daughter Kate, who combine elegance with authority. It is a great show.

Everything is on display at the more prosaically named Kitchen by Mike, where any lack of subtlety is more than made up for by chef Michael McEnearney’s enthusiasm.

Having cooked in London for a decade, McEnearney has installed an open kitchen at one end of the 5,000 sq ft Koskela design store. The kitchen surrounds a vast wood-burning oven that feeds on cut-up railway sleepers, imparting great flavour to his sourdough bread, pizzas and, on the day I visited, a delightfully caramelised pear tart.

Kitchen by Mike is still in its infancy and so only has a licence for breakfast and dinner. There is no booking or menu and you join a queue to order the food that is plated in front of you. This enables McEnearney to go to the markets and cook more spontaneously and, for the first time, “allow the customer to let their eyes play a part in dictating what they order”.

My eyes had a great time at the recently opened 250-seater Cantonese-style restaurant Mr Wong. It apparently takes its name from the local catch-all, “Mr Wong from Hong Kong”, and belongs to the Hemmes family, who own several other notable restaurants in the city centre.

On the ground floor a large open kitchen reveals a vast array of ducks; around the stairwell is a glass display of wine bottles stacked vertically, a use of space that would bankrupt any European restaurateur; and downstairs is the exposed brickwork and columns that trace this building’s history back to when the Tank Stream, a source of fresh water during the area’s time as a penal colony, flowed here.

Dumplings, a salad of poached chicken and jellyfish, mud crab with ginger and shallots and braised vegetables all brought a smile to my face. As did the name.

nicholas.lander@ft.com

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Sean’s Panaroma

270 Campbell Parade, +61 2 9365 4924,

www.seanspanaroma.com.au

Catalina

Rose Bay, +61 2 9371 0555,

www.catalinarosebay.com.au

Kitchen by Mike

Unit 1, 85 Dunning Avenue, Rosebery, +61 2 9045 0910,

www.kitchenbymike.com.au

Mr Wong

3 Bridge Lane, +61 2 9240 3000,

www.merivale.com.au/mrwong

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