SYDNEY, Australia — "You two seem like a nice young couple," the pink-cheeked woman sitting with her husband at the next table said. "Why don't you come over to our house and we'll have a barbie?"
We felt like we'd stepped into a Paul Hogan commercial--but this was for real. We'd been chatting with this cheerful Australian couple throughout our lunch at Doyle's seaside restaurant, and their spontaneous invitation was typical of the friendliness we encountered everywhere Down Under.
Visitors to Sydney in this, Australia's Bicentennial year, will find that the city's restaurants offer good times along with some very good food.
Doyle's on the Beach, for instance, is a casual seafood restaurant on Watson's Bay, one of many coves ringing spectacular Sydney Harbor.
The most scenic way to get there is to take the 20-minute boat ride from Circular Quay. You'll find a place that offers indoor and outdoor dining with a view of the Sydney skyline across the water.
Go early--a line starts forming for lunch about 11:30 a.m. Foodies may turn up their noses at the simple fare; the fish is just deep-fried or, for 50 cents extra, grilled, but the seafood is all super-fresh and the flavors are clean.
And seafood is what Sydney dining is all about. Such fish as John Dory, barramundi and jewfish are specialties, and Sydney rock oysters--small and sweet--are not to be missed.
At Doyle's we had a dozen on the half-shell, followed by jumbo prawns, deep-fried with a stuffing of bread crumbs, parsley, bacon, cheese, leeks and pine nuts and served with a curry mustard.
The fish of the day was brim--tender and mild, like a small snapper. The garden salad came full of fresh vegetables, and the homemade cheesecake was rich with cream.
Entrees (in Australia, the entree is the first course) cost $6 to $9 Australian, and main courses run $12 to $19. The exchange rate is about $1 Australian to 75 cents U.S.
For seafood with a more sophisticated touch, try the Blue Water Grill. It, too, overlooks the water, in this case a sweeping view of Bondi Beach.
We sat on the terrace and enjoyed a char-grilled blue eye (a kind of cod) with fennel puree and hot virgin olive oil, and a deep-fried whole ocean perch served with black beans and chile.
The preparations were imaginative and the presentations beautiful. Large salads of beet root and ginger, plus snow peas, raisins and carrots accompanied the main courses. The luncheon cost about $18 Australian (about $13 U.S.).
Apart from seafood, lamb is the quintessential Australian staple. The best lamb we found was at the Treasury restaurant in the Inter-Continental Hotel--a roast rack of lamb with rosemary, and a roast loin of lamb with a fresh basil mousse and curry sauce.
Several Australian cheeses were offered, and we particularly enjoyed a smooth King Island cheddar and a rich Gippsland blue. The restaurant has a remarkable wine list, including a cognac purportedly from Napoleon's cellar. Three-course meals cost about $50 Australian, without wine.
The most memorable meal of our trip was at Chez Oz, in a small house on a quiet residential street.
It has pale white walls, light oak floors and modern art everywhere. The dining experience is reminiscent of California. Light nouvelle-style dishes, with excellent Australian produce and seafood, offered tastes seldom found in large cities.
A rich chicken bouillon came with tender goat cheese ravioli floating in the broth, and a warm fish and scallop mousse was full of flavor and came with a silky saffron butter sauce.
John Dory was served on a bed of zucchini and tomato and then glazed with a sweet garlic sabayon, and roast chicken was stuffed under the skin with fresh lychee and ginger.
Desserts included a hot tangerine souffle and a heavenly dish of freshly made caramel ice cream with a sauce of bitter chocolate on one side and a caramelized creme anglaise on the other. The meal cost about $40 Australian per person.
Chez Oz is in the Kings Cross section of Sydney, a neighborhood of adult movie houses and arcades.
This area also has some of the best restaurants in town. At the gentrified end of a street of slightly seedy hotels, the Bayswater Brasserie is part pub and part bistro. It's very popular, so reservations are a must. During the day, greenhouse windows let in light, and at night the atmosphere is noisy and fun.
We took a friend one night and sampled fresh asparagus and prosciutto with a fresh tomato puree that was heated just enough to intensify the flavor.
A lima bean soup was thick and satisfying, as was a cream of fennel soup. Then came a plate of freshly made goose sausage served with sweet potato and vermicelli with pippies--small mussels. We tried a double chocolate cake and a hazelnut torte, both so rich none of us could finish them. Dinners here run $10 to $15 Australian.