When you visit Australia's two leading cities, Sydneysiders are always explaining to you that, as gracious and elegant as Melbourne is -- well, it's a bit dull, and their own city is Australia's great metropolis. Meanwhile, Melbournians are quick to tell you that as big and brash and exciting as Sydney is, it's really a bit vulgar, and theirs is the country's classiest city. In certain ways, Sydney wins the contest hands down: The harbor is one of the most spectacular metropolitan sites in the world, on a par with Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco, and the city's larger population enables it to support a more flourishing and diverse arts scene, symbolized by and headquartered in that fabulous opera house. But now the battlefield has moved on to the dinner table, and here Melbourne holds its own. With a population of 3 million, it has more than 4,000 restaurants, a considerably higher per-capita count than Sydney. In Melbourne, they're even building a residential high-rise in which some of the apartments will not have kitchens.
On a recent visit Down Under, I appointed myself umpire and supreme arbiter in the culinary duel between Australia's two great cities. There were no rules, except to eat and drink as much good food and wine as I could without endangering my health. I don't want to create any false suspense, so I will tell you at the outset that as far as food and cooking goes, it was a tie: Virtually everything I ate was good, much of it was excellent, and there were a few unforgettable dishes. However, I will give Melbourne a slight edge in service. At even some of the best restaurants in Sydney, the service can be slow and amateurish. Some of this is cultural, of course: Australians view the restaurant experience as the evening's entertainment, not something to be fitted in around the theater or a movie. And with the choices available to them, it easy to see why: For delicious foodstuffs and creative cookery, with a wide choice of complex, satisfying wines to accompany them, there's no better place on earth right now than Australia.
My Australian foodie friends carefully vetted my choice of restaurants, so I went to some of the best the continent has to offer. But not even the fanciest meal gave me more satisfaction than the half-dozen freshly shucked oysters I ate at a stand-up kiosk on an afternoon jaunt to Manly Beach, Sydney. A cool breeze was blowing, the antipodean springtime sun glinted warmly off the waves and the oysters were cold and briny, served just as I wanted them to be served, with a lemon wedge, black pepper and Tabasco sauce.
My first dinner in Melbourne was at Circa, in the newly renovated boutique hotel the Prince, in St. Kilda, a suburban seaside resort (imagine chic Coney Island, if you can). It was a spectacular meal: I started with ravioli stuffed with foie gras -- I always order foie gras if it's on the menu, it's one of my little rules -- and had for my main course a roast barramundi, a rich, white fish from local waters, which was garnished with seared scallops. It was all beautifully cooked, bright and alive with fresh flavor, and served expertly but without a big fuss. Yet it's my breakfast there the next morning that I remember most vividly: This was just scrambled eggs, but they were the best scrambled eggs I have ever tasted, rich and satiny smooth and steaming hot.
In recent years, both Sydney and Melbourne have become home to large immigrant populations, so they abound with good neighborhood Vietnamese and Turkish joints. Eighty-six national cuisines are available in Australia -- at least that's what someone told me, but I'm not sure I could even name 86 countries -- and none of them is more enticing than what is officially known as modern Australian, though it's usually called Mod Oz. It's like American cuisine, in that there's really no such thing, not in the way that French or Chinese or Indian cookery is an integral part of the national identity and governed by ancient traditions. Yet -- again, as with American cuisine -- it is precisely this lack of tradition that permits Australian chefs to be so creative.
They're certainly serious about their food. In Melbourne, one of the newspapers publishes a glossy, full-color, 268-page book called the "Good Food Guide," devoted to the city's restaurants -- rather like Zagat's, except written by restaurant critics, and not based on the opinions of people with nothing better to do in their leisure time than answer questionnaires. To give you an idea of just how serious they are about food in Australia, here's what the "Good Food Guide" says about Circa: "Truly great restaurants, everywhere, transport. Like good cinema or literature, they take us out of ourselves to another, more pleasurable place, and leave a lingering glow of contentment. Circa is indisputably such a place."
Nobody loves good food more than I do, but I have to say, the person who wrote that got carried away. Shopping for baking apples takes a connoisseur's eye, and making a flaky pie dough is a skill that not everyone can master. But there has never been an apple pie that could take the place of "Leaves of Grass" or "A Touch of Evil." I'm sorry, but food really isn't art: Once you've eaten it, it's gone forever. Remember "Ars longa, vita brevis"? Food is definitely vita.
Still, the anonymous reviewer did get one word right: pleasurable. Eating a truly great meal closely resembles another activity even more popular than reading or going to the movies, which gives intense pleasure and leaves you with a lingering glow of contentment. And if there's any place where food gives sex a run for its money, it's Oz. Here is my completely scientific and carefully researched list of favorite restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, with the proviso that another list with a completely different set of names might be just as good.
Best food: Circa, at the Prince. It may lack Whitman's metric inventiveness and Welles' trenchant social observation, but it has a great wine list (2 Acland Street, St. Kilda, tel. 61 3 9534 5033).
Most fun: Radii. This place has almost everything I object to in a restaurant: The music is too loud, the outrageous post-modernist design bewilders the eye, the lighting is absurdly theatrical. The cliche of the open kitchen is multiplied here, with smoke plumes and leaping flames on one side, a baker decorating a cake on the other. (And what does that name mean? I thought I was through with radii after I took the SATs.)
But somehow it works. Maybe it's because Radii wants you to be wowed so much that you would feel churlish if you didn't oblige. More to the point, the food is spectacular: A truffled polenta with a poached egg and shaved parmigiano is as delicate and complex a dish as you will ever meet; squid baked in a wood oven with chorizo, or roasted swordfish accented with Moroccan spices and preserved lemon, as hearty as a matey slap on the back (1 Parliament Square, tel. 61 3 9224 1211).
Best service: Ezard, in the basement of small downtown Adelphi Hotel, has a mission: to rehabilitate the good name of fusion. Moroccan, Mediterranean and Chinese are here in good measure, and I'm sure if I looked harder, I would have found Lao and Peruvian. It also has a philosophy: Every dish contains ingredients with hot, sour, sweet and salty flavors. It's more complicated than that, but by the time the chef was expounding it to me, my date and I had already finished a bottle of Delatite Dead Man's Hill, a delightful Gewurtztraminer from Victoria state, and had started on the champagne the chef himself gave us, so I couldn't really follow what he was saying.
But it must be a good philosophy because the food is wonderful: I had Japanese-style oyster shooters with mirin, wasabi, tamari and seaweed; a gratinee of potato gnocchi with blue cheese, shaved pear and toasted walnuts; and seven-spiced crispy-skin duck with wok-fried water spinach, Chinese mushrooms, burnt honey soy and sesame-chili oil dressing. I have enumerated all the ingredients in those dishes so that I can tell you that far from tasting as contrived as they might sound, in each case the combination of tastes seemed inevitable -- complexity melded into a rich unity. The reason I cite Ezard for service is because it was the best I encountered on my entire visit, and the elegant dining room was very full, just a month after opening (187 Flinders Lane, tel. 61 3 9639 6811).
Coziest: Donovan's. I had high hopes for this recommendation: It came from an Australian friend of Italian descent who, when I asked her for the best Italian restaurant in town, replied that she never went to any of them, because her mother was the best Italian cook in Melbourne. I couldn't get in at my first choice one night, so she sent me here. Actually, Donovan's was fully booked, too, but the man on the phone genially said, "Oh, come on, we'll find a table for you." I like an optimistic host.
To my dismay, Donovan's turned out to be an American restaurant, probably the only cuisine I didn't want to try in Australia. But it also turned out to a be a great recommendation. Donovan's is decorated like a posh beach house in Malibu, with stuffed armchairs, floor lamps and family photographs on the walls, and a lovely view of the beach at St. Kilda. I deployed one of my favorite restaurant-critic tricks, and ordered the most unimaginative meal I could devise, what my father would order at a fancy restaurant in Houston 30 years ago when the family went out for dinner.
The Tasmanian oysters were divine (they're only the best in the world), the Black Angus T-bone a cookbook illustration of medium rare, the fried potatoes so tasty I didn't want to share and the little tossed salad just what it ought to be. As the sunset lingered over the bay, and the bombe Alaska came out, the atmosphere was so dense with romance I thought we had somehow blundered into a cologne advertisement (40 Jacka Boulevard, St. Kilda, tel. 61 3 9534 8221).
Most famous: For most foodie pilgrims, Rockpool is the Mecca of Australian cuisine, the country's Chez Panisse, the place where it all began. Candor compels me to admit I have never been to Rockpool: Whenever the subject comes up, whether in guidebooks or in conversation, the description always emphasizes how expensive it is and tells me to get dressed up. I don't mind paying for good food, but I don't like worrying about whether I'm dressed up enough (107 George Street, tel. 61 2 9252 1888).
Grooviest: Salt. When you first walk into this place, with its modular furniture and sleek, minimalist design, you think you've somehow stumbled into SoHo in the '70s, or TriBeCa in the '80s. Are you allowed to come here if you're not wearing black and haven't done something slightly odd to your hair? Salt is the epicenter of trendiness in Darlinghurst, Sydney's trendiest neighborhood.
It's also a great restaurant, unlike so many of its groovy counterparts in the States. A flawless margarita quickly made me realize that Australian attitude isn't like the kind in New York, where some people need to be cool so badly they can't have any fun. Everybody here was having a ball. The food is Mod Oz with a solid foundation in French technique, with an emphasis on unexpected harmonies: A starter of tuna two ways came robust, grilled and splashed with spiced yogurt, and delicate, raw with ginger and shallots, garnished with a light grilled eel salad. The roasted wild barramundi was rich and meaty, served with celeriac puree, zucchini and basil, accented with pinenuts and zesty currants. My only objection to Salt is that the tables are jammed so close to each other -- though that did make for some great eavesdropping (229 Darlinghurst Road, 61 2 9332 2566).
Best service: Vault. Located in a restored Victorian bank building in the Rocks, the historic district at the mouth of the harbor, Vault is unapologetic about catering to power lunchers who want a hunk o' meat (pot au feu with smoked bacon), but also offers some creative, lighter dishes: Tiger prawn salad with cucumber, lime and salmon roe was as ravishing to the palate as anything I tasted on my trip. A perfect brulee flavored with Australia's delicious passionfruit (no point in searching for an analogy, it doesn't taste like anything else), served on coconut dacquoise with passionfruit sauce, was superb. The restaurant occupies three floors and a small terrace, and though it was packed at lunchtime, the service was impeccable, professional and friendly (but not too friendly), the best I've ever encountered in Sydney (135 George Street, tel. 61 2 9247 1920).
Best people-watching: GPO. A lot of places claim to have something for everybody, but this food complex in the basement of the newly restored General Post Office, a red brick Victorian castle in the center of the city's financial district, really does: everything from a stand-up espresso bar to a clubby steakhouse, and in between a retro-chic cocktail lounge, a raw bar, a sandwich shop, a stylish seafood bistro and sushi-on-a-conveyor-belt -- not to mention a Dean & Delucca-style gourmet grocery, so you can shop for home on your way out. All the food outlets except the steakhouse are exposed to a street-level promenade, and at lunchtime there's a great deal of gawking and neck-craning as office workers stream down the grand staircase to choose their restaurant du jour. At Post, the seafood bistro, I had a fresh, satisfying crab salad with citrus and a luscious hunk of salmon, simply presented yet anything but plain. The owner, Stan Sarris, calls it "good, honest seafood," and that's what it is (No. 1 Martin Place, tel. 61 2 9229 7744).