Sydney cafes & restaurants

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Velluto Nero

Velluto Nero interior

In spite of the fact that Velluto Nero struck gold with the Sydney Morning Herald Good Living crowd [April 08], we found it surprisingly empty when our reviewers first visited late last year.

First, the coffee. Our flat white came with a nice rosetta, but lacked body or any special character; hopefully the espresso would be better. It wasn’t, but luckily when we review a cafe we take it so seriously we go several times, and our reviewer’s piccolo latte on the third visit was quite good – maybe it was a different barista! However, from a coffee perspective it’s got nothing on Mecca, just around the corner.

Velluto Nero serve a range of sandwiches and other simple lunch items, but the menu was of surprisingly lacklustre quality, considering they pose as a potential lunch option for busy city workers. In fact, the Roasted Vegetable Focaccia I had was probably the worst ever – it was so tasteless, it could have won a blandness award in a Monty Python skit.

They have a roaster in the front, as if to emphasise their roasting credentials and proudly showcase their ‘coffee awards’. In fact, they’re great on the self-promotion, but there has to be a reason this place is not buzzing. The 1978 Brunello Rondi film of the same name got a 4.6 out of 10 in a film buff site we visited and in this reviewer’s mind, we would find it hard to rate the cafe much higher.

Velluto Nero
259 Clarence St, City

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

Sydney’s Best Cafes 2009

What makes the difference between a good coffee and a truly superb one? It comes down to a number of things. Firstly, most of our Top Five cafés roast their own coffee, largely because they want maximum control over as many elements of the process as possible. Secondly, our top cafes are not into food. They generally do offer some basics, even if nothing more than a friend or two, but they’re primarily espresso bars.

In fact, there are a number of other things that go into making the difference, but overall it’s the commitment of the owner to excellence right through the process – from sourcing of great coffee through to well-roasted and blended beans, the freshness of the coffee – and the perfect shot that a great barista offers at the end of the process!

Sydney has always been regarded as somewhat of a transient city – one that is fickle to the trends that come and go. But one thing that doesn’t seemed to have changed all that much over the past couple of years anyway, are the main players on the purist espresso scene -  with the burgeoning desire for knowledge about specialty coffee, the guys that created the wave of espresso excellence in Sydney are still riding high on that wave. Riding on their laurels too? No – most of them are continually experimenting with roasts and blends, and even new coffee-making techniques. There is great dedication needed to stay at the top and in so doing, these cafés continue to illuminate the way for the new-comers following in their wake.

And just one further thing – many of our reviewers have lived and worked overseas; let’s be clear – these five cafés are the equal of pretty much any on the world stage – our congratulations to them for their passion for excellence!


67 King St
Sydney NSW 2000

Tel: (02) 9299 8828

Underneath the cornices of the beautiful old Grace Hotel, on the corner of York St and Sydney’s CBD’s busy King St, lies a real gem. And Paul Geshos is determined that Mecca should live up to its name – as a rare oasis for coffee lovers in Sydney’s CBD!

With two beautiful Mirage’s side by side, they certainly pump them out – and they need to, once the city crowd of aficionados starts lining up at the door from first thing in the morning.

But Mecca is also pushing the boundaries with other types of coffee, including the Siphon unit – a vacuum coffee maker, which works on the principle of expansion and contraction of water vapour to infuse the coffee grounds, a method primarily employeed by coffee nerds, but becoming increasingly popular with specialty coffee aficionados.

It’s a method that best showcases single origin coffees, and they’re currently offering this unique brewing method with exotic origins like Ethiopian Sidamo, Kenya AA Auction Lot 639 Gatomboya and Guatemala El Injerto Estate Pacamara. They offer the Siphon-brewed coffee for $3.50 up [depending on origin]. It’s difficult to explain in print, however, if you’re planning to explore coffee to new levels, this is certainly worth checking out!

Head Barista: Alex Kum

tobys-ii_small2.Toby’s Estate

32-36 City Rd
Chippendale NSW 2008

Tel: (02) 9211 1459

Toby’s is one of the ‘big names’ of the boutique coffee roasting business in Australia, supplying several hundred cafés in New South Wales, and soon to expand to Victoria.

They also have several retail cafes, including the original in Cathedral St, Woolloomooloo, and our favourite – the Chippendale location – on City Road opposite Victoria Park, and close to Broadway.

One of the pioneers of specialty coffee in Sydney, Toby’s have been up there, but not quite top of their game for the last couple of years. However, with a couple of new baristas, and innovations like the new Mirage Idro Compresso hand lever unit [at their Chippendale store] they’re definitely back up there with the best!

With a house espresso blend that is full-bodied and chocolatey, this is truly excellent coffee destination - highly recommended.

Head Barista: Joel Scott

campos_small3. Campos

193 Missenden Rd
Newtown NSW 2042

Tel: (02) 9516 3361

We ‘discovered’ Campos seven years ago [Crema issue Spring 2002] and others took up on our review that year, and in subsequent years.

With their success has come growth – they’ve expanded to become one of Sydney’s leading suppliers of specialty coffee to cafes.

Typically with a tangy, fruity flavour and hint of spice, their shots come to their peak with milk-based coffees, and since approximately 90% of Australians drink milk-based espresso, they’ve picked their niche well! It’s always busy and the main complaint if often finding a seat. But we see its business as a just reward for their commitment to espresso excellence - Campos is still the benchmark by which others are judged!

Head Barista: Ben d’Emden

single-origin_small4.Single Origin

60-64 Reservoir St

Surry Hills

Tel: (02) 9211 9055

As the name suggests, these guys have chosen to make a name for themselves in single origin coffees.

A buzzy atmosphere - one that’s almost a little too frenetic for some - they manage to pour out some of the best espresso shots in town. Typically your espresso will have a spicy, caramelly flavour ['House Origin' blend], but they also offer single origins like Habar from Honduras, El Salvador Santa Anna and Panamanian Boquete.

Single Origin hit the scene almost 6 years ago with their café in Sydney’s trendy Surry Hills, and over that time, have built up a loyal following.

Head Barista: Shoji Sasa [pictured]

grind-espresso_small5.Grind Espresso

6 Surf Road
Cronulla NSW 2230
Tel: (02) 9568 5535

An oasis of relaxation in beachside Cronulla - Grind features the sort of cosy, grungy atmosphere that you would expect to find in Newtown’s King St. Its walls are lined with all sorts of knick-knacks, photos and reviews - most of them good! And there’s a reason for that. Richard Calabro and his team churn out the sort of coffees that you could almost drive down to Cronulla especially for.

Let’s cut to the chase - they don’t do food but that’s not why you come to Grind. It’s an espresso bar and yes, it’s all about the coffee. And what great coffee it is too - it certainly holds its own with any of its more citified Sydney compatriots - smooth, bold and with an excellent crema - these guys do it right. If you’re down that way, make sure you make a visit; for the true espresso aficionado, this one’s definitely worth the 40 minute drive!

Owner/head Barista Richard Calabro

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

The Source (Sydney)

Open for a year, the Source is one of the new breed of cafés that’s probably best described as an espresso bar. By that I mean that although they serve food [& in fact the food is very good] – their primary reason for being, is the coffee. When you walk in to this Mosman-located café, everything screams a love of coffee – from the Synesso machine on the bench to the Renegade roaster taking pride of place on the floor. It’s a great spot with a great vibe, but most importantly [for us anyway!] they make great coffee.

And not just great espresso – although that was fantastic – but go prepared to expand your horizons. They are coffee aficionados, and as such, are only too happy for you to experience the latest single origin coffees that they are bringing into the country themselves. We tried the Kenya Masai – served pour-over style through the Swiss gold filter – and it was delicious: full of flavour yet uniquely delicate! Although barista purists – they are currently setting up a barista exchange with Brother Baba Budan [the café we judged Melbourne's best café 2008] – they are definitely not elitist – the Source buzzes with a friendly, vibrant atmosphere.

Whether you’re just beginning on the espresso road and want to ask some questions of knowledgeable staff, or just want a great coffee, this is definitely a place that should be high on your list!

Reviewed Nov ’08 [AF]

The Source Espresso Bar
6/914 Military Road
Mosman  NSW  2088
Tel: (02) 9969 1368

Sunday, October 19th, 2008

Grind Espresso Bar (Sydney)

An oasis of relaxation in the otherwise plastic & kebab shopping precinct of Cronulla – Grind features the sort of cosy, grungy atmosphere that you would expect to find in Newtown’s King St. Its walls are lined with all sorts of knick-knacks, photos and reviews – most of them good! And there’s a reason for that. Richard Calabro and his team churn out the sort of coffees that you could almost drive down to Cronulla especially for – if only it wasn’t for the awful drive that starts at Tempe and continues through the appropriately named Tom Ugly’s bridge.

Let’s cut to the chase – they don’t do food but that’s not why you come to Grind. It’s an espresso bar and, yes, it’s all about the coffee.

And what great coffee it is too – it certainly holds its own with any of its more citified Sydney compatriots – smooth, bold and with an excellent crema – these guys do it right. If you’re down that way, make sure you make a visit; for the true espresso aficionado, this one’s definitely worth the 45 minute drive!

Reviewed Oct ’08 [AF]

Grind Espresso Bar
6 Surf Road
Cronulla NSW  2230
Tel: (02) 9568 5535

Wednesday, October 1st, 2008

Cordial (Sydney)

Cordial occupies a rather prosaic space in a modern block on the suburban side of Newtown’s ubiquitous King Street. Whilst some might say it doesn’t possess a great deal of café ‘character’, the outlook through the dappled light of the surrounding trees, and the outdoor seating area is very pleasant.

The menu is simple, offering typical café breakfast staples, like Eggs Benedict [$11], Corn Fritters [$12.50] and Pancakes [$12.50] and a good range of sandwiches – Chicken [$7.50], Tuna & Avocado [$11.00] – salads [such as the Moroccan Chicken for [$11.00]. But what impressed most was the quality of the meals – Lib had the Corn Fritters [$12.50] and I had the Cordial Special Burger with chicken breast, eggplant, sweet potato and basil mayonnaise [$13.00], and both were cooked very well.

Service was impeccable – friendly and efficient, and the Golden Cobra coffee was perfectly made. This is an excellent café; while not fancy, the space it inhabits is light and open, and the food, coffee and service put many fancier joints to shame.

Reviewed Sept ’08 [AF]

Shop 8, 130 Carillon Avenue
Newtown NSW 2042
Tel: (02) 9557 6066

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

Sappho Cafe (Sydney)

The choice of name for ‘Sappho’ Cafe [historically, a woman poet from the island of Lesbos] is an apt one, as Sappho is at the rear of the bookshop of the same name, on busy Glebe Point Road, in Sydney’s inner west.It’s a lovely space – part indoor and part outdoor – the sort of space that makes you draw a deep breath, and look forward to a relaxed meal or coffee. I arrived at lunchtime, and whether this was the reason, I’m not sure, but the lackadaisical service tempered that sense of tranquility.

The menu looked great – toasted panini in various varieties [$8 - $10] and salads such as Seasoned sweet potato with feta cheese and walnuts [$11] and Free range chicken, marinated & grilled with semi-dried tomatoes [$13]. I ordered the Marinated vegetable panini, and was disappointed – it had a dry, pre-packaged quality – not what I was expecting from first impressions. Moving on, I tried a Belgian chocolate brownie [$4.50]. Again, I was sorely disappointed – instead of a high-quality chocolate experience, it had a dry, bland flavour; in fact the main taste characteristic was of flour, rather than chocolate.

The coffee to finish was Toby’s Estate, and was well-rounded and pleasant. However, overall, I was not overly impressed with the menu, and the service was not up to standard. The thing I would rate Sappho most highly for was the ambience, with a slightly bookish indoor, and a pleasant, bohemian terrace, making it a lovely place to take time out from a busy schedule.

Reviewed Sept ’08 [AF]

Sappho Cafe
51 Glebe Point Road
Glebe  NSW 2037
Tel: (02) 9552 4498

Sunday, September 14th, 2008

Forbes & Burton (Sydney)

The old ‘Dov’ was always a favourite of the Darlinghurst crowd, and in terms of matching Dov’s reputation, which occupies the same sandstone-walled premises, Forbes & Burton doesn’t disappoint.

Located [not surprisingly] on the corner of Forbes & Burton streets, it’s a beautiful space – the warm stone walls are offset by large glass window panes; plywood chairs and tables are complemented with a cushion-lined stone seat jutting out from one of the windows a nice spot to sit or to wait for a table.

The queues lining up for breakfast on the weekend are testimony to Forbes & Burton’s excellent breakfast menu, which includes their renowned Croque Monsieur – double-smoked leg ham, Swiss Gruyere & Mustard [$10.50] and the Croque Madame [as above, but with a fried egg on top $13].

We ate from the ‘all day breakfast menu’ – The poached eggs with roasted tomatoes, mushrooms and grilled bacon [$13], and the roast vegetable and polenta stack with pesto and provelone [$17.00] were delicious. Dessert – from the Specials Board – included a Belgium Chocolate Brownie [$8.00] which was truly exceptional.

Coffee, by boutique Sydney roaster Single Origin, was well made – Forbes & Burton uses an organic blend, using filtered (reverse osmosis) water in the machine - delivering a sweet flavour with a pleasant aftertaste.

An impressive experience and highly recommended.

Reviewed September ’08 [AF]

Forbes & Burton
252 Forbes Street
Darlinghurst NSW 2010
Tel: (02) 9356 8788

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

Bitton Gourmet (Sydney)

Recently expanded, Bitton is not just a café, but a gourmet deli offering a range fresh produce, alongside Bitton’s eponymous range of condiments and gourmet sauces. Having said that, the café itself is impressive, with  friendly staff and a pleasant outdoor courtyard for those who prefer to dine al fresco.

All day breakfast items included Sweet potato, semi-dried tomato and spinach frittata with salad and woodfired bread [$14.70], Truffled scrambled eggs with mushroom [$14.80] and Omelette with Chorizo, spinach and semi-dried tomato served with spicy tomato sauce [$16.80]. There’s a separate lunch menu, with highlights such as Pan-fried salmon fillet with witlof salad [$18.50] and Beef eye fillet with pomme salardaise [$20.00]. They also do dinner Wednesday to Friday.

We had the Omelette with three cheeses [blue, goat and gruyere] – which was very good, and the Bitton’s famous marinated Moroccan spice chicken gourmet sandwich which was less so [dry, a little tasteless and served on stale bread]. The other downside was the coffee [Grinders]. It was poorly made – underextracted and bitter - which from our point-of-view, gave a disappointing finish to the experience. AF [Aug 09]

37a Copeland Street
Alexandria NSW 2015
Tel: (02) 9519 5111

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

Bills (Sydney)

billsOwned by prominent Sydney chef, Bill Granger, it’s seen as one of  ‘the places to go’ in the Sydney cafe scene. We went there on a chilly but brilliantly fine winter’s morning, and immediately made ourselves comfortable at a cosy table in the sun. The fit-out at Bills is impeccable – polished wooden floors, a large central wooden communal table surrounded by smaller 2- and 4-seater tables, with a view of a [partially] exposed kitchen, with the whole scene dominated by a beautiful, huge wine list blackboard.

The breakfast menu, whilst not extensive, included a number of enticing items, including Homemade toasted coconut bread, Eggs or toast [as the base] with a choice of Fresh Tomato [$3.60], Roast tomato/mushrooms/aged cheddar/fresh ricotta [$3.80] or avocado [$3.90], bacon  [$4.50] or Gravlax [salmon] extra at $5.70, and a couple of the ‘Bills classics’ including Scrambled organic eggs with sourdough toast [$12.80] and Ricotta hotcakes, fresh banana and honeycomb butter [$16.60].

Lib went for the Sweet corn fritters, roast tomato, spinach and bacon [$17.50], which was a delicious blend of chewy and savoury, all that sweet corn fritters should be. I was feeling conservative and decided on the Fresh seasonal fruit bowl with honey & yoghurt – simple, but presumably something that a cafe of this standard should do beautifully. And in fact, the presentation was beautiful, with the honey and yoghurt served delicately in a small bowl at the side. However, the content was a bit of a letdown – the grapes, slices of melon & pear and a few blueberries were fine, but the chunks of pineapple were extremely sour. It may seem like a small thing, but I found this surprising in a cafe of this calibre, where you would expect the ingredients to be of a consistently high standard. Overall, the food was good, but not out of this world and the coffee [Vittoria] was made reasonably well. Add to this, slightly ‘sniffy’ service and a surprising wait for our meals to come, and you get an above average – without being exceptional – result.

Reviewed August ’08 [AF]

433 Liverpool Street
Darlinghurst NSW
Tel: (02) 9360 9631

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

Lucetta (Sydney)

By day, Lucetta is a funky lunch spot in the road which leads to the Observatory Hotel, and thence [albeit by a slightly convoluted route] to the Rocks. It’s got an Italian-cafe sort of feel, and the food was what you’d expect from an Australian-Italian cafe.

Whilst not in any way leading edge, it was nonetheless pleasant and wholesome. Entrees included Fettuccine with chicken, pancetta and sundried tomatoes [$18], and Spinach, wild mushroom, capsicum & pinenut risotto [$18], while notable amongst the mains were Salmon with roast beetroot and apple potato rosti [$25], and Herb roasted chicken with smashed chats, seasonal vegetables and rosemary pan jus [$21]. The special – Seafood Pie, with salmon, shrimps, tuna and calamari, was filling and hearty, and the [chilli crab] Linguine was OK, whilst not being delicious.

There was a selection of pizza’s [ranging from $15 - $22] – including Four cheese with Gorgonzola, parmesan, mozzarella and goat cheese, Vegetarian [grilled eggplant, marinated artichoke, capsicum & goat’s cheese on a pesto and olive oil base, and Marinara [with salmon, barramundi, prawn & herb] – overall, we’d give this a ‘thumbs-up’ as a pleasant cafe/bar serving pleasant, if not exceptional, food. [AF]

127 Kent St, Sydney
Tel: (02) 9251 1011