Best Eats

What makes a great meal in your opinion? Is it a confronting mouthfeel? Provocative plating? All you can eat bacon bits? In 2021, whether you were in the market for some left-field innovation or trad transcendence, these five taste-makers had you well and truly covered. Which nominee left the best taste in your mouth?

 

Yod

Thaitown’s newest restaurant Yod specialises in Isan cuisine – the most high intensity cuisine of Thailand’s northeast. Despite the popularity of the cuisine across Thailand, very few Thai restaurants in Sydney serve many Isan dishes beyond larb, som tum (papaya salad) and gai yang (marinated and barbecued chicken). Thanks to Paweena Longchara – Yod’s owner and an Isan native – and her passion for doing everything by hand (including making pla ra, a particularly pungent variety of fish sauce), the restaurant’s menu is full of traditional, hard to find dishes like gang om (a spicy, herbal soup), as well as classic Isan salads and barbecued meats. Because of all that, it’s already a popular diner for the local Thai community.

Photo courtesy of nominee.

Maiz

Mexican food isn’t just about tacos, and Juan Carlos Negrete showcases the cuisine’s full spectrum at Maiz. His menu is about the shapeshifting power of corn, from tlacoyos and sopes to chilaquiles. Even a concession to Vegemite is made in a mole-style – complete with a good hit of chilli, a quesadilla, and avocado. His Jamaica al pastor is inspired by local stallholders at the Summer Hill markets where Maiz got its start. The Drunken Sailor pineapple jam adds a sweet, bracing hit to braised hibiscus flower al pastor, which are made from repurposed hibiscus flowers. These leftovers come from the classic Mexican drink, agua de Jamaica, and prove Maiz’s case for minimising waste and maximising menu creativity.

Photo courtesy of nominee.

Cafe Freda’s

Xinyi Lim’s menu is far-reaching and personal: the beef rendang is inspired by her Chinese mother’s upbringing in Malaysia, and mole speaks to the chef’s time at Mexico’s Expendio de Maiz. Her Family Meal project spanned the globe and that international curiosity lives on at Cafe Freda’s. Whether it’s her Persian-influenced eggplant toast or something reminiscent of pkhali sauce from Georgia, she draws on ingredients from small producers (like Moonacres) or Chinatown institution Seasons, and uses the restaurant to platform other talents such as Syrian chef Racha Abou Alchamat from Racha’s Kitchen. Cafe Freda’s is also a space for community-minded initiatives, like the fundraiser for Indian COVID relief they hosted in May 2021.

Photo courtesy of nominee.

Lucky Myanmar

Anyone who opens the first restaurant of its kind deserves plaudits. Introducing a cuisine to an unschooled audience is hard anywhere, but try a cuisine hardly anyone in Australia knows a thing about. And what about opening that restaurant a week before the latest lockdown? That’s the story of Mohammad Anwar – a Rohingya refugee who opened Sydney’s first taste of Rohingya in June. Lucky Myanmar is a simple, community-focused restaurant that relies on Mohammad and his business partner’s hospitality. That, and the strength of the Rohingya cuisine: a boldly flavoured and spicy style of cooking that takes influence from South Asia and other cuisines from the huge variety of ethnic groups that make up Myanmar.

Photo courtesy of nominee.

Amah

In late 2017 Junda Khoo opened Ho Jiak Haymarket: a tribute to his childhood guardian and culinary hero, his grandma. Early this year, Khoo teamed up with former Mr Wong head chef Loong Oon, to open Amah, a restaurant that honours another great cook: Oon’s grandma. Under Oon’s vision the menu mixes traditional Chinese-Malaysian home cooking with modern ideas inspired by his fine dining training and love for high-end produce. Nick Jordan (of Snack Time on Up For It) says the char siu is they make is his favourite ever char siu of all time.

Photo courtesy of nominee.

Baba’s Place

Baba’s Place is lovingly named after Alexander Kelly’s Macedonian grandmother. The restaurant is a melting pot of all the flavours migrant communities have brought to Sydney – drawing on co-owners Jean-Paul El Tom and James Bellos‘ respective Lebanese and Greek heritage as well as eats from across the city. It’s the Eastern European rakija (or ‘rocket fuel’) you might find in suburban homes across South-western Sydney; the hand-pulled noodles made to order in their favourite Chinese joints in Burwood and Hurstville; the avjar served at soccer practice; and their love of iconic joint El Jannah – all of these play a role in Baba’s Place’s multicultural, border-mixing ode to migrant Sydney.

Photo courtesy of nominee.