Trends spread like grassfire in Sydney’s tight-knit dining scene. You only have to see tail flap, kimchi or ceviche on one menu before you’re seeing it everywhere, like a game of culinary punch buggy. But Momofuku Seiobo is immune. The Antipodean wing of the famous David Chang empire blazes its own trail. If you want Carribean food in Sydney, Paul Carmichael needs to be cooking it.
The Star casino complex is the incongruous location for the the 40-seat fine diner, and when Carmichael took over the reins, the tonal shift was dramatic. Former head chef Ben Greeno had ambled along a broadly Asian-adjacent path, but Carmichael came packing the traditions of his Barbadian childhood and a whole lot of plantains, redirecting the course of the $185 degustation for the sandy shores of the West Indian archipelago.
Welcome to smash city, where you get your own full-size, granite mortar and pestle lined in little crescents of fried plantain, pork crackling and a garlic puree that you grind together into a starchy paste. It was prettier before, but more fun to eat after you got to go full Bam-Bam on your opening act. Yes, you’re here for ten courses plus snacks, but this is fine dining stripped of starched linens and sporting the kind of cheeky swagger that ensures dish two is a full-sized plantain doughnut: fluffy, gently banana-flavoured, but distinctly unsweetened so that the unctuous pork fat icing and green onions claim it as a savoury win. They’re basically double daring you to pace yourself, confident in the knowledge you won’t stop until you’ve eaten the whole thing.
The national dish of Barbados, cou cou, gets raised several rungs up the social ladder: the bitter pudding of polenta and okra comes red carpet-ready with a veil of Californian caviar and a creamy sweetcorn sauce that’s doing a masterful impersonation of a Hollandaise wearing a slick of bay oil like expensive, herbal cologne.
Carmichael has a deep love of dried fruit. He will regard those who do not share his passion with some suspicion. But express your delight at his rendition of ducana, an Antiguan dumpling made with sweet potato and currants, cooked over coals in a banana leaf and then immersed in a banana leaf sauce concealing a Carribbean remix of XO made with salt cod, and you’ve passed the test.
Interaction is at the heart of the Momofuku dining experience. The same jovial young chef who makes the pumpkin pie dessert is the one who serves it to you. The young woman roasting whole split marron is the same person who introduces you to your main course personally while they’re still kicking, and then delivers them to your setting, doused in a capsicum and onion-heavy sofrito. You’ll be needing the deep-fried bread pucks sprinkled with fresh coconut and lime zest to soak up the spicy sauce that remains after you’ve gone face first into your mud lobster shells.
You will be very, very full by the time the final buzzer sounds in the form of a bite-sized rum cake aged in house for a year. Not oh-god-why-have-I-eaten-a-kilo-of-butter-my-heart-hurts sick, but you’ll still roll out of there with every sense reeling. Your belly will be full of the flavours of a Carribbean childhood; your mouth will be rolling around new words like mofongo and jug jug, filing them under delicious; and your brain will be calculating how much leave you have saved up and if it gets you to the West Indies.
Momofuku Seiobo is a lone island in Sydney’s dining scene. It follows no trends, and breaks whatever rules it fancies. Such a singular experience is worth every last dollar, because eating something you’ve never had before, that you can’t get anywhere else, is the whole point of fine dining, and they hit you with it ten times over here. If you haven’t been yet, it’s time to remedy that situation, and if you haven’t been in a while, it’s time to go back. The plantains are waiting.