Nel Restaurant celebrates the best of Asia-Pacific cuisine

9 Min Read

Sydney’s Nel Restaurant heroes food of the Asia-Pacific region in its latest menus.

Sydney’s fine dining scene has long lauded European food, but in recent years, it has expanded to also offer cuisines from other parts of the world, including that from closer to home in the Asia-Pacific region. One fine diner that’s embracing this local cuisine is Nel Restaurant, located on Wentworth Avenue in Sydney’s CBD.

The restaurant changes its menu regularly, and its last two have featured native Australian cuisine and Singaporean cuisine, respectively.

Nel Restaurant’s native Australian menu

Nel gives bush food the spotlight with its Australian menu. This begins with scallops and warrigal greens. The scallops’ creaminess is accentuated with a buttery sauce. The warrigal greens (native green leaves) balance this with their grassy and slightly bitter flavour.

Fresh scallops and warrigal greens at Nel Restaurant.
Fresh scallops and warrigal greens at Nel Restaurant.

Mains

We move on to the native dill pie, a herbaceous concoction cupped in crispy pastry, and bunya nut kangaroo. Kangaroo is a lean meat so you have to be careful how you cook it so it doesn’t get too tough. We don’t have anything to worry about at Nel – the thinly sliced, marinated kangaroo, which comes on skewers, is as succulent as you can get. It comes with bunya-nut shavings. Bunya nuts come in a big shell (you don’t want them dropping from the bunya tree while you’re underneath one), and the nuts themselves look like pine nuts but taste more like chestnuts.

Kangaroo meat and bunya nut shavings
Kangaroo meat cooked right.

It’s not a proper bush meal without some damper, and that’s what we get. They come in tins and smell of smoke like they’ve been cooked over the campfire. This goes perfectly with the next dish: bush tomato soup – a piquant, golden liquid infused with native tomatoes and squeezes of lime.

Damper in tins
The damper is just like what you’d make if you were camping.

We are most impressed with the saltbush mussels, which is a lovely curry including local mussels and saltbush, a salty, herbaceous native shrub that comes in several varieties including those that grow by the coast and others that grow inland.

Saltbush and mussels in gravy or curry.
Nel Restaurant’s mussels and saltbush.

This leads to the next dish: a barramundi fillet rolled in dried, crunchy herbs and a cream foam to soften the texture. We finish the savoury course with some oompf: a sweet, juicy Australian pork marinated in native harissa, complementary native plum slices and a pop of crispy seaweed.

Pork in native harrisa at Nel Restaurant.
Get some pork on your fork.

Dessert

Nel serves three dessert courses, which pleases Mr TCF but is just a bit too much for Mrs TCF. It starts with a fresh lemon myrtle meringue. The meringue is a perfect mix of crunchy and chewy, and the lemon myrtle balances the sweetness well.

Lemon myrtle meringue
Australia’s meringue-making capabilities stems from its mastery of pavlova.

Then comes lemon thyme and apple jaffles. Jaffles are Australia’s toasties and are toasted in a jaffle iron, an Australian invention.

Apple jaffles
Jaffles are an Aussie thing.

But what would an Australian meal be without lamingtons? Which is why Nel finishes off the dessert trio with these quintessential Australian sweets (in petit four size to accommodate stretched stomachs).

This evening has been a strong showcase of Australian flavours and dishes. Kudos to the Nel team for using distinctly Australian produce throughout the degustation.

Nel Restaurant's Lamingtons
Lamingtons: Australia’s iconic sweet treat.

Nel Restaurant’s Singaporean menu

Nel’s next menu takes us to our northwestern neighbour: city-state Singapore, and it all starts with a soy bean curd pudding known as tau huay. Team Nel gives it an Australian spin with a touch of macadamia. It’s a silky, creamy appetiser and it hits the spot.

Soon after, otak otak (fish cake) arrives. It’s a grilled fish cake filled with aromatic herbs and spices, which is popular throughout Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries in Southeast Asia. While the black-crusted balls don’t look anything like the traditional dish, the flavours are on point.

Fish cakes reimagined at Nel Restaurant
Not your typical fish cakes.

Nel takes a similar approach to chicken satay. We’re used to chicken satay served on skewers, dripping in a fiery, peanuty sauce. But Nel uses molecular gastronomy techniques to make it into something else. We get little chicken nuggets without any satay element, but that’s because it’s been distilled in a broth that we’re instructed to drink from test tubes.

Chicken satay, molecular gastronomy style.
Chicken satay, molecular gastronomy style.

Mains

Now that we’re satay satisfied, we look forward to the main courses, starting with a classic of the island nation: Singapore chilli crab. While it gets immediate top marks for presentation, Mrs TCF initially is not to impressed. Mrs TCF expects crab filled with sweet, soft meat and doused in spicy, moreish sauce. She expects to crack into the shell and eat the flesh and sauce with her hands. At the very least, she expects the crab meat.

But this is actually more a bread course with side of crab-flavoured sauce. It’s gorgeous, of course. The bread emulates Chinese fried doughnuts and the accompanying crab sauce is sweet and soft. Still, Mrs TCF’s hopes were dashed.

Chilli crab sauce with Chinese fried bread
Not quite chilli crab.

The next dish aims to capture Little India, the heart of Singapore’s Indian community, with tandoori-flavoured cobia, a native fish to Australia. The fish is lightly seared and the tandoori is subtle so as not to overpower the fish.

Tandoori fish
A little bit of India.

Nel deploys molecular gastronomy again when it comes to laksa – that rich, spicy, tangy noodle soup we all love. We’re learning that the evening is not about serving the real deal but instead reimagining it. The soup is more a foam, leaving you to dip the noodles, protein and veggies into it, although they are flavourful on their own.

To complete the mains are cereal fish, inspired by the the flavours of zi char (meaning cook and fry), and Hainanese chicken rice, a dish that’s just as comforting as the original.

Hainanese chicken rice
Classic Singaporean tucker.

Dessert

Dessert showcases Singaporean sweets with bubble tea, ‘Gardens by the Bay’ (inspired by Singapore’s beautiful tropical gardens) and milk curd bun, which features flavours of egg tart and calamansi citrus.

Singaporean inspired dessert at Nel Restaurant.
Gardens by the Bay in dessert form.

If you can leave your expectations behind, Nel’s Singaporean menu is a treat and you can appreciate the creativity that went into making something new out of well-established cuisine.

Nel consistently gives good service; it spaces out the course just the way we need and we’re never without an empty glass of water or other drink of our choice. And the atmosphere is buzzing yet relaxing. Whether you want a date night or catch up with friends, Nel is just the place.

Nel. Restaurant
75 Wentworth Avenue, Sydney


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