The Sydney dining scene is a diverse one but there are some things that you could call a quintessential Sydney dining experience, especially if you're trying to recommend an experience to overseas friends. The one thing that springs to mind first is a place involving a view of the water. Sydney is known for its spectacular waterfront spanning across several areas of Sydney. Another thing, one that gets derided by other smaller cities, is a place that is somewhat a bit posey, where beautiful creatures go to roam at night. "It's SO Sydney" they mock. Tonight, we are combining the two. At the early hour of 6pm, as the Manly Ferry heads towards the wharf, we are meeting at Hugos (no apostrophe!) at Manly.
Open just a couple of months earlier, Hugos Manly is part of the Hugos chain (although they'd probably be horrified to be part of a chain) co-owned by television chef Pete Evans and his brother David. I'd been to the now closed Hugos at Bondi many, many years ago and I recall that there was a lovely view there and that my husband was disgruntled at the size of his pasta main.
Located on the right hand side of Manly Wharf, the view of the water is stunning. And so to are the staff with the hostesses some modelish towering species of human skyscraper in incredibly high heels to make them seem even taller. I've been to fashion shows before but I've never seen women this tall before-even the tall amongst our party are agape. They and the staff are surprisingly friendly and helpful but in the evenings there is a no bookings policy (hence why we are dining at 6pm, some of the boys hate waiting) and all members of the table must be present before being seated. People are also able to sit on the outside section, bar style, and enjoy a drink.
Waiting what seems like an eternity for the rest of our table to arrive (in reality it's only 5-10 minutes), the towering hostess in yellow has managed to find us a prized outside table (outside is not really outside, it's still inside but well you know what I mean). The restaurant is loud and made even louder throughout the night but the light drizzle which sends all of their customers that usually wait outside, inside.
We're given our menus, a mix of entrees, mains and pizzas which are not too badly priced given the location and restaurant. I realise that Peter Evans' specialty is fish (after all that is what his cookbook is called) but we're in the mood for pizza. We choose a few things, mostly from the pizza menu and one of the tasting plates for 2 so that we can get a selection of his regular dishes. The vegetarians amongst us have trouble deciding. "We've never had this much choice before!" they exclaim.
We've heard service is hard to get but once you get their attention, they're very attentive and they're right, The Assman has to signal a member of the waitstaff by waving but for the rest of the night they're extremely attentive, our smiling waitress coming back several times to check that we're happy with everything.
We're not waiting long for our pizzas and they arrive on bamboo boards, sizable enough to satisfy with a thin base. They look delicious and we can't wait to dig in. The tasting plate for 2 also looks good as does the Sugar snaps with salted ricotta.
Tasting platter for two: italian meatballs, fried calamari, oysters, salmon carpaccio $38
We try the tasting platter for two starting with the Italian meatballs consisting of two fat meatballs covered with slices of reggiano and a basil leaf.
The centre of the meatball is very pink and whilst the meat is soft the flavour is muted. A surprise, we had high hopes as the chef is Italian.
The fried calamari is a little cold and underseasoned but tender and cut into small, tight, wriggly curls or long, straight worms. It's not bad but the calamari at Benbry, a tiny burger place in Manly, is still my favourite.
The Sydney Rock Oysters served with a vinagrette are pretty good and fresh. As they're usually $3.50 each on the menu, getting 4 here means that this tasting plate isn't too bad value. I had looked forward to ordering the Oysters with Campari and grapefruit granita or the fried oysters with sweet and sour onions and Poor Man's parmesan aioli which were on the website menu but they are no longer there. It's worth noting that the prices for some items are a couple of dollars higher than they are on the website menu too.
The 4 slices of salmon carpaccio are like salmon sashimi and whilst very fresh, is rather brief in quantity. There should be a citrus dressing on this according to the menu but this was missing which we don't realise until we've had our piece (one piece for each meat eater).
Pork belly: slow roasted pork belly with sweet and sour onion and radicchio pizza $26
We had high hopes for this, pork belly is one of our favourite things ever but the pork belly on this is shaved so thinly that it's virtually invisible in both taste and sight. It's more a matter of spot the pork belly. All I can taste is the sweet and sour onions which remind me of a chutney and the raddichio. Not a promising start to the pizzas.
_Asparagus with goat's curd, walnut, parmesan, egg and truffle oil pizza $24
I then try some of the vegetarian pizzas, the asparagus with goat's curd, walnut, parmesan, egg and truffle oil is quite good but very strong in truffle oil which I know some people either despise or love. I do like the addition of egg on this and whilst truffle oil doesn't taste like actual truffles to me, it's quite nice with the egg and asparagus.
Aubergine: baked eggplant, tomato, smoked mozarella and basil $18
The aubergine: baked eggplant, tomato, smoked mozarella and basil is a surprising favourite amongst most of us. It sounds rather plain and a bit unexciting but the slightly smokey eggplant is delicious and nicely textured.
_The pumpkin: roasted pumpkin, zucchini, sweet and sour onions, gorgonzola and pinenut pizza $20 _
I next try the roasted pumpkin, zucchini, sweet and sour onions, gorgonzola and pinenuts. It sounds great but there isn't a lot of gorgonzola or pine nuts on top and the sweet and sour onions (again the chutney flavour) and the very sweet pumpkin isn't as harmonious a combination as I'd like.
Caramelised pineapple and ham pizza $20
The caramelised pineapple and ham will be unusual for those who are used to expecting that thick "ham" on Pizza Hut pizzas, for this is very thinly sliced. It's my husband's favourite and I quite like it as I am a fan of the much maligned ham and pineapple pizza. However caramelised the pineapple is though, it doesn't really taste that different from regular pineapple I hate to say. In fact we couldn't really tell it was caramelised.
Mushroom: field mushrooms, taleggio, buffalo mozarella and basil $18
The last pizza with field mushrooms, taleggio, buffalo mozarella and basil is again not a very exciting sounding one but it is another favourite - rich and heady with plump mushrooms and cheese.
Sugar Snaps with salted ricotta $10
The sugar snap peas are deliciously crisp and sweet with a hint of the salted cheese on top and a light splash of oil dressing with fresh herbs.
The Dessert Menu
We're stuffed to the gills but still enticed by the idea of the dessert pizza and everyone agrees to get this and split it so that we get a slice each. Ambitious given how full some of us are but we can't resist a chocolate and banana pizza.
Chocolate Pizza with chocolate, banana, ricotta, hazelnuts and vanilla ice cream $14
It comes out much thicker than the other pizzas and smaller and is cut into 4 quarters, indeed the base is similar of a deep pan pizza from Pizza Hut. It's topped with chocolate, thinly sliced bananas, hazelnuts, chocolate shavings, a little ricotta (not much), a scoop of vanilla ice cream and icing sugar and everyone is pleased with this finale to the meal.
If you're lucky, you'll get to see the little penguins that have enchantingly taken up residence right next to the wharf. There is a cordoned off area protecting them and whilst you can look you can't touch them or use flash photography, the sight of these cute little waddlers is an adorable sight. We saw one poking his little head outside from under the stairs. If this makes it part of the quintessential Sydney experience, I am so very glad that I live here.
Shop 1, East Esplanade
Manly NSW 2095
Tel: +61(02) 8116 8555
Open 7 days from 12pm til late