Steve Braunias orders a High Tea luncheon inside Sydney's parliament.
The best thing about Australian politics — very well, the only good thing — is the food. I went for a High Tea at the New South Wales Parliament in Sydney a few days after the shock re-election of Scott Morrison. The papers were thick with ink trying to understand what just happened; I took the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald with me to lunch, but I never got the chance to read. I was kept busy with food, and also the play of light and shade outside in Hyde Park.
The parliament building is in that most English corner of Sydney, on Macquarie St, towards the Opera House. It's a lot like that lovely colonial axis in downtown Auckland of Waterloo Quadrant, Princes St, and Parliament St. Sydney's equivalent is lined with plane trees, and home to the law courts. Those of black gown and powdered wig could be seen drinking coffee at Legal Grounds, which is just about the first pun I've ever liked.
Such a gracious end of town, although the cops guarding parliament were louche, gum-chewing, Australian. "Nah, don't do that," said one Ocker copper as I tried to open a gate. "Open that other one. Read the sign, yeah?" I read the sign, and swept past him with my head held high.
The New South Wales Parliament is housed in one of those many fantastic old sandstone buildings Sydney has restored and maintained as part of its heritage. They all look really beautiful, softly glowing in the bright New South Wales light. Parliament's facade is something to see and the interior, too, is gorgeous — dark wood panelling, high ceilings, and a gallery of oil paintings of former Speakers of the House. The most incredible is the one of some rooster called the Honourable William McCourt, Speaker from 1900-1910. He looks a dead ringer for David Crosby from Crosby Stills and Nash. Most people with drooping Wyatt Earp moustaches look a little like David Crosby but McCourt has the exact same large round eyes, the exact same stoned gaze.
High Tea is served every Friday. Eating well in Sydney is the easiest thing in the world. There are so many options; the air is full of aromatic smoke and steam billowing from restaurant kitchens. High Tea in parliament has an edge, however. It feels exclusive. It's open to the public every Friday but it has the sense of a private function, a special invite inside the halls of Australian politics.
The dining room was about half-full when I arrived. There were ladies who lunch, nice old dears with big hair, sipping champagne and holding pastries in their long painted talons. There were serious men talking in low voices. There was a couple who preferred to eat rather than talk. They both looked quite boring so it was hard to fault that decision, and in any case the food was wonderful.
It comes all at once on an arched three-tier tray. There are five savouries, and six sweets. The china is Wedgwood, with the parliamentary crest. There is a selection of freshly brewed teas and coffees. The executive chef is Vanessa Harcourt, and the head waiter is Christian Cruz from Colombia. The windows are framed with a Moreton Bay fig tree, and there are close, soothing views of deep shadows cast by bright sunlight on the smooth lawns of Hyde Park. Light and shade, green and gold.
I ate of truffle and blini, of macaron and scone. There was a barbecued baby corn with miso butter dipping sauce — strange. There were chicken and celery finger sandwiches — a paste sensation. I wolfed the chocolate cup filled with whipped cream, I devoured the baked black truffle with goats cheese tart. But I lingered over a lamington, with its little grace notes of coconut, and took my time over a mushroom pastry, with its dark, rich smell of damp Australian earth. Nothing was bad, everything was an exquisite delicacy.
Afterwards I went on a guided tour of parliament. God it was boring, and I snuck out. "Nah, not that gate," droned another weary cop. I walked around to Hyde Park. I looked in at the restaurant where I ate High Tea, and saw Christian from Colombia carrying away some cups. I thought: gee I enjoyed that, what an awesome treat.
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High Tea is held every Friday in the Strangers' Restaurant at NSW Parliament House, 6 Macquarie St, Sydney CBD from 12pm to 3pm. Cost, $50 per person, or $60 with a glass of champagne. For information on the high tea, go to parliamentarycatering.com.au.