If you’ve been hiking the hilly streets seeing the sights all day and your after-dark plans involve hitting the city’s bars and restaurants then High Coffee in Sydney – a heady alternative to afternoon tea – makes sense. Coffee, carbs, chocolate, and more coffee will have a higher degree of success kick-starting your afternoon than tea, cucumber sandwiches and scones. And that coffee martini will set the tone for a sophisticated evening ahead in Sydneytown. Yes, you heard right, a martini.
The High Coffee at the InterContinental Hotel Sydney is held in the Cortile – an elegant lobby café in the hotel’s central courtyard surrounded by imposing sandstone arcades; it was once the government Treasury Building and dates back to 1851. It begins with a potent coffee martini: chilled espresso, vanilla-infused vodka, coffee liqueur, and a dash of spice syrup. It’s like knocking back a double espresso while sipping a martini. Enough said.
The caffeine hits don’t stop there, so if you’re not a bean lover, don’t do stimulants and would rather be sipping green tea, best to give this giddy offering a miss. Soon after our coffee martini is served, a triple-tiered tower of some of the most sophisticated savoury treats we’ve seen on any afternoon tea menu arrives at our table.
On one tier are the sandwiches: Wagyu beef, cucumber relish and watercress panini; roasted chicken, avocado and semi-dried organic tomato on linseed rolls; and smoked salmon on rye with mascarpone and preserved lemon. Arriving soon after that, so they stay hot, and placed on another tier, are the ‘warm afternoon savouries’: petite homemade beef and burgundy pies, prosciutto and asparagus quiches, mini olive and feta muffins. And on a separate plate, supposedly to whet our appetite for the sweets to follow, are chocolate and espresso crepes and Belgian waffles. This selection is served with an icy café freddo, which is a perfect match.
Next, staying true to the tradition of afternoon tea in Australia, come scones that would make my Nanna proud – both plain doughy scones and scones speckled with dried fruit, served with fresh double cream and strawberry jam. A palate cleanser follows of green apple sorbet and the now-empty savoury tier is replaced with more sweets: an opera slice with Espresso di Manfredi and chocolate ganache and gold leaf; an infused cinnamon and ginger chocolate crème brûlée; salted caramel and espresso bavarois cream éclairs; wattleseed macarons with P125 Valrhona-coffee curd; and meringe with Bailey’s cream and candy macadamias.
For this truly decadent course, our waitress invites us to select the coffee accompaniment ourselves, although says a barista is available if we need assistance, and there are coffee-sweet matching suggestions on our menu: espresso or doppio espresso (double espresso) to pair with the slice, mocha to complement the brûlée, ristretto (condensed espresso) for the éclairs, macchiato (espresso stained with milk) to match the macarons, and Aussie favourite, a flat white, to wash down the meringue. I’m not sure about this last pairing; I think it needs an espresso to cut through all that sweetness.
By this stage, I am so alert I am ready to sit down and write this blog post. Or a book. Or two. I must admit I’m also feeling a teensy bit queasy too. I’m not a sweets person and would never tuck into so many sugary treats. Personally, I would have preferred more savoury dishes or another martini. So I appreciate the café corretto – a shot of Espresso di Manfredi coffee ‘corrected’ with Italian grappa – that comes our way.
It’s a nice touch that I’m assuming might have come from Italian-Australian chef Stefano Manfredi, who collaborated with the InterCont to create this ‘high coffee’. Steve Manfredi has long been one of our favourite Sydney chefs – we used to go to his restaurants, Manfredi and Bel Mondo, in the mid-90s when we first started to get serious about eating and we tried (and loved) his new restaurant Balla on this recent trip. Review coming soon, we promise.
Being of northern Italian heritage, Steve Manfredi takes his coffee very seriously – so seriously that he and his business partner, the lovely Julie Manfredi Hughes, launched their own coffee brand Espresso di Manfredi by Piazza Doro and it’s their beans that are used throughout the ‘high coffee’. The coffee is very Italian – all at once sophisticated and traditional. One sip took me back to downing espressos at stand-up coffee bars in Italy, which in a country where coffee has been so Australianised – sip coffee at good Sydney or Melbourne cafés and you’ll see what I mean – is comforting.
Although here it should also be said (especially for our English readers) that this is not really ‘high coffee’ at all but ‘afternoon coffee’, because its inspiration is afternoon tea not high tea, which (as they’d know) was traditionally an early working class dinner. But these days, particularly in Australia and the USA people continually bewilderingly conflate the two. In this case, I’m guessing that ‘high coffee’ just sounded better.
Whatever it’s called, it’s deliciously indulgent fun and is a fantastic way to finish an afternoon and kickstart an evening in Sydney. Just make sure your restaurant reservation is for a second sitting, as you won’t be hungry for a while. High coffee in Sydney couldn’t be more different to the traditional afternoon tea in Melbourne at the Hotel Windsor. But then we wouldn’t expect anything less of Sydney, would we?
117 Macquarie Street
02 9240 1396
High coffee, served from 11am-4.30pm, is A$55 pp, including the martini, all savoury and sweet treats, and matching coffees.