Sydney is a disjointed place – a city where few areas filled with artfully run-down cafes and shops war with glass and concrete paradise-viewing platforms for the harbour, palm trees and the sun (which incidentally serve food).
The inhabitants are just as divided – they live and exist in the grit of the former but as soon as a visitor arrives, they rediscover the latter and pretend that this surface of glass, steel, and glamour is the lotus-diet that they live on year-round.
Sydney’s CBD echoes this duality. At its southern end, it is a maze of Chinatowns, sex shops, backpacker hostels, import-export businesses and tertiary accounting firms. Its northern end is a paean to concrete rendered to look like sandstone, basking in the reflected harbour light and shaded by (slightly too few) palm trees.
Sydney people normally eat in very good restaurants that are as gritty as where they live. The food is better there too.
Shiny Sydney has shiny restaurants – big on views and 1% glamour, but resting on brand names and the fact that well-heeled tourists who trek from the bland CBD hotels don’t know the inside score. Those temples to plutocracy-manifest, in the form of Quay (which is looking a bit rusty and sullied by the despoliation of its signature dishes by My Kitchen Rules or whatever the latest guise the hydra-headed demos has taken) and the Rockpool franchise who do what they say on the label, but not a great deal more.
For the office proletariat that works in the north end of Sydney’s CBD, the views are great but the food has always been fairly abysmal outside. Who wants to eat bad pasta in a food court with the pocket-protectored customer-service smartphone-Narcissuses anyway?
Contrabando (along with its sister tapas bar, Barrafina) has moved into that gap between the food courts and the bland temples of ostentation.
In the basement of a non-descript building on the corner of Bent and Bligh Streets, there was an old 1980s Chinese restaurant called Noble House. In a nice little nod to the palimpsest of urban history, the old Noble House sign is still there. The entrance is graffito-ed, rather resembling one of those mouths of hell favoured by Renaissance party planners in French and Italian courts. Down the gloomy stairway you reach the basement and the Stygian blackness gives way to a colourful wall mural evoking Bosch’s Hell (and those dull copper-coloured energy efficient lights that would not be out of place in some painfully hip Amsterdam eco-restaurant cum bike shop cum barbers).