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Pricey, Classy Tipples: Sydney Cocktail Bars

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We spent our first few days at a backpacker hostel, but found that a small, local hotel a few blocks from Kings Cross offered cleaner, quieter accommodation at a lower price. It also happened to put us a few blocks away from some of Sydney's top cocktail bars, so of course I jumped at the opportunity. Once again, the weak greenback conspired to achieve what I would have thought impossible a few months ago: Sydney's cocktails are the most expensive of the trip, making the watering holes of San Francisco and New York look positively frugal by comparison.

Eau de Vie: Approach the austere glass doors of the stylish, sexy Kirketon Hotel, and glance at the beautiful people hanging out in the Art Lounge, and breeze past the bar as if going to the restrooms. [1] Keep going past the facilities, hang a left, and enter Eau de Vie, which presents itself as a domain for serious drinkers.

Have a few carrots before you go, however, because this bar isn't for the night-blind. A few candles and the occasional overhead light struggle valiantly against the gloom of this small, windowless space, and the dark wood and brown leather furniture is no help. The bar itself is far from well-lit, and if you choose a table in one of the further corners, you may need a flashlight to appreciate the small leatherbound volume that details the history of the club, the biographies of the bartenders, and, almost incidentally, a set of available drinks.

Although the ambiance cranks the pretentiousness up to 11, and the joint doesn't leaven this with the cheery kitsch of a Bourbon & Branch, you can't fault the drinks themselves. Don't go looking for classics. The menu is mostly new creations or old recipes with some form of "new twist." Although we felt the budget would only support one drink apiece (prices range from about AU$16 to AU$25), the two we tried were meticulously executed, well presented, and tasty. I recommend the Highlander Sazarac, a whiskey-based concoction that starts sweet and finishes smooth and smoky. (Upgrade to the Talisker: it's worth it.)

The Victoria Room: This Victoria Room was our Sydney splurge in an otherwise budget-conscious week, although neither drinks nor dinner were as wallet-busting as Eau de Vie. Although the VR doesn't look like much from the outside, once you walk up the stairs to the reception, it's a whole different world of hardwood and fine upholstery. If you don't have a reservation, don't worry: the best part of the evening may be sitting in the bar area until a table frees up.

For one thing, the bartenders are skilled, curious, and very, very friendly. While they'll happily make anything from the menu (again, leather-bound and weighty, with lengthy expository sections on the virtues of various spirits), they also welcome off-menu or "omakase" (bartender's choice) orders. I'd liked my first drink, but found it a bit too sweet, and the bartender cheerfully asked what I liked when I was elsewhere. This led to a quick conversation about the Oaxaca Old Fashioned and an experimental attempt at a new tequila classic that turned out surprisingly well.

Once you're done at the bar, the Victoria Room's food is pretty good as well. All dishes are meant to be shared by the table, and if you're price-conscious, get the mezze platter. It's the best bread and dip we've had south of the equator, and the portions are more than generous.

[1] Although always well put together, the stylish set vastly outdressed our "nice night out" traveling outfits on Tuesday night. It was the evening after the Melbourne Cup, and patrons had dressed accordingly.

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