You don’t expect to see a piece of crisp bacon served on top of a cocktail glass, but that’s what you get when you order the Smoked Bacon and Maple Syrup Manhattan at Zeta. The bourbon is infused with bacon and maple-smoked cedar before being mixed with a dash of cherry syrup and sweet and dry vermouth. Don’t let the cherry and maple syrup fool you, however – this is a strong, intensely smoky drink that could put hairs on your chest.
Then again, Zeta Bar is known for serving cutting-edge cocktails. Taking inspiration from molecular gastronomy (where chefs such as Ferran Adria create meals using flavoured foams and gels), Zeta’s bartenders use a range of unusual techniques to deliver twists on classic (and not-so classic) drinks.
In the past I’ve had the Pomerancza and Earl Grey sour, which was served with a tea bag in it and what looked to be whipped cream floating on top (but was actually an Earl Grey foam), and they also have a range of “grilled” cocktails, such as the Burnt Lemon and Vanilla Margarita and Grilled Pineapple and Pepper Martini.
The idea of burning fruit is to caramelise it slightly and change the flavour and in the case of the Grilled Pineapple and Pepper Martini (made with grilled pineapple, cracked black pepper, Belvedere vodka, caramel and chamomile liqueurs and finished with fresh lemon juice) this works beautifully – the result is a crisp and easy-to-drink cocktail where the pineapple shines.
I’m not so convinced about the Burnt Lemon and Vanilla Margarita – but then, I like the simple lemon tang of a traditional margarita whereas this one almost ends up tasting more like orange than lemon.
However, I definitely like Zeta Bar’s dark and elegant atmosphere. Ambient lounge music is on the sound system (and DJs play here on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays – and keep in mind there’s a $20 cover charge on Saturday nights), there’s wood paneling, curtained off banquettes on one side (which look like mini harems, according to one of my drinking companions), as well as a handful of small tables and ottomans and two long tables with bar stools. If I wanted to be critical I’d say there’s not enough seating here – but, on the plus side, it does have one of the best smoking areas in Sydney, being directly opposite the QVB and with a view that stretches down George Street. As a non-smoker even I like to venture out here for a glimpse.
If the foam and grilled cocktails seem a little too modern, then Zeta also has a page of tiki cocktails in its menu. Inspired by Polynesia and the carved wooden statues that can be found from Easter Island to New Zealand, tiki bars and restaurants swept across the US (and to a lesser degree around the world) after World War 2 only to die out in the late 70s – but a revival is happening around the world and certainly in Sydney.
I order the Mai Tai, arguably the archetypal tiki cocktail. Zeta’s version is made from Flor de Caña (a respectable rum from Nicaragua) and Havana Club blanco that’s mixed with lime juice, orange curaceo, rock candy syrup and orgeat (an almond-flavoured syrup usually made either with rose or orange water). It’s then served in a hollowed-out pineapple with ice, a sparkler and a cocktail umbrella (the only comparable experience I’ve had in Sydney is the pina colada served in a coconut at Rambutan).
The flavours are well balanced, it’s not too sweet and it’s possibly the least alcoholic-tasting cocktail I’ve ever had – and it’s great on a hot summer’s night. If only they had a hammock and an ATM on the balcony.
The Zeta Zombie has a bit more bite in terms of flavour – which is a good thing. This is a rum punch made with 10 Cane rum, Flor de Caña and Grand Marnier and is shaken with pineapple, lemon, lime and pomegranate juices before being served in a tall glass.
True to its promise, I honestly do feel like a zombie as I write this the day after (I might have had quite a few drinks before ordering the tiki cocktails) – but it was worth it. The only other thing to add is that the service here is fantastic, making it one of my favourite Sydney bars. If you need a great spot for a date or an after-work drink then Zeta Bar is certainly worth a look.
Zeta Bar, Level 4, 488 George Street, Hilton Sydney. Phone 9265 6070, or see the Zeta Bar website
Now it’s your turn – how do you rate Zeta Bar?