Lazy summery Saturdays at Helm Bar

by Forager on October 13, 2010

Our Saturdays are now a routine ritual. I wake up at 5:50am when the yet-to-be-identified bird that has taken up residence directly outside my bedroom window screeches it’s incredibly infuriatingly loud alarm-like bird song for 10 minutes. Calling all ornithologists or those with a keen ear for bird calls! What is it and short of sending all the neighbourhood cats up the tree, how do I persuade it to nest somewhere else?

After the bird’s delightful wake up call, we curse, rant and attempt to go back to bed, planes start roaring over at 6am, powerful lasers of sunlight find their way through the blinds and hit me in the eye then by about 7am, and after a bleary eyed coffee, we’re out the door and battling the house inspection crowds, racing back and forth across Sydney’s inner west and wondering when Sydney turned into Zimbabwe and why my money isn’t worth as much as I once thought it was in the Sydney housing market. It’s a level of self inflicted punishment that would in other circumstances reduce me to a foetal position and commit me to intensive sessions on a couch.

On one Saturday a few weeks ago though, we had an unusual event in our schedule – a treat from the monotony of our Saturdays. We’re not heading to Nonno’s to prune his already manicured hedges, mow his immaculate lawns and scowl at errant leaves that dare stray across his garden. We instead head into Aquarium Wharf for lunch at Helm Bar. And it was the first day of Spring that we’d really felt warmth in the air and the imminent arrival of summer. The Co-pilot excitedly boasted that it was the first day that he’d felt it was warm enough to put on a pair of thongs – a true measure of warmth in his books. For me, if the shorts and t-shirts can emerge from the closet – it’s surely summer weather.

Helm Bar

Helm Bar

Views of Darling Harbour

Views over Darling Harbour

It was sunny, the air warm, balmy and almost tropical and we’re seated upstairs on the open air covered deck at Helm Bar, with a perfect vantage point over the bay and the tourists milling about on the boardwalk below. We muse to each other that we never consider this part of town for lunch. It’s a black hole in my lunchtime map of Sydney cafes and eateries as I’ve always assumed the fare is catered for unsuspecting tourists. Certainly in my mind it wasn’t a place for locals and foodies who seek that new, undiscovered hole in the wall cafe. Have I mentioned my Foodie Proximity Theory? I have an acute case of it.

Soaking up Sydney

Soaking up the harbour views and warm sun

The bistro menu here is fairly simple and just the thing for those who might have had a big Friday night. Accordingly, we opt for the wagyu burger with a side of fries. The burger is not like one of those gourmet rich brioche burgers popping up all around town but a good hamburger with a decent, unsweetened toasted bun and a tender quality wagyu beef pattie. And tasty cheese  – not just the generic, plain swiss cheeses you often get on burgers.  It’s a good burger and we’re both appreciative. The fries are crisp and the garlic aioli moreish. I have no self control when it comes to fries, if they’re in front of me, one by one they will be devoured.

Wagyu burger

Wagyu beef burger with onion jam, bacon, cheese, marinated tomato, mayonnaise and lettuce. $12

Fries with aioli

Crispy fries with garlic aioli, $6.

Prior to the lunch, I’d harboured a craving for mussels for month so I couldn’t go past the Sydney black mussels with the Thai style sauce. The mussels are small – a seasonal feature rather than a nod to the quality, but very tender and flavourful nonetheless. I note that the bistro offers all you can eat mussels on Wednesday and Thursday nights too, much like some of the other eateries along the Wharf and muse that the mussel deals have now become so popular that you could have all-you-can-eat mussels every night of the week if it took your fancy! And of course there were more accompanying fries. These were demolished too.

Black mussels thai style

Australian black mussels, Thai style with ginger, chilli, coriander, lemongrass and coconut milk. $19.50

The highlight though was the blackboard special: a “prawntastic special” – a kilo of prawns for a mere $25! Served au naturel with a side of seafood sauce, the prawns were deliciously fresh and crunchy, incredibly sweet and moreish and the Co-pilot and I dug in with gusto. Although the cooked prawns didn’t “showcase” the restaurant’s cooking prowess per se, there was something so very Australian and gloriously summery about peeling prawns on a warm open air deck and pairing it with a glass of cold white wine.


The "prawntastic" Saturday special - a kilo of fresh prawns for $25!

And my glass of chilled Six Foot Six pinot gris complimented the seafood dishes, particularly the Asian flavours in the mussels, and the balmy weather very nicely indeed.

Seafood feast

A glass of Pinot Gris from Six Foot Six goes very well with the seafood feast, $7 per glass

Speaking to the bar manager, Daniel, he tells us that on weekdays the bistro caters for the corporate crowd where the lunch hour is short but intense. Weekends are all about long drawn out lunches and the crowd ranges from locals, tourists or families out seeing the harbourside attractions.  Certainly in my mind I’d discounted the area for lunch because of the perceived touristy factor and the difficulty in finding available parking nearby at a decent rate. But we were surprised to find that there was plenty of street parking nearby and that most of the people seated around us didn’t sport a foreign accent.

Lazy and satisfied

Lazy and satisfied after our late lunch on the water

Al Fresco bbq

The Al Fresco barbeque draws in tourists lapping up the sun

We both really enjoyed Helm Bar as the food was simple but good and very reasonably priced – particularly for the location! Heading there for lunch re-introduced the area as a potential weekend lunch option and the big drawcard for us were those prawns. It screamed of summer and we’d be more than happy to spend another lazy weekend lunch with friends, peeling prawns, downing cold beverages, soaking up the warmth and drinking in the glorious Sydney views.


The Gourmet Forager dined as a guest of Helm Bar.



Helm Bar

Aquarium Wharf, Wheat Road, Darling Harbour.

Tel: (+612)9290 1571

Helm Bar on Urbanspoon

View Helm Bar in a larger map

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 john@heneedsfood October 13, 2010 at 9:06 am

I totally understand and sympathise with the rude wake-up calls outside your window. We live in Erskineville and our street is lined with trees where in summer we get the same wake-up call from rainbow lorikeets screeching at 5am and in the evenings the fruit bats move in and screech most of the night. Just outside the bedroom window! If you end up buying just make sure there are no native flowering trees outside your windows!
BTW those mussels at Helm look and sound fantastic!
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2 Celeste @ Berrytravels October 13, 2010 at 10:33 am

I remember a bird tapping incessantly on our window once while we were on holiday. 6am and it was going tap tap tap tap tap . Shoo-ing it away only worked for about 5 minutes and it was back again, tap tap tap tap tap. Eventually we gave up and got up. The bird won.

That wagyu burger looks so so good. Wouldn’t mind having that for lunch right now!
Celeste @ Berrytravels recently posted..Review- Namaste Bollywood Degustation @ Pan Asian- Chapel StMy Profile

3 Betty @ The Hungry Girl October 13, 2010 at 10:37 am

I hope you find a way to make the bird go away soon. 5.50am on a Saturday morning is just not cool! I really enjoyed Helm Bar too, the vegetarian tart was really yummy and pretty. We were going to have the prawntastic special, but thought it was a bit too much.. now I think I’ll have to go back 😀

4 Reemski October 13, 2010 at 5:28 pm

I hope you are released from home hunting hell as serendipitously as we were, and that the you find a slingshot and with your ninja like prowess scare that damn bird off for good!
Reemski recently posted..Marque Friday Prix FixeMy Profile

5 mademoiselle délicieuse October 13, 2010 at 7:55 pm

It’s such a hit-and-miss thing around Darling Harbour/King St Whart/Cockle Bay Wharf, as you said, due to the tourist factor. Glad you found some nice eats – the fries look especially good.

I’m house-hunting for my mother at the moment so I absolutely feel your pain. I sympathise with you about the bird but am grateful that’s something I don’t share in common with you!
mademoiselle délicieuse recently posted..Sugar Hit- InterContinental- 8 Oct 2010My Profile

6 Howard October 14, 2010 at 10:18 am

I had this bird problem for months. It kept flying into my window and landing with its feet on it, constantly. What I ended up doing was putting a sheet of thin mesh material (spotlight or bunnings) between my window and fence. It seemed to do the trick but a bit of an eye sore!

Anyway, HelmBar looks good as I am looking for a farewell lunch location for next week!
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7 April @ My Food Trail October 14, 2010 at 10:22 am

Argh! I can so sympathise with being woken up before the sun is up by the sound of birds, in my case annoying pigeons!! Sometimes the bast*rd brings a friend!!!

That burger is dangerously tall but looks delicious! Bring on the warmer weather!
April @ My Food Trail recently posted..The Cookbook Challenge- Week 47 Italian theme round upMy Profile

8 Bonnibella October 14, 2010 at 10:56 am

That bird IS loud and piercing! You guys definitely deserve that lunch after waking up so early on a saturday! Love the pictures of you staring out at the water. I can feel the serenity.
Bonnibella recently posted..Wish List- Eating an Inside and Outside Grilled Cheese Sandwich @ Falling WaterMy Profile

9 Conor @ HoldtheBeef October 14, 2010 at 4:10 pm

I used to have ravens outside my window when I was at college, unfortunately coinciding with my year of heaviest drinking and thus year when I did NOT wish to be so rudely awoken. I hope your little friend finds elsewhere to live.

Seems like a really enjoyable meal, though it’s a pity the prawns didn’t come with fries too 😉
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10 Brett @ October 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Just shoot the bird.

I visited Australia back in 2002 to see the solar eclipse in Lyndhurst. I bought a tent and a skateboard in Adelaide.. and hitchhiked and backpacked around SA and victoria. Since I was on a shoestring, I didn’t have many foodie adventures aside from fish-n-chips and pizza… and I have a few memories of grilled roo and emu. I remember sprouting beans in my tent and eating them and local kids would go “what is that?!?!” and I would answer “bush tucker” and that was a good enough answer.

The best place I remember visiting in Oz was a little town in Victoria called Apollo Bay. That place was so friendly and magical. I miss it!
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11 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella October 18, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Hehe I am completely unable to resist hot chips too! I cannot be stopped. And the prawns there are great! We also had the mussels and burger but loved the prawns best :)
Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella recently posted..Rescuing Food- A Day With OzHarvest!My Profile

12 Sara (Belly Rumbles) October 23, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Good luck with the house hunt, been there and done that, and it is so wonderful once you have made your find and settlement happens.

What a wonderful find at Darling Harbour. The prawns look wonderful, just so perfect to make you feel like summer is here.
Sara (Belly Rumbles) recently posted..Frozen Vs Homemade Mashed PotatoMy Profile

13 Maria @ Scandi Foodie October 25, 2010 at 4:50 am

I’m an early bird so I’m probably up even before the actual birds are! 😀 This looks wonderful, and the location is just superb!
Maria @ Scandi Foodie recently posted..Dandelion Salad with Heirloom Tomatoes- Feta and Rye CroutonsMy Profile

14 panda October 25, 2010 at 9:34 pm

that bird must fly by your house and then drop by at mines! I get woken up just after 6, it’s ever so annoying!
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15 Forager November 5, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Hey John – Great tips and point taken. I will ensure all trees are cut down. A peeper bird has got to be slightly better than a screecher rainbow lorikeet or bat!

Hey Celeste – They’re evil things aren’t they? Small, unassuming evil things.

Hey Betty – I think the prawns were well worth it. Just need to wait for another rare sunny warm day in Sydney!

Hey Reemski – I hope so too. House hunting is not fun. I definitely need a slingshot as that bird is still hanging around.

Hey mademoiselle delicieuse – Hopefully you have a supportive mum who helps with the decision making! Too many cooks…

Hey Howard – Hmm, a good tip, but the bird is in a high tree. If I could climb up there, I’d have roast bird by now.. *ahem*

Hey April – Ha! That’s gold. Sometimes the b*stard brings a friend – hahaha!

Hey Bonnibella – You’re telling me! We’ve taken to throwing oranges at it now..

Hey Conor – Ravens??! In Australia or elsewhere? Do they sound like crows?

Hey Brett – Love your response. That’s more like it. And a outback adventure armed with .. a skateboard?

Hey Lorraine – Absolutely, I could do with a bucket of prawns now!

Hey Sara – It’s nerve wracking isn’t it? I think we’re pretty close to having a house but the process is so far from fun!

Hey Maria – Serious? Earlier than 5:50am? Are you crazy lady?

Hey Panda – Argh! It’s a serial pest!

16 Food Bloggers November 29, 2010 at 10:22 am

Ahhh the dreaded food blogger… I struggle to find and actually laugh at where you think your food opinion could be valid when you can sit at a bar like helm and say a kilo of prawns from China would be fresh and sweet.. How good is your palate really??

17 Forager November 29, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Dear “food bloggers” – I’m really sorry you feel that way and feel the need to make an anonymous personal attack on me.

I’m not a professional food critic, nor do I claim to be – this is a blog and is merely my personal opinion. I can’t definitively say how good my palate is as I’ve never done a supertaster tastebud dye and count, but then, I doubt even professionals do that. Do you know for sure that the prawns at Helm Bar are from China? Personally, as of this moment, I’m not sure of their origin, but I’m sure I didn’t claim they were Australian. Do prawns from China automatically indicate spoiled and poor tasting produce? What if the prawns from China were air freighted across immediately after being caught/harvested? Would that make them less fresh than an older Australian based prawn? Would you choose to eat a smelly old prawn in preference of a Chinese one if I told you it was of Australian origin? Again, I’m not sure of the origin of those prawns, but if you want to make a sweeping generalisation like that, please at least provide some proof and don’t discredit others without some reference.

To my knowledge – gleaned from speaking to a friend who owns a large fishing import company in Sydney, the easy way to check whether prawns are fresh is to use your common sense and trust your nose, check for signs of spoilage like fishiness, dullness and black discolourations on the shells and flesh. These were absent so in my opinion, short of pulling out a chemical kit and testing for ammonia levels, they were deemed “fresh”.

But what do we deem as “fresh” anyway? From the lay person’s perspective (and I’m indicating myself here too), we generally term “fresh prawns” as specimens that are not frozen. But does that specifically mean that frozen food is “less fresh” then? Consider prawns that are caught at sea in large commercial operations and immediately snap frozen – they would undoubtedly be “fresher” and retain more nutrients than the cooked/uncooked but unfrozen varieties we find at restaurants and fishmongers.

Being a former trained scientist, I can say that there are more potential bacterial contamination opportunities in cooked prawns than in frozen prawns. Prawns caught at sea are often “cooked” in an effort to eliminate harmful bacteria in the Vibrio genus that could reside in the sea water. But then, once cooked, they are cooled down with seawater – thereby potentially re-inoculating the prawns with Vibrio and providing a perfectly warm incubating environment for their multiplication. So, from a microbiologist’s perspective, strictly speaking, we shouldn’t be eating cooked prawns whatever your definition of “fresh”.

Are you in fact criticising the consumption of non-Australian produce; the quality of non-Australian produce; the consumption of fresh produce; or have you actually tasted the prawns at Helm and personally have an opinion that by the strict definitions of what is “fresh” and what is “sweet” that the exact batch of prawns I consumed at Helm could in no way be classified as fresh and sweet simultaneously? I have to say, batch and date of consumption have to be considered if you want to make a real comparison.

Or, if you want to take it up a notch perhaps we need to come to an agreement on those definitions of “fresh” and “sweet” and then going back to Helm and doing a simultaneous test of taste, smell and ammonia using a test kit, with a large sample size of people to ensure it is statistically significant. But, we need to roll this across all industries to ensure that this isn’t just biased to one establishment.

Hmm. I haven’t answered your questions really as I struggle to understand what your real argument is – could your further clarify this? I’m happy to try and elucidate and rectify but with such a broad, damning statement about my credibility I have to factor in so many variables I don’t know where to start to refute your claim.

It’s probably worth noting that not all food bloggers are the same too. Your sweeping label of “dreaded food blogger” is a little unfair don’t you think? I try to research my posts. I’m human so can make mistakes, but why don’t you send me a sample of your work to critique?

And just in case – if you’re planning on replying which you’re more than welcome to, please don’t use profanities or I won’t be able to post your reply 😉

18 Forager December 2, 2010 at 3:35 pm

A follow up note to anyone wondering – I have had confirmation from Helm Bar that the prawns are in fact Australian Crystal Bay prawns.

19 Melissa December 9, 2010 at 10:02 pm

I was attracted by the black mussels! I’m actually having this chilli mussels cravings for a long time. So tempted to go try that out. Thanks for the intro.
Melissa recently posted..Spice Gourmet ThaiMy Profile

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