Wednesday, November 18, 2009
The Pond, Darlinghurst
It's been fascinating watching the quiet end of Burton Street, Darlinghurst, crack into life at night. Once noiseless with shut doors and 'closed' signs, it's now a-buzz with Pocket Bar, Doctor Pong and, today's exhibit A, The Pond.
A triple blend of pop-up bar, clever sponsorship, and heritage restoration via working bee, this venue is the kind that attracts instant attention – and for good reason. The Pond is housed in a stone building that's nearly 200 years old, a new menu is chalked up every day, the food is overseen by a genuine Italian nonna, and the downstairs bar is a time-warp version of the personal library you'd always wished you had.
The last time we went, we were blessed with vegetarian options aplenty, with Will scoring the excellent Broccoli Pie ($16) before it was crossed off the menu. In cold print, such a dish can sound like a parent-pleasing bore, but the caramelised onion, crusty pastry and baked greens were parcelled together perfectly, and easily explained its fast disappearance from the kitchen. I had a simple, just-right Eggplant Parmigiana ($18), and after a silly argument over what Zuccotto was (Will: "it's biscuit"; me: "it's not biscuit"), Will had Pear With Fleur-De-Sel Caramel Sauce ($9), all poached and flecked with ingredients, comfort-heavy with a long salty-sweet hit; I had the Zuccotto, which is zero per cent biscuit and wholly delicious, the kind of ice cream cake that is not shameful for an adult to eat.
I'd been curious about The Pond since my first visit, where it made a strong impression despite some minor just-opened rough edges (the loud chatter in the stone-surfaced upstairs area meant a lot of conversation repeating and redoing; the upside, though, was a fine excuse to explore the sound-absorbing, carpeted and coolly-decorated basement bar; there was only one rather salt-heavy vego option, but it came with a silver lining: licence to steal the delicious apple compote and sweet lentils from Will's dish).
The Pond feels like a place you wanted to stick around. It seems like incredible toil has been sunk into a restaurant that will sadly only be around for a few months.
Also, I am fascinating by how this pop-up bar actually works; so, thanks to Nadia Saccardo, senior editor of TwoThousand, and one of the hard-working people who made The Pond happen, here's a rundown.
-The DNA for the idea first appeared in 2007
-It was sparked by the desire for better, friendly local dining options
-Right Angle Studio (the company behind TwoThousand) was asked by Fosters’ Pure Blonde to produce a campaign around the beer. Instead of coming up with billboard designs or more-of-the-same advertisements, the creative team took an inspired approach: transforming a rundown space into a place that people would want to hang out in.
"We created a small pop-up bar in a really crappy Melbourne laneway. It was beautiful, covered in plants and reclaimed wood," she explains. "After three months, the bar popped down – but the space had been fixed up and improved and was ready for use by a new owner."
Right Angle Studio wanted to transplant this idea to Sydney, with a focus on supporting the community – local food suppliers, designers, gardeners. "Pure Blonde helped restore the building (working with 178 year old sandstone isn't an easy job!). We stock a small range of independent wines, spirits and juice options and the beers on tap are Pure Blonde and Hoegaaden. We are always very open about the Pure Blonde's involvement – they really brought the project to life."
From council-work to licencing to actual construction, The Pond took around 11 months to open – "longer if we count all the time spent pondering the concept!"
The building was restored over four working bees – with some strangers walking in from off the street to help out, simply because they wanted to play a role in creating a new local space.
"There have been a lot of 'hardests'," admits Nadia. "We built everything ourselves - I spent three days painting the boy’s bathroom! We sanded, oiled and shellacked the tables. We dug up and planted the back garden. We tiled the kitchen. The process was unbelievably intense, but so worth it."
"The building has had a long and, at times, tumultuous history," she adds. "We've had to deal with bizarre things – like the MASSIVE industrial circuit board installed by our predecessors – which totally screwed with all the electricity."
"There are also lovely stories. The jacaranda tree in the back garden was actually planted by John Singleton, who had his first advertising agency in the building (and funnily enough, is the backer of 'Bondi Blonde' beer today). There are ghost stories and rumours surrounding the building too. My favourite is about a ghost called 'Bandage Head' who is supposed to walk the basement and dining room floor at night. I have been in the building many times by myself at night, and haven't had the chance to meet him though."
The Pond was largely designed by Bob Barton, Chris Moore and Gabby Moore, all landscape architects by trade, who also multitask throughout the restaurant (Chris and Gabby, avid home cooks, also run the kitchen; Bob is not only the venue's manager, he designed all the upstairs furniture).
A 'less is more' approach allows the sandstone walls and warm timber motif to stand out. The salt and pepper holders and the chopping boards are made from the wood offcuts of the tables. The carpet in the basement bar is made from recycled office carpet, and a friend, Karl Maier, of Rinzen studio, drew the bat print and designed the window decals around the principles of farm food and vegetables. "We tried to reuse materials wherever possible," Nadia explains. "The wonderful ladies who run Even Books are hopefully going to expand upon and curate the downstairs bookshelf for us, and our record collection is slowly growing."
Food is one of the lifelines of The Pond. Chris and Gabby spent months setting up relationships with local suppliers and testing recipes. To find their 'Nonna' for the kitchen, they ran an ad (with the help of a language-savvy friend) in an Italian newspaper. "We were so lucky to find Ana. She had just finished working in a Darlinghurst restaurant [after a 25-year stint] and was ready for a change." The restaurant's cast list also includes Daniel, "a lovely French man who comes from a line of Parisian charcutiers".
"I am pretty much at The Pond every day (while still working full-time at Right Angle) and it is such an exciting thing – seeing what new dishes are written up on the menu board," says Nadia. "I am currently obsessed with Ana’s ravioli. It’s a beautiful soft pasta dish – ricotta and spinach stuffed pasta – with lightly fried sage. I also love the simple sandwiches for lunch. Turkey with apple butter…"
Given all this long-term work – juggling months of paperwork, restoring a tough-cookie heritage building, perfecting the restaurant team – how have people reacted?
"The response has been so wonderful, extremely humbling. Our greatest problem thus far has been dealing with the demand for bookings – it’s an incredible problem to have," Nadia says. "Sydney has something of an elitist, cold reputation, which is so far from the truth. People have been so supportive, so kind. We’re not trained chefs or restaurant managers; we don’t know everything about the industry but we know what we value about drinking and dining – which we’ve done our best to translate into the food, the design and the service. I think that people connect with what we’re trying to do."
This pop-up bar, sadly, has an expiration date, and is scheduled to close at the calendar-end of December.
"Lots of people are very keen to see it stay open," says Nadia. Agreed – let's hope The Pond doesn't dry up when the year is over.
The Pond, 32 Burton St, Darlinghurst NSW (02) 9358 148, www.findthepond.com.au