Friday, November 27, 2009
I've never before had a meal that unfolded in such beautiful Technicolour.
Each dish I'm served at Restaurant Arras, in Walsh Bay, is alive with brightness, swirls, kaleidoscopic specks and scattered petals – like a micro-exhibition on a plate.
It's enough to make me wonder if the talented chefs (owners Adam Humphrey and Lovaine Allen) lead double lives as set designers or artistic directors – they know how to draw full-spectrum wonder out of humble vegetables. (Silly thought: do they have an intense screening process, pre-emptively binning any ingredients that aren't capable of looking incredibly table-genic?)
Restaurant Arras opened to a whirlwind of great reviews last year (earning one-chef status on its debut), but the clincher had to be Tabitha's gold-star endorsement and recollection of the petits fours plate. Apparently, at the meal's end, wait staff emerge with a big tray of handmade treats, and you're allowed to take as many sweets as you like. I remember being wowed by this story but also slightly skeptical of its fairytale-ish feel (surely, there had to be a cap on how many pralines and nougat pieces you could sneak away with?); it was simultaneously amazing and impossible-to-compute at the same time.
But without getting all Tarantino-esque with chronology, let's flash back to the beginning.
I settle in for the vegetarian degustation ($105), and, eventually – course after persuasive course – I realise this is one of the best vego tasting menus I'd ever had. (Even better than the one I experienced at Tetsuya's).
First, bread-watch. Will chooses white sourdough, I opt for fruit-and-nut and that pretty much sums up our personalities perfectly. Addictive: the unassuming batch of crisp lavash that we quickly strip away from its rack. To paraphrase Jonathan Safran Foer, they are highly delicious sheets of salt.
The actual degustation begins with the amuse-bouche of Pepper Tortellini with Garlic Puree, and the row of flowers should've tipped me off to the beauty contest that is about to proceed.
The Raw and The Cooked is the most attractive example of guesswork you'll come across – a course featuring 14 unnamed, well-styled ingredients. I didn't quite recognise all the individual vegies in this eye-stunning line-up, but its scattering of flavour was unmistakably lively.
A Pickled Onion is the Ugly Duckling of dishes: eating a whole onion is not an event most people would queue up for, but, baked sweet, it's a solid centre for other flavours to briskly orbit around – tart radishes, sweet fruit paste, a "cheeky little beetroot sandwich" (Will's description) hiding a revelatory stash of horseradish creme and candied walnuts.
The Cheese Sandwich is light years away from the school lunch staple you used to find, packed in your bag. Wedged between two lacy wafers is a generous heap of buffalo cremosa – all silken and creamy, spiked with sweetness while also hinting of blue cheese's full-powered taste (without its heavy-duty jolt). Adding some light flavour play-off are pickled cherries and some clean-cut leaves.
Like the kind of guy you'd want to pair off with your single friend, the Orange Squash is cute, smart and funny (truly). Drawing from that colour that rhymes with nothing, the dish comprises pumpkin tatin, pumpkin curry puff, a shotglass of pumpkin soup and orange sorbet, splodges of sweet'n'spiced pumpkin puree, and gorgeous orange brittle that has sugar-trapped pumpkin seeds inside. (The latter is so more-ish that it inspires some food envy and deal-making from Will; reluctantly, I broker a few pieces for him.) And, as punchline to the dish's title, there's an actual squash on the plate. I find this endlessly endearing and hilarious. "I see you get our chef's humour," says Alon, who is the restaurant manager.
My favourite course has to be Tomato Soup and Friends – how could you not adore something with such a picturebook title? The "friends" happen to be eggplant and zucchini which (admittedly), are served in a rather separatist (unfriendly) bowl. Still, delicious! The battered zucchini is sunk in the quicksand of smoky eggplant puree. Nice.
The soup, meanwhile, is just a knockout. The bowl is a sculpture park of ingredients, with miniature stacks of vegetables and other edible curls, bunches and spheres. Standing tall is what, at first, looks like a tower of sushi. This certainty gives way to a real delightful jolt as I realise it's actually something else entirely: a hollowed out tube of well-baked eggplant, stuffed with a lottery of roasted ingredients, such as sweet tomato. Sitting on top of it all is this punk-like 'frizz', which is so, so delicious! It's made of super-thin strips of eggplant, deep-fried into wild, unruly curls. Wonderful.
And, entourage aside, the actual soup is fine enough. A triple-hit of flavours (sweet, intense, reduced), without being blaringly rich or overpowering, it could work as a loner or as a friend-magnet. More dishes could do with cameos from their 'address book' or Rolodex!
The Pre-Dessert: cheesecake with rhubarb and, I think, a surprise last-minute appearance of raspberry? (Oops, all eaten, too late to check.) And this from someone who usually struggles to finish cheesecake, dramatic stomach-clutching and all. In my notebook, all it says next to this dish is "woohoo".
Dame Nellie Souffle comes with a singing partner: a raspberry "sugar cup", a gorgeous cross-hatching of colour which cages in another miniature dessert (which sadly melts away because I start to run out of stomach room). This is the usual part in a degustation where my appetite conspires against me.
The Liquorice All Sorts course is an inventive, colourful remix of the traditional multistriped squares, with a licorice lollipop sitting on a line of orange sherbet (Will: "are you meant to snort it?"), its shape echoed by a black jelly pyramid; there's also licorice custard, and pineapple parfait interspersed with aniseed flavour. The odds of me loving this dessert are pitched pretty low simply 'cos I'm not a fan of the melted-tire taste of the ingredient. But I actually don't mind the lollipop and parfait – they incorporate a more scaled-down take on the flavour (the jelly and custard are too intensely licoricey to convert me, though).
Will, however, wipes the slate clean with this dessert (literally – the plates at Restaurant Arras are made of that fine-grained rock).
And … The legendary tray of petits fours. Surely it can't be as mammoth as Tabitha described? Well, as the waitress brings out the epic sheet of slate, every inch covered in sweets, she actually struggles with its weight and has to rest it on our table – that's how big it is. And yes, we are really allowed to take as many treats as we want!
This open invitation to a jackpot of marshmallows, jubes, coconut squares, honeycomb, chocolates, etc etc, is like a golden-ticket win to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. I ask the waitress if people go overboard in the face of all this unrestricted sugar. She says that – even though you're given one plate to place petits fours on – sometimes people start rustling up spare saucers from the table to pile up the excess of confectionery on.
Will, having not forecast this, is too full to even take up this offer. So the waitress kindly says she can give us a take-away bag (!!!) for us to shuttle the treats home. I remember trying not to be too greedy, but picking out quite a few goodies: a choc-dome filled with raspberry fondant (so good!), apple-beetroot jubes (strange, but worth it), and well, the rest is a sugary blur. However, we do have a mini Bounty ice cream on the spot, cos even our maxed-out appetites could negotiate that.
It was the best kind of end note to a night that was such a headlong delight. It actually lives up to the restaurant's brief, where chefs/owners Adam and Lovaine mention how much they want the joy of running Arras to translate to guests. From each detail – from the food to the service – this really does come through.
And while almost every degustation I've had has one off-pitch course (usually the boring egg-cooked-at-two-temperatures number that is so often trotted out, yet is so underwhelming), Restaurant Arras impressed at every turn, even on a dessert centred on one of my least-liked ingredients of all time.
The only slightly less-than-great thing was, the place was near-empty on the Friday night we were there – I hope that's unusual because it's the kind of venue that deserves constant full occupation. (The under-patronised feel made me worry – the way you do when you suddenly like a place, only to fear it may not be around for long. The waitress reassured that they had been full the previous day and were booked out the following night, though …)
In any case, don't let this restaurant slip away. Inspiring, witty, inviting and full of dazzle, this is the kind of place you plot return visits to.
Restaurant Arras, 24 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW (02) 9252 6285, www.restaurant-arras.com.au
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
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
Saturday, November 7, 2009
Today I was on Anna Burns' excellent Weekend Lunch show (on FBI 94.5FM) talking about my favourite Sydney breakfast places. I say 'favourite' and not 'best', because as soon as you use that word, you end up baiting people into disagreeing. Favourites are a personal thing.
Mine are (in no order really):
Clipper Cafe, Glebe
Ruby's Diner, Waverley
Cafe Ish, Surry Hills
Baffi & Mo, Redfern
Strangers With Candy, Redfern (although I so easily could have listed Vargabar, Newtown because the raspberry coconut smoothies are awesome, but maybe I'm still a tad cranky that they removed the much-loved potatoes off the breakfast menu).
The fruit salad (pictured above) is from Ruby's Diner and it totally steamrolls over all the sad little versions you see wilting away in plastic containers everywhere. Also, it's a visual reminder of the awesomeness of Ruby's (a place that also does a kick-ass dinner, too).
All this breakfast thinking makes me (almost!) wish I could flash-forward through this breezy lovely Saturday arvo and skip to browsing menus on Sunday morning …
Friday, November 6, 2009
It's Macaron Day at Adriano Zumbo in Balmain.
Here's a quick lunchtime post.
I arrived at the patisserie at 8.30am and the line was ridiculous and (unencouragingly) not moving at all. But, 40 minutes later (a lot of it spent snooping on other people's print-outs of the 45ish flavours on offer), I ended up with a box that had these following macarons:
-Burnt toast and butter
-Strawberries and cream
-Blue cheese and pear
-Olive oil and rosemary
And, the microsecond after a bowl-full was plunked onto the counter, a Chupachup-flavoured one.
I've just had the olive oil and rosemary one and it was insanely good (as nutty as that sounds).
More updates when I can spare a second.
Here are some pics I quickly snapped during lunch, with a fabric sample borrowed from the kindly Hello Sandwich.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
The 'Sugar Hit' dessert plate at Azuma Kushiyaki had so many parts that it spanned two trays. My favourite bit: the vanilla cheesecake that suffered raspberry 'internal bleeding' when you spooned deep into it. Will loved the mysterious coconut dessert that you baptised with a glass of maple syrup. The presence of the salty seaweed snacks among the cakes and mousse sparked question marks and amusement – like a mistranslated punchline. Lots of fun, all round, nevertheless.
I was walking by when Ashfield's Big Yum Cha started. There were no lazy Susans (or instances of trolley-cart rage), just Liverpool Road parallel-parked with tables full of takeaway goods. The street-stall vibe was a nice thing.
Swissotel's 'Sugar Hit' was like a Miro painting in raspberry planes and chocolate angles and drops.
(The surrounds didn't quite match the Spanish artist's joyous scribbles and plops of colour, though – why do hotels always shelter a faint layer of sadness?)
And there were a few other things we experienced during October's Sydney International Food Festival (including a confusing experience at Glass brasserie), but this is just a bite-sized record of the month that just blitzed by …