Monday, March 26, 2012
Sixpenny in Stanmore may be named after faded currency, but this new restaurant has plenty of sparkle and worth.
It's the long-awaited venture for Daniel Puskas and James Parry, the brilliant prize-winning chefs who last created course-by-course magic together at Oscillate Wildly. They've been wanting to open their own establishment since they left that fine diner in 2008. Along the way, they've ended up at Manly Pavilion and Sepia; their much-paused dream became a reality when Sixpenny opened its doors earlier this month.
The restaurant is fuelled by heavy-hitting ambition. It has an emphasis on local produce (so local that you could measure the distances in footsteps rather than food miles: fresh-picked herbs and vegies are dug up from the restaurant's own backyard, while some flowers are supplied by a gentleman from across the road – he's a little starstruck that his blooms end up in a dish). There's also a plot in Bowral where Parry and Puskas grow their own ingredients – experimenting with varieties you may not usually see on dinner plates. They also work with extremely boutique suppliers, ones that are too small-scale to usually end up in commercial Sydney kitchens. In keeping things hyperlocal and one-of-a-kind, Sixpenny offers an experience that honestly feels like nothing else around.
The meal's runtime depends on whether you pick a six ($105) or eight-course degustation ($125). It begins with house-made bread, created with a sourdough starter that has been with the chefs so long that it has a name – Bob. ("He" has been around for five years and can be traced back to their days at Oscillate Wildly. He also goes nicely with a knife-curl or two of the mascarpone butter.)
Playfulness abounds with a snack plate of radishes, carrot, yogurt, summer lilies and rye crackers with virgin butter. Kipfler potatoes – so thin, stretched and crisp, they seem like the cartoony outcome of a steamrolling accident – are malt-and-vinegary dynamite. Restraining yourself to one or two dainty small-sized serves is a dare you can't quite keep.
The fun continues with the "knuckle sandwich", a punchline-perfect snack, served between tiny, toasty-delicious slices of brioche. Will has the duck-tongue version, while I get a bean & dandelion jelly sandwich with creamed cabbage. Both are great, and leave us with zero bruises and teeth intact.
Also brilliant is the soft cheese and green beans served in a sugar snap pea jus so lively and sweet that I get a little heady from all that pack-a-punch flavour. The cheese is unlike anything I've had before – it's as understated as silken curds of tofu and is clean enough to reboot your palate. Using milk from Friesian cows, it's made just before service, so the rennet hasn't yet set. The beans are plucked right from Sixpenny's kitchen garden.
One of the breakout stars of the menu is the mud crab with macadamia milk and camomile, judging from the buzz so far about Sixpenny. My vegetarian version is meticulously stacked with crazy-thin slices of raw chestnut and macadamia, with a boost of cress. It is ridiculously good: a nutty, flavour-flexing delight that has me saluting the ultra-precise knife skillz of the chefs.
I like how Sixpenny gives vegetables the top-billing attention that meat often gets. Roast sweet potato is exquisitely poached in buttermilk and then, to uncap more potential from the ingredient, the split curds and whey are reworked into the foamy sauce. It's also a way to "buzz up" the dish, says Daniel Puskas, who frequently leaves the kitchen to serve dishes to diners, explaining the micro-detail of what they're about to eat. The lack of barriers between the chefs and patrons is another ambitious element of Sixpenny. Like Parry (who was the one who introduced us to "Bob"), Puskas openly answers questions and elaborates on the menu. It's brilliant to have such up-close access to the people creating your meal. Not only that, our waiter explains that we're welcome to approach the kitchen with any queries. The idea is that Sixpenny is more like a home than a restaurant. This access-all-areas freedom is unprecedented – it's a bit of a mindspin and unfathomably generous.
Instead of the snapper, I have pumpkin confit served in pumpkin seed oil with a sweet tangle of leeks, pumpkin seed cream and the gritty crunch of crushed pepitas. Then this pumpkin-many-ways is echoed by multiple variations on onion, adorned with onion flowers from James Parry's own garden. It may sound like an overdose of a full-strength ingredient, but it's caramelly and well-pitched – like a concentrated serving of French you-know-what soup.
I ask Will what he has and he replies: "a plate of awesome". If you like details to be specific though, it's a Coorong hanger steak with elk leaf compressed in a burnt sugarcane ash, smoky cream and mustard juice.
Dessert begins with a picturebook-cute wedge of meyer lemon, adorned with citrus herbs and the heavy accent of a sage-related flower. Scooped inside is meyer lemon sorbet; it's snappy, tart and refreshing.
Next is a daylily from Stanmore, warmed with honey and salt, and served by pastry chef Julie Niland (Marque, Becasse). As much as I like the romance of eating flowers from the postcode you're in, Will isn't off-mark when says, "it tastes like lettuce dipped in honey".
We're divided on the honey mead sorbet, bitter cocoa consomme and caramelised banana. He doesn't like it all. I appreciate that it's not an obvious, sugar-loaded dessert. In fact, it goes out of its way to avoid being rich and sweet (even the banana is cool and understated).
No for-and-against list is needed for the Jersey milk ice cream, frozen cookie dough & burnt butter – such a creamy, delightful dessert is rigged to evoke one reaction only (you can only love it, no second opinion is possible). And, just when you thought this couldn't be outranked, the petits fours are a joyfully Australian mix of mini lamingtons and classic biscuits: artisan versions of Monte Carlos, Kingstons and ginger snaps.
Even though we didn't 100% love every single detail of what we ate, we still fell hard for Sixpenny and its out-of-the-ballpark menu. We also are fans of its XL-sized ideas. The room (formerly the site of The Codfather) is compact, but roomy. The staff could've jammed a few more tables into the space, but decided to limit the seats to 40, at the very most, and concentrate on serving quality produce to a small, manageable number of diners. Also, there aren't multiple sittings – book a table and it's yours all night. It's quite a gamble, in a tiny restaurant located in a quiet inner-city suburb, and I hope it works out economically. Sixpenny is a great, great place and I want it to have a long, healthy lifespan.
The interiors, by the talented Foolscap Studio (also behind Goodgod and Dryland Bar), is clean and beautifully simple. It shares the menu's local focus, with furniture made of Australian hardwoods and crockery by Bendigo Pottery.
Other points are scored for the likeable playlist (Cat Power, Andrew Bird, Massive Attack, Feist and Beach House all made cameos), by Adrian Hobbs (you may remember him on the floor at Oscillate Wildly and Forbes and Burton). The wait staff are also professional, very approachable and charming.
Oh and, just to give you yet another reason to like this place, you get sent home with a takeaway bag of the home-made sourdough. (Thank you, Bob.)
Throughout our night at Sixpenny, our conversation ended up just repeating variations on this one sentence: "this is the best meal we've had in ages". Even though it took some years for Puskas and Parry to make this restaurant happen, what a take-off it's had. Sixpenny has such currency; a meal there is priceless.
Sixpenny, 83 Percival Road, Stanmore NSW (02) 9572 6666, www.sixpenny.com.au. You can also follow Sixpenny on Twitter.