Here's the quick version: Ester is a new restaurant in Chippendale, backed by the guys behind Vini, Berta and 121BC. It's run by Mat Lindsay, and before you go in, you suspect it'll end up with a high scorecard. After all, this chef used to be at 121BC (Kristen Allan raved about his food at the Surry Hills wine bar in my podcast); Mat also snuck in a preview of Ester at Sixpenny earlier this year; and long before that, he was head chef at Billy Kwong. No dropped jaws or spoiler alerts needed – this place is the business, it's good.
Here's the longer version … Ester is a brilliant extension of the Vini family. You have an "of course!" moment when you realise the connection – the way you do when you slowly register that similar people happen to be related. There's that common factor of relaxed, welcoming settings – nothing too shiny, just the right level of industrial, functional and rustic; the Vini establishments are always places that really melt into their neighbourhood, helped by the casual, smart, friendly service; and the produce-focused menus always knock you out with their apparent simplicity: fuss-free dishes built on well-bolstered flavours and the natural strength of their ingredients.
There are many ways that Ester sets itself apart from Vini, Berta and 121BC, though. Firstly, it isn't ruled entirely by Italian borders. It's Mat Lindsay's creative concept and he's not restricted to one country's culinary traditions. He's aiming for something looser, taking what he likes from different influences and giving himself room to change. It's the same with the wine list, which focuses on all-natural, organic and minimal intervention-style wines, with lots of choices by the glass – but the restaurant only keeps a small supply of each selection, so that list will be constantly in flux, too.
Something that's an unshakeable part of the Ester, though, is the wood-fired oven – Mat calls it "the new cathedral". It's definitely a place of worship at the restaurant, notching up enough Instagram cameos to earn the caption, "Just another oven photo". It's a no-brainer to say that the wood-fired dishes make the most of this cooking approach, but other parts of the menu feel the blast of the oven's heat, too – sometimes in subtle ways. At Ester, when Mat and his sous chef Nic Wong (The Apollo, Billy Kwong, Bodega, Vini) make stocks, they'll actually use the "cathedral" to roast the bones first. Even the Raw Fish ($19) in the "small plates" selection calls on use of the oven; the chefs scorch the fish bones initially, before steeping them in soy to make the dressing.
You'll understand why they are so devoted to this wood-fired feature when you try some of the dishes that are explicitly cooked with it. Will was wrapt by the roasted Chicken ($26), its ever-juicy flavour well complemented by jolts of garlic and grilled slices of lemon. You need to order the Cauliflower ($14), which is so intensely blasted by the oven that it looks like it's the victim of an arson attack. But that blanket charring results in this amazing blaze of flavour, souped up further by some lemon dressing, gorgeous almond cream and zippy mint leaves. It's understandable why this dish is so damn popular. Other much-ordered items include Roasted Oysters (from $3.50) and the Carrot ($14) with parmesan custard – this hefty cheese bomb is nicely contrasted with the sweetly glazed root vegetable, a scattering of sesame and some sprigs of Lebanese cress – a green that has a surprising way of tasting like carrot. The Blue Swimmer Crab ($20) has inspired quite a few raves; and personally, the Potato ($15) served with macadamia cream and nasturtium and a dusting of celery salt is like the dream version of the potato salad you find at barbecues. Also worth mentioning, even though it's not strictly on the menu: the delicious appetiser of fried chickpeas and rosemary you're given as soon as you sit down. Containing yourself to one strict handful of this is really hard.
The upside of Ester's focus on small plates, snacks and sides is that you can stake out a lot of stomach room for the desserts. And given that three of offerings are single-scoop sweets that are a bargain $4 each, it's easy to order every single thing – even if you're a table of two. The big hitter is the Three Milks ($11); Ester's take on the Latin American Tres Leches Cake is realised with sheep's milk foam, ricotta panna cotta, olive oil biscuit and a generous slick of "more please" dulce de leche. There's also an excellent Salted Caramel Semi-freddo ($4) ashed with black sesame dust; plus, a dark Chocolate Gelato ($4), its rich, semi-bitter profile nicely rounded out by a high-contrast garnish of oregano; and there's a Fennel Ice Cream ($4) that surprised me in the best way. I'm not the biggest cheerleader for fennel – its loud, aniseed taste isn't for everyone. Here, though, it's clean and subtle; its screechy flavour pitched right down to a quiet, creamy delight. It reminds me a bit of the Buffalo Milk with Bay Leaf Gelato at Berta – bracing yet unshowy.
When it comes to restaurant's name, I probably need a chemistry lesson to properly explain to you what an ester is; in the case of this Chippendale eatery, though, I can tell you straight up – this is an excellent place worth your time. Top marks.
PS When I started this blog, I was amazed to even score 20 page views. Last week, this site somehow hit 1 million page views – which is a crazy milestone, when I think about it. Thanks to everyone who has ever dropped by, read my words and played a role in tipping that odometer into the 1 million range.