Thursday, November 20, 2014

Signorelli Gastronomia: Genuine Italian in Pyrmont

Finding restaurants for large group dining in Sydney is hard enough but add the limitations of budget and Pyrmont – and it's a whole next level.

Luckily for me, taking a punt on the literally hidden gem of Signorelli Gastronomia in the Accenture/Google building on Pyrmont Wharf paid off way more than the nearby casino could ever, despite the latter's ability to draw in the masses, including the fine dining and post lock-out crowds.

Shelves at Signorelli Gastronomia, Pirrama Road, Pyrmont
Owned and run by the group behind functions venue Doltone House, the entrance of Signorelli Gastronomia is like a hidden, back door, mouse hole into the corporate building, with a dark hallway revealing a cornucopia of Italian gastronomic delights: a warmly-lit open kitchen, shelves filled with pasta and Italian groceries, and dining tables in and around the wine cellar, cool room and other food-centric spaces.

Crispy skin snapper, caponata, sultanas and parsley puree
For large groups there are two set menus available, each with 2- or 3-course options – we went for the Long Table menu with its shared main and dessert platters, which make group dining a breeze, particularly when there are no or limited dietary requirements.

We started on great, big platters of snapper fillets, elevated from the table to a mouthwatering eye-level. Paired with a soft, sweet caponata medley of vegetables and a sprightly sauce of parsley puree, the crisp skin and perfectly cooked flesh of the snapper were utterly delightful and as satisfying as fish dishes come.

Braised beef cheek, polenta ‘Mugna’ button mushrooms and lardons
Alongside the snapper were hearty serves of tenderly braised beef cheek atop polenta with a rich mushroom sauce. As lovely and comforting as it was, it didn't feel like a spring-appropriate dish especially on a humidly warm night out.

Roasted potatoes
Sides included gorgeously crisp roasted chat potatoes with plenty of salt and rosemary, and a rocket and pear salad with walnut, parmesan cheese shavings and balsamic vinegar reduction as a dressing.

Rocket, pear, walnut and balsamic reduction

Butternut squash risott, leeks foam and confit lemons
Last to come out, pretty much after the other two mains were done which was unfortunate for the vegetarian, was the creamy pumpkin risotto that was beautifully rich in hue, texture and flavour. Sweet, creamy and with a bit of bite, it was about one of the most perfect risottos I've had around town.

Amaretto and Montenegro semifreddo
The Long Table menu's dessert offerings cater for both sweet and savoury preferences with a house Italian cheese selection and a platter of semifreddo wedges. The latter was like a particularly rich ice cream, with a subtle nuttiness that accentuated the velvety but saccharine dessert.

The cheese plate was initially served without crackers, which was interesting, though I couldn't quite reach the full selection of cheeses across the long table; probably for the better since I went pretty hard on mains earlier anyway.

Signorelli Gastronomia is a real deal, genuine Italian restaurant in an area that sometimes lacks authenticity and warmth. Fantastic for groups (and apologies to the couple near us who would have had to endure endless girly photos) and family dining, it strives for simplicity done well, and genuinely achieves its goal.

Signorelli Gastronomia on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ajó: A slice of Sardinia at the Welcome Hotel

Posted by Kath

Head down any one of Balmain's winding backstreets and you're sure to stumble across one of the many local pubs that the area is famous for.

One of these historic pubs is the Welcome Hotel which was founded in 1878 and still retains a local charm, with the benefits of a recent make-over and the brilliant introduction of head chef Daniel Mulligan (previously head chef at Pilu at Freshwater).

Entrance to the Welcome Hotel, Evans Street, Balmain
The pub recently welcomed Ajó restaurant into a cosy and sophisticated dining space, with sheltered outdoor seating to be enjoyed in the upcoming summer months.

Chef Mulligan brings a Sardinian inspired menu to the backstreets of Balmain. At a glance the new menu of regional Italian fare looked to be an exciting journey into one of my favourite cuisines. Accompanying the new menu is an impressive list of Italian and NSW wines with an equally impressive array of local craft beers for the beer lovers.

Freshly shucked Pambula oysters with shallot jelly
Being a newly converted oyster lover, after years of being put off by some lacklustre offerings, the freshly shucked Pambula Lake rock oysters were a fantastic indicator of what was in store for the night.

Adorned with delicate cubes of slightly zingy white balsamic vinegar and shallot jelly, they were fresh and creamy, making them a delight to eat with or without the jelly.

Marinated W.A sardines with charred foccacia
The majority of the dishes served up from the Ajó menu this night were largely seafood based, which I definitely had no complaints about.

To keep on theme our next dish was a row of thinly sliced and marinated sardines hiding under an eye catching bed of refreshing herbs and flowers. The oily goodness of the sardines and the refreshing salad of fennel, parsley, capers and flora were accompanied by some charred focaccia slices which provided the perfect vessel for consumption.

Queensland spanner crab, fregola, almond and marjoram
Highlighting the Sardinian influence on the menu was a moreish dish of fregola - a type of Sardinian pasta like large couscous grains.

This dish basically had the whole table silently enjoying the slightly chewy consistency of the pasta which was infused with the creamy flavour of sweet spanner crab and marjoram, with an added nuttiness from a smattering of almond flakes. I could have had two of these if only it wouldn't have called for a double dose of antihistamine.

Huon salmon, slow cooked peppers and vongole
Next up was a perfectly cooked piece of salmon on a bed of deliciously sweet peppers and onions, speckled with a few little clams. The skin on the salmon had a lovely crispness to it while the flesh flaked away and melted in the mouth.

The salmon combined with the sweet peppers made this one of my favourite dishes of the night, with the clams being a potentially unnecessary addition to the already wonderful flavours.

Mutton, baby artichokes, broad bean and olive caramel
The last main of the night was a surprising dish of mutton. I found the salty and sweet flavour of the olive caramel to be a welcome combination to the juicy pieces of medium rare mutton, pureed broad bean and slight tang of the artichokes.

Eton mess, strawberries and pistachio
To cap off the night we were presented with a not-so-Italian but spectacular rendition of an Eton mess. It was a cloud of delicious whipped cream studded with tiny pops of sugary meringue which had just the right amount of crunch and chew. Sliced strawberries added a refreshing tartness to cut through the delicious mouthfuls of sugar and cream, while the pistachios added another level of crunch and flavour that went beautifully when all combined.

Throughout the night we were plied with many a fine wine from various regions of NSW and Italy that were matched exceptionally well to each course by passionate owner Liam O'Keefe. This passion obviously extends across the whole offering at the Welcome Hotel, particularly within the casual elegance of the Ajó dining room - making it an enviable place to call your local.

Food, Booze & Shoes dined at Ajó as a guest, with thanks to The Cru Media.

Ajo on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 10, 2014

Pei Modern takes over at Four Seasons Hotel Sydney

In a growing sign that restaurant empires are the only way to go chef/restaurateur Mark Best, of globally-acclaimed Marque and the more casual Pei Modern in Melbourne, has brought the latter restaurant brand to Sydney, replacing the still relatively new The Woods just beyond the Four Seasons Hotel's front lobby.

Woodfired sourdough bread and butter from Pei Modern at Four Seasons Hotel, George Street, Sydney
I'm not one for politics of any sort, so I'll say that the restaurant's current look and feel is a bit slicker than previously, and leave it at that. The huge wood-fired oven remains in the kitchen and so wood-roasted dishes also continue to dominate the menu, starting with wood-fired sourdough bread.

Pei Modern dining room
While Pei Modern Sydney will be headed up by Pei Modern Melbourne chef Matt Germanchis, it was nice to see chef Best at the kitchen's pass during the restaurant's first week, in which I'm told it was very well received by Sydney locals.

Domaine de la Tour du Bon Bandol
In typical fine dining and/or top-end hotel style, it's always a great option and educational process to leave the wine to the experts.

For a sizeable group sharing a large proportion of the entire menu, the sommelier did well in pouring the Domaine de la Tour du Bon Bandol white wine, which matched exceptionally to a broad range of starters.

Clyde River rock oysters
Pei Modern's menu is split into a number of cutesy titled sections (one includes the term "go Cray-Cray" - seriously), but basically snacks and appetisers, salads and vegetable sides, larger dishes, meaty mains, and desserts and cheeses.

There's no better place to start than with "Some raw"; namely the simply stunning specimens of Sydney rock oysters from the Clyde River on the NSW south coast. These Sydney rocks were just outstanding; so fresh, creamy and packed with flavour.

I couldn't comment on the vinaigrette as a few drops of lemon were all I needed for oyster heaven before I started to worry that there was no way the rest of the meal could reach the heights of the oysters.

Culatello 'King of prosciutto'
Seeing my favourite salumi land on the table was reassuring though, with the culatello cured pork leg (literally translating from Italian as "little bum") served with pickled pear slices.

The culatello was thoroughly satisfying in both texture and flavour. Cut thin, but not too thin, with a slight edge of fat and some marbling, it had a real creamy, melt-in-the mouth characteristic and none of the stringiness you sometimes get with normal prosciutto. Personally, I didn't need the pickled pear although it made for a unique partner to the dish.

Anchovy, parmesan shortbread
We continued on raw snacks with a fairly intense combination of a salty Ortiz anchovy fillet on a crumbly parmesan shortbread with a dab of parmesan custard.

There was something quite striking about the simple presentation of the anchovies as a snack, and then palate-wise too with the major hit of salt from the anchovy which I found a little overwhelming with its cheesy accompaniments.

Beef tartare, local sea urchin, horseradish on toast
The last snack was the beef tartare with baby capers on toast, finished with crème fraîche, a casual draping of local sea urchin and grated horseradish.

I adored the velvety texture of the well seasoned raw beef which was piled generously onto the toast thin, though I'm still yet to appreciate sea urchin and its rather alkaline-y flavour.

Young dandelion, blood orange, bronze fennel
We moved on to the 'clean & green' section of the menu with an interesting salad of dandelion greens, which was definitely a first for me.

Crisp and slightly bitter, the dandelion leaves were paired with sweet blood orange slices and segments and topped with bronze fennel fronds in a very modern, very Australian and very sustainable dish.

La Luna goat cheese custard with asparagus
There was much more interest in the roasted asparagus dish which featured a blob of the most sensation custard made from La Luna goat's cheese. With the gorgeously charred asparagus spears dipped into or drizzled with the cheese custard, this may well be the one of the most impressive vegetarian dishes of the year.

Burrata, Romanesco, egg yolk jam
That full honour would probably go to the dish of burrata, sourced locally from Italian cheese masters Paesanella.

The stretchy, cream-filled cheese was an utter delight and anything but subtle, made only prettier and more desirable with its playmates of green Romanesco broccoli and a vibrant egg yolk with jam-like consistency.

Salt cod croquettes
The TV snack-worthy crumbed, potato gem-like croquettes were more traditional than I had expected and not at all oily, with hot, fluffy salt cod and potato innards and a golden outer, served with aioli.

Tiger prawns and slow cooked pineapple
Still on the snacky, appetiser menu, the large butterflied and roasted tiger prawns came dressed with a vadouvan spice blend which was enhanced by the small dice of sweetly and slow-cooked pineapple in an unexpected pairing.

Ricotta dumplings, kale, hazelnuts
The 'bigger bites' menu is designed to be a more substantial main or shared amongst the table, and the ricotta dumplings were pure comfort.

The large, soft pillows of gnocchi were paired prettily with kale leaves and a browned butter sauce, and contrasted nicely with the delicious crumble of roasted hazelnuts.

Whole Holmbrae chicken with yams
The whole Holmbrae chicken is a feat of kitchen technique. Not satisfied with a simple roast, the chickens are brined, steamed and smoked before being roasted in the wood-fired oven for beautifully crisp, golden skin and ridiculously tender flesh; pink bones to boot.

Salmon tail cooked on the bone, samphire and rouille
The most gorgeous main/shared dish had to be the salmon tail which is roasted on the bone in it's full skin and tail-on glory. The fatty flesh was cooked to flaking perfection and was simply divine with the sea-salty samphire, roasted tomatoes and traditional rouille sauce.

Milly Hill lamb shoulder cooked in chamomile
Sydney's favourite cut of lamb also makes an appearance on the menu, with the slow cooked Milly Hill lamb shoulder cooked and dressed in chamomile. The lamb shoulder wasn't quite falling off the bone, but the tender slices of self-sliced meat with the pan juices was as homely a dinner as could be.

Throw in some hand-cut sebago potato triple-cooked chips and it's a party for at least four diners to share.

Tamarillo, vanilla ice cream
We somehow made room for dessert, at least shared among the table. I loved the look of the roasted tamarillo dessert which featured the uncommon fruit with house-made vanilla ice cream. The softly roasted, tart fruit made for a lovely contrast with the creamy ice cream.

Spiced doughnuts, blood orange, whey butterscotch
I'm not one for doughnuts but I couldn't resist the cute, squat spiced ones filled with blood orange curd - just about as sophisticated a doughnut can get, served with a whey butterscotch sauce.

Meringue, white chocolate ganache, blueberries
The eye-opener was the brown sugar meringue served with a spectacular, thick, gooey ganache of caramelised white chocolate. All the sweetness was cut by fresh blueberries and lime zest, and even as a non-sweettooth, I was enamoured.

Duck egg sauternes custard and crostoli
We headed into classic Mark Best territory with the sauternes custard, served in a cropped egg shell with crostoli designed for dipping into the egg, soldiers style.

The duck egg custard was pure faultless luxury with the toffee-sweet sauternes, and satisfying enough on its own without the fried pasta strips.

Chocolate tart, eucalyptus cream
And it just kept going with Pei Modern's take on a chocolate tart, not so much deconstructed but reimagined. The biscuit base topped with chocolate ganache and tempered chocolate shards was a beautiful composition alongside a pool of rich salted caramel and eucalyptus-scented thick cream.

Cheese selection with quince paste and crackers
There was strong interest in the cheese selection of Holy Goat Brigid’s Well goat's cheese, the Pyengana 20-month clothbound cheddar and my absolute favourite of the lot, the Benison Blue from Gippsland, Victoria.

With quince paste, jam and some fabulous crackers, this was a classic cheese board promoting the very best of Australian cheeses.

Feeling like we'd eaten half the restaurant's menu, the clear highlights were the starting Sydney rock oysters, the burrata, the roasted salmon tail and the cheese selection. But with coverage over both standard hotel fare (read: steak and chips) and line-pushing modern Australian cuisine, Pei Modern is a key pillar of Best's restaurant empire that looks to dominate both casual and hotel dining in Sydney.

Food, Booze & Shoes dined at Pei Modern as a guest.

Pei Modern on Urbanspoon

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