Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Wake up and smell the coffee

The annual Rocks Aroma Festival seems to be getting bigger and bigger, and is becoming one of my favourite yearly events. This past Sunday’s event was somehow miraculously rain free, although the trip home wasn’t quite as lucky. The view from the train at Circular Quay at 1pm confirmed the massive crowds and the long straight lines at the coffee stands, plus people milling about by the water and all the way down George Street.

The Rocks Aroma Festival, George Street, Sydney
My first objective of the day was to get a coffee in my hands, and while this wasn’t difficult, it did require a good wait (though nothing compared to the wait for the ATM at Overseas Passenger Terminal). We decide on Danieli in The Continent region of the festival; not that their queues were any shorter than the others. They did, however, have freshly filled cannoli on sale, and while a bit pricey in my opinion at $4.50, it was well worth it.

Ricotta cannoli from Cafe Danieli
I chose a ricotta filling (supposedly with cherries and chocolate chips, though I might beg to differ) which was beautifully but not overly sweet; the highlight being the bubbled pastry case which was shatteringly crunchy and also fragrant with a sweet spice (nutmeg perhaps). Scoffed while waiting for our (quite good) $2 coffees, I can only hope that Café Danieli in The Rocks do these regularly and hunt them down next time.

Caffeine and sugar fuelled, we started our traipse around the harbour coffee world starting at the Grinders Coffee installation. Last year, it was the Mona Lisa – a perfect subject for the coffee colours and sepia tones of long blacks, flat whites and other milky coffees. Half way up the stairs looking down to the installation, the answer arises like the smell of coffee in the morning: it’s Marilyn Monroe – beauty spot and all.

Grinders Coffee Installation of Marilyn Monroe
From the top I can see that the detail and texture of the waves in her hair have been intricately coloured (poured?), and it’s an enchanting piece of art that makes the huff-and-puff up and down the stairs quite worthwhile.

Italian gingerbread
There was a great, large selection of stalls; many the same as last year but with a few newbies thrown in. One I was excited to see again was the Italian gingerbread and nougat stand, with their thick, golden, chewy gingerbread shapes. Electing a plain slice I can bite into the bread without the guilt of murdering a gingerbread man and enjoy the syrupy, semi-sweet, mildly spiced gingerbread a little at a time and have plenty left for morning tea the next day.

Yum cha by the Harbour Bridge
Heading into The Orient region, there’s an array of teas and chais but as for food, we headed straight for the dim sum station where a host of young Asians (entrepreneurial students?) were steaming a variety of dumplings and buns in woks and bamboo steamers. Again, an impressive selection including prawn, pork, chives, mushroom and chicken in the steamed section; BBQ pork and red bean buns, and deep fried spring rolls. We get the pork and the prawn, unceremoniously doused in vinegar sauce and chilli sauce and sit by the waterside. Yum cha on the harbour – works well except for the freezing wind – I don’t know how the outdoor diners at Doyles are doing it.

Pork and prawn dumplings from Dim Sum Station
The pork dumpling was a light mixture of minced pork and cabbage in a wheat flour pastry, delightful with the sweet vinegar, while the not-so-fresh prawns and bamboo shoots were encased in a gluggy and mushy glutinous rice flour pastry, thankfully somewhat concealed by lots of chilli sauce.

Camel rides at The Oasis
I spy the camels across the water on the southern end of Campbells Cove. This year, there are two sets of operators each with four of the comically-faced, single-humped beasts in a line. They’re always bigger than I think camels to be – bigger than a horse – and have the oddest jaw movement as they chew cud. They’d be great spokesmodels for a chewing gum brand. A deodorant brand might like to get in on the action too.

Chewing camel
The camels, and passengers, take a leisurely stroll past the diners at Park Hyatt on the wooden-planked walkway, with the rest of the crowds. The camels don’t seem perturbed by all the people nor the water, and they’re not much interested in the Opera House in the distance. They look like peaceful creatures but I wouldn’t get too close to those big chompers of theirs.

The Oasis area
There’s a great vibe in The Oasis region, as if we’ve just stumbled into a private party around the Campbells Cover corner. There’s a tented stage where music and dancing take place, although vantage points are few and far between. Plenty more stalls of sweets, food, Turkish coffee and tea including an impressive if not unusual range from iTea (think apple pie, whiskey drop and ginseng yoghurt teas). And more camels – of course.

Baklava galore
We make George Street the homeward stretch with a momentary detour to The Rocks markets. There was loads more food and ingredients down George Street although by late afternoon, many of them are low on or emptied of inventory. Freshly made crepes and waffles were drawing a crowd, while we find joy at Gelatissimo with coffee ice cream, and lemon and strawberry sorbets.

Large cupcakes from Cupcake Bakery - what an unnatural hue...
Fruit baskets by naked berry
It’s at this point of the festival, dark clouds looming over and the sun on its setting way, that I realise the beauty of the Rocks Aroma Festival: it has the best of festivals in the great outdoors, food, like-minded souls, connoisseurs even; but none of the very worst of festivals – drunken endings and general trashiness.

There was even a lingering feel, as if some people didn’t want to leave, while everyone leaving seemed pretty satisfied. Congrats to the organisers on another successful event, and I can’t wait till next year when I can wake up and smell the coffee – again.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Easy does it

Just because something is easy, doesn't make it less worthy or satisfying. Low-hanging fruit, one-pot meals, Havvies and of course, Sunday mornings. If it achieves a goal, that's all that really matters. Because in the end it's a delicate balance of time and effort with achievement and satisfaction; and more of one doesn't necessarily mean more of another.

I wouldn’t advise rocking up to Iiza on a Saturday night without a booking, although the head waiter was very, very accommodative to our unbooked table of two. Any necessary wait can be easily wiled away window shopping nearby, or with a quick schooner at the ever-lively Coopers Hotel (Fat Yak on tap, thanks).

Outside looking in to Iiza, King Street, Newtown

The outdoor footpath seating isn’t ideal for windy, wintery nights although the heaters do their jobs commendably this slightly chilly evening, as too the warm smiles of the kimono-clad waitresses. Perhaps a characteristic of the izakaya style dining, Iiza's menu has categories mostly by cooking style, other than the starters – which seem a good place to commence.

Sashimi appetiser

This day’s combination of salmon, tuna and kingfish in the sashimi appetiser are faultless. Served in an earthenware bowl full of ice chips, the vibrant and thickly sliced fish are fresh of flavour and texture; the serving just enough to whet two appetites.

Yakitori skewers - chicken thigh fillet with sweet soy sauce

Delightfully, the yakitori come in three varieties on the starters menu: a breast fillet version with a puzzling cheese and anchovy basil sauce, a chicken ball with sansho pepper, and the most traditional – thigh fillet with a sweet soy sauce. We opted for the traditional route and were justly rewarded with hot and juicy skewers slathered with the smilingly sweet sauce and just a hint of grill flavour. I’m sure I could be content to just eat yakitori with rice as a meal, but they say variety is the spice of life.

Soft shell crab salad

When is a salad not your typical healthy, potentially bland and boring salad? When you add soft shell crab. This salad in disguise is a winner – lightly battered soft shelled crabs climb the pile of green papaya and mixed lettuce leaves, steeping in a sweet, tartly spicy dressing. It's quite a harmonius combination with a distinct Asian influence, but not any cuisine in particular. The salad is topped off with shredded scallions and thin slivers of roasted red capsicum that add a dazzling visual as well as textural flavour.

Assorted tempura

The tempura arrives as an impressive assortment with uncommon, but lovely, zucchini flowers and enoki mushrooms in the mix, along with prawns, eggplant, sweet potato, beans and capsicum. It's served with tempura dipping sauce - a sweet soy mixture - but also a lemon quarter and a green tea salt (which in hindsight was probably meant for sprinkling rather than dipping into, as it was way too salty doing the lattter). Everything is cooked with a delicate touch with the slightly crunchy batter leaving behind very little oil at all.

Kakuni pork belly

The pork belly doesn’t look too large a portion, but it certainly packs a substantial, filling punch. Braised overnight in a traditional soy-based stock, according to the menu, it’s devastatingly rich – as if the fat had melted down and resumed position within the meat and every other part. Except there are still layers of melty fat between the skin and flesh.

The flavour is of soy and mostly saccharine, so the presence of mustard is a particularly welcome, as too steamed rice to stop the pork belly from sliding right down my throat and directly to my belly. With more of the roasted capsicum slivers on top, this is certainly a great, hearty winter's night dish.

It's probably not a lingering spot at the outdoor tables - getting a bit chilly and seeing other hungry, waiting unbooked groups. For an impromptu dinner, it was simple and satisfying - and isn't that how life should be?

Iiza on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Taking the bad with the good

There’s inevitably good and bad in everything and furthermore, it’s all subjective too. I keep this in mind as I think about the Good Food & Wine Show, recently on at the Sydney Exhibition Centre in Darling Harbour.

The festive [yellow tail] stand at the Good Food & Wine Show at the Sydney Convention & Exhibition Centre, Darling Harbour

There definitely seems to be a food craze sweeping around town and probably sticking around for good; lest who would have thought so many people would be interested in paying to peruse a few exhibition halls of pantry items and wines, let alone shopper trolleys stuffed full with products?

Flexible silicon lids for anything

The afternoon starts walking by a huge snaking line at the door sales and straight into the fray of exhibition stands and hordes fighting for samples. It’s reminds me of the showbag hall of the Royal Easter Show back in the days at Moore Park, when you’re just as likely to have a pram or stroller roll over your foot as to be pushed from side to side at the front of any queue at any stall.

Cookie Couture does Christmas (in July)...

... and jumps on the macaron tower bandwagon

Fridge full of 1664 beer

I’ll keep this short as I don’t like to dwell on negativity. There were quite a few samples and associated vulture behavior, and also a few things worth purchasing; namely:
  • blu Gourmet Pearl Couscous, spruiked and cooked on site by Gabriel Gate in a scrummy Morrocan spice with vegetables, and a confused Szechuan pepper and bacon combo. I love the texture of the pearl couscous; like barley but with the flavour versatility of pasta. I actually chucked it into a leftover Thai red curry to bulk it up and it was fabulous.
  • Choya plum wine (umeshu) is a fave to have with Japanese and other subtle cuisines over lots of ice. There were also some interesting sake offerings including a cloudy white one that was said to be “creamy”.
  • Miracle Shammy, in the same vein as Sham Wow to the point of imitation demonstrators, which did a pretty impressive absorbing job with Pepsi on a square of carpet.
  • Jack Link’s beef jerky showbag, filled with packets of dried beef products, for that real Easter Show feeling. I liked the chunkier beef nuggets more than the drier and chewier jerky; but there’s something in me that can’t stop thinking about dog snacks when I eat these.
Image of the Otto

My highlight of the show would have to have been the sexy Otto stovetop espresso maker and a chat with founder Craig Hiron at the Toby’s Estate stand. Craig walked through his creation with us, which he has clearly put his passion and a lot of effort into – especially the production and distribution side. The result is essentially an espresso shot (with crema) and frothed milk from a stovetop coffee maker; plus a gorgeous gadget homage to the older Italian-designed Atomic.

Piccolo latte from Toby's Estate (not the Otto one though...)

The lowlight was probably the “restaurant”, which I think is a great concept executed extremely poorly. In the most likely scenario, I think the celebrity chefs have their mugs plastered onto the stands with their recipes cooked by staff in foreign and probably ill-equipped makeshift kitchens – it’s no Taste. Snaking queues, some very indifferent Convention Centre staff, and trying to cook to order. For a queue of about 50, waiting 30 minutes before even placing an order – that process is a major fail.

Pete Evans' chilli mussels on rice with Asian herbs

The chilli mussels were wok-tossed in the sauce that became more a soup, which tasted a little too much like sweet chilli sauce for my liking. With softened cherry tomatoes and a load of sliced red chilli, a few slivers of shallots and a few coriander leaves; the dish's only saviour were the mussels - silky smooth, just cooked and not a grain of sand or grit - kudos to the suppliers.

Riedel Wine Theatre

Having missed out on tickets the Celebrity Chef Theatre, we were consoled with seats at the Riedel Wine Theatre – and just, as it was essentially a free-for-all for the 70-odd seats with Jamie Oliver associate Matt Skinner leading the tastings.

Tasting red wines with Riedel

This final session of the day was "The red revolution"; six Riedel glasses with tastes of some more unusual Aussie reds. Some cheese and crackers would have been perfect - I think there were certainly more than a few people who were over the limit according to the breathalyser. The fave was the Wirra Wirra RSW Shiraz 2007, while the Banrock Station Montepulciano 2009 was a new taste.

With renewed vigour post tasting, we ventured back into the mess that had become the wine section of the show. I can't count how many tasting glasses I saw and heard dropping and shattering on the ground (hint: plastic next year) and a vibe starting to resemble Kings Cross a few hours past midnight. There were certainly a lot of wine exhibitors and I hope they did well in sales for all the tastings they were providing.

A few more wines and samples later, the call was put out essentially to get out of there. I was physically tired and mentally exhausted, sick of the crowds. In the end, it felt like a strenuous day at a poorly designed supermarket – and this coming from someone who loves grocery shopping. Getting out into the night was cold but quite refreshing - taking the bad with the good.

SkyView Wheel in Darling Harbour

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Home delivery

There aren't many things I think I can make better than, or even equal to, a restaurant. What I have discovered though, is something that I really have fun doing, I can completely customise and is also not too bad eating for the amount spent.

Pizza. If I could, I would probably make it with a super thin, crisp base with a just a few simple, quality ingredients: prosciutto and rocket, or bocconcini and basil. But I'm not quite there on the base yet. I used a recipe out of Pete Evans' 'My Grill' cookbook, thinking that if they're anything like Hugo's pizzas, that'll do.

The most fun part has to be the yeast stage of the dough: first, the bubbly, pungent mix and then mixing in flour for the first prove. Call it scientific curiosity or childish awe - I love waiting for the yeast to do its thing for an airy, sticky ball of dough.

First prove of pizza dough

I also love how recipes call for a punch to knock the air out of the dough - for getting some internalised aggression out in the kitchen (nah, it's all fairies and rainbows in me). And if you're up for a workout, I think kneading dough is worthwhile although one really needs to make sure that the work space is the right height. And it's definitely not a sit down job.

And as for toppings, here's the problem I've come across. Having pizza out, you're usually restricted on toppings for a number of reasons: set topping combinations; cost; what the base can physically handle; and fear of getting looks of horror and disgust when the chef/waiter/whoever discovers you're a complete and utter hog.

This all goes out the window at home: there are no rules; you can have whatever you can afford at the supermarket; if your excessive toppings fall off onto the ground, you can apply the three-second rule; and the only person judging will be yourself and whoever you're feeding - and surely they won't mind.

Field mushroom and cherry tomato topping

While I adore button mushrooms on most occasions, I must seriously recommend field mushies as a pizza topping. The intensified flavour as well as the greater coverage on top give it a clear advantage, although if they're not available, I'm still quite happy with buttons - perhaps tossed with garlic and parsley in a pan before adding.

Cherry tomatoes add a healthy, sweet and juicy element; furthering the red colour scheme on top of the tomato passata used sparingly on the base so that it has a chance at getting crisp.

Field mushroom,cherry tomato, rocket pizza

As can be seen, lashings of mozzarella cheese was added (cheese fiend, after all) along with seasoning and a few leaves of rocket for greenery and freshness (to say nothing of the ongoing rocket addiction).

To cut, we removed the entire pizza from the tray - well floured so as to not stick - and just chucked it on a chopping board; rather than risking tray or knife damage by doing it on the tray. I haven't got a pizza cutter, but I rather like the cutting and serving on a wooden board.

Now for your close-up...

The cheese had gotten to a perfectly browned appearance with the stringy texture to match. All it takes is camping out in front of the oven watching the cheese melt and bubble for a handful of minutes (I forget how many - I was too enthralled by watching cheese melt). Hopefully, if the base is thin enough and the oven hot enough, the base should cook through in the same matter of minutes.

Another trick was to heat the pizza tray before getting the dough base on it, though this is a little trickier and potentially dangerous if you decide to really push that cheese into the pizza.

Chorizo, caramelised Spanish onion, chilli and sage pizza

Caramelised onions add an extra dimension as a pizza topping and while some preparation is required compared to raw onion, the bonus is no onion breath. This topping combination is inspired by one of the favourites down at GPO at No.1 Martin Place, but with so much more of everything bar chilli flakes. The sage was in the lonely in the fridge, so on it went.

Two pizzas for two, with leftovers for breakfast pizza, all washed down with one of the delightful Firestick shirazs from the Hunter Valley trip weeks earlier - tutto buonissimo!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Painting the town red

Excuse me for sounding old, but these days a night on the town is more likely to involve some new or untried restaurant in the city, as opposed to what it used to mean – at least half a dozen drinks in some seedy club or bar, questionable dancing and a sleepy morning cab ride home. Dining choices are now far more exciting than club nights – and I relish the chance to try somewhere I’ve never been before.

A little while back, I ended up at Foveaux in my old hood of Surry Hills, courtesy of an Entertainment Book offer too good to refuse. The early booking turns out to be a good idea, surprisingly, with the full attention of the staff and kitchen; and time for lingering post dinner cocktails and friends at Foveaux’s downstairs hidey-hole bar, Red Door.

Inside Foveaux, Foveaux Street, Surry Hills

The interior is inoffensively likeable, from the very moment I walk through the sliding front door to the moment I head to the dim downstairs bar. I wasn’t likely to have enough time for the tasting menu this visit, which, at $75 for six courses, is incredibly impressive value. Luckily, I’m in a decisive mood, and a bit excitable too as it’s been a while since hats were anywhere near my plate.

The wine list is brief by the glass, with the French Domaine du Haut Bourg muscadet and Italian Castel Firmian pinot nero our picks. The latter is admittedly a touch too acidic for my tastes but the muscadet is certainly a variety I’ll keep an eye out for in future outings.

Turnip veloute with juniper oil

Promptly following a choice of a petite white or wholemeal bread roll – swiftly demolished with butter and salt; the only remnants being the flour on my black cardigan – the purty glasses of the amuse bouche arrive. A turnip veloute, we’re told, with juniper oil among other ingredients (short attention span). It’s pleasantly warm and creamy; the complex flavours peaking with a strong bitterness at the back of the palate. I’m not sure if I like it or not, but it sets the see-saw tone of the night.

Sautéed Hervey Bay scallops, venison heart, sesame puree, crushed beetroot and la goya jus

Our entrées were selected with uncharacteristic lightning speed, perhaps due to the presence of some lovable starring ingredients. Scallops are seldom bad picks in my books, paired with an uncommon venison heart – very Snow White and not a turn-off to me in the way liver and other offal can be. The sweetness of the crushed beetroot is the perfect foil for the heart – which is medium-rare, of the texture of a rehydrated Chinese shiitake mushroom, faintly meaty and metallic in taste, and unexpectedly affable.

The sesame puree was not at all overpowering as expected, but rather a soft and smooth accompaniment to the slight crunch of the seared scallop, beautifully cooked to a slippery, opaque centre.

Caramelised pork belly, ceviche prawn, black pudding puree, shiso and prawn rice cracker

Decadent as expected, the golden rectangle of pork belly was actually silver medallist in the appearance stakes – second to the pool of black pudding puree, which looked as if it had spilled out of the pork itself. Prawn – in chopped pieces of ceviche and crunchy cracker form – dances atop the melt-in-the-mouth fat and flesh, which has a savoury taste sensation unique to pork, in my view.

It’s a varied collection of ingredients that looks like a contemporary artwork and has a similar polarising overall taste verdict. With the near undivided attention of the kitchen, mains are not long in following.

Braised lamb neck, couscous, prune puree, Spanish onion, carrot and orange

The braised lamb is pure winter comfort; a generous rather cylindrical helping that you could cut with a spoon. Presented on top of a bed of couscous, they were both doused in an intense orange sauce, which actually overpowered any other flavour on the plate, unfortunately.

The carrot was spared, although it was probably one component that could have used the helping hand of the citrus hit. The Spanish onion was a standout, insanely caramelised and sweet that peeling each purple layer off was perversely pleasurable; while the flourishes of prune puree were nicely understated.

Herb baked leather jacket, braised rabbit, lettuce, peas and green olive puree

The leather jacket fillets admittedly don’t look too exciting; herb baked but rather pale in appearance, especially against the lines of verdant green olive puree and dots of peas. The slightly ironic combination of rabbit and lettuce underneath is at some odds with the fish itself. The tender strips of rabbit were slightly gamey, thus making a strange bedfellow for the well-cooked but subdued leather jacket. Perhaps it was all the greenery, but this dish had me thinking spring when it was clearly not spring out of those doors.

Buttered kipfler potatoes, garlic, chive

The kipflers are golden nuggets of fluffy potato, reminiscent of potato gems, dressed in a load of butter, garlic and chives. There’s a vanilla flavour in the potatoes that I can’t quite place, and to be honest, I’m a little too full to really appreciate them in their buttery, golden glory.

By the time we’ve finished our mains, the restaurant’s several tables are filled with many a tasting menu – it seems good value escapes no one. But I’m particularly pleased that it did escape me, as I still maintained a voracious appetite for dessert.

Salad of pineapple, kaffir lime, yellow curry with coconut sorbet and rice paper

It’s an exciting, and also sizeable, pre-dessert we’re presented with, in yet another desirable serving vessel. The mere mention of curry oil is titillating, and the pineapple pieces with finely chopped kaffir lime leaves deliver spoonfuls of initial fascination followed by genuine appreciation. Paired with the sweet coconut sorbet and crispy spiced rice paper, it’s hard not to think to of sweet Thai curries. I was honestly enthralled and my anticipation was heightened for the actual dessert.

Braised watermelon, passionfruit marshmallow, sheep’s yoghurt sorbet, pink grapefruit, fruit salad sage and crumble

And what a stunning dessert it was. Sold on the menu’s mention of marshmallow, I find it to be much more of an attraction than the braised cubes of the softly red watermelon. The marshmallow cubes are torched brown on their flat tops with immensely sticky but firm innards that explode and shout of passionfruit, more so than the actual fruit even. Each cube is a few mouthfuls of bliss that I regret being torn away from, but to try the rest of the dish.

The watermelon is a juicier, denser version of its original self, topped with shreds of the peculiar fruit salad sage, which is a bit minty with a touch of bitterness. On bitter tastes, the pale pink gel of pink grapefruit provided the other end of the scale to the passionfruit marshmallow; an extreme 10 in bitterness and tartness to marshmallow’s pure sweetness.

I kind of understand all the components when taking the sheep’s yoghurt sorbet into consideration. It’s light and undeniably sheep-ish, perfectly partnered with the watermelon and sage, slowly melting on to the buttery shortbread-like crumble like an ice cream sandwich of sorts.

Part of Foveaux's red theme

Pulling away from the oblivion created by the dessert, I notice the restaurant filled to the brim, with table after table arising from the back stairs of the bar. Going in reverse, we lick clean the dessert plate and down the remnants of our French whites and Italian reds, to descend into the dim basement level of Red Door.

There’s an array of seating for twos, threes, groups and masses; and a particularly amusing and extensive cocktail list to ponder while guessing if you actually know those people in the dark distance or the corner. As I pick a drink that’s an “homage to the silent movie stars of the Roaring ‘20s”, it turns out I do know those people in the dark corner, and it’s a few seconds of furniture rearrangement (with help from the staff and flexible seats) before we’re a mass drinking fancy cocktails.

Mine is of the name of a forgotten male actor (really, I’ve forgotten), with a rum of sorts, lemon juice and shaken egg white in a martini glass. It’s expectedly tart but perfect perched on a low stool chatting to unexpected company in the dark lower ground bar – that’s painting the town red for me these days.

Foveaux on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 9, 2010

(Not so) Big Berta

Sydney’s really starting to get its small bar groove on, and as a proud Sydney-sider, I feel it’s almost my duty to support them to make sure they stick around for good and change the big beer barn mindset (Oktoberfest excluded, of course).

In my sights this evening is the fairly new Berta in Surry Hills, from the already uber cool and popular-with-locals Vini lineage, also in Surry Hills. Seekers beware – it’s ever so slightly difficult to find. First of all, finding the obscure laneway street off Goulburn Street, and then not losing faith when you find the lane that has nothing but garage roller doors and half-finished street construction. There is one glass doorway from which warm light radiates, and even that looks empty from the street.

But you don’t judge a small bar from its door on the quiet street. Pushing the heavy (or yet to be eased in) glass entry door, we find ourselves in a little foyer, like a Japanese genkan even, though I wouldn’t remove shoes at this point. The next similarly heavy door reveals a warm, yellow-ish lit corridor and, if your eyesight is good enough, some life down the end.

Walking through the narrow-ish walkway with what looks like a stand-up bar along one side, we gradually hear more sounds, start to smell some tantalising aromas, and the splodges from afar become people. Lots of people, in fact, in a classroom sized space with two large blackboards facing each other with the night’s food and wine by the glass options. The compact bar displays a wealth of wine bottles and a range of glasses to match, while the other end of the restaurant features huge glass windows looking out to graffiti-ed brick walls and barbed wire fences.

Braccheto (front) and Prosecco (back) from Berta, Alberta Street, Surry Hills

There’s seating at the bar, and then a row of high bar tables with stools (where I perch, legs swinging), a row of square tables (where there’s a group dining) and a row of round tables by the window, in addition to narrow side benches with stools.

The black-clad staff are mostly cheerful and very helpful with the exclusively Italian wines and the shared plates menu; the former of which features half glasses – an ingenious idea made for tastes or light drinkers, at no more cost than the full pour glasses. We start on prosecco – lightly bubbly and a little too easy to drink – and the lighter, fruitier of the reds – a Bracchetto which has an almost floral perfume and twirls lightly on the palate.

The food menu includes appetisers, entrees, sides and mains, as well as desserts which don’t appear on the blackboard. Our waitress advises on the ideal order size for two sharing (an entrée, a side and two mains) and we do something of the like from the succinct but tempting menu. Sadly, they had just run out of suckling pig that night, so we were painfully jealous seeing plates of the burnished brown skin, flesh and bone circling us to other tables. Nonetheless, we had an intriguing mix of dishes headed to ours.

Cuttlefish, zucchini, preserved lemon

Cuttlefish seems to be the ingredient du jour, as I’ve seen it around a lot in the last month or so. First impression is that the dish is quite small, but the flavour hit is quite something. Pan fried in squid ink, the small pieces of cuttlefish are deliciously tender with a fresh savoury taste while taking up lots of the flavour of preserved lemon, quartered chunks of which are surprisingly not astringent. The thinly sliced rounds of zucchini soak up the rest of the flavours for a balanced, well rounded dish – it definitely sets the sophisticated tone and high expectations for the rest to come.

Fried whitebait with bagna cauda

The special of whitebait was an immediate choice for us, although I think a better partner to beer than wine, especially not the fruity Brachetto I was drinking. A pile of lightly fried whole whitebait sit next to a warm dipping sauce of bagna cauda – an anchovy laced aioli really, strong on both fish and garlic.

Heavily seasoned, the whitebait taste fresh, with that feeling of bones and heads and tails disintegrating on the tongue and in the throat, nicely tempered with the creamy bagna cauda. Not being a huge fan of the extremely fishy anchovies, I actually found this plate enjoyable, particularly with radicchio providing a contrasting taste and texture.

A small pause gave us time for the next round of half wine glasses (it was a school night), with the next couple of reds in line – a Dolcetto and one I forget the name of which was to have “mushroomy, barnyard-y flavours”. The former was again a light tipple, less sweet on the palate than the Bracchetto; while the latter certainly had a musty aroma and was much more full-bodied – perfect for the oncoming main.

Lentils, leek, raddichio

If I were to become a vegetarian today, I would want the braised lentils at Berta everyday. I wouldn’t even mind some today as an omnivore. In the dim of the restaurant, the lentils are dark so I’m not sure if they were black or dark brown, but I am sure that they were completely and utterly scrumptious.

I want to cuddle the bowl with a spoon all by myself, but that would probably be rude with company. There’s the sweet savouriness from the barely visible cooked -down leeks and no bitterness at all from the radicchio. The lentils actually have a meaty flavour, so I wonder if they’ve been braised in a meat-based stock, but the flavour is so spot-on that I momentarily forget that’s there’s the actual meat main dish to come.

Oxtail, jerusalem artichoke, broad beans, olives

The oxtail dish again surprises in its rather small sizing, but again, the ingredients stand out and provide great depth in flavour and presentation. It’s a deep brown stew of small boneless pieces of oxtail with soft, yielding meat and tendon richness. Indeed, the jerusalem artichokes pieces are bigger (although the two are almost indistinguishable from each other in the dim light), cooked to a complete softness and natural sweetness with the skin the only thing holding its shape.

Then there are bright green sparkles of broad beans, a subdued flavour addition compared to the pitted black olives; all together a comforting dish (especially with the lentils) with satisfying high and low flavour notes.

Looking around post meal, most people are eating as well as drinking, with little-seen Italian wine bottles all over the place. In the small space of exposed concrete, it’s quite a loud place but it was nice to see both clientele and staff/kitchen bustling away in a happy manner. It wasn’t just somewhere to drink or eat or work – it was more; more than just the sum of its parts and just the way Sydney’s small bars should be.

Berta on Urbanspoon


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...