Restaurant review: The Butler

What makes a restaurant successful? Does it offer something the city was missing, or suggest a fresh approach that deserves to catch on? Is it blogged about the most? Does it have the most instagram-worthy dishes? Have I gone back, or wished I could?

Sub-consciously, most of us are analysing these questions every time we dine out. In the case of The Butler, it is hard to pin down why the restaurant works, because it certainly does, but why exactly is a mystery to me.

Cured swordfish from the "seafare" menu

Cured swordfish from the “seafare” menu

Just down from Ms G’s on Victoria Street, The Butler has replaced Italian stalwart Mezzaluna, with a garden-inspired fit out, that combines the original sandstone walls of the building. Executive Chef James Privett who has worked under the likes of veteran chefs Damien Pignolet, Janni Kyritsis and Anders Ousback, is rocking no boats with a simple, small and share-plated list of crowd-pleasers. Tabasco prawns with coconut quinoa actually have a good kick of spice while crisp skin, still-pink salmon is paired with what is listed as curried yoghurt and spiced eggplant but tastes more just like yoghurt and eggplant. Steak frites work surprisingly well as a shared dish, the rib eye cut into slices and served with tapenade and parsley butter. Carafes of Pimms and peach lemonade spritz suit the ladies-who-lunch clientele with an on-trend mix of both imported and boutique beers.

Anna Lisle

The Butler

The Life of Riley (St Garage)

The joint is jumpin’: mixologists flamboyantly pour drinks to those who’ve nabbed a seat at the bar while chefs shuck away, sending out wooden Ruinart boxes of oysters to their fate. A bluesy soundtrack wafts over the vast space as patrons sip and slurp, oblivious to the muggy heat that has enveloped the rest of Sydney.

The glamorous space on the Woolloomooloo end of Riley Street is certainly accustomed to the finer things in life. Prior to its reincarnation as a restaurant, Riley Street was once multi-billionaire Frank Lowy’s garage, storing, what I can only imagine, would have been a bevy of luxury cars. This is pure speculation but, let’s be honest, the co-founder of Westfield and Australia’s fourth richest man in 2014 is unlikely to arrive at a meeting in a Ford Fiesta.

Inspired by NYC's Meatpacking District

Inspired by NYC’s Meatpacking District

It is only fitting that stepping into Riley Street Garage provokes memories of New York nights, sipping martinis in a dark and brooding restaurant in the meat packing district. The Art Deco interior combines sky-high walls of exposed concrete with polished wooden floorboards and leather stools and, despite what you may assume, food here refuses to play second fiddle. Chef Regan Porteous has an impressive resume, hailing from Maze in London, Hong Kong and Dubai before working locally at Toko in Surry Hills. His Japanese experience can be seen in dishes such as the ‘fish n’ chip’ tartare with miso dressing, a cheeky play on a classic Aussie favourite, with paper thin ‘chips’ and raw fish. The beef carpaccio is dotted with capers, brioche croutons, aioli and micro herbs with a subtle soy vinegar that allows the beef to stand on its own, without detracting from the quality of the produce. A punchy pickled vinaigrette, tossed over chunks of perfectly seared tuna, fight for attention in the mouth.

Ladies Who Lunch: $60 set menu with sparkling 12-3pm every saturday

Ladies Who Lunch: $60 set menu with sparkling 12-3pm every saturday

Oysters are the star attraction, served in an ice-filled wooden Ruinart box, there’s two varieties of the day; Pacific and Sydney rock with four variations: natural, smoked soy truffle, mignonette jelly and tempura. Shucked at the bar, the smokey soy truffle is hands-down the crowd favourite and a dish that we all agree we will return for. Still-translucent scallops are served in the half shell and paired with a glorious citrus (yuzu) koshu garlic butter, that I would happily eat in spoonfuls, without anything else.

Just a short cab ride from the CBD, Riley Street also offers a “PitStop” menu from Tuesday – Friday, offering $12 burgers and, our favourite, a mini crispy pork knuckle with pickled apple salad and fries ($20).

Anna Lisle

Riley Street Garage

Sydney says yes to Sake Double Bay

Sean Presland’s name may be behind this venture, but the star chef is not in the kitchen. Instead, he has handed the reins to talented import Min Kim, who turns out some of the most accomplished Japanese food in the city.

In Japan, you don’t go to a restaurant for ‘Japanese’, you go to a specific restaurant that serves only one type of dish; ramen, sushi, tempura, izakaya, robata, yakitori, soba, tonkatsu, shabu-shabu or teppanyaki. Rarely are any of these two dishes served in the one place, and if they are served together, I probably wouldn’t eat there. I’m on the conservative end of the foodie spectrum; almost always preferring a classic dish, as opposed to a modern interpretation and the same applies to staying true to a cuisine. In Australia, we don’t follow Japanese tradition; we start with sashimi, a cold soba salad, perhaps a few mouthfuls of sushi before venturing into crunchy morsels of tempura, followed by robata and yakitori skewers. And, I’m so happy we do and dinner at Sake reminds us why we are so lucky that this is the case.

The robata grill steals the show; baby beetroot, feta yoghurt and tomato relish

The robata grill steals the show; baby beetroot, feta yoghurt and tomato relish

Chef Min Kim delivers on all fronts; from delicate slices of sashimi from the sushi counter and simple tempura vegetables to textural salads and perfectly balanced mains, but, it is the robata grill that steals the show. Heated to 700°C, the cooking process is to steam, smoke and grill, all at once. The end result is nothing short of brilliance. Stalks of Peruvian white asparagus are charred and smoky, with just the right amount of crunch, sprinkled with flakes of bonito. The braised shortrib falls off the skewer and, I’m exaggerating (but only slightly), the meat dissolves on the tongue. Lamb chops are served with a wasabi chimichurri while corn is charred and lathered in a spiced shiso butter.

Give the chef at the sushi counter your budget and let the team design you a menu

Give the chef at the sushi counter your budget and let the team design you a menu

At any restaurant, on any day, there are a handful of dishes that I will always order. Glacier 51 Toothfish is one of them. Years of illegal fishing has meant that this gloriously oily and flavoursome fish, also known as Patagonian Toothfish, has been off the menu. Only in the past few years, after the endangered species was managed in a sustainable way, has this prized fish popped back up in kitchens, with Sake Double Bay being one of them. Min treats the toothfish with the respect that a fish, that can live up to 50 years and weigh in at over 100 kilograms, deserves.

Anna Lisle

Sake Double Bay 

Flat white by day, espresso martini by night

The charming Republic 2 Courtyard is home to a handful of Sydney’s hospitality heavyweights; take Lucio’s for authentic pizza margherita, Phamish for sticky duck and shallot pancakes or Jazz City Milk Bar to slurp on a peanut butter milkshake. Now, there’s Civilian, a slick space offering a smooth flat white by day and an espresso martini by night.

Once home to Christine Manfield’s acclaimed Universal restaurant (which closed in 2013), Civilian is the prodigy of Adelaidians Steve Pirone and Steve Waldeck. While most of the restaurant has a South Australian stamp  with the restaurant design completed by Studio Gram, the driving force in the kitchen is chef Andy Ball, formerly of Bel Mondo and, impressively, former UK Chef of the Year.

Brioche, poached plum, pistachio, ricotta and rosewater syrup

Brioche, poached plum, pistachio, ricotta and rosewater syrup

Brunch is about as fancy as a bacon and egg roll can get. There’s no boring (but delicious) bacon, but instead tonkatsu (a Japanese breaded pork cutlet), coupled with our favourite kewpie mayo. The yoghurt in our fruit salad is of the goats milk variety and instead of the standard avo’ smash, crushed edamame beans make a textural and nutty alternative.

 

Getting down to business though, the heart of this place can be seen in the lunch and dinner menu where a classic French sauce vierge is coupled with tiger prawns deglazed with vermouth; spicy miso pork belly and NZ snapper sits atop house made linguine with a ham hock stock. Alternatively , the ‘Feed Me’ menu, which includes six courses as selected by the chef sounds like the perfect Civilian initiation.

Anna Lisle

Civilian

Fassnidge’s Four in Hand Dining Room

Best Restaurants Senior Editor Anna Lisle visits hatted Paddington restaurant, the Four in Hand Dining Room, owned by Sydney-based Chef Colin Fassnidge.

At 9pm on a Saturday night, the Four in Hand is heaving. Clusters of well-heeled locals smoke Malboro Lights on the footpath while their mates nurse bottles of ice cold schooners of a local froth, eyes glued to the TV as they watch the Aussies sledge the poms into submission. This isn’t a particularly busy Saturday night, in fact, on any given weekend, the Four in Hand is a home away from home for many Paddington locals, myself included. It’s one of the few pubs that hasn’t been revamped; ask a Four in Hand regular what it looks like, and all you’ll get out of them is a story about the last time they were there.

The Four in Hand Dining Room received One Chef Hat in the 2015 SMH Good Food Guide

The Four in Hand Dining Room received One Chef Hat in the 2015 SMH Good Food Guide

This is the entrance to the hatted Four in Hand dining room, where Head Chef and owner Colin Fassnidge rules the roost. He’s arguably more commonly recognised for his hardline persona on My Kitchen Rules however, in the food world, he’s Australia’s answer to Fergus Henderson. The menu is dotted with pigs tails, marrow and pigs trotters but Fassnidge has finetuned each dish to ensure that each dish isn’t just appealing to the offal-friendly. In fact, the pork- and potato-heavy menu is just as appealing and exciting to lenient pescetarians.

Leave room for dessert, Fassnidge's menu is one of the best in Sydney

Leave room for dessert, Fassnidge’s menu is one of the best in Sydney

Pickled strawberries are paired with a duo of cured and raw tuna however, it’s dishes such as his DIY bone marrow that make your meal a memorable one. An Irish ‘san choy bao’, diners are encouraged to scoop spoonfuls of crab, avocado and flecks of macadamia out of a roasted bone marrow and onto raw sorrel leaves. There’s quite a knack to it, trying to get as much marrow juice into each mouthful without dripping it on the tablecloth. Don’t let this put you off because the more marrow, the better. Corned beef may have gained popularity during the World Wars, when fresh meat was rationed, but there’s nothing that reminds one of canned bully beef in this dish. Laced in bresaola, hunks of slightly salted beef fall apart with a fork, topped with grated fresh buffalo curd. It’s hard to avoid any of Colin’s pig dishes but on this occasion, we push the boundaries with a 12 hour braised lamb shoulder, and Hiramasa kingfish in a clam and tomato stock. Our decision pays off, we will venture into other four-legged and fin varieties on future visits because there are at least four mains we didn’t try and if they’re anything like we’ve had before, we will leave as very happy customers.

Anna Lisle

Four in Hand Dining Room 

Local Coogee favourite, Banana Palm

Taking its name from the banana palm leaf, which is habitually used in Vietnamese cooking, Banana Palm restaurant is a reliable locale for good food at an affordable price. Its atmospheric sweetness, emblematic of the blossoming sugar bananas that grow within the emerald palm, is a testament to the warm hospitality of the sibling trio (Hai, Lilly and Tai) who operate the venue.

This sentimental banana palm symbol has been used as a decorative accent throughout the restaurant and can be found printed on the bodice of the bar. The rest of the space is equally smart with polished wooden floors, mahogany furnishings and chocolate wooden-framed wicker chairs. Serene photographs featuring snapshots of Vietnam taken by a close family friend hug the ash blonde walls. From long moon shaped boats cruising down the Mekong to an old French colonial style hotel in Saigon, the imagery lends a dignified feel to the space.

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The beautiful bar at Banana Palm

Lily fondly recalls that in its early days, the restaurant offered a mix of Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese fusion cuisine in a carpeted space with soft textile wallpaper (it was the 70’s after all). The Pham trio bought the restaurant from their parents over a decade ago and turned it into a Vietnamese-only diner to better reflect their culinary heritage: Their great grandparents hail from North Vietnam, but they grew up in the South where chef Tuan Hai Pham (‘Hai’ for short) notes that “the food is more complex in flavour.” The dishes are predominately influenced by the southern palette, but in the future Hai hopes to transform the menu to reflect the country’s regional culinary landscapes.

We take chef Hai’s advice and order a selection of entrées to share. A fragrant, delicately spiced papaya salad arrives draped in rare beef slices and speckled with coriander and crispy shallots. The combination of meaty petals and crisp papaya, with a furtive chilli kick is a well balanced, texturally pleasing combination.

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Seared scallops with salted black bean vinaigrette

To follow, fresh Vietnamese prawn and scallop rolls come tightly wrapped in a rice paper casing. The whole peeled prawn peeps through the rice paper, tail fixed behind. They are simple and tasteful. To accompany, seared scallops arrive doused in salted black bean vinaigrette. Perfectly cooked with a hat of julienned seaweed and a lick of chilli, the lightly seared scallops pair pleasingly with the tangy dressing.

As the setting sun dapples through the French colonial bay windows, a calming ambience settles in. It is clear that the trio have honed a relaxed and dependable dining experience.

 

Sami-Jo Adelman

Young Henrys: highbrow harlots (the best kind)

Young Henrys restaurant resume is first class. They’ve canoodled with the who’s who of Sydney’s fine dining scene and these smooth operators grace the beer lists of Marque, Momofuku, ARIA, Chiswick, Bloodwood, Spencer Guthrie, Six Penny and Rockpool. Wow, you’re thinking. They must be good in bed. Sorry, at brewing.

Everyone wants a piece of Young Henrys, which can only mean their beer is good. Very good.

“The idea for Young Henrys started nearly six years ago over a bar. The business as it is now has been running for a bit over two and a half years and is a very different beast to what we first ever imagined” says Oscar McMahon, one of the core members of 20 or so individuals who make up the self-described “misfit family”.

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Inside Young Henrys on Wilford Street in Newtown

Situated in the backstreets of Newtown, this boutique brewery is a community haven, connecting beer lovers throughout the inner west and elsewhere. The large warehouse space contains the brewery itself, a tasting bar and a sea of elevated communal tables for beer and banter. “The idea for Young Henrys from the very start was to create a brewing company that was connected to the people who enjoy it. The tasting bar is the embodiment of this ethos. It’s our way of including people in our world and sharing the love of beer” says Oscar.

 

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A tour of the Young Henrys brewery

Young Henrys brew a core range that includes a Real Ale, Hop Ale, Natural Lager and Cloudy Cider as well as limited release beers that change according to new partnerships.
A creative collaboration recently unfolded with restaurateur Kylie Kwong, with whom Young Henrys share a similar ethos for “freshness, balance, localism and collaboration” states Oscar. “She is also very passionate about Australian native ingredients as are we”.
For the re-birth of Kylie’s Potts Point restaurant Billy Kwong, Young Henrys brewed a single-batch beer (Quandong Saison) to be offered on tap. Oscar explains “Quandong Saison is a beautiful beer that showcases Australian native Quandong fruit and Lemon Aspen in a slightly spicy yet easily drinkable Saison (a broadly defined pale ale). It is unusual, balanced, crisp, tart and refreshing with a smooth malty mouthfeel.”

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Tasting notes of the Hop Ale from Young Henrys core range

Another recent project has evolved with Sam Taylor, founder of the Newtown Growler Depot and organiser of the Sydney Craft Beer and Cider Festival. The Depot, located within the Newtown Wine Shop on King Street, is home to Rosie – a custom-built machine that is capable of cleaning, sanitising and filling growler bottles (two litre glass bottles for beer). With Rosie, customers can have direct access to 12 fresh craft brews from Young Henrys, Batch Brewing, Shenanigans, Dennis, Grifter, Willie the Boatman and Little Creatures.

Sam explains “Brewers fill reusable kegs that go directly to a growler depot, the customer cleans and fills their re-useable growler with their beer of choice. They go home, enjoy it with friends (or by themselves), rinse out their bottle and keep it for next time. In this whole cycle there is no packaging waste, no beer sitting around on shelves or in wholesaler’s warehouses, which means there are more interesting beers available.” Moreover the project is very ‘green’; so the group are “practically saving the world with every delicious mouthful”.

Young Henrys has solidified its place amongst Sydney’s flourishing craft beer scene with its passion, collaborations and sense of community. As they continue to partner with Sydney’s culinary A-list and local artisans, the future for these highbrow harlots looks bright.

 

Sami-Jo Adelman

December Dining

The holiday season is upon us and December dining deals are popping up faster than Christmas window displays at David Jones, meaning the time for pre-festive restaurant sampling is now.

Via Alta on Willoughby’s High Street is the bambino of Alessandro Pavoni (Ormeggio at the Spit), his chef Alex Keene and business partner Bill Drakopoulos, of the Sydney Restaurant Group and the Aqua Dining Group. In honour of this festive season they are offering patrons a main course, glass of wine and tea or coffee for $28. Yes, that’s less then your green smoothie and ricotta hotcakes at Bills.

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Alessandro Pavoni with Head Chef and Co-Owner Alex Keene

There is a choice of three mains: a pasta dish of orecchiette with vongole (clams), cherry tomatoes, asparagus, majaram and bottarga; a poultry classic – ‘chicken alla diavola’ (deviled chicken), which traditionally consists of chicken barbecued over coals and flames (resembling the devils humble abode) and finally a Tasmanian ocean trout that is cooked ‘cartoccio’ (in a paper cone).

I order the trout, which arrives perfectly cooked in its paper parcel, packaged with broccolini ribbons and potato buttons, and topped with a generous star bow of canary yellow dill and saffron mayonnaise. It is simple and pure cooking that allows the fish to be the hero. This delectable pre-Christmas gift pairs nicely with the white wine offering – a crisp La Delizia Vignal Pinot Grigio from Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Northeast Italy.

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Agnolotti is a type of pasta typical of the Piedmont region of Italy. It features regularly on the menu with diverse seasonal fillings and sauces.

If you would like to fork-out a little extra, you can start with the Ormeggio Bakery organic sourdough. Don’t even think twice. This is a must.  A mighty wedge of fresh sourdough is accompanied by two shallow dishes of light, fluffy homemade ricotta and olive oil, both begging to be slathered across the doughy folds of the bread. It is an indulgent and deeply satisfying experience.

Via Alta is a smart operation without a speck of pretence. The swift service, fantastic food and dignified dining room make for a lovely meal in December…or any other time of the year.

Sami-Jo Adelman

The Order of the Phoenix

Sisters Anita Yuen and Alice Lee are the founding members of the Phoenix Group, whose symbol of the regal female phoenix bird hails from Chinese mythology.  The phoenix or ‘fenghuang’ embodies high virtue, grace and the union of yin and yang. It is an apt reflection of the dynamic duo and well suited to their enterprise.

After arriving in Australia over 15 years ago, and settling into the hospitality realm working at local pubs, the girls quickly realised a gap in Sydney’s food scene. No restaurant offered the traditional Yum Cha experience they had grown up with in Hong Kong. Accordingly, the sisters quickly set about opening an eatery where the family tradition of Yum Cha would be honoured and experienced in all its weekend bunfight glory. In 1999 they opened Hilltop Phoenix in Castle Hill and since then they have added outlets in Sydney CBD, Rhodes, Parramatta and, most recently, Zetland.

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The East Phoenix outpost in Zetland’s East Village complex comes with a polished fit-out that is chopstick chic.  The large restaurant space, which can accommodate up to 450 patrons, boasts sleek two-toned leather dining chairs, white linen-draped tables and a large window-wall that overlooks industrial Zetland, a peculiar pocket of inner-east Sydney that is undergoing significant gentrification.

Weekend Yum Cha is all hustle-bustle with ravenous families and beady-eyed couples queuing fervently in the waiting lounge. Once seated the customary pandemonium commences as feuding family tables wait for new arrivals of pillowy char sieu bau (steamed pork buns), delicate pork and prawn siu mai and supple prawn and chive gow gee, which arrive swiftly on trolleys.

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Envious table peering sees crispy bbq pork and duck, accompanied by a mustard and plum sauce respectively, arrive on our plates with surprising speed. The rectangular pork pieces are wonderfully tender owing to the layer of juicy fat under the cracker-crisp skin. There desert dry duck brings a slight ping of disappointment, but a simple side of Chinese broccoli swimming in oyster sauce lifts our spirits, as does a good swig of Chinese tea.

As tables turn over by the dozen, it would seem the order of the phoenix have the magic touch.

Sami-Jo Adelman

Happy to Pei

Guillaume has restaurants in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, while Shaun Presland’s Sake has outposts in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, Matt Moran has Aria in both Sydney and Brisbane and, of course, Mark Best has Pei Modern in Melbourne, Marque in Surry Hills and now Pei Modern in the CBD. Running multiple restaurants interstate has got to be tough. How do you ensure your high-standards are upheld when you’re sitting in a Business Class lounge waiting for your next flight? Well, I’m told that, yes, it is possible, thanks to two words. Loyal staff.

Milly Hill lamb shoulder

Milly Hill lamb shoulder

The head Chef at Pei Modern Melbourne, Matt Germanchis, has jumped across the border to take the lead at Best’s Four Season outpost. The 180-seater boasts an entirely open kitchen, giving sticky beaks (like myself) an opportunity to gawk at the chefs hard at work while well-oiled waiters float around the space with an ease and professionalism that only comes from years of experience. On reading the menu, rustic dishes such as the Milly Hill lamb shoulder and O’Connor T-bone steak seem a far-cry from the foams and mousses of Marque but don’t be deceived by its apparent simplicity, these are technique-driven dishes. Fresh burrata is served with an egg yolk jam and fried artichoke while the ‘ham of the sea’ is a smoky mackerel dish with slivers of fresh pear. Leading ‘the sweet spot’ is a duck egg sauternes custard with Italian crostoli and a sorrel sorbet with honeycomb, created by former MasterChef contestant Kylie Millar.

Pei Modern Sydney is open for lunch, Monday to Friday including the “Eat.Pei.Quick” express offer, and dinner Monday to Saturday.

Anna Lisle

Pei Modern