This article was also published in the Financial Times.
The Bridge Room, which opened in August 2011, and Cafe Nice, which is only a month old, are no more than 500 metres from one another in Sydney’s Central Business District.
Although their menus are very different – the former is a model of modern Australian cooking while the latter focuses on the equally colourful cooking of the French Riviera – they have a great deal in common.
The first and most obvious factor to anyone visiting from Europe is the intensity of sunlight that floods both dining rooms. This aspect was obvious to those who chose the location where The Bridge Room (pictured) now occupies the ground floor because the building’s original function was as a place where wool was sorted and graded before it was exported from the harbour nearby.
A series of restaurants subsequently occupied this corner site but with each incarnation the ground floor lost a part of its natural charm. Then it was shown to Sunny and Ross Lusted and a far more expensive rehabilitation than they had initially imagined ensued. But the result is a gorgeously simple, attractive dining room that lifts the spirits.
On top of this comes another, increasingly rare, surprise. Once we had walked in and been greeted by Sunny, I looked down the room to the open kitchen to see her husband finishing the plates for their first customers. I had some difficulty in remembering when and where I had last seen this paradigm of a husband and wife running a restaurant in such close, and seemingly harmonious, proximity.
Both Australian, the Lusteds spent several years working in Asia for Aman Resorts before heading home, and this extensive experience in looking after customers is another factor they share with Barry McDonald, the restaurateur behind Cafe Nice.
Their years at Aman also manifest themselves in a range of furniture that is comfortable and easy on the eye and a style of service that is just the right combination of friendliness and expertise.
Their waiters certainly have to have good memories as Ross packs a great deal on to each dish. A special first course of the day was slices of raw John Dory, briefly marinated in sake, that came with thin slices of watermelon radish, society garlic flowers (so called apparently because the bulbs grow close to one another), bonito flakes, purslane, samphire and circles of goats’ milk that had been allowed to set. It was excellent.
So, too, was a thick slice of pink ocean trout with grilled fennel and lamb, grilled on a robata, with leeks and parsnips. But it was the freshness of the desserts, an aerated rice pudding with pineapple and strawberries with a raspberry ice that prompted Ross to explain how this kitchen is very different in two particular aspects from all the others he has worked in.
The first is that, having worked for many years with pastry chefs, he has decided that life is too short to live with their idiosyncrasies, so all his cooks are responsible for the desserts. And even more unusually as his kitchen is too small for a cold store, he has only three domestic fridges and relies on deliveries twice a day. Having explained this predicament, he went off to have a cup of tea with the man who had just delivered that afternoon’s fruit, vegetables and salad.
The site that Cafe Nice now occupies has also seen a succession of restaurants come and go but that is why it so appealed to McDonald. He has been in and around Sydney’s restaurants for the past 30 years, but is now ably assisted by his step-daughter Nina.
‘The four essential and most expensive items were all here’, he explained, ‘the grease trap, the air conditioning units, the cold store and the lavatories. I knew right from the outset that restoring its charm was going to be relatively straightforward.’
This internal charm is enhanced not just by the blue sky and famous harbour outside but by the fact that in between is a railway line topped by an expressway that adds a note of urban excitement as the trains and cars whistle past. Any small boy would be very excited.
McDonald’s approach to the food he serves at the cafes in hisFratelli Fresh outposts (of which this is the fifth but this time without a shop attached) is to serve not just the kind of food he enjoys eating but also food that allows him to return to conduct the vital research in his beloved Italy.
Here he has changed tack slightly out of admiration for La Petite Maison in Nice and his menu is replete with those dishes that seem synonymous with the word holiday. Pissaladière; fried squid with a punchy aioli; an excellent crab omelette; a fillet of cobia topped with tapenade; petit pois with lettuce; a millefeuille of berries and lemon curd; and a delightful combination of peach sorbet with fresh peaches.
This very Australian interpretation of an otherwise classic European menu is enhanced by the fact that Cafe Nice’s sous chef is Ashleigh Jarvis, one of the first trainees set on her career path by the National Indigenous Culinary Institute.
This body was set up a couple of years ago by McDonald, Sydney chefs Neil Perry and Guillaume Brahimi and others, and with funds from the government is taking young Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and providing them with training and a potential route to a successful and rewarding career in the kitchen.
The Bridge Room 44 Bridge Street, Sydney; tel +61 2 9247 7000
Café Nice 2 Philip Street, Sydney; tet: +61 2 8248 9600