Cafe Paci

Terry Durack
More art installation than cafe: Cafe Paci.
More art installation than cafe: Cafe Paci. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Level 1, 95 Riley Street Darlinghurst, New South Wales 2010

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Permanently Closed

It's a clever move for one with a low budget, plenty of imagination and a building scheduled for demolition. Former Marque head chef and fledgling restaurateur Pasi Petanen has opened a restaurant that will last only as long as his 12-month lease.

Working with what he has, the Finnish-born Petanen has kept the old Cafe Pacifico neon sign outside and simply blacked out the ''fico'' bit, leaving him with a rendition of his own name. Up the industrial stairs and through an anonymous door, he's done little more than paint out the room in one specific shade of grey - Taubmans' Iron Forge.

Not just the walls and floor, but the bar, the tables and the chairs are grey. Even the long draped curtains that hide the kitchen are grey. It feels like accidentally walking onto the set of one of Opera Australia's grimmer productions.

Go-to dish: Cabbage, mussel butter, marrow, pomelo.
Go-to dish: Cabbage, mussel butter, marrow, pomelo. Photo: Edwina Pickles

But if you're thinking this is cafe food, it's not. It's a five-course menu at $85 a head that ends up being 11 different dishes. Some people are over the marathon degustation - I get my preferred dining companion through the door only by promising it is a la carte- but chefs are wedded to them as a way of controlling cost, time and labour issues and showcasing a number of dishes in one go.

The meal kicks off with a Finnish-Mexican hybrid of a rye taco topped with rice porridge, buttery egg and snipped chives, which, even if you've had Karelian pastries at 6am at Helsinki's Kauppatori market, still comes across as damn weird. The flurry of appetisers includes a cute airy-fairy tartlet of potato mousse scattered with crisp shards of chicken skin, and the raw crunch of a baby carrot, taken out of its comfort zone with a discordant, smelly coat of prawn floss. Preferred Dining Companion isn't convinced, wrinkling her nose up at the rank smell. But that's nothing compared with the next course; a single, simple sardine, spray-painted in a shock of acidic and highly perfumed powdered raspberry and liquorice dust. ''Help,'' PDC says. ''I'm being traumatised by fruit.''

Along comes a loaf of coal-black, molasses-glazed Finnish rye and potato bread; soft, sweet, sour and de-traumatising. A ''white salad'' is a textured Dior ruffle of shavings of Murray cod, turnip, apple and cured lardo. We're on more confident ground now, and the kitchen keeps up a cracking pace, delivering its delicate compositions like words in the same sentence, rather than separate speeches.

Nobody quite works colour on the plate like Petanen. He thinks like an artist, or at least a fashion designer, with fresh produce as his muse. Lamb leg tartare? Think pink, in varying degrees of red capsicum and diced red meat in a dramatic dish that looks like an exploded schnitzel. Even that domestic workhorse, cabbage, is presented as dark deep-sea coral, teamed with bone marrow, mussel butter, pomelo, plump mussels and a dusting of dehydrated cavolo nero, as if Earth had long disappeared beneath sea level.

A dish called ''photato'' deconstructs Vietnamese noodle soup by making noodles from potato - almost successfully - and topping them with some juicy, just-seared wagyu chuck tail flap, enoki mushrooms and the bite of Tasmanian horseradish.

The decor may be as dark as the long Finnish winter, but the service from former Uccello stalwarts Nick Dillner and manager Dennis Roman couldn't be sunnier. They're having fun, and helping their diners relax and have fun as well. Roman's wine list is eclectic and interesting, with a 2011 Farr Rising pinot noir ($94) a generous and hugely versatile wine, at once rich, savoury and toasty.

Suddenly, we're at the sweet end of the night, with a ''poached egg'' of yoghurt mousse filled rather sensationally with a yolk of carrot sorbet and seated on a liquorice base. Next, a Marque-like, nitrogen-powered malty chocolate mousse teamed with parsley sorbet and banana custard; both sweet and savoury. To finish, a puffball of popcorned fairy floss seasoned with buttery salt; some of the most delicious nothingness you'll ever eat.

More of an art installation than a restaurant, Cafe Paci is bright, fun and fresh, with smoky, zesty, fruity, juicy dis-comfort food that will thrill and discombobulate in turn. Sydney, you have exactly 321 days in which to sample a genuinely new and different dining experience. Go.

The low-down

Best bit

There's real personality on the plate and the floor.

Worst bit

The spray-paint stickiness of the tabletops.


Cabbage, mussel butter, marrow, pomelo.

Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.