OPENING a restaurant? The checklist is endless: from the kitchen essentials of the grease trap, coolroom and target-top, through to the dining room ephemera of decorations and tableware (take a visit to Cedar Hospitality for a masterclass in the dizzying manifestations of the pepper grinder). And, before you get any further, the little matter of staff.
It's hard enough finding a competent chef who knows what a margin is but Sydney Road newcomer Albert St Food & Wine scored a coup in signing up Philippa Sibley. More than simple good luck, she's the stuff of the late-night, alcohol-fuelled wish list - kind of like David Bowie jamming with Arcade Fire or Jessica Lange's diva turn on American Horror Story.
Sibley working behind the stoves is just one reason Albert St doesn't have the feel of a new restaurant run by two new owners. Ruth Giffney's and Stuart Brookshaw's lengthy experience in charge of some serious restaurant names, including Longrain and Bondi Icebergs, is another. And back-up from a number of career waiters who don't give the feeling they're ticking off the hours until they can hit a bar? As the ad says, priceless.
Albert St is an industry rarity: a place that pops out of the box poised and ready for anything; able to withstand the onslaught of crowds that embrace it from the get-go. It has judged the market well, marking Sydney Road's evolutionary shift from cheap and cheerful ethnics to a serious food-and-wine enterprise that reflects the inner north's gentrification. The table of three professionals to our left who've been eating here every Friday night since its early-December opening (tables are closely spaced; it's easy to eavesdrop) love it as much for the cracking wine list with its seriously good prices as for the food (excellent) and ambience (chic but casual) and the way they've never been pressed to hand the table back after an allotted time.
Banks repurposed into restaurants find it hard to shake the clinical feeling of commerce but Albert St has exorcised the ghosts of clerks past for a smart fitout. I wouldn't be surprised if Cumulus Inc was used as a reference point for the big, bright room, with the interest-grabbing mix of table height, the casual bar seating, the latest in designer furniture and lighting, and the olive-green banquettes that aren't so deep as to make reaching the cutlery an act of aggression against the lower back.
If you've encountered Sibley's cooking at one of her many employers since the legendary est est est, including her most recent stint at Il Fornaio, you'll be hip to her way of doing things: she doesn't reinvent the wheel but gives classics a little twist for a new sense of self. Am I getting too metaphysical about lunch? Go try her summer cassoulet and see if the gods don't weep at the way this quintessentially winter dish is repositioned as a warm-weather beauty, sauceless but not dry, which substitutes a feather-light, mousse-like boudin noir for Toulouse sausage and makes a virtue of chicken instead of duck. A salty confit leg and thigh is covered in a crunchy, bready crust and the depths of the earthenware pot reveal beans (haricot and borlotti) with green beans, tomato, carrot and baby onion. I think the technical term is delicious.
This is Euro comfort-food territory, a buffer zone against the travails of life that begins with sliced baguette and butter whipped with basil-infused olive oil to a shade of light-green Pantone might want to consider trademarking. You can get pizza - super-thin, terribly good even when topped simply with garlic, rosemary and parmesan - and grilled sardines on toasted rye with pine nuts and an agrodolce flourish of currants and minced capers. Pink-centred jubes of wagyu - striped by the grill, finding a smoky confluence with eggplant puree - are sharpened by pickled white anchovy laid with Germanic precision over the top. Even boring old carrot soup is a stunner with the addition of Vin Santo, sliced scallops that cook in situ, and a sophisticated scattering of crumbled amaretti biscuits.
Mains cough up some familiar names without becoming prosaic. Roasted lamb rump slices relaxing on a soft, creamy polenta are jazzed up with the restrained tang of warmed cherry tomatoes and black olives. Trofie pasta intermingles with zucchini flowers, soft goat curd and dehydrated black olives in an oil and garlic-based sauce. It's simple, easy stuff but executed faultlessly.
For dessert, you could head to the adjoining food store and pick up a copy of Sibley's new book, PS Desserts, but it's a darned sight easier to summon a waiter.
If you haven't tried her sorbets, which are like the pure taste of fruit distilled into a velvet-textured ice form, now's the time to do so. Her version of panna cotta is out of sight - a restrained hand on the gelatin and the funky addition of truffled honey, chewy salted, caramelised cashews and a buttery biscuit base making a ubiquitous menu item interesting again, which is a miracle akin to the virgin birth.
The only slightly off note over three visits was the headline dessert act, an expensive ($18) deconstructed tiramisu that I found too boozy and too bitter.
When it comes down to it, there's no alchemy behind a successful hospitality business. Good location, good staff, a good chef and the right pitch. It sounds straightforward but in practicality it's a minefield littered with the bodies of the unwary. But at Albert St the planets are aligned. The gods are smiling. Sydney Road begins a new chapter.
Food Contemporary Mediterranean
Where 382 Sydney Road, Brunswick
Phone 8354 6600
Cost Typical starter $19, main $32, dessert $14
Wine list A cracker: smart, sassy and price-savvy
Owners Ruth Giffney and Stuart Brookshaw
Chef Philippa Sibley
Vegetarian Two starters, two pizzas, one pasta
Dietary GF available
Noise Moderate, mostly
Service Friendly and polished
Cards AE MC V Eftpos
Hours Daily 8am-late
- 8354 6600
- Cuisine - European
- Prices - Typical starter $19, main $32, dessert $14
- Features - Licensed
- Chef(s) - Philippa Sibley
- Owners - Ruth Giffney and Stuart Brookshaw
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Daily 8am-late
- Author - Larissa Dubecki