Photo: Tamara Dean
You have to love a place that does things with mince. It's so Presbyterian, so housewifely, so gosh-darn practical - and so not what you would expect from three young chefs who have recently departed the rarefied atmosphere of one of Sydney's most refined fine dining rooms, Claude's, for their own funked-up Newtown bar.
Claire van Vuuren, Mitchell Grady and Jo Ward have swapped a world of Salon le Mesnil champagne and $165 tasting menus for a world of Bighead beer and $9 polenta chips with gorgonzola dipping sauce. They've done it not just for a change of lifestyle but because all three live in Newtown and want to do something to lift the local restaurant scene. God knows it needs it.
Newtown designer Matt Woods has converted a long, slender gullet of a space into something between a woolshed and a 1950s lounge room. It runs from an open-to-the-street, stool- and bench-lined front bar, past an open kitchen, to an upper-level, boxy dining room full of bare-bulb lighting hanging from looped cords, meticulously collected vintage chairs and exposed yellow downpipes, opening on to a decked terrace. Recycled wooden doors are everywhere you look - hanging from the ceiling, doubling as a signboard on the street, and even in the loos, as doors.
Bloodwood is very much a come-as-you-are affair, which, in this stretch of King Street, generally involves short-brimmed hats, skinny jeans and tradies' singlets on girls. In other words, I wouldn't suggest you dress up to dine here.
The simple brown paper menu starts with such globe-trotting bar food as indian lentil fritters with tamarind chutney ($9) and provencal chickpea pancake with persian fetta ($15), rising to a charcuterie plate ($28) and shareable main courses such as garlic prawns ($25) and lamb kibbeh ($25). Ah, the lamb kibbeh. Rarely has mince taken a finer form. Two footballs of minced, spiced lamb with a heart of merguez-style sausage meet on a silky mix of steamed eggplant and new-season kale, topped with a vivid red pepper sauce and thick yoghurt. I want it for dinner every night for a week.
Then there's more mince in the form of a fried beancurd roll ($15), by-product of Ward's time with innovative fusion chef Cheong Liew at The Grange in Adelaide. It's a masterly take on Malaysian loh bak, from its crisp beancurd skin to its spiced pork farce and core of cabbage, crab and shiitake mushroom, with a Cheong-like finish of prickly ash and lemon juice.
It's not about the mince, however, but the thinking behind it. This kitchen buys whole organic ducks so it can mince the thighs for a sausage farce, slip it into duck necks to form fat sausages, steep them in spiced duck stock and serve them with the meaty, roasted duck breast, broccolini and a couple of luscious, grilled spiced plums, all sitting in a puddle of moreish plum sauce ($32).
The chefs say this is the food they like to eat: real food, with beautifully balanced, long-lasting flavours made for sharing with friends. So there are moreish crisp chicken wing lollipops with a bright, light yoghurt remoulade ($12); fried salt cod brandade fingers with a lusciously ripe oxheart tomato salad ($15); and a trifle of pound cake, pomegranate granita, rhubarb jelly and fruit - no cream, no rubbish - served in a stemless glass ($12) with a spoonful of good custard.
The Bloodwood trio use what they have learned from working with great chefs and great produce, yet keep one eye on the budget and have a horror of waste. They also cook without fuss or bother and without gratuitous use of cream or carbohydrates. Only a dish of flabby grilled calamari with a pale fennel salad ($12) doesn't earn its place on this flavour-first menu.
It's a good spot for a well-built cocktail, a cold beer, or a glass of Mornington Peninsula chardonnay ($10) but it needs a few house wines that reflect the gutsiness of the food. The cheapest red is the 2008 Adelaide Hills Nova Vita Pinot Noir ($10/$42) that skirts effortlessly around the bar food.
Newtown is a depressingly ordinary place to eat and one small restaurant-bar can't turn it around overnight but something with this integrity and personality could light a path for others. Bloodwood can be annoying (no bookings) and slow but its happy combination of great food by locals for locals is exactly what is needed to create a new Newtown. There is also a delicious dining room below stairs with one long private table, taken up one evening by a dozen gorgeous young things all wearing tiaras. Some things about Newtown I would hate to see change.
- 02 95577699
- Cuisine - Modern Australian
- Prices - About $85 for two, plus drinks
- Features - Licensed, Outdoor seating
- Chef(s) - Jo Ward, Claire van Vuuren & Mitch Grady
- Cards accepted - Cash, EFTPOS, Mastercard, Visa
- Opening Hours - Open Mon, Wed, Thurs 5pm-late; Fri-Sat noon-late; Sun noon-10pm
- Author - Reviewed by Terry Durack