Centre of attention ... Ester's interior was built around its centrepiece - the wood-fired oven. Photo: Fiona Morris
How does a restaurant get so hot so fast? You could credit social media with getting the information out there, or you could blame our relentless, ambulance-chasing need for the new. Or you could just take a peep in the kitchen. If there's a wood-fired oven there, the place is going to be hot - in more ways than one.
At his very new and very hot Chippendale diner, former Billy Kwong head chef Mat Lindsay has little more than a combi-oven, a Thermomix blender and a vacuum sealer by way of high-tech tools. The beating heart (and hearth) of Ester is a massive wood-fired oven. It's the ''back to first principles'' rule. Go back to the primal force and energy of fire, and all the high-tech rotary evaporators, chlorophyll distillers, liquid-nitrogen makers and blast chillers start to look a bit, well, lame.
Lindsay says the oven was the first thing to be installed; the rest of the space ''kind of fell into place around it''. It's the same with the menu, which focuses on share dishes from the wood-fired oven, with the rest of the stuff falling into place around it.
Go-to dish ... Ester's Blood Sausage sandwich. Photo: Fiona Morris
So there's fish, chicken, lamb, duck, steak and even blue swimmer crab under the wood-fired list, supported by cured meats, raw fish, and simple semifreddo and gelato desserts. Oh, and a little cutie of a blood-sausage sandwich ($6) that could end up being the home-grown heir to Momofuku Seiobo's all-conquering steamed pork-belly bun.
It comes flat out and open, a thin layer of steamed bread topped with mustard aioli, caramelised onion, and a scary-black black sausagette. Pick it up, squish it together, take a bite, and there's no going back to life without it.
But back to the oven, which is also responsible for the crusty house-baked bread piled on the counter. Half-a-dozen rock oysters from the south coast, lightly roasted until their shells lift, come warm and plump under a bitey horseradish and shallot dressing ($20). It's a simple, good, fuss-free treat, at once steamy and sharply vinegary.
Out of the oven ... woodfired cauliflower, almond and mint. Photo: Fiona Morris
Ester feels as though it's been put together by people who know what they're doing and, sure enough, Andrew Cibej of Berta and Vini is a partner in the business. Ester shares a similarly functional, non-decorative design DNA; the detail going into the pleasingly shaped arches, the dark woods, and the metal trim. It's a great room; high-ceilinged and industrial-strength, with the dining area raised from the doorway by a few steps.
The sense of being in good hands extends further - second chef Nic Wong has worked at Billy Kwong, Bodega and The Apollo, and Adam Hall runs the floor in a gentle, collaborative manner, with well-paced, communicative service.
Former Vini sommelier Julien Dromgool has put together a left-field selection of old-world and Oz labels, including an earthy, biodynamic 2012 Holly's Garden Pagan pinot noir ($52) that's all berries and spice.
It can take months to run in a wood-fired oven and get the hang of its hot spots. This one has been going only for a week or two, but they're getting there - fast.
A few of the outer leaves of a half head of wood-roasted cauliflower (great idea) are dramatically charred, adding smokiness to the tender, sweet, cauliflower and its creamy almond emulsion, crushed almonds and fresh mint.
The magnetic allure of wood-roasted chicken causes three or four tables around me to succumb. It's a half-bird, brined before roasting ($29) and cut into coppery, lightly glazed, chunks, then tossed with roasted lemon, confit garlic and good chicken juices. But why do some tables get just breasts and wings while others score thighs and legs? Perhaps we diners should just swap body parts accordingly.
A ''three milks'' dessert ($11), inspired by the traditional Latin American tres leches milk cake, is light and lovely, loosely combining cow's milk ricotta panna cotta, sweet dense goat's milk dulce de leche and clouds of aerated sheep's milk yoghurt, with pepper and olive oil biscuit crumbs for scrunch.
This is contemporary dining that goes beyond stripes of mayo and childish street snacks, and it's driven by experienced industry professionals who have worked out how and what they want to cook, and for whom. That might not be why it's so hot so fast, but it will be what keeps it hot longer.
Innovative use of wood-fired oven.
Being able to get a table.
Blood-sausage sandwich, $6.
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.
- 02 8068 8279
- Cuisine - Contemporary
- Prices - About $100 for two, plus drinks
- Features - Bar, Licensed
- Chef(s) - Mat Lindsay
- Opening Hours - Tue-Fri, 5pm for snacks and drinks; Tue-Sat, 6pm for full menu
- Author - Terry Durack