My last Russian meal involved lashings of all things pickled and stodgy, eye-popping quantities of vodka and, not long after, a conga line of feral party fiends snaking past tables of untouched desserts. Authentic as the night was, it was enough to put me off for years.
So I'm relieved to find things are far more restrained - food and patrons included - at Food Society in Darlinghurst, a recently arrived purveyor of eastern European fare.
Caterers Sonia Stanojevic and Brendan Lloyd opened the venue in July last year, bringing their lighter take on peasant foods - and a 70-plus vodka list - to Sydney's restaurant scene. Recently, they were joined by executive chef Kahlil Perazzo, who honed his skills at Quay, Balzac and Tetsuya's.
Set in a cosy basement off a grand street entrance, the restaurant lacks the hullabaloo of its bawdier counterparts but has just the right balance of granny-meets-designer chic.
The look is partly the work of Bosnian designer MecoLada, which helped stock the venue with raw-looking pine tables surrounded by jumbled antique chairs and ornate chandeliers above. A string of perches look on to the open kitchen. Yet the trendy surrounds - including shelving stacked with curios - don't mean that only the too-cool crowd is catered for. On our Sunday-night visit, groups of all ages and cultural backgrounds create a lively hubbub that mixes with the touch-too-loud strummings of a live guitarist.
The service is a little unsure but our waiters - kitted out in a fun combo of checked shirts and bow ties - are pleasant and remember our order word for word sans notepad.
As for the menu, those seeking strict adherence to babushka's cooking are probably better off looking elsewhere. If you're open to a little tinkering, however, you won't be disappointed.
Everything is made for sharing, starting with petite burek of Bulgarian fetta, spinach and mint. Each snack-sized cigar is loaded with a cool creamy filling that oozes from the ultra-crispy shell. Dolma of cabbage stuffed with spiced pork mince has a fresh citrus kick and comes doused in tomatoey dollops that add a much-needed sauciness to the filling.
More generous is the mound of fried cauliflower and paprika, covered in watercress and red-wine vinegar. One of the simplest dishes of the evening, it is also among the tastiest, its ever-so smoky flavours and crusty edges giving way to white fleshy florets.
For mains, the goulash of slow-braised beef cheek is far more handsome and tasty than its mushy traditional cousins, with great hunks of melty meat artfully arranged with bright slivers of baby carrots and asparagus atop spoonfuls of soft white polenta. The lamb ribs are even more tender, spiced up with bitey potatoes, eggplant and tomatoes.
Most striking of all is the squid-ink risotto, a rich, jet-black creation that shows off the kitchen's finesse and expertise. Studded with char-grilled cuttlefish, cherry tomatoes and gooey gullies of parmesan foam, it delivers a moreish salty hit with no trace of glugginess.
Dessert is a delicate affair, starting with the pashka with strawberry compote, a creamy cloud-like cheesecake of sorts covered in a doughy crumble, followed by a plate of enjoyably chewy doughnut balls we dip into scoops of sorbet, and ending with a couple of shots of honey and cherry vodkas.
So far, no conga line in sight.
Menu Tricked-up eastern European food for sharing.
Value Fair. Starters, $3-$25; mains, $20-$32; dessert, $12-$24.
Recommended dishes Goulash with slow-braised beef cheek; grilled cuttlefish on squid-ink risotto.
91 Riley Street, Darlinghurst, 8090 3462
Tue-Wed, dinner, 6-11pm; Thu-Fri, lunch, noon-4pm; Thu-Sat, dinner, 6pm-midnight; Sun, dinner, 6-10pm. No BYO
- 02 8090 3462
- Cuisine - European
- Prices - Starters $3-$25, Mains $20-$32, Desserts $12-$24
- Opening Hours - Tuesday-Wednesday 6-11pm, Thursday-Friday, lunch noon-4pm, Thursday-Saturday, dinner 6pm-midnight, Sunday 6-10pm