Spot the difference: The Four In Hand Dining Room after a $1.5 million refurb. Photo: Edwina Pickles
A pig just went past my table, carried on a wooden litter by two acolytes as if it were royalty. Dead royalty, with a knife sticking out of its back, but still.
It's a reassuring sight for those whose world was shaken by the Four In Hand Dining Room's closure for a three-month, $1.5 million refurb. A community hub for the power-broking, tennis-playing, networking eastern suburbs set, it blended the charms of a corner pub with a larrikin Irish chef and an in-your-face, nose-to-tail philosophy that went through 20 whole suckling pigs a week and more pig tails than a class of schoolgirls. Would all that change? There were anxious mutterings across Paddington.
Play spot-the-difference, however, and you'll note that the dining room is a little longer, the lights better employed, the banquette more comfortable, the chairs newly cushioned and the wooden floor sturdier. What you can't see is the larger, smarter kitchen - but then how many diners really care about a chef's new flat tops, target tops, or 20-tray combi ovens?
Suckling pig with clams, sprouts and parsnips. Photo: Edwina Pickles
The suave Stephen Craig still runs the floor; the special of the day is still the slow-cooked lamb shoulder to share; and the dramatically monochrome Luke Sciberras squid still sprawls across the wall, chased by a new fish portrait. On this packed weeknight, the clubby boys' tables all do the Power Order: oysters, lamb shoulder, cheeseboard. It's a typically male response to the dilemma of being faced with too many choices. Besides, an oyster is an oyster. Who knows what a dish of ham hock potatoes and scampi is when it's at home?
Aha. It's a brothy dish with gently poached scampi fighting gamely against a highly seasoned ham hock broth, crisps of bacon, and baby spuds that really do taste of ham hock. Another first course is a surprisingly gentle warm salad of little grill-striped strips of lamb's tongue and melting nuggets of lamb rib, strewn with leaves, micro cress and mint jelly. Prices are serious for a pub, with entrees at $29, mains at $42 and desserts at $16, and there's little to strike terror in an offal-hater's heart, or gizzard. Suckling pig feels vaguely Portuguese-inspired; the milky, soft chops and ribs of pig casually strewn with big, fleshy clams, brussels sprouts and sweet parsnips in an easygoing balance of flavours and textures.
Roast chicken with chicken bread is as messy and likeable. A whopping serve of crisp-skinned, golden chook is jumbled with crunchy, chickeny chunks of sourdough that have soaked up the roasting juices, warm prunes and rich chicken liver parfait. Sunday night tea, dressed in Sunday best.
Parsnip ice-cream with liquorice-poached quince. Photo: Edwina Pickles
The wine list has as much depth as breadth, from big reds to new world chardies and pinots, including a fleshy, 2012 Ar Fion Yarra Valley pinot noir ($16/$76).
Desserts ($16) come with a savoury or cereal twist that will suit the less sweet-of-tooth; especially a vegetal teaming of dense parsnip ice-cream with liquorice-poached quince, salted parsnip chips and linseed crisps. It's all very fashionable, with its recurring motifs of clarified broths, fruit as a savoury element and vegetables as dessert. But I miss the gung-ho, gutsy, iconoclastic directness of Fassnidge, the Early Years. With the bar food still all about pig's ears and sausages and mash, and his Surry Hills diner 4Fourteen nailing rustic, meaty, comfort food, the Four is being pushed into more refined corporate dining, with prices pitched accordingly.
It's good, but we might have lost a great pub restaurant, and gained a great restaurant that happens to be in a pub.
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.
Best bit: Sea salt and butter served in marrow bones.
Worst bit: $42 mains.
Go-to dish: Suckling pig with clams, sprouts and parsnips.
- 02 9362 1999
- Cuisine - Modern Australian, European
- Prices - About $180 for two, plus drinks
- Features - Licensed, Bar, Accepts bookings, Private dining
- Chef(s) - Colin Fassnidge
- Owners - Stephen Craig (manager)
- Opening Hours - Lunch Tues-Sun from noon; dinner Tues-Sun from 6.30pm
- Author - Terry Durack