At Henri Marc, Sophia and Aaron Bernecki have opened the kind of place at which they like to eat. Photo: Fiona Morris
The punters have been saying new Penrith cafe Henri Marc is like something you'd find in Surry Hills, but that does it a disservice. Yes, they're serving Reuben Hills coffee. Yes, it's decked out with polished concrete, exposed brick, and hipster lightbulbs. Yes, there's Mariachi El Bronx on the sound system.
But in opening their first cafe, Sophia and Aaron Bernecki are not looking to the city. The 20-something husband-and-wife team, both chefs by trade (Aaron was once found in the kitchen at Becasse) moved back to their native Penrith in 2012 with the dream of opening the sort of place at which they'd like to eat. They opened Henri Marc in August, thinking they might need perhaps one other employee, but have quickly expanded to a team of half a dozen.
First-timers may struggle somewhat to find it, but when they do, down a nondescript pathway off High Street behind a pharmacy, they'll find a cheerful greeting at the door and, hopefully, a table.
Excellent ingredients, simply assembled ... A plate of pesto, tomato and ricotta on toast. Photo: Fiona Morris
The industrial-chic look is softened with vases of native flowers, mismatched china and cutlery, and a tray of muffins sitting on the counter.
On a recent Saturday morning (they're closed on Sundays), almost every table was occupied by stylish groups of brunchers, with a steady march through the door for coffee.
In the spirit of offering the sort of food the Berneckis want to eat, there's one all-day menu, starting with caramel on toast - a toothsome slab of sourdough blanketed with a dark, homemade caramel - moving through to substantial breakfast plates (chorizo, poached egg, mushroom and parmesan) and lunches of confit duck salad or a pork neck roll with that condiment du jour, sriracha mayo.
Bean of choice? Reuben Hills coffee. Photo: Fiona Morris
The Reuben Hills coffee is very good, with a single-origin long black full-bodied under a thick golden crema. There's the requisite salted caramel thickshake (as well as vanilla for nostalgists). Loose-leaf Rabbit Hole tea is served in heavy cast-iron pots with a vintage teacup and a Penrith Valley souvenir teaspoon. A creation dubbed the Sour Cherry Henri Temple, sharper than it is sweet and served in a glass boot, is a delight for the inner child star.
In the kitchen, Aaron updates eggs and soldiers by sending out soft-boiled duck eggs, their lids cracked open and sprinkled with flakes of sea salt. Nestled in a cut-off egg carton with buttered then toasted slices of sourdough, it's a cute (and oh-so-very-Instagrammable) breakfast.
A plate of pesto, tomato and ricotta on toast is an ode to the simple assembly of excellent ingredients: sweet, firm, perfectly ripe heirloom tomatoes are piled onto sourdough generously spread with garlicky pesto and fresh ricotta.
Black rice, chewy and creamy, is topped with cubes of mango and grated coconut - sweet, savoury and sharp, the fresh fruit soured with a squeeze of lime.
That tooth-aching caramel toast, meanwhile, fried in butter until crunchy at the edges then drowned in a slightly salty sauce, is best split among several diners.
With Sophia looking after front-of-house, staff are efficient yet relaxed, and accommodating, topping up glasses of water and refraining from visible judgment when the caramel toast is not split among several diners.
Penrith can't keep this a secret much longer.
- Prices - $5-$17
- Opening Hours - MON-SAT, 8AM-3PM
- Author - Georgia Waters