Raising the bar: Kepos St Kitchen is far more than "just a cafe". Photo: James Brickwood
Goal posts, you may now shift. I know it's been a while since you've moved, cafe-wise. After all, it's 20 years since Bill Granger first opened Bills in Darlinghurst and kick-started that whole fresh, sunny, blonde Sydney cafe culture. And it's nearly three years since the Three Blue Ducks in Bronte unleashed a casual-serious post-surf cafe with Tetsuya-trained chefs, great coffee and Iggy's bread.
Now there's a light, bright little cafe in Redfern that's a goal post shifter if ever I saw one. What used to be the shabby-chic Strangers With Candy is now the Kepos Street Kitchen. With its plate-glass windows, white-washed walls, striped banquettes, metal bistro chairs and bare wooden tables, it's not that different to your modern stock-standard Sydney cafe. But what gets put on those tables is anything but stock or standard.
Breakfast, for instance, could be a shakshuka of gently baked eggs in a stewy, tomatoey mess served with a bowl of bright-green coriander tahini. Lunch might be a big chunky wagyu burger in a soft/crisp brioche bun with pickled eggplant, walnuts, watercress and harissa. Dinner could be roasted black angus 100-day-aged sirloin with Middle Eastern chimichurri and watercress.
Go-to dish: Fish Kefta with baba ghanoush, mint and pomegranate. Photo: James Brickwood
So who's doing this stuff, and doing it so well you feel better at the end of a meal than you did at the beginning? Owner-chef Michael Rantissi was sous-chef at the Bathers Pavilion before becoming head chef at Bar 100's 8Brothers in The Rocks. Now he's his own boss, he concentrates on the food he likes to cook at home. Being an Israeli brought up in Tel Aviv, this is where things get interesting. Rantissi says Israel is just as multicultural as Australia, so his food feels very much at home here.
But let's get back to breakfast, because it's a bloody good one. There's Rabbit Hole tea and coffee from The Grounds roasters; granola that comes with Iranian spiced fruit and nut compote ($14), and a killer egg and bacon brioche roll with chilli jam ($13). And then there's ''Dad's favourite brekky'' ($16), a board loaded with a boiled egg, three crisp and crunchy green-flecked felafel, dollops of hummus and labne, a sprinkling of dukkah, a fresh tomato salad and batons of warm grilled focaccia-like schiacciata bread. And yes, Rantissi says it really is his father's favourite breakfast, and that his mother is now pressuring for her name-check on the menu.
Lunch is the best time for salads that are anything but token - whether it's a golden lemony rubble of cauliflower, parsley, cracked wheat, pistachios and cranberries ($16), or the heady parsley rush of a lush green tabouleh, served with mint, cucumber tomato, eggplant, some cracked wheat and juicy pomegranate seeds ($14).
At dinner things step up a gear, kicking off with lamb kibbeh neah ($18), a football of raw, seasoned hand-minced lamb set on a bed of burghul, toasted walnuts, spices and herbs and drizzled with pomegranate molasses, the lot mixed at the table. Several dishes come in pans: gentle gnocchi tumbled with slow-cooked veal shoulder ($26), and a terrific dish of monkfish kefta that looks set to be a signature - the lightly cooked patties teamed up with baba ghanoush and tangy pomegranate balsamic ($25).
This is food you want to mix and match, something difficult to achieve with the combination of small tables and the imposition of an entree/main/dessert formula, but the sweet-tempered floor staff try to accommodate tabouleh hoarders and tahini sitters alike.
Most things are made from scratch in-house, including the good-looking pastries and textbook flourless orange cake, and a range of jams and preserves that are available to take home. Desserts are pulled from around the Mediterranean, and eight sugar-dusted churros (finger doughnuts) in a scrunched-up brown paper bag next to a puddle of dulce de leche for dipping had four of us scrambling for leftovers.
OK, so it's just a cafe, but ''just a cafe'' doesn't really work any more, when some of the brightest talents in town are choosing to cook in more sustainable businesses than the fine diners.
If you caught any of the inspired London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi's recent SBS TV series Jerusalem on a Plate or Mediterranean Feast, you'll know just how bright, colourful, fresh, multicultural and healthy this food can be. If you missed them, well, it's like this.
Best bit Almost everything is made in-house.
Worst bit Overly fancy insulated cups for tea and coffee.
Go-to dish Fish kefta, baba ghanoush, mint, pomegranate balsamic, $25.
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 9319 3919
- Cuisine - Israeli, Middle Eastern
- Prices - About $50 for two for breakfast, $60 for lunch, $95 for dinner.
- Features - BYO
- Chef(s) - Michael Rantissi
- Owners - Michael Rantissi
- Opening Hours - Tues-Fri, 7.30am-3pm; Sat & Sun, 8am-3pm; Dinner, Wed-Sat, from 6pm.
- Author - Terry Durack