Burn notice ... playing with fire is the main attraction at the Woods. Photo: Steve Lunam
JUST BEFORE YOU LIGHT UP THE barbie this summer, consider this. In northern Spain, Victor Arguinzoniz creates his own charcoals twice a day to fuel the precision-made grills at his out-of-the-way grill restaurant Asador Etxebarri. He argues that each tree produces different charcoal, and therefore smoke, to produce vastly different flavours and effects.
Former Etxebarri chef Lennox Hastie has been working on doing something similar since returning to Australia in 2011, but has now been pipped at the post by The Woods, where the theme is definitely, definitively, wood.
Hamish Ingham and Rebecca Lines couldn't have chosen a better name for their handsome 180-seater bar and restaurant, sleekly segueing from the ground floor lobby of the Four Seasons. The tables are of smooth, grained wood; the generously sized chairs are framed in wood; the floors are exposed wooden boards; and an infrastructure of wooden shelving divides the large, split-level dining rooms. A strikingly large wooden block serves as a bread station, and a floor-to-ceiling stack of chopped mallee root, apple wood, olive wood, spruce wood and iron bark awaits active duty in the wood-fired oven and the wood-flame grill. The menu itself lists the woods ''burning at the Woods tonight'' - on this occasion, mallee, olive and apple wood.
Go-to dish ... Mallee roasted spatchcock with radicchio and salt bush. Photo: Steven Siewert
Apart from a selection of Steve Feletti's exceptional Moonlight Flat oysters from Batemans Bay, most offerings are touched by wood, flame, ash or smoke at some point.
Ingham has departed from the modern Asian cooking of his successful Bar H restaurant in Surry Hills, and enlisted talented young chef Joshua Niland, formerly of Est, Glass and Fish Face. The two roam the mosaic-tiled pass like conductors in the theatrical open kitchen, placed like a stage within the Michael McCann interior. Sensory stimulation borders on overload, from vertical herb gardens to recipes scrawled on the ceiling.
As with theatre, those with walk-on parts can outshine the star attractions. A dramatically slashed tube of wood-grilled calamari ($24) needs the lift-off provided by fine folds of pork cheek bacon, tingly pickled muntries and crunchy hazelnuts. As if from another kitchen, a delicate dish of ash-cured ocean trout (not sure how one cures with ash) is classily underplayed with its simple toasted brioche, smoked ocean trout roe and land and sea parsley salad ($21). Likewise, a chilled green tomato soup with ocean bug tail and black garlic toasts ($16) is fresh, light and seasonal.
The main courses dispense with delicacy, and a wood-roasted native thyme Berkshire pork sausage and cherry tomato jam ($29) is just that - a Cumberland sausage spiral of softly textured sausage on a pond of rough, chutney-like tomato. Steak is, of course, the benchmark of a good grill, and a goodly piece of Greenstone Creek scotch fillet ($40), surprisingly sourced from New Zealand and restrained in flavour, is given the full, charry, wood-grill treatment. It's smartly teamed with grilled sour onion, a sage and white wine jus, and dollops of grainy mustard made with puffed yellow mustard seeds. Shoestring fries ($8) are crisp and good, if more boot-strap than shoestring. A whole small spatchcock makes another full-on main course ($30), roasted alongside mallee wood, then sub-divided for ease of eating. With its grilled radicchio, pine nuts, currants, purslane and red elk leaves, it acts almost as a warm salad of very compatible flavours and textures.
Sommelier Clint Hillery's Australian-led global roaming wine list features Rockford, Henschke and Clonakilla.The 2011 Albino Rocca Rossoli Rocca ($66), a savoury, juicy Barbaresco-style Italian red would make a fine match for the lunch menu's pizzette, especially the excellent ''wild'' weeds (kale, when I had it) version with house-cured bacon and pickled muntries ($18). If you're not all breaded out, go for the wood-fired tart of the day ($18), a lovely, crusty/flaky slab studded with yellow plums and smashed cherries - with a curl of super-smooth vanilla bean ice-cream.
Hot-coal cooking makes a great point of difference but I was hoping for more of the raw power and smoke-in-your-hair immediacy of the grill. Perhaps I've burnt the chops at one too many weekend barbecues, but I find the food here defined more by the gracefulness of contemporary dining and the conventions of a restaurant within a hotel than by the thrill of the grill.
Best bit Playing with fire.
Worst bit Hotel ambience.
Go-to dish Mallee wood-roasted spatchcock, radicchio,pine nuts, currants, preserved lemon, $30.
How we score
Terry Durack is a reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.
- 02 9250 3160
- Cuisine - Modern Australian
- Prices - About $140 for two for dinner, plus drinks.
- Features - Licensed
- Chef(s) - Joshua Niland
- Owners - Hamish Ingham, Rebecca Lines
- Opening Hours - Lunch, Mon-Fri; dinner, Mon-Sat.
- Seats - 180
- Author - Terry Durack