Contender: Cafe Paci is among the finalists in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide awards.
Low-fi contender: Cafe Paci's fit-out cost a mere $80,000. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Joanna Savill

A pop-up restaurant is among five finalists for this year's best new restaurant award, one of several gongs to be announced at the annual Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide awards on September 1.

The creation of Finland-born Pasi Petanen, formerly of multi-hatted Marque in Surry Hills, Cafe Paci was born as a make-do fit-out of a former Mexican party diner in east Sydney. The lease expires in January. When Petanen signed it a year ago, the building was scheduled for demolition.

Serving an innovative succession of tasting dishes, the quirky grey-on-grey space has been described by Herald restaurant critic Terry Durack as "like accidentally walking onto the set of one of Opera Australia's grimmer productions". A hasty coat of paint and a large curtain to hide the kitchen that cost Petanen a mere $80,000 – chickenfeed in restaurant dollars.

"Duck a l'orange" at Cafe Paci.
Duck a l'orange at Cafe Paci. Photo: Daniel Munoz/Getty Images

Petanen says the concept has paid off. "I think it's the low price point [$85 for a five-course set menu] and the fact that it's nothing pretentious. Just a bloody room with a few tables and chairs."

A deliberately no-frills approach is common to all five nominees this year – symptomatic of what's engaging the dining public, and the Guide's reviewing team.

Redfern's Moon Park is a modern Korean eatery in rapidly restaurant-ifying Redfern. Chippendale's Ester is a simple space with low prices, and equally simple-seeming wood-oven dishes, such as roast chicken, and a whole baked cauliflower with almond and mint.

Cafe Paci's chef Pasi Petanen.
Cafe Paci's chef Pasi Petanen. Photo: Daniel Munoz/Getty Images

Ester's founder Mat Lindsay says he set out to create a relaxed neighbourhood place but that positive reviews have brought in the crowds. "It's quite busy," he says. "A good problem to have. But we've got to live up to expectations now."

Other nominations include Surry Hill's Nomad. With its huge wood oven, open kitchen and its focus on grilling, house-baked bread, cured meats and pickling, it's the epitome of the casual cool that dominates current dining trends. Like the others, it has a first-timer head chef – albeit well-pedigreed (Nomad's Nathan Sasi was at Rockpool, Lindsay at Billy Kwong) – but is owned by seasoned operator, Al Yazbek (formerly of Toko).

The newest of the nominated newbies is the J-pop-themed Cho Cho San in Potts Point, the fourth Sydney operation for co-owner Sam Christie (Longrain, Bunker Bar, The Apollo). Christie acknowledges today's focus is on a "more flexible" dining experience. "People might spend $150 on a blow-out long lunch on a Friday but they're also likely to drop in on the way home from work for a shared plate and glass of wine for $40."

Surry Hills's Nomad has also been nominated.
Surry Hills's Nomad has also been nominated. Photo: Edwina Pickles

The move away from fine-dining towards "less flourishes on the plate", Christie says, is as much a reflection of changing eating habits as the "brutality of rising wage costs and the need to be as full as we can, with no down time". With regular waiting lists, the tactic is clearly paying off.

Meanwhile, after battling freezing winter and hot summer temperatures in his bare-bones Riley Street location, Petanen says he's hopeful his landlord will allow investment in some air-con to allow him to see out his lease in comfort. He's also hopeful there may still be a chance to stay on.

"I like the spot and I don't see why we should have to spend half a million dollars to start up again somewhere else."  A permanent pop-up, perhaps.

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The finalists

Other hotly anticipated awards announcements include Regional Restaurant of the Year, Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year as well as the sought-after chef's hats. Front-runners include Neil Perry's re-vamped Rockpool and his head chef Phil Wood (named in both Restaurant of the Year and Chef of the Year categories respectively) and last year's Restaurant of the Year winner, Sepia, and its owner-chef Martin Benn. Also notable is the inclusion of Southern Highlands star James Viles (Biota Dining) in the Chef of the Year nominations.

Best New Restaurant
Ester, Nomad, Cho Cho San, Moon Park, Cafe Paci

Restaurant of the Year
Sepia, Momofuku Seiobo, Quay, Rockpool, The Bridge Room

Chef of the Year
Brent Savage (Bentley Restaurant + Bar, Yellow, Monopole), Phil Wood (Rockpool), Ben Greeno (Momofuku Seiobo), Martin Benn (Sepia), James Viles (Biota Dining)

Regional Restaurant of the Year
Biota Dining (Bowral), Subo (Newcastle), Muse (Pokolbin), Tomah Gardens (Mount Tomah), Bistro Molines (MountView)

Joanna Savill is the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2015. The Guide will be available for $10 with The ​Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, September 6 from participating newsagents. It can also be purchased in selected bookshops and online at smhshop.com.au for $24.99. #goodfoodguide