3 Kensington Street Chippendale, New South Wales 2008
|Opening hours||Breakfast daily from 7am; lunch daily from noon; dinner daily from 6pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Licensed, Breakfast-brunch, Business lunch, Private dining, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 8277 8533|
Sydney, you've hit the big time. Just like Dubai, Hong Kong and Vegas, you're now in the sights of every big-time chef who wants a global empire at his feet. It can't be long before we get Gordon Ramsay's 13th, Mario Batali's 30th and Jean-George Vongerichten's 31st global restaurant.
It's great that we're maturing as a food destination; great that the numbers crunch well enough to make the distance and effort worth their while. And yet ... is the imported product actually better? And how much does it skew the market for the local players? Just askin'.
But for now, let's welcome Jason Atherton, a British chef from Skegness credited with creating Gordon Ramsay's biggest money-spinner, Maze, in London in 2005.
His 19th restaurant, Kensington Street Social, lies in direct line of descent from Maze and has the same brasserie buzz, disciplined technique and high energy as his first solo venture, the terrific Pollen Street Social in Mayfair.
At the heart of business partner Loh Lik Peng's Old Clare Hotel, the concrete-clad, high-ceilinged, metallic-edged, glass-louvred space designed by Shanghai's acclaimed Neri & Hu gathers around a central island kitchen swarming with 10 white-jacketed chefs. There are five metres of counter seating, alongside bare-backed wooden tables set with sleek stemware and slim cutlery cleverly mounted in handsome brass stands.
Service might still be in headless-chook mode, but the very practised kitchen is acing it already. Atherton (here for three weeks, then off to open his next in London) and Australian-born executive chef, Rob Daniels, leave no button un-pressed with a high/low menu that straddles snacks, flatbreads and hotdogs alongside more upscale dishes.
So "English breakfast tea and toast" ($14 for 2) is not, of course. It's a witty little thing complete with its own wooden stand; a teapot of wild mushroom broth to pour into little cups of parmesan foam; and too-thin bread crisps dabbed with bone marrow butter and gentleman's relish, gone in a mouthful. The Social dog's pork and fennel snag ($15) looks over-dressed, repeatedly striped with mayonnaise and scattered with black pudding crumbs and matchsticks of apple, but it makes for a mighty bite.
High/low dining means "sourdough flatbreads" (read: pizzas); pillowy-soft and topped with onion, smoked potato and bacon and a shower of micro-planed washed rind cheese ($16), like carbed-up flammekeuches.
There's also a pretty hiramasa kingfish tataki with delicately pickled kohlrabi ($19); and a bowl of sea urchin rice ($25) that's like risotto-by-the-sea, pumped up with bug tails, sea blight and a bisque that's all crushed-shell drama, height and sweetness. Two precisely rare and rested lamb cutlets frolic on chunks of braised lamb shoulder ($36), although teaming the simple cauliflower cous cous underneath with rich lamb gravy feels too much like inviting a vegan to the Sunday roast.
Some genius in the kitchen then completely nails a caramelly, crunchy, chewy, sticky, apple puff pastry ($17) that's a love-child of the Breton kouign-amann and the Bordelaise canele, deliciously led astray by a cider vinegar ice-cream.
Cocktails run to a Vegemite-infused dirty gin martini, and a solid, natural-leaning, wine list includes, a rich, soft, luscious 2014 Sigurd Red grenache/shiraz/mourvedre ($13.50/$78) from low-interventionist Barossa winemaker Daniel Graham.
Atherton has built a serious house of fun that's busy but relaxed; high and low, fast and slow. We are way past believing something is better just because it comes from somewhere else, but damn it, it's great to have such a polished, commercial big-city, all-day brasserie land in our midst.
Best bit: Non-stop chef action from the central kitchen.
Worst bit: Servings are on the small side.
Go-to dish: English breakfast tea and toast – wild mushroom tea, gentleman's relish, bone marrow toast ($14 for two).
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.