74 Mullens Street Balmain, New South Wales 204102 9810 7500
|Opening hours||Mon-Wed noon-11pm; Thurs-Sat noon-midnight; Sunday noon-10pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Mastercard, Visa|
We're sitting in a south Pacific-themed bar of a Balmain pub, drinking from freshly cut coconuts and sharing plates of steamed pork buns and salmon tacos. Just what would Abe Saffron make of this?
In what might be the final turn in the 180-degree gentrification of Balmain, the West End Hotel - the suburb's second-oldest pub, dating to 1869 - has reopened as the Balmain Hotel. The pub, owned by notorious crime figure Abe ''Mr Sin'' Saffron in the 1940s, reopened several weeks ago after a four-month refurbishment by the Balmain Pub Group, which also owns the nearby Riverview Hotel.
The front bar - named the West End Bar - is a nod to the pub's history, and looks much like a standard pub bar. But step into the next room and the mood turns tiki: bright-white walls painted with palm trees to match palm-tree-cushion cane furniture. The main bar, meanwhile, is decked out with gorgeous Hermes tropical-print wallpaper, lacquered white bamboo seats, and fringed lampshades. And there's an enormous beer garden, with thatched-roof tiki bar, bright yellow and white chairs and beach umbrellas. There's also a new focus on attracting families, with a kids' menu and the offer of colouring-book showbags for little ones with wavering attention.
Kids at heart can entertain themselves in the pinball room with its vintage machines (and play spot the pop cultural icon with the graffiti murals).
The menu, meanwhile, ticks a few on-trend boxes with its steamed buns and southern US style, with the kitchen overseen by chef Brad Sloane, previously at the Riverview.
The salmon tacos of diced raw fish, avocado, shredded lettuce and chilli in a fried corn tortilla cup are crunchy and fresh, while steamed buns with tender, richly flavoured red-braised pork are well-balanced and savoury-sweet, although the buns are a little doughy. Tiny, tender wagyu beef patties slipped between toasted brioche buns with melted cheddar and sweet green tomato chutney remind us how good the ubiquitous but often poorly made slider can be.
Moving on to larger dishes, a pink paper bucket of fried chicken pieces arrives without the succotash (and, if we're being honest, one of the chief reasons we ordered the dish), but the chicken is fantastic in its salty crumb, the meat juicy and perfectly cooked. And a salmon steak with Jamaican jerk spice rub, served with a tangy pineapple salsa and crunchy Chinese broccoli, is one of the best things I've eaten in a pub, the fish beautifully translucent under its spicy, crispy skin.
We did encounter a few service problems, not unexpected at a new venue: several of the dishes are sold out early in the evening, and service at the bar is slow. But staff handle the problems with humour and grace.
We finish with a Snickers sundae that is far less cavity-inducing and more interesting than it sounds, with half-caramelised condensed milk over ice-cream under a cloud of foamed milk with peanut and chocolate crumbs.
There are 16 beers on tap and two ciders, and an interesting cocktail list (also available is a cocktail degustation, with matched food) but we're happy with our very 2013 round of fresh coconut juice. Sorry, Abe.
Menu Southern US meets Asian pub food.
Recommended dishes Wagyu beef sliders, fried chicken, jerk salmon.
Rating 3.5 (out of 5 stars)