Pacific Highway North Sydney, New South Wales 2060
Once upon a time, Sydney drinkers swilled schooners beneath plasma screens while pokies twinkled and bleeped in the next room. Posh joints had strict no-thongs policies, promo girls wore tight T-shirts emblazoned with beer logos and big nights north of the bridge ended at the Union Hotel.
Though such evenings might begin with beers in a courtyard or vodka sodas in a deconsecrated church, they led - inexorably - to the pub on the Pacific Highway. I speak from experience, albeit dimly recalled. If you made it to the Union, there was a good chance most of the evening was already a fog.
Small bars have since colonised Cremorne and Neutral Bay but the Union still has television screens on its walls. Despite a refurbishment four years ago, the downstairs bar feels like a place to drink Tooheys on tap, eat $10 steak and watch rugby.
But what's this? There's a restaurant on the second floor. Serving French food? At the Union?
Some of the beer-and-chips vibe makes its way upstairs by way of a rather startling red carpet but the design scheme changes dramatically inside Uncorked. They are shooting for modern sophistication but have ended up on the wrong side of bordello chic. It's all fringed crimson lamps and white leather. The dining booths have studded, upholstered, saloon-style swinging doors that must be opened every time a diner wants to visit the bathroom. A pop soundtrack, including the 2001 version of Lady Marmalade, does little for the atmosphere. Perhaps the bizarre decor and music are why the place is almost deserted on a Friday night. The menu, which changes regularly, is certainly not to blame.
It is agonising to choose between crayfish served on brioche with avocado coulis and confit duck leg a l'orange. We order champagne and Batemans Bay rock oysters to aid our thinking. Served natural on salt, they have that slippery, luxurious sea taste.
With few other customers to distract the kitchen, courses arrive efficiently via service that is friendly and never intrusive.
The entrees - as pretty as you'd expect at far fancier places - show a better eye for design than the decor. Warm chicken mousse with foie gras comes in a neat, pale-pink block scattered with mulberries, hazelnuts and baby salad leaves. The light, airy mousse and its topping of dense, creamy foie gras yield at the touch of a fork, while the nuts and berries add texture and zing. Tender seared scallops with a luscious finger of crisp pork belly are decked with a tasty garden of edible flowers, leaves and pickled carrots.
The signature dish is bouillabaisse. Prawns, Moreton Bay bugs, fleshy snapper chunks and just-opened mussels swim in a fragrant stock. It is tasty, generous but less mouth-watering than the beef cheek braised for 18 hours and almost melting.
A vanilla trifle shortcake is more shortcake than trifle, with a creamy topping on dense biscuit encircled by rhubarb strips and berries.
There is not a chicken parmigiana in sight. The drinkers downstairs have no idea what they're missing.
Menu French-inspired cuisine.
Value Reasonable. Entrees, $18; mains, $30; desserts, $16.
Recommended dishes Warm chicken mousse with foie gras; braised beef cheek with Paris mash and baby vegetables.
Corner Pacific Highway and West Street, North Sydney, 9955 6099
Lunch, Wed-Fri, from noon; dinner, Thu-Sat, from 6pm, licensed