18 Argyle Street The Rocks, NSW 2000
Oh, deja vu. Haven't I been here before? Yep. It's not often I review the same restaurant in the space of six months. But Ananas today is not the same rough end of the pineapple I reviewed last November (Ananas being French for pineapple, of course).
Mind you, it looks pretty much the same, which is to say there's still a seductive, buzzy champagne bar and plush cocktail lounge upfront, complete with pewter counter, ice-laden oyster bar, pineapple-shaped lamps and massed roses. The moodily lit dining room is still a large, lavish, space lined with brasserie banquettes, heavy drapes and Belle Epoque murals. The relentlessly French menu still features fruits de mer platters, truffled mash, several grilled steaks and, as I recall, a stunning salted caramel eclair.
So what's new? It feels different. It feels more together and more polished, seemingly running on smoother tracks. There is a very good French word to describe conscious, attentive, personal service, and that is ''engage´'', or engaged. Also recently engaged is the former QT Hotels food and beverage director, Vince Lombino, who somehow manages to be in eight places at the same time, while simultaneously looking as relaxed as a member of Frank Sinatra's Las Vegas Brat Pack. No mean feat.
But the big difference is in the kitchen in the shape of talented, thirty-something Irish-born chef Paul McGrath, formerly of the two-hatted Bistro Ortolan in Leichhardt.
Immediately, I am reminded of McGrath's particular talent for big, gutsy flavours in a clever, confident little appetiser of French onion soup, the slow-cooked, onion-laden broth poured at the table over a deliciously cheesy crouton.
Similarly an autumnal frisee salad ($26) reworks the traditional French salade de gesiers, replacing the chicken gizzards with shreds of confit chicken thigh. Chunky bacon lardons add a touch of smokiness to the rigorously dressed leaves, while a nicely runny poached egg perched on a raft of thin crisp bread, adds richness.
This idea of egg-as-sauce is repeated in a brandade of house-salted blue eye trevalla ($21). This time, a soft-boiled quail's egg sits atop a football-shaped quenelle of light, loose and lovely brandade on a lightly crunchy bed of baby fennel and cucumber.
Prices aren't low, but neither is this the sort of place you can pay $36 for a main course and still go home hungry. A whole flounder ($36), for instance, really is a whole, fair-sized flounder, complete head-to-tail, and Frenched-up with an oozy lemon caper butter and a bed of velvety, buttery, mash that rivals that of Guillaume Brahimi at Bennelong.
A navarin of braised lamb shoulder, roasted breast and gremolata-crumbed brain ($33) sounds simple and homely and indeed comes served in an enamel cast-iron pot, but like all the cooking here, it's richer and more deeply flavoured than you might expect. Fall-apart tender meat, turned carrots, potatoes and turnips come with a slash of outrageously soft and fatty pressed lamb roast rib crowned with a crumbed brain, alongside a little bowl of powdered lemon zest, garlic and parsley for scattering over the top. Sensible diners will request a warm dinner plate so they don't have to eat from the pot, elbows in the air.
A well-designed iPad wine list shows a good mix of Australian and New Zealand labels including several by the glass, carafe and bottle, including a silky, citrussy 2010 Domaine Delaporte Sancerre ($16/$64/$79).
Pastry chef Yves Scherrer - he of the salted caramel eclair - turns his light hand to pineapple four ways ($14); in a pale, pretty presentation of roasted pineapple with rum caramel, pineapple crisps, pineapple sorbet and a pinocolada puree with coconut mousse.
And get this - the infamous red-lipped urinals are back. The boy's room art installation (apparently modelled on lippy old Mick Jagger) were removed after a media-driven furore. But when a Sydney Morning Herald poll of 22,897 people found 76 per cent did not regard them as offensive (and indeed, suggested that we could all lighten up), owner John Szangolies simply reinstalled them. That's democracy in action for you.
There's no easy way to segue from a chat about urinals back to the subject at hand (oh dear), but at least my deja vu has disappeared. With a terrific chef, smart strategy and engaged service team, this is now a different restaurant, and a better one at that.
Best bit The focus on classic French flavours.
Worst bit House dance music in the dining room.
Go-to dish Navarin of braised lamb shoulder, roasted breast, crumbed brain, gremolata, $33.
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.