346 New South Head Rd Double Bay, NSW 2028
|Opening hours||Daily noon-3pm; 5.30pm-10pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Wheelchair access, Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Family friendly, Gluten-free options|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9327 2844|
I have always wanted a Jewish grandmother, but there's this thing apparently, where if you're not Jewish, you don't actually get a Jewish grandmother. I didn't even have a regular grandmother.
So I adopted the grandmothers of my Jewish school mates instead, which worked perfectly until I was about 25, and they thought it was weird that I was still dropping in for dinner.
Former Fratelli Fresh co-founder, Karen McDonald, did indeed have a Jewish grandmother (whose surname was Benjamin). But you still have to admire the chutzpah in opening a New York-style Jewish restaurant in Sydney's own lower east side, Double Bay, even if it is non-kosher.
Doesn't she know there is only one way to make matzo ball soup, and that's the one you grew up with? When four people order it, she gets four different offers of family recipes to help her "get it right".
McDonald's recipe, of course, came from her mother, which came from her mother, so to her, it's already right.
Occupying the long, kitchen-first space that was once Steve Hodges' Fishface restaurant, Benjamin & Daughters is a fashionably restrained dining room with pale grey walls, framed black-and- white photographs of New York and a comfy tan leather banquette running down one side.
I'm now going to come over all Jewish grandmother myself and say you have to have the king salmon pastrami ($19.50). Cured, spiced and smoked with sensitivity, it has a nice resistance to the bite, good sheen and comes with a Grandma Moses bagel, cream cheese and fat old-school capers.
Add the house pickles ($6); batons of carrot and wedges of turnip, slivers of red onion and a good, crunchy dill cucumber.
Double Baybies are going more for the stuffed zucchini flowers and the corned beef, onion and egg pizza, but stick with the lower east side for a no-nonsense, undeconstructed white fish pâté ($16) topped with sparkly flying fish roe, or a neat rye bread Reuben sandwich ($16) of house-made corned beef, pickled cabbage, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing that's good for lunch.
OK, so the veal schnitzel ($28) is a bit leathery, sitting on a green pool of creamed spinach, but "Friday night's roast chicken" ($32) delivers the homely goodness it promises; the bronzed, organic chicken pieces piled high on a bed of potato and pumpkin wedges and drizzled with buttery chicken juices. It is, I should add, available every night.
What's nice about Benjamin & Daughters is the relaxed, unsnobby vibe; the family thing.
I've known Karen McDonald since she worked at Mario's in Darlo's Stanley Street sometime last century; her daughter Nina tucked into a bassinet behind the bar.
Now that daughter runs her own restaurant (ABC Restaurant & Bar in Potts Point) and wrangles her mum's snappy new world-old world wine list, including a complex, earthy 2015 Lightfoot & Sons Myrtle Point Chardonnay from Gippsland ($12/$60).
There is cheesecake if you've been good, or apple cake ($15) that is just the right balance of fruit, sweet spice and cakiness – baked not by a Jewish grandmother, apparently, but by Ashleigh Jarvis, one of the talented chefs to come out of the NICI Indigenous chef training program.
Just goes to show you don't need to have a Jewish grandmother to appreciate Jewish food.
Best bit: The New York-Jewish thing.
Worst bit: Double Bay parking.
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.
Go-to Dish: Pastrami salmon and bagel, $19.50.