6 David St Bowral, NSW 2576
|Opening hours||Breakfast Fri-Sat 7.30am-10.30am; Lunch Fri-Sun from noon; Dinner Wed-Mon from 6pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Licensed, Groups, Events, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 4861 7787|
Well here's one out of the box. There is only one word to describe Bistro Officina, and that's character. Buckets of it. You can wrap it around you like a hand-knitted scarf; you can warm your mitts by its fire; you can taste it in the wood-fired bread and the smoky butter.
Somebody here is cooking without rules, finding elegance in rawness and serving "left-overs" as if they were luxuries.
The taramasalata has character; all rich, lemony-bitey cod's roe, darkly dusted and pooled with oil, served with crisp wakame crackers like shards of tree bark. The floor staff have character – a pro team cheerily determined that you have a good time.
The space – in a wing of a wall-papered, creaking-floored country hotel – has character, booming with the happy noise of boisterous diners. It's like a page torn from design guru Neale Whitaker's style files, with its natural, rustic, earthy tones; dark wooden share tables and deer antler chandeliers, fireside lounge and monochromatic Thomas Bucich artworks.
Views are of both car park and Bowral's finest asset – established trees of every shade of green – and the kitchen is wreathed in smoke, with its wood-fired oven, grills, rotisserie and smoker.
As for the chef and his wife – complete characters. Italian-born Nicola Coccia cooked his way through Europe and Sydney, from Otto (where he met the irrepressible French-born Alexandra), to Quay, Ormeggio, QT and most recently, Biota Dining.
Even so, how do you wake up one morning and say, "I want to grill a pile of leatherjacket cheeks over red gum and ironbark coals and serve them on buttery shredded cabbage with a smoky dressing made from the heads?"
What a terrific end result ($22) for such an under-valued fish, and one that suggests good connections, which is, indeed, the case. Fish from Southern Fresh Seafoods, meat from Vic's Meats, vegetables from Living Earth Farm.
Coccia's food feels very in the here-and-now, even when it's nostalgic. "My grandmother's meatballs" ($20) might reference family, but three chunky, chewy chicken and beef polpettone under rich, blood-red tomato sugo on grilled sourdough makes you feel ready for the nastiest winter the Southern Highlands can throw at you.
There's something darkly beautiful and very David Lynch about this charred, Neanderthal food, like the char-grilled morcilla blood sausage ($37) on a fat cauliflower pikelet with a swirl of lovely prune puree, and charred cauliflower fronds curling on the plate like octopus tentacles.
Rich mascarpone shortcrust pastry holds "burnt" custard and sweet apple marmalade in a fresh little tart, before the high drama of what looks like a plate of charcoal. It is – but a few of those lumps of carbon are actually charcoal-dusted chocolate truffles.
And yes, the new wine list has character, with local ma-and-pa vineyards well represented. There's a gutsy winter-friendly rosé ($9/$32) from Cherry Tree Hill, and a fruit-basket chardonnay from Tertini ($12/$63).
Coccia cooks like an Italian grandmother but plates as if he is the dark nemesis of Donna Hay. Yes, it's #foodporn for hunter-gatherers, eco-tourists and zero-wasters, but it's so full of positive energy, so adaptive and collaborative, and so strong a voice, that I don't care. This food bypasses the logical brain and goes straight to the far more susceptible heart.
Best bit: Anything wood-fired, including the wood fire.
Worst bit: It gets pretty loud.
Go-to Dish: Go-to dish: Morcilla, cauliflower pikelet, prunes $37.