191-195 Oxford St Darlinghurst, NSW 2010
|Opening hours||Wed-Thu 4pm-midnight; Fri-Sun noon-midnight|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
One good thing about 2021 (another being it isn't 2020) is that restaurants are becoming more like bars, and bars are becoming more like restaurants.
It's good news for people who can't stay up to 4am any more, yet still like running into friends in a free-wheeling party vibe.
The son of an architect, David Abram says he's fascinated with how spaces can help people interact. Sydney's young creatives have been interacting effortlessly at Abram's Freda's Bar in Chippendale for the past 10 years, its back-alley cool a witness to many the late-night party.
But with the lease up and Sydney night life decimated, the bar closed last year, and a new meeting place was called for. Something with a great location, a cool interior and music; something that could be as much a creative hangout as a place to eat. Enter Cafe Freda's.
Abram and his partner, artist and fellow DJ Carla Uriarte, have created an open, people-friendly, dining space spilling out onto a courtyard facing Taylor Square. It has transformed this corner of Oxford Street overnight, and brought a new food/drink/music hybrid to Sydney.
Outside, tables of young things – one with her kitten on a leash – are kicking back, meeting up over cocktails and plates. Inside, chef Xinyi Lim's tiny kitchen takes up about as much space as a DJ deck (the real decks are elsewhere).
After five years in New York cooking across Andrew Tarlow's five venue-strong Marlow Collective restaurant group, including Diner, Marlow & Sons and Achilles Heel, Lim moves easily between her Chinese-Malaysian heritage and a snacky, salady vision of contemporary dining. Her daily-changing menu loops and samples from east and west.
There's the integrity of Appellation Sydney Rock oysters from Merimbula ($27 for 6) being opened to order, sent out on a bed of upturned oyster shells. A zingy black rice vinegar mignonette gives them a nudge without masking their flinty richness. Dense Organic Bread Bar sourdough comes with black garlic butter ($6) for a gentle sweetness.
With open windows creating a cross-breeze from Oxford Street through to Flinders Street, a weekend lunch is full of sunny moments. One is a fresh, colourful salad of tomatoes, yellow peaches and fennel spiked with strong tarragon leaves and shocked with dry-roasted chilli oil ($18); another a prosecco-boosted Aperol Spritz ($17).
The dish that says the most about Lim's cross-cultural resourcefulness is one of mussels escabeche ($23), in which fleshy, lightly pickled mussels on an intense pimento aioli are pimped with roast potatoes. Yep, super-crunchy potatoes roasted in tallow (beef fat) and dusted with paprika.
This food has an improv quality – who would serve roast potatoes with mussels? – that suits the ad hoc vibe.
There's an Asian nuance here and there that occasionally takes over the whole dish. That might be spicy, vegan dan dan noodles one day, and Malaysian beef "randang" ($31) the next.
Served with a mound of jasmine rice, cucumber and mint salad, toasted coconut, crushed peanuts and a wedge of lime, the biodynamic beef is cooked low and slow in coconut milk and spices until barely juicy, as tradition dictates. It's a good, family-style main course that's up for sharing.
When I first dined at Cafe Freda's I thought it was a bit all over the place, with some dishes suited to bread and others to rice, and a sweetly shambolic attitude to service and systems (and reservations).
The second time is the same, but I now accept this haphazardness as the norm. Mind you, I still haven't found a wine I've loved among the "textural, gritty, inquisitive" orange wines or "bold, complex, rewarding" reds on the list.
But together, Abram, Uriarte and Lim have breathed life and energy into one of the most underrated sites in Sydney, taking the good bits from a bar and using them creatively to make a looser, more interactive dining scene that runs to its own beat. Another tick for 2021.
Drinks: Classic and fruit-driven cocktails, local beers and a naturalish wine list by Darcy Greenaune Ellis.
Vegetarian: Half a dozen options throughout the menu