131 King St Newtown, NSW 2042
|Opening hours||Sat from noon; Mon-Sat 5.30pm-late|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9550 6196|
What makes a restaurant hot? Why does one restaurant generate more buzz than a beehive, and another just … opens? It's because, like the Hollywood Glamour Girls or the Brat Pack of old, they have something the others don't have. It's not just about being new, but more of a chemical reaction, a spontaneous combustion of timing, location, personality, talent and point of difference. Whatever it is, Cafe Paci has it.
Finnish-born chef Pasi Petanen also had it when he opened the original Cafe Paci in 2013 as a temporary Darlinghurst pop-up that managed to last two years. His chirpy Italian wine wrangler, Giorgio De Maria, was born with it. Cafe Paci interior-architect George Livissianis is no stranger to it, either. And the final puzzle piece – Newtown itself – is slowly getting its own heat-factor back.
There's a growing school of chefs quite happy to float from one mate's restaurant kitchen to another, and Petanen has been busy backing up Automata, Lankan Filling Station and Karl Firla's Oscillate Wildly. In a swift one-two, Firla himself has now shut up shop and joined Petanen, along with a floor team that's effortlessly well-versed in both food and wine.
Good details abound – long banquettes, ornately curved tables, textured ceiling – and there's a deliberate attempt to create conviviality with a squeezy bar and small tables. Put those elbows away. You won't be needing them, as there's nowhere to put them.
Petanen built his name on a five-course degustation, but those days are behind him, and the menu now is all-occasion wine bar snackery and a few choice dishes.
Unsurprisingly, all dishes are small-format and served as individual courses – it must come as a bit of a culture shock for Petanen to cook an actual main course.
One of those dishes is not to be missed: the Paris-Brest ($16), a golden orb of almond-flaked choux pastry stuffed with caramelised onion and piped chicken liver parfait that is as light as it is rich. It's a rowdy big-top circus of richness delivered with haute cuisine technique and sleight-of-hand.
"This old thing?" it says insouciantly, "Surely everyone can do this?" No, they can't, actually. It's why so many things these days come on toast.
The devilled egg ($10) is all whippy, spicy and buttery, with sparkles of trout roe, dill and chives. I want to smash it onto the dark molasses rye bread ($4) with its sticky-sweet crust, and make a devilishly good egg sanger.
There's meat – a nice enough pan-fried scotch fillet from Brooklyn Valley ($38) served with onion gravy, pickled mushrooms and freshly grated horseradish – but plants seem to generate more inspiration.
An alternative steak of thick-cut, tender-firm cauliflower ($26) is topped with a crunchy aglio oglio carpet of chilli and garlic, sidelined with a thick white puree of parmesan risotto (i.e. cauliflower cheese) that's just plain genius.
Another don't-miss is the dish of gnocchi-like potato dumplings ($26) made with potato starch rather than wheat flour and gently sauced with a shreddy, buttery house-made XO sauce of cured dried trout, shallots, garlic, chilli, smoked paprika and soy.
Drop in for this and a glass of the house red, the Carussin Completo, an easy, juicy, bio barbera blend ($9/$35/$69) from the donkey-raising, beer-brewing Bruna Ferro in Piedmont, and you'll drop $35 on dinner and have a good time.
For a better time, add a small serve of luridly orange carrot sorbet enrobed in a foamy yoghurt mousse on a slab of dense licorice cake ($15), especially if you didn't have it at the original Cafe Paci. It's one of the coolest desserts around, in one of the hottest places to dine.
Being hot doesn't automatically lead to being great, of course, but Cafe Paci is doing so many things right, and right for now, that it's my opening of the year.
Open Sat from noon; Mon-Sat 5.30pm-late.
Vegetarian Six dishes and two sides.
Drinks Crisp, clever cocktails and Giorgio De Maria's idiosyncratic, broad-minded list of mostly natural and biodynamic wines from small producers.
Go-to dish Chicken liver Paris-Brest with onion jam, $16.
Pro tip Do try the cultish Lonkero (canned gin and grapefruit drink), the darling of the Finnish sauna set.