210 Australia St Newtown, NSW 2042
|Opening hours||Wed-Sat 6pm-late; Sun noon-4pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly, Family friendly, Gluten-free options|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 8624 3131|
Tinkle, tinkle. When you open the front door of The Continental Deli Bar Bistro, a little old-fashioned bell rings overhead. It's the sound of another era, of family-run neighbourhood shops lined with wooden shelves piled high with jars and tins. But while this lovely space is stocked with all things canned and cured, it's no trip down memory lane.
Instead of dust-coated staff wrapping packages with string at a service counter, there are people popping tinned martinis, swirling Nick 'n Nora cocktails and stuffing rolls with house-cured meats and cheeses. Deli meets easy-going saloon bar. Brilliant.
The Continental comes courtesy of Porteno's Elvis Abrahanowicz, Joe Valore and Mikey Nicolian, as reviewed a few weeks ago. Now the upstairs Bistro has opened as well, with its own "continental" menu via chef Jesse Warkentin.
It's a tight 4 x 4 x 4 list of dinner favourites from yesteryear such as asparagus mimosa under a shower of egg white, steak tartare, roast chicken, and lamb cutlets with canned peas. No small share plates, no Nordic, no degustation, no Asian, no street food.
I'm excited, and yet I'm wary. I well remember the continental food of yesteryear, and trust me, it wasn't all good. Nobody needs cream sauce, grey vegetables, watery mash and fanned strawberries to make a comeback.
The daily special, however, is a doozy: a big, fat, burnished sausage of sweetbread, porcini and foie gras ($28) put together to the kitchen's specs by LP's Quality Meats. Firm yet juicy, meaty yet sweet, it's like a Catalan butifarra enriched with pate, brilliantly paired with a smooth, oozy mash.
Officially, the ravioli is stuffed with prawn and lamb's brains ($26) and comes in a Prosecco, ginger, tarragon and crème fraiche sauce, but all I can see is a sea of cream sauce. Aaaargh. I feel like Marty McFly, sent back to a time (the 80s) when ravioli were always big and round, the filling was always mousse, and the sauce was always creamy. They're good on texture and balance, but the sauce is over-the-top in more ways than one.
The two neat rooms also take me back to my early days of dining, with their Victorian fireplace, dark floorboards, elbow-to-elbow bare tables and high noise levels. Nice, but I'm missing downstairs already.
Roasted fillets of yellowbelly flounder ($36) come stacked high like a millefeuille, topped with a surfboard croute spread with house-made taramasalata. Lovely fish, doesn't need the vertigo. Lamb cutlets ($36) are terrific - plentiful, meaty, fatty-tailed and resting, a la Mum, on a bed of soft, sweet tinned peas. You'd have to like tinned peas.
For pud, rhum baba ($18) is majestic; a huge golden, syrupy lifebuoy of cake under slatherings of chantilly cream, with a pour-yourself bottle of rich, overproof Bundaberg. Booze is a highlight in fact, from the cocktails to co-owner Joe Valore's on-form wine list that runs from South American and Italian thoroughbreds to South Australian house wines, including a zesty, juicy Clare Valley Riesling ($12/$59).
Downstairs is so much fun, with its meats, cheeses, imported sardines and tinned martinis, it's almost a pity that upstairs has taken another direction and doesn't play off its strengths more. The menu feels like a dad joke, albeit one with good produce, cheekiness and lots of care, but I don't think I get what it is trying to be. Retro is only great when the thing you're being retro about is brilliant in the first place. Tinkle, tinkle.
Best bit: The tiny oval plates with red trim.
Worst bit: The cream sauce is back.
Go-to dish: Sweetbread, porcini and foie gras sausage, $28.
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.