Merivale's new Sydney venue Fred's opens this week

"It's right in the middle, it's the heartbeat of the place," says Danielle Alvarez about the hearth and open kitchen ...
"It's right in the middle, it's the heartbeat of the place," says Danielle Alvarez about the hearth and open kitchen that define Fred's.  Photo: Anson Smart

Fred's - the Merivale venue which was slated to open in February – finally opened on Tuesday in Paddington.

"Everything's feeling really good," says head chef Danielle Alvarez, who was signed by Merivale back in 2014, with plans for her to headline her own restaurant soon after.  

With the long countdown to its launch, there's been much (justified) anticipation for Fred's. Besides having an amazing storehouse of patience, Alvarez also has reserves of talent that are worth your attention. Her megawatt CV features Californian institutions such as The French Laundry (where she started her career) and Chez Panisse (where she spent more than four formative years). And since moving to Australia for Merivale, she's spent time at the company's venues, such as Coogee Pavilion and The Paddington

And while Fred's has endured many delays (mainly due to logistics and Merivale's ambitious schedule - 2016 has seen the blockbuster opening of The Newport and CEO Justin Hemmes pick up a new venue, on a week's notice), what's striking is how similar Fred's is to Alvarez's original vision.

When deciding how it should look, the chef sketched her interpretion of a French chateau-style farmhouse and gave it to Hemmes. Her 60-seat restaurant is, impressively, what she first drew. 

"It's exactly like my sketch for Justin, which is crazy that they let me do that!" she says. 

Alvarez wants Fred's to feel like a comfortable home, rather than "a restaurant kitchen with lots of stainless-steel ...
Alvarez wants Fred's to feel like a comfortable home, rather than "a restaurant kitchen with lots of stainless-steel containers".  Photo: Anson Smart

And everything, from the menu and beyond, is what she initially imagined. "I think it really really is. It's also been a good evolution of my time here." 

Given the buzz, Fred's was always going to be a hot restaurant – but Alvarez actually plans for that to be literally true, as fire is a key part of the menu. 

"Fire can impart incredible flavour into things," she says. "Cooking over fire – and in that primitive way – really forces you to use all of your senses and be completely aware of what you're doing all the time ... It's not just turning on a dial and letting it burn."

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She likes how fire involves the long game of planning ahead ("getting enough coals going – it can take an hour or two hours"), but also allows for creativity and intuition to kick in, too. This cooking approach is physically the heart of Fred's. The main kitchen has a 2.5 metre hearth at its centre, which is "basically a giant fireplace". Fires will be built every day, but dishes aren't just about high-powered blasts and burns. 

"We're doing a leg of lamb hanging by a string in the fireplace, which is a beautiful way to cook lamb, but it doesn't actually give it [too] smoky [a] flavour."

There's also "beautiful" coral trout fillet that her kitchen team will wrap up in fig leaf. "We put in a herb butter with lemon and thyme right on top of the fish, wrap the leaf around and tie it up and we stick it in the wood oven."

Coral trout in fig leaf with pencil leeks and wilted greens with lemon and fermented chilli are some of the featured dishes.
Coral trout in fig leaf with pencil leeks and wilted greens with lemon and fermented chilli are some of the featured dishes. Photo: Anson Smart

And while "we're still finding lots of ways to cook the meat and the fish with fire that aren't overly smoky", vegetables will also be given prized attention, too. Grill-marked asparagus is the star of a triangoli dish with brown butter, pistachio and parmiggiano.   

"We wanted to do something that really highlighted asparagus and it seems like a nice thing to put it into pasta. 'What do we want to eat, how do we want to eat it, what highlights the ingredients the most?' That's how that dish came about and that's how most dishes come about in this kitchen."

While flames, char and smoke deeply mark the menu - so will her long-running relationships with producers, such as Fabrice Rolando of First Farm Organics. On his Blue Mountains property, he's grown everything from bronze fennel and Paris market carrot to "rocket that tastes like peanut butter". His ingredients are so highly sought-after that "I had people fighting asparagus wars", he admits. 

The asparagus triangoli on Fred's menu.
The asparagus triangoli on Fred's menu. Photo: Anson Smart

"In my search for people like Fabrice, I felt like this is what people in California were experiencing back in the '70s," says the chef. That farm-inspired approach - where an ingredient alone could get headline-act spotlight - is something that has stayed with her in Australia. Chez Panisse, her former workplace, was famous for serving an unadorned peach for dessert. Would she do that in Australia? 

"I think if I was lucky enough to get things that perfect, I would feel no qualms about putting it on the table, neat and not dressed."

At the moment, though, she's working with dishes such as Lettuces & Flowers, with vivid blooms and "beautiful speckled leaves" fresh-plucked from Rolando's farm. And you'll see his ingredients throughout Fred's menu - Lebanese cress, white asparagus, red orach and a fiery wild rocket ("it's not like the stuff that you get in the shops that's limp and bland"). 

The bar menu at Charlie Parker's.
The bar menu at Charlie Parker's. Photo: Anson Smart

While the fireplace and open kitchen are a key feature of Fred's, the display of fresh-baked pastries will also be showcased. "So as soon as you come into the restaurant, it's almost the first thing that you see, to get you started thinking about dessert." 

So be ready to be 'brainwashed' into considering "buttery and rich" rhubarb and Beaumes de Venise millefeuille or the heavyhitting chocolate souffle with prune and armagnac ice-cream. Or the "beautiful" meringue, which has surprising hits of toasted macadamia mixed right through, teamed with yogurt and strawberry sorbet, chamomile-infused crème fraiche and a macadamia praline. You can chase this with a drink (or two) at Charlie Parker's, the bar that sits in Fred's basement.  

While Charlie Parker's is named after a distinct identity, Fred's isn't christened after anyone specific. 

Danielle Alvarez will be working closely with farmers such Fabrice Rolando. His wide-ranging produce includes shepherd's ...
Danielle Alvarez will be working closely with farmers such Fabrice Rolando. His wide-ranging produce includes shepherd's purse, New Zealand oca, olive herb and Chinese artichokes. Photo: Supplied

"At first, when Justin approached me with the idea for the name, I thought, huh, but who is Fred? But eventually it became for me this really friendly and humble name. And that's exactly what you want the place to feel like, like you're in a neighbourhood place, but without being overstated or too touting. I think it just feels like, 'it's Fred's!'"

Open Fri-Sun 12.30pm-3pm; Tues-Sat 5.30pm-midnight; Sunday 5.30pm-10pm

380 Oxford Street, Paddington, 02 9240 3000, merivale.com.au/freds