The new Mexican wave at Esteban, Sydney

Taco al pastor is worth a double order.
Taco al pastor is worth a double order.  Photo: James Brickwood

There aren't as many suits and ties in the city these days. Consumption is less conspicuous, with more lunches brought from home, and fewer after-work drinks.

Such a modest scenario makes the ambitious scope of this new, agave-fuelled laneway Mexican joint all the more surprising. But clearly the team behind Paddington local hero Tequila Mockingbird is aiming to bring some life back to the city by going beyond the usual nachos and fajitas.

Instead of guacamole, for instance, a crisp tostada is spread with charred avocado, forming a roof over a sweet rubble of roasty butternut squash, sunflower seeds and pasilla chilli oil.

The upside-down tostada de calabaza dusted with Davidson plum powder.
The upside-down tostada de calabaza dusted with Davidson plum powder. Photo: James Brickwood

This upside-down tostada de calabaza ($19) is then dusted with Davidson plum powder and scattered with garlic flowers, like a spring racing carnival hat. Destined to be forever known as avo-on-tost, it's about as far from a Tex Mex sombrero as you can get.

Owners Michael Fegent, Mark Crawford and Luca Bielli have transformed the old two-level Grasshopper bar space into two sultry, hide-away venues.

Downstairs is a 65-seat basement tequila and mezcal bar, with slide-in wooden booth tables, industrial beams, caged drinks lockers and back-lit, colour-co-ordinated bottles.

The old two-level Grasshopper bar space has been transformed into two sultry, hide-away venues.
The old two-level Grasshopper bar space has been transformed into two sultry, hide-away venues. Photo: James Brickwood

Upstairs is a cosmopolitan 45-seat restaurant lined with an open kitchen in which group executive chef John Frid tends a custom-made parrilla grill and an upright gyro spit for the al pastor.

Outside, the laneway is lined with tables to make the most of the current COVID-19 outdoor concessions.

Every dish makes a statement, whether it's an opening snack of crunchy tortilla crisps with a dippy salsa macha of chipotle, peanuts, sesame seeds and oregano, or a pretty, lime-fresh Hiramasa kingfish ceviche ($23) with soaring wings of fried plantain.

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This comes with a surprise scoop of watermelon sorbet whose sweetness could be dialled down a notch or two.

Next time I'm doubling the order of taco al pastor ($9), because they've nailed it. Adobo-marinated pork cut from the vertical grill mixes with onion, coriander, salsa verde and pineapple in a nice mess of tart, rich and meaty, and the soft, smoky tortilla is saved from flabbiness by its crisped edges.

I might even match it to a smoky mezcal from the roving trolley. Or an elegant little Mexican Job ($21) of Tapatio 110 tequila tempered with St Germain elderflower, Italicus, lime and ginger (though that's a high price for a cocktail).

Wagyu Tajima rump cap with porcini and pickled mulato chilli butter.
Wagyu Tajima rump cap with porcini and pickled mulato chilli butter.  Photo: James Brickwood

Slow-cooked Tajima rump cap ($54) from Andrew's Meats is a serious offering with a six-plus marble score – rich, but not so rich that it squishes warm fat through your teeth.

Sliced into rose-pink, well-rested fingers and topped with an indistinct porcini and mulato chilli butter, it calls for a generous, savoury Rioja such as the 2018 Telmo Rodriguez tempranillo ($16/$72).

Spuds ($12) are a must, moreishly steamy and smoky inside and crisp-fried outside, striped with a rich jalapeno crema. It's like sneaking into the kitchen to eat all the crisp leftover bits from the roasting pan when nobody's watching.

Hiramasa kingfish ceviche.
Hiramasa kingfish ceviche. Photo: James Brickwood

Desserts are beautifully constructed, especially the Tres Camotes ($16), or sweet potato tart.

With its benchmark pastry, sweet potato filling, crunchy little meringue kisses and a scoop of sweet potato ice-cream, it's come a long way from the steamy sweet potatoes with condensed milk and berry jam on the streets of Mexico City that inspired it. Tiny little melon micro leaves (new to me) add a herbal freshness.

Hidden away at the end of a narrow laneway off George Street, Esteban is flexing its muscles for a more sophisticated Mexican offering with fine-dining flourishes.

Tres camotes sweet potato tart.
Tres camotes sweet potato tart.  Photo: James Brickwood

It's a bit slow, and there's not much spark between diner and server, but it's also cleverly flexible, as all our new openings will have to be.

You can go late (until 1am) for laneway tacos and flights of margaritas, use it as a high-end Mexican steakhouse, or just go for the taco al pastor. Whatever suits.

The low-down

Address 1 Temperance Lane (off George Street), Sydney, 02 9062 8565, estebanrestaurant.com.au

Open Lunch Wed-Fri noon-2.30pm; dinner Tue-Sat 5-10pm; bar Tue-Sat 10.30am-1am

Vegetarian A scattering across the menu, from mushroom ceviche to spinach queso tamales.

Drinks Margarita flights, Mexican beer, snappy cocktails, a lively old world/new world wine list, and an impressive collection of premium mezcal and tequila.

Cost About $150 for two plus drinks

Score Scoring is paused while the industry gets back on its feet.