380 Oxford St Paddington, NSW 2021
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Groups|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9240 3000|
It's the most beautiful kitchen I have seen for a long time. A long, open wall of hearths and braziers glowing with hot coals; a domed wood-fired oven; and broad, marble-topped work benches holding huge bowls of broad beans and legs of lamb.
It's a kitchen that chefs immediately want to work in, and diners want to be near; how kitchens should be, how they used to be.
If I were a leg of lamb, I'd rather be here than anywhere else.
Long in the planning, Fred's is the Merivale Group's new farm-to-table platform for former Chez Panisse chef Danielle Alvarez, who has turned it into an homage to the renowned Californian restaurant.
Fronting the street is a gorgeous cocktail bar and downstairs is a meandering and magical world of its own called Charlie Parker's, but I'm staying put, mesmerised by the way the kitchen breaks down the them-and-us barriers of the traditional restaurant model.
Credit where it's due: Justin and Bettina Hemmes of Merivale, stylist Amanda Talbot, and designers Acme & Co, take a bow. French auberges and Tuscan farmhouses can, too, for inspiring the high ceilings, heavy linens, old oak timbers, candles, vintage breadboards and tones of blonde, taupe, grey and pewter.
So can Alvarez, as she calmly embeds into the menu the Chez Panisse ethos of sustainable, local, seasonal and simple. So simple that you find yourself thinking about the ingredients rather than the dish; the baby squid fresh off the grill rather than the squid ink, celery, preserved lemon and dill accompaniments ($28).
Almost everything comes touched by flame, smoke or coals. The leaf-shaped fougasse bread ($6) is terrific, the base so crusty you can beat it like a drum.
A clutch of tiny wood-grilled Hawkesbury school prawns ($22) is strewn with rocket leaves and flowers, a puddle of garlicky aioli and espelette pepper.
And you'll be wanting the roast blue royal potatoes ($12), smashed flat, charred crisp and still fluffy.
The food feels natural, not forced; temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold; proteins are balanced with acidity and greenery.
Hand-rolled green casarecce pasta ($28) is tossed in whey, tinted green with peas and nettles and dotted with supple pieces of rabbit, society garlic flowers and crumbs for crunch.
Only one dish – coral trout wrapped in fig leaf ($46) – doesn't thrill, with its firm flesh and sorrel beurre blanc.
The Moorlands lamb ($44), however, is roll-your-eyes good – hung "a la ficelle" by a string next to the hot coals, carved and combined with a mighty grilled lamb rib chop, grilled gem lettuce, double-shelled broad beans, mossy laver (seaweed) and baby artichokes.
Desserts are enjoyably unfussy, with a chewy, crusty, macadamia meringue ($18) garlanded with macerated strawberries, yoghurt and strawberry sorbets under a crunchy praline shower.
And sommelier Caitlyn Rees has put together a joyful wine list with an intriguing daily selection by the glass that includes a smooth-talking 2015 Brunnen Chardonnay from Beechworth ($16).
Everyone says they cook simple food, but this is radically, cultishly simple; a celebration of both the ingredient and the direct nature of fire, smoke and flame. That would normally be enough, but in this room? And this kitchen? Love.
Best bit: Such a lovely room to be in.
Worst bit: Going home to my own kitchen.
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.
Go-to Dish: Lamb leg a la ficelle with grilled rack, laver, broad beans and mint, $44.