Address 248 Palmer Street, Darlinghurst
Phone 9361 4162 www.civilian.net.au
Open 7am-3pm and 5.30pm-midnight Wed-Sat
Cost About $120 for two for dinner, plus drinks
Stereotyping is alive and well in the hospitality industry. All baristas have beards, all chefs have tatts. But it's just as easy to stereotype diners. Sit in the charming courtyard of Republic 2 in Darlinghurst, and you can match the people arriving to the restaurant without even thinking about it. The Italian family with their dark, curly-haired bambini go directly to Lucio's for pizza. Skinny girls in wafty linen and designer bags head, without fail, to Phamish to nibble on Vietnamese. Groups of Japanese salarymen troop straight into the tiny Japanese Rosan for sushi and hotpots. And – there's no polite way to say it – the big boys have their hearts set on the waffles, burgers and wings at Jazz City Milk Bar.
So who's heading for Civilian, just opened by Adelaide entrepreneur Steve Waldeck on the site that, for six years, was home to Chris Manfield's much-loved Universal? Well, it's not entirely clear. Civilian isn't as easy to nail as its compatriots in this restaurant-infested piazza, although first appearances are good, with its summertime awning, aqua lounge-lined play-pen for pre-dinner drinks and reasonably brutal concrete bunker that gradually lights up as the sunlight fades.
The menu is harder to pin down than a Federal pollie, running from Japanese ami-yaki beef skewers and Moroccan-style chicken to Italian house-made gnocchi and a Francophile lamb rump with ratatouille. Not only that, it's divvied into Small, Medium and Large and, ubiquitously, "designed for sharing". That makes Civilian Asian/Mediterranean/North African, perhaps, with a touch of the dudes-in-a-bar menu listing of chilli-spiced popcorn cooked in beef fat. It's also – for reasons that aren't entirely clear – part cafe, opening at 7am for muesli and bacon and eggs.
Who cares about mixed messages, as long as they can cook. "They" are head chef, UK-born Andy Ball, who started his career at the hotels Ritz and Claridge's in London, and former Toko sous-chef Jack Bathurst. The food reflects their CV's with its mix of classic and mod. So an entree of seared scallops ($23) is cutely done, touched up with japanese sudachi, edamame and yuzu mayo with plenty of bright citrussy notes.
It's a similar story with the NZ line-caught snapper ($29), a handsome, pan-tanned fillet paired with a tangle of fine linguine in a sweet, green pork hock stock, gem lettuce and fresh pea sauce. What could have been a yawn, is not. The Burrawong Gaian chicken ($38 to share) smeared with chermoula and espelette pepper isn't as exciting as it sounds, however. Served with a knitting ball of kohlrabi remoulade, it's a generous serve, but there's an awful lot of breast meat, and the coating feels gritty and charry. It's salad ($12) to the rescue, in the form of clean, fresh, lemon-dressed leafy greens with crunchy sunflower seeds (the new pine nuts, don't you know).
A compact, compatible wine list devised by wine guy Nick Stock steers clear of the usual suspects and includes classy players such as a rich, savoury 2012 Jean-Paul et Benoit Droin Chablis ($82). Staff are young, cheery and helpful, and what could have been crude dude food – as in a dessert of chocolate tart, caramelised banana and salted caramel – is a beautifully balanced, class act ($15) with a knockout nutmeg ice-cream.
The name Civilian suggests it's designed for all kinds of people, which would account for the scattergun approach. Let's hope for their sake that all kinds of people want to go to a place serving all kinds of food.
Best bit: Summer courtyard dining
Worst bit: Not clear what's to share and what's not
Go-to dish: NZ line-caught snapper, fresh linguine, gem, peas, hock stock and parsley $29.