Nicole Alexander, bestselling author from Moree, NSW
The Restaurant Pendolino, Sydney CBD
"I first found Pendolino five or six years ago – I was doing a pre-bridal shop with my mother and younger sister who was getting married and we saw the restaurant and we were told it was totally booked out and there was no way we could get in. Then we told them why we were there, and they came out with three glasses of champagne and found us a table and I have been back there ever since.
"It's incredibly dark and a bit squashy, but that doesn't detract from dining experience – I just love Italian food. It's quite original, it's also indulgent in its own way. All the pasta is hand-made, all the meals have a selection of olive oils to complement them. They use oils with food as you would a specific wine.
"It's a fine-dining restaurant. It's always very crowded at lunchtime. It's always a great gathering place in the CBD."
"I love the spaghetti with prawns and barramundi and my favourite of the pastas is a wild mushroom pappardelle. The main I had recently was the duck leg – it had a cauliflower puree and a bit of zucchini and black olives and the flavours were really unique and really complemented the duck.
"I always have a side salad: rocket and parmesan and pear, which I love. I'm a habitual person."
"I have tried making pasta at home, but there's more flour on me than anywhere else. I usually cook a roast every week, a leg of lamb or chicken. It's traditional but I really do love roast dinners; I roast everything from eggplant to chicory. I like to say that I was a deft CWA cake maker but I'll have to leave that to my mother. I'm definitely more steak, chops and roasts.
"I'm fairly nomadic. I'm frequently in Sydney for work and I am involved in the family beef cattle business for two days a week.
"My seventh book, River Run, is about to be released. It is set in the 1950s, during the wool boom. I'm also working on a documentary on old Australian pastoral properties. I've just started doing some research on history of my own family property That's going to be a very long work in progress given everything else I have going on!"
Shop 100, Level 2, The Strand Arcade, 412-414 George Street, Sydney
9231 6117, pendolino.com.au
Entrees $4.60-$34.60; mains $39.90-$51.50; desserts $16.90-29.90. $180 for two, plus drinks.
I go away for three weeks and, poof! I'm back a married woman. Just like magic.
We tied the knot in Germany, pretzel-style. I have to admit I was pleased to get back to Sydney's gastronomic lightness of touch, the salads and seas of fruits and vegetables, the slightly obsessive commitment to gluten-free, sugar-free etc alternatives. As much I love good bread and Alpine cheese, it's not easy three times a day.
So, to a place that was discovered while this week's champion chooser, author Nicole Alexander, was out doing the bridal thing.
Countering all the blind consumerist hubbub on Pitt Street is this sensible, beautifully run and treat-worthy delight, a study of low-lit sophistication and brightly lit flavours. Named for Pendolino olive trees, this filigreed, brick-walled space is a trove of Italian oils and wines, with a library of golden and green olive oils secreted within. (On that note, breads and three olive oil samplers are more than enough to cause my downfall before the meal even takes off.)
Regional wines of the month are fastidiously chosen and hard to find elsewhere. Masterclasses – such as July's truffle bonanza – are held regularly and have wedding present written all over them.
Tonight, my date's tipple is Italian and micro-brewed, an $18.50 bottle of Saggia wheat beer smoothness from Umbria. It's probably the most decadent cold one – in price, pouring and palate – I've come across.
No grog, or oysters, for me. I'm relaxed about most of the rest of the pregnancy (!) to-do – pate, blushing beef or soft cheeses – but raw shellfish is too obviously risky, even for me.
So I can't comment on ours, but their accompaniment – a soft, pink tomato vinaigrette with salmon roe – is a bit of fresh razzle-dazzle on a morsel that rarely needs doing up, to my mind. "Sweet" is how he describes them. His veal and pork polpettine di limone are thatch-roofed with crisp, large leaves to pretty up what is otherwise half a dozen grey meatballs. We ask the learned waiter whether the greens are edible. "Not advisable" comes the reply after we both chomp a piece. The veal and its parings are a pleasure – little punches of lemon and deep parmesan give them a fancy dress. "Ikea meatballs" says the other half. My beetroot salad – tart and bright – comes with a near-liquid hunk of burrata. It is a starter from heaven.
Pendolino is a place for business lunches, pre-theatre dinners, special nights – any night, if the budget allows – and it's as dependable as it is, in Alexander's words, indulgent. The wine list is one for those with an excuse or an expense account, and the menu is much the same, all of which is totally justified by the service, which can be summed up by the two silver orbs that are gently placed over two diners' meals in their absence. The patrons have gone to the bathrooms and, rather than risk a cooler meal, two cloches appear at the hands of observant staff.
Had we had the pleasure of a cloche-lift, butler-style, a bowl of barramundi spaghetti and a Puglian vegetable pie would have been revealed. As it is, they arrive together, swiftly and purposefully. Curls of prawn, flakes of barramundi, specks of chilli and a hungry man's worth of fresh chitarra spaghetti is caper, lemon and seafood chemistry. I'm in love with it.
As for the pie, on which three very, very skinny leaves of eggplant teeter, well, it's "like pizza". Or, buffalo milk stracciatella, creamed potato, charred pepper and three mini, seared batons of confit leek.
Book in advance, as it may be hidden but it's unendingly popular. And a word of caution: during winter, the terrace seats on the second floor of the grand Strand Arcade are on the frigid side.
I leave feeling treated – really, genuinely indulged, and that's a lovely and beautifully rare thing of an evening. And I'll return to Pendolino's finely curated, smooth formality when I can eat the oysters and sample the vino, too.