1 52 King St Sydney, NSW 2000
|Opening hours||Lunch Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm; Dinner Mon-Fri 5.30-10pm|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9114 7365|
Alastair Little is a very good cook. I don't mean chef, I mean cook. And I say it with respect, because he cooks for flavour more than for appearance. Much of his food, in fact, is brown.
Take the beef peposo on the opening menu of Little Bistro. Beef cheeks, red wine, pepper, ($32). The meat is gelatinous, the sauce gloriously brown, the mashed potato impeccably smooth. It's delicious. It was designed to be delicious. It was cooked by somebody who knows exactly how to make beef cheeks delicious.
Little's audience is not the blue spaghetti and spritz crowd, it's the beef cheeks and red wine crowd. Yes, it's older, with more money. Of course it is.
The first-floor dining room has been sensitively refurbished since it was home to Bistrode CBD and the late Jeremy Strode.
Like Alastair Little himself, it looks like something plucked from the London dining scene of the '90s, with its crisp, white walls, half-curtained windows, dark bistro chairs, fluted white columns, industrial light fittings and black framed mirrors. Inspiration for this monochrome glamour comes from Bistrode's black-and-white framed portraits of game-changing British-based chefs, from Mark Hix and Pierre Koffman to Michel Roux and Fergus Henderson. Jeremy Strode, quite rightly, has been added to the gallery.
In truth, Little could be there too. His pioneering London restaurant was one of the real forces of British dining last century, fuelled by his obsession with French and Italian cooking.
A late-career move to Australia, a meeting with Merivale's Justin Hemmes, and he has slipped into place for a mutual six-month see-how-it-goes period.
The classic, considered, instinctively seasonal French/Italian/British menu goes down well, from the cold Claire de Lune oysters ($5 each) served with hot little faggots of sausage, to the grilled rump steak ($40) with fried potatoes and sauce foyot (a meaty bearnaise).
There's a peppery, all-vegetable minestrone ($18) with nothing forced or contrived about it, and a crostini-inspired Tuscan chicken liver pâté ($18), sealed with clarified butter and made fruity with vin santo.
Refreshingly, dishes are neither deconstructed nor reconstructed. A bourride ($35) has no bisque, no liaison; just fish bone stock, vegetables and a splash of Ricard as the base for lightly cooked squid, gurnard, mussels and politely peeled prawns.
Food and wine are equal partners here, working together to get the job done. A handsome roast crown of duck ($38) is glazed with honey and soy and "briskly roasted", served with rosemary and apple clafoutis that's like a fruity Yorkshire pud.
Match it to a juicy 2015 J. M. Boillot burgundy ($18 glass, $54 carafe, $90 bottle) or a sessionable 2016 Pierre-Marie Chermette Griotte gamay ($13/39/65) for the full effect.
Desserts feel more austere than they have to be. A square tile of apple tart ($14) is so fine it's like biting into a caramelised apple-flavoured crisp, and sachertorte terrine ($16) is just as dense as the original at Vienna's Hotel Sacher. But really, the only thing that grates is the use of paper napkins.
Erin Thommeny, Aiofe Fitzgerald and veteran Merivale sommelier Stuart Halliday bring a lively, bustly vibe to the service, and Little scurries out to deliver the odd dish, clearly enjoying the hell out of his new gig. It's mutual, Mr Little.
Vegetarian: Two entrees, one main
Drinks: Smart northern/southern hemisphere wine list, mainly French and Australian – and some a bit of both, like the Borrowed Cuttings Piquepoul ($60), an oyster's best friend.
Go-to dish: Roast crown of duck, apple and rosemary clafoutis, $38.
Pro tip: Start with a kir royale of blackcurrant liqueur and fizz, for the right retro vibe.
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.