Menzies Bar & Bistro review

Menzies Bar & Bistro on the ground floor of Shell House.
Menzies Bar & Bistro on the ground floor of Shell House. Photo: Christopher Pearce

37 Margaret St Sydney, NSW 2000

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Opening hours Lunch Tue-Fri; dinner Tue-Sat
Features Bar, Licensed
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 8262 8888

There's an obesity epidemic spreading through Sydney's restaurants and it's getting out of control. I'm not talking about chefs' waistlines, mind; my beef is with the bloated prices and flabby luxury items on menus at the top end of town.

Sure, the cost of meat is rising considerably, but is any scotch fillet worth $112, the price being charged at one new CBD steakhouse? Does the city need more $200 lobster frites with five venues already pushing the same special within a truffle's throw of each other? And when did a $400 caviar service become de rigueur?

You can still have a great restaurant with dumb prices for luxury ingredients, of course, but I fear too many operators are putting the caviar before the horse. COVID-19 certainly bolstered the trend and I don't think I'm the only Sydneysider who burned through a considerable chunk of savings post-lockdown. It was bloody great to be dining out again, and yes, I would like to see the cellar list. 

Go-to dish: Grilled Skull Island prawns with 'nduja and sea greens.
Go-to dish: Grilled Skull Island prawns with 'nduja and sea greens. Photo: Christopher Pearce

The trend towards luxury may be seen by restaurants as a way to claw back profit margins after two horror years of closures, staff shortages and rising produce prices, but excess has a limit. 

With workers now trickling back to the CBD, Sydney could do with more first-rate lunch spots pitched between a boxed sandwich and whole crab pasta with salmon pearls. It could do with more places like Menzies Bar & Bistro.

The bistro, which opened near Wynyard Station in October, is part of Shell House, a choose-your-own-adventure mega boozer sandwiching eight storeys of office space inside a heritage facade. A reported $14 million was spent kitting out the site in all manner of marble, metal and timber. With a rooftop terrace, three bars and a dining room, it's Sydney's most ambitious place in which to drink a negroni in years.

Borrowdale pork belly with white onion slaw, grilled peach and muscovado.
Borrowdale pork belly with white onion slaw, grilled peach and muscovado. Photo: Christopher Pearce

The Menzies sits proud and pub-like on the ground floor – and it's the kind of come-one-come-all place where a bloke in Hard Yakka might be sinking Tooheys at one end of the blackened steel bar while Fendi-clad advertising bosses clink Bollinger at the other.

Chef Joel Bickford was lured from Circular Quay's two-hatted Aria to oversee all of Shell House's food, and his Menzies carte shows that you don't require foie gras by the bucket to create a sense of luxury. Just a bit of nous, a hot grill and great butter.

There's a wagyu burger ($26) because you need one for the corporate types. There's a grilled fontina cheese and black-pig ham sandwich ($22) because sometimes it's been a bad day and there's no comfort like a toastie. 

Abalone toast with XO black sesame.
Abalone toast with XO black sesame. Photo: Christopher Pearce

But there's also squid ink-seasoned abalone toast ($24) because Menzies wants your dinner money, too. The mollusc is blitzed with chilli, garlic and lemongrass before being slathered across fried sourdough and pressed in black sesame: an elevated take on prawn toast with oh-so-much flavour.

The bistro's grilled prawns, brushed with spicy 'nduja butter (three for $42), could go head-to-claw with any market-price lobster. Meaty, sweet and caught in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the giant tigers slip from their split shells at the barest nudge from a fork.

Wine options are wide-ranging, from $12 by-the-glass quaffers to vintage Dom Perignon. Whoever designed the house cocktails, however, should consider Coco Chanel's advice of removing one accessory before presenting yourself to the world. There's never been a case for whisky, raspberry, bergamot, amaro, cardamom, lemon and port to share a glass. Stick with a textbook martini ($22) instead.

Lobster does show up in a roll.
Lobster does show up in a roll. Photo: Christopher Pearce

With COVID-related staff issues affecting the hospitality industry, more venues with eye-watering steak and seafood prices are likely to launch. It's easier to find a cook who can grill an expensive T-bone with luxury trimming than a chef with years of experience and razor-sharp technique.

I get it, absolutely, but I hope more restaurateurs try to consider those of us who do not have Penfolds Grange for blood. Kudos to nearby and newish Grana for rocking commonsense lunch options, too, not to mention Bar Totti's in the Ivy precinct and Ragazzi in Angel Place.

I look forward to the opening of more alternatives to the obese end of dining, which could well collapse in a mess of lobster and caviar at any moment. Savvy bistros like Menzies have never been more vital.

Vibe: Approachable bistro with slick glamour in spades

Go-to dish: Grilled Skull Island prawns, 'nduja and sea greens ($42)

Drinks: Versatile selection of Australian and Old World wines with a few cult natural winemakers, eight beers on tap and a formidable spirits rack

Cost: About $130 for two, excluding drinks

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine

https://shellhouse.com.au/