4 Ash Street Sydney, New South Wales 2000
|Opening hours||lunch Mon-Fri from noon; dinner Mon-Sat from 5.30pm|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Bar, Business lunch, Groups, Long lunch, Pre-post-theatre, Romance-first date, Wheelchair access|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9221 6444|
It's a side of Sydney rarely seen, yet it's there right beneath our feet. Some of our liveliest restaurants and finest dining spaces are buried underground. Think Spice Temple in Bligh Street, Fratelli Fresh in Bridge Street, Tokonoma in Loftus Lane, Barrio Cellar in Elizabeth Street, Indu in Angel Place, and the adorable new Hubert in Bligh Street, with its wood-panelled warren of brass-railed bars and candle-lit dining rooms. Much of their charm lies in the fact that they are not immediately obvious.
Next stop, Mercado, tucked into the rear basement of the heritage-listed 350 George Street building, built in 1895 around an opulent marble-lined staircase that's well worth a peep on your way to the loo.
It's the latest from the savvy team behind China Doll and China Lane, designed as a showcase for the hands-on talents of former Nomad chef, Nathan Sasi. It's quite the showcase, too, with its spot-lit, open-plan kitchen, classy island bar, brassy tables, finely stitched leather banquettes and, at the rear, the tail end of that glorious marble staircase.
A pig's head sitting on the gleaming kitchen counter tells us that Sasi is still the nose-to-tail chef Sydney went mad for at Nomad. Sure enough, there's a whole Milly Hill lamb and Melanda Park suckling pig turning on the glowing rotisserie.
He's even doing my favourite tripe stew, callos a la Madrilena ($29), which comes soupy, slow-cooked and crumb-crusted, though barely enough for one (if that one happened to be me).
This basement restaurant even has its own basement, where things are pickled, smoked, cured and preserved.
That's where the queso garrotxa (goat cheese) is made, and the lightly smoky, house-made wagyu cecina cured beef ($22) over which it is grated. It's home to the house-baked sourdough bread and beautiful, house-cultured butter; the soft, velvety, truffled mortadella and its accompanying pickled guindillas peppers ($19); and the smoked wagyu tongue and pickled green tomato for the naughty-but-nice brioche toastie ($14).
Sasi's commitment to doing things from scratch fuels the menu, which cleverly keeps the cooking minimal, flavours straightforward, and plates simple.
So the Milly Hill lamb ($50 to share) comes carved and piled into a cast iron skillet in a glorious mix of rib, shoulder and belly with pink meat, crisp, scorchy skin and runny juices. You'll need a side of wood-fired carrots with almond dukkah ($16) or a beautifully dressed leaf salad ($16) to balance the meat hit.
There's a distinct Spanish flavour here, from Manzanilla Martinez cocktails to crisp little pastries topped with Ortiz anchovy and bullhorn pepper ($14). There's also a good Spanish presence on the wine list, with an 18-strong list of tempranillo that includes an elegant 2012 Cune Crianza ($70) that's like a savoury Cherry Ripe.
More hints of cherry come with gateau basque ($16), a lovely, layered pastry cake that's all biscuity vanilla, almonds and cherry jam, topped with pouring custard.
While cheeses on the menu are a highlight, the cheese trolley is a mix of in-house and imported, offered individually for $18, then over-decorated with crisps, breads and pastes in order to justify value. It's a departure from the what-you-see-is-what-you-get menu and a lesson to get back to being as close to the market as possible.
With that in mind, it would have been great to show off some of the processes behind the meats and cheeses rather than have them hidden below. But now I'm arguing against myself. If everything was immediately obvious, life would be very dull.
Best bit: House-made charcuterie.
Worst bit: Rimmed plates send cutlery sliding.
Go-to dish: Spit-roasted Milly Hill lamb, $50 to share.
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.