1 Bent Street Sydney, New South Wales 2000
Welcome to climate change dining, a new era in which the watermelon salad lasts year-round, and winter is reduced to a shivery little gap between the warmest autumn on record and the "Hi, I'm back already" sunshine of an early spring. It means fans of the slow braise, the pie and the pudding have to get out there NOW for fear of missing out. And I have just the place.
Former Rockpool chef Mike McEnearney, who went off and conquered London then came home to shape up his bread skills at Iggy's in Bronte and open the game-changing Kitchen by Mike in 2012, has traded the queue-up, serve-yourself canteen business model for a full-service restaurant on the bent part of Bent Street.
Matt Darwon's interior of natural and re-worked timbers, stripped-back walls and concrete floors looks like any smart, fashionable restaurant installed in a historic building with truly admirable windows. Yet there's something subversive going on here; a Helen-of-Troy approach to sneaking real-food credentials into the cold heart of commerce. It's there in the open kitchen, the wood-fired oven, and the two six-metre long communal dining tables fashioned from blackwood planks salvaged from an old Canberra bridge.
McEnearney's uncompromising sourcing and direct-heat, wood-fired cooking mean the cold-weather rewards are many – among them a pot pie of shreddy oxtail, beef cheeks and bone marrow complete with bone ($36), in a cast-iron skillet under a browned suet crust.
It fits Fergus Henderson's dictum (he of the nose-to-tail St John in London) that a pie crust "should commune with the pie's interior. The pie should wear its crust with pride".
Entrees are best described as things-that-go-with-bread – jamon, carved from the leg; chicken liver pate; cep mushroom and chestnut soup. But as one keen diner exclaimed, "Never mind all that, just bring me the bread." It's great bread, too, a sawn-off slab ($4) from a massive 1.5 kg sourdough boule; the crust twanging with sourness, the crumb almost mastic in its chew, the butter pure and fresh.
Several winter-friendly dishes are heady with concentrated flavours, like a special of cheese-laden Roman-style honeycomb tripe ($20), or a twice-cooked goat's cheese souffle ($21) that's small, rich and topped with a whole baked onion. Others are plain and homely, like a big wedge of cabbage stuffed with fairly solid pork and chestnuts ($34). There's one poorly designed dish that I've taken a set against – a whole flathead roasted on a terracotta tile ($39), leaking its juices.
It's an anomaly, however, next to cheery red and gold beetroot salads ($17), and fine apple tarts ($12) that are room-temperature studies in tart and sweet, encased in beautifully engineered pastry.
McEnearney and head chef Jeffrey de Rome hover like mother hens over the oven, rotisserie and pass; manager Greg Frazer and a few familiar faces work the floor with the ease of long practice.
The wine list leans towards minimal-intervention and small producers, and good-value special project house wines – a clean, lean blend of pinot gris, riesling and sauvignon blanc ($12/$53), from Mudgee's David Lowe; and a juicy, pie-friendly tempranillo/grenache ($13/$59) from McLaren Vale's Rose Kentish.
I don't miss the queues at Kitchen By Mike, but I do miss the direct connections it made between cook and eater, and the sense that it was changing the dining culture to something more honest, simple and direct.
This is different – more Restaurant By Mike – and a genuine attempt to offer real food in the city, whatever the season.
Best bit: Mike McEnearney is baking bread again
Worst bit: Noisy as buggery
Go-to dish: Beef cheek, bone marrow, tail and suet pot pie $36
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.