Basement, 15 Bligh Street Sydney, New South Wales 2000
|Opening hours||Mon-Sat noon-1am|
|Features||Licensed, Accepts bookings, Bar, Groups, Late night, Romance-first date|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
So much for professional objectivity and rational judgement. I LOVE THIS PLACE. It got me at the stairs. Down they go, lined with nearly 4000 miniature liqueur bottles, spiralling around and around until they tip you out into post-war Europe; a dazzlingly romantic, wood-panelled basement restaurant that opens to a glittering dining room and tunnels off into small bars, cellars, kitchens and even a 100-seat theatre.
Created by Anton Forte and Jason Scott of the Swillhouse Group, the team behind Baxter Inn, Frankie's Pizza and Shady Pines, Hubert doesn't just break new ground, it breaks old ground.
There are scarlet drapes; fringed lamps throwing a rosy glow; a barrage of revolving fans overhead; countless wine bottles lining the walls; tall candles dripping wax. Bow-tied waiters carry huge share platters of whole ducks, properly garnished. Sommeliers run up and down ladders to elevated wine storage.
People who love restaurants – their history, their romance, their theatre – will love Hubert. They'lI love how Jason Scott clutches the leather-bound wine list to his bosom as if it were a hot water bottle on a cold night. They'll love the date music – Johnny Mathis, Jerry Vale, early Sinatra – and the anticipation (as yet unfulfilled) of the theatrical stage complete with grand piano and chrome microphone stand.
Dan Pepperell of 10 William Street is in the hidden-away kitchen, skilfully subverting classic French recipes by forcing Escoffier to read Lucky Peach.
His "oeufs en gelee" ($14) is a shimmering moulded jelly of Japanese dashi stock and Avruga caviar holding a soft-cooked egg yolk; a generation away from the classic hard-boiler in unyielding aspic.
A bowl of big, fleshy pippies ($29) bathed in a lush, buttery broth built on roasted kombu arrives with a bramble of pommes pailles, crisp shoestrings of potato, to toss into the juices.
Brining is the new sous-vide here, enabling the kitchen to "cook" whole birds first, then finish them to order. So a magnificent whole Holmbrae chook ($62) is brined, jointed, fried and served with a force-10 tarragon gravy (gravy!) and confit mushrooms. Great Sunday roast flavours, right down to the clawed feet, which make excellent handles for gnawing.
A super-lush tomato tart, the fine pastry disc topped with sweet onion jam and confit tomato ($18) is so rich and powerful it could invade a country. Cassoulet ($38) is, by contrast, quite austere; and a generous creme caramel ($18) needs rethinking: too rich, dense, firm.
Come for Andy Tyson's wine list alone, a generous volume stacked with loads of classic and character wines, including Farr Rising's 2015 Gamay ($75), tasting deliciously of soil and fruit. It digs deep, this list. The 2014 Domaine l'Ecu Muscadet Cuvee Classique, for instance, comes in four different forms from four different vineyards, reflecting four different soil characteristics.
The bars are great places to hang, either perched on the elevated banquettes with brass foot rails of Bar Pincer or tucked into the deux-a-deux booths of Bar Normandy, with a Pastis Fizz and buttery Nardin salted anchovies on toast ($14).
Hubert is beautifully realised. It is anachronistic, illogical, romantic, and Pepperell's food is skilful, amusing, and restorative. Not only does it give back much that has been missing from Sydney dining for 50 years – real proprietors working the floor, service that contributes as much to the dining experience as the food, generosity; hospitality, respect, humour, character, passion, carpet – but it does it as if for the first time. All this, and you can eat here, too. Heart = stolen.
Best bit: Too many to choose.
Worst bit: Can't think of any.
Go-to dish: Chicken fricassee, $62 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.