129 Dowling St Woolloomooloo, NSW 2011
|Opening hours||Pub from noon daily; brasserie Mon-Wed 5.30-9.30pm; Thu 5-11.30pm; Fri-Sat noon-late; Sun noon-10pm|
|Features||Pub dining, Licensed, Bar, Pre-post-theatre, Accepts bookings, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9356 3848|
My favourite game to play at a bar or restaurant is, "If you were allowed to take one item home, what would it be?" At Lucio's it has always been the Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly, while at Glebe's Friend in Hand, George the lemon-eating cockatoo has my heart.
I've had my sights set on the HMCS Vancouver lifebuoy above the Old Fitz bar for some time, but since Nicholas Hill began cooking at the pub in March, all I want for home use is the former Sepia chef's pork pie tart ($16).
I want to take that tart on a picnic and listen to Vera Lynn and drink English rosé in the sun. I want to swipe its beef-dripping-larded pastry and Branston Pickle jelly through mustard, and wonder why more Sydney pubs don't offer food as equally uplifting and steadying as the Old Fitz.
Business partners Jaimie Wirth, Joel Amos and Mike Delany added Woolloomooloo's most loved 160-year-old hotel to their growing pub portfolio in February. The trio also co-own Enmore's Duke Hotel and the George in Waterloo and while those venues have received contemporary facelifts, the Old Fitzroy's decor has remained largely business as usual.
There's new carpet in the front bar and freshened upholstery on the chairs. Dining room renovations are scheduled for sometime mid-June, but there will be no hectic changes to what's come before. This is a pub-lover's pub of seasoned beer mats, old ale signs and Traveling Wilburys on the wireless. Bolted-on regulars such as Woolloomooloo's social-housing residents and playwright Louis Nowra (always accompanied by his pet chihuahua, Coco) might have a pink fit it was any other way.
With Hill leading the kitchen, however, the Old Fitz has become a bona fide food destination. After spending three years as sous chef at Sepia (on top of six years in London at The Ledbury), Hill has crafted a menu that reads like offal-fancying chef Fergus Henderson on the pans at Woy Woy RSL.
There's a rissole sandwich ($15) featuring beef mince sharpened with mustard, ketchup, curly parsley and dried oregano. The patty glistens between toasted milk bread, and with mates melted cheddar and beetroot, it's real-deal Aussie pub food unlike any burger in town.
Hot chips ($8) are seasoned with a chicken salt I want sprinkled on every spud from this day forward. Hill makes his blend by taking the gnarly yellow chook salt native to suburban takeaways and bolstering it with sweet paprika and shio kombu – the one dry salted seaweed to rule them all. Magical stuff.
The salt also enhances a straight-up fish and chips ($25) that sees firm-fleshed smooth dory crumbed, fried and plated with mushy peas. It's a soothing time when combined with a crunchy scotch egg ($7) featuring flowing yolk that laces a sausage mince of pork neck, bacon, sage and white pepper.
Hill channels more English favourites for the daily specials board. (I'm disappointed warm scones with potted mackerel, smoked cream and watercress have sold out when I visit, but I'm told they're making a return very soon.) Pressed ox tongue terrine ($12) is a mighty fine way to open an innings. With green sauce and dripping-fried sourdough, it's the comfort food equivalent of hiking socks with Ugg boots.
There's often a puff pastry pie on the carte that might be filled with smoked mackerel or rabbit and bacon. Roasted chicken and artichoke pie ($45) is pitched to serve two but could probably feed four. The thick and fragrant filling is perfect if you're feeling a little dented, and its accompanying chicken fat and yellow wine sauce is so silky and delicious you could be freebasing hollandaise. A giving wodge of roast pumpkin ($18) plated with radicchio and parmesan is on hand to cut through the cream of the sauce and richness of the pie.
Pub desserts are difficult to nail and Hill is still trying to get his head around what punters want for pudding. Chocolate slice didn't sell, so he's trialling an Eton mess ($10) where blood plums cooked in gin and olive oil party with cow's curd, crushed meringue, mint and white chocolate. Do it, I say.
Drinks-wise, there's Guinness on tap and fizzy Yarran Cuvee Blanc ($8/$36) and I'm half-tempted to combine the two and fashion a makeshift Black Velvet. Next time. A vibrant Si Vintners 2018 cabernet sauvignon blend ($12/$55) proves ideal for drinking by the open fireplace in any case. It's also the most expensive bottle on a very short list.
Of course, I would never want to remove anything from the Old Fitz. The pork pie tart and Canuck lifebuoy should be enjoyed by everyone in Sydney. Maybe I should change my favourite game to, "If there was one thing you could bring to the bar, what would it be?" That one's easy: a group of mates with large appetites keen for a pint. A penchant for beef dripping wouldn't hurt either.
What a time to be alive in the 'Loo.
Vegetarian: A handful of options including crudites with Boursin curd ($10), beetroot with horseradish and hazelnut ($14), and that rather splendid slice of roast pumpkin ($18).
Drinks: A smart tap selection of standard and independent beers plus a short wine list of low-intervention drops.
Go-to dish: Anything from the specials board, especially the pork pie tart with queen's mustard ($16), if it's going.
Pro tip: Ask for extra green sauce – there are very few dishes it doesn't enhance.
Terry Durack is on leave.