92 Hargrave St Paddington, NSW 2021
|Opening hours||Lunch Tue-Sat noon-3pm; dinner 6pm-10pm|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
Well, this isn't what I expected. I knew that Ursula's would be charming, but not this charming. Not chef-bringing-his-new-baby-out-to-the-table charming.
I knew that it had moved into the Paddington terrace that was home to Darcy's Italian for nigh on 40 years, but not that it would so quickly stamp it with its own style.
Former Rockpool and Eleven Bridge chef Phil Wood was always expected to create a menu full of interest and intrigue, with the distinctly Asian undercurrent of flavour and technique he is known for.
And, with long-term colleague John Laureti and Luke Cawsey in the kitchen, he has. What I wasn't expecting was all the retro stuff.
The opening menu lists schnitzel, beef carpaccio, lobster and mango salad, golden syrup dumplings and flummery. It's like everyone's favourite The Margaret Fulton Cookbook, circa 1968.
For a chef associated with high technique (anyone else miss the chicken wing lollipop of Eleven Bridge, with its rich kombu butter and caviar?) this comes as a surprise.
Clearly, Wood's four-year stint at Pt. Leo on the Mornington Peninsula has given him a new box of tricks, as he interweaves the fashions of yesteryear with those of today.
So an entree of LP's smoked mortadella ($26), dotted with braised broccoli and tiny pommes allumettes for crunch, contrasts with another of eastern rock lobster ($45), just-cooked and intermingled with mango, cashews and a gentle XO chilli sauce.
Ursula's two levels of dining show the same fusion of old and new, as Melbourne designer Brahman Perera contrasts warm caramels and rusts with local sculptor Clementine Maconachie's stunning folded metal wall lamps and his own organic plaster pendant chandeliers.
A mussel schnitzel ($28) sits oddly on the menu, the large panko-crumbed croquette of mashed potato studded with mussel meat and served with sauce Marie Rose. File under pubby comfort food, or I for Irony, perhaps.
Roast chicken ($38) is a dish to love; brined and steamed before roasting and served with gai laan leaves wrapped around buttery mushroom duxelles. The smooth, luxurious kombu butter sauce is umami-central, twanging with licorice.
Sebastian Crowther's wine list is smart and well-connected, with an emphasis on family wineries such as Crawford River – nice touch. A silky 2019 Elderslie Hills gamay from the Adelaide Hills ($95) suits the condensed flavours of Margra lamb rump ($39), although the chew is challenging.
And the sauces, so many sauces. A fine specimen of coral trout ($49) is boned and butterflied, gently cooked, and sent out under a sea of rich, glossy butter cream sauce studded with trout roe and warrigal greens.
I grew up with fish in beurre blanc during the 1980s; we're old mates, but this might be too much of a good thing. Especially if you have inadvertently ordered a side of charry, grilled asparagus in a moat of cacio e pepe sauce ($13) for dipping.
Wood hasn't just revisited peach Melba, he has reinvented it. Instead of a poached peach with raspberry coulis, he has constructed a perfect ring of fresh peach slices filled with roast peach puree, a creamy raspberry syllabub, vanilla ice-cream and a shard of pink toffee ($19).
While changing form, it remains true to Escoffier's original dictum, however – "surtout, faites simple", or, above all, keep it simple.
The menu isn't completely balanced, with its generous use of butter, potatoes and sauces. But for a new restaurant, Ursula's is a return to so many good things. To small chef-owned neighbourhood restaurants. To French sauces infused with Asian flavours.
To small crystal candle lamps on clothed tables. To comfort, reservations and cream. It's a return to dining with the door open and the mat out; inviting, neighbourly, interesting and infinitely charming.
Drinks Chic cocktails, boutique beers and a smart, in-the-know wine list from consultant Sebastian Crowther.
Vegetarian One entree, one main and four sides. Off-menu options are available on request.
Pro tip The ground-floor dining room has more character than upstairs.