Sydney Brasseries

by Jan

This is not just about Ortolan, that small highly-prized dicky bird, which we know as a lark. It’s also about brasseries, and their metamorphosis in Sydney.

Ortolan at Bayswater   (January 2012)

The Bayswater Brasserie (Bayswater Rd, Kings Cross) was my alma mater, having worked there in the late 80s as a pastry cook.  So I was looking forward to eating at the Ortolan incarnation. I walk past this site twice a day so I have observed its metamorphosis as a brasserie for the past 30 odd years.

Smith’s on Bayswater renovated the Bayz; changed the lovely bar where we used to have a beer after our shifts. The front section was converted from conservatory-look to posh dining room-look. And the menu, as Smith is a butcher, was very carnivorous, and considerably pricier than the Bayz.

Chef, Paul McGrath, has moved Ortolan from Annandale, a smaller restaurant, to Kings Cross.

A couple of us decided to give it a whirl; we were mid-week blow-ins so easily scored a table in the back section, where there are French-look wicker chairs and wooden unclothed tables, trees and pot plants. The menu is brasserie/bistro-like, but with current Sydney restaurant prices.

I’m glad the chef had the courage to put lambs’ brains on the menu. We need to see more offal on Sydney menus, and stop being so wussy and squeamish about it. Crumbed lamb’s brains with sauce Gribiche ($16) is a French classic and complemented by the suggested wine: 2009 Michael Hall Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, SA ($12). This combination has the effect of enhancing the creaminess of the cooked brains, the eggy Gribiche, and the yeasty fried bread crumbs, whereas it could have been cut by a sharper white such as sauvignon blanc.

Normally I avoid ordering steak at a restaurant because I think I know how to cook those. Also I want something I would not cook at home. The grass-fed sirloin of Black Angus ($32) arrived medium rare as requested, with Café de Paris butter. It had been rested which made it perfect. Ditto with the tenderloin and Forestiere butter, made with morel mushrooms.

Felix, at Merivale   (August 2011)

After about an hour at Felix (Sydney CBD), we were aching to leave. It was the noise. While we were having an aperitif in the bar area, there was a “hen do” squawking “oh my God” every five seconds, probably comparing fake tans. It was better after we moved to our table, but the decibels increased later.

Are brasseries loud in Paris? I don’t remember being driven out of the Bouillon Chartiers (7 rue du faubourg Montmartre, 9e) by the din. Nor by the mythical impertinent sniffy manner of French waiters; the staff found my French adequate, and that makes all the difference when being a tourist in France.

I have a feeling that the recent demise of the EU economy will cause some hospitality staff to find some English-speaking skills, and reduce any residual impertinence towards “rosbifs” and other foreigners a notch or two. Quelle surprise that will be. Failing that the French career waiters’ circumstances might be reduced to the extent that they might have to supplement their income with a McJob like their Oz counterparts.

I found a definition of brasserie in Larousse Gastronomique: “establishment where beer and cider are made or sold”. Breweries were not established in Paris until mid-nineteenth century with most of these characteristics: tile floors, menu on mirrors, brass railway luggage racks, zinc bars, banquettes, bentwood or cane chairs, fringed tiffany lamps, check table cloths, and butcher paper on top. There is sometimes an oyster bar with its own ecailler who shells oysters day and night! Waiters are generally dressed in black and white with long aprons.

There are many well known brasseries in Paris which would have most of these characteristics: Brasserie Balzar, Café Lea, Au Petit Bistro, Bofinger, Julian Brasserie, and L’Alsace.

Classic brasserie dishes in Paris are straight forward and not tweaked up or Sydney-fied.  But presentation which is not tizzied or botoxed is not a bad thing. You would be hard-pressed to find chicken liver pate in Paris with currant relish; just the cornichons and some sliced baguette.

Felix’s chef, Lauren Murdoch, knows how to tweak a dish without ruining it.

Like Ash Street Cellars, the menu has gutsy flavours, all to her credit.

Whilst some diners opine at length about chips, I am not a conventional chip freak. I would rather have my spuds unpeeled and roasted, thanks. Or mashed. But I know chips are a brasserie staple.

But brasseries traditionally have democratic menus, which means, steak frites or a variation on fish and chips.  And you should be able to lay your fork on a well-executed hearty classic, such as cassoulet, choucroute garni, blanquette de veau, coq au vin, without it having been overly “re-interpreted” by an egotistical chef who wants to get his mug on the telly.

Felix didn’t come across as too much of a French theme park. But I wish it was a little less noisy, and I’m not the only one with this opinion.

La Brasserie   (January 2012)

La Brasserie (Darlinghurst) looks French. The food is French, and the waiter is French. However, the food is a lot more decorated than you would find in a Parisian brasserie.

I enjoyed the experience of feeling as if for a couple of hours that I’m in Paris. And also being brought back to the classic French dishes of my days at Cordon Bleu school in London.

One of the basics at Cordon Bleu was making chicken liver pate. But La Brasserie took it a step up by encasing it in Armagnac butter. So on one plate we have cholesterol central: not only does the pate have butter and/or cream in it, encased in more butter, but also the brioche is enriched with butter and egg yolks.

Just don’t go for a blood test the day after. But do order it because it’s just gorgeous and much better than a cookery student’s first effort at pate making.

Jambon Persille ($16) is a dish I only ever saw in French recipe books; not much in real life brasseries. Ham hocks simmered with herbs and spices, shredded and set in its own jelly and parsley provides a gelatinous satisfaction. It needs a cutting remark from a cornichon or two, or something piquant and mustardy. It was served with Sauce Remoulade which was perfect but didn’t offer the cutting rebuke.

In France the menu would say: Cote de Porc Charcutiere. But here, we have the full paragraph: cote de porc charcutiere; spice-brined Kurabata pork cutlet, spinach and sorrel puree, pommes Dauphinoises and sauce Charcutiere, a demi-glace with diced gherkins. The pork was moist and along with the potatoes and cream, very rich and filling.

It’s nice to know that in France confit of anything is not a nouvelle vague, or the whim of a bored Sydney chef who can’t stop playing with his food. La Brasserie’s confit of duck leg was not served with lentils. Instead it was served with a finely sieved luscious carrot and cumin puree, and some glazed Belgian endive to offset the carrot’s natural sweetness, and sauce Bigarade. This is a classic accompaniment to duck: brown sauce with a dash of caramel, port, vinegar and a julienne of orange peel.

To wash all this down, we ordered a bottle of rose – Donjon 2007 Cinsault, Grenache Languedoc ($47) which judiciously complemented the food.

After that wonderful grande bouffe, the rest of the week’s meals were a lot more Spartan and salady.