Sunday, January 15, 2017

Ester – the sweet smell of success

Because the high country is adjacent to the low country, it takes only three hours to drive from the nation’s capital to the nation’s financial capital. This means that my ‘tableland’ blog often ventures to the 'floorland' of Sydney to take in the views, the culture and the cuisine of our largest city.

In the early to mid 1990s, when I worked for community radio 2SER-FM, set in the heart of Chippendale atop the 26 floor University of Technology tower, its surrounds were distinctly lacking in facilities. It’s main claim to fame was, briefly, The Hell Fire Club – and the Funeral Station. It was a suburb you travelled through to get somewhere else.

On a recent visit to Sydney I found all that is changing in a big way, with plenty there yet to explore, such as White Rabbit Gallery and the whole redeveloped Central Park area. A sure sign of these times is eatery Ester, a restaurant that reflects the focus of its name on the science of food with some intrepid experiments in the culinary arts (Esters: a class of organic compounds, often fragrant, which contribute smell, and hence flavour, to food). In a terrific space it sits you down and begins to work its magic.

Ester's menu hits lots of high notes

Settling in for a hot spell
Sydney was settling in for one of its hot spells – though nothing compared to Adelaide, enough to be unpleasant. We decided to face it head on and started with something sparkling to quench our thirst and set the tone for the evening. A bottle of La Bulle du Facteur Chenin Blanc 2015 from the Loire in France did the trick, though I interspersed that with a bottle of Mountain Goat Organic Steam Ale from Richmond in Victoria for variety.

We abandoned all hope of being able to choose from the fairly extensive menu and instead went for the set menu at $75 per person. The array of dishes under this arrangement ranged from fermented potato bread with kefir cream, roasted oyster with horseradish emulsion, onion and parmesan tart, king prawns with fermented shrimp paste butter, rump cap with smoked cream and anchovy, whole baked cauliflower with almond sauce and mint, and leaf salad with pumpkin seed and crunchy sweet praline. We decided to forgo the signature dish, blood sausage sanga, and instead swapped it for the cheddar pie with fermented hot sauce – a choice we didn’t regret, as the pie was superb, and with the sauce, even more so.

'I was firmly of the view that heating oysters in any way was a definite tumble downhill, but I've changed my mind after these subtle gems.'

The only dish I felt wasn't so successful was the rump, which was somewhat tough. This was more than compensated for by the oysters and the cheddar pie with fermented sauce. I was firmly of the view that heating oysters in any way was a definite step downhill, but I've changed my mind after these subtle gems.

Exhibiting the classic signs of thirst
We were exhibiting the classic signs of thirst again by this point and moved on to an Ochota Barrels Riesling 2016, from the Adelaide Hills. That went down fairly fast as the food started to arrive in a deluge. Not to be outdone we tried something else as the attack of the desserts loomed – an Adalia Soave 2015, from Veneto, Italy.

The set menu included two desserts – three milks with rosemary and olive oil and left over sourdough ice cream – but we were lucky enough to get to try the whole panoply of them. The extras were burnt pav with elderflower and passionfruit, whipped honey with chocolate and licorice ganache and coconut sorbet with sake and duck-fat salted caramels.

The duck fat caramels were a bridge too far for me and given doing justice to the whole range of desserts in one sitting was a feat beyond mere mortals, I felt okay about that. One of our party, a true lover of caramel, did comment that it was the best caramel she had ever encountered.

The only overall negative was that the purpose of the evening for me was to catch up with friends, originally from way back in another city and another time, now all living successfully in Sydney. Instead of pleasant background the food was inevitably front and centre, which made for a somewhat distracting evening.

Mightily impressed
I was mightily impressed, even though Ester, like almost every other contemporary food mecca, seems to have contracted the annoying disease of only listing the ingredients in each dish, rather than what the chef does with them. Biota in the Southern Highlands – a restaurant I have admired for a long time – is where I first encountered this and now, as I see it everywhere else, it just multiplies my dislike of the practice.

'The next day I could still distinctly remember the taste of dashi in one of the many memorable dishes.'

I can understand a reaction against the florid descriptions of lacklustre food in the past and the absolute focus on the produce. However chefs add a layer of value far beyond the quality of the raw ingredients and I’d like to have a better idea what the dish is doing before I order it – and afterwards when I am trying to remember why it was a success.

Like everywhere, fads come and go in restaurants, unlike serious changes in approach, such as the nose to tail philosophy. As long as the underlying imagination, creativity and skill is there, the rest is mere ephemera – and in the case of Ester, it’s definitely all there.

My memory of the success of this array of flavours and approaches was a solid one. The next day I could still distinctly remember the taste of dashi in one of the many memorable dishes. I was still remembering the meal many days later as I drove through the spirit-sapping heat back to the winds of the high country.

See also

'tableland' on Facebook – life on the land and at the table
'Life on the land and at the table, the companion Facebook site to this blog, for brief and topical snippets and vignettes about land to table – the daily routine of living in the high country, on the edge of the vast Pacific, just up from Sydney, just down from Mount Kosciuszko', 'tableland' on Facebook.

Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale
‘I've always had a weak spot for Moss Vale in the Southern Highlands of NSW. I have been watching it slowly change over the decades since. The latest addition is a new and very funky bar, Wine Mosaic Lounge, combined with a wine vendor, Argyle Street Wine Merchant. Passing through, we stopped to sample it. We thought aloud ‘we must come back here soon’ – and we will’, Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale.

Big city myopia, regional cities and cool capitals – is Canberra cool and who really cares?
'I’ve been entertained by the heated discussion about whether Canberra is cool or not. The question of regional cities and cool capitals is one that won’t go away. Instead of endlessly comparing cities – Melbourne versus Sydney, Melbourne versus Canberra, Canberra versus Queanbeyan, Devonport versus East Devonport (as we did in my youth) – to gauge their degree of cool or of dismal, perhaps we’d be better seeking out the interesting places and features that lurk in every city, town and locality', Big city myopia, regional cities and cool capitals – is Canberra cool and who really cares?

Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo 
‘In winter your mind turns to food - well, it turns there anytime, but perhaps more so in winter. I can’t remember how many years I have been coming to Grazing restaurant, in the tiny historic town of Gundaroo, just outside Canberra – it seems like forever. In the time I’ve been coming here Prime Ministers have risen and fallen, Governments have teetered, illusions have shattered. On a Sunday recently, I ventured out from the cold of approaching winter on a clear, blue day and went there one more time for food, wine and firewood. I wasn’t disappointed’, Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo.

Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back
‘I seem to spend a lot of time in the small Italian and Sons restaurant in hipster heaven in downtown Braddon, with its equally small bar annexe, Bacaro, at the rear. It’s so good and so pleasant that it’s easy to forget the other parts of the Italian empire. The flagship restaurant, Mezzalira, is across the the city, near the National University. It’s in the fabulous but somewhat neglected though stately Melbourne Building, with its Italianate arches and colonnades. I sometimes think that if suddenly the world was about to end (a bit like contemporary times) and I was offered the choice of only one cuisine until the crunch, I’d have to choose Italian. That way I could die happy,’ Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back.

In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts‘Tucked away in a corner at the Ainslie shops where it’s easy to miss entirely ­– in the heart of the suburb know as the Red Centre for it’s exceptionally high Labor vote – is an unexpected delight. The location has hosted a series of less than successful ventures but this most recent has been an unqualified success. Who would have thought that a cafe hailing from Brittany could attract such a crowd. The secret of success is that it focuses on what it does and it does it well. You can park yourself inside the small venue or outside if the weather is fine and pick from some unexpected sweet pastries, throw down the odd glass of French wine or eat buckwheat pancakes or baguettes. The cafe also runs to daily specials that can be very unexpected. Long may it reign over us – Rule Brittany rather than Rule Britannia’, In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts.

We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii
‘I realise I may have just become a statistic. I have a suspicion that I have eaten more sorbet, gelato and icecream since local Canberra icecream outlet Frugii opened in Canberra’s Braddon perimeter than I have eaten in my whole previous life. Tucked away in hipster heaven, it keeps churning out flavours, in an ever changing smorgasbord of coldness’, We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii.

A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven
‘On a bustling Friday night in hipster heaven, I popped into my favourite Canberra restaurant, Italian and Sons, planning for little more than a quick bite to eat. I managed to get my favourite spot – when I’m not settled comfortably in Bacaro, the adjoining bar out the back, that is – sitting in the window, watching the action on the street. I headed straight for a real blast from my Adelaide past, part of my earliest discovery of Italian cuisine – saltimbocca. Then I beat a path down Lonsdale Street to Frugii, Canberra’s own dessert laboratory. What is happening to this city? It’s getting cooler by the minute and it’s not just the icecream or the approach of winter’, A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven.

Peas in a pod – food takes off
‘Pod Food is in the heart of the slightly ramshackle gardening and nursery hub of Canberra, Pialligo , adjacent to the burgeoning exercise in urban growth called Canberra Airport. It was always the place you went to get large pots and even larger apples. Pod Food was always good enough – but now it is something a whole lot more impressive. On a rainy Friday I entered through their marvellous cottage garden entrance way to sit on the covered and contained outside deck. The entrance to Pod Food, formerly part of an operating nursery, is the sort of garden I eventually want to have. It felt highly suitable sitting at the entrance to the Australian high country as the rain came down, drinking the fine product of another high region on the opposite side of the world’, Peas in a pod – food takes off.

Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven
‘It had been quite a week and I had been crushed by too many encounters with the crazy world of Centrelink as I fulfilled my long list of aged care responsibilities. I needed cheering up so last night ate out at the venerable Italian and Sons, the very first of the many funky venues which now enliven Braddon. My attention was drawn to the rare appearance of vitello tonnato. My imagination had been captured decades ago when I was a young boy by seeing the recipe for the dish in Margaret Fulton’s classic cookbook. I finally tried it in a tiny restaurant in Florence, during my first visit overseas, after a stint at the massive Frankfurt Book Fair in 1989. This most recent one was the best I have ever eaten outside my own home – well, perhaps the best anywhere. This is a favourite place, probably my most favourite in Canberra. Coming here always makes me feel happy and what more can you ask?’, Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven.

Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century
‘On a day and night which was bitterly cold – as cold as Canberra has been this year, with the hint of snow clouds overhead – I was reminded why I live here. As we wandered along after a full day of cultural institutions and design events, looking for somewhere to eat we impetuously popped into Restaurant Eightysix and even more impetuously were able to get a table. I had forgotten reading somewhere that famed long-former Adelaide chef, Christine Manfield was here for the month, cooking up an Asian-inspired menu. How much better could it get?’, Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century.

Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo
‘Where the market gardens that supplied Canberra as far back as the 1820s used to be a small fortune has been spent turning 86 acres overlooking the Eastern end of Lake Burley Griffin into a superb regional restaurant, Pialligo Estate Farmhouse Restaurant. It made for a tremendous birthday lunch in a spacious airy and light space, full of exciting food treated well. I couldn’t take my eyes off the copper guttering and downpipes. I thought all the loose copper in the world had already been stolen but clearly it’s still available. It’s quite clear that even though work is still being finalised, when it is finished it will be a spectacular addition to the nation’s capital and the region’, Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo.

Provenance - knowing where good things come from
‘It took me only five years but I finally found my way to Provenance, the legendary regional restaurant established by chef Michael Ryan in Beechworth in 2010. Provenance is widely considered one of the best restaurants in regional Victoria, in a tiny state that contains many good regional restaurants. I had been meaning to eat there since it was established and given how regularly we travel to Beechworth and its surrounds I was amazed I hadn’t been earlier. It took some time but it was worth it’, Provenance - knowing where good things come from.

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