It’s getting so a man can’t go out for dinner at some hip new inner-city eatery without running into Sydney Morning Herald food critic Terry Durack. A few months ago we wandered down the road to that little gem of a restaurant, Sixpenny, and who was sitting down the back? Mister 14-out-of-20 himself. Granted, he’d already reviewed the joint, giving it a hat in the process, so his presence was pretty unobtrusive and the service and food deserving of every bit of the accolades given in the press.
Last night, however, it happened again, and with far less happy result. It was Mrs Prick’s birthday, so a small contingent of us wandered up the decidedly non-Paris end of Crown Street, Surry Hills (Paris banlieue-end is more like it) to the new Crown Street Assembly in the spot where Tabou finally gave up the ghost. And whose faces did we spy two tables down, studying the menu under their heads of unkempt sheepdog hair? Why none other than Durack and his missus, Jill Dupleix. Not that we were the only ones to notice their presence, no sir, not by a longshot.
I once read an online chat with the editor of the Herald in which it was claimed that critics don’t get special treatment when they go out a-reviewing, to which I can only say, bollocks. Fawning would be one word for the service they received; fellating would be more accurate. The Duracks weree first given a choice table up the front then spent some time at the bar, before being ushered to the quieter upstairs dining room (would some discrete sound baffling have been too hard to engineer?).
They were in and out in a little over two hours; it took over three for the kitchen to organise our not-particularly-complex meal.
As we left, we got a “ciao”, and fair enough; as Durack left the manager stuck to him like a terrier desperate to be taken for a walk, even to the point of stopping to ensure the critic understood that the restaurant’s feature artwork, sort of a big circuit board on a blurry photo type of affair, represented, as I overheard it, “social media and how we connect with each other”. Or maybe it was supposed to symbolise man’s inhumanity to man. Either way, ugh.
So how was the food? Well, honestly, not great: The menu sort of fish-tails off the start line before straightening up and quickly running through the gears of what looks to be very promising, very meat-based menu. Courses are out, nibbles organised under various rubrics – “dumplings”, “pasta”, “charcuterie” (“at least they don’t insist on calling it ‘salumi’”, noted one of our number) – are in, with diners left to work things out for themselves. Chef Paul Cooper has teamed up with “restaurant consultant” (if there’s a more unpromising pairing of words in the food industry, I have yet to encounter it) Erez Gordon to capitalise on the Americanised “dude food” trend, which in this case means lobster rolls and the obligatory “slider”. Though what a mini-burger is doing in the “dumplings” category is anybody’s guess.
None of this was helped by the service or the kitchen, neither of which seemed to recover from their efforts to win their very own 14/20 and mention in the Herald, not that many people are reading the paper any more. Our waitress was well-meaning but distracted; the kitchen’s timings gave the evening the feel of an episode of Come Dine With Me where the ambitious yet clueless host forgets to chill the wine and doesn’t pre-heat the oven until it’s time to plate the mains. Bone marrow dumplings were more of a short rib ravioli, which is fine, but they had none of that salty, umami, molten more-ishness that I have heard even committed atheists ascribe to other versions of the dish as proof of a loving God who wants us to be happy. An assortment of charcuterie was a mixed bag; rabbit rillettes were gorgeous with subtle hints of juniper and aromatics, though the table was divided by a runny chicken liver parfait that tasted right but had all the wrong texture. Mrs Prick declared her lobster roll “delicious”, however.
Entrees, comprising a sort of intermezzo between share plates and mains, were promising on the menu but failed to deliver. A plate of scallops “preserved and poached” (huh?) was flaccid with desiccated bits of dehydrated artichoke; though they spend their life sitting around on the ocean floor, scallops can be really exciting when either seared properly (Prick’s tip: score and salt for ten minutes before hitting them in a hot pan for an extra-crispy crunch) or sashimi’ed. Having run out of prawns, the kitchen also paired similarly limp scallops with pork belly in a salad that, despite being a classic flavour combination, was pronounced “weird” by some at the table and “dried out” by everyone who had a forkful. Thin discs of radish appeared variously not so much for flavour but to make the plates look “cheffy”.
Mrs. Prick’s Cone Bay Barramundi was perfectly cooked, but a plate of suckling pig done a number of ways was, again, dry and disappointing, not sweet, light and bright like it should be. Somewhere under a slab of meat hid a first coat of celeriac paint, I mean puree. Really, if a baby pig is going to get it in the neck, the least you can do is treat it right. Across the table, another of our number struggled with her duck (“I should not have to be sawing this!”) Desserts were, however, unreservedly great, and an extra point for the birthday girl’s candle. But having shown up at 7pm, we didn’t get to order sweets until nearly ten o’clock … at which point, on a school night, we weren’t really in the mood to wait nearly half an hour for them to hit the table.
So what to take away from all this? Well, Mrs Prick got lucky with her selections, which is good, because it was her birthday. Everyone had a good time, thanks to the company. The wine list is short but really nice, and surprisingly reasonable with little gouging on the mark-up: nothing over $100, and few bottles even approach that price point. But beyond that, as the kids say, meh. It may be that the food is normally spectacular and the service otherwise attentively divine and we were just unlucky to go on a night when the restaurant was otherwise occupied, not that it matters at this point. Certainly some of the wobbles could be put down to teething pains. But desperation isn’t sexy, nor is being so blatantly hierarchical to customers paying full whack for a special occasion. The Pricks will be keeping an eye on the Herald; it will be interesting to see if the Duracks saw through the ruse.
UPDATE: Durack’s review is in, and it looks like we’re largely on the same page.