So for some time now we Pricks had been meaning to get down to 4Fourteen, the latest venture of Paddo’s Four in Hand’s Colin Fassnidge. But on the two or three previous occasions we’d tried to go, it had been booked out (or if not booked out, full to the point of “We can take half your party at the bar at 9:30 but the rest of you will have to cadge sandwiches off the Salvos down by Central Station”). Which of course led us to the question, if the place is so popular, can it be any good?
Because for all the guff about the multiply-sourced wisdom of the masses, the crowds often get things very wrong indeed. Think Oprah. Or Hitler (and yes, this very well be the first time in history a restaurant blog ever fell afoul of Godwin’s Law).
In Sydney, going for a weekend breakfast at the mindlessly popular Grounds of Alexandria has replaced jumping off the Harbour Bridge as the new justification for parental injunctions: If all your friends wanted to wait two hours for a plate of eggs, would you want to do that too!?
But, hey, it turns out 4Fourteen is a very good place to go indeed and is, once you get there, all friendly bonhomie and open kitchen and a stereo system playlist that for once reflects the sort of stuff on the Pricks’ own hi-fi. Perfect for a Saturday afternoon’s construction of a little mini-degustation off the back of the share-friendly DIY menu and accompanying wine list. (I don’t see it listed but there was a great Languedoc white they had by the half-carafe, and there’s a lot of other nice stuff by the glass including the ’08 Bannockburn “Douglas”).
Sliders, the food trend that never seems to die, were executed well on soft brioche buns: A “Reuben” was soft and smoky; confit pork belly was given a nice hit of umami by some house-made ketchup and finished with a pleasing little crunch of skin; the crab roll would probably have been delicious had we not killed our taste buds eating in what was probably the wrong order.
The kitchen showed off its refinement with a miso-smoked salmon which was prettified by shavings of cucumber, baby cauliflower, and little discs of radish. Like surgeon’s cuffs on a suit jacket, these flourishes weren’t really necessary except to act as a little signalling device to the subconscious: settle down, have a sip of wine to clear the tastebuds, there’s some fine stuff on its way. This was a lovely, clean, refined dish, and unless the Prick is very wrong, this was not made with your usual farmed supermarket salmon but something denser and wilder and all together.
This is the fundamental but by no means fatal contradiction of 4Fourteen: On the one hand it does and does well the sort of high-end “dude food” that sends broadsheet restaurant critics slavering over their MacBook keyboards. On the other, the kitchen shows that it can easily go farther, higher, with refined plates, well-executed modern classic techniques, and artful presentation.
It would be going too far, perhaps, to suggest this tension is a manifestation of Fitzgerald’s definition of genius (“the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”). More probably, it reflects the fact that even “simple” food is that much better when it is made by people who know what they’re doing, and that despite the general “vibe” that says we’re supposed to be “over” fine dining we still like a bit of the old razzle dazzle.
“Beef and bone” was a carnivore’s carnival though could have done with more marrow (it also paired nicely with the aforementioned Bannockburn, but would it have killed them to pour it into a glass bigger than one of those poxy Saturday afternoon wine-shop tasters?)
A plate of fish fingers, simply deep-fried sticks of barramundi, were almost Proustian with their tartare sauce and mushy peas. One bite and I declared to Mrs Prick, “These are like really awful fish fingers that are really, really good!”
Sadly the “Bounty” – a dessert tribute to the candy bar of the same name – didn’t work out quite as well. A more-cute-than-clever concept that felt ripped from a quarterfinal episode of UK MasterChef, the dish was less than the sum of its parts and, frankly, the chocolate base looked a bit too “dog poo after a rainstorm” for the Pricks’ liking. Not that we didn’t scarf every bit, especially the burnt caramel shards, but buyer’s remorse set in when we saw a neighbouring table’s simpler roast peach and lemon thyme ice cream. Still, Four14’s food is fun, has a great sense of humour, and the whole operation is just made for camping out for two or three hours (or more). Sometimes, though, a joke can be carried too far.