You know that scene in The Simpsons where Principal Skinner yells way too loudly in a cafeteria argument with Mrs Krabappel, “Oh come on, Edna! We both know these children have no future!”, only to have to walk it back with an enthusiastic, “Prove me wrong, kids! Prove me wrong!”
That is a bit how the Prick has been feeling lately about the state of Sydney dining. And while Skinner was right, the kids from Springfield really did have no future – in fact they were never much fun after about the fifth season – there are, despite the relentless march of burgers, bistros, and burritos, signs that Sydney’s top-order kitchens still have some life in them yet.
Take Oscillate Wildly, tucked in a little Newtown shopfront over the road from the cop shop on Australia Street, where chef Karl Firla is serving up some of the best food in town – if not Australia – to a lucky couple of dozen diners a night including, on a recent Wednesday, us lucky Pricks.
Early courses are tactile. Perhaps in a nod to a new generation of diners (O tempora! O mores! the Prick hears you sarcastically sigh) who look at silverware with all the shrieking incomprehension of the apes in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the first few dishes need nothing but fingers.
The first plate comes out bearing something purple and crinkly, like the sort of material you stick on the top of a gift bag when you’re too lazy to wrap a present, and which turns out to be this sticky, sweet, tart blueberry gelatin that crinkles and cracks like cellophane, sticks to the fingers and lips in all the best ways, and finishes off with a little bite of cassis. Not your average amuse, surely. But nor is it “innovation” simply for its own showy, because-we-can sake either.
There’s bread, too, with lardo – cured pork fatback, amazing, melting, salty, savoury, sclerosis-inducing stuff – standing in for butter. Apparently we Pricks are not the first to ask if there’s bacon fat or something else wonderful in the sourdough; no, apparently this is what happens when a starter reaches five or six years old. (Memo to self: Get a sourdough starter on the go now).
And we get to suck on some sugarcane that’s been infused, or compressed, with gin and tonic for a boozy little sweet treat. Makes those spheres we made the other week look like chopped liver.
Fingers are again deployed on the first of the formal courses. Tuna, but not like you’ve had it before, and like nothing you’ll find at the fish markets: gorgeous, fatty, fleshy, raw sashimi from the belly of a Bluefin, atop what can only be described as simple rice crackling and a bit of smoked butter – a more refined version of the mackerel and smoked crème fraiche we enjoyed at Moon Under Water, perhaps. There is a week’s worth of brain-building, cholesterol-busting Omega-3 in every bite (I felt smarter, wittier, and better looking almost immediately, or maybe it was the wine talking) and if word gets around aspirational suburbanites will be booking their kids in for dinner in time for next year’s NAPLAN.
Then, a foie gras custard with Jerusalem artichoke chips – lovely, if not foie-ey enough for this foie-natic – and paired with a Japanese Gris de Koshu from the foothills of Mount Fuji. (The wines, too, are stunning, and unique, and a joy). A vegetarian course turns up a winner with “Job’s Tears” (a type of pearl barley), mushrooms, and garlic. There’s foam on top, as much for function as for form, and as with the enigmatic tale of Job, we feel our fortunes restored many fold. Murray cod is next, sympathetically perfect with a bit of oyster cream and licorice sand which, with a slug of Le Cigare Blanc from Bonny Doon in California, is remembered as dish of the night.
Then pork, and a fantastic piece of wagyu, let down only slightly by an egg yolk designed to serve as a sauce but which, allegedly done at 63 degrees, either should have been done at 62.5, or be taken as a sign the immersion circulator needs a check. Never mind. This is followed by “cheese on toast”, which turns out to be parmesan ice cream atop breadcrumbs. Further desserts slowly walk us towards the sweeter and richer, and the meal is crowned by a chocolate and eucalyptus number paired with a 10-year-old Madeira had us calling, sadly, for the bill.
By the end we have been on a journey and experienced a lovely tale guided by lovely people who know their food, their service, and their wine. Plates are perfectly sized to prevent that awful sensation (“Oh Christ, two more savouries and then three desserts!?”) that sets in when a degustation becomes a slog. While not a cheap night out, it is also nice eating in a room that does not have a banker standing in the background, ready to call in the liquidators on the $2 million note used to pay for fit-out and PR: The money is going to pay for what’s on the plate, not what’s on the walls.
Our night may have been the site of a one-off flash of genius, but a random and fully unscientific survey that has included co-workers, fellow bloggers, reviewers, and young Nick With a Fork’s Year 6 teacher has failed to turn up a single soul who has not had a great night at Oscillate Wildly. A veteran of Mark Best’s pseudo-eponymous Marque (a name that cannot be read without thinking of Hyacinth Bucket), Firla has far surpassed his old master and indeed could teach the man a thing or two about hospitality, food, and attitude.
Word is Oscillate Wildly is named after the Smiths’ number of the same name, though this does not really compute. The Smiths’ song is repetitive, muzak for Goth kids, and the liner notes to anything Morrissey has ever been involved with end with the phone numbers to Lifeline and Beyond Blue. Oscillate Wildly the restaurant is anything but repetitive or downbeat.
The Prick likes to imagine instead that it is a sneaky homage to the great old joke, “How do you titillate an ocelot?” Answer: “Oscillate its tit a lot!”