Thursday, November 24, 2005

La Sala


With more openings than a bar fridge on New Year’s Eve, the Sydney restaurant cosmos is at warp speed this season. To keep pace, we visited the new ‘it’staurant La Sala, brain child of Sydney food luminaries Darren Simpson and Andrea Mellas. Tucked away in a quiet Surry Hills lane, ‘The Room’ is impressive. The entry at cocktail bar level drops away down stairs to an open vault room bordered by the glassed kitchen and a back wall of signature burnt orange. Banquettes hug the contained atrium which is topped by hovering black iron chandeliers. A back section near the wall with lower ceilings and dimmer lights invites seduction. There’s a pleasant mood-lit hum throughout as we take our 8.30 booked table at 9 pm with deferent apologies and a complimentary glass of champagne (Duval-Leroy) for the wait. Mellas has the floor staff tuned to perfect pitch. An ever excellent and rarely found mix of attentiveness and distance, they seem to be there when you want them and not when you don’t. Clad in brown (would someone please tell the world that brown is not the new black and the only things that look good in it are thoroughbreds and old-growth forests) they do little to disturb the neutral palette of the surrounds. Not so the kitchen.

In contrast to the muted glow of the dining room, it could be a scene from Fritz Lange’s Metropolis. A goldfish bowl of flood lit steel and hushed industrial precision with Simpson pacing the pass like a zoo-caged lion checking every order as it departs. Directly above, continuing the glass panes, is what looks like a prep room. I’m unsure whether this is a functional part of the kitchen or a prop. It’s lit but totally devoid of life and houses a big pasta machine, ice cream churn, a few oddly draped strands of drying pasta and jars of stuff, packed next to an ostentatious stack of five enormous rounds of what is either parmesan or tractor wheels painted yellow.

The menu is solid Italian – fresh food prepared well and simply and not overwrought with superfluous ingredients. The fritto misto ($21) comes with a yamba prawn, whiting, and zucchini flower accompanied by a robust tartare with a hint of zing. The edge of crispness on the batter is not quite there, but the flavours work well and each item of produce is defined. The grilled calamari with chilli is disappointingly al dente, the chilli pleasantly unobtrusive in the background rather than dominant. Creamily soft buffala arrives perched on sourdough – a classic starter, uncomplicated and proudly showcasing this glorious cheese. I have the main special, grilled scampi ($39), which is flawlessly executed needing nothing but butter and lemon. Roast baby spring lamb is well flavoured but not as moist as it could be, but we crown the blue eye with cavolo nero the hit of the night. Faultlessly presented, the fish is sweet and aromatic, lusciously juicy and contrasted to maximum benefit with the slightly wilted black cabbage, a sea-salty brace of baby clams, a hint of chilli and olive oil. We share a pretty red witlof salad whose tangy, slightly sour notes prove that bitterness isn’t always best left to relationships but has a place on the table too. It’s an excellent foil for the sweet seafood.

As Brillat-Savarin said, ‘a dinner which ends without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye’. He obviously had some odd looking dining companions, but we decide share a cheese plate between two anyway. With fresh seedless grapes and a crispy carta di musica, the gorgonzola dolce is the star. The lemon tart is also well received. Being near 11 by now I pass on coffee, preferring sleep over caffeine, so I’ll return at an earlier slot to test drive the espresso.

On exit, Mellas again conveys his regrets that our table wasn’t ready on time. Nice attention to detail showing he has a memory for customers beyond the credit card signature, and a real desire to look after them. I demur and offer that it’s understandable as they’ve just opened and they must be very busy – indeed they were packed this Wednesday night for two sittings. ‘That’s no excuse!’ he tells me. I really like these guys’ diligence – Mellas with the people, Simpson with the food. Sydney has come to expect this combination from its good restaurants, but nevertheless it’s a rewarding experience when encountered.

La Sala, 23 Foster Street Surry Hills.

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