Sunday, November 20, 2005

Swimming with the dolphins

Like Surry Hills itself, the newly renovated Dolphin Hotel is a clutch of contradictions. In a suburb where you can go from favella to fabulous in less than a block, at the Dolphin you can go from the Bauhaus lines of an open dining room, to a sunny umbrella-laden balcony, or cozy, upholstered banquette nooks in a few steps. The crowd too is eclectic. Everything from concrete booted construction workers, to the thongs (I’m talking footwear) and t-shirt brigade, to the Eastern suburbs retire-ati having a break from Woollahra cafes.

It’s easy going too. Progeny of King Colin Holt’s growing pub bistro empire (the Bourbon, the Commodore and Woolwich Pier Hotel) you can eat wherever in the Hotel you like. That’s because there’s no waiters who'd have to try and find you to give you your food. You order, pay, and depart with your beeper then like a homing pigeon return to base when you’re called. Where you sit really depends on how far you’re prepared to carry your food and cutlery. But the further away the better for all you aspiring waiters. Good practice, especially up the stairs. I know (from friends with greater property aspirations than my own) that this system raised the eyebrows of the good burghers of Hunters Hill at the Woolwich Pier who were a little miffed about the absence of attentive staff to ferry their prawns through the dappled courtyard. But the white linen Armani’s fit a little better with the extra walking, don’tcha know! But here in Surry Hills no one seems to mind the trip back to the pass to get the nosh, and this contribution to low overheads must be why they can keep the food prices so reasonable.

Like the crowd and the suburb, the menu doesn’t disappoint in novelty either. My erstwhile lunching companion Giovanni (hard job but someone has to do it) arrives just after me and we’re both hot as. Temperature-wise it’s nudging 30-ish and I’ve walked from Ultimo. Mostly to check out the menu at the not-open-on-the-weekend-for-lunch La Sala (see a later post), but also for the exercise. As I slip out of runners and into heels and ask really nicely if they do martinis, the very obliging person behind the bar checks she has what she needs – I spy with my little eye … Noilly Pratt and Bombay gin so I know she’ll be ok. After a brief inquiry to the manager about price (“charge for 2 nips it’s cheaper than a cocktail” – bargain!) she sets off to find a martini glass and promises to deliver it to me at the table. How civilized! Not a bad martini either, and by the time it comes I’ve cooled down nicely and G is now woofing down a thirst quenching Bombay and tonic.

We order a little starter to go with drinks – the fried crumbed green olives with lemon wedges ($13) cradled in a swish-o long white tray just wide enough for one olive. They’re stuffed with veal, breadcrumbs and parmesan and are tartly salty with a couple of different levels of flavour and texture – the crunchy crumbs outside and the dense olive bitterness inside with the smoother pungent stuffing to finish. A little squeeze of lemon and grind of pepper finishes them off nicely. Seriously good with drinks, and such a substantial snack (16 olives) it admirably serves as an entrée for us both. We fight over the last one (no you have it, no you have it, no you…) and study up for main course. While we contemplate, we start in on a nice Two Rivers Marlborough Savignon Blanc from the very solid wine list. Ultra reasonable prices and much the journeyman’s list as anything else – 8 sparkling (3 French, 3 by the glass) 22 whites, 3 rose’s, 18 reds, and 2 stickys. The upper price for the whites is the $55 Cloudy Bay Savie and a $60 Yarraburn “Bastard Hill” Pinot for the reds.

There’s a bar food menu as well as a regular E, MC & D list, plus share plates of prawns, oysters and mussels. The bar food musters the usual suspects – nachos, pie with mash, steak sarnie ($15-16) plus a few innovative additions like steamed soy beans or squid with green papaya and chilli. The salads are a cut above the pub meridian – roast beetroot & baby spinach with roast walnuts & walnut vinaigrette ($16), shaved fennel with pink grapefruit, asparagus & olive oil ($17), as well as tomato, buffala, olive, basil & balsamic ($15). A nice retro addition of prawn cocktail ($16) is cute, and the traditional Caesar is sure to scurry off the pass in vast numbers ($17).

The mains comprise pasta (linguini with clams, $17), mushroom risotto (the only vego choice I can detect apart from the salads) plus battered whiting, pan fried snapper with coriander & lime salad, and roasted kingfish with mushroom asparagus & veal reduction as the fish choices. Poached chicken with cannellini beans & rocket, and lamb & rosemary sausages with mash & onion jus make up the other options apart from steak. I choose the grilled sirloin with Café de Paris butter over the T-bone with red wine and shallot butter (both $22), and G has the pie of the day which is Moroccan lamb.

The steak is a very nice bit of meat – well flavoured as one would expect from the cut – but for a moment I panic when I cut into it thinking it’s way over the rare I ordered. The other half is ok, so the actual piece of meat was not uniform thickness, leading to one end being perfectly rare and the other just past medium. Oh well. Bit stingy with the CdP butter too, but it’s nicely oozing and gives the steak a lift. Good crunchy frites, but they don’t taste entirely hand done. G’s pie looks every bit the pub classic, plonked on a pillow of mash with peas on top and a rich dense gravy moat protecting it from the plate. We can’t help but think that maybe chef hasn’t been to Morocco lately as we can’t taste much in the way of ras el hanout or the like in the very mildy flavoured innards. The lamb, though, is meltingly tender and very edible and as the plate is pristine within 20 minutes it must be ok whatever its ethnic origin. He confides in hushed tones that he believes the peas are frozen (scandalous!) and there is a lingering suspicion over the handmade or otherwise nature of the pastry, but I guess this IS a pub after all.

With such generous servings and a hot afternoon all we can manage is a coffee rather than assault the dessert menu, and I must say the coffee is way decent for a pub. We muse how once upon a time if you asked for a coffee in a pub that once your masculinity had been impugned you’d get a milky Nescafe. Not so these chest-hair cultivating double espressos with rich crema and not a hint of over-extracted bitterness.

I’ll be back to frolic with the Dolphins – I really want to try those salads.

The Dolphin Hotel, Crown Street, Surry Hills.

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