Saturday, December 10, 2005


Back to Surry Hills where restaurants now amass like herded cattle (I was going to say lemmings but it sounds a bit negative, doesn’t it). This time G and I launch ourselves on Bistrode where Jeremy and Jane Strode have devised a staunch, salt-of-the-earth menu for the humble gastronaut.

The teeny tiny dining room is extended by a weeny covered laneway with a couple of extra tables which is where we are seated. They refer to it as the ‘court-yard’, but it doesn’t appear to live up to either of these expectations. It’s also a bit hot (of course it is: it’s Sydney and it’s December) so I ask if there’s any room inside. Our helpful staff member looks, tries to juggle but cannot fit us in, but he has made a valiant effort and I only booked a few days prior, so can’t expect too much. The service here is very attentive and G likes the starched, white, button-up traditional waiters’ smock – probably a throw back to being in the services. Loves a man in uniform. Our menus efficiently appear and it is explained that these three pages consist of food on the front page (ingenious), white wine on the second page and red wine on the third page, demonstrated to us flip-chart style as we watch on, just in case of any confusion. If only he’d told me which was the knife and which was the fork I wouldn’t have sat there with my serviette on my head eating with my hands. But at least I am saved the ignominy of ordering the grilled chardonnay to start and a poached shiraz for main. Phew! Glad we got that cleared up early. The restaurant’s card states quite clearly this is “food for people” so maybe they suspect we’re from elsewhere in the galaxy (wouldn’t be the first time) and need guidance about the strange ways of earthlings.

Anyway, onto the menu (the front page, cleverly copied on different coloured paper in case we have forgotten the complex instructions imparted to us at the beginning) which is just what the critics have faithfully reported in all its offal and retro bistro glory. None of your foams and tian’s and all that tizzy muck. No foreign language translated menu items in French or Italian or Azerbijani – this is a wank-free zone (ok, the word ‘fondant’ appears in the sides list, but that’s it). We have starters, mains and afters. Pate, black pudding, calves liver and corned beef, and the only hint of heightened gastro-consciousness is to be sure to mention the important stuff about the produce. Like where they got it and who might have grown it.

We pause for a while and predictably commence the ‘black pudding’s black today mutha…’ routine, but I am distracted by a comely hunk of Petuna Ocean Trout sailing past. Its electric tangerine hues topped by a crusty crisp skin, it sits effortlessly on fennel, white anchovies and parsley. I watch as my neighbour tucks in and can see the perfectly juicy interior revealed. Looks yummy. I decide on the pate and G has the fried zucchini flowers. For the main I am about to gleefully order the pork belly, chorizo and lentils when I am interrupted by the waiter saying ‘there’s one thing on the menu they don’t have today …’ wait for it … yep, it’s the pork. Darn it. I am relegated to barramundi with ham hock, beans and peas and G has the lamb loin, eggplant, olives and basil.

The Thirlmere chicken liver pate astonishes. As pink as a spring rose with the creamy consistency and lightness of panna cotta, fragrantly seasoned with no one note dominant, all perfectly married and topped with a fine glaze of aspic. I find the zucchini flowers a little heavy handed with too much emphasis on the fish stuffing, but they are breaded rather than battered which keeps them crisp and satisfying. The lamb is served medium and appropriately tender and the pepperonata-style base is wonderfully flavoured, redolent with olives and basil, and is somewhat the star rather than the meat. Similarly the barramundi fails to register on the taste meter once the beans and ham hock come into play. Really, this is baked beans and fish. The round slice of ham hock storms the palate and the tomatoey base props up the beans and (fresh) peas. They may as well not have bothered with the fish. We finish with an oozey Pont L’Eveque and as usual are the last to leave.

Our meals are all executed well. I have no truck with this restaurant’s ability to push out superior and honest, inexpensive bistro food that transports diners nostalgically to dishes of a past lifetime, rekindling a warm regard for the honest produce of the land in the capable hands of a consummate pair of food professionals. But what I do wonder is how this food can survive the climate. I’m sure on a rainy Friday night in July this is where everyone wants to be, noshing on corned wagyu beef and spuds, fending off winter’s chill. But given the bulk of Sydney’s weather is humid and skating around the high 20’s and 30’s, there’s a reason why light Asian cuisines, simple seafood and salads do so screamingly well in this city. It’s just too bloody hot to eat this stuff no matter how brilliantly it's prepared. It will be interesting to see if either the menu alters to accommodate the climate or if the first flush of critic-fawning, fashion-slave diners go back to the lighter meals so sought after in summer.

Bistrode, 478 Bourke St., Surry Hills, 9380 7333.