October 30th, 2008

Does My Bomb Look Big In This?

Review - Number One Wine Bar

You'd think from my recent spate of reviews that all the restaurants I go to are amazing - and if you're looking for a review to dissuade you of this, well this is not the one. Number One Wine Bar was a really wonderful dining experience, and I walked out of the venue energised and excited about food, in particular Spanish food. My evening began rather nicely, with a glass of NV Ayala Brut Ay, Champagne ($15/glass).

Whilst it might claim to be 'more Barcelona than Paris', for me this restaurant wins by providing affordable collision cuisine. Make gastronomic magic by pitching the excesses of Spanish cuisine against those of French cuisine. It is located at Circular Quay, a few doors west of Cafe Sydney in a below-ground setting. The room is warm with a bistro feel, white vinyl table cloths and wooden chairs. It's not overly glamourous (apart from the art) but it attracts a foodie audience, most of whom looked like they were regulars at Bilson's. On the evening we dined Tony Bilson himself was dining with a group of people.

But whilst it is Tony Bilson's venue, in the kitchen is this handsome Spanish lad, head chef Miguel Maestre. Well he was in the kitchen sometimes... he spent quite a lot of time in the dining room, presenting each dish personally to our table, and most of the tables around us.

The first dish we tried was the Mojama with Toasted Almonds in Olive Oil and Sea Salt ($20.00) which as you might recall, I tried a house-made version of recently at Catalonia HERE. This version is imported from Spain (from Miguel's home town to be precise), and it was much better (as original things often are). It is basically a form of air-dried Tuna. It's quite like jamon, just fishier. The almonds were particularly nice too - cooked in a chicken stock before being fried in olive oil then salted. We enjoyed this intense dish with a nice glass of 2007 Konrad Sauvignon Blanc ($45/bottle) from Marlborough, New Zealand, a nice match.

Now before dining here I’d have struggled to select the perfect dish to follow Iberico Jamon ($12) but now I know the perfect foil. It's coming, hold your horses... First since we're mentioning the jamon, let's just say this version was amazing (Miguel tells me it's the very same jamon that the King of Spain enjoys). But eating it made me really understand how wonderful Sean Connolly's 'ham-idifier' is, because whilst this jamon won in terms of flavour, Sean's jamon HERE won in terms of texture. Clearly the wetness and texture of jamon comes from correct storage.

Thanks to Miguel Maestre I now know half a dozen imported French Escargots au Beurre d’Ail ($18) provide the perfect foil to the intensity of jamon. Recall me talking about snails at The Little Snail back HERE? The snails at Number One Wine Bar were French snails inside French snail shells... no little dishwasher chips from re-use here. They were an absolute delight, and they really indicate that one should not dismiss snails until you are sure you have tried the French ones (not an Asian imitation). You'll be hard pressed not to fall in love with them. As to the quality of the produce, when I talked about this, Miguel told me: "You know Tony - he wont let me use any bad produce."

The Bilson’s sommelier Francois Lesbroussart matched both preceding dishes with a 2008 Elderton Unwooded Chardonnay ($35/bottle, $7/glass) demonstrating his ability to perform miracles on a shoestring budget. This is a really nice wine, keep an eye out for it in bottle shops.

The Paella a la Maestre ($25) proved to be the tastiest paella I’ve had in Sydney, with plump, succulent mussels which were perfectly cooked to boot. Unfortunately the crab didn't fare so well, being a shade over done. Now for the record, I like the caramelised crust (socarrat) in a paella that is served in the same pan it is cooked in. Miguel tells me there are regional differences to Spanish paella and this particular one (his Mother's recipe) does not have a crust, plus with a hundred covers, he can't serve them in the pan they are cooked in. It makes it a toss up for me - his paella has an amazing flavour, but I missed the texture that comes from the crust. The mussels impressed, the crab did not. I guess it's one you'll need to try and make up your own mind about!

The morcilla, bresaola (air-dried beef) and macon stuffed Pigs Trotter ($28) with scallops and an unmentioned sinful pot of pomme puree was wonderful, but far from “simple” as the talented Miguel espoused without hint of a smile. Let me just say, there's nothing SIMPLE about this cavalcade of flavour, and if you look to the pot of potato for relief, realise it's a puree - that is, equal parts butter, cream and potato. No respite there.

We had this dish with another of the private bottling collection (house wines) - a 2003 Yarra Valley Pinot Noir ($11/glass). According to Francois the wine list is still developing, and you can expect to see more wines by the glass added in the future. The list started with the by the glass wines just being the Bilson's house wines.

Miguel's final savoury fanfare of Cocido Madrileno ($24), a rich stew with perfectly textured chickpeas, seemed to be a feisty Spanish reply to France’s cassoulet. It really is fighting food - such big flavours - but I was incredibly glad to try it. The chickpeas started off dried, and were cooked in the manner of a risotto to get the amazing texture. We had it with a 2006 Margaret River Shiraz ($9/glass) also from the private bottling collection, which will indicate how big the dish is. Even my Eastern European dining companion, who is a fan of hearty, rich stews, struggled to make a dent into this one!

It was nice to see the personable chef make frequent visits to the dining room, and hear and overhear his passion for Spanish cuisine. If I hadn’t been busy cooing over the texture of his Churros ($16), I’d have batted my eyelashes with the rest of them, he's definitely cute and engaging. But the objects of my affection were crisp on the outside, and fluffy and soft inside, and came with chocolate sauce... purr.

So if you're looking for a couple of reasons to dine here, choose it because it makes an affordable pre-theatre option in an area mostly known for either expensive or poor (or both) dining options. I'd also recommend it for having an interesting (and not overpriced) wine list, particularly the white wines. And for a final reason, group buying with Bilson's means that the produce quality belies the price of the dishes here! For myself, the reason I will return is because this restaurant boasts excellent Spanish and French food in the one place (and not in as fusion cuisine in the one dish).

Number One – Tony Bilson’s Wine Bar
1 Alfred Street, Circular Quay
Ph: (02) 8252 9296

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Does My Bomb Look Big In This?

Review - Essen Restaurant

At Essen Restaurant you step down from busy Broadway to a cool, sandstone interior decorated with elements of ‘ye olde Austria’ including skis and a working cuckoo clock. A curious light-well prevents the room from becoming too cave-like.

A split in the Una’s restaurant group of three restaurants (there were also stores at Darlinghurst and Double Bay) sees the Darlinghurst store retain the Una's name (as it was the oldest of the three stores). Dutch owner/chef Geert Elzinga distinguishes the old Broadway Una's schnitzel house from the Sydney standard with a new name, and dishes like a surprisingly sophisticated Braised Oxtail Potato Dumpling ($10) served on a bed of cabbage in a petite, cast iron pot.

The menu has more vegetarian options than I expected - the dish below is a Marinated Salad Platter ($10), and it could easily be adapted to a vegetarian dish by taking off the tasty bacon (and possibly the crutons which probably were cooked in pig fat). The carrot was the best pickled item on the platter, which overall was great, and quite substantial. It was also an excellent contrast to the other rich entree we selected.

Mains like Organic Black Pudding, Apple and Potato Strudel ($22.50) served with creamy Riesling sauerkraut and caramelised apple, raise the Germanic fare up a notch. The rings of caramelised apple were quite divine, as was the strudel pastry - they boded well for dessert.

Though staples like a massive Pork Knuckle ($24.50) remain for those who prefer. Take a friend and share both; or tackle a schnitzel! One was presented to a neighbouring table with a joyful: “I hope you’re hungry!” We struggled to finish the pork knuckle... and failed.

We also tried a side serve of the Rosti, which were really on form - crisp on the outside, and practically falling apart inside... perfect!

A divine end to a hearty meal (which comes pleasantly free of a hefty price tag) is the Crème de Coeur ($10). It’s a sour cream and ricotta dumpling that is hung for a day, and then served on a forest berry mix.

We also tried the Ricotta Lemon Tart ($10) with cinnamon marscapone, and a lovely (though fingerprinted) piece of chocolate. I probably would have liked it if I hadn't been so obsessed with the first dessert!

The wine list contains some great imports which are seriously under priced. Best buys are the 2007 Austrian Lenz Moser Pinot Gris ($4.50/glass, $26/bottle) and the interesting red 2006 Lenz Moser Blaufraenkisch ($5/glass, $29/bottle) - make sure you let the red breathe for a bit before you drink it, the taste changes remarkably.

I also got to try a glass of the 2007 Nigl Gruener Veltliner from Kremstal, Austria ($6/glass, $35/bottle). It's a lovely wine, which I tried previously at Steel Bar & Grill (review forthcoming) at $62/bottle. Yes, this wine list is GOOD value, one could get quite happy (and very sated) for a very reasonable sum at this restaurant! 
Essen Restaurant
133-135 Broadway, Ultimo
Ph: (02) 9211 3805

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