The hum of laughter from the softly lit dining room seems tantalisingly near.
We’re stuck hovering over a branded Bar Patrón barrel in a corridor, punishment for leaving Biennale of Sydney launch early, after mistakenly assuming more sustained interest in obscure foreign art. Attentive staff ease the awkwardness; so does meeting the man himself – an apron-clad Neil Perry – who greets us personally as he moves between kitchen and dining room.
Margaritas lubricate our passage between corridor and dining room. Geared up for spicy, my dining companion asks for heat and is promised a habanero-enriched Tommy’s Margarita ($24). Whilst only updated with green jalapenos, the resulting drink is at least lively with well-balanced acidity. With just enough spice to tickle your lips, my Chipotle Margarita ($21), was presented with square ice in a round hole. This arrangement takes up considerable real estate, meaning the smoky, brooding cocktail is over too fast.
Grant Cheyne, responsible for the look of many of Perry’s restaurants, has eschewed bright Mexican colours for a more plantation house style, using lots of white and pale timbers in the softly lit dining room. We sink with relief into roomy orange tan leather tub chairs. Lamp-lit tables have reasonable separation though we’re stationed next to a group of Americans whose commanding voices reverberate off all the glass. At full occupancy, it’s a loud space, but it fits with the urgency of trains accelerating past the windows.
Split into small sections offering snacks, tostadas, empanadas, tortillas, tacos, small and large plates, and pastries, the surprisingly well-priced menu is in the hands of head chef Pamela Valdes Pardo. According to our friendly Chilean waitress, Pardo, along with most of her kitchen team, was born in Mexico. She is tasked with bringing to life authentic Mexican home cooking, the likes of which Sydney has rarely seen. Presented on plates with typical blue and white designs your table is quickly loaded with bite-sized dishes, starting with Chiles Rellenos en Escabeche ($11) - a pair of cold, simply stuffed, pickled green jalapenos, which have a big hit of oregano.
The wet and spicy fruit salad – Ensalada de Fruta con Chile y Limon ($9.50) that will have you wondering why you haven’t been coating summer fruits, like mango and pineapple, in chilli and lemon every time you eat them. Spice-flecked batons of watermelon and cucumber eat surprisingly well on the accompanying house-made tortilla chips too.
Flor de Calabaza Quesadillas ($9/2) pare back Sydney’s usual cheese-drenched quesadillas into something much simpler; allowing crisp slices of jalapeno and the masa (corn) tortillas to headline.
The first sight of the Tex-Mex staple – sour cream – is on the Chicken Tostada ($9/2) topped with freshly grated queso (Mexican cheese). Yet rather than gluey, against shredded lettuce and adobe sauce with chilli and vinegar, this crisp two-bite morsel remains upbeat and fresh.
Al Pastor and Pineapple Tacos ($12.50/3) were small and supple but forgettable.
By the time we get to our pork mole – Enmoladas con Carnitas ($22.50) – I would say I was pretty happy with the food, though it does – bar for the first two cold snacks – lack heat. To me this makes deep brown mole unbalanced, throwing anise over everything else.
Sure you can douse chiltomate (a chilli and tomato salsa) across everything from this dish, to your Beef Empanadas ($9.50/2) but I’d rather we as a city get over the persistent belief that the Australian plate can’t handle Mexican cuisine the way it is intended. I’d chosen the 2017 Yé-Yé Grise ($85/bottle) Gewurztraminer blend specifically because the wine can handle some heat.
“Everyone in the kitchen is Mexican, but they have had to tone it down,” my Chilean waitress softly demurs. Clad in a black lace dress like the rest of the efficient floor team, she distracts me with a great explanation of the pastries. At the same time, we’re gifted a very pretty 2016 Pressing Matters ‘R 139’ Riesling ($15/glass) from the sommelier to whom I’d offered a tasting glass of our wine. Singing against the Tamales Canarios ($9) – a corn husk-wrapped sweet tamale topped with fresh, pineapple salsa – it’s a pleasing way to end an meal that mostly impressed without breaking the budget.
Bar Patrón by Rockpool
2 Phillip Street, Sydney
Ph: (02) 9259 5624