Are restaurant gardens the new must-have feature for 2012? As diners start to pay more attention to locally sourced and sustainable produce, the restaurant garden provides instant kudos, creating a tangible connection between the food from the soil and the food on your plate.
At Sixpenny in Stanmore, head chefs James Parry and Daniel Puskas have transformed the backyard of their restaurant into a productive herb garden, complete with greenhouse and working beehive. As we make our way through the degustation-only menu, many of the vegetables, we learn, have been sourced from James' family farm in Bowral, a 90-minute drive away in the Southern Highlands.
The main dining room at Sixpenny
There's been nothing but glowing praise in reviews of Sixpenny, which opened up in Stanmore in March this year. It sits on the former Codfather site, run by Ross Godfrey who also owned Oscillate Wildly, the restaurant where Parry and Puskas first met.
Parry (Noma, Mugaritz, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Manly Pavilion and Rockpool) and Puskas (Tetsuya's, Marque, WD-50 and Sepia) have an impressive CV between them. Both are former winners of the Josephone Pignolet Young Chef of the Year Award.
The Sixpenny name comes from the 1850s era, when sixpence restaurants would provide the working class with a set meal.
House-made sourdough with mascarpone butter
It's a dismal wet weekend when we arrive for lunch which makes the sunny charm of our waitstaff even more appealing. The table isn't booked under my name but a colleague's, and our waiter admits that he'd recognised their name and cross-referenced it with their bookings to confirm that they had indeed dined several weeks earlier. It's a level of attentiveness that impresses.
There are eight of us dining today which qualifies us for the private dining room. It's a relief to escape the main dining room which feels more geared toward couples, an elegant but quiet sanctitude of hush-hush tones and muted conversations.
Chefs table private dining room with view into the kitchen
We tumble chaotically into the private dining room, a chef's table arrangement that affords us a coveted view into the kitchen. A huge glass window is like a giant live tv screen into all the action and we can't help but periodically press our noses up against the glass like starstruck kids outside a candy store.
James Parry working with sourdough
The kitchen is clean, well-organised and devoid of any Gordon Ramsay-style drama. Here is James Parry genially working with a colleague on the sourdough, there is Daniel Puskas, calmly halving macadamia nuts one by one.
Turning out the proofed sourdough for baking
There's an easy sense of camaraderie that seems to exist in the kitchen. Everyone knows what to do and when to step in or step aside. The kitchen works on plating one dish at a time - occasionally dessert is plated off to the side.
Garden pickles and rye bread with virgin butter
The menu is degustation only. Six courses will cost you $115 ($170 with wine); eight courses costs $135 ($210 with wine). It's the same price at lunch or dinner. Ninety per cent of the wine list is from New South Wales.
We opt for the full eight courses, preceded by a generous series of snacks that number five in total. The first two are presented on one plate, a trail of garden pickles and squares of rye bread smeared with rye-infused virgin butter. Virgin butter is the stage just before freshly churned butter splits and leaches out buttermilk. It's a grainy but creamy spread, famously served at Noma, a restaurant listed on Parry's CV.
The garden pickles are a whimsical exploration of colour, texture and flavour. We're transfixed by the day lily buds, mouse melons (tiny watermelon-lookalikes that taste like cucumber), crunchy radish quarters and heirloom carrots, which we dip into the quenelle of radish yoghurt speckled with tarragon.
Salt and vinegar kipfler potato chips
Salt and vinegar kifpler potato chips look more like pressed dried flowers, parchment-thin slices so sheer you could read a newspaper through them.
Salt and vinegar kipfler potato chips
It almost reminds me of the high school science experiment where you'd look at cellulose layers of an onion through a microscope. The chips are astoundingly crunchy and liberally daubed with salt and vinegar.
Duck tongue and knuckle sandwich
Wine match: NV Centennial Blanc De Blanc, Southern Highlands
Snacks three and four are their increasingly infamous duck tongue and knuckle sandwich. We're no strangers to duck tongue and they're prepared deftly here, cooked to a melting softness that contrasts with the crisp cup of lettuce.
The playful but elegant knuckle sandwich utilises braised pork knuckle, slipped between Lilliputian slices of toasted brioche spread with sweet dandelion and apple jelly.
Cheddar cheese and onions
Wine match: 2011 Andrew Thomas Six Degrees Semillon, Hunter Valley
It's at least half an hour before our first official course hits the table, a dish simply titled 'Cheddar cheese and onions'. Sheaths of baby onion act as vessels for the cheese water, an intricate process of boiling cheese to extract the cheese oils which are then concentrated into a cheese essence. The curls of onion are also poached in the cheese broth.
It seems like an inordinately complex method to create a cheese-flavoured water that is frustratingly subtle, but the dish is undeniably beautiful to look at, garnished with carefully arranged chickpea shoots.
Crab, silky macadamia and camomile
Wine match: 2010 Mount Majura Chardonnay, Canberra District
The crab course is a cloud of hand-picked mud crab doused in a silky macadamia milk spiked with toasted macadamias and carefully placed chamomile flowers. It's a revelation for the tastebuds.
Macadamia and crab? 'Why didn't anyone think of this sooner?' we collectively cry. It's a glorious match, the buttery macadamia nut enhancing the sweet notes of crab in a way that is unaffected yet exquisitely beautiful. It's my highlight dish of my day.
Roast sweet potato, fish roe and whey sauce
Wine match: 2007 Patina Fume Sauvignon Blanc, Orange
Two wilted sweet potato leaves appear to act as modesty fans for a plank of sweet potato poached in buttermilk and then roasted. It hides a skerrick of salted mullet roe, blanketed by a foam of light but creamy whey sauce.
Snapper, pumpkin seed cream and soft leeks
Wine match: 2011 BK Wines Pinot Rose, Adelaide Hills, South Australia
Delicately cooked fillets of snapper hide in a puddle of pumpkin seed cream, and although the components are dissimilar it seems to echo the crab dish earlier on. The snapper has been poached in pumpkin seed milk, offset with miniature mounds of pumpkin seed crumbs and sauteed leeks.
Slow roasted pork jowl (bonus course)
A bonus course at any restaurant feels like Christmas, but when it's a bonus dish of slow-roasted pork jowl it feels like all our Christmases have come at once. The crown of golden crackling is enough to make us weak at the knees, but we're also mesmerised by the thick layers of cheek fat wrapped around a thin layer of meat.
If there's a dish you'd knowingly make your last it's this. The milky fat is a guilt-ridden decadence, capped off with the noisy crunch of brittle blistered sticky crackling.
Daniel Puskas overseeing the plating of the hanger steak
Service operates in a similar vein to Noma with chefs accompanying or sometimes replacing waitstaff when delivering dishes to the table. And so we find Parry and Puskas entering the dining room on more than one occasion, dutifully dispensing dishes with quiet humility.
We don't keep strict track of it all, but by the end of lunch it seems that every member of the kitchen brigade has taken it in turns to assist in service. Each chef has the chance to explain the components and process of at least one course, a detail that personalises the dining entire experience. It's like the culinary equivalent of visiting a farmers market and meeting the people behind the produce, creating an exchange that is equally rewarding and gratifying.
Coorong hanger, smoky cabbage and mustard leaves
Wine match: 2010 Grove Estate Nebbiolo/Primitivo, Hilltops
The Coorong hanger steak is our final savoury course, a wondrously flavourful cut of meat found near the diaphragm. It's cooked to a plump and succulent state of rare, served with streaks of mustard leaf puree and a smoky cabbage cream.
[Clockwise from top left]: Backyard beehive; garden herbs, outdoor stove and smoker;
and the restaurant garden with greenhouse
A brief interlude between savouries and dessert gives us time to explore the back garden, admiring the herb pots, greenhouse, smoker and beehive.
"We'll let you guess this dish", our waiter says mysteriously as he puts down the next course. Mrs Pig Flyin' is onto the surprise immediately, quickly identifying Jerusalem artichoke as the ginger imposter. The Jerusalem artichoke (Americans call them sunchokes) has been cooked in a ginger syrup but the resultant ginger heat is gentle, although diced glace ginger offers a bigger kick. It's a clever play on appearances and the carriage of flavour.
Candied rhubarb and whey macarons
Candied rhubarb stalks look more like raspberry twizzlers entwined on the plate. Dried at a low temperature for a long time, the rhubarb has a pleasing tartness and chewiness, like an old-fashioned fruit strap. Whey macarons are airy sugary mouthfuls that disintegrate into smithereens at first bite.
Beetroots, mead, steamed brioche and honey ice cream
Wine match: 2010 Lerida Botrytis Pinot Gris, Canberra District
A pair of the tiniest beetroot, as small as your pinky fingernail, have been cooked in mead before perching on top of a disc of steamed brioche. It's an odd combination, especially the texture of the brioche which tastes like soggy French toast, but the honey ice cream provides a worthwhile distraction, pronounced in a floral sweetness that awakens the senses.
Piping our next dish into milk ice cups set in egg cartons
Our final dessert involves egg cartons, piping and several stays in the blast freezer.
Frozen rye milk
Wine match: Bethany Old Quarry Frontignac, Barosa Valley
Hidden at the bottom of our cavernous bowls are delicate cups of frozen rye milk filled with a rye ganache and then covered in a layer of rye bread crumbs. I'm not won over by this dish which feels more heavily emphasised on presentation than anything else.
Fresh peppermint tea
And finally, the much-revered cookie jar! It's hard not to get excited by the cookie jar crammed with homemade biscuits and sweets. We exclaim over the pint-sized lamingtons, Monte Carlos, ginger snap, native ginger chocolate and Kingston biscuits. The only minor quibble is the biscuits seem to have softened slightly after being stored in the fridge.
lamington and ginger snap
The food is thoughtful, quirky and creative without feeling overly pretentious or self-indulgent, but if there's one thing you must remember, it's to clear your diary for a long lunch or dinner. Our lunch took 3.5 hours to get through but then we're guessing the ethos here is that good things take time. It's a small price to pay.
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83 Percival Road, Stanmore, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9576 6666
Dinner Wednesday to Saturday from 6pm
Lunch Saturday and Sunday from 12pm
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6/18/2012 02:58:00 a.m.