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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst... and 10 years of blogging

Burnt butter and popcorn fairy floss at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst

EDIT: Cafe Paci is now open in Newtown

Ten years. That's how long I've been blogging Grab Your Fork. Things have changed so much in the world of blogging (for the first two years at least I had to swap the words "food blog" for "food website" just so people knew what I was talking about) but one thing remained the same: my love of food.

Okay I tell a lie. Even my love of food has changed. Ten years ago, nothing excited me more than the idea of a buffet. Degustations were an intimidating luxury, but something I was fascinated by all the same. Starting a blog in 2004 gave me an outlet for writing, it gave me an excuse for eating (hell yeah!), but over the years it's also made me realise how little I know about food, and how much more there is to learn.

Cafe Paci at the former Cafe Pacifico site, Darlinghurst
Cafe Paci on the former Cafe Pacifico Mexican Cantina site

Over ten years I've eaten at and blogged about a lot of meals. This is post number 1,759. These days I get more excited about street food abroad and local family-run casual eateries than most fine dining. There's a sense of honesty and soul in cheap eating, but at the more expensive end of town, expertise and creativity can sometimes harmonise into a wonderfully bewildering ride for your tastebuds.

Fancy degustations with truffles and foie gras can be a treat, but a deftly guided adventure into unchartered territory with the commonest of ingredients can often feel much more rewarding. That's really why I enjoyed my recent meal at Cafe Paci so much, a temporary pop-up by ex-Marque chef Pasi Petanen on the former Cafe Pacifico site in Darlinghurst.

Cafe Paci dining room, Darlinghurst
Cafe Paci dining room

They've kept much of its former Mexican cantina history intact, from the brightly coloured stairs leading you up from the street, to the neon sign out the front. All they've done to the sign is remove some of the neon tubing, converting Cafe Pacifico to Cafe Paci - to be pronounced just like his name, Pasi says (it's pah-si).

On the dining room floor, however, the chairs, tables, walls and floorboards are a sea of monochromatic greys. The only bursts of colour come from people's clothing, and the food that arrives on each plate.

Crispy barramundi skin, sweetcorn with togarashi and rye crostini with dehydrated duck at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Snacks: salt and vinegar crispy barramundi skin, sweetcorn with butter and shichimi togarashi, and rye crostini with dehydrated duck

The seasonal degustation menu ($85) reveals only a list of ingredients, many of which don't seem to go together at first glance (malt, banana, parsley... really?). We start with "snacks" and it's only when the waiter arrives with our first set of plates that we learn (and see) what we'll be having.

The curls of crispy barramundi skin have a tangy salt and vinegar seasoning that gets our tastebuds roaring into gear. Discs of juicy sweetcorn look more like wagon wheels, coated liberally in shichimi togarashi, a Japanese seasoning made from seven spices that includes chilli pepper, black sesame seed and nori seaweed.

It's hard not to marvel at the wafer-thin rounds of rye crostini, but the dehydrated duck is even more entrancing, like a pile of snow that's settled across a swathe of butter and one fallen rose petal.

Rye taco with sticky rice, egg butter, sour onions and chives at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Tribute to Cafe Pacifico: rye taco with sticky rice, egg butter, sour onions and chives

Cafe Pacifico gets another acknowledgement with the final snack, a rye taco filled with what sounds like a nonsensical mix of sticky rice, egg butter, sour onions and chives. The tastebuds hear a different story, the flavours melding together into something strangely reassuring and comforting.

Fermented potato and rye bread with molasses at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Fermented potato and rye bread with molasses

I'd been looking forward to the rye bread ever since it popped up on my Instagram feed. The sheen on the loaf is incredible, a coat of molasses that lures us in with its faint smell of sweetness.

Fermented potato and rye bread with molasses at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Inside the potato and rye bread

The fermented potato and rye bread takes three days to make. We score half a loaf each, served with a pat of house-made butter. The bread has a reassuring weighty density but the crumb itself is soft and springy. The molasses adds a hint of toffee to each mouthful of chewy and slightly sticky crust.

Blue swimmer crab with sorrel and plum at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Blue swimmer crab with sorrel and plum

I'm blown away by the blue swimmer crab with sorrel and plum. There's an impressive level of elegance and restraint in its presentation: three little mounds of crab hidden beneath overlapping slices of plum. The plum adds a refreshing lightness to the crab but its the flavour of the crab itself that is a marvel - after hand-picking the crab meat, the juice from the crab is incorporated into the mayonnaise, creating a flavour so intense it feels like you're standing knee-deep in water and eating it straight from the sea.

That's Amore Angus tartare at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
That's Amore: Angus tartare, tomato, parmesan, garlic and oregano

We'd already tried That's Amore at Rootstock Sydney. They don't serve it in a pizza box here, but the combination of hand-chopped Angus tartare, tomato, parmesan, garlic and onion tastes just like our waiter describes: "a bit like a calzone". Toasted rye breadcrumbs add a textural crunch. It seems a little bit of a shame to overwhelm the sweetness of raw Angus beef with so many other flavours, but I reckon if you weren't already a fan of tartare, you'd be easily won over by this rendition.

Onion with lemon vinegar, mullet roe and hazelnut at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Onion, lemon vinegar, mullet roe and hazelnut

Onions don't often get centre stage, but here they're given star billing. White pearl onions are cooked in lemon vinegar then served up with a sauce made from sea mullet roe and bonus nuggets of toasted hazelnuts. It's sweet and salty, nutty and creamy, and working your way gradually through the flower of onion petals is way more fun that it should be.

Photato at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst

The photato is Petanen's riff on the classic Vietnamese pho noodle soup. It's a much richer interpretation with slices of Rangers Valley beef seared briefly on one side, deep-fried garlic chips, chargrilled lemon, watercress, enoki mushrooms and a starchy huddle of potato string "noodles".

Even though there's a puddle of broth reduction at the bottom of the bowl, there's quite a leap between this dish and a bowl of simple but nourishing pho filled with bean sprouts and Vietnamese basil. There's enough to make you stop and think though, and the melting lushness of the beef is definitely worth mulling over quietly.

Monte Veronese di Malga cheese with buckwheat crackers at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Optional cheese course $15: Monte Veronese di Malga 

The cheese courses between savouries and dessert are optional but we go with one of each "in the name of research". The pile of finely shaved Monte Veronese di Malga is as light as air, served with onions cooked in pear juice and crinkled sheets of buckwheat crackers. It's the fanciest version of cheese and onion crisps you'll ever have the pleasure of experiencing.

Dehydrated chocolate mousse at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Optional cheese course $15: Gorgonzola with dehydrated chocolate mousse 

I'm a sucker for blue cheese but the idea of pairing gorgonzola with dehydrated chocolate mousse sounds wildly bizarre, even to me. And you know what? It works. Brilliantly. The tiles of chocolate mousse aren't overly sweet, and they play off deliciously against the oozing river of blue. The nutty and sweet notes are amplified even more with nibbles of prune paste rolled in sesame.

Eating Monte Veronese di Malga cheese at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Cheese time!

Carrot, yoghurt and liquorice dessert at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Carrot, yoghurt and liquorice

We'd been scratching our heads over the notion of "carrot, yoghurt and liquorice" and there are no further clues when we first clap eyes on the swirl of white placed before us. A spoon plunged through its core reveals a bright orange core that turns out to be carrot sorbet, and a foundation of deep brown ends up being a layer of liquorice cake.

The cake is imbued with just enough liquorice to hold its own against the carrot sorbet. The whipped yoghurt foam hits your tongue briefly and then seems to disappear with a sigh. Together they combine to create some kind of crazy harmony on the palate that has us all scraping the bottom of the bowl clean. Even the liquorice-nervous among us are besotted.

Malt, banana and parsley dessert at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Malt, banana and parsley

Who says parsley can't be part of the dessert fun? A sprig of candied parsley sends all kinds of mixed messages between what we understand parsley should be, and what this parsley clearly isn't. The quenelle of parsley sorbet - bright green and deliriously smooth - drives home how much we blindly pigeonhole so many ingredients. It's a perplexing sensation and I can't quite shake the feeling I'm eating tabbouleh ice cream. No, really. Then there's the bitter dark chocolate mousse rolled in a chewy layer of malt against a gently flavoured banana puree. Brain says "Ow".

Burnt butter and popcorn fairy floss dessert at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Corn and butter

Fairy floss is something the brain definitely understands, especially when the compacted cloud of spun sugar is rolled in burnt butter and smithereens of popcorn. It's like watching a movie at the fun fair - fistfuls of fun.

Chocolate-coated crackling with fennel petit four at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Pork and fennel

And because crackling makes everything better, the petit fours are chocolate... draped around tiles of crackling and sprinkled lightly with fennel seeds. Crazy but true.

Burnt butter and popcorn fairy floss dessert at Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst
Burnt butter and popcorn fairy floss

The good news is that Cafe Paci's initial twelve month lease has been extended for another six months. They'll be open until January 2015 but I recommend you get there sooner.

And as for ten years in blogging, thanks for all your comments, suggestions, friendships and more importantly, simply coming along for the ride. Thanks guys. You all rock.

Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst

Cafe Paci on Urbanspoon

Cafe Paci is now open in Newtown
95 Riley Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9368 7000

Opening hours
Lunch: Fridays from 12pm
Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm

Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Seasonal degustation - Berta, Surry Hills
Seasonal degustation - Momofuku Seiobo, Pyrmont
Seasonal degustation - Sixpenny, Stanmore
44 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 4/17/2014 12:07:00 am


  • At 4/17/2014 1:19 am, Blogger Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul said…

    Dare I use the word "doyenne"?! Congratulations Helen for 10 years of running a "food website"! LOL! Here's to 10 more! "I hear you call my name...". As for Cafe Paci, I ate there in December and was initially quite skeptical of the combinations. But I loved it! A great dining experience.

  • At 4/17/2014 1:20 am, Anonymous Minh said…

    Congrats on 10 (10?!) years!! As always, gorgeous photos and I still love waking up to a new post from you in my RSS feeds.

  • At 4/17/2014 2:22 am, Anonymous Padaek said…

    What a wonderful post! Congratulations on 10 years of blogging Helen. Your writing is always a joy to read - food poetry. The food at Paci looks amazing! All the dishes look so innovative and flavourful. Especially love the sound of that carrot, yoghurt and liquorice! Yum yum. :)

  • At 4/17/2014 6:49 am, Anonymous Cyn (The Food Pornographer) said…

    Congratulations, Helen. You are still my blogging hero and GYF my favourite food blog.

  • At 4/17/2014 8:01 am, Anonymous Tina @foodfortina said…

    Congrats Helen!! :) I really love to read about your discoveries, and you're so right about what you said about the hole-in-the-wall homely places - that lovely friendly owners and honest soulful food make for a very beautiful experiences, it's so nice to find those places aint it :) I remember I was also fanatic about cheap buffets too, and the blog has definitely captured that journey. And Cafe Paci looks amazing!! I really look forward to reading more posts of yours :) You're an inspiration to all of us!

  • At 4/17/2014 8:15 am, Anonymous john | heneedsfood said…

    Ten years young and still going strong. You're a trooper, Helen! Keep up the fab work.

  • At 4/17/2014 8:29 am, Anonymous Billy @ A Table For Two said…

    10 years!!! That's like many sleepless nights, ploughing through all the blogposts at 2am!!! (only people can understand the hardwork behind food blogging!) Congratulations Helen on your massive achievement, next round of beer is on me! CHEERS!

  • At 4/17/2014 9:51 am, Anonymous Fleur @ Changing Shores said…

    Congratulations on 10 years! It was a lovely escape this morning to read your Cafe Paci post, such a unique range of courses.

  • At 4/17/2014 10:43 am, Anonymous Amanda @lambsearsandhoney said…

    As the song says, "Happy birthday, Helen"! And may there be many more such beautifully written posts.
    I'll raise a glass with you here in Adelaide very soon to celebrate your anniversary!

  • At 4/17/2014 10:58 am, Blogger Yas @ hungry.digital.elf. said…

    Oh wow 10 years!! Congrats!! Such a great milestone to archive, Helen!!

  • At 4/17/2014 11:41 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    happy 10 years blogiversary!!! here's to another 10 years and many more to come!

  • At 4/17/2014 12:43 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Love Cafe Paci, defs wanna go back soon. I went to the lamb sagra at Berta this week. It wasn't bad but I want to check out the pasta one in 2 weeks.

  • At 4/17/2014 1:04 pm, Blogger Annie said…

    happy 10th bloggiversary!!! bring on another ten years hehehe ;). i think your food blog was the first that i've ever read which got me interested in what's happening in the food and dining. and the food at cafe paci looks amazing!

  • At 4/17/2014 2:06 pm, Anonymous Eha said…

    The most huge congrats on the first ten! What an achievement - here is to the next decade :) ! Methinks there is an ebb and flow in everything and reading dozens of food blogs and comments every day I think the movement to 'real' food is oh so very real - be that as street food or heart-warming real eateries! All the best, have a wonderful Easter and keep on doing just as you have :) !

  • At 4/17/2014 3:38 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    The Fermented potato and rye bread with molasses seems great. I want to taste it as soon as possible.

  • At 4/17/2014 4:14 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    Helen, you rock the most!

    I love your delicious descriptions of this amazing meal. Especially when you described the blue swimmer crab dish, like it's eaten knee-deep in water, right by the sea. Beautiful!

  • At 4/17/2014 4:14 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    ps, Happy blogiversary too!

  • At 4/17/2014 5:43 pm, Anonymous Karen | Citrus and Candy said…

    Wowsers, 10 years! Many congratulations Helen, it's been a privilege reading your blog and knowing you outside of the interwebs. Here's to another 10 years and beyond!

  • At 4/17/2014 7:29 pm, Blogger irene said…

    Happy blogiversary, Helen! GYF rocks! And one thing that hasn't changed for me, your blog remains one of the bests for me since I first discovered it 3 years ago! :)

  • At 4/17/2014 9:35 pm, Anonymous Michael @ I'm Still Hungry said…

    Congratulations on 10 years of blogging. I hadn't realised you've been around for so long! Here's to another decade of happy eats :)

  • At 4/17/2014 9:52 pm, Blogger Sarah said…

    Happy blog birthday, lovely Helen!!!

    Congratulations on 10 years of really wonderful, engaging posts, with beautiful photos and an amazing breadth of different venues and topics! Your blog is always a joy to read. :)

    Here's to the next 10 years! :)

    xox Sarah

  • At 4/17/2014 11:53 pm, Blogger Sherrie @ Crystal Noir said…

    Congrats on your 10 year blogging anniversary! That's a whopping decade :O I praise you for your dedication to the fine art that is food hehe. Here's to many more food adventures! You were one of the first food blogs I started reading when I first began my food adventures :)

  • At 4/18/2014 12:27 am, Blogger Simon Leong said…

    Congratulations on 10 years! Definitely for me one of the best food blogs to follow in Sydney. Thanks for sharing so many amazing tasty finds.

  • At 4/18/2014 6:56 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    What clever food! Well done Helen on 10 years, absolutely extraordinary.

  • At 4/18/2014 10:48 am, Anonymous angela@mykikicake said…

    Happy 10 years! Such a fantastic achievement. Your meal at Cafe Paci looked lovely but I agree, casual eateries are my thing as well,

  • At 4/18/2014 11:32 am, Anonymous pigflyin' said…

    Happy blogiversary Helen! this is an archive and chronical of how our culture changes for the last decade recorded realtime. this is EPIC!

    dare say i had a peek at the very posts this morning! so nostalgic.

  • At 4/18/2014 6:32 pm, Anonymous Cindy (a foodie's joy) said…

    Wow! 10 years is a long time! Congratulations Helen! Cafe Paci looks like a very interesting place! Intriguing combination of ingredients... :)

  • At 4/18/2014 7:21 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    Brain says ow indeed. Perplexing food to say the least but utterly thrilling nonetheless.

  • At 4/18/2014 8:30 pm, Anonymous Tina@foodboozeshoes said…

    Congrats on 10 YEARS!!! What an achievement... well done, and here's to many more years of food blogging!

  • At 4/18/2014 11:40 pm, Anonymous ChopinandMysaucepan said…

    Dear Helen,

    I love your photography, but even more so, you honest and beautiful style of writing. You are truly an inspiration.

    Congratulations and here's to another 10 years!

  • At 4/18/2014 11:50 pm, Blogger Cassie | Journey From Within said…

    HAPPY 10 YEARS (and more to come!)

    Omg, that first plate of snacks, all sounded amazing but when I saw the corn I was salivating!
    THEN... the photato! that ... sounds divine!!
    and of course then comes the burnt butter fairy floss! mmm~~~ :D

    - Cassie

  • At 4/19/2014 9:15 am, Anonymous jess @ fushmush said…

    Congratulations on 10 years of blogging! Glad to see you're still at it and still doing a fantastic job.

  • At 4/19/2014 8:12 pm, Anonymous Chris @ MAB vs Food said…

    Congrats on 10 years in food blogging! A great achievement for sure! I love the creativity at Cafe Paci. Who would think Gorgonzola and chocolate would work? And photato is the bomb! Absolutely love it!

  • At 4/19/2014 10:53 pm, Anonymous Sara | Belly Rumbles said…

    Happy 10 years of blogging! What an achievement xx

  • At 4/20/2014 10:55 am, Anonymous GourmetGetaways said…

    Congratulations on 10 years!!
    That is HUGE!!
    You have taken us on so many delicious journeys, I am looking forward to the net 10 years ;)

  • At 4/21/2014 4:01 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    Wow it's been 10 years?! Congrats!!!!!!

  • At 4/21/2014 4:14 pm, Blogger YaYa said…

    Congratulations on 10 years of blogging, Elder Statesman territory, mouth watering as usual!

  • At 4/22/2014 11:29 am, Anonymous Isaac (@iFat23) said…

    10 more years, please!

  • At 4/22/2014 11:41 am, Anonymous Amanda@ChewTown said…

    What an amazing achievement Helen! Congratulations on 10 years - you are an inspiration to us all! x

  • At 4/22/2014 12:04 pm, Anonymous Phuoc'n Delicious said…

    Congrats on reaching this milestone Helen!

    Now please don't take annual leave.. :p

  • At 4/22/2014 9:48 pm, Blogger Unknown said…

    Congratulations on your achievement Helen!

    Thank you kindly for your wonderful comments and your photos are beautiful.

    We look forward to seeing you again soon at Cafe Paci.

    Thanks and regards

  • At 4/23/2014 12:10 pm, Blogger Jacq said…

    Congrats on the milestone! I've been wanting to try Cafe Paci for a while now - that corn and butter fairy floss looks amazing!

  • At 5/01/2014 2:18 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi all - Thanks everyone for your lovely comments! It really does make the hard work feel worth it, and having all your support is so very inspiring :)

  • At 5/10/2014 11:17 am, Anonymous Hannah said…

    Happy 10 years, beautiful lady! These dishes are almost as awesome as you are. x


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