G’day mate! I’ve been in Sydney, Australia, the last few days, dodging tropical thunder showers and exploring the diverse dining scene. I decided to ease into the Australian gastronomy with this first feature on a hip restaurant that could fit easily into San Francisco’s seasonal, local food movement.
Ester – opened last summer in the emerging dining neighborhood called Chippendale near several universities – focuses on sustainable and local ingredients. Its name is actually the word for an organic compound.
The casual dining spot features a wood-fire oven, where many of the dishes are fired up and roasted. While of course there are several meat dishes, I was intrigued by the heavy vegetables that accentuate the menu, which is broken into four categories: snacks, small plates (mostly cold), wood fire (larger plates) and sides.
Elegant Bar Food
The décor, slightly like an urban cantina, feeds into the bar vibe. In fact, I ate at the large bar since I didn’t have a reservation. Many of the snack items would be perfect for a bite with beer, such as the pickled mussels that I ordered – an unusual preparation that gave a tang to the still-plump mussels, served with home-made potato chips and a green chili aioli.
Other notable and unusual snacks include roasted carrots with parmesan, blood sausage sanga, veal tartare with smoked bonito and Jerusalem artichokes with a sunflower seed puree.
The dishes feel familiar, but the innovative chef (Mat Lindsay who worked at notable Aussie restaurants like Billy Kwong) plays with his ingredients, such as a whole cauliflower head roasted and served with almonds, yogurt and mint. I’m a big cauliflower lover so I had to order this, which is under the entrée section.
The cauliflower had a nice roasted color and the mint brightened the dish, but I wished it had more of a char flavor and I would have added a few sprinkling of finishing salt just because the seasoning can’t always get deep into the center of the bland head. Still, I gulfed this down alongside my more traditional entrée.
That was a surprisingly large plate of roasted duck with burnt honey sauce. Most of you know my policy of ordering duck whenever it’s on the menu, but because Ester promotes itself as a “shared plate” experience, the duck dish was more than enough for two. As a solo diner, I had to work hard to eat both the duck and cauliflower dishes.
But it wasn’t all that hard, really, considering the duck was perfectly tender and had an amazingly crispy skin that wasn’t chewy one bit. The skin literally disintegrated in my mouth with each bite, but still had enough crispness to remind me of French fries. The burnt honey sauce was not cloyingly sweet, but just the right balance to offset my cauliflower.
Side note: Australia is known for its high prices, and while I found the appetizers and small plate sections to be comparable to San Francisco restaurants, the entrees were on the high end (my duck was AUS $39 or about $35.40.)
The Last Bite
Ester was like a warm blanket for a diner like me coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, but that didn’t mean the dishes were in any way predictable. The creative detail to the different parts of the dish made it exciting to learn about new ingredients (did you know “pippies” are baby clams?), and I only wish I could dine here more often so I can try everything. It’s definitely worth a return trip.
Ester, 46-52 Meagher St., Chippendale, Sydney, NSW 2008. PH: +61(02)8068-8279. Open for lunch, Thursday and Friday from noon; dinner, Tuesday through Friday from 6 p.m. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. ester-restaurant.com.au
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