We get out of the office, three colleagues and I, and we’re in a taxi to the city on an unseasonally balmy Spring evening, discussing which bar we should go to – one at the Westin Hotel maybe, or perhaps PJ O’Brien’s, the Irish bar at Phil’s hotel, The Grace? Then Phil says, “I know this place we could go to”. So, once we’ve dropped off his bag he leads us through the foyer and out onto Clarence Street, left in a southerly direction for a bit, then left again down a dark alleyway and right past the back of what looks like a trendy bicycle shop/café towards a stairwell guarded by a bouncer. All very curious so far.
Ros, Cici and I follow Phil down the stairs below ground, he opens up a door and we emerge into the most magical, atmospheric bar I’ve been to in a long time. It’s packed with people, they’re playing loud 50s rock ‘n’ roll, the guys behind the bar look way cool (including one with a slicked-back short back and sides and a long waxed, curled-up moustache), and they’re beavering away dishing out drinks to a thirsty crowd. Behind them are bar-to-ceiling shelves groaning with the most impressive whiskey collection you’ve ever seen, enticingly lit by fairy lights and accessed from sliding library-style ladders that whizz from side to side. In between I can see a drinks menu at the top of which it says The Baxter Inn. The room is a reasonably large cellar with lots of small tables, dark-coloured carpet (helpful for absorbing the noise), very dim lighting from wall-mounted lamps, and bare brick walls and archways covered in framed black and whites of boxing champions and prints of race horses.
We get drinks and eventually manage to nab ourselves a table. One of the groovy bar staff works the floor constantly, collecting glasses and handing out little dishes of free pretzels. Those of our group who have been there say this place is very New York; I want to go there even more than I already did. I feel like I’m in some kind of prohibition-era speakeasy transported to the 1950s. Clinton joins us saying that he’s been queuing outside for quite some time to get in. We move on to the restaurant to meet the others, all raving about the bar and thinking Phil is so much cooler than we had ever realised. He lives in Melbourne and yet he’s the one who knows about Sydney’s hip, underground drinking dens!
The restaurant for tonight’s festivities is Pendolino, on the second floor of the elegant Strand Arcade. This place is all about authentic, regionally inspired Italian food featuring some of Australia and Italy’s most prestigious extra virgin olive oils. We’re led through a large, busy room, dark and sleek with white-clothed tables. Our table for eight is already set with baskets of beautiful bread and white dishes of three types of divine olive oil: one plain (fruttato), one infused with blood orange (sanguinella) and one infused with lemon (limone). Jeremy takes charge of the wine list and, following long in-depth conversations with the sommelier, chooses the Fontanafredda Papagena Barbara D’Alba Superiore 2008 for the red drinkers, and for the rest of us the Guerra Albano Pinot Grigio 2010 from Friuli, full of citrus and stone-fruit flavours. He tells me that he likes to take full advantage of the services of a sommelier and try wines that will challenge preconceptions and surprise people.
Once ‘Don’ Gerry has arrived and our party is complete, we’re given small table lamps by which to read the menu and we choose and order our food. To start I eventually settle on creamy freshly shucked oysters with salty salmon pearls that pop between the teeth and a lovely sweet-zingy tomato vinaigrette.
Jeremy, who I’ve commandeered to share his experience for my blog post, has the carpaccio of raw beef with truffled white walnut purée, Testun di Barolo cheese, rocket cress, wild baby olives and rosemary grissini. What’s it like? “Well, first you get the coldness of the beef, followed by the richness of the beef, and then the flavour of the truffle hits you at the end.”
In preparation for our main course, Jeremy calls the sommelier back over to discuss options for a slightly heavier red; he goes for the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Lalo Diubaldo Riserva 2005 which is poured into a decanter. Not usually a red drinker, I do try some of this, given that I’m eating beef, and I find it soft and spicy and very easy to drink. My beef is meltingly tender, slow cooked, oyster blade with sweet parsnip purée, al dente grilled green shallots and a beautiful, rich sour cherry sauce sporting a couple of whole cherries. It’s simply delicious.
My partner in gastronomic exploration has the roasted free range Corowa pork tenderloin wrapped in prosciutto on a bed of dried fava bean purée, with fresh fava beans and tomato, globe artichoke and crispy pancetta; he says it’s very tasty, especially the bean-tomato accompaniment.
I don’t get a photo of David’s dish but you can picture it nonetheless: slow cooked Gippsland lamb with grilled white polenta, Tuscan black cabbage, baby carrots, dragoncello salsa and lamb sauce. I was very close to choosing this myself.
Menus are brought back for dessert and once again I struggle to choose. I’m drawn to the nougat and Ligurian honey semifreddo but settle on the vanilla bean and goats curd bavarese (which tastes a bit like panna cotta) with textured strawberry salad and wild strawberry consommé. The strawberry salad consists of some of the fresh variety (I think) but mainly what I suspect are freeze-dried strawberries which have a wonderful light, crispy texture and a concentrated flavour. The consommé is a clear, ruby-bright pool of perfect strawberry goodness.
Jeremy goes for blood orange olive oil ricotta fritters (which he likens to Nepalese cheese balls) with ‘fior di latte’ vanilla sorbet, a wonderful combination of hot-crunch and icy-smooth with intense marmaladey pieces of orange.
Cici, our star guest this evening, has the most unusual sounding dessert: the Umbrian Christmas chocolate pasta with candied walnuts and honeycomb semifreddo. It’s really good, she says, but very rich; I think you can taste that just by looking at the photo!
Phil, on the other hand, keeps it simple and goes for the assorted gelati.
I wish I could feature every one of the dishes we had, but this would be a very long blog post and I didn’t have the most ideal conditions for photography; as it was I had several people around the table providing lighting from the torches on their phones! Thank you all for your patience and assistance and for a really wonderful night. And thank you for being such a lovely bunch of people to work with over the past two and a half years. I’ve certainly enjoyed the ride!
The Baxter Inn
Basement, 152 – 156 Clarence Street, Sydney
Level 2, Strand Arcade
412 – 414 George Street, Sydney
Visited 5 September 2012