A restaurant’s opening night never goes quite to plan.
The lighting’s a little off. The wine list isn’t ready. The waiter runs your food to the people next to you, and theirs to god knows where. It’s not a disaster. It’s normal, and seasoned food reviewers are usually kind enough to leave a restaurant be for its first couple of months.
It’s fair to say, though, a critic could roll into Agnes tonight, just its third since opening, and roll out a few hours later ready to pen a glowing review. The service at this refurbished Fortitude Valley warehouse is precise. The beautiful pendent lights are dimmed just so. The carefully appointed wine cellar runs to a whopping 1500 bottles. The chefs in the open kitchen smile, relaxed.
But then Agnes is the latest restaurant from Same Same and Honto’s Tyron Simon, Bianca Marchi and Frank Li, and ex-Gerard’s Bistro head chef Ben Williamson. They’re four of the best restaurant brains in Brisbane. Step into Agnes and, much like Same Same or Honto, it’s a piece of theatre, with what looks effortlessly laissez faire actually a carefully scripted food service.
Still, Simon says this is seamless even in his experience – something he puts down to the staff working together on the Agnes pop-up bakery, which stood in for the restaurant after the federal government’s shutdown of eateries kiboshed its (already delayed) late-March opening date.
“There’s a certain level of calmness I haven’t experienced,” Simon says. “It was maybe similar with Same Same, because that was more of a move [from Longtime] than an opening. When staff don’t know each other, they’re on edge. But because everyone is comfortable and knows who they’re working with, it’s much more relaxed.”
That calmness is nonetheless impressive. Williamson’s team of chefs is split across two long, low-set counters and works solely with crackling wood fire and smoke – there’s no gas, no electricity. The floor staff is charged with guiding diners through a menu split across snacks, starters, mains, sides and desserts, with dishes sometimes changing daily depending on what Williamson finds at the market.
“Ben called this morning saying that something wasn’t available,” Simon says. “So our opening menu changed before we even opened. What’s fresh and looking good today is what will be on the menu today … for Ben that means he begins at the seafood market first thing and won’t finish until midnight. But we want fresh produce.”
For starters at Agnes you might order bonito, ‘nduja and white strawberry sandwiches; woodfired cabbage with a koji-butter sauce and egg yolk; or beef tartare with smoked chestnut, mushroom, almond and turnip. For mains, there’s redthroat emperor with soubise, scampi caviar and spring leaves; duck with bread sauce and cumquats; and smoked lamb neck served with an ancho mole and flatbread. There’ll also always be a selection of dry-aged meat dishes, such as 70-day-aged heritage pork with apple sauce, and Wagyu sirloin that’s served with house-smoked mandarin kanzuri (a brightly coloured Japanese condiment made with slowly fermented chillies) and has clocked 240 days in the fridge after the delays in getting Agnes open.
“We might not get the opportunity to dry age stuff for so long ever again,” Simon says. “You wouldn’t really have the fridge space to make it work.”
For drinks, there’s the enormous wine cellar that mixes classic European regions and varieties with biodynamic and organic new-world drops, and a slick set of cocktails that complements the tartness, tang and heat of Williamson’s cooking.
The venue itself sits in an ancient, wedge-shaped hillside warehouse in a forgotten Fortitude Valley side street. At one point or another the place has been a dairy co-op and – in a neat twist – a bacon smokehouse. Working with Apollo Builders, Li, Marchi, Simon and Williamson have turned it into an immaculate dining room of exposed brick, grey stone, timber and steel. The 48-seat main floor is looked over by a 22-seat mezzanine-level private dining room. There are two bar areas – one down a short flight of stairs that doubles as a cosy holding pen for those waiting on a table, and an upstairs terrace with views across the CBD and the Valley, which Simon says will properly open to the public once Covid restrictions are further wound back.
It all adds up to one of the most impressive food openings of 2020, which you could argue should be the case when it’s arriving a year late – Agnes was originally scheduled to open in August 2019, before building delays and approvals, and finally the global pandemic got in the way.
“It’s been so emotional, because from one week to the next this year we didn’t know what was coming,” Simon says. “But that emotional roller-coaster built resilience in the team. And that resilience has been remarkable to watch – a resilience during a scary, unnerving time. I think now we’re all just happy to get the chance to simply open a restaurant.”
22 Agnes Street, Fortitude Valley
(07) 3067 9087
Tue to Thu 5.30pm–late
Fri & Sat 12pm–3pm, 5.30pm–late