It takes a healthy dose of chutzpah to open a wine bar/restaurant in the midst of a global pandemic, but Arms Length has found a formula that’s worked. Even though the neighbourhood venue has only been open for three weeks, it’s already inspiring loyalty among Redfern and Surry Hills locals.
“We have a couple who have already come for dinner four times,” says co-owner Rebecca O’Shea. “We make our Bloody Mary the way she likes it and we are bringing in some Roquefort cheese from France for him.”
If you think its name is pandemic appropriate – you’d be right. It was something of a running joke; a social distancing reference that stuck. But this pretty eatery on the corner of Cleveland and Bourke streets is far from being a kitsch concept.
For starters, the venue is a bit of a shapeshifter. It’s at once a moody wine bar; a solo-friendly spot for steak frites and a glass of shiraz at the bar; a romantic date-night option; a sunny spot for afternoon al fresco drinks with friends (and the dog); and a good choice for an early kids’ dinner. Maybe that’s because everyone here is so damn nice.
Arms Length is the brainchild of a couple of hospitality industry whiz kids. Head chef Jeffrey Sue trained under Alessandro Pavoni of Mosman’s respected Ormeggio, while O’Shea is former director of operations at Rockpool Dining Group.
“I quit my corporate job a few weeks before lockdown,” she says. “I wanted a break from the corporate world and I wanted to go travelling. Then the pandemic hit and it became clear that wasn’t going to happen. Then [co-owner] Rhys Samuel Bailey called me up and suggested I come check out the site. At first I thought he was joking. But I did and I thought it was just perfect. It already had the shell that we needed, so we set about making it our own.”
They rolled up their sleeves, painted and fitted out the space themselves, hitting up Mitchell Road Antique & Design Centre for vintage prints so they could decorate the space on a budget befitting the times. A local florist even sent some plants over. The courtyard opens out onto the back lane, bringing an expansive, summery feel to the space, while the bar and dining room have sophisticated yet welcoming wine bar vibes.
Sue has created a menu of crowd-pleasing modern Australian dishes with Italian accents. The anchovy crostini come on a perfectly snack-sized slice of toasted Bread & Butter Project baguette, smeared with a cannellini bean puree and finished with Italian white anchovy and dill. The oozy stracciatella (from Marrickville’s excellent Vanella) is served with fresh tomato salad with croutons and basil oil, while the steak frites (scotch fillet from Gippsland) is grilled, slathered in herbed butter and served with shoestring fries.
Each morning the kitchen rolls out tiny potato gnocchi to go with Sue’s signature pork ragu and pangrattato (spoiler: this is the dish Broadsheet is coming back for). He also roasts wedges of cauliflower with rosemary and garlic, then grills them and finishes them off with a cheddar fondue, almonds, pomegranate and jus for an umami punch.
The cocktail list, care of Bailey, is a love letter to local suppliers. There are three rums from Bourke Street’s Brix Distillers, which feature in the Grapefruit Daiquiri and Mezcal Old Fashioned. The Cleveland Collins is made using gin by Marrickville’s Poor Toms.
There’s a small selection of mainly Australian wines at accessible prices ($35 to $85 for a bottle; $10 to $14 by the glass ) – think Unico Zelo’s Halcyon Days Nero D’Avola and Rieslingfreak’s No.4 Eden Valley Riesling.
“We aimed to create a place with amazing food using great local produce, and a good and accessible wine list,” says O’Shea. “Somewhere that’s both casual and a little step above.”
648 Bourke Street, Redfern
0420 940 829
Mon to Fri 12pm–late
Sat & Sun 11am–late