“A Closer Look” is a series in which Broadsheet editor and noted food writer Max Veenhuyzen examines the city’s restaurants with a more critical eye.
What defines a neighbourhood restaurant?
Is it a place that serves homey, comforting food? A place that synthesises whatever’s happening at the top-end into a format the Joneses can keep up with? Or maybe it’s something more prosaic: somewhere with wallet-friendly prices that mean customers can visit multiple times per week.
Arthur, which opened in October, combines elements of the above with fine(r) dining thinking to create a bold new breed of neighbourhood eatery.
On a chilly Sunday night, the warm glow of this Victorian house with its big windows and bentwood seats cuts an inviting figure. Arthur could so easily be an address where locals call in for an everyday dinner and a splash of pinot, but it’s anything but.
For a couple of first-time restaurateurs, Rebecca Fanning and Tristan Rosier (she looks after admin, he’s the chef – they met working at Farmhouse in King’s Cross), ask a lot of guests. Specifically, they want them to make a booking. Said booking must be at either 6pm or 8.30pm, and guests need the stomach for 10 courses.
Depending on how you feel about tasting menus, this last detail will illicit either cheers or groans. It’s worth mentioning, though, that the 10 courses take around two hours to unfold and, rather than being programmed as a four-hour-plus tour de gout, the share dishes are served at a brisk pace, in twos. The $70 price tag is sound value, especially when you consider that in Sydney it’s possible to pay three figures for a fancy sausage roll and glass of fizz.
This format is also good for restaurants and their bottom line. Knowing how many people are eating each night means less food waste and more profit. In theory, it also lets chefs serve “better” food at the same price point.
Rosier, a chef that counts Biota and Est among past gigs, is making the most of this opportunity and hitting guests with deceptively intricate dishes such as yellowfin tuna lifted with a black vinegar caramel and crunched up with crisp shallots and cavolo nero chopped into tiny, jagged squiggles and fried until the brassica looks and tastes like powerfully savoury seafood. On the side: roast turnips and walnut cream with braised turnip tops – the vegetables’ earthy bitterness serving as a counterweight to the fish’s oceanic sweetness.
Bitter and sweet meet again in a dish of braised wombok dressed in a lurid sorrel and fennel sauce. This is played off a pale-on-pale-on-pale arrangement of smoked mulloway and florets of fioretto cauliflower (a hybrid of broccoli and cauliflower) on a luxe cauliflower cream. The latter is one of the most delicious things I’ve experienced lately.
Equally surprising, but for the wrong reasons, was the sudden appearance of our first courses while my dining buddy and I were still catching up over beers – a reminder that, occasionally, set-menu dining is more about the kitchen’s needs rather than the guests’. Still, as far as interruptions go, a golden puck of fried potato with a scrunchie of Wagyu bresaola and excellent house sourdough is a pretty good tap on the shoulder.
For the most part, eating at Arthur is an exercise in comfort dining and celebrating good produce and producers, without ostentatious kitchen showboating. Grilled spatchcock with broad beans feels like the sort of thing one might have eaten at 4Fourteen in its heyday. Ditto the accompanying Jerusalem artichokes with macadamia cream. Dense chocolate cake with stewed rhubarb and cherries tastes like a booze-free Black Forest and, flavour-wise, nails the neighbourhood-restaurant brief.
I’d love it if the service at Arthur were as warm and soothing, though. The staff seems to open up to those who show an interest in the all-Aussie, predominantly lo-fi wine list, but otherwise fall short of the welcoming, happy-to-see-you spirit one expects from a neighbourhood spot (or any restaurant). Then again, I may just be smarting from the automated text message I received earlier that day: “You’re due at Arthur in 30 minutes”. Notifications the day before? Fine and industry practice. But a follow-up reminder half an hour before the booking? It feels a bit much, even if restaurant margins are tighter than ever and no-shows hurt a place with just 35 seats.
Arthur isn’t the sort of restaurant everyone wants in their backyard, but it does feel perfectly pitched for the area. Surry Hills, it’s worth remembering, is the food-savvy village that gave Australia seminal Sydney restaurants such as Marque, Bentley and Billy Kwong.
Despite a couple of dropped service stitches, there’s an energy in the dining room that’s as much about the sharpness of the cooking as it is the buzz of diners getting high on one of the city’s best meal deals. This is a (neighbourhood) restaurant worth watching (and visiting).
544 Bourke Street, Surry Hills
0468 991 088
Wed to Fri 6pm–11pm
Sat 12.30pm–3pm, 6pm–11pm
Sun 12.30pm–3pm, 6pm–9pm
This story originally appeared in print issue 19. Menu items may have changed since publication.