Whenever my plane touches down in Sydney, I start scheming. There are places I want to eat and drink at. I need plans, reservations, transport, accomplices. Said visits are always short – two or three nights – so there’s a lot to pack in. I’ve come to accept that many places on The List will be missed.

The List is about a dozen places – mostly old, well-known favourites. To this Melburnian, their unavailability only makes them more attractive. Ester, Poly, would I love you just the same if I could have you at any time? (Yes.)

On a recent visit to Poly I ordered a good third of the menu and ended up with a plate of beetroot. I don’t remember having eaten it before then, even though various iterations have been on the menu since the beginning.

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The beetroot looks simple. It’s a couple of lustrous chunks, plus a generous glob of house-made labneh. But in true Poly brilliance, the minimalist dish takes 48 hours to prepare and tastes little like the thing you’ve eaten in burgers.

Two days out, the chefs put the beetroots over an ironbark-fuelled fire for 15 to 20 minutes, until the skins are blackened and blistered. This is mainly to add earthy, meaty flavour. The next step, 60 minutes in a standard oven, cooks the ’roots right through. Then they’re peeled and halved.

Before the end of day one, more beetroots are squeezed, and the juice cooked down with sugar and black peppercorns. The thick, syrupy result is seasoned with salt, brown rice vinegar and pomegranate molasses, then the roasted beetroot is dropped in to marinate overnight.

Day two. The first chef arrives around 9am, restarts that fragrant ironbark fire in the hearth, and hangs the beetroots over it. This time they’re placed much higher, away from intense heat, to dehydrate and take on more smoke. They stay there all day, coming down just prior to service at 5pm.

When an order comes in, the chefs lacquer two hunks of beetroot with more of that dark, glossy molasses marinade and plate up. A golden, olive-oil sauce – consisting of thinly sliced garlic, fennel seeds and Aleppo pepper all fried together – is spooned over, with a hit of lemon juice.

I knew none of this that night. Just what the menu said: “smoked beetroot • fried garlic • labneh”. So imagine my surprise when I took a bite and felt sweet, sticky beetroot squish between my teeth with the exact texture of a Roll-Up. Yes, the Uncle Tobys lunchbox thing, but imbued with a pungent smokiness, like the best Texas brisket you’ve ever tasted.

This is straight-up vegetable alchemy, the likes of which I’d only experienced twice before, at Melbourne restaurants Attica and Embla. Both those times were with another relatively sweet veggie (carrot), also cooked over the fire for hours upon hours for max caramelisation of sugars.

But this is something better, more surprising and delicious. The lemon juice’s radiant acidity tames the smoke’s muzzy, discordant tendencies. The demure labneh recalibrates the palate between bites. And the golden-brown garlic and olive oil cast a silky savouriness over it all.

I was still smiling contentedly when I got on the plane two days later. Sure, I’d only reached a few places on The List. But I’d also eaten something totally new and mind-bending. Now begins the scheming to get it again.

Poly
74–76 Commonwealth St, Surry Hills
(02) 8860 0808

Hours
Tue to Fri 5pm–12am
Sat 12pm–12am