When Ricardo Lemus arrived in Sydney in June from Mexico, he had one problem: he couldn’t source the right chillies. He’s now in talks with friends back home to bring some over, and remains optimistic. The next step is to get farm-fresh corn.
The co-owners of Avalon’s Alma, Jack Leary and Tim Christensen, discovered chef Lemus during a five-week research trip visiting Mexico’s top 15 eateries. They invited him to cook at their Northern Beaches restaurant.
They found Lemus in the country’s major gastronomic region, Oaxaca, where he worked at Casa Oaxaca. He brings 11 years of fine-dining experience and a wealth of knowledge learnt cooking alongside las mayoras, a term to describe traditional Mexican cooks – old women who safeguard recipes and culinary wisdom. “I really wanted to know Mexican cuisine, that’s why I moved to Oaxaca,” Lemus tells Broadsheet.
In Oaxaca he applied those old-school techniques to modern dishes and flavours, and since arriving in Sydney in June he has added a new component to that mix: Sydney produce. “You have local products with a Mexican sort of taste,” he says, pointing to blue swimmer crab and snapper. “I really find that very interesting.”
Alma serves “coastal cuisine”. When the eatery opened in 2017, before Lemus arrived, the idea was to emulate a restaurant by the coast in Mexico. The plan is for Lemus to work with that concept but push it forward, and to create dishes not often seen in Sydney.
While seafood dominates this is not necessarily a seafood restaurant – meat and vegetarian dishes inspired by the climate are offered too. This is probably no more apparent than with the tostadas. There’s one served with a tangy ceviche (raw kingfish cured in citrus juice), another with corn-dusted and fried soft-shell crab. There are five taco styles: grilled prawns, beer-battered fried fish, brussels sprout, pork belly and achiote chicken, each with a different salsa and other toppings to balance out the richness.
For mains, the smoky Clarence River octopus that comes with cauliflower puree and grilled chorizo is a highlight. And the agave-marinated pork ribs is a fave among customers. The grilled radicchio salad and pickled red onions offset the sweetness. Lemus will add his own creations to the menu in August, such as a cactus salad and mole amarillo, a spicy, saucy Oaxacan dish.
Bartenders Zachary Morgan and Jeremy Johnston were brought in to curate the cocktail list when Alma opened – the two have gone on to join influential Melbourne bar Black Pearl and Manly’s In Situ, respectively – and continue to provide new ideas. As Lemus shifts the menu the drinks will change, although Mexico’s national spirit will always be represented. There are 37 varieties of tequila to choose from, and drink flights available.
Leary and Christensen – who was the former head chef at Manly’s Chica Bonita – says the popularity of Mexican food comes and goes but they hope Lemus creativity will set Alma apart. It seems to have already paid off. Even on a cold weeknight, Alma is the busiest restaurant in Avalon, with customers keeping warm by the open fireplace.
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