Chef and restaurateur Cuong Nguyen made his name at Hello Auntie with his contemporary take on Vietnamese dishes. But what most people don’t know is that his training was in Italian cooking.

At his latest venture, Penelope’s, he’s giving himself the chance to revisit those skills. “I’ve done what I wanted to do with Vietnamese food. Now I just want to create really great-tasting food,” Nguyen tells Broadsheet. “It’s very refreshing for me.”

Nguyen is running the kitchen as executive chef, and he says that, while there are Italian undertones, the food at Penelope’s isn’t strictly defined by one cuisine. “Penelope’s represents where the food of Australia, and more predominantly Sydney, is headed. It’s based around the cultures of Sydney,” he says.

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He points to head chef Bremmy Setiyoko’s (ex-Sepia) standout creation – bakar chicken – as an example. Drawing on his Indonesian heritage and mother’s cooking, Setiyoko pairs the bird with a lemongrass, chilli and turmeric sambal and a whiff of toum, the garlicky condiment he discovered eating out in western Sydney when he first moved to Australia.

Similarly, the Lakemba-spiced lamb shoulder nods to the Middle Eastern flavours the chef tasted in the south-western part of the city – think the richness of black vinegar, fermented chilli and yoghurt.

The dry-aged steak comes with “House of Penelope” sauce – a riff on the tomatoey HP Sauce, named after London’s Houses of Parliament. “People in the UK call HP Sauce ‘brown sauce’, so we decided to call it House of Penelope sauce. It’s based on a mother sauce made of veal stock, with mushrooms and onions,” says Nguyen.

Native ingredients, Vietnamese flavours inspired by Nguyen’s heritage, along with influences from general manager Lee Potter Cavanagh’s (ex-Rosenbaum & Fuller) British and Irish lineage are sprinkled through the menu, too.

The food is rounded out by modern takes on nostalgic desserts: a striking pavlova-inspired finisher features sheets of meringue, wattleseed custard and champagne jelly, and a boozy hot fudge sundae delivers choc-hazelnut and caramel ice-cream, cherries and banana cream.

Like the food, the cocktail list is inspired by cultures of Sydney. “[The cocktail list shares] our point of view on our city as it exists now,” Potter Cavanagh says. “It very much includes native ingredients.”

There are concoctions like the Jiminy Cricket, where Toki whisky meets peppermint gum, chocolate, corn and koji; as well as an Old Fashioned where aged rum joins macadamia, wattleseed and Vegemite caramel.

Potter Cavanagh has also put together a 100-bottle wine list, with 25 available by the glass.

The 132-seater joins a wave of new restaurants to open in Circular Quay’s Quay Quarter Tower, including Martinez, Belles Hot Chicken and Pearl. But unlike the neighbours, its interior is bold, plush and sexy, with earthy, lilac and emerald tones. The best seat in the house? On the balcony, with sweeping views of the Harbour Bridge.

Quay Quarter Tower, Level 1, 50 Bridge Street, Sydney
(02) 8043 4599

Mon to Wed midday–3pm, 5pm–10pm
Thu to Sat midday–3pm, 5pm–11pm
Sun midday–3.30pm