When Finnish-born chef Pasi Petanen opened his innovative restaurant Cafe Paci in Darlinghurst in 2013, everyone knew it wouldn’t be there for long: it was in a building slated for demolition, a cavernous 330-square-metre space that was once known as Cafe Pacifico. (Petanen got the name for his own restaurant by blocking out the last four letters on the former Mexican diner’s sign.) Sadly though Cafe Paci 1.0 closed in 2015.
It was a blow to Sydney’s dining scene – Petanen cooked exciting, interesting food, drawing on his Finnish roots but also borrowing from Mexican and Vietnamese cuisine.
But this time round it’s going to be a very different beast. Cafe Paci 1.0 was a short-lived exponent of the global gastronomy movement, serving a set menu of ingredient-driven food at a friendly pricepoint, without the frills of fine dining. Cafe Paci 2.0 will have an à la carte menu of regularly changing dishes in a much smaller space, with a wine list assembled by vino authority Giorgio De Maria (Giorgio De Maria Fun Wines).
“The food style is the same – similar to what I would cook anyway,” Petanen tells Broadsheet. “[But] the menu layout is different, the restaurant layout is different, the wine selection is different. It’s more mature, more grown-up. We hope people will like it.”
The Newtown reboot will see him apply his creativity to dishes that not only push the boundaries but erase them altogether – something he’s been known for since his time as head chef at fine diner Marque. A few dishes from the original Cafe Paci will return – the much-talked-about potato and molasses bread; a tartare (“it’s Italy on a plate – served with crispy bread and lots of basil”); and a carrot sorbet with liquorice cake that was a fan favourite.
While his Finnish heritage comes into play, Petanen is also inspired by Australian favourites. He’s created an XO sauce from trout (“the idea is not to be spicy, not taste like Asian XO”) that’s served with potato dumplings.
There’s also the “very Finnish” herring and potato dish, which is topped with sour-cream dressing and raw onion. Petanen says he’s leaning towards a European bistro or bar style of dining, where people can pop in for a drink and a few oysters at the bar, or settle in for the long haul in the restaurant.
“The fit-out inspired the menu, it’s very European in look,” says Petanen. “There’s influences from the first Cafe Paci, our pop-ups with Giorgio De Maria and his Italian influence – anything.”
The design is by George Livissianis, who was also responsible for Cafe Paci 1.0’s famous all-grey aesthetic. There’s a shag-carpet ceiling, which helps mitigate the scourge of bad acoustics affecting even the best eateries. Texture is king here, as seen at other Livissianis-designed venues, including The Apollo and the now-closed Billy Kwong. A handsome royal blue bar stretches the length of most of the room, and leather banquettes of the same colour clash with exposed-brick walls and mirrored panels.
In between Cafe Paci 1.0 and 2.0, Petanen has been busy. He’s done stints in other Sydney kitchens, including Lankan Filling Station, Automata and the recently closed Oscillate Wildly. And along with collaborator De Maria, he hosted a wine-focused restaurant pop-up series called That’s Amore in Sydney and Melbourne. De Maria will also be on the floor of the new Cafe Paci for a couple of sittings each week, pouring and recommending drops from his list.
“It’s a wine list that’s mostly natural and biodynamic,” De Maria tells Broadsheet. “I don’t want to push that point too much, though, I want to get away from that wording. That part for me isn’t very important, for me the main thing is they’re wines from small producers. They’re wines with very delicate flavours, and all wines that fit with Pasi’s food, which is sharp, tasty and balanced.”
Having no set menu means Petanen can be more spontaneous with his dishes, and De Maria can be more flexible with his wines. Just four of those wines are from Australia, with the bulk from Italy and a couple more from Germany and Austria.
“We’re not trying to match a dish with a wine, we don’t think that’s important,” says De Maria. “Pasi is working with small growers, getting some fantastic products, we just want to have wines that taste unique, that taste like they’re from the people who made them.”
De Maria’s pick? Miro, a wine from Puglia (in the south of Italy) made from primitivo grapes by a producer called Guttarolo.
“This tiny producer owns this pocket of land, which has this particular type of soil that is quite chalky,” he says. “It used to be the bottom of the ocean … a barrier reef. If you move in 20 kilometres from where he is, it changes completely, he’s the only producer with this type of soil. This particular grape is so delicate, so pristine and pretty, I’ll be pouring it by the glass.”
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This article first appeared on Broadsheet on October 24, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.