Is everything edible bettered by the lick of a flame and a touch of wood smoke? According to owner Mat Lindsay and head chef Nic Wong of Ester Restaurant & Bar, Chippendale’s newest and brightest restaurant, the answer is “damn straight.” Central to the kitchen at Ester is an arch in the wall, just near the pass, through which smouldering coals are visible. Eighty per cent of the menu passes through here, some items more than once, from blue swimmer crab to house-made sourdough, lamb belly and even the restaurant’s stocks – everything except pizza. “Everyone that walks through the door looks at our menu and thinks we do them. That’s pretty much the most common conversation we have,” says Lindsay as we sit around one of the restaurant’s tables during a break in prep.
Before he opened Ester, neither Lindsay nor Wong had any real practical knowledge about how to operate an oven like this and they admit getting it right has been a process of trial and error. Firstly, to cook successfully in a wood-fired oven the temperatures have to be wildly high; around 300 degrees during service, which the chefs test using an infrared digital thermometer. The oven then remains warm, if not very hot, for the remainder of the week until the restaurant closes for two days on Sunday and Monday. “We usually come in and it’s at around 200 degrees,” says Lindsay. “The first thing we do in the morning is bake the bread, but we left the door shut last night so it’s still around 300 degrees, so we won’t be able to bake the bread for an extra three hours this morning, which kind of puts the day out a little bit.” The entire rhythm of the restaurant depends on this fire-breathing beast, which burns through about 100kg of long-burning Mallee root a week, sourced from Blackheath in the Blue Mountains.
The hardest thing is getting the bread right, says Lindsay, which, Wong adds, holds a deliciously unique, distinctly smoky flavour. But some other aspects of the menu are a little simpler. Oysters at Ester are baked on salt, unshucked, in the oven for a swift 30 seconds, “just until the lids lightly pop open,” says Wong, before they’re dressed with a horseradish mignonette. It’s a novelty trick that is just as impressive as it is delicious, with the oysters just ever so slightly warmed, matched with the heat of the horseradish. Ester’s cauliflower dish is also the talk of the town, and “is a good example of how we use the oven during the day before service,” says Wong. Firstly, the head of the vegetable with the leaves still attached is cooked in the oven in the morning at about 200 degrees to gain a nice golden brownness. During the evening, it’s quickly thrown back in the oven to order at a high temperature, where it’s charred and crisped on its frilly edges. Served with mint atop an almond purée, it’s a twice-roasted thing of beauty. The coals that are brushed out in the morning are used for cooking too; whole onions are buried in them to cook slowly for a few hours – wasting none of the residual heat.
The chefs’ favourite dish to come out of their oven? “The chicken,” says Lindsay definitively, as Wong nods. And we’d have to agree – the bird is cooked with halved lemons and garlic that singe and caramelise into a tangy sweetness, the flesh infused with an incredible flamed smokiness that is impossible to match when using a conventional oven. Though this may be one of the only inner-city spots to cook like this, Wong hopes that more people start using wood-fired ovens, and not just for pizza. “We’ve roasted pineapples and coconuts and all sorts of things in there,” says Lindsay. “I don’t think there’s anything that doesn’t taste good when it’s cooked in the oven.”
Ester Restaurant and Bar
46-52 Meagher Street, Chippendale
(02) 8068 8279