Ten years. That's how long I've been blogging Grab Your Fork. Things have changed so much in the world of blogging (for the first two years at least I had to swap the words "food blog" for "food website" just so people knew what I was talking about) but one thing remained the same: my love of food.
Okay I tell a lie. Even my love of food has changed. Ten years ago, nothing excited me more than the idea of a buffet. Degustations were an intimidating luxury, but something I was fascinated by all the same. Starting a blog in 2004 gave me an outlet for writing, it gave me an excuse for eating (hell yeah!), but over the years it's also made me realise how little I know about food, and how much more there is to learn.
Cafe Paci on the former Cafe Pacifico Mexican Cantina site
Over ten years I've eaten at and blogged about a lot of meals. This is post number 1,759. These days I get more excited about street food abroad and local family-run casual eateries than most fine dining. There's a sense of honesty and soul in cheap eating, but at the more expensive end of town, expertise and creativity can sometimes harmonise into a wonderfully bewildering ride for your tastebuds.
Fancy degustations with truffles and foie gras can be a treat, but a deftly guided adventure into unchartered territory with the commonest of ingredients can often feel much more rewarding. That's really why I enjoyed my recent meal at Cafe Paci so much, a temporary pop-up by ex-Marque chef Pasi Petanen on the former Cafe Pacifico site in Darlinghurst.
Cafe Paci dining room
They've kept much of its former Mexican cantina history intact, from the brightly coloured stairs leading you up from the street, to the neon sign out the front. All they've done to the sign is remove some of the neon tubing, converting Cafe Pacifico to Cafe Paci - to be pronounced just like his name, Pasi says (it's pah-si).
On the dining room floor, however, the chairs, tables, walls and floorboards are a sea of monochromatic greys. The only bursts of colour come from people's clothing, and the food that arrives on each plate.
Snacks: salt and vinegar crispy barramundi skin, sweetcorn with butter and shichimi togarashi, and rye crostini with dehydrated duck
The seasonal degustation menu ($85) reveals only a list of ingredients, many of which don't seem to go together at first glance (malt, banana, parsley... really?). We start with "snacks" and it's only when the waiter arrives with our first set of plates that we learn (and see) what we'll be having.
The curls of crispy barramundi skin have a tangy salt and vinegar seasoning that gets our tastebuds roaring into gear. Discs of juicy sweetcorn look more like wagon wheels, coated liberally in shichimi togarashi, a Japanese seasoning made from seven spices that includes chilli pepper, black sesame seed and nori seaweed.
It's hard not to marvel at the wafer-thin rounds of rye crostini, but the dehydrated duck is even more entrancing, like a pile of snow that's settled across a swathe of butter and one fallen rose petal.
Tribute to Cafe Pacifico: rye taco with sticky rice, egg butter, sour onions and chives
Cafe Pacifico gets another acknowledgement with the final snack, a rye taco filled with what sounds like a nonsensical mix of sticky rice, egg butter, sour onions and chives. The tastebuds hear a different story, the flavours melding together into something strangely reassuring and comforting.
Fermented potato and rye bread with molasses
I'd been looking forward to the rye bread ever since it popped up on my Instagram feed. The sheen on the loaf is incredible, a coat of molasses that lures us in with its faint smell of sweetness.
Inside the potato and rye bread
The fermented potato and rye bread takes three days to make. We score half a loaf each, served with a pat of house-made butter. The bread has a reassuring weighty density but the crumb itself is soft and springy. The molasses adds a hint of toffee to each mouthful of chewy and slightly sticky crust.
Blue swimmer crab with sorrel and plum
I'm blown away by the blue swimmer crab with sorrel and plum. There's an impressive level of elegance and restraint in its presentation: three little mounds of crab hidden beneath overlapping slices of plum. The plum adds a refreshing lightness to the crab but its the flavour of the crab itself that is a marvel - after hand-picking the crab meat, the juice from the crab is incorporated into the mayonnaise, creating a flavour so intense it feels like you're standing knee-deep in water and eating it straight from the sea.
That's Amore: Angus tartare, tomato, parmesan, garlic and oregano
We'd already tried That's Amore at Rootstock Sydney. They don't serve it in a pizza box here, but the combination of hand-chopped Angus tartare, tomato, parmesan, garlic and onion tastes just like our waiter describes: "a bit like a calzone". Toasted rye breadcrumbs add a textural crunch. It seems a little bit of a shame to overwhelm the sweetness of raw Angus beef with so many other flavours, but I reckon if you weren't already a fan of tartare, you'd be easily won over by this rendition.
Onion, lemon vinegar, mullet roe and hazelnut
Onions don't often get centre stage, but here they're given star billing. White pearl onions are cooked in lemon vinegar then served up with a sauce made from sea mullet roe and bonus nuggets of toasted hazelnuts. It's sweet and salty, nutty and creamy, and working your way gradually through the flower of onion petals is way more fun that it should be.
The photato is Petanen's riff on the classic Vietnamese pho noodle soup. It's a much richer interpretation with slices of Rangers Valley beef seared briefly on one side, deep-fried garlic chips, chargrilled lemon, watercress, enoki mushrooms and a starchy huddle of potato string "noodles".
Even though there's a puddle of broth reduction at the bottom of the bowl, there's quite a leap between this dish and a bowl of simple but nourishing pho filled with bean sprouts and Vietnamese basil. There's enough to make you stop and think though, and the melting lushness of the beef is definitely worth mulling over quietly.
Optional cheese course $15: Monte Veronese di Malga
The cheese courses between savouries and dessert are optional but we go with one of each "in the name of research". The pile of finely shaved Monte Veronese di Malga is as light as air, served with onions cooked in pear juice and crinkled sheets of buckwheat crackers. It's the fanciest version of cheese and onion crisps you'll ever have the pleasure of experiencing.
Optional cheese course $15: Gorgonzola with dehydrated chocolate mousse
I'm a sucker for blue cheese but the idea of pairing gorgonzola with dehydrated chocolate mousse sounds wildly bizarre, even to me. And you know what? It works. Brilliantly. The tiles of chocolate mousse aren't overly sweet, and they play off deliciously against the oozing river of blue. The nutty and sweet notes are amplified even more with nibbles of prune paste rolled in sesame.
Carrot, yoghurt and liquorice
We'd been scratching our heads over the notion of "carrot, yoghurt and liquorice" and there are no further clues when we first clap eyes on the swirl of white placed before us. A spoon plunged through its core reveals a bright orange core that turns out to be carrot sorbet, and a foundation of deep brown ends up being a layer of liquorice cake.
The cake is imbued with just enough liquorice to hold its own against the carrot sorbet. The whipped yoghurt foam hits your tongue briefly and then seems to disappear with a sigh. Together they combine to create some kind of crazy harmony on the palate that has us all scraping the bottom of the bowl clean. Even the liquorice-nervous among us are besotted.
Malt, banana and parsley
Who says parsley can't be part of the dessert fun? A sprig of candied parsley sends all kinds of mixed messages between what we understand parsley should be, and what this parsley clearly isn't. The quenelle of parsley sorbet - bright green and deliriously smooth - drives home how much we blindly pigeonhole so many ingredients. It's a perplexing sensation and I can't quite shake the feeling I'm eating tabbouleh ice cream. No, really. Then there's the bitter dark chocolate mousse rolled in a chewy layer of malt against a gently flavoured banana puree. Brain says "Ow".
Corn and butter
Fairy floss is something the brain definitely understands, especially when the compacted cloud of spun sugar is rolled in burnt butter and smithereens of popcorn. It's like watching a movie at the fun fair - fistfuls of fun.
Pork and fennel
And because crackling makes everything better, the petit fours are chocolate... draped around tiles of crackling and sprinkled lightly with fennel seeds. Crazy but true.
Burnt butter and popcorn fairy floss
The good news is that Cafe Paci's initial twelve month lease has been extended for another six months. They'll be open until January 2015 but I recommend you get there sooner.
And as for ten years in blogging, thanks for all your comments, suggestions, friendships and more importantly, simply coming along for the ride. Thanks guys. You all rock.
95 Riley Street, Darlinghurst, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9368 7000
Lunch: Fridays from 12pm
Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm
Related Grab Your Fork posts:
Seasonal degustation - Berta, Surry Hills
Seasonal degustation - Momofuku Seiobo, Pyrmont
Seasonal degustation - Sixpenny, Stanmore
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4/17/2014 12:07:00 am