What better way to start a new blog than with a new restaurant? Us Sydneysiders have been criticised as a fickle (dare I say it?) lot who love nothing more than flocking to a hot, new or novel (preferably all three) venue while it’s still hot, new and novel. And in a city with more new openings each week than there are tourists on bondi beach, that can be tricky. But a small part of me wants to contest the implications of this allegation. Yes, we do flock to new venues. But is is it purely to see and be seen? I’m not so sure about that. When I came across an article on Broadsheet Sydney about a new venue by the Toko crew in the old Bird Cow Fish spot, that certainly wasn’t my first feeling. It was pure, solid gold excitement at the thought of… potential. Because that’s what a new venue is to us: a new local, a new set of fellow regulars, a new favourite dish.
And so, like the good little Sydneysider I am, I emailed the link straight off to my culinary Right-Hand Woman (RHW), a girl who would spend her last ten dollars on a decent chicken, mayo and thyme sandwich (to hell with the phone bill). Apparently, she only had about twenty dollars left to burn this week. According to my bank account, so did I. The solution here is always drinks and dessert.
The minimalistic nature of the Rainford Street Social website made it difficult to ascertain several key points :
1. When were they opening?
2. What were they serving?
All that was clear was that they were “dog friendly”.
I decided to kill two birds with one stone by emailing the only contact available, receiving a prompt and friendly reply telling me they were opening on Thursday at lunchtime and that the menu would be seasonal (big tick in Sydney terms).
Well, of course this left us with little option but to venture there on Thursday evening. Approaching Rainford Street Social I note, with amusement, a dog tied to a post outside the door. It’s either a case of very clever marketing on their part, or of successfully targeting your niche market. At this moment a patron walks out and checks on the dog. Cynicism rebuffed, I push open the glass door. The space has been transformed from its Bird Cow Fish days. I always found it a little cold and unwelcoming, a big empty space that didn’t quite manage to feel cosy. This, on the other hand, is lovely, all warm tones and round wooden tables with short stout wooden chairs. There’s a long bench wrapping around the bar that is dotted with stools, and on the other side bartenders stand chatting and working their magic. Coloured watering cans perch precariously above their heads. A comfortable looking nook has been created in one corner with some books and lounges, although I’m not sure about the logistics of actually consuming anything while perched on a chair reclined on an angle of that degree. The only slightly confusing aspects are the faux-French provincial clock and the roof which is dotted with industrial red and grey circles that are a touch too modern for the rest of the fitout.
As we enter, we are greeted by not one or two, but three, staff. Off to a good start. Furthermore, they are eager to accommodate our economical drinks/dessert plan, seating us at one of the round four-person tables. In my experience, “We’re just here for drinks and dessert” is often met with a raised eyebrow and a pursed lip. The table settings are as lovely as the tables – delicate plates with blue flowers, chunky traditional silver cutlery, thick white napkins. The menu is succinct and well-structured – about five each of small plates to share, mains, desserts, and side dishes. It is also clearly themed around simplicity with quality ingredients and the use of seasonal produce (the centre of the menu informs me that beetroots, radishes, broccolini and red apples are ‘in top condition’ this month). I feel like I’m reading the Harris Farm Newsletter (yes, I class that as a genuine pastime). Ticks all around. We start by letting ourselves be distracted by the rest of the menu, which jumps from potted duck with spiced pear chutney and pickles to grilled scallops with jerusalem artichokes and brioche, crispy sweetbreads with truffle gribiche, and braised lamb with red capsicum and olives. It’s interesting and appealing, although I quickly note the lack of vegetarian options. I like the addition of a ‘house-made condiments’ section, and am tempted to order spiced pear chutney or horseradish cream for the hell of it. We see a few dishes come out – dish of the day appears to be the potted duck, served on a cute wooden board with jars of condiments on the side. We quickly note two things: firstly, the clear attention to detail, and secondly (with great sadness), the tiny portion sizes. As RHW points out to me, even the typically cost-effective choice of hot chips comes out in a tiny bowl drowning of an immense wooden board. Given how tasty they look, I predict they would be gone before they touched the table. Similarly, the salads sound divine (beets and whipped feta with ginger bread, anyone?) but come out in a petite cereal-bowl sized vessel.
But on to the main event. We order a blended red and a glass of the NZ sparkling white, which arrive promptly. The glasses have a cute (or is it kitsch?) dog motif that echoes the sentiments of the website. The red is lovely, spicy and rich. The sparkling white is pleasant enough, although concerningly lukewarm. There are five options on the dessert menu, and one special up on the board. Both of our eyes light up at the ‘Apple Tart Ta Tin Vanilla Ice Cream’, although I personally am hoping it’s a pun rather than a misinterpretation of Tarte Tartin. Sadly, it’s to serve 4 ($25), and although we could consume that much dessert it doesn’t exactly fit with our notions of ‘budgeting’. Moving on, I’m drawn to the bread and butter pudding with brown pears ($14). RHW and I have long discussed our ill-founded aversion to the idea of bread and butter pudding, and I’ve always hoped to one day encounter one that would change my heart. I raise a daring eyebrow at her. We discuss the other options, ruling out a burnt cream twirl with liquid cheese cake and the american banana cream pie. But the treacle tart on the specials board is enticing. After discussing with the spectacularly informative and friendly maitre d’, we decide to take the plunge on the pudding.
It is breathtaking. The pudding is warm and buttery, speckled with raisins. The bread is delicious and brioche-like in nature. It’s served with a combination of warm fresh pears and a house-made pear jelly, covered in shards of a toffee-like crumble. The finishing touch is a scoop of pear sorbet, topped with the cutest candy ‘hat’ I’ve ever seen. On its own the sorbet isn’t quite creamy enough to satisfy me (I’m more of a gelato girl) but it balances the pudding perfectly. It’s fresh, clean and sweet tasting. The hat provides a crunchy and crisp contrast.
Riding high on the success (and small portion size) of this first dessert, we call over the lovely Maitre d’ and order the treacle tart. To hell with the budget.
Unfortunately, it is disappointing. I only get through two full mouthfuls. The creme-anglaise on the side is delicious, smooth and creamy. But the tart itself feels clunky and heavy. The base is inoffensive in flavour but not inspiring, and definitely not thick enough. The real problem is the treacle filling which is heavy, and somehow manages to be too salty, too sweet and too sour all at once. The toasted almonds on the top are delicious, and as is the praline crumble under the sauce, and I find myself wishing for more of the sides and less of the tart. This is not a good thing. As RHW notes, a bit of soothing vanilla bean icecream would have balanced the tart nicely.
To her credit, the Maitre d’ pops over again to check how it all was. We are honest, and she sits down and listens, explaining that the pudding is made with house-made bread and that all ingredients, where possible, are done in-house. And yes, as we had sensed, the space is supposed to feel like you’re relaxing in a friend’s dining room.
I admire Rainford Street Social, for deciding on a vision and sticking to it so well, and for putting such clear sincerity and effort into their service and their food. Perhaps the small serving sizes make sense. This is food to start conversations. It is considered food, thoughtful food, interesting food. Food that should be savoured and enjoyed over a glass (or three) of wine, then discussed for the next week. Which is precisely why I came, after all. But at the same time, it’s not everyday food. Sydneysiders now have come to understand that they can expect good, honest food at decent prices. Rainford Street, you’ve got potential. But if you want to see us flock to you week after week, you’ve got to model your serving sizes on your service and your relaxed dining room fitout.
Rainford Street Social
Cnr Rainford & Crown Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010