Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst, New South Wales (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Alissa and I almost had an opportunity to try the food of Pasi Patanen back when we first started the Ministry of Gluttony. Fresh from our honeymoon eating our way around Asia, we took a brief break from the gluttony upon our return to Perth, before deciding to try the Tuesday night experimental dinner at Co-Op Dining in East Perth as an early Valentine's Day meal. At the end of the meal, we were alerted to the fact that the Tuesday after was going to feature a Riesling Rocks event dinner, with Pasi Patanen flying over to collaborate with Co-Op's chef Kiran Mainwaring for a special one-off menu paired with Riesling - our favourite white varietal. Having spent most of our money overseas and having just dined at Co-Op, it was a bit too soon for a return visit, however reading up about Patanen and his semi-permanent pop-up restaurant left me very intrigued. Located in a building that was former Mexican restaurant Cafe Pacifico, Pasi simply dropped the 'fico' and rechristened it Cafe Paci - a wildly experimental and relatively affordable degustation restaurant. It was only meant to last a year, however when we discovered Cafe Paci was still going strong it became one of the first restaurants that we booked for our Sydney trip.

Given the garishly bright exterior of the restaurant, the stark grey interior comes as something of a shock - this is the most stark and militantly monochromatic restaurant either Alissa or I have been to, with grey walls, tables and chairs - even the place mats are grey! As the meal progressed however, the grey made a lot of sense - like the similarly stark interior of Attica, the grey really allowed us to really focus on Pasi Patanen's incredibly colourful and interesting food.

The meal began with a plate of snacks. Ocean Trout with Smoked Mayo came on a nice short pastry tart. The tarts had a nice flakiness of texture that went nicely with the good smoky flavour of the Ocean Trout. The Large Rye Crisps were topped with Mayo and what tasted like Oyster Sauce. The result was a a taste not disimilar to Butter and Vegemite on Crackers - nice and savoury. Finally, Lardo Crackers topped with Apple and Kohlrabi were unexpectedly sweet and with a nice bacony flavour due to what seemed like grated on dehydrated bacon. Alissa and I compared it to Cheese and Bacon Shapes if apple and pork were added on top. This was really good, and was the best of the three first snacks.

Our final snack was a nod to the Mexican days of the Cafe Pacifo - a Rye Taco topped with Rice Pudding and an eggy, buttery sauce that tasted a bit like something between a Bechamel or a Hollandaise. This was like eating a very savoury risotto in a nice soft and warm taco, and it was that interesting combination of flavours that made it our favourite of the four snacks.

Bread, sadly  not photographed, was Rye Bread made with Potato Flour and brushed with molasses. A traditional Finnish bread and a nod to Patanen's ancestry, this was a really nice Rye Bread that was dark, slightly bitter and with a touch of sweetness, with a consistency that was both dense and fluffy at the same time. Served warm, this was a nice and interesting choice that obviously meant something to the chef.

Our first true course of the Meal was All Spice Pickled King Fish, Purple Potato, and was a take on the Finnish winter dish of Herring and Potato. Herring was replaced here with the pickled kingfish, and was served with Egg and herbs and topped with strikingly colourful layers of crisps that seemed to have been made from the set starches from Purple Potatoes.

A dish with a clearly Nordic origin, it reminded Alissa of food that she ate when she was in Sweden, with the Purple drawing links to the Beetroot Relish popular in Sweden, as well as the dish being flavoured by dill - a flavour that often makes us think of Scandinavian food. The reference points gave the dish context, however it was superb as a dish unto itself even without the Nordic cues, with the Kingfish nicely cured, the Scrambled Eggs well cooked and the dish's creaminess balanced out by the soft, fragile crunch of the Purple Potato Crisps. At once experimental and familiar, this dish was a great illustration of Patanen's progressive yet reverent style.

The similarly visually striking Duck, Hazelnut, Radicchio, Raspberry followed, and was one of the most impressive dishes of the evening. The combination sounds absolutely avant-garde - Confit Duck, covered in Hazelnut Milk, Roasted Hazelnuts and Radicchio dusted with Freeze Dried Raspberry - however the result was better than Alissa or I could have imagined. The Confit Duck tasted like a Potted Duck Rilette, with all the delicious unctuousness that Duck Fat can impart. This richness was bolstered by the use of the Roasted Hazelnuts and Hazelnut milk, that gave the dish creaminess and crunch. These components could have been all a bit too rich, however the bitterness of the surprisingly mild Radicchio and the intense zing of acidity from the Freeze Dried Raspberry really took the dish to the next level, resulting an explosion of well balanced flavour. This was very creative and memorable dish - so much so that the Duck dish we had at Sepia the next day seemed insipid by comparison.

The creativity continued with the next course of Cabbage, Mussel Butter, Bone Marrow and Pomelo. Brassicas are the meatiest of vegetables to begin with, however with so many other more faddishly popular options out there, it really takes great skill to turn something like the humble cabbage into something incredible. The Cabbage - roasted in Mussel Butter - was absolutely superb, being soft and fall apart while still maintain enough cellulose structure to not be a mushy mess. Having been imparted with a great depth of marine umami flavour from the Mussel Butter, the Cabbage's own natural flavour still shone through and was bolstered by a powder of dehydrated Cavelo Nero Cabbage dusted on top. The Pomelo sauce gave the dish a welcome hit of acidity and the soft, juicy mussels were perfectly cooked. This was quite possibly the most impressive Cabbage dish I've ever eaten, and Alissa cleaned the entire plate by using a piece of bread as a scarpetta. Considering Alissa does not usually like anything with a Mussel flavour, this was very high praise indeed.

Our final savoury course was Patanen's signature Photato - his decidedly modern interpretation of Pho. The dish consisted of Potato Noodles cooked in garlic butter, then placed in veal jus to absorb its flavour, a piece of 9+ marble score Wagyu Beef quickly seared on one side, Enoki Mushrooms, Watercress and Garlic Chips, and served with a Grilled Lemon Wedge and some grated Horseradish on top. The Potato Noodles were described by the server as 'al dente', and looked as if they were strands of pure potato cut in a manner similar to Sauerkraut, and cooked to a level where they still had some crunch. The Sauerkraut-like crunchiness harkened back to the very European ideas of the earlier courses, however there was something about the Garlic Butter and Veal Jus flavours that did have some resemblance to Vietnamese Pho, with the Enoki Mushrooms echoing noodles, the Garlic Chips reinforcing the garlic flavour from the butter, and the Watercress standing in for the fresh herbs often served with Vietnamese dishes. Although Beef is not amongst my favourite meats, high scoring Wagyu is always one of those luxuries that remind me how delicious it can be, and its very careful and considered treatment here was very enjoyable.

The optional cheese course was next, and we decided to take them up on the offer to share one between us. The dish considered of Gorgonzola Dolce, Prunes soaked in Sake and then rolled in Sesame seeds and crackers of Chocolate Mousse. The Gorgonzola was creamy, sweet and milkier than most blue cheese, making for a good choice of pairing against the bitter richness of the Chocolate Mousse, with the Sesame Seeds of the Prunes making it suggestive of figs. Overall, this was a very good if modest cheese course that did a lot with so few components.

One of the great pleasures of a degustation is a lighter, refreshing Pre-Dessert to precede Dessert. Carrot, Yoghurt, Liquorice was one of the best  Pre-Desserts we've had, consisting of Licorice Cake, Carrot Sorbet and a Yoghurt Foam.

Working our way in, the Yoghurt Foam was amazingly light, with an almost cheesecake-like flavour to accompany its pleasing airiness. Beneath this soft cloud was a layer of sweet and earthy Carrot Sorbet that worked to bridge the mild sourness of the yoghurt with the anise flavour of the richer Cake layer. In appearance, the Licorice Cake layer looked to be stingy, however the raios of Foam to Sorbet to Cake was spot on for a very balanced whole. This was a good palate cleansing/bridging dish as well as an outstanding, thoroughly modern dessert in its own right, and a candidate for our favourite dish of the meal after the Cabbage.

Our main dessert was Pear and Parsley - Vanilla Poached Pear, Custard, Parsley Sorbet and Candied Parsley. Using herbs other than mint in sweet dishes is another popular Modernist trend, and the herbaceousness of the Parsley Sorbet was really interesting. The Candied Parsley Leaves and the Sorbet had a flavour not unlike Celery, but without the overpowering intensity that makes me dislike that vegetable. Combined with the flavour of the Vanilla and the perfectly Poached Pear, the dish had a flavour that reminded me of Haw Flakes - a Chinese sweet made from Hawberries that were a favourite treat in my childhood. I really appreciated this flavour memory trigger, and whether or not this was Patanen's intention, it made for a very successful experiment in in my eyes.

Petit Four followed. Corn and Butter was a lovely surprise, being a big ball of Butter Flavoured Fairy Floss sprinkled with bits of blitzed up Pop Corn.

This was such a surprising and wonderful dish that really did taste like Pop Corn in Fair Floss form, and had us giggling like kids in a candy store.

The meal finished with Pork and Fennel -  Chocolate coated and Fennel encrusted Pork Crackling . This final bite was less exciting than the Corn and Butter but still delicious, with the Crackling echoing the Lardo almost as a reprise or restatement of the theme set earlier in the meal.

The Verdict: Ultimate
Of the three degustations we had during our Sydney trip, Cafe Paci was easily the most wildly experimental, as well as being the meal that used the most humble of ingredients. It is to Pasi Patanen's credit then that the meal was filled with so many 'Oh My God!' moments that the less prestigious ingredients really didn't matter - that Cabbage and Mussel Butter dish was as good and as memorable as the most luxe seafood dishes we were served at Sepia just the day after, and we even felt that Patanen's Duck and Pre-Dessert dishes were superior. This is the kind of exciting cooking that Modernism is all about - clever, highly inventive and immensely delicious cooking, made by a talented chef with a wonderful palate and a clear artistic vision. With its relaxed and unpretentious design, friendly and professional staff, a good wine list and an enthusiastic and knowledgeable sommelier to help in our selections, Cafe Paci was a real pleasure. Who knows how long more it will remain a part of the Sydney dining scene, but my advice is to get it while you can.

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