Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Nomad, Surry Hills, New South Wales (Alissa and Don Eat Australia)

Nomad at Surry Hills was one of those unexpected finds that pop up when your search for one thing on the internet leads you to something seemingly unrelated. While planning for our upcoming Bangkok trip, I was looking for a travel write up published a few years back where a journalist was taken on a food tour of Bangkok by David Thompson (some people have all the luck!). I found the article in question, but also found a short interview with Thompson where he nominated Nomad as his current favourite place to eat in Sydney. As we just so happened to have a Sydney trip planned before our adventures in Bangkok, this was a very serendipitous tip, and after reading about Nomad's wood fire-focused cooking and the restaurant's hyper artisanal approach to everything from polenta to charcuterie, it was settled - we had to booked a table for two at Nomad.

With its exposed brick and converted warehouse-style fit out, Nomad oozed a very on-trend stylish but casual vibe common to restaurants in recent years, and reminded Alissa and I of places back home in Perth like Bread in Common, Varnish on King and Pleased to Meet You. It is a look that usually suggests excellent if not fine dining, accompanied by very good wines.

And Nomad certainly lived up to the promise of good wine; apart from their reserve list, every single wine was available by the glass, setting a incredible standard of choice that would put many a fine diner to shame. The list is well thought out, and shines a light on boutique wineries and left of centre winemakers and wines - we noticed for example that Xabregas' 'Devolution' Riesling was on the list, an orange wine we had tried and loved previously at Mary's in Perth. For the evening, we started with a glass of Liquid Rock and Roll's White Noise (a Riesling-Gewurtztraminer blend), and had a bottle of the Between Five Bells Nebbiolo to accompany the meal. Both wines were interesting and unexpected takes on varietals we were familiar with, and we enjoyed listening to the very knowledgeable sommelier as he gave us an interesting insight into the winemakers and winemaking processes behind both of these wines.

Being a fan of letting the chef choose the best combination of dishes to present to us, Alissa and I went with the Shared Chef's Menu - a selection of nine dishes from the menu available for a very reasonable $65. First to arrive was Woodfired Sourdough, Za’atar, Olive Oil...

...accompanied by the Housemade Nomad Charcuterie Selection, Pickles & Olives. These kind of make your own combo/Poughman's Lunch-style plates are right up Alissa's alley, however I'm a bit less quick to be excited by them as they are usually little more than assembly jobs. This was not the case at Nomad however, as everything - from the bread to the pickles to the charcuterie - was made in house, and they were all very good. The Sourdough was awesome - equally as good as some we've had at much more expensive places. Although the Pickles, Mortadella and Lombo were definitely praiseworthy, the Truffle Salami stole the show for me, with the earthy flavour of black truffle permeating each slice. This was the most satisfying antipasti selection we've had since dining at Foragers in Pemberton earlier this year.

Goat's Cheese Churros, Truffle Honey served as an additional snack before diving into the entrees. These Churros were among the best Alissa and I have had - where many have a certain stodginess and/or oiliness as a by-product of market stall mass production, these were incredibly light with a nice thin crunchy crust for texture. The Churros were rightly the stars of the piece, however they were taken to the next level by the salty-sweetness of the Goat's Cheese and Truffle Honey combination, with the distinct flavour of truffle giving the dish extra decadence with every dip. I can see why this is a restaurant signature dish that survived the restaurants transition from found chef Nathan Sasi to current head chef Jacqui Challinor.

The prettily plated Raw Kingfish, Salted Cucumber, Jersey Yoghurt, Sumac followed. The Raw Kingfish itself was nice and fresh, with the citric brightness of the Sumac and the sourness of the Jersey Yoghurt making for a winning combination. I'm always a bit nervous when I see Cucumber listed as an ingredient on a dish as I dislike this vegetable when they are thickly sliced, however these were cut into nice, fine discs that emphasised the cooling cucumber flavour tempered by the quick pickling of the salt it was tossed in. This cucumber flavour was picked up by what looked like leaves of Salad Burnet, with Fried Shallots sprinkled on top giving the dish some crunch. The final result was a well balanced, perfectly seasoned and very enjoyable dish.

The kingfish was followed by the really superb Nomad Jersey Milk Haloumi, Heirloom Tomato, Oregano. Haloumi is the meatiest of all the cheeses, however it can also run the risk of being the most rubbery too. This house made example had no such problems however, as while it had a bit of squeak to it, the texture was almost heading towards a semi-firm ricotta territory. The cheese had the perfectly level of saltiness, with the acidity, sweetness and somewhat sundried flavour of the Heirloom Tomatoes providing a perfect counterpoint. With some Oregano added for herbaceousness, this was an example of seemingly simple things done very well, and is the kind of dish that makes a strong argument for the supremacy of this kind of food.

BBQ Cauliflower, Almond Tarator, Manchego was even meatier - possibly one of the meatiest vegetarian dishes Alissa and I have eaten, along with the Cabbage dish we ate at Cafe Paci. The Cauliflower had been seriously charred, with fronds looking like trees after a bush fire. The fact that the chef had the confidence to take the dish this far along the road of burnt immediately impressed us - the fact it was a success even more so. The non-burnt parts of the Cauliflower had a perfect, firm but cooked texture, had all the roasty charm of barbecued meat. The bitterness of the charring was balanced out by the sweetness and crunch of the Almond and Raisins, with the ever reliable Manchego providing an additional hit of umami. There was something almost Truffly about the Cauliflower, though I'm not sure if it was Truffle Oil, residual Truffle flavour from the earlier courses or my imagination. Regardless, this was a cracker of a dish, and one of the highlights of the entire meal.

Slow Roasted Lamb Neck, Polenta, Pine Nut, Goats Feta served as our final savoury course. Given the meatiness of the two preceding dishes, the Lamb was as hearty as we had hoped - and in a very generous serve too. Neck is such a flavoursome and underrated cut, and here it was cooked perfectly - not quite fall apart, but very soft and juicy, with a good crust from time in the wood fired oven. The bed of Polenta the Lamb was served on was very smooth with herb oil drizzled on top for extra flavour. The Pine Nuts gave the dish a nice buttery decadence, with mint for herbaceousness and Goats Feta bringing a nice, salty acidity that helped balance out what could have been an overly fatty dish.

A dessert of Valrhona Chocolate, Coconut, Coconut Cream served as our sweet end to the meal.

Regular readers will know I'm not the biggest fan of chocolate desserts, and I was a bit jealous of other diners eating light, fruitier desserts instead. That was before actually trying the dish, which proved to be a really delicious. The Dark Chocolate was balanced out by the Coconut and the surprising lightness of the dish. Inside the Chocolate casing was a layer that tasted like a Macaroon (not a Macaron), with the overall dish tasting like a very artisanal fusion of a Macaroon and a Bounty Bar. So few chocolate desserts are so well balanced, and if they were all like this I'd probably be a bit more enthusiastic about them!

The Verdict: Exceptional
There has certainly been something of an Australia wide boom in restaurants focusing on the kind of upper-mid level share plate style cooking served at Nomad, however few restaurants in this class can claim to be quite as accomplished. Its a fine balancing act making food that is paradoxically hearty and rustic in its focus on wood fire cooking but undeniably cheffy at the same time, and Nomad seem to do it with an impressive effortlessness. Choosing the Chef's Menu revealed a well balanced selection of dishes, with the house made Haloumi and the heavily barbecued Cauliflower being just as meaty as the awesome Lamb Neck that served as our main. Service was friendly and professional, and oenophiles would be well pleased by the highly apposite wine list. This was definitely a restaurant worthy of its hype, and considering current head chef Jacqui Challinor has only been at the reins for little over 6 months it is all the more impressive. Highly recommended.

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