Small steps for a fresh face
AFTER serving his apprenticeship under Stillwater’s Don Cameron, spending 18 months with Rodney Dunn at The Agrarian Kitchen and two years at the excellent Ginger Brown, Rhys Hannan turned Hobart’s smallest wine bar – Sidecar – into the city’s newest and smallest restaurant a month ago.
Whether in for coffee and a doughnut, a snack or a full meal, you sit on stools along a wide, polished metal table watching Hannan at work on the other side over bottles of sauces, condiments, assorted mise en place and a handy blow torch preparing your food, pushing his various pots and pans to the different hot spots on his solid cooktop before plating and pushing your order across to you. It’s all very intimate, chatty and different. Printed on big wooden cubes along with the wine list, the breakfast and beyond menu is an eclectic mix of Asian, Texan, French and Italian influences.
“I don’t see any reason to stick to just one particular style of food,” Hannan says.
“I much prefer to simply offer the sorts of dishes that I enjoy cooking and eating.”
Our dinner got off to a very enjoyable start with a bowl of crisply fried and mildly spicy ikan bilis – small baitfish – with crunchy peanuts, followed by crumbed and deepfried chicken wings, a dish that, for reasons that are lost to me, has become a signature of the new wave of recently opened US- inspired eateries in town.
Then came an open sandwich of thin slices of delicately smoked sirloin generously folded on to slices of crusty Pigeon Whole Bread accompanied by nicely dressed salad leaves, mustard and cornichons and a bowl of wellflavoured beef jus to pour over.
Next a risotto Milanese, which, in his general patter, Hannan erroneously credited Elizabeth David with introducing to England “in the 1920s”.
Beautifully cooked, the dish’s essential saffron component was hinted at more in the rice’s glossy, golden plumpness than it was apparent in its aroma or taste.
Hannan says he uses TasSaf saffron, but he can’t afford to use it too liberally. Fair enough. But it begs the question – if you can’t afford to give a dish its full expression, why choose to do it at all? Especially when there are so many more reasonably priced – but not as visually beautiful, I admit – risotto options available. Or, if you insist on saffron, put your price up. Even more disappointing was the duck cassoulet, the menu stating the duck was “slow- cooked” while Hannan said it had been
3/ 129 Bathurst St, Hobart CBD. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Monday to Saturday. Licensed. No bookings. 6231 1388 confited and preserved for a month, a crucial flavour and textural difference which I’ll leave for another time.
However, like most old peasant dishes, there are probably as many different cassoulets as there are duck farms in the dish’s traditional home region of south- west France.
But I doubt any would contain so little duck and sausage meat as Hannan’s, or be made with so much tomato that the beans resembled Mr Heinz’s, or be so highly and sweetly spiced with nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and mace as to smell and taste more dessert- like than savoury.
And a piece of toast rubbed with garlic was but a poor substitute for a cassoulet’s traditional dunked and crisped garlic and breadcrumb crust. As with the saffron risotto, the problem might have to do with price. And, while keeping menu prices down is commendable, compromising quality to do so seldom pays off in the long run. Price list: Toast $ 6; carafe of juice $ 8; wings $ 3 each; soup $ 14, risotto $ 16; cassoulet $ 18; boeuf au jus $ 22.