STYLE ALWAYS IN SEASON
You don’t need summer to enjoy a Mediterranean feast by the sea, reflects Elizabeth Meryment
SYDNEY always strikes me as the quintessential summer city. A watery place of beaches, coves and harbour foreshores, its image seems inextricably linked with sand, sun, salt-air barbecues, bikinis, picnics, rock oysters and all the wondrous things the warmer months bring.
But lately I’ve been coming around to the notion that Sydney is even better in winter, when the crowds of tourists who book out the best tables at waterfront restaurants are absent and it’s possible to find a parking space within 2km of the sea.
Indeed, the crisp months between May and September are arguably the best to sample Sydney’s more touristy restaurants: there’s something enchanting about dining under a cool blue sky as the sun’s golden hues sparkle on stretches of water devoid of the usual nautical bustle.
This occurs to us on this midweek June day as we occupy a window table at Pilu at Freshwater, the Italian restaurant of Sardinian-born chef Giovanni Pilu, spectacularly perched above Freshwater, one of Sydney’s prettiest northern beaches.
For those like us, used to the uncomfortable hustle of the inner city, Pilu’s setting is completely charming, especially because today the beach is all but clear and the car park is startlingly empty. Surely this must be one of the few places in Sydney where parking is not a problem, or at least not at present, when the surfies, beach babes and other sun junkies are, mercifully, elsewhere.
Even the restaurant — located in a lovely wood, glass and stone heritage house on the northern stretch of headland — is relatively quiet today. There are a few tables of lunchers, but the usual pushing and shoving we experience at many Sydney restaurants is absent and in its place is a relaxed air exactly appropriate for a cool wintry lunch. Accord- ingly, the service is wonderfully attentive without being stuffy, and as we are seated in the enclosed veranda, which has been converted into an appealing deck with tables to make the most of the coastal aspect, we know we’re in for a memorable occasion.
And, make no mistake, this is no seaside fish-and-chippery or ordinary beach bistro. Damask tablecloths and heavy silver immediately distinguish Pilu as a fine diner, and the menu — filled with mouth-watering Sardinian specialties such as roasted suckling pig — place it firmly above the level of the usual suburban Italian trattoria.
Hungry after the 40-minute drive from the city, my husband, Baz Brisbane, and I start with an antipasti selection of fried Sardinian bread (so thin it is redolent of crispbread), served with three types of olives (two green and one Ligurian) and buffalo mozzarella with truffled honey ($13), followed by glasses of Italian wine: a spicy Monteoro white ($12) for me and an excellent and earthy Hofstatter pinot nero ($15) for Baz.
As we are tucking into our bread, a richly rewarding amuse bouche of warm artichoke soup with pistachio oil arrives, taking any hint of winter chill out of the air.
It’s difficult not to be wooed by the intriguing menu, and the entrees as well as the mains lists offer interesting Sardinian alternatives to familiar Italian staples. After lengthy consideration we select two excellent and innovative pasta starters: a ravioli of potato, mint and pecorino served with butter, sage and black truffle ($23), and a saffron fazzoletti (like a large, open raviolo) with Italian pork sausage and a rich tomato sauce, topped with fried basil leaves ($25).
It’s hard to know who has ordered better, as both meals are devoured before we can sample each other’s. I can attest my fazzoletti is an exceptional dish, the hint of chilli and fennel seeds in the crumbled sausage meat adding a spicy layer of flavour to the vibrantly red tomato sauce. Baz also avows his ravioli is wonderful, the earthy flavour of the truffle working well with the potato and sage.
The entrees list is so enticing, I decide to try a second dish from it for my main, this time a fat calamari tube stuffed with pine nuts, baby squid, fregola, olives and herbs ($24), while Baz forgoes the very tempting suckling pig ($38) and even his favourite dish of spatchcock — here deboned and served with eschalots, baby carrots and salsa verde ($36) — in preference for a promising tomato and seafood stew ($38).
The latter is a standout dish, rich, satisfying and filled with market-fresh seafood, most notably some juicy crab claws, as well as chunks of fish and mussels. My calamari is more interesting than mouth watering, the lemony olive and squid combination perhaps better suited to a warmer day.
Never mind, coffee and biscotti ($4.50 each) round off the meal perfectly, even as we make plans to return for, among other things, a more decadent dessert of Sardinian pastries with ricotta and honey ($16).
So the afternoon is whiled pleasantly away. Our bellies full and our tourists’ senses satisfied by the wonderful views, we leave, wishing every Sydney restaurant could be as delightful as Pilu at Freshwater, in winter or in summer. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
More than a beach bistro: Chef Giovanni Pilu, of Pilu at Freshwater, above left; one of the restaurant’s Sardinian-influenced dishes, roasted suckling pig