Af­ter win­ning fans with sand­wiches and pop-ups, Joey As­torga puts down roots at Pa­per­bark.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Contents -

Ican’t eat a Joe’s Sand­wich Bar sand­wich in pub­lic. I’m sure there are plenty of peo­ple who can con­vey one from their hand to their mouth with­out it rain­ing chipo­tle pump­kin and Ja­panese slaw. I am not one of those peo­ple. And yet I con­tinue to dance with death (or at least the death of clean, chipo­tle-free clothes) be­cause the sand­wiches at Joe’s are very, very good. The food-go­ing-ev­ery­where is­sue is less a slur on their con­struc­tion than a re­flec­tion on how many fine and tasty things they man­age to press be­tween two slices of Iggy’s sour­dough.

So it was with de­light that I re­ceived the news that the peo­ple be­hind Joe’s and its par­ent eatery, Verd, and the tal­ents at Al­fie’s Kitchen had de­cided to step things up a notch and open a restau­rant where I could en­joy all of these things with Iggy’s bread and knives and forks, nap­kins and ta­bles.

Pa­per­bark is all about the plants and it is in­ven­tive in their cel­e­bra­tion. Kick­ing off with Iggy’s bread, (one of the most ex­cel­lent plant-based foods found in the city of Syd­ney), teamed with a fine, fresh, green olive oil from the South­ern Table­lands, gets things off to a savvy start.

Chef Joey As­torga knows his way around a snack, and the first few things on his menu are among the best. He tops semolina and salt­bush crack­ers with crisp salt­bush leaves. He threads sliv­ers of por­to­bello mush­room onto eu­ca­lyp­tus twigs and grills them to make juicy skew­ers to swipe through a macadamia cream. He squirts potato bat­ter into hot oil to make golden squig­gles he then scat­ters with salt and freeze-dried vine­gar, and of­fers as potato chur­ros. These are very good things.

He likes to play with nomen­cla­ture, which works some times bet­ter than oth­ers. There’s no re­sist­ing “potato chur­ros”, but the words “hazel­nut pâté” on the menu con­jure an ex­pec­ta­tion of some­thing lighter and smoother than the dense nut-nugget on the plate. There again, it sits com­fort­ably with the sheets of roasted and raw beet­root and pleas­antly salty rhubarb laid over it. (And hey, “dense nut-nugget” is def­i­nitely niche mar­ket­ing.)

A word on the room: I like it. The hor­ti­cul­tural ref­er­ences are nu­mer­ous, and in­clude a low, back­lit planter run­ning along one wall be­hind a ban­quette, which soft­ens the room’s sharper, box­ier edges, and a strik­ing pa­per­bark sculp­ture that un­spools across the wall above it in an an­gu­lar rib­bon of tim­ber origami. (More lit­eral-minded na­ture fans will be pleased to see there are ac­tual me­laleuca trees grow­ing out the front on Phillip Street, too.) Beau­ti­ful ce­ram­ics and nice li­nens don’t hurt one bit.

Given that plant-fo­cused restau­rants are all but re­quired by law to of­fer an egg­plant main course, I feel duty-bound to

or­der Pa­per­bark’s con­tri­bu­tion to the genre: lobes of coal-roasted and nicely giv­ing egg­plant laid over potato mash, tex­tured with a heap of roasted Puy lentils, all sharp­ened up with the twang of David­son’s plum.

Do high-end plant ea­ter­ies have some­thing against salad leaves? They don’t fea­ture here, and I don’t think I’ve seen them at Yel­low, ei­ther. If you’d like greens, mean­while, at Pa­per­bark you’ll take them in the form of char-grilled cel­tuce and pak choy, scat­tered with karkalla and laid over puffed black rice with a cream flavoured with le­mon aspen.

I’d like to nom­i­nate miso mak­ing its way into desserts in Aus­tralia as one of my favourite re­cent de­vel­op­ments in our cui­sine, right up there with kim­chi now be­ing con­sid­ered an es­sen­tial com­ple­ment to a cheese toastie. At Pa­per­bark, the gen­tle funk of miso caramel gives depth to an oth­er­wise pop­tas­tic ar­range­ment of ba­nana, peanut and choco­late cov­ered in crunchy frozen hon­ey­comb. Last win­ter’s truf­fles, mean­while, bring both earth and per­fume to ice-cream made with co­conut cream. The ab­sence of dairy is far from a li­a­bil­ity; the ice-cream’s smooth­ness and snap marry beau­ti­fully with the tex­ture of the pear on the plate.

Thought­ful, in­ven­tive and fresh, but not with­out its mo­ments of fin­ger-lickin’ tasti­ness, the food at Pa­per­bark is lots of fun.

The friendly staff push the chef’s menu (and at din­ner on Fri­days and Satur­days it’s the only menu of­fered), but I pre­fer to think of the food as the high-minded drink­ing kind, and like the idea of hit­ting those ex­cel­lent snacks over a bot­tle or two.

There’s lots go­ing on down the herbal end of the flavour spec­trum, which works nicely with a list fo­cused on wine­mak­ers who like to march to the beat of their own drum (Good In­ten­tions, Jauma, Manon and Mo­mento Mori among them). The all-Aus­tralian wine line-up is com­ple­mented by cock­tails show­cas­ing lo­cal dis­tillers and na­tive flavours, such as eu­ca­lyp­tus, le­mon myr­tle, fin­ger lime and wat­tle­seed, as well as su­perb ales from Mar­rickville’s Wild­flower brew­ery.

I think we’ve moved well be­yond the “good for a ve­gan place” con­ver­sa­tion in Syd­ney now. This is sim­ply good food that needs no qual­i­fiers, full stop.

Get into it.

Above: Pa­per­bark chef Joey As­torga. Above left: salt­bush crack­ers with aïoli and crisp salt­bush.

Roasted ba­nana with choco­late, miso and peanut. Be­low right: hazel­nut pâté with roasted beet­root and salted rhubarb.

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