Johnandpeter Canteen, Sydney restaurant review
Caterer John Wilson’s eye for detail and feel for pared-back elegance lend the food at Johnandpeter Canteen a deeply appealing nonna-chic sparkle, writes Pat Nourse.
This restaurant has closed.
Some are born great Italian cooks, others achieve great Italian cooking, and others have greatness thrust upon them. I’m not sure where to file John Wilson, but I can tell you this: he really gets it. Maybe it was growing up in a country kitchen, perhaps it’s simply years at the culinary coalface in catering and restaurants, or maybe he had some sort of eureka moment involving a radioactive spider and a pasta machine. I don’t know. What’s abundantly clear is that the simplicity and the primacy of the raw stuff he turns into food are qualities he understands far better and more deeply than most of his contemporaries in the Italian restaurant field, Italian-born or not.
Wilson’s paradoxical mix of old and new, of nanna and nonna, of restraint and flair, is what has made Johnandpeter, the company he runs with partner Peter Lin, the best-regarded catering operation in the country, even though they run the words of their company name together without spaces between them. The good news for us mere mortals is that the pair have put down roots and opened a restaurant and café, meaning we can get a taste of the action without having to wait for nomination to the CBA board or an invitation to the next Kidman wedding.
A taste of the pappa al pomodoro, for instance. A lumpy landscape of very-ripe red tomato and bread that’s soup in the same way that a hillside is a lake, bordered by a pool of grass-green olive oil and dusted with good finely grated parmesan, is impressive in quality and judicious in quantity. Vital and sunny, it tastes quite a lot like the scene where Anita Ekberg plays in the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Vita.
That finely tuned sense of proportion is also what makes the eel salad a must-order. Tangles of fennel cut thin and mingled with not much more than a few flat leaves of parsley frame the bits of eel, presenting appealing contrasts of smoke and freshness, cleanliness and fat. Not so much with the Anita Ekberg here, but wringing this much pleasure out of three everyday ingredients such as these is the move of an assured and confident kitchen. Smoked eel scores points with me regardless.
Smoke is something Wilson has, for want of a better phrase, a firm grasp on. His variegated résumé includes running Mohr Foods, the Surry Hills smokehouse that was one of the premier boutique producers of its day. The pared-back qualities and the focus on ingredients over technique that distinguish Johnandpeter today also set Wilson’s first restaurant, Osteria Moana, apart from its equals. Moana opened in early 2001 to positive notices for its food and a sound upbraiding for its décor and its then relatively exotic communal tables and set menu. If Moana fell through a rift in the space-time continuum and reappeared on Macleay Street today, selling its roast pork shoulder and bitter greens or mushroom and parsley lasagne, I’d bet they’d be beating off trade with a stick. It wasn’t a success at the time, however, and closed in 2002. Its chef, James Hird, went on to good things with similarly restrained, often rustic food with the Buzo team and Wilson dropped off the restaurant radar, resurfacing as a caterer to the stars later the same year.
Osteria Moana was in no way traditional in terms of looks, and likewise, Johnandpeter Canteen, the new venture, could only be likened to a classic Italian eatery if that classic Italian eatery happened to be in a moon base owned by David Bowie and decorated in turns by Stanley Kubrick and Mary Quant. The Eveleigh Carriageworks provides an incontrovertibly dramatic shell; inside, Wilson and Lin, with the help of designer Iain Halliday and events supremo Tony Assness, bring things down to human scale by raising the dining area on a large banquette-lined platform. The chairs, floor and unclothed tables are white, as are the shimmering streamers hemming the space above, hung from a stage-like lighting rig, while striking monochrome Marimekko patterns on the cushions give the look punch and sparkle.
Careful editing, a sharp eye for product, and those sorts of contrasts, I guess, are what this place is all about, and between Wilson’s experience and the expertise of his chef, David Lovett, and his team, it works. Asparagus with a simple pecorino-and-pepper dressing inspired by cacio e pepe pasta sauce. Pork neck braised to submission in milk and paired with a silken Desiree potato mash. Broad beans on toast. Zucchini, garlic and mint. Soft polenta rippled with tomato and ricotta salata. Berkshire pork belly, rolled and roasted till the fat is rendered and the skin is crisp, sliced and matched with a suitably sharp radicchio salad and a slash of salsa verde. Rare is the nonna who would shower her neatly cooked fillet of blue eye under matchsticks of raw kohlrabi and tongues of lemon flesh, but then rare, too, is the nonna who’d have the skill and care to make sure the fish is still this juicy when it lands on the table.
Wilson knows this stuff inside-out. Pairing baked onions with a gooey cheese such as burrata or buffalo mozzarella is something he was doing back in the Potts Point days, and his torta di Verona, a hugely creamy sort of trifle combining masses of whipped, Marsala-sweetened mascarpone with toasted almonds, blueberry compote and pandoro, has been an ace in his sleeve longer still. Confidence has to be high on any list of qualities considered desirable in a caterer, and it’s not for nothing that Johnandpeter has become the go-to name for Australia’s corporate elite when they don’t want to leave anything to chance. This makes the offer of the suckling pig feast, at $80 a head for 10 or more, an instantly enticing prospect, and makes the Canteen’s prospects as a party venue all the more appealing.
When the Canteen opened in the second half of 2011, it was on a temporary basis and with more of a café lean. Service was charming, casual and almost unbelievably slow and inattentive. Now that it’s operating on a more permanent basis, things have improved. On my most recent visit all the food arrived in a timely fashion, and I saw only one party have to resort to waving both arms, semaphore-style, to attract a waiter’s attention. The newly beefed-up wine list is also a pleasure. It’s got the digressions into weird beers (pilsener from Friuli! Organic wheat-beer longnecks from the Veneto! That cost $30!), apéritivi (Campari and Carpano and Hendricks, oh my!) and the strong and/or bitter after-dinner drinks that seem de rigueur in a modern Italian restaurant cellar. It also strikes a winning balance between the edgy stuff coming out of Sicily and Italy’s north (including a section marked “orange” for white wines made with extended skin-contact) and well-chosen drops from the more familiar likes of Chianti, the Yarra Valley and Central Otago. In one fell swoop, the inner-west’s wine cred has been doubled.
There’s not a lot on the menu that costs more than $30, and for food of this quality, for food that can impress without needing to reach for the bells or the whistles, that’s good news, especially for the restaurant-impoverished peoples this side of Cleveland Street.
It’s cooking that’s about olive oil and chlorophyll, lemons and parsley, not jus, not foam, not reductions or gel. It’s all the better off for it – and so are we.
PHOTOGRAPHY JASON LOUCAS
This article is from the April 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.