Food News

Now open in Sydney: Cafe Freda’s, where the off-beat menu by Xinyi Lim changes at a cracking pace

“It’s a very eclectic menu and it doesn’t always make sense, but I certainly don’t think it needs to.”

The outdoor seating at Sydney's Cafe Freda's.

Nikki To

New Year’s Eve, the pandemic edition, is not the ideal environment to debut a restaurant, but Xinyi Lim looks back on the opening night of Cafe Freda’s in Sydney’s Darlinghurst with a sense of optimism. “If you make it through New Year’s Eve you can make it through anything.”

The four-square-metre rule, reimposed on restaurants in the days before 31 December, put a “dampener” on the grand opening, she says. “But it didn’t stop us from having a good night. And for the team, it was a very fast learning experience of working together under high pressure.”

You might recognise Lim as the dealer of sourdough starter sent via snail-mail at the height of lockdown, or as the brains and brawn behind Family Meal, the globetrotting dinner project via her Instagram moniker Megafauna. (Under Family Meal, Lim would cook take-home Sichuanese bang bang chicken and dan dan noodles one weekend, Georgian khachapuri and dolma the next, with proceeds going to various social justice organisations.) Now she’s running the kitchen team at Cafe Freda’s, backed by owner David Abram and creative director Carla Uriarte.

Cafe Freda’s head chef Xinyi Lim, creative director Carla Uriarte and owner David Abram.

(Photo: Nikki To)

Consider it the restaurant spin-off of the now-closed music venue Freda’s, located on a highly visible corner of Oxford Street. The menu is off-beat, where a starter of oysters with Chinkiang-vinegar vinaigrette could be followed by a tomato-peach salad dressed with crisp chilli oil, or onigiri with prawns and corn butter. The famed sourdough starter guest stars in the house focaccia; the recipe for the beef rendang comes from Lim’s mother. A pandan panna cotta wins points for marrying the green leaf’s coconutty notes with the wibble and wobble of set custard.

“I’m being indulgent in putting the things I want to eat [on the menu],” says Lim. “It’s a very eclectic menu and it doesn’t always make sense, but I certainly don’t think it needs to. It should be fun for us to make and fun for people to eat.”

Tomatoes, peach, tarragon, crispy chilli and fennel.

(Photo: Nikki To)

Clockwise, from top left: bread and butter cucumber pickles, pickled tomatoes, pink egg and white anchovy; oysters with Chinkiang-vinegar vinaigrette, albacore conserva with grilled Turkish snake peppers and bread crumb.

(Photo: Nikki To)

There’s a sense of play that hops from the plate to the pastel paint job to the disco ball that hangs at the entrance, with a wine selection by sommelier Darcy Creenaune Ellis that leans natural, and a cocktail list that features the odd Piña Colada cameo. There’s spark and spunk, and signs of life to the Oxford Street precinct where a great many “for lease” signs have spawned in the past 12 months.

Diners at Cafe Freda’s.

(Photo: Nikki To)

A look inside the dining room.

(Photo: Nikki To)

This time last year, the Sydney-born Lim was working in New York City, and racking up time at Brooklyn establishments Marlow & Sons, Diner and Achilles Heel. But as Australia’s borders closed, a short return home in February for her sister’s wedding became a permanent stay, and her plans to work at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill were reversed.

After five years abroad, she’s leaning into her “outsider” status in the Sydney restaurant scene. “You’re just a bit more anonymous which gives a level of freedom. It makes things a bit lighter or easier.”

She has, however, acquainted herself with local producers and suppliers: vegetables are sourced from The Vege Box, Moonacres Farm and Chinatown’s Season’s Fruit Market, meat from Whole Beast Butchery and Emilio’s Specialty Butcher, and creatures of the sea from Cummins Seafood. They’re small-scale and/or family-run businesses that resonate with Lim’s resolve to connect food and community.

“I’d like to get to know the small farms around [here]. I’m still learning and feeling my way through the network,” she says.

But after an ambitious start to the year, Lim won’t rest on her laurels. Her menu changes at a dizzying pace – there’s carrot mole to simmer, cucumbers to pickle, buttermilk biscuits to bake. And she’s thinking of ways to incorporate her popular Family Meal project at Cafe Freda’s.

“It’s not like it stops here,” she says. “There’s still more work and things I want to do with Dave and Carla. We have plans. It’s exciting.”

Cafe Freda’s

191-195 Oxford St, Darlinghurst, NSW

Open Wed–Thur 4pm–midnight, Fri–Sun noon–midnight

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