When is an Italian restaurant not an Italian restaurant? When Mitch Orr says so, it seems. He would like you to suspend your disbelief, ignore the words arancini, prosciutto, burrata, 'nduja, linguine, fettuccine, macaroni and lasagne looming on the menu, and take his new food on face-value. If his cooking seems nominally Italian, it might be because he's spent a lot of time in Italian kitchens (Pilu, Osteria Francescana, Buzo, 121BC and 10 William Street among them), but now, as he finds a groove of his own, the Asian food he grew up eating around Sydney plays as much a part in his cooking as the cucina vera. It's bucatini without borders, spaghetti sans frontières. And it works.
Why? Because Orr's food, whatever he wants to call it (or indeed hashtag it), is as delicious as it's original. In Acme, the establishment he has opened with a posse of the inner east's most likeable front-of-house guys, we find a restaurant with buzz to burn, charm for days, and a young chef making good on the promise he has shown Sydney. This is the restaurant of the moment. Take bold fork and knife in hand, and let's dig in.
The menu is two concise brackets - snacks and pasta - broken up by a couple of salads. Note the absence of salumi. With a couple of exceptions, too, there's also not much happening in the cheese department and no bread on the side. (Picture Orr's head popping up at this point with his new favourite hashtag: #notanitalianrestaurant.)
The arancini are about as straight as the menu gets - tight balls of al dente rice, funky with Fontina and freighted with a stealth chilli-hit in the crunchy crust. The rockmelon and prosciutto, meanwhile, is one of the carte's scant examples of a cheffy bait-and-switch, where Orr sets an Italian classic to a modern beat. Here he takes the pieces of melon and coats them in a crunchy prosciutto crumb. It works.
The "baloney sandwich", despite its American name, riffs on that great Australian-Italian suburban classic, the devon and tomato-sauce sandwich, slipping a magnificent, ruched heap of mortadella and a nicely sweet-acid relish into a fluffy potato bun. The perfect bar snack.
Is chamomile about to have a moment outside the teapot? Mark Best and Matt Germanchis make a very convincing argument for it at Pei Modern at the Four Seasons, using it to give roast lamb shoulder a haunting flavour all its own. Orr's deployment of it is winningly precise - he slips it into a creamy soy milk-based sauce to complement the taste of fried artichoke hearts. One more example and we'll call it a trend.
I've eaten everything on the menu now and I can testify to the kitchen's impressive strike-rate across the board: carefully trimmed asparagus finds a fitting foil in a brown-butter sauce thickened with milk solids almost to the consistency of peanut butter and sprinkled with crisp quinoa; a clever trompe-l'œil that looks like lardo on toast, but is actually very thin shavings of completely tender cuttlefish over a dense semidried-tomato sauce; burrata given a surprising savoury twist with fried kombu, wakame powder and fennel oil. The ideas fly thick and fast, but they find their marks.
The best of them - quite possibly the best thing on the menu, and one of the most interesting things you'll eat in Australia this year - is the beef tartare.
It's a simple-seeming arrangement of fine cubes of raw wagyu bathed in a creamy (but dairy-free) sauce of walnuts, with larger roasted pieces of the nuts and chopped witlof for texture. Inventive, accomplished and a real humdinger.
And that's even before we to get to the pasta. Putting on a plate of pasta, a good one, for under $25, has been a personal mission of Orr's. He says he's bothered by the fact that in Sydney well-made tagliolini will usually run you something north of $30 when you can readily lay chopsticks on a decent pad Thai or la mian for $10. (Some might say that has as much to do with us taking cheap Asian food for granted as anything else, but that's a different story.)
In part Orr's solution to this conundrum is to make the dishes (nearly) half the size and charge (nearly) half the price. They're generally not large. Some of them could make a light meal, but they're intended to be ordered en masse and shared. It's an approach that would make Primo and Secondo, the purists in Big Night, stomp on their timballo in outrage, but in Rushcutters Bay circa 2014, with Nas, Cypress Hill and the one and only Snoop Dogg whomping out of the speakers, and young men and women knocking back Adelaide Hills fiano and Alicante alongside beetroot-flavoured Negronis, it makes perfect sense. Good thing this isn't an Italian restaurant.
And I don't want to give you the impression there's any funny business going on with the prices, either - the value at Acme is more than sound. A lot of work goes into this food, and no small amount of care.
Loosely stacked pasta squares interleaved with sheep's milk curd and buttery shiitakes - what you might, in the heady days of the 1990s, have called an open lasagne - are a no-brainer, and hew as closely to tradition as any of the pasta dishes get (which is to say not particularly close at all). There's more inspiration at work in another of the vego-friendly numbers, which combines broad beans and fine discs of umami-laden baby zukes with rather firm fettuccine and black sesame.
It's in the pasta, too, that the Asian vibe most comes to the fore. But it's not something you're hit over the head with, many of the twists and flourishes being the sorts of things that could safely fly under the radar at other modern Italian restaurants. Not that this is an Italian restaurant, ahem. Fronds of chrysanthemum leaf join coins of tender octopus and chilli in an appealingly spicy squid-ink strozzapreti, while malloreddus, the little Sardinian half-shell shape also known as gnocchetti Sardi, is teamed with shreds of prawn and the flavours of Old Bay Seasoning.
The fine linguine (pasta wonks might say it's closer to a tagliolini) takes as much inspiration from mee goreng as it does cucina vera, the burnt chilli and black garlic it's sauced with giving it a scorched quality that recalls the taste of the wok. The hand-cut macaroni is laden with pork - gooey shreds of the gelatinous meat from the head, specifically - and a shining raw yolk, which combine to create a savoury nirvana. The pork and egg combo sounds suggestive of carbonara, but the dish doesn't have the salty smack of the Roman classic. Instead the dominant flavours are garlic and vinegar, the acidity making what could be a brick-wall gut-punch of a dish into something you can't stop sticking your fork into. Here Orr has taken the key elements of sisig, the Filipino classic of pig's head double-cooked, marinated in vinegar and served topped with a raw or runny-yolked egg, and grafted them onto his impeccable pasta. It's a really smart dish, and as winning an example of his approach as any on the menu. This is the wild-style years Orr spent heading the kitchen at Duke Bistro with Thomas Lim coming together seamlessly with the discipline of his earlier Italian training. This guy has a palate and he knows how to use it.
Dessert is short and sweet: Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream with hazelnut praline (rooty), nashi pear sorbet with rosemary meringue (herbal) and Malteser ice-cream with candied bacon. The last is the best of them for my dollar - it sounds like dude-food, let's-put-bacon-on-everything-and-throw-in-a-chocolate-bar dumbness, but the salt-sweet play and the crunch of the Maltesers comes together nicely.
Acme's appeal is by no means borne by food alone. Its name is an acronym of the first initials of its co-conspirators, Andy Emerson, Cam Fairbairn, Mitch Orr and Ed Loveday, and the contribution on the floor and behind the bar is as much a part of its charm as what's coming out of the kitchen. Theirs is an easygoing style underpinned by care and professionalism. It's an atmosphere in which sommelier Gavin Wright, late of Chow and Wine Library, moves easily, too. The single-page list he and Loveday have put together is unapologetically hip. It's packed with interesting, apt stuff from all over the place. I'd like it twice as much if it was designed and organised in a more user-friendly way, but there again, help is always close at hand.
The guys have a great-looking clutch of rooms as their stage, too, with bar seating in the front, tables out the back and a communal table downstairs. Luchetti Krelle have done a very elegant job with the lighting (the dynamite-bundle pendant lamps, a nod to the Acme of Warner Bros fame, are particularly cute), and little touches like the Mud salt bowls and the chambray napkins bring the package unexpected finesse.
And what a curious package. A restaurant that refuses to identify as Italian yet specialises in pasta, a place completely free of anything resembling a big chock of protein on a plate, where the beats come loud and heavy, yet the kitchen takes the trouble to slip doilies under the sandwiches. Conceptually it makes no sense, but walk through the door and it seems like the most natural thing in the world. You have to use the word "infectious" with care in these ebola-conscious times, so let's just say this: Acme is dangerously easy to like.