This restaurant has closed.
"L'Esprit de Bistrot", reads the motto on the restaurant's business card. And it's true - despite the absence of the zinc bar, the lipsticked mirrors, brass fittings, tiled floor and other props, Ad Lib is deeply invested with the spirit of the bistro. You need only step through the curtain at the door into the packed room, abuzz with happy diners, to know that someone has hit the nail on the head.
That someone is Dietmar Sawyere, the chef who until recently ran city fine-diner Forty One, and is now well into his second act, playing the saviour of north shore dining, having revived Berowra Waters Inn to great acclaim and now reviving Pymble as a dining destination with this smart, sensible bistro.
In an age when Sydney restaurateurs are more likely to send their chefs to New York's Balthazar than to the Left Bank on their fact-finding missions, it's refreshing to visit a bistro opened by someone with firsthand experience of the real thing. You might see the odd tip of the hat to Thomas Keller's Bouchon restaurants in the US in the Ad Lib approach, but it's clear that the restaurant's fidelity comes in large part from the benefit of Swiss-born Sawyere's experience. All the favourites are there on the menu - the steak tartare, the shellfish platter, the boudin noir, the duck confit, the brûlée - and yet it never feels like a paint-by-numbers exercise.
Take the duck liver parfait. It's something you'll see served in restaurants all over the country, yet the creamy elegance of this version, brought to the table in a little preserving jar, has no rival. Waiters are quick to offer more toast (you'll want it) and the onion marmalade on the side has none of the cloying over-sweetness that buggers up nine out of 10 similar efforts.
Getting it right is a consistent theme across the menu. It's printed on a folded piece of brown paper, but there's plenty of weight in what's on offer. Poke around with your spoon in your onion soup bowl and you'll come up with a dollop of good Gruyère from the crusty croûton submerged within, or a draught of broth that sparkles with unusual clarity. Order the oysters and your Sydney rocks arrive in sparkling condition, accompanied by mignonette sauce and little finger sandwiches of buttered brown bread. It's that sort of place.
There's no shortage of waiters on the floor, meanwhile, and the depth of talent is palpable. Ad Lib inherited Forty One's splendid freestanding ice buckets and you can't help but wonder if the restaurant picked up more than a few splendid freestanding personnel too. Come to the restaurant mid-week and there's every chance you'll see Sawyere himself working the floor, which suggests a refreshing lack of ego (how many other Sydney big-swinging chefs have you seen taking orders lately?), as well as plenty of confidence in chef and long-time collaborator Crosby Mar and his team in the kitchen.
His confidence seems well placed. While the brightness of the lights, the family-friendliness of the kids' menu and the highway-side setting could lend the place something of a suburban air, the cooking is anything but humdrum. The country salad "mimosa" is one of the best takes on the classic frisée, egg and lardons routine seen on these shores in a good while. The term mimosa, according to Damien Pignolet's excellent new book on salads, refers to the resemblance the sieved hard-boiled egg yolks in the garnish have to the acacia (aka mimosa) blossom. In the Ad Lib version, though, it's a slow-poached egg, one of those perfect compromises between cooked and runny, nested in the bitey greens. In place of the standard lardons are crisp bits of guanciale (the cured pig's jowl or cheek that wags like to call "face bacon"). The guanciale fat has an especial deliciousness that regular bacon just can't match, and it's been used here to dress the leaves of watercress and endive to brilliant effect. Little crisp croûton cubes no more than a half-centimetre a side are just one more thoughtful, carefully executed step.
Pig's trotter, ear and tail croquette sounds exactly like the kind of dish that would have you reaching for a medicinal Calvados and wobbling home down Rue Paul Bert for a prematurely early nap in Paris. In Pymble, though, it's an entrée of surprising buoyancy - three flat discs of sticky, highly flavoursome pork extremities that have been breaded, fried golden and laid over a loose, appropriately piquant, gribiche-like sauce, thick with chopped hard-boiled egg and capers, fragrant with tarragon. That's right - all the goodness of offal, folks, with none of the usual barnyard or slaughterhouse associations.
The kitchen at Ad Lib can play it soft or hard as the moment requires. Snapper meunière sees a dense, crisp-skinned fillet of the fish splashed with enough browned butter to bring out its sweetness rather than drown it, ditto the pale flakes of almond and the green beans. It's lean, it's clean.
Cooking chicken thighs coq au vin-style solves the how-to-serve-chicken-without-being-boring conundrum. Swimming in a finely tuned red wine sauce, the meaty thighs are served with pretty carrots, cooked separately, I'd guess, to preserve their colour as well as their good looks, along with ample shallots, bacon and chervil. There's plenty of flavour here - this is a chicken dish you can order with impunity. Especially when there's a battery of dangerously attractive carbs on the lengthy sides section of the menu - chips, fresh egg tagliatelle, rice and creamed potatoes among them. Your correspondent might think it's a good idea to order both the spätzele and the rösti in the same sitting, but you'd be wise to consider spreading them over separate meals. Or not - Sawyere ensures his heritage is honoured on both fronts, the rösti served shredded in a bowl showered with chives, quite unlike the tedious potato pancakes usually served in their place, while the spätzele, little pasta dumplings not entirely unlike gnocchi Parisienne, are browned in the Swiss style and served with plenty of fried onion.
If chocolate is your thing, proceed directly to the mousse. It's gleefully scooped to the plate table-side from a very large bowl by waiters who know just how plutonium-rich this stuff is. It's accessorised further with a wafer roll and a light cream - truly the definition of gilding the lily. And then there's the pear Tatin - not slices of fruit on a low-riding upside down pastry, but a halved pear sitting syrupy in its own tart casing, a ball of toffee-shot white chocolate ice-cream to the side.
If digestifs are your thing, you'll find plenty here to please you, including off-the-beaten-track gems such as the fleur de bière, an eau de vie made from, yes, hop flowers. It's emblematic of a cellar that is broad in its reach but careful in its grasp. What's refreshing here is that the bulk of the offerings clock in under the $60 mark (though there's a well-curated reserve section there if you want it), with a very generous selection available, as per the very welcome trend, by the glass and by the carafe. It's just another reason to view the restaurant as a friendly local rather than something servicing the birthdays and anniversaries market.
At Berowra Waters, Dietmar Sawyere works to dazzle and beguile you. At Ad Lib, he's looking instead to satisfy and soothe, a mission no less noble, and one that's already won the restaurant a small army of fans.
"It is not about re-inventing the wheel," he says, "rather about a polish, a tyre change and a tune-up." This, then, is the latter-day bistro, firing on all cylinders, and it makes for a very comfortable ride indeed.