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To say Restaurant Arras is storming the Sydney dining scene, Get Carter-style, with its northern English-accented food would be something of an overstatement. You could, in fact, have a perfectly lovely meal there without necessarily twigging to the fact that the chef and owner is a Yorkshireman keen to promote the food of his home country. Arras is the name of the hill Adam Humphrey's house was on when he was growing up between York and Hull. It's also, coincidentally, the name of the French town that London-based chef Jean-Christophe Novelli comes from.
And there, neatly enough, you have the two poles of Humphrey's experience: British-French training and a Yorkshire childhood. He's also worked at the fiercely English Castle Hotel in Taunton, Somerset, and, over two stints in Australia, with Paul Merrony at Merrony's, then with Anthony Musarra and Danny Drinkwater at the Park Hyatt's Harbourkitchen&bar.
Owning a restaurant has been the goal all along though, and now, with partner Lovaine Allen (who earned her front-of-house stripes at France's three-star Michel Bras in Laguiole and The Fat Duck in Berkshire before turning to pastry) it's here. Proud as he is of his heritage, Humphrey prefers to keep the English touches subtle. "I don't want to ram it down your throat," he says. "There's a wealth of northern food people don't know about. It's steeped in history and not stodgy and dreary and horrible as people expect."
There's nothing stodgy about the location, either. A few doors up from the newer annex to the Sydney Theatre Company at Walsh Bay, the former wool store is moody and beautifully lit. Rough-hewn posts and other rustic bits and bobs allude to its past uses, while abstracted Union Jack upholstery on a few of the chairs hint at where it's going.
The details are nicely looked after, too, from the hand towels in the bathrooms to the Robert Welch cutlery, Fink jugs and Lauretana water. Although I can take or leave the slate and glass plates. Alon Sharman, who you might recognise from Quay, runs the floor with quiet aplomb and has put together a wine list of no small interest, mixing French and local offerings. Apéritifs break with the usual and it's a happy coincidence that the restaurant shares its name with one of Australia's best sparkling wines, which is offered by the glass.
That Bay of Fires 'Arras' goes down very easily reading so concisely written a menu. Crab-bread-and-butter pudding jumps out and is one of the best dishes on the menu, while telegraphically short mains, such as 'tongue in cheek' and 'rack on black', inspire curiosity. They're a bit wintry-leaning for my liking at this time of year and I think, having seen a few takes on the tongue-in-cheek gag, I'm not going to order that one again. Well-cooked as the beef cheek and tongue may be, they're not a great textural match, and with roast beetroot and beetroot purée playing support, I found it wanting for contrasts to the abundance of stickiness, squishiness and sweetness it offers.
The rack on black, traditionally a rack of lamb stuffed with black pudding, is much more like it. The blood sausage is coarser than boudin noir or morcilla, and the rack is handled beautifully. The leek tortellini that comes with it, made by wrapping leek purée in layers of leek, are as tasty as they are clever. And that crab is brilliant stuff, generous hunks of sweet blue swimmer meat scattered through a little iron pot of savoury bread custard.
The terrine of vitello tonnato is interesting, wrapping poached veal touched with preserved lemon around a core of raw sashimi-grade tuna, with a scattering of herby chopped boiled egg suggestive of both mayo and sauce gribiche. A salad of chubby scallops and veal sweetbreads is pleasantly leavened by beetroot, though verges on the too-sweet. Sweetness is an issue, too, with an otherwise attractive vegetarian entrée of caramelised cauliflower and almond tart that, sans cauliflower salad, could double as an outré dessert. A few of the dishes have red wine or balsamic reductions zigzagged across them, contributing a sweetness that's needless at the cost of cleaner presentation and flavour profile.
It's a touch that can't undo the brilliance, though, of the snapper with salsify. This odd, earthy root, whose flavour has been compared, bizarrely enough, with oysters, lends its haunting flavour in the form of a creamy purée underneath the crisp-skinned fish and in crisp dried shards atop a bulb of garlic, which has been confited then roasted with butter and a touch of honey, rounding things out appropriately.
For all this meatiness, Arras also presents the best vegetarian main course I've seen in 2008, mingling pappardelle pasta made of chestnut flour with shredded Brussels sprouts and chestnut meat with parsnip. It's hard to think of a less seasonally appropriate trio than parsnip, chestnut and Brussels sprouts in summer, but hey, it works.
Things are at their most transparently northern with the desserts. No lardy cakes yet, but you can skip the expensive, surprisingly unwieldy banana Tatin and sloppy fruit soup with fromage blanc sorbet and head straight for the Yorkshire cream tea and the pear eggy bread. The eggy bread - here, basically brioche French toast with pear and a goat's curd sabayon - is cute but no match for the cream tea, which is essentially a Devonshire tea in a glass. Trifle-style layers of crumbled scone, intense house-made strawberry jam and clotted cream come with a jelly made from Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire Gold black tea, which cuts all that richness and pulls things together neatly.
Restaurant Arras is on an upward trajectory. There is scope for improvement and greater finesse - and seasonal suitability - in the food, but they're most of the way there; the slips that there are aren't due to a lack of love. There's a sound philosophy pinning things together, but, perhaps most importantly, there's integrity and belief. Humphrey says he wants to do something new for Sydney without resorting to wackiness or the outlandish, and that's a call I think we can certainly back.