Vini is the definition of the little restaurant that could. And when we say little, we're talking minute. When it opened in 2005, the original premises were so small that they couldn't use any pasta thicker than spaghettini, and it was only after expanding into a shipping container in the loading dock out the back that they had the space to pour full-sized glasses of Amarone. Another expansion, this time into the business next door, meant that you could, if you chose, order your coffee long.
You couldn't exactly accuse Andrew Cibej, Vini's owner, of expansionist ambition of Perryesque or Mangan-like fervour, and yet this year his business is set to grow again, not once, but twice. The next cab off the rank is a wine bar just over the road. (The idea is to combine a wine shop with a 30-seat space in which to drink, presumably something akin to the City Wine Shop in Melbourne. The working title, Cibej jokes, is "Vini, a pocket history of NSW licensing laws, then and now" or "Vini in a Paper Bag".) That's still a few months off. What we have now is Berta, and it's a thing of beauty.
Vini's Holt Street site, down the Central Station end of Surry Hills, wasn't the most salubrious of locations (though it was handy at the time for the Sydney Swingers Club, then headquartered around the corner on Devonshire). At Berta, the ante has been upped. Or downed. Alberta Street is thoroughly obscure, a laneway running through the faceless block of the southern end of the city bounded by Elizabeth, Goulburn, Wentworth and Liverpool. There's not much of a sign to speak of, and a double set of doors keeps noise airlocked within. It's not going to be big on walk-in trade. Oh, and like Vini, it doesn't take bookings. You can call at six and put your name down for a table that same evening, but that's it.
In spite of these hurdles, the place is pumping. You could credit this fact to some sort of deep-rooted masochism on the part of the Sydney dining community, but the simpler explanation is the presence here of good wine and smart, simple food presented in a convivial atmosphere at decent prices. Vini manager Kristen Allan and her team of mostly smart, sharp young waiters do a pretty good job of keeping things ticking over in the dining room, and O Tama Carey is at the burners. Chef Carey's most recent ports of call have been Vini and Billy Kwong, and while neither restaurant's influence looms large on the chalkboard menu, if you were looking you could probably see it in the focus on immediacy and ingredients over technique.
Suckling pig, for instance, equals a plate of cuts from all over the piglet, almost Chinese in its burnished skin and milky meat, unadorned by anything except its cooking juices. The menu is a sharing affair, so you'll want a side of lentils, leeks and chicory. Or is that a salad? Or a main course? It's not always apparent what goes where, actually. The blackboard opens with snacky things very suited to aiding and abetting the drinking of wine: a crunchy mix of crisp broad beans, fennel seeds and almonds, excellent grissini and olives, oysters from Merimbula, that sort of thing. But the half-shell Hervey Bay scallops, sold singly with a rich crumble of the rendered lard niblets Italians call sugna, would work really well as an entrée. The chicken liver pâté, flavoured attractively with bergamot liqueur, equally, would rock over a couple of glasses of arneis, though it sits in the next bracket of dishes. My approach here is to order everything on the menu and see what happens. It seems to work.
There's a fluidity to Berta which is deeply appealing. You can stop in for a drink between the hours of five and six for the apéritivo hour and there's a good chance, if they're not too stretched, that Carey and the kitchen crew will put out some plates of chilli and garlic pizza, crisp polenta or fried salami chips to accompany your Negroni or nebbiolo. You might then go the whole hog and throw down $69 a head for one of the more rollicking dégustations in town, roaming over cheese, say, then five or six entrées before culminating in the likes of the suckling pig or a whole pan-fried snapper with salsa verde. The pig that came today with nothing on the plate may tomorrow appear on a bed of lentils or a purée of parsnip and celeriac. It's that sort of place.
It also explains the vagueness of the "wild greens" description of the tortellini filling in the oxtail broth. On one visit it could be dandelions, on another, chicory or rocket, or a combination thereof. In any case, mixed with a little mascarpone for smoothness, they pack a little wallop of bitterness that foils the clean, meaty clarity of the soup, with its fronds of flesh and floating moons of radish slices. It's a world away from stodgy, and nothing you could call bland.
If there are faults here, they're visible because there's nothing else on the plate to mask them. A fennel and watercress salad might simply be too wet, or the preserved lemon dressing that brings sparkle to a plate of cuttlefish and lightly pickled zucchini might, with a heavier hand another evening, become overbearing. The prawns dressed with nothing much more than capers, oil and chilli need to be finer specimens than the ones I was served for a dish such as this to fly. But for the most part, Berta is a success story of potent flavours and natural textures. If the experience of visiting restaurants only to be served smears of vegetables and meats puréed, pulped and sieved, foamed, gelled and stabilised to resemble so much artful baby food has lately irked you, here's the perfect antidote. It's about good ideas - the pickled garlic with the plate of Quattro Stelle cold cuts, for instance - rather than showing off. Deep-fried chickpeas and cauliflower with caraway? I'll take it, and plenty more of that massively quaffable Sicilian catarratto, barkeep.
This thinking extends to dessert. There are prettier ways to close a meal in this town this winter than with baked chestnut custard, the chestnut a homely layer laid over the top, but pick up that spoon, get a load of that mandarin purée and syrup with it, and you won't think of straying for a second. Quince tart with house-made ricotta crème pâtissière and crystallised sage leaves, and the bay leaf and buffalo milk gelato are similarly comforting.
Just as the crowd is noisily appreciative, the room is quietly stylish, functionally chic: backless banquettes by the window overlook the alleyway's bare painted walls and an empty lot fenced with chicken wire, garlanded with razor wire. Some serious graffiti would be most welcome.
As I was writing this review I called Carey to have a chat about the plans for the restaurant. Lunch, probably on Thursdays and Fridays, is in the offing, but is probably still two months away. I asked her why she chose to make her own ricotta, mascarpone and the like, and she explained that it was mostly because it was more fun that way, but also "because if you're going to do simple food you've got to do it properly". And then I asked her whether there was anything in particular she wanted everyone to know about Berta or what goes on there. She thought about it for a while before she replied. "I think," she said, "I'd like it if people shared."