Restaurant Reviews

Blanco, Sydney restaurant review

Headed by two former Bistro Moncur chefs, newcomer Blanco brings a fresh combination of levity and exactitude to casual Kings Cross dining, writes Pat Nourse.

By Pat Nourse
This restaurant has closed.
Blank-o might be more like it. The first thing that strikes you about Blanco is just how spare the fit-out is. "Blanco" is the Spanish word for white, and there's plenty of that on the tiled exterior of the new Barcelona building it inhabits, a sliver of a structure that in some ways resembles Manhattan's Flatiron Building relocated to the Passeig de Gràcia. To say this isn't a restaurant where the atmosphere is painted on the walls is an understatement. An understatement, that is, but not necessarily a criticism.
It's a clean slate - the timber floors and velour-look brushed-concrete columns are just a frame for the passing freaks on the street and for the players who wander in and out of this glass-walled stage. There's no open kitchen here; the focus is off the chef and on the people who hop from table to table, from one pale bentwood chair to another.
There's a curious mix of Mark Knopfler and Gotan Project playing in the background, but it's quickly submerged under layers of conversation; what you get from Blanco in terms of atmosphere is almost entirely driven by who's here on any given night. And right now that seems to be just about everybody.
Blanco's kitchen isn't trying to break down any culinary barriers, and the food is neither expensive, cheap nor wildly exotic. So why all the interest? Put that down to the Damien Pignolet connection. The Bistro Moncur chef-patron, something of a don in local hospitality circles, and his business partner, developer Ron White, don't have a direct say in what goes on in the restaurant; they maintain they're just the landlords. But young owner-chefs Scott Mason and Brendon Vallejo have both come from Moncur's kitchens, where they worked for years as head chef and pastry chef respectively. Pignolet's influence is clear, and they've caught some of the buzz his name carries.
To say Blanco is a Kings Cross branch of Bistro Moncur would be to create the wrong impression. Yet in much the same way the Queen Street restaurant is a social hub for a certain Eastern Suburbs milieu, it's very easy to see Blanco serving a similar role for the people of Potts Point, Rushcutters and E-Bay. It sits right in the heart of the Cross, on the site that was once Barons (which, for the uninitiated, was the late-nighter's late-nighter from 1977 until it closed in 2007). The peculiar attitude to liquor licensing taken by its proprietors meant that as someone entering the place with the express intention of going straight upstairs for a drink, you were often detained downstairs by a bouncer asking, "Do you intend to dine?" and then pointing you to a compulsory plate of something just substantial enough to satisfy the authorities.
At Blanco, on the other hand, you could be forgiven for bypassing the uninspiring cocktails at the bar to head straight for a draught Asahi or a glass of something crisp at the table. The menu is low-key, but it's an improvement on the garlic bread and plates of chips of old. Kick things off with crostini-like slices of Sonoma levain topped with cottage cheese made from goat's milk, all stained emerald with a salsa of mint, chives, parsley and pistachio. Then there's chickpea fritters, like fat rissoles, smooth and carrying echoes of falafel, two to a serve with a spicy, tomatoey sauce. It's dependable eating - the most radical thing about these small dishes is neither breaks the $7 mark.
The menu is not explicitly designed for sharing, which should placate the tapas-haters, but most dishes divvy up pretty well nonetheless. It suits the versatile nature of the space and the no-bookings policy to be able to add dishes as more chairs are pulled up without worrying too much about mucking up the timing and flow of the meal. If you want to eat lightly, too, this place is going to make you happy. The Mediterranean theme links the dishes like a stream of olive oil; it translates to lots of mint and parsley and vegetables on the plate (too much tomato?), and it's easy to find satiety without taking on too much ballast.
Vegetables get starring roles in several dishes. I can't quite discern the logic determining which are positioned as entrées and which are sides in some instances, but the flavours are perfectly clear. The unadorned simplicity of asparagus with lemon and olive oil shows the confidence of the kitchen - the hand of man seen only in the careful trimming of the ends of the spears and the judiciousness of how they've been steamed. Baby carrots all but glow on the plate, showered with coriander, salty splashes of feta and cumin and tang from harissa, while a sprightly house-made labne and the addition of really good hazelnuts, slivers of radish, green beans and fried shallots breathes new life into the otherwise tired genre of beetroot salad.
There are some kinks still being ironed out of the menu. You might want to skip the oddly flavourless taramasalata with cucumber and witlof - it comes across more like a mayonnaise dabbed with roe - and the soft-shell mud crab sandwich is another one which reads better than it eats, the richness of the batter, the avocado and the coleslaw overwhelming it and making it a pretty big ask as an entrée. Neither is offensive - there are just better things you could be eating here.
There's a more consistent excellence across the mains. Mackerel, that self-consciously intense fish, gets sensitive treatment with green beans and potatoes in an escabeche (the Spanish method of giving ingredients a bath in oil and vinegar after they're cooked, like a marinade after the fact) that makes a virtue of its strong and oily qualities. Chicken makes an attractive showing as skin-on, bones-off hunks of thigh on an attractive primavera midden of cracked green olives, cherry tomatoes, mint, pine nuts, broad beans, eggplant and asparagus. Does it strictly need every one of those ingredients to work? Maybe not, but it's composed thoughtfully enough that it never seems busy.
And that's the key to the appeal of Blanco. Things have been thought through, but not over-thought. You can see it in the veal minute steak, crowned with (cruelly few) onion rings. You can see it in their take on the porco à Alentejana, the Portuguese surf 'n' turf classic of clams and pork, rendered here as crisp and giving pork neck and (cruelly few) juicy mussels on the half-shell in an oily, winey sauce blitzed with a verdant pounded herb salsa. It's not that the kitchen is without ambition; they merely recognise the value in doing things simply and well.
This modesty continues into desserts. Modest in that there are surprisingly few of them - three, to be exact - in a restaurant where one partner is deeply versed in the dark arts of pastry making. At any rate, they've made them count. The strangest of the trio is the chocolate sandwich: salty squares of biscuit book-ending a firm lozenge of chocolate and a blowtorch-scorched chock of strawberry marshmallow. I'm guessing it's a play on the "s'more", the American campfire classic of marshmallows sandwiched between Graham crackers, but the reference will be lost on most Blanco diners. It ain't big, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in sweetness.
I predict greater popularity for the mascarpone custard layered with a caramel syrup, a play on crema Catalana. Served in a stemless wine glass, it's flecked with praline and garnished with fat raspberries on top and studded with raisins beneath. It's all too easy to inhale in its entirety. The pretty glittering strata of the blood orange, pistachio and chocolate layer cake, meanwhile, should be used as a teaching aid at cooking schools. "Note, kids, how the Blanco guys have the confidence and taste to plate this diamond of cakey goodness as it is. Where are the icing sugar, tuiles and mint sprigs? Exactly. And yes, this will be on the written exam."
On the floor the accents are as mixed as the level of ability. It's too early to call it, really, because the dynamic of the restaurant is going to change when the full force of the city's interest is brought to bear on it in the lead-up to summer, but I'd say a bit more authority is needed to run the show and make sure the traffic runs smoothly. The wine list is accessible, but will need to evolve fairly quickly if it's to hold the interest of local repeat customers. Small gripes in the face of a fun new place to eat.
Roslyn Street, from Barons to Blanco: it might be another tasteful nail in the coffin of the sleazy old Cross, but the loss for drinkers is a win for eaters. Hell, yes, we intend to dine.