Anyone who thinks there's nothing good to eat in Newtown these days just isn't looking hard enough. The problem, folks, is not an absence of good stuff so much as the presence of so very much dross. The culinary signal-to-noise ratio on King Street (as with nearby Glebe Point Road) is such that the quality eats often get lost in the static. It was probably the appearance of smart young chef Daniel Puskas a few years ago and then his successor Karl Firla at Oscillate Wildly that marked the tipping point, and the neighbourhood moved beyond simply ethnic, boho and interesting to something with a bit more focus, depth and polish.
Chris Thé's Black Star is as good a pâtisserie as you'll find anywhere in the country, and is backed in the café stakes by the likes of Lou Jack's, Luxe and Campos. You can get a decent non-pub drink at Corridor, and while the area's pub food is still a very long way from its Darley Street Thai glory days (I'm looking at you, massively overrated Thai restaurant at the Bank Hotel, and you, Carlisle Castle), the pubs themselves still retain much of their seedy finery. King Street and Enmore Road, meanwhile, are minor hubs for African food in Sydney. You've got Iiza, a newish izakaya up the Missenden Road end of King Street, doing good things in the name of casual Japanese eats, and Ssäm, a live-charcoal Korean barbecue restaurant down toward St Peters, has a true tang of Seoul about it.
But let's be frank here - when it comes to serious dining, of the kind that justifies a bit of dressing up, there's still bugger-all going on in this postcode, which makes Bloodwood something of a Trojan horse. It's got food and wine that are a clear cut above just about everything else in the postcode, but they're served in a casually funky setting that you needn't necessarily polish your labret piercing or comb your dreadlocks for. The look, from young local designer Matt Woods, is slightly kooky and very eclectic (read: very Newtown). Old doors fly along the ceiling in the dining area and bright-yellow pipes snake around the length of the long space, from the street way back to the back balcony. Chunkily exotic light sculptures in the bar at the front offset the heavy sleepers and reclaimed timbers of the open kitchen.
It's amid these timbers that you'll find owners Jo Ward, Claire van Vuuren and Mitchell Grady at work. Ward has the most profile, having come from working with Cheong Liew in Adelaide at The Grange to cook at Bondi's Mu Shu a few years back, but the three chefs, who've come together from Woollahra fine-diner Claude's, run their kitchen as a democracy. The menu, too, has some egalitarian, do-it-your-way flair. Small plates for sharing - that blessing, that curse of the dining classes - are the go here, so eating solo is not really a great option but rolling with your entourage is no problem (and there's a sizeable table in a semi-private room on the lower level ripe for groups). Ward's interest in Malaysian food is evident, but the cultural influences are broad and freewheeling. The bread's from Luxe, just one of many thoughtful touches.
The Pedro Ximénez vinegar that dresses the brandade is another. Its sour-sweet twang ties the chunkily diced oxheart tomatoes and the salt cod together with quiet finesse. The cod, sandwiched between very thin slices of bread and then pan-fried so that the bread crisps up and protects the meat at the same time, comes across like sleekly redesigned fish fingers. A great dish. It finds its equal, too, in the duck sausage - broad rounds of spiced bird, paired with a sauce made with grilled plum halves, like the secret love-child of the duck signature dishes at Vulcans and Billy Kwong.
Asia comes to the fore, too, in the gutsy fried beancurd rolls. A hit for Ward at Mu Shu, they're a take on loh bak, the Malaysian snack, mingling minced pork, shiitake and crab, fried crisp in a coat of beancurd skin. Right about now, you'll be wanting a beer, and the wine list more than comes to the party with a range of interesting, often local brews. The cocktails are decent, and Masa Mishimoto, sommelier at The Boathouse and formerly of Claude's, has drawn up a wine list that makes up for some unevenness with plenty of interest in the breadth of its offerings.
This might be mostly a restaurant but the hey-how-you-doin' welcome and the clamour of a busy service can give it a bar-like feel. Make the most of it with the chicken wings. In another context they could be the world's greatest bar snacks, meaty things you could mistake for thighs, bronzed up beautifully in correctly hot oil and served with a rémoulade, a caper-rich yoghurt mayonnaise so piquant it tastes almost like a sauce gribiche.
The vadai, mixed dhal fritters, aren't rescued from a fate worse than dryness by their tamarind chutney. Skip them instead for the chickpea pancake topped with skin-on pumpkin, hunks of Persian feta and zucchini, a vegetarian fantasy of socca, the street food of Nice. Vegetarian or no, the polenta chips are not to be missed, their pale-golden fluffiness grounded to great effect by a massively cheesy sauce of Gorgonzola. Something about the charcuterie plate seems a little mean, which is odd, given that, at $28, it's one of the priciest dishes on the menu, but the pickles it comes with are the goods.
On the more substantial side, both the kingfish and the kibbeh are standouts. The kibbeh are large crisp-shelled dumplings of lamb mince and burghul - the Bloodwood twist comes in the form of the nugget of North-African-style lamb sausage tucked inside. Coupled three to a plate with braised cavolo nero, silken eggplant, a splodge of yoghurt and a tomatoey bullhorn capsicum sauce studded with pine nuts, they're a formidable offering. The kingfish is more delicate, but has plenty of grunt, nonetheless, for a fish dish. It's baked in paper and arrives piled high with shredded radish and wakame, the fish juicy, its sweetness amped up by a dab of miso.
The hits keep coming, too, with dessert. The Bloodwood trifle - a pretty composition that varies depending on what's in season, is rendered this week in shades of young coconut, rum-spiced pineapple and ginger jelly, framed in a glass with pound cake standing in for sponge. The pastry base of the tarte Tatin is made with some skill, and the addition of quince and chestnut cream to the apple can't be faulted. Push the boat out further still with a lusciously unlikely blancmange of avocado garnished with petals of rambutan meat.
Ward, Grady and van Vuuren aren't the first high-end chefs to forsake the hush and damask world of fine dining to delve into something a bit more relaxed and fun, but they've pulled it off with aplomb and honesty that make Bloodwood special. The fact that the ad hoc look of the place is sometimes echoed by stop-start, rough-edged service isn't going to be everyone's cuppa, and the no-bookings policy means a table for Saturday after 7pm can be a tricky thing to land, but no matter. The idea of opening a place where you can eat well in a manner that's affordable and welcoming enough to revisit regularly is a no-brainer, so we can only hope many more follow in Bloodwood's wake. Newtown isn't alone in needing them.