Café Paci is the most interesting thing to have happened in Sydney restaurants this year. It's also one of the strangest. Or at least it is unless there's another Finnish-Mexican pop-up run by a veteran fine-dining chef hiding somewhere.
It's safe to say there's not much else like it. It came into being in August and is an odd collaboration between Pasi Petänen and the landlords of the building. Most of the block of Riley Street in East Sydney where it sits is marked for demolition in 2014. The previous tenant, the veteran tequila bar and restaurant Café Pacifico, didn't renew the lease, and by a twist of fate, Petänen stepped in to take it over for a 12-month run.
Petänen left the head chef's role at Marque last year after 10 years working alongside Mark Best, and had been cooking at Oscillate Wildly while he looked for a site of his own. In Café Paci - a play on his name, which is pronounced "pass-ee" - he has found an interesting proposition: a fully kitted-out restaurant lying vacant, his for the taking for (presumably) reasonable rent, but with a built-in end date.
It's probably a bit highfalutin' to go quoting Wallace Stevens on the matter of death being the mother of beauty here, but having a limited run grants Café Paci certain freedoms. For one thing, they've not spent a bundle on the fit-out. It's austere, and most of the atmosphere comes from your fellow diners, so it can be a bit chilly on quieter nights.
George Livissianis, the designer behind the superb fit-out at The Apollo, has chosen to paint everything - really, everything - grey. The same grey (Taubman's Iron Age, trainspotters) picks out the aprons over the white shirts on the staff. The grim landing at the top of the stairs, humming with fluoro tubes, will be familiar to Pacifico regulars, as will the views of the parking garage; curtains screen the kitchen, and a cluster of lampshades form a sort of oversized chandelier. The tables are chunky timber, topped with Chilewich placemats and plain but decent glass and china. Behind the bar a bottle of mescal and another of Finlandia sit lit by candles, an offering to the gods that they may smile on this unholy union of the Mexican and Finnish.
The result is a Scandinavian-accented room that could be said to be very much in line with the bistronomy movement - eateries that serve food with all the ambition of a fine-diner, but in the stripped back, more convivial and, yes, cheaper surrounds of a bistro.
Petänen and his cohorts have fashioned the signage simply by painting over the letters they don't need to spell out Café Paci, a hint of punk and DIY dash. But the food is by no means the work of someone who has barely mastered the culinary equivalent of three chords. Petänen is in complete control of his instruments and effects; he doesn't need to kick over the amps or smash a guitar to get your attention.
The $85 set menu kicks off with a plate of snacks, the best of which is the rye taco. In truth it's the first and last reference the kitchen makes to the site's Mexican history, but it's a cracker. Topped with a dollop of savoury rice pudding and what the waiters call egg butter (a kind of very, very buttery, loose scramble), chives and sour onions, the richness and the rye come together beautifully. (Topped with caviar, it could topple nations.) The carrot with prawn salt glued to it with yoghurt is not quite so thrilling, but the crisp and brilliant little tartlet of potato mousse and chicken skin, which delivers a whack of iodine flavour, is essential.
The "white salad" that follows - curled petals of green apple and turnip cresting pieces of lightly cured Murray cod sprinkled with juniper salt - confirms suspicions that this is cooking of a higher order. There's a buttermilk dressing underneath, but the flavour of the cod still comes through true and clean.
It sets the pace for a dish that makes a strong case for more raw lamb on menus. Here it's leg of Suffolk, finely shredded like a tartare, but rather than a kibbeh nayeh Middle Eastern treatment, Petänen throws it down with his version of Japan's shichimi togarashi pepper mix: a crunchy combination of cayenne pepper, red capsicum-flavoured puffed rice, wakame seaweed, sesame and white pepper. It's around about now, too, that the bread comes out: a Finnish potato and caraway loaf, sweet-tart and toasty from the lick of molasses it receives just as it emerges from the oven. It's a meal in itself.
By now you're probably also drinking something interesting, too. Sommelier Dennis Roman came here from Marque, and has put together a short, sweet list that contains not a few nods to his own Chilean heritage among the local and international options. You might be offered a glass of fine fizz from southern Tasmanian winemaker Kate Hill to kick things off, or a grippy orange Testalonga vermentino from Liguria to carry you through the following courses. Senior waiter Nick Dillner, late of Uccello, runs a floor that's more friendly than fussy, and the pace is kept quick by the kitchen.
Cabbage is the unlikely hero dish of the savoury courses. It's roasted with a heroic amount of mussel butter, adorned with a few mussels, tender and sweet, and a lozenge or two of bone marrow. Where it gets really interesting is with the addition of jewels of pomelo and a dusting of powdered cavolo nero. It suggests that we have here a chef with both a real palate and the imagination to use it. He shows us things that aren't just novel, they're boldly delicious.
The flavours of the "photato" are built around a more familiar framework, but only just. Here, Petänen gives us his Scando take on everyone's favourite Vietnamese soup, the noodles rendered in strands of enoki mushroom and fine threads of al dente potato cooked in garlic butter. In place of the basil we've got watercress, and a grilled wedge of Meyer lemon brings an interestingly powerful citrus hit.
The beef component, a single large, very thinly sliced piece of Blackmore wagyu chuck tail flap ("the cow's love handles," offers Dillner), is cut with horseradish and chips of fried garlic. It's the best case for Hanoi-Helsinki fusion you're likely to encounter any time soon.
Friends have said they think the menu is weighted a bit too far to the sweet side, and that they'd prefer another savoury course in place of one of the desserts. It's a fair point. You could, perhaps, dispense with the sweet and chewy chocolate mousse covered in malt, more interesting than delicious with its parsley sorbet accompaniment.
But the carrot sorbet enshrouded in yoghurt mousse is non-negotiable. It's a stunner, the textures luscious and its sweetness undercut by a disc of salted liquorice cake. A clutch of tiny weird things ends the meal as it began: a wonderfully soft, butter popcorn-flavoured tuft of fairy floss, some truly bizarre petits fours in the form of chocolate koalas filled with a eucalyptus caramel, and pork crackling covered in chocolate, salt and fennel seed.
It's a stellar deal. Rare is the restaurant anywhere in the country that's offering ideas this fresh that are executed with anything like the precision Pasi Petänen and his team seem to hold comfortably within their grasp. "We don't want to do anything too try-hard," the chef told us before he opened the doors. God help us, then, if he ever tries to really push the boat out.
For now, Café Paci is an essential addition to Sydney's dining scene, and has struck a blow for the cause of Finnish-Mexican-Vietnamese dining everywhere.
Get it while you can.