Restaurant Reviews

Review: Cafe Paci is simple yet cerebral, and better than ever

Sure, Pasi Petänen can spin Pacojets with the best of them. But with his new, permanent home in Sydney's Inner West, the chef and serial pop-up artist shows he can still win at the basics.

By David Matthews
Chef Pasi Petänen
I'm no expert on Finnish cuisine, but if Cafe Paci is anything to go by it's mainly eggs, potatoes and that gin and grapefruit soda thing they serve in saunas. There's potato in the bread, potato in the dumplings, potato in the sauce dressing a bowl of potatoes, egg and potato on the kingfish. And the key ingredient in the devilled eggs? It's egg.
Sydney has been anticipating the return of Pasi Petänen since he closed his Darlinghurst pop-up four years ago, which hints that Cafe Paci's second coming is a little more than potato and eggs. Petänen was head chef at Marque, which, if nothing else, should tell you that he's a fiercely interested and skilled cook. At Cafe Paci 1.0 he ran a twisting, turning Mexican-Finnish (occasionally Vietnamese) dégustation that made stars of carrot sorbet with liquorice and yoghurt mousse and a rye taco with egg butter. In reopening, this time in Newtown, he's brought a more relaxed, more user-friendly, and yes, more permanent version of his restaurant to life.
The fit-out from George Livissianis, the designer behind such venues as The Dolphin Hotel and Chin Chin, evokes a Euro bar-bistro, with Gianluca Cannizzo wine posters and handsome mirrors accenting a room of concrete, brick, blues and chestnut-brown. A bar heaving with bottles sweeps into an open kitchen, while the edges are softened with curved tables and grippy, textured vermiculite ceiling made of recycled paper and cardboard that, apart from dampening the sound, is the first place to check for your socks if they happen to get knocked off.
Inside Cafe Paci.
It could be the Dutch creams in potato anglaise that do it. It's Petanen's $10 Potato Cooked in the Earth it Was Grown, except it's more potato served in a sauce of itself and the water it was cooked in, with butter. Lots of butter. Simple, sure, but it's Petänen showing that while he can spin Pacojets with the best of them he can still win at the basics.
And this is a place where the basics are right. One that hums with locals who can come for dinner once a week and drinks and snacks twice more. And what snacks. 'Nduja and fermented carrot on rye toast is carrot forward, the 'nduja playing spicy backup to an acid-driven pickle. The Paris-Brest is a beautiful sweet-savoury switch-hit, a circle of choux piped full of chicken-liver parfait on onion jam. The least alluring part of the devilled eggs, featuring a spiced butter inspired by Petänen's time at Lankan Filling Station, turns out to be the eggs, but they'd stand proudly beside a drink any day.
Chicken liver, Paris-Brest with onion jam.
This is where the package-deal thing comes in. Giorgio De Maria – wine importer, Rootstock founder – is pouring from a list that's as pleasurable to read as it is to drink from. The list opens with Yulli's brews, cocktails, sparklings and wild-fermented beers, plus some detours. "Apples Better Than Grapes?" it asks above a roving cider selection. "What About Rice" it says above vibrant Fujiichi Shuzo kanazawa sake. Wines hone in on small French and Italian growers, and waiters will talk through a catarratto made from grapes grown in the volcanic soil of Western Sicily as confidently as they'll dig into the amari section.

Giorgio De Maria and Pasi Petänen.
Paci is staffed by people who've drunk the drinks, eaten the food, and want to tell you about it. Let them. They'll steer you to cavatelli with the tang of sourdough starter that's sweet from grated pear and sharp from pecorino. They'll recommend a flounder, roasted till it's browned on the outside and just cooked in the centre, and served with a glossy sauce Florentine.
Petänen's food is simple, yet cerebral. He takes the kind of rice-and-vegetable casserole you might find in Helsinki and turns it into a cauliflower steak topped with garlic, chilli and buttery breadcrumbs with a cheese sauce based on overcooked white rice. Clever, even if hacking through the cauliflower stalk with the spoon-fork setup can feel a bit 127 Hours. He cooks down smoked trout into a sweet, guttural XO sauce and tosses it through superb gnocchi in an Italian-Cantonese-Australian postcard to home.
Potato dumplings with XO trout.
For sweets, a fudgy cardamom chocolate mousse-cake is cutely concealed with chocolate crisps studded with sprinkles, but the lush sweet-salty classic from the Paci pop-up of carrot sorbet on liquorice cake under an airy yoghurt mousse still holds court. Don't miss it.
I'd say don't miss Cafe Paci, but this time it's staying. What's more, it's become more things to more people, fuelled by Petänen's clear mind and steady hand but in a way that's less tricked-up and more delicious. Potatoes and eggs there may be, but as long as Petänen's cooking them, we're in for a ride.