In many ways, the pork at Café Sopra Potts Point is the ideal marriage of Italy's porchetta and the classic Anglo roast. With this curly tail, I thee wed. A piece of belly, its skin scored deeply in fine, even lines, it is heavily seasoned so that it becomes darkly tanned and hugely crisp in the oven. The fat renders well during roasting, and the flavour of the meat isn't tainted by excessive pheromonal porkiness - two qualities that put it ahead of many a lesser piece of restaurant belly.
On a plate, in two rough-hewn chunks with some sharply dressed watercress and a lemon cheek, Italianate in its simplicity, it'll cost you $22. You could pair it with radicchio and aged balsamic vinegar and green and tender broccolini dressed with lemon olive oil, or you could indulge the Chiantishire leanings of the menu and go for an accompaniment of baby cos and salad cream. Or chips.
So it is that one of the most Italian menus in town is cooked by an English bloke. Andy Bunn, as far as I'm concerned, seems to have extra-virgin olive oil in his veins, but can somehow still whack an Eton mess between sgroppino and tiramisù and make it seem perfectly natural. Bunn started cooking back in the UK more than 25 years ago, working at The Oak Room and Langan's Brasserie among others in London. He moved to Australia following a holiday here, and it was visiting Rob Broadbent's farm at Collector in country New South Wales, just outside Canberra, while working with Broadbent at the Robin Hood Bistro in Sydney's inner east that fired his interest in working more directly with produce.
Bunn later took the head chef role when Broadbent and his mother, jam-maker Robbie Howard, opened the Lynwood Café in Collector. He also gained a following back in Sydney for his increasingly Italian-styled food at the now sadly missed Osteria Moana in Potts Point and Fuel Bistro in Crown Street, Surry Hills.
Meanwhile, Barry McDonald, and his brother Jamie, a long-time Sydney produce duo, needed someone to run the café they had planned for the upper floor of their new Waterloo providore, Fratelli Fresh. With Bunn putting together a menu drawn largely from the restaurant-quality fruit and veg downstairs and the range of imported Italian oils, pasta and tasty things in jars, Café Sopra, as it was called (it's Italian for 'upstairs'), was an instant hit.
"My brief at Sopra is to try and utilise as much as possible the stuff that we have in-house," Bunn told us back in 2004. "It's not deliberately vegetarian, but that's a big part of what we sell, and we also want to give really good value for money and keep the prices good, and it's when you start to use meat and fish that your costings start to really rise."
Meat and fish, then, weren't off the menu, but rather sidelined in favour of verdant greens, dusky fruits and bosky pluckings, and keeping the focus on the shop's wares made them seem all the more approachable to casual shoppers. "The dishes are really, really simple, and anyone can do the same as I'm doing."
Four years later and Sopra has proven to offer some of the most consistently good eating in town. The McDonald brothers have continued to source the amazing produce that Andy Bunn needs to keep it simple in the kitchen, and the customers keep coming in droves of designer prams and whale-sized SUVs.
It's not entirely surprising, then, that they decided to expand, and now the good people of Potts Point have a store to call their own, above the Woolworths on Macleay Street. The last couple of businesses to inhabit it went belly-up, but if anything can put paid to the idea of a cursed site, it's Fratelli Fresh Potts Point.
"It's the first place I've ever opened up that has been busy from day one and has been consistently busy after that," said Bunn of the first Fresh. The interest in the new place makes that seem rather tame in comparison: they've been mobbed from the word go.
It's much like a condensed version of the original, occupying a small, squeezy space past the cash registers and off to the side of the racks of cavolo nero, broad beans, pencil leeks, boutique citrus and bespoke tomatoes that comprise the business's focus. The main difference is that this one opens for dinner (a decision predicated as much on the late-night shopping habits of this neighbourhood's denizens as anything else). The blackboard menu is large, in every sense, and the looseness of its design and the service mean that the value and vibe are at their best when you're sharing dishes between four or so.
If you can get a table, that is. There are less positive commonalities between Sopras new and old. It's a victim of its own popularity, and no facility for reservations of any kind is offered, not even the opportunity to front up in person and leave a number. You're either there when a table comes up - perhaps wandering the aisles doing a little shopping, dangerously good $8.50 Negroni in hand - or you're not.
Barry McDonald says he'd love to offer reservations, but they'd equate to higher prices, and he'd prefer to keep everything under $25. If this doesn't flag the dire shortage of good food at fair prices in the city, nothing will. That crush also means that the service can veer from pleasantly brisk to straight-out brusque. On the whole it's pretty good, considering.
But back to the food: it's very good. The menu is almost identical to that at the papa Sopra, and deliberately so, with the addition of a bit more protein at dinner: the odd snapper fillet or grilled steak with anchovy and chicory. Vegetables get short shrift in most restaurants, but here they're the star. A pretty quartet of eggs mayonnaise, lemon oil-dressed Roman beans, mushrooms with cumin and tomato and boiled fennel with salsa verde leaves just about every other antipasto in town for dead. Throw in an order of the mixed salumi, and believe me, it's hard to beat.
Finely shaved baby cabbage needs only parmesan and balsamic vinegar to transform it into a memorable salad. Vitello tonnato is gummily true to the original, with paper-thin slices of lemon to make it talk pretty, while risotto alla Milanese is at once simple and saucy with saffron and bone marrow. Dress it up with a tomatoless white-wine based osso buco that surrenders at the touch of a fork. Or don't. It's your call.
Desserts are well worth investigating, and the spazzacamino, Italian for 'chimney-sweep', is a great place to start. It's a scoop of gelato doused with Glenmorangie single-malt whisky and dusted with ground coffee. Banoffee pie is a creamy caramel-and-banana delight, but it's the strawberries that capture Sopra at its finest. They're served in a bowl with some Chantilly cream for company and nothing else, the fruit so fragrant and luscious that even that small adornment seems almost gratuitous.
I could go on, and at length. There's an awful lot of good eating to be had in this establishment. In the four years I've been eating at Sopra, I don't think I've ever had a bad meal, and with Bunn and the fratelli McDonald taking care to reproduce Fratelli Fresh's winning formula as closely as possible at the new site, it seems, dare I say it, like a sure thing.
It's not food that's reaching. This is not the place for reductions, reconstructions or rigour. This is the place where food is truly produce-driven, where even the room itself is produce-driven, and where everything else takes a back seat to the primacy of that produce. How refreshing.