This restaurant has closed.
The modern Italian restaurant is a tricky beast. Italian food, generally speaking, isn't about modernity. Tradition rules, regionality is micro-specific, and innovation takes place over generations at best. In Italy itself, the best restaurant eating is proverbially at the tavola calda, trattoria and osteria level. Beyond anomalies such as Harry's Bar and, latterly, Gambero Rosso, the white-tablecloth end tends to make its money by either Frenchifying the native cuisine or by being more strictly traditional than the neighbours - and charging for it.
Outside Italy, the fancying-up of Italian food for restaurants generally proceeds along well-trodden paths. There's the parmesan-foam and spherified lasagne school (Carlo Cracco being the leading proponent), but most try to negotiate a course between the Scylla of the expectations of the modern restaurant diner and the Charybdis of rigid traditionalism. This usually translates into variations on the theme of tomato and mozzarella, a wine list crammed with super-Tuscans (at prices that would make the Medici choke) and waiters who make "ciao" and "prego" sound like terms of abuse. Ever more expensive imports - $20 tinned tomatoes, oils priced like frankincense and myrrh, and Parmigiano and prosciutto one-upmanship - abound. Meats and fish, traditionally special-occasion stuff in the old country, are a rollcall of the designer proteins of the moment.
Every now and then, though, someone gets the modern and Italian mix just right - London's River Café and Mario Batali's family of restaurants in Manhattan are among those who have made a real fist of it. In Sydney right now, the finest example of the modern Italian moda might just be Coast. It's not a new restaurant; it was last reviewed in this magazine after Stefano Manfredi took the reins amid a renovation in 2005. After Manfredi's consultancy concluded, the head chef Jonathan Barthelmess took over in the kitchen in earnest. Manfredi's influence is there, but the food Barthelmess is cooking now is his own, and it shows confidence and maturity rare in a 30 year old.
It may shock Italian readers to learn that the person cooking some of Sydney's best modern Italian is, in fact, Greek. Barthelmess's background includes an apprenticeship at Clarence Street's Da Adolfo and work with Jo Ward at Mu Shu. A Positano restaurateur relative instilled in him the importance of featuring as few elements on the plate as possible. Latterly encouragement has sprung from a chance friendship with Janni Kyritsis of MG Garage and Berowra Waters fame, a chef with a Yoda-like ability to nurture nascent talent.
All this adds up to Mediterranean flair and intensity yoked to an observant and restaurant-savvy modern sensibility. What you get on the plate is carefully edited flavours and a considered play of textures. It's accomplished work and fits into the Coast package - high-ceilinged Darling Harbour-side room, jacketed, well-spoken service, discreetly ambitious Australian/Italian wine list - seamlessly.
The menu is a large document, offering a winning selection of oysters and salumi to start that are testament to both owner Tim Connell's oysterman background and Barthelmess's close working relationship with Pino Tomini-Foresti, Kogarah's pork prince. In addition to the à la carte choices, there's a chef's market menu which offers solid value at two courses for $39 or three for $50 at lunch and four for $59 at dinner. Served family-style, it runs to the likes of a salad of cabbage and pecorino, pasta puttanesca and a braise of fat fingers of pork belly laid across sweet and sour peppers followed by a fruit crumble.
The best way to see what the kitchen can do, though, is to order the tasting menu. Dégustation-style dining is less common in modern Italian restaurants than at their French counterparts, but it's usually a good thing, and gets around the secondi slowdown that afflicts many of our finer Italian establishments. At Coast, the tasting menu's length appears to have been tailored to the attention-span and level of hunger of an average diner, not the ego of a chef. A good thing, and nowhere near as common as you'd hope.
The first course, a crudo of kingfish, shows how familiar ideas are here given wings anew with the simple application of finesse. Raw fish is something of a touchstone in the new Italian canon: for all the evidence of raw fish being eaten in Italy (typically freshwater fish), nine out of 10 restaurant versions trace their lineage more honestly to the collision of big-money Italian and sushi restaurants in Manhattan and London in the '90s. Too often, like their nightclub-sashimi counterparts, these dishes are glowing with acid and any taste the fish may have had gets blasted (possibly intentionally). The smarter players follow the salad-dressing rule of being a spendthrift with the oil and a miser with the vinegar (or citrus). Barthelmess falls squarely into this latter camp: his raw fish offerings involve fat capers and white balsamic but they register as an accent, letting the fish do its thing.
Texture is something which Barthelmess handles with unusual control and grace. His untraditional calamari and eggplant dish is something of a signature here, and that's what it's all about. On one side of the plate sits a short stack of paper-thin cross-sections of eggplant. The other holds a nest of pieces of calamari cut equally finely. Between bites of one and the other are bright tomato dice and a brushstroke of squid-ink dressing. Its brilliance lies in the execution: the eggplant sings of sharp blades and clean oil brought to the ideal temperature to keep the slices crisp and greaseless. They shatter crunchily and the calamari (and the hapless diner) surrenders with a sigh.
Making seared tuna seem interesting to veteran restaurant-goers is definitely a challenge. At Coast, it's not so much the pairing of ingredients that makes it - fennel and orange with the fish is tried and true - but again the deft balance of sweetness and acid. Heck, at most restaurants you're lucky if a chef under 35 consistently tastes for salt correctly. Here, the interchange between honeyed almonds, smiling segments of orange, braised fennel and the fish itself is something to marvel at.
These dishes alone would make Coast worth a visit, but Barthelmess keeps hitting them for six, seemingly without breaking a sweat. Whether it's the brilliant simplicity of the made-to-order risotto marrying the richness of Taleggio with the punch of black pepper, or the restraint of palely pink tranches of duck breast with cherries and saba (the reduced grape must, not the Melbourne clothier), the sage-salved ricotta and pumpkin gnocchi with brown butter, the snowflake-soft Campari and orange sorbet, the strawberries and cream with aged balsamic, the tiny saffron pears with panna cotta, or a sneaky galaktoboureko: bang, bang, bang, bang, bang over the fence every time.
And the floor staff are right there at the party. Sommelier Brendon February, last seen at Buon Ricordo, keeps pace with the strike-rate, whether it's a bright semi-oaked Pugliese chardonnay with the barramundi on pine nut-leavened caponata or a frisky zibibbo with the pears.
Jonathan Barthelmess is a talented chef just starting to flex his muscles, and right now the setting of Coast complements the food he's making to winning effect. He appears to take his work seriously without becoming self-serious. His menus honour both the essentials of Italian cooking in their restraint and the expectations of his clientele in their freshness and attention to detail. The depth of quality can sustain multiple visits over a season and the value is sound. The modern Italian food of Sydney appears to have found a new champion.