A reckless friend defines the borders of Europe by its green beans. A true European, he argues, would never serve a squeaky bean, and woe betide anyone who leaves them crunchy. Australian chefs, he continues, are so fearful of overcooked vegetables that they invariably err way too far on the under side. The line is fine, but at the Continental, true to the name, they're all about the properly cooked veg, à point all the way, whether it's asparagus, peas, peppers or zucchini. It's not your everyday rallying cry, but you have to admit it has a certain charm.
Vegetables are by no means the main game here. "DELI • BAR • BISTRO" reads the business card, and that's roughly the order of priorities. By his own admission, chef and co-owner Elvis Abrahanowicz has been obsessed with delicatessens and tinned fish since he was a sprat, and at the Continental he makes a fetish of both. The upper floor of the terrace, tucked on Australia Street handily between the Courthouse Hotel and Newtown police station, is a two-room bistro, while the ground floor serves as bar and deli both. If you like cold cuts with a coldie, things are looking up.
Ten years ago at Bodega, Abrahanowicz, his fellow chef and co-owner Ben Milgate, sommelier and partner Joe Valore, and style goddess and hostess Sarah Doyle turned the moribund tapas-bar concept on its head. They created a thoroughly Surry Hills-styled eatery that pulled together bold graphics, an eclectic menu, Bohemian-style etched mirrors and rollicking tunes in a somehow seamless package that became a magnet for the neighbourhood's cool kids, food fans and cool-kid food fans. At Porteño they doubled down on size and the Latin side of Abrahanowicz's Polish-Argentinian heritage, opening an asado that was utterly worthy of the Buenos Aires demonym, and yet not quite like anything you'd ever be lucky enough to find in Argentina. Against all the odds, too, they found a way to make it even louder than their first place.
Since then, the chef has become a husband and father, and at the Continental it's definitely less "Elvis" and more "Abrahanowicz". He still sports metal teeth and roughly as much ink as any four convicted felons you can name put together, and you don't have to look far around the room for liberty rolls, pin-up bangs and well-oiled quiffs - this is Newtown, after all - but everything feels a bit more grown-up nonetheless.
And that goes double for the bistro. "This is like eating at Yiayia's place," said a companion as we settled into the insistently green dining room upstairs. "Or at Nonna's," said another. It's a feeling intensified by the first dinner sitting starting at six (the second is at 8.30). But Nan probably doesn't hang her walls with large framed drawings of pickle jars and lobsters, and unless she's a particularly hip nan, is unlikely to decorate with baskets crammed with pineapples.
There are moments when the menu leans a bit blue-rinse, too. When was the last time you saw chicken breast listed on a menu by a leading chef?
But Abrahanowicz roasts it (no sous-vide here) and puts it on the plate with confit chicken leg, braised celery in a whopping length, little onions and a sauce made with chardonnay, the menu proclaims, from Walsh & Sons in Margaret River.
Ben Milgate, Abrahanowicz's long-term kitchen companion and brother-from-another-mother, isn't involved with this venture; instead, Canadian chef Jesse Warkentin shares duties at the stoves. The Continental's bistro presents a different palate - somehow with not so much bass and treble. The accents of intense acid and spice that typify the cooking at Bodega are largely absent and, despite the presence of plenty of cheese, charcuterie and cured stuff in the deli, the food has little of the smoky, fatty, salty vibe of Porteño (though it is reminiscent at times of some of the dishes the team threw down at Popteño, their Rushcutters Bay pop-up, last summer).
It's certainly rich. A showering of Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings is the unusual twist on an otherwise tame and correct beef tartare ringed by gaufrette potatoes (aka the chips with the crisscross pattern), while fat rounds cut from a log of goat's cheese top a tall Tatin of roasted shallots. The boldest of the entrées is a pair of large ravioli swimming in a cream sauce sharpened with prosecco and tarragon. The mixture of prawn and lamb's brains that fills them is quite probably going to scare off more than a few diners, but the brains give the stuffing a lightness and bounce that really make it sing.
Surprisingly few elements of the deli are brought upstairs. They do a bit of canning in-house downstairs, and tinned peas, with that luscious not-quite-mealy texture, make an apt cameo on a plate piled with unfrenched cutlets topped with yoghurt-dressed purslane and a handsomely large anchovy fillet.
(Try not to think too hard about the environmental ethics of canning peas in your restaurant only to open them up again for one of your main courses.)
Long-cooked veg is given a starring role stuffed, yemista-style, with aromatic rice. Far from the usual dreary watery flip-off to vegetarians, this version is distinguished by the concentrated flavours of the tomato, pepper and zucchini and the way they and the short-grain rice are cooked just a shade shy of too much.
Baked Vacherin with smoked sausage and olives.
Zucchini comes out on top again, figuratively speaking, with its nightshade buddies in the rough-cut ratatouille that underpins the fish of the day: yellowbelly flounder, the pristine steamed fillets stacked pearly and full of juice under a wodge of taramasalata. It might be the dish of the night. It's the little details, like the way the taramasalata (replete with scalloped edges) is separated from the fish by a sliver of croûton, that's typical of the undersell, overdeliver ethos that sets Abrahanowicz and his crew apart from the crowd. The look upstairs hasn't quite gelled yet, and some aspects of its concept and decoration border on the precious, but you don't have to look too hard to see these guys aren't just doing retro for retro's sake. The direction and decisions have come from the gut as much as the brain.
Dessert. Is overproof Bundaberg the best choice of rum to pour over a big baba? Probably not, but it surely is flammable. Will the bubbly, uneven finish on the sides of crème caramel prompt narrowed eyes from obsessive pastry types? No doubt, but the diced fig accompaniment is a nice idea.
I'm more sold on the sides. Asparagus, topped mimosa-style with sieved boiled egg and resting in a little butter sauce, is a masterclass in how vegetables ought to be cooked - a worthy entrée in itself. The boulangère, a very well-browned cross-section of potato strata, is flat-out brilliant. (Not to bang on about the prices, but when the sides are $14 each, they damn well should be a hit; nothing about Continental is cheap.)
Service is abundant and well-meaning in the bistro, though they're yet to master the dark art of fitting all the food on the tiny marble-topped tables with finesse. (The key thing is firmly believing it can be done, whatever else the rules of physics may insist.) Despite the awkward feel to the rooms, there's nothing inherently wrong with upstairs - after all, what's more likeable than the idea of a few tables above a deli where you can get the good stuff? The challenge is getting there. Downstairs is just too much fun.
It's okay as a day place - even if they don't do coffee and the sandwiches are slathered with a bit too much butter, oil and fat for me to say I truly love them - but as a deli you can drink in, or a bar with a radically overdeveloped commitment to quality snacks, it's one of the best and most fun openings of the season.
Much credit must go to Sarah Doyle here. She's famously exacting when it comes to details and finishes, and Continental abounds in beautiful touches, whether it's the careful curation (for once that loathsome word might actually be justified) of the all-killer-no-filler cans and jars for sale on the shelves, the heavy brass pigs holding down the business cards by the till or the dark timber joinery on the refrigerators. Barman Mikey Nicolian, late of Gardel's Bar, and co-owner/wine fella Joe Valore work the floor with gusto, Nicolian popping the lid on canned Martinis and showing around the sardine tray (like a cigarette girl, only taller and fishier), Valore stepping away from his Latin specialisation to pour wines from Australia, Italy and France as well as stuff with tildes in the name.
The eats are gutsier down here, whether you're talking the plate of house-cured fish (big, fat mussels, lush Tommy ruff, sublimely textured hunks of octopus tentacle), or the salumi, often cut thick in the French style. Then there's the barbecue-stopper: a Vacherin baked whole in its little spruce box. It takes a hard heart (or at least some hardened arteries) to resist molten brie accessorised with green olives and rounds of smoked Polish sausage on toothpicks.
Garnishes of pickled peppers and fancy potato chips also abound. Nothing beats the treatment for the razor clams, though. The can of Conservas de Cambados comes not only with fancy crisps and green olives spliced with slivers of lemon, but tiny stemmed glasses of the clams' canning liquor on ice with dry sherry and a dash of Lillet Blanc.
A good deli is hard to find. A good deli that does outlandish, tasty and exciting things with tinned fish and gin is a revelation. Once a familiar part of the urban landscape, the deli is a dying breed, But if the butchery can reinvent itself as a hip, new desirable thing, so too can the delicatessen - at least if Elvis Abrahanowicz has anything to say about it.