I'm not going to talk about the wine. Not much anyway. Because to talk about the wine in a discussion of the wine bars that are changing the face of Sydney nightlife - well, that would be another story. Here's what you need to know about the wine at Sydney's new-wave wine bars: there's lots of it, it's very good and, unless you're a sommelier, I can all but guarantee you won't have heard of half of it. (And if you are a sommelier, as many of the customers of these bars seem to be, you've probably tasted only half of the list and are hell-bent on working your way through the rest.) For the most part what I'd like to talk about today, folks, is the food at these places. Or rather the eating and drinking. Because at these outposts of the wine new-wave, one is almost never done without the other.
Back in 2007, you recall, the president of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Hotels Association, John Thorpe, declared that the call to reform the state's licensing laws to diversify the drinking scene was a nonsense. "We aren't barbarians, but we don't want to sit in a hole and drink chardonnay and read a book," he told The Sydney Morning Herald. "People can sit down, talk about history, chew the fat and gaze into each other's eyes and all this sort of baloney but it's pie in the sky stuff," went his most repeated quote. "That's not what Sydney wants."
Fickle, fickle Sydney. In the intervening years, a battery of diverse and interesting new watering holes have sprung up, enriching the city's nightlife by leaps and bounds. Wine drinkers have perhaps the most to crow about, with the appearance of a gaggle of grape-focused bars offering the kind of quality and range you'd hitherto have seen only at one of the city's top vinous-leaning restaurants. Three of the best of the new crop, Love, Tilly Devine, The Wine Library and 10 William Street, also do food of a standard that makes it worth seeking out in its own right.
Love, Tilly Devine is perhaps the oddest of the bunch. It might also be the most compelling. It has a location obscure enough to put many a Melbourne laneway bar to shame, and a wine list that is written with wit and refreshing acuity. It's named not after a grape or a famed appellation, as is tediously often the case, but after one of the most diabolical criminals Sydney ever saw. What's the connection with the notorious madame who presided over the cocaine-dealing, sly grog-peddling razor gangs of the interwar inner city? Just the location, says co-owner and wine guy Matt Swieboda. You might recognise the donnish, bespectacled Swieboda from Quay where he was a sommelier, and his creative co-conspirator, chef Tim Webber, polished his technique at Sean's Panaroma in Bondi - venues not especially known for razor gangs and illicit boozing.
Much of LTD's greatness comes from Swieboda doing his fine-dining wine thing in a setting where you can kick back, let your hair down and have a laugh while Webber flips the vinyl between slicing prosciutto and tearing mozzarella. The location is truly obscure - the former stockroom of the excellent Best Cellars bottle shop, entered from an alleyway off an alleyway - but turning the corner to make the discovery is half the fun. It's not spacious, mind. Downstairs could pass for a tightly packed museum of uncomfortable chairs; upstairs is air-conditioned and better suited for lengthier or more involved oenological explorations.
The kitchen isn't really a kitchen - more a counter with very limited fridge space. Webber has made a virtue of the limitations this imposes, presenting a clipped, market-fresh menu. There's usually a pâté made from Burrawong duck livers that has all the silky sweetness of its progenitor back at Panaroma, and the peerless salumi that's the pride of Pino's in Kogarah is a staple. Beyond that, it's whatever takes Webber's whim - typically ingredients sourced from within the state, and cooked in a Mod Oz/Med framework of flavours. That could be buffalo mozzarella from Melbourne, paired simply with broad beans in oil, or giant octopus roasted in natural wine with new potatoes and a garlic-tangy mayonnaise. Jackson Pollock is a name frequently dropped by food writers when they're talking about the way plates are presented in restaurants nowadays, but the raw local pink snapper - dressed with celery leaves, discs of radish, chives, cress and new season's oil and brightened with finger lime - is John Olsen all the way.
Things lean to the idiosyncratic in the wine department, but there's no flab on the list. By the glass your choices are likely to include everything from the juicy Marked Tree Red shiraz, from Collector, just outside Canberra, to a demi-sec French cider that has a distinct whiff of Band-Aid on its bouquet. The introduction to the riesling section acknowledges the influence of Paul Grieco, the sommelier's sommelier, at Manhattan wine bar Terroir - something you can see in the irreverent reverence shown for the grape and its sacred producers. Rule one, the Fight Club-esque spiel goes, is that "riesling is the best drink in this bar". Rule two? "Riesling is the best drink in any bar." The line walked in the writing of the list, blending straight-talking useful detail (rule eight: "Sweeter rieslings are typically very low in alcohol, meaning you can drink even more") with the odd laff (rule 10: "There are several unconfirmed reports of rieslings curing the terminally ill"), is a pretty clear reflection of the way Swieboda and his team play it on the floor. It works.
You can, in a pinch, put together a meal at Love, Tilly Devine, but for something more substantial, it's all about 10 William Street and The Wine Library. Both have been opened by restaurateurs. William Street is owned by Marco Ambrosino and Giovanni and Enrico, the brothers Paradiso, the dapper Italian gents behind Potts Point stayer Fratelli Paradiso. The Wine Library is the love child of Traci Trinder, James Hird and Todd Garratt, best known for Buzo, the Jersey Road restaurant they own around the corner from the Library's Oxford Street, Woollahra digs. The Library's eats are a day-long proposition and the menu, accordingly, has a bit more heft. There's a smart selection of sandwiches - poached chicken celery and fennel pollen with mayo on baguette, say - that's as well suited to a mid-morning espresso as it is, to, say, a mid-morning Beechworth gamay or Arbois savagnin.
Where Buzo is all Italian (albeit expressed through the prism of Reschs-drinking Sydneysiders' perspective), Wine Library's catalogue sparkles with the dew of grapes from all over. The menu's heart remains in Italy (hence the glassed-in salumi cabinet), but golden chicken pie, flavoured with oloroso sherry and sweet leek, takes its inspiration from Andalusia, the pork pie and kippered herrings on toast from further-flung climes still. There's real flair here, both in the conception of the dishes (boiled eggs served with a shaker of fennel salt) and in their execution (the bounce in the pork and veal meatballs). The "cheeseburger", hilariously, is just that - a wedge of hot baked tomino cheese on a roll, cut with rosemary and confit garlic. This clutch of wine bars treat desserts more or less as an afterthought ("why not just open another bottle?" hangs the unasked question). The Wine Library is the exception, the vin santo baked custard, a luscious, voluptuous thing served in a low glass, composed of equal parts caramel and desire.
Perhaps it's something fostered by the centrality of wine, or maybe it's just the bar layout, but service is a strength at all of these establishments. At 10 William Street, though, it becomes a reason to visit in itself. Ambrosino and the fratelli Paradiso have the knack of creating the impression you've just stepped into a party you're not sure you're invited to but definitely want to join. Here they're aided in no small part by the presence of sommelier Matt Young and manager David Myers. Young is best known for his contribution to the wonder of the modern world that is the wine list at Aria, while Myers has worked the floor with notable verve at the Four in Hand and the Bentley. Where the genial Myers is voluble, Young tends to be softer spoken, but both of them know the explosive blackboard list back-to-front and upside-down. And, like every other stakeholder at 10 William, they're truly, madly, deeply in love with wine, whether it's a groovy Occhipinti Nero d'Avola blend out of Sicily, straight up-and-down Chablis, the cult "handmade" Didi wines from the Adelaide Hills (some of them made exclusively for the Frat Paz gang) or the sake Young has a known weakness for.
The menu is Italian but not so traditional it can't take in white truffle paste on the one hand (sad face!) and a pork neck slider on the other (happy face!). This puppy combines thin slices of the pig's least appreciated cut on a soft bun with tiny onions and kipfler chips on the plate. It's a must. The only thing that's better is the salt brisket panino, which taps into Italy's great tradition of corned beef sandwiches. Ahem. There's a fresh pasta special most days: the pork and veal ragù tonight is appropriately indelicate, and there's heft to the pasta ribbons rather than supple elegance, but as food to drink wine to it gets the job done. Are the suppli, little orbs of fried risotto with hot cheese nuclei, perfectly seasoned? Maybe not. Will you polish off the plate regardless? Definitely.
God may be absent from the details of some of the cooking, but He is definitely present in the set-dressing: the glare of the kitchen fluoros is carefully shaded behind a drawn blind, the Negronis are adorned with so-Euro narrow-gauge straws, and the layout of the upstairs/downstairs two rooms keeps things intimate rather than claustrophobic. Then there's the poached pear. It's just a poached pear, not too sweet, on a plate with a heaped rubble of good parmesan cheese. It's the right way to finish a meal, and it's an emblem of the good taste that is 10 William's biggest drawcard.
Not everyone wants to enjoy their $700 Bâtard-Montrachet sitting on a bar stool. Plenty of people, too, like their entrées to be entrées, their main courses to be main courses, and their desserts to be substantial. At the Sydney wine bar circa 2011, tables are small, the bar seating is packed and - these are bars, after all - reservations aren't taken. Casual as they are, they shouldn't be mistaken for cheap. But not everyone wants to have to drink their Burgundy in the hush of a restaurant. And plenty of people like the idea of having something really seriously excellent to eat and drink while they're catching up with friends to chew the fat while they listen to tunes from Al Green, Andrew Bird or, god help me, an album of dub covers of Radiohead. At the Sydney wine bar circa 2011, you'll find the same passion for communication and sharing that our best chefs have for their food, along with the sense of shared good times you'll find at good bars and pubs everywhere. And yes, Mr Thorpe, this is what Sydney wants.