Surprisingly enough, it's all about the brown rice. But then, Ester isn't your common or garden wood-fired place. I guess you could say the dish is reminiscent of dolsot bibimbap, Korea's crunchy stone-pot rice, what with the sesame and toasty-rice flavour through it, but the presence of egg and plenty of blue swimmer crab folded into the mix are more suggestive of a Cantonese fried rice. Where the crisped-up curry leaves, buckwheat and shavings of chicken skin leave us, culturally speaking, I'm not sure, but wherever it is, it's delicious.
After a few years where the focus was on lab-precise cooking done in winking and gleaming machines bought from scientific supply stores, the pendulum in restaurants has swung back the other way. This is not to say that the practice of vacuum-sealing ingredients and poaching them in water-baths has disappeared from kitchens; far from it. But now when young chefs congregate they're more likely to be talking about the woods they're burning or the quality of their charcoal than comparing sous-vide HACCP plans and the precision of each other's equipment. Saison, the San Francisco establishment that has captured much of the new-restaurant buzz in the US this year, has a $50,000 custom-built hearth at its heart. Cooking without digital regulation makes greater demands on the chef, but offers greater rewards, especially for the person who ends up eating the food. Fire is, well, hot.
When you follow smoke to its source nowadays, though, you won't necessarily find yourself in a Hogarthian scene strewn with ribs and sizzling fat. In some cases it's not about the meat at all. At Etxebarri, a pyro-culinarians pilgrimage site in the Basque country of Spain, glass eels are cooked over embers with mesh pans, and even the ice-cream is smoked. Dave Pynt works as many wonders with leeks and fennel as he does with beefsteak and pork butt at Burnt Ends in Singapore, while, back home, Hamish Ingham's hits at Sydney's The Woods include duck, prawns and mackerel all tried by fire.
At Ester perhaps the other most visible thing approaching signature dish status is the cauliflower. Boiling members of the brassica family can bring out their off-flavours, but roasting them concentrates their sweetness and gives them complexity. Here the half-head of cauli comes out of the domed wood-fired oven well browned and charry around the edges. Chef Mat Lindsay contrasts that flavour with the clean, rich taste of an almond cream, fragments of almond and a few leaves of mint. It's an exuberant-looking dish made great by its restraint (watch Mat Lindsay make it, and get the recipe, in our exclusive video clip).
The feel of the dining room might be stripped back, paper napkins on clothless tables, but elsewhere Ester doesn't hold back. Sit at the bar and you'll quickly be furnished with crunchy spiced chickpeas and Julien Dromgool's concise, personal wine list. Get stuck into a blend of inzolia and grecanico from Sicily's Cos, a Mutemuka sake, a Mountain Goat ale or a glass of the dangerously drinkable shiraz-mourvèdre Tom Shobbrook makes at Seppeltsfield and you might not want to surrender your perch too soon. These guys are masters of dishes that work as well at the bar as they do at the table: oysters roasted just long enough to pop their tops, accented with a little horseradish; octopus finished in the oven to a splendid char with blackened onions, teamed one day with chorizo, the next with the flavours of 'nduja. And they bake a handsome loaf.
They're also not above a bit of fun: the blood sausage "sanga", a square of steamed white bread enfolding a dense and wonderful blood sausage, coriander cress and caramelised onion, is a six-dollar punch in the face of deliciousness and a sausage sizzle to remember. There's no stunt-casting here, no throwing together of ingredients for incongruity's sake, but the ideas still feel fresh and invigorating. Fried saltbush makes a reliable partner for a rotating cast of fish fillets (bass groper, perhaps), while radishes and bagna càuda (here turned into a sauce of butter, garlic and anchovy) are teamed successfully with steaks big (a monster T-bone) and small (juicy flank).
I've had the chicken with lemon and garlic a few times now, and it's yet to impress me, though the sauce is a great alibi for ordering more of that bread. The chermoula-crusted lamb shoulder, too, is good without being great; it needs a bit too much of its accompanying yoghurt to make up for not being all that juicy. But, having eaten close to the whole menu now, plus a few specials, I can tell you that the lows aren't particularly low and the highs are consistently up there. These guys are getting it right. They know what they're doing.
Dessert is concise rather than cursory. Two of the dishes are little more than dressed-up ices (fennel ice-cream and chocolate gelato, each $4), but the one dish the team has lavished a bit more attention to more than holds its own. Called "three milks", it's not a version of Latin America's ultra-sweet milk-soaked tres leches cake but rather a fairly stunning milk-on-milk-on-milk deal that deploys a foam of sheep's milk yoghurt to undercut the riches of a very soft cow's milk panna cotta and goat's milk dulce de leche. The textural counterpoint comes from crumbs of olive-oil biscuit and blades of rosemary. Skip it at your peril.
Ester's carte is substantial, and the set menus - $62 for six(-ish) courses, $89 for eight(-ish) - are generous. The dishes are light, but these people want to see you fed. You quickly get the sense that everyone working here, waiters and cooks alike, are intent on making Ester as good as it can be. Better still, they're all experienced enough to not be too in-your-face about it. It's not surprising, then, to learn that it's part of the Vini family, kin to Berta and 121BC, where the mantra seems to be "undersell, overdeliver". More, please.