Those last supper, death row meal discussions are a worry. Not because they're a weak conversational gambit of the sort that comes after a too-long pause in the flow at a dinner party (they're that, too). Rather because if your request, when death is knocking on your door, is anything other than "one last sweet, desperate gasp of liberty" or "a final fleeting embrace with the ones I love", you probably haven't really grasped the gravity of the situation. Foie gras doesn't enter into it.
Anyway, mine's corned beef. Not Damien Pignolet's or Sean Moran's at Panaroma, or Jeremy Strode's, wonderful, wagyu-amped versions they might be. It's not Janni Kyritsis's salad of corned brisket, pig's ears and mustard greens, or even the salt beef brisket sandwiches in fresh white bread swaddling at London's Beigel Bake Brick Lane. No, it's my nan's. Saw that one coming, didn't you? The clove-studded onion, like a mighty sea mine, the slightly stiff mash as an accompaniment, the brand of mustard she likes, those particular plates, the carrots overcooked just so. Madeleines be buggered, I say - and pass the white sauce.
I'm not going to say that the corned beef Colin Fassnidge has on at Four in Hand at the moment is in any danger of knocking the One True Corned Beef to Rule Them All off my personal hit parade, but if you haven't been fortunate enough to try the Melva Nourse version, this could be the one for you. It's certainly the fanciest corned beef I've ever seen. There's a handful of dishes out there that suffer the special ignominy of being singled out for constant remixing - when was the last time you saw a Caesar or Niçoise in a restaurant that some 25-year-old genius hadn't "improved"? - but mercifully the old silverside ain't one of them.
The Four's goes a little something like this: there's a big white slash of buffalo curd on the plate for richness and lactic acidity. This acidity is built up with a little tile of crunchy nashi pear, on top of which sits a juicy, laser-cut brick of poached corned silverside. Sharp, sharp, sharp. It's topped with another piece of nashi and then - the crowning flourish - draped with a swatch of bresaola. It's an important dish because it's very pretty (or as pretty as something draped with a sheet of cured beef can be), it's clever (the salt-meat on salt-meat pairing is savvy), packs a flavour wallop without losing its essential lightness (it's an entrée) and the thinking is original. It firmly places Four in Hand as one of Sydney's premier dining destinations.
Fassnidge has been in the kitchen here for a good seven years now, and the fit is mutually beneficial. As much as his cooking has progressed and evolved, touches of the old country still shine through - flavours and ideas that are very much simpático with the style of the pub and its immediate eastern suburbs neighbourhood. For all that he likes to play up his loutish side, this is a chef who has very firm ideas about hospitality. There are framed menus from Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons on the staircase and in the bathrooms, and, if nothing else, Fassnidge's time with Raymond Blanc in Oxfordshire seems to have left him with the understanding that food, though central, is just one part of the package.
The Four has had one of the best and most interesting cellars in Paddington for a decade now, and has never lacked the kind of smart, professional waiters who can sell it. All the boxes are ticked, too, whether it's interesting beers, a Tuesday night-friendly selection by the glass, good stuff on which to lash out or some serious digestifs. That richness and depth has certainly remained unchanged.
Fassnidge is no internet trend-hopper, but his food moves with the times. The food here has always been good - better than it needs to be, perhaps - and it offers consistently good value. The thing about Colin Fassnidge is, for all his mouthiness on social media and burgeoning TV presence, he's a working chef at heart. That's who he is. He cooks, and cooks, and cooks some more, and as a result his cooking keeps getting better. It's not the lightning bolt that sometimes comes from a particularly inspiring stage at a foreign restaurant, but rather the rewards of patience and simply putting in the hours.
The plating of the fennel custard with crab, for instance, has a very post-Noma sort of look - a faintly anise, fennel-sweet cream set in a wide, shallow, asymmetrical bowl - but flavour this clear can't be cribbed from a book or Instagram. It's scattered with heaps of crab (the big shreds of leg meat that comes to the country from Alaska frozen), Microplane shavings of hazelnut and lemon zest and, where you'd expect dill, fronds plucked from the fennel tops. Who is this damnably elegant Irishman, you're thinking as you drop your spoon, and when are we having lunch here again?
Order the dégustation - a sensible five courses at an apt $95 - and it's a question you'll find yourself asking a lot. It'll be prompted first by the startling clarity of the demitasse of fish soup punched up with smoked paprika and orange, served as an appetiser, then by a cool chlorophyll hit from the cucumber juice used to dress chunks of raw tuna, crisp swatches of bread, sea greens and horseradish snow.
There's a world of balance and flavour in the roast lamb plate. It's one of those tour-of-the-beast numbers that puts confit rib, neatly grilled tongue and the like all in the same bowl. But unlike many similar dishes, the overall effect highlights the individual qualities of each cut. The meatiness is relieved by turnip, a spring onion bulb, thymey dumplings, celery leaf and giving carrot, and a dash of buttermilk in a light jus the menu says is infused with smoked hay. It comes off like Ireland's answer to pot-au-feu.
The dégustation ends with chocolate malt, an inventive rendering of its two namesake ingredients in various forms: balls of malt ice-cream and a slick of sticky organic malt discernible in the cocoa-dusted whole. The lemon verbena parfait, topped with ribbons of sorrel, chunks of honeycomb from the restaurant's rooftop hives and nestled around an apple sorrel sorbet, is also well worth a detour.
We've referred to chef Fassnidge in these pages over the years as the prince (and sometimes the poet) of pork, but I'd like to propose a new title: Colin Fassnidge, loquacious quiet achiever. There's something deeply reassuring about this sort of cooking - ambitious but comprehensively grounded, intelligent without being aloof - being tucked away in a cosy pub dining room (even in a pub this fancy) on a Paddington side street. Be proud, Sydney.
As the food at Four in Hand quietly cruises into a new phase of excellence, it's as clear as ever that captain Fassnidge hasn't lost sight of his mentor's sentiments framed on the wall: "The table remains a powerful symbol of friendship and celebration of life". Corned beef and all.