Is less more? More or less. As restaurateur, the less money you spend on real estate and decorating the more, presumably, you can spend on little things like food and staffing. The marriage of manageable rents and a ready supply of up-for-it diners is why Surry Hills is Sydney's new Mecca for hot restaurants. Symbol of urban renewal that it may be, the forces of gentrification - an army with uniforms by Sass & Bide, Bugaboo prams at the ready, VW Beetles their steeds - haven't overrun it entirely. Whole blocks, dare I say streets, remain free of modern Italian restaurants, organic fruit shops, and lower-case sans-serif signage of any kind. Many parts of the neighbourhood, particularly away from the avenues of Bourke and Crown streets, retain an authenticity that might even be termed dingy. Hurrah for that.
Doing more with less isn't a very Sydney concept. We like to do more with, well, more (and sometimes, sadly, less with more). Banc, a high-concept fine-diner in Martin Place, which burned brightly and set the bar anew for a certain kind of French-via-London dining before leaving us, was definitely more-with-more. Curiously enough, though, it left in its wake a posse of young chefs - notably Matt Kemp of Restaurant Balzac, Justin North of Bécasse and Warren Turnbull of Restaurant Assiette - who forged glowing careers for themselves in their own ventures precisely by starting out small, keeping set-up costs to a minimum and relying as much on kitchen smarts and elbow grease as show-pony ingredients to make names for themselves.
Darrell Felstead is another Banc man, but it was at the GPO complex attached to the restaurant that he first rose to the attention of Sydney diners, doing a very good job of running the kitchens at the steakhouse, Prime, and brasserie, Post. He made the leap to Rozelle's The Restaurant at 3 Weeds in 2005, where he earned rave reviews, and scored a consistent and very respectable one-star rating in theGourmet Traveller Australian Restaurant Guide. Now he has struck out on his own. Approaching Foveaux Restaurant & Bar from the street, it may not be immediately clear why this is one of 2007's most anticipated restaurant openings. The particular stretch of Foveaux Street that it inhabits is steep and, judging by the velocity at which the three lanes of traffic hurtle down it, perilous. You might be better off crossing it in a cab. These are not in short supply, either, as the restaurant sits metres from a fluoro-flooded taxi service station. So far, so insalubrious.
I'm loathe to say the words Changing Rooms but there's a bit of a DIY look to both the restaurant, which sits slightly above street level, and the bar downstairs. Exposed brick abounds up top, while it's stonework and ottomen down below. The dining room is a long, carpeted 50-seater, the kitchen open at the far end. The bar is of similar dimensions. Long, low and narrow, it's equal parts hipster basement lounge and somebody's parents' rumpus room. Behind the bar you'll find Julian Serna, the serious fellow who finessed the drinks at Hemmesphere for the last five years, and his list, which is printed over lovely vibrant vintage hooch posters, holds plenty of appeal. Allow me to recommend the superb tequila with honey water and orange bitters. It's probably got a cute name like Galloping Dysentery, but he'll know what you mean. There's a smart bar menu, drawing on elements of the stuff offered in the restaurant, to boot.
The menu upstairs is concise: five entrées, five mains. I think it's very fractionally overwritten, and would like to see less going on; put that down to new-restaurant nerves. Anyway, the cooking is very good, even if you don't agree with all of the kitchen's creative decisions. Braised veal cheek and roasted kidney for an entrée? Why not? The kidney's got that fine kidney-crunch, and the cheek puts up no fight at all. The secret to that wonderfully light and flavoursome pile of salad on the corner of the plate is, surprisingly, the fine threads of pickled tongue intertwined with celeriac cut into julienne. A scattering of walnuts and smears of herb coulis round it out. Very nice indeed.
Sharing the same sort of meandering-all-over-the-plate presentation (the spread being to the 00s as stacking was to the 90s) is the buttery lobster tortellino with roasted scallops and velvety fondant pumpkin. There's a splash of ginger and coriander vinaigrette in there to break up the sweetness, and the flavours and textures all work.
I don't know how much I can tell you about the service just now, either, because on this visit there were three people on the floor, and, at most, three tables. To the floor's credit, it was a smooth service - not something guaranteed even under such fish-in-a-barrel circumstances - and manager Jason Scott seems to know his onions.
The mains. Rare roasted venison leg reminds me why I almost never order venison in Australia. Felstead really knows how to cook meat, but as textbook as this is, with a good sear on the outside and plenty of pink within, I find it relatively bland, texturally dull stuff. Everything else about the dish is great, though - chestnut purée, sautéed silverbeet and juniper oil are all witty choices, and they're cooked with panache. The turnip gratin, a neat burnished brick bursting with, yes, turnip flavour, is exceptional. I'd like to eat it with a Barnsley chop. Or even a good steak.
The barramundi, meanwhile, reminds me why I almost never order barramundi in Australia. You can't fault the way it's cooked, all crisp skin and juicy flesh, but as far as I'm concerned, most of the farmed barra going around the place these days leaves a lot to be desired in terms of texture. Maybe I got the dud fish of the night. Perhaps a better quality barra is the answer. Everything else on the plate is nothing short of excellent. The fish is paired with boned-out, very crisply caramelised chicken wings, which I would be very happy to eat by the bucketload. They'd be absolutely incredible with a schooner or two; I'm adding them to my dream-team bar-snack menu. The other accompaniments, pungent braised red cabbage, sweet onion purée, fondant potato and a sauce enriched with the fat from the chicken, are splendid, carrying appealing flavours and expressing them emphatically.
The desserts remind me why I almost always order dessert. Here they really help end things on a high and let the kitchen's love of technique and passing things through sieves run riot. My current favourite is the crumbled rum and raisin parfait. With just the right texture - parfait can be elusive - it comes with a crisp banana chip, banana sorbet and a section of cooked banana, and provides an excuse to order from the bar's good selection of rums. It's great stuff.
The location and the look, I'm sorry to say, are going to eliminate a certain slice of the dining population straight off the bat. But Foveaux is at heart a chef's restaurant and a place for good eating above all else. What flaws there are pale in consideration of the expertise already on show and promise of much better food to come. It's definitely the most accomplished cooking I've seen at any new Sydney restaurant this year. And you won't be wanting for taxis.