"Have we ordered a meal entirely of crackers and dip?" asks my pal. Whoops. Didn't Cher's character in Mermaids make dinners entirely from canapés? Clearly a woman ahead of her time. But Hartsyard's offerings aren't hors d'oeuvre dainty – they're robust things full of flavour. This is what they do here.
Cheddar puffs are crunchier and less ephemeral than the name might imply, more like savoury crostoli, powdered with what our waitress calls Reuben spice, dotted with rounds of kohlrabi and served with an airy dollop of Dijon mustard.
Brewery bread, two dense, toast-brown pucks made with spent grain from the beardy beer guys at Young Henry's down the road, comes with a large clot of cultured butter, splashed in turn with an oil flavoured with the French curry-spice blend vadouvan. Is $11 expensive for bread? Maybe. But it seems just about right for oiled butter.
This is Hartsyard 2.0. The hardware is much the same – boiler-room glam, the tables nude, the chairs metal, the marble bar complemented by Edison bulbs and shelves crafted from pipe – and the buzzy, neighbourhoody vibe has deepened since it opened back in 2012. But the software has been updated, putting the focus more on fish and vegetables.
The best example of this new approach is wedges of a beefsteaky raw tomato with bits of barbecued calamari, small leaves of basil and a whipped-sesame sauce. The play of give and resistance between the two lead ingredients, plus the shattery crunch brought by bugak, Korean-style chips of seaweed coated in glutinous-rice flour, make it a pleasure to eat. If the tomatoes were top-shelf, it'd be a table-thumper.
The food is definitely lighter. This is of course a relative concept in a restaurant that made its name saucing buttermilk fried chicken with sausage gravy, topping poutine with short ribs and putting bacon in the Manhattans.
Now the fried chicken has moved up the street to Wish Bone, the new eatery that Hartsyard's owners, manager Naomi Hart and chef Gregory Llewellyn, have fashioned from what used to be their bar, The Gretz. The bull-in-a-lolly-shop desserts that were once a feature, meanwhile, have followed former pastry chef Andrew Bowden a couple of blocks up Enmore Road to his new café, Saga.
Still, this is not a kitchen that likes to pull its punches. So there's quite a lot of sauce and cheese in evidence, even with all the greens and seafood. A tartare of scampi and prawn, for instance, has the intensity dialled up with a profusion of dollops of saffron-tinged rouille, the mayonnaise-like sauce traditionally served with bouillabaisse. There's orange flying-fish roe sprinkled over it, too, and is that some sort of crustacean oil in there as well? The potato chips on the side are coated in a dust – this is a pro-dust sort of place – made of salt and freeze-dried vinegar. The raw scampi and prawn end up more a textural note in the end, rather than a taste in and of themselves. It's a charm-offensive of a dish, and if it wins you, it's with exuberance rather than subtlety.
With the exception of the effortlessly welcoming Naomi Hart, service can swing Newtown-direct rather than engagingly hospitable, but everyone seems to have a good handle on the menu and the smart, concise wine list. You get the impression that they're used to having more customers than seats.
There are two desserts, one a chocolate confection involving tahini and miso, the other cherries sprinkled among hunks of waffle, a scattering of pistachio and a scoop of buttermilk ice-cream. Not quite your herbal-dryad, produce-forward options of the now, but a departure from the old Mr-Whippy-breaks-bad days of yore.
Reading back over the notes I made after visiting Hartsyard 1.0 when it first opened I'm reminded of hoping for a bit more light and shade on the menu. Now there are more of those silences that make the music. The kitchen still bangs it out loud, but for Hartsyard 2.0 it has changed key and mastered some new tunes. If you're looking for up-tempo dining with a beat that's easy to get behind, these guys are playing your song.