Pop quiz: where should you be eating in Sydney right now? Bert's? Bea? Poly? Too far, too tweezery, too not-open. Little Bistro is where it's at. No one's going to accuse the place of being on the bleeding edge of interior design or of breaking bold new ground in our understanding of Australian cuisine. That isn't what it's about. The brief here is one person's take on what he likes to cook in a setting that is comfortable and attractive but ultimately leaves the entertaining to the diner. They set the stage, you bring the fun. The service is impeccably unobtrusive, the wine list attractive, the location central, the whole enterprise well-priced. You need the Little Bistro in your life right now.
The menu is a single A4 sheet entirely free of mission statements. There is no concept to explain: it's five dishes listed as entrées, smaller things that are usually taken ahead of one of the six larger dishes listed as main courses. The waiters trust you to figure it out for yourself.
In addition to these there's the offer of Clair de Lune oysters and little nubs of sausage as a snack. "I'm not going to tell you how to eat," says the waitress when she brings them to the table, "but we like to bite into the sausage and then have the oyster. The mignonette is up to you." Hot, fatty, spicy sausage meets cool, briny, clean oyster. Bliss ensues.
Right about now a glass of Chablis would hit the spot, and the Little Bistro, joy of joys, has an eminently drinkable 2015 Corinne & Jean-Pierre Grossot number on for $15 a glass, $45 a carafe and $75 a bottle. There's a small section on the list called "Interesting wines by Coravin" that you could tap for a white Rhône from Aurélien Chatagnier, but if $22 a glass is a bit too interesting, another section called "Interesting Whites", has Borrowed Cuttings Picpoul, an oyster wine made in Cowra by Steve Feletti, the same fella who grows the oysters, for $60.
One wall of the restaurant has the recipe for its chicken liver pâté painted across it. Subliminal messaging? Whatever the case, it's a must. There's nothing tricky going on in the ramekin under the seal of clarified butter, just a lush elegance of texture that lands in exactly the right Goldilocks place between creamy and dense, a good dose of vin santo rounding out the flavour and a well-proportioned complement of onion marmalade and toast on the side.
If you've got some pâté to spare, you might try it on the mushrooms. But then that would be messing with perfection. The menu makes no mention of magic and/or narcotics, so I'm at a loss to understand how the application of char, a nicely loose gremolata and Colonna olive oil can render plain old field mushrooms so wildly delicious. They are a plate of wonder. And they are $16.
Anyone who remembers Bistrode CBD under Jeremy Strode's auspices will find the look familiar: a large squarish first-floor room constructed of dark timber floors, white walls, white, paper-topped tables, all flooded with light from rows of large windows. The plush striped seats have been replaced with sleeker but still comfortable modern bistro chairs and the windows are now hung with white bistro curtains. The addition of rows of industrial light-fittings makes it look more like an Australian outpost of the St John restaurants in London than ever before.
Here's the thing: Alastair Little, the veteran chef from whom the place takes its name, did the St John look before it was a twinkle in Fergus Henderson's eye. He opened up his kitchens to his dining rooms before the thought had occurred to Terence Conran, and made a luxury of unadorned Italian elegance while the River Café was still just a café on the river. If the dominant London dining style of today owes much to Henderson and to the River Café's Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray, it must be acknowledged that they in turn owe something to the work Little and his friends and fellow chefs Rowley Leigh and Simon Hopkinson did to create an alternative to the frou and tizz of the uptight restaurants of the day.
Little is from Lancashire, but it's clear that his heart belongs to Italy. It's there in the autumn minestrone, bolstered with porcini, or the pepper-powered options of pepata, a southern mussel dish, or peposo, a Tuscan beef braise, invented, it's said, by the furnace workers toiling under Brunelleschi for the Duomo. Back in the 15th century, the fellas making tiles for Brunelleschi bunged secondary cuts of beef into the kilns in big terracotta pots with black pepper, red wine and not much else, letting the heat of the ovens transform it over hours into a dish as delectable as it was sustaining. Little makes his peposo with ox cheeks, serving it saucy, garnished with parsley and complemented with a large dollop of mashed potatoes.
Though France and Italy are his touchstones, Little still likes to mix it up. The appearance of a Gujarati vegetable curry will please anyone with fond memories of the dhals Jeremy Strode would slip onto his menus between the corned beef and the pig's head terrine. It's hard to think of a more appropriate figure to have taken over the stoves after Strode's passing, such is Little's investment in concise plating and indifference to ornament.
And then there's the lovely cross-cultural moment when the crown of duck arrives with what's billed on the menu as an apple and rosemary clafoutis. "It's made with his grandmother's Yorkshire pudding recipe," whispers our waitress, with just the right amount of conspiratorial edge in her voice. The duck itself is a gorgeous, golden hunk of a thing, cut into chunks rather than the usual bloody slices. It would make a solid alibi for drinking Burgundy from the reserve list, or the cherry-dark and dangerously drinkable Pierre-Marie Chermette Griottes Beaujolais, listed at $65 a bottle. Whether you're here to spend or pluck some bargains, the opportunity to talk to Stuart Halliday, a veteran sommelier with serious time at the likes of Tetsuya's and Est on the books, is a significant plus.
Desserts are another win. At a grating majority of Australian restaurants ordering something called "strawberries and cream" at dessert almost never translates to getting actual strawberries and cream. Here, though, the apple tart fine is a fine tart of apple, and the plum compote is a compote made of plums. One comes with a scoop of Chantilly cream, the other vanilla ice-cream. It's enough to make a man shed hot tears of gratitude, or at the very least decide to come back to this restaurant as often as possible.
Alastair Little is in Australia to stay, but the Little Bistro trades for the moment on a pop-up footing. If you like the idea of a restaurant that serves deeply flavoursome and wonderfully unfussy food, cooked by someone with the kind of confidence and style that puts chefs 30 years his junior in the shade, a place with smart, collected service and a cracker of a wine list, come out and support the Little Bistro. Business lunch, Bumble tumble or family feast, it's a big pleasure. This is a restaurant we want in our city for keeps – let's make it happen, Sydney.