Restaurant Reviews

Review: lobster, Jurassic wines and live music – Sydney dining just got a lot more fun

We don’t usually buy the unlike-any-other-venue-in-Sydney speak. But Mary’s Underground is.

By David Matthews
Inside Mary's Underground
Jake Smyth's on the floor, dark hair ragged, busting out of his singlet. Karl Stefanovic, shirt unbuttoned to a few inches above his navel, is sharing shots of mezcal. When the Underground Brass Band's potty-mouthed version of New Orleans second line, R&B and soul isn't blaring, it's Drake, 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar backing up A$AP Rocky on F**kin' Problems. The older patrons in the house seem fine with it. The younger ones are dancing. "Fuck your towel" read the towels on the waiters' shoulders. Caitlyn Rees, GT's 2018 Sommelier of the Year, is pouring wine. And the lobster is only $100.
We've said that entering Restaurant Hubert is the closest you'll get to living out the Copacabana scene from Goodfellas. But walk down the stairs at Mary's Underground, step through the red-lit doors, and be whisked away to a parallel lo-fi Australiana version, where the pork chop is served with warrigal greens and Tasmanian urchin has star billing at the raw seafood bar.
The entrance to Mary's Underground. Photo: Jason Loucas
There's another Hubert parallel. When it first opened on Bligh St, Hubert was the first restaurant from a team that had mostly run bars. At Mary's Underground Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham, a pair who built their reputation on burgers and fried chicken with Mary's, reworked Aussie pub food with The Unicorn and live music and pizza with The Lansdowne Hotel, have arrived at the same point.
Their first full-service restaurant is as invested in live music as it is in evolving classic cuisine. This was The Basement for 45 years, and in renovating it – with black carpet, red banquettes, a cocktail bar up front, seafood bar at the back, plenty of timber, and the stage front and centre – the team have inherited a responsibility to pay respect to the roots of a place that has housed such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock. So far the effort is admirable. Bands take the stage each and every evening – a jazz piano trio on Tuesdays, a son cubano six-piece on Saturdays – and the music continues deep into the night.
(From left) Mary's wine director Caitlyn Rees, co-owners Kenny Graham and Jake Smyth and sommelier Charles Leong. Photo: Jason Loucas
There's a rare skill involved in identifying the qualities that make fast food taste so appealing, distilling them, and executing consistently, but Mary's has perfected it – at the Newtown original and spinoffs, the burgers, the fried chicken, the potato and gravy, even, are some of the finest examples in the city. Jimmy Garside, food overseer of the Mary's Group, and a man who may well have the sharpest palate of all trash-food enthusiasts, has built the menu here, and, after some shuffling, Joel Wooten, formerly of Rockpool Dining Group and St John in London, is on execution and evolution.
You'll find no burgers underground, but you will find a menu built on those same principles: sound ideas, a strong palate, solid execution. More than anything, it's fun. Strawberry clams are served raw on ice with a chaser of fermented tuna vinegar shot through with chilli. Hot little dinner rolls go with a wickedly silky duck-liver parfait sharpened with pickled cumquat. Boozy chocolate and mandarin bombe Alaska burns blue with flaming mezcal.
The pan-fried fillets of King George whiting in beurre meunière speak to the Euro-Australian theme, with a side of blini adding a little à la Russe fun, even if the match is a little odd. There's an enthusiasm for sauce that sometimes goes too far - hapuku crudo and scallops with ajo blanco both end up swimming - but a sea urchin sauce accompanying a wedge of potato tortilla propped up with blue swimmer crab and covered in sea succulents lands with the right amount of oceanic oomph.
Restraint is not a guiding principle. Cocktails (Rum Uppercut! Left Hook! Rock 'N' Rose Jab!) are tall and punchy, and Caitlyn Rees (formerly of Cirrus and Fred's, now the Mary's drinks director) has put together a wine offer that stands up to the food. It's decidedly low-intervention, and there's a fair amount of ground covered in the orange, rosé and ramato stakes, but it sidesteps funk and barnyard in favour of wines from makers who know their product. There's a short section of oxidative "Jurassic" wines, either from the Jura or acting like it, a whole zone dedicated to pinot noir, and another to chardonnay and chardonnay blends, ranging from classic (from Cullen and Bass Phillip, say) to textural (from Xavier Goodridge or Thomas Picot) to racy (from biodynamic maker Tarrington).
Inside Mary's Underground. Photo: Jason Loucas
Rees moves through it with poise and a sense of pleasure. In fact, most of the waitstaff do. Smyth, who runs the floor with real panache, is ably supported by a bunch of hospitality heavies who are clearly revelling in having the shackles loosened. They care about the product, but not the pretence. They still lay napkins on your lap, fold them if you go to the bathroom, turn up the brightness on the oil lamps if it's getting too dark, and can walk you through the menu with their eyes closed, but they've clearly imbibed the brief that having a good time is more about being engaged than pleases or thank yous.
Rôtisserie duck with persimmon sauce. Photo: Jason Loucas
The rôtisserie duck is plenty engaging, too. Pasture-raised, dry-aged and served with a persimmon sauce and slivers, it's done to a turn, skin shatteringly crisp, flesh blushing. Brillat-Savarin wrote that one may become a cook, but must be born a rôtisseur. Getting the breast spot on without the legs being under is no mean feat, and the balance here is about as close as a trained rôtisseur might get. A few more months and they might prove him wrong. The duck's the pick of the main courses, but then there's a lot to be said for coming late on a Friday, ordering a lobster Australienne tossed with kutjera butter and served with duck-fat chips, and splitting it with friends.
Lobster Australienne with kurjera butter and duck-fat chips. Photo: Jason Loucas
Not everything is spot on. Dishes can be salty. Chips can be soggy. Pastry, in an otherwise big and beautiful rosella and rhubarb millefeuille, can be on the dense side. But this is a place packed with too much talent for problems to last long. And certain dishes, such as a charred wedge of sugarloaf cabbage with almond sauce, or a cute and cheesy pithivier stuffed with chestnuts and drowning in cauliflower velouté, need no improvement.
Rosella and rhubarb millefeuille. Photo: Jason Loucas
I don't usually buy into the unlike-any-other-venue-in-Sydney speak. But Mary's Underground is. And in a city whose nightlife has been in a kind of free-fall, this type of project, from ambitious operators who want to make live music an integral part of a night out and serve good food and drink while they're at it - well, it's something we can all get behind.