The second act is the tough one, they say. But Alex Kearns is no one-trick pony. And Neutral Bay Bar & Dining offers both proof and pudding. It's the sister to Glebe Point Diner, the restaurant that first introduced Sydney to Kearns's gift for understatement, underselling and over-delivery in 2007 (you can read our Glebe Point Diner review here). His food is straight-down-the-line Modern Australian with an appealing Mediterranean farmhouse bent. Call it rusticity without the clichés.
You step in off the grind that is Military Road into a bar area decorated with gleaming jars of preserves and the occasional heap of pumpkins, a tip of the hat to the marching rows of produce at Glebe Point Diner (an echo itself of the relaxed approach to fruit and veg storage at Sean's Panaroma, Kearns's Bondi Beach alma mater). The business of dining is conducted in the back room. It's a big space, with a leaf-patterned fabric feature wall, long, angled strips of mirror and an open kitchen running another length standing in for windows.
The hard surfaces and unclothed tables could make for a ruckus, but all the tables are arranged in rows of high-backed banquettes. They'd have a pew-like overtone were it not for the buttery new leather lining them. Ingenious use of them as miniature waiter-stations for storing glasses, flatware, napkins and condiments makes for a fleet turnaround on the floor. Jake "the Pirate" Smyth, his prodigious moustache and favourite skull-and-bones belt-buckle a familiar site to Glebe-goers, runs the front-of-house with equal parts alacrity and swashbuckling aplomb, backed by a capable young team. Smyth can talk you through any aspect of the menu and drinks list with an ease borne of understanding. And speaking of wine, you get the impression from the very healthy, diverse selection under the $65 mark that they're serious about making this place a real neighbourhood restaurant. The bar side of things is pretty sharp, too, with interesting beers complemented by a range of cocktails that will cater equally to the girlie-girls (a Pop Rock Fizz of citrus vodka, ruby grapefruit and lemon, served, naturally, in a cocktail glass rimmed with popping candy) and to women who like to stir their drinks with a rusty roofing nail (a Blood and Sand made with Ardbeg, the Chuck Norris of the single-malt whisky world).
The kitchen takes its pasta and salumi from Italy - or Italy via Kogarah, where the redoubtable Pino Tomini Foresti produces the prosciutto, salumi conte, capicollo and beautifully spicy 'nduja. It also ventures to country France to pluck the inspiration for its chunky layered "chook, duck and quail" terrine (one for the turducken fans, no doubt) and its silken goose liver pâté.
Up there with them in the section headed To Start you've got Tassie Pacific and Pambula rock oysters, bread you can buy by the slice, sardine fillets, and tuna tartare with blood lime and lavosh - winning sharing food all. There's a good few large tables that seem made for this purpose, too. In other words, if you're rolling with your posse (as I like to call mum and dad and the kids) and you like to divide and conquer, you're in luck.
You could, however, give the blue-eye fritters a miss. Made from fish salted in-house, they come from a place of good intentions, but they're way too salty, even for a dish with the word "salted" in their menu description, and the effect of this in combination with the very sweet tomato jam they're paired with is not a happy one.
Desserts are also oddly out of tune, for the most part. There's a small treats section, petits fours, essentially, which can be ordered individually: ricotta and lemonade fruit cannoli, marzipan choc date, passionfruit jubes. All sound dandy, but only the mandarin nougat, made very much in the Sean's mode, makes good on its promise on the plate. A tart of blood orange and pistachio is another one I'd like to see executed with as much flair as it was conceived with, rather than being a thing of thin, brittle pastry that shatters into a cardamom-scented mess of candied nuts, citrus and pastry cream. The more modest aims of the baked chocolate pudding, dense and dark, and the pear and raspberry soufflé, are achieved more successfully, but I'd suggest you stick with the house-made ice-cream or that exceptional nougat to be really safe.
These are minor lapses on a menu crammed with good things to eat, though. Don't leave the entrée section without trying the whacking great skewer of kingfish and pork belly, alternating well-browned hunks of each. There's a chimichurri-like tarragon salsa underneath it to remedy any threat of dryness. If you like the ratio of animal protein to vegetable the other way around, you'll want to hit the sharp fried green tomatoes, paired not with a whistle-stop café but with house-made ricotta and balsamic vinegar. The snapper broth is a winner, a small (too small?) bowl of full-flavoured fish soup spiced up with a sort of rouille mayo. There's plenty of body here, and shreds of snapper meat give it bulk. The crisp and salty garnish of fish skin is as moreish as it is inventive.
As at Glebe Point Diner, caveman-friendly cuts of meat designed to share, usually slow-cooked overnight or longer, are regular specials. A whole beef shin, for example, cooked till it's falling off the bone. But for serious protein, it's all about the charcoal-fired grill. It's one of the key points of difference between Neutral Bay and the original restaurant, and from it issue steaks large and small as well as fish both whole (snapper with sorrel) and fillet (spiced tuna) with pebre salsa, a coriander-dominant Chilean green sauce. The beef is all grass-fed Coorong Angus, and it's hard to see it getting better than the flat-iron. This too-little-seen cut is the oyster blade with the line of sinew removed; it's a favourite of many a serious steak-fancier, and with good reason. Here it's fanned on the plate, dense with flavour, and napped with horseradish butter. You get your choice of a side with the grills - the chips are good, but it's pretty hard to go past the silverbeet, garlic and chilli, and the flat beans with pork mince are worth ordering in their own right.
There's also much joy to be had away from the grill. Fish cooked in silverbeet leaves has been something of an occasional favourite in Glebe, but the ante is upped here with the use of Murray cod, and the earthiness of its steamed meat finds a match with the accompanying lentils in terms of both flavour and texture. The crab omelette, meanwhile, deserves praise for its simplicity: blue swimmer crab meat, eggs, chives, butter. Bada-boom, bada-bing. And it's a steal at $26.
If we're holding Kearns and his kitchen collaborator RJ Lines to high standards here, it's only because they've created those expectations for us with their fine work at Glebe Point Diner. When so many young Australian chefs fall prey to the temptation of spending more time on the internet than at the markets, of knowing more about artificial texture manipulation than they do basic butchery, there's a kind of courage in having the confidence to step away from the siphon gun, to embrace the magic of a low oven over a thermoregulator and just cook food that your customers will want to eat. If Glebe Point Diner is your local, there's probably not any really compelling reason to seek out Neutral Bay Bar & Dining, beyond simple curiosity, true. But if it's in your backyard, or even just within cooee, you've got both a reason to celebrate and a fun new place to do your celebrating.