Chicken is back. It never really left, of course, but thanks to the appearance of chicken skin on everything from sandwiches to congee as the go-to garnish of the moment, and a nationwide mania for fried chicken done in the styles of Seoul, Nashville and everywhere in between, the bird is no longer a byword for boring on menus. It stars in a fricassée at Hubert, swims in a classic (ish) cream sauce at Bar Brosé, and flies off the rôtisseries at Mercado and The Paddington by the flock.
And then there's the chicken vinaigrette at No 1 Bent Street. Mike McEnearney was known for his mastery of the wood-fired oven in his time at Kitchen by Mike in Rosebery. Now he's the proud owner of a larger, even better oven at his new CBD digs. Ironwood provides serious heat, roasting the birds golden.
McEnearney slices the breast, dresses it with roasting juices, then tosses the wing and leg with green beans, toasty hazelnuts, sweetly tender leek and chives in a tarragon-rich vinaigrette. It's a reason to visit in itself.
Roast chicken vinaigrette.
Picture something like a cross between St John in London and Ester in Chippendale and you've got a good idea of what the food at Bent Street is about. Produce most definitely comes first, but the plates are composed with an unfussy finesse that McEnearney, who held three stars for Rockpool when he was head chef in the late noughties, executes with unusual confidence.
The room is sparely decorated but has a similar sure-footed quality. Plenty of timber and texture, and the theatre of a kitchen pass arranged around an island bench before the roaring oven give the restaurant warmth, heading off the potential chilliness of a lot of concrete spread across a low, wide space almost entirely devoid of fabric and soft furnishings. The acoustics are brutal, and half the seating is elbow-nudgingly communal, so prepare to put your ear-trumpet to good use.
The fire in the open kitchen, the expanse of the room and the rough-hewn quality of the bigger tables conjure something of an air of feasting. It's an atmosphere simpático with McEnearney's preferred mode of eating. The food is cooked with care and expertise and plated with an eye for impact, but you never get the sense that anyone has spent too long teasing the micro-herbs with the tweezers, or carefullyturning all the nasturtium leaves upside down. It often comes out hot, too - much of it straight from the oven in cast-iron skillets - something of a luxury in these dégustation-blighted times.
The service is for the most part grown-up, too, with many a veteran hand on the floor (the lovely Colin Nelson, an alumnus of Est and Sailors Thai, among them). Sometimes grown-up can translate to dufferish - soup arriving without a spoon, for instance - and the restaurant's popularity can overwhelm any sense of organisation at times. But on a good day the floor staff gently work the theatre at the table in a way that fosters the sense of conviviality.
The chicken liver pâté is spooned tableside from under a butter crust from a large bowl and served with quatre-épices salt. It's a pâté - something you see less in Sydney today than the more butter-rich parfaits doing the rounds - so the liver itself is more to the fore, but it's still smooth and by no means inelegant, with a little bowl of watercress leaves served on the side to bring some freshness. Bread is offered in doorstop slabs for the diner to pluck from a banneton, while the whole flathead, done with pancetta and romesco sauce, is cooked on a curved, Spanish-style terracotta tile. These quiet flourishes and little bits of interaction make a pleasant break from the many-composed-plates-of-tiny-things school.
Twice-cooked goat's cheese soufflé.
The focus on the wood fire might suggest rusticity, but while Bent Street's offerings are certainly full of flavour, McEnearney has fine control over the effects on the plate. A whisper of rosemary through the batter tempers the farmhouse twang of his gooey twice-baked goat's cheese soufflé. The white beans and squid in a Spanish-inspired braise are tender, but not so acquiescent that they've surrendered all resistance to the tooth, making for an attractive textural contrast to the coarse slices of chorizo with which they're paired.
Tiny dice of baked apple and a suggestion of cinnamon provide a quietly interesting undertone in a creamy chestnut soup that's savoury with the taste of dried porcini, while chestnut leavens pork in the stuffing of a quarter of Savoy cabbage, seasoned lavishly with thyme.
At no stage do you get the impression that the food here is made with powders and goo: the flavour is built from the ground up with very good meats and fish, ripe grain and vegetables and fruits. Honesty could be said to be one of the guiding principles in the kitchen.
Lamb and pear? The shoulder comes out of the oven just giving enough. Taste it on its own, and it seems underseasoned; try it again with the tapenade and it swims into focus. But what of the small pear roasted with it, a corella one week, a bergamot the other? It's fine, and doesn't jangle, but nor does it seem to add much. "It's just lamb and pear," says a friend. "It's not one of those one-plus-one-equalsthree combinations."
But the pot pie is more than the sum of its parts.
A heavy iron skillet filled with a mixture of oxtail, beef cheek and a hunk of marrow bone in a lush gravy under a sweet suet crust, it's a welcome touch of Fergus Henderson's nose-to-tail thinking. Offal here is prepared in a way that makes it seductive rather than a dare - underscoring the pleasures that lay beyond the fillet.
If the tripe is offered as a special, make sure you order it. McEnearney tames - but doesn't denature - the flavour of the giving honeycomb ribbons with an intense tomato braise and a powerful hit of pecorino.
That soffritto, the gravy, the vinaigrette under the chicken, the cheese sauce on the soufflé, the dregs of the soup, even the lamb and pear sauce, all these things call for something to mop them up. Good thing, then, that the loaves at Bent Street are quite possibly the best bread baked in a restaurant in Sydney. McEnearney is no stranger to the alchemy of the oven, honing his baking working at Iggy's, and his wood-fired sourdough has a paradoxical lightness, heft and chew that make it an essential order. Pepe Saya salted butter on the side is a welcome touch.
House-baked wood-fired bread.
Speaking of welcome touches, the concise wine list offers classic pleasures, such as good Chablis by the glass, alongside some walks on the wilder side with leading local natural producers, including an interesting sauvignon blanc-driven organic house white blend from Mudgee winemaker (and longtime McEnearney collaborator) David Lowe. The advice on the wine from the floor, however, isn't quite as tight and lucid as the list itself.
Dessert is a highlight, for the most part putting good fruit front and centre. Rice pudding dolloped with jam: yes. Wood-fired quince with a saffron-gilded custard and joyfully thick pistachio brittle: absolutely.
Rum baba with clotted cream and last summer's cherries preserved in booze: truly, madly, deeply. But the pick of them is the impeccable apple tarte fine. Its mere presence (along with the bold colours of the superb tea-towel napkins) will bring back happy memories for anyone lucky enough to have scored seats to the guerrilla feasts McEnearney staged under the Mike's Table banner at French antiques store Ici et La in Surry Hills back in 2010 and 2011. Scallops of apple glistening under a syrup glaze on buttery puff, crowned with a vanillaspeckled ball of ice-cream: no sprinkles, no herbs, no "crumb", no quenelles, no smears? No competition.
Apple tarte fine with vanilla ice-cream.
Bent Street pulls focus on shared plates, genuinely seasonal, ingredient-driven wood-fired cooking, and wines made by farms rather than factories. Ideas that are of the moment, but that are also just common sense. Throw in such niceties as outstanding bread and butter, and do customers the courtesy of offering them the opportunity to reserve tables in advance, and it starts to look a lot like a place where the comfort and pleasure of the diner comes first, the whim of the chef second. The street may be bent, but the arrival of Mike McEnearney in the CBD is a straight-up win for lovers of honest, full-flavoured dining.