"So where's all the Australian wine in Australia, anyway?" I was showing some pals from overseas around Sydney's newer culinary attractions, and, after a night drenched in sake, Sherry, trousseau, torrontés and malvasia, they were wondering where all the shiraz and chardy was hidden, and who'd drunk all the cab sav.
You can't really judge a country's wine culture too keenly by what's poured in its restaurants and wine bars, of course. Back in reality, shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay continue to account for the great majority of Australian wine production. Johnnies-come-lately pinot noir and sauvignon blanc are still just a fraction of our land under vine, the trendy likes of savagnin and nebbiolo a fraction of a fraction of that fraction. And despite the best efforts of our cousins in New Zealand, around 70 per cent of Australians prefer wine produced on our soil to anything imported. Step into a good restaurant in Sydney today, though, and chances are very good that at least half of what's on pour or matched to the menu will have come from overseas.
This brings us, via a fittingly roundabout route, to Nomad. Here the menu might cover a fair bit of ground, but the cellar is as ocker as throwing Paul Hogan on the barbie and as true-blue as a kangaroo kicking a footy with an emu on Uluru while eating a pie and humming "Waltzing Matilda". "Stone the crows," you might say as you peer at the list past the corks dangling from your hat. "Where's the bloody oxidative ribolla gialla? Fair dinkum, cobber, I'll be buggered if they've got anything from the Canaries here."
In the 2010 postcode circa 2013, offering a list that's all Australian (and I mean all, without the usual concession to Champagne made by even the most ardent boxing kangaroos) is a bold move. Over in Stanmore, the Sixpenny guys opened last year with a list that was almost all New South Wales; the softening of that stance and the inclusion of wines from the wider world has, I have to say, cast its food in a more flattering light.
But Rob Geddes, the Master of Wine "in residence" (ahem) at Nomad, has put together a cracking snapshot of contemporary Australian winemaking that won't have you pining in the slightest for the Rhône, Rhine or Rioja. Kick off with crisp, cool-climate fizz from Stefano Lubiana or the Glaetzer-Dixon Überblanc Riesling from Coal River in Tassie, or check in to see what Timo Mayer, Larry Cherubino, Steve Webber and the rest of the cream of this generation of grape-treaders are up to - the name of each wine's maker is name-checked alongside the winery and region. There are knowing picks from Best's, Tyrrell's and Coriole alongside offerings from the more cultish likes of Head Red and Caillard. Oh, and they're all available by the glass. Fair dinkum.
I'd say the decorative theme for the very large, quite lovely room is "exposed". Beams, bricks, bulbs, bottles, pipes, kitchen, salumi - everything's open, and the restaurant is exposed to Foster Street through an expanse of floor-to-ceiling glass. Two vast barrels, each towering several heads taller than a man, loom by the door. Past them stand the racks of wine which supply diners and soon retail shoppers too.
Young chef Nathan Sasi's CV includes time at Dinner, Heston Blumenthal's London restaurant, but the menu speaks more of his time at Moro. The kitchen's inspirations are broad (indeed, there's even a platter of "Garagistes-inspired oysters" with cava vinegar and chervil oil), but Levantine and Spanish ingredients rule the day.
On the kitchen shelves sit jars of black mustard and white pepper, sesame seed and leaves of thyme. There's ras el hanout and three kinds of paprika, and sumac, zhoug and tahini compete for billing with piquillo peppers, fino and Ortiz anchovies.
The menu is big, opening with an extensive list of smaller dishes which do double-duty as entrées and bar snacks: house-made charcuterie, pickles, scampi grilled and flavoured with za'atar. The empanadas are particularly good, the fried pastry nicely short, the smoked pork filling plenty gutsy, the pickled-chilli harissa plenty hot.
There's an adventurous edge to Sasi's compositions that's easy to like. Stuffing spanner crab into felafels seems like the most natural thing in the world in his hands. Taking it to the next level by enshrouding those same crunchy numbers in a soft steamed dough, though, is clever. There's a dish of sauce on the plate - a refreshing mixture of yoghurt and sorrel that's reminiscent of tzatziki - and a little tabbouleh, adding up to a pretty handsome kebab.
To the eye, the beef bastourma on crisp potato "crostini" seems fussy - an arrangement of borage and rocket flowers, pickled guindilla chilli and squirts of baba ghanoush that's a bit too carefully casual. Stick it in your mouth, though, and it all makes sense, the crunch and squish framing the cured beef beautifully. It's pretty nifty with a glass of Kangarilla Road's The Veil - a nutty savagnin made in the same oxidised, Sherry-like manner used in the Jura region of southern France.
I don't know that Sasi is going out of his way to make everything work with wine, and I wonder if the wine and food sides of the operation run parallel rather than working cooperatively. Pairing sweet orange-blossom marmalade with the natural sweetness of dates in devils on horseback makes for a mighty sugary mouthful, and the beer-braised short-rib bun, bubbling with smoked cheddar - one of a handful of interesting sandwiches offered at lunch - also leans a bit saccharine. They're not what you'd call wine-friendly. The only other real dud I've tried is the barbecued eggplant salad.
The splodge of house-made goat's curd doesn't contribute much, and the paint-by-numbers additions of mint and pomegranate are Moorish but not quite moreish.
Gentleman's relish to the rescue! This thoroughly savoury version of the classic British club condiment is, at Nomad anyway, a mayonnaise flavoured with garlic softened in milk and loads of anchovy. It's so good I'd eat it on a pair of leather loafers, but it's even better with the grilled broccolini. This side is billed as "purple sprouting broccoli", which it most certainly is not to my eye, but it's no less delicious for the fact, dressed with chilli flakes, breadcrumbs and pointless but rather pretty little yellow brassica flowers.
There's equal reward in the roast pork. Sasi and co buy Melanda Park's excellent pigs, salt down the meat and roast it in the wood-fired oven. The result is pale, densely textured flesh with good crackling and plenty of juice. There's not much else on the plate other than a scattering of fat raisins, some nicely cooked silverbeet and a few strands of red elk, but it comes with a bowl of Canary Island potatoes to the side. Traditionally these are little spuds boiled in their skins until all the water has evaporated, leaving them covered with a fine crust of salt. Sasi finishes his in the oven, and sauces them with a garlicky red-pepper sauce: hell yes. If there's any natural justice in this world, they'll be offered as a bar snack on their own.
Dessert yields a few more surprises, all of them pleasant. Buñuelos, a sort-of Moorish doughnut, are more or less straightforward: big, puffy and sweet. They're paired with a rosewater and cardamom custard. Fine. It's the oranges that really rock. Combining classic '70s Australiana with a southern-Spanish twist, the frozen orange shells freight a brilliantly bitter Seville orange marmalade ice-cream. Simple-seeming, yet a thousand times more interesting than most of the flavourless smear-quenelle-crumble arrangements pastry chefs are trying to pass off as innovation these days, it's a savvy, confident move.
Nomad is both an assured début for a young chef showing plenty of promise, and a great example of how exciting an all-Australian wine list can be when it's shaped by the right hands. More to the point, it's an excellent place to eat, drink and make merry. Truly, not all who wander are lost.