Not all dégustation menus are terrible. Noma gets it right, and so does David Thompson at Nahm. Our newly crowned Restaurant of the Year, Momofuku Seiobo nails it, and the boys at Sixpenny have it down to a fine art. It can be done. Hell, it can be great. The trick is that it has to be kept light in both food and tone. El Bulli, the Death Star of dégustation restaurants, used to whip through its 30 or so courses at a cracking pace. It was fast and - hold on to your pre-dessert - it was fun.
When it's good, it's bloody good, but the choice of the dégustation format has to be made for a reason. "If we keep them in the restaurant for another hour they might order another bottle of wine or two," doesn't really cut it as a rationale. For this sort of performance, the feather, as the chin-strokers would put it, has to stay in the air. When you're getting milked for the money these sorts of places now see fit to charge, indigestion, waiters breaking into your conversation every 20 minutes and your buttocks falling asleep seem like dubious reward. "Bugger this dégustation business for a lark," you find yourself saying. "Where can I get me one of these fancy hamburgers I keep reading so much about?"
For $100, though, in the alternate reality that is the city of Newtown, you can have your faith in the tasting menu restored at Oscillate Wildly. It worked for this jaded palate, and it can work for you, too.
What Karla Firla and his posse are doing is as exciting food-wise as pretty much anything in Sydney right now, and definitely as satisfying.
A hundred bucks is still a lot of money. In Sydney that could buy five Martinis or tickets to the latest superhero movie in 3D (popcorn not included).
But when you're looking at main courses tipping the $56 (Sepia) and $58 (Aria) mark, and tasting menus pushing $210 (Tetsuya's) and $225 (Quay), it sounds like a steal. And with food, wine and service of the calibre on offer at Oscillate, a steal is exactly what it is.
Forget what you know of the previous six or so years of the restaurant's life. Firla, a former Est. chef, renovated the place in 2012, turning the upper floor of the terrace into another dining room and giving everything a light-and-bright lick of paint. The floor is of tile checks, but the walls are faced in that pressed-spaghetti material that absorbs sound effectively. The tables are richly clothed and decorated with candles in odd, attractive ceramic pineapples. The water jugs are F!nk, the chairs Thonet. It's still a small restaurant, the restroom is still out the back, and the window still affords a wonderful view of the parade passing down Australia Street between the Courthouse Hotel, The Townie and the local lock-up. The music trips comfortably from the indie-classic likes of Blue Valentine-era Tom Waits to The Avalanches, the more dinner-friendly end of the Pixies' discography to Al Green and back again. It's a sharp package, miles from the garage-band feel of the restaurant's early days, yet it still has plenty of pluck.
The first snacks land fast and fun - Möbius swirls of crunchy translucent edible paper, flavoured barely with cassis and blood plum that are designed primarily, it seems, to shatter all over the tablecloth. Slivers of sugar cane are brought over in bowls of crushed ice; they're soaked in gin and tonic. Cute. There's more impact in the quality of the bread, though. Made here using a five-year-old sourdough mother, it's teamed with a house-churned butter and ribbons of cured lard. This, accompanied by a glass of Equipo Navazos's entry-level "I Think" manzanilla, amounts to a serious statement of intent sneakily wrapped up in a snack.
James Sexton is the pourer of the manzanilla. Fresh from working the floor at Sepia, he manages the restaurant with brio, and his appearances at the table are always welcome, not least because he's usually carrying something interesting to drink. The restrained, delicate grüner-veltliner from Wachau, that he brings with the first real course is as sensational as the dish itself, a simple-seeming puffy rice cracker holding pieces of the pale-pink tuna belly the Japanese call toro. The kitchen here opts for a risky but entirely successful ploy of matching fat with fat, garnishing the cool slices of fish with little bits of soft smoked butter.
It's a home run, a six off the first bat and a hole-in-one all in a couple of bites, and the wine is a perfect foil. More of that, please.
And the hits keep coming: Grace gris de koshu, everyone's favourite Japanese wine, poured with a creamy little foie custard topped with crunchy foils of chestnut shavings, Jerusalem artichoke, finely planed cauliflower and a grating of hazelnut powder. A Loire chenin done in an oxidative style holds the richness of sautéed shiitakes and black garlic custard, textured with Job's tears (a waitress dubs the grain "Chinese barley") and a foam rendered unusually flavoursome with Appenzeller, a pongy Swiss washed-rind cheese.
Sexton and Firla join forces to knock another one into the stands with a little piece of pan-fried Murray cod plated up with a sizeable piece of rapa, fennel fronds and oyster cream. The accompaniment of Le Cigare Blanc, a white in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape style from Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, is one of those rare pairings that really does bring out the best in both the wine and the food, even the tricky liquorice-powder garnish. High-fives all round.
There's real savour and depth in the food here, and it doesn't feel like stuff that's all just been snipped out of a sous-vide bag and put on the plate without real thought given to how one dish leads into another. Nicely rendered-out Wessex saddleback pork belly in a humane portion, balanced with parsley root and garnished with soft confit shallot, pork crackling and a tuft of prawn floss sets the stage for the wagyu to follow without inducing gagging. The beef is brilliantly pared back: a Blackmore chuck tail-flap (good luck ordering that from your butcher with a straight face) combines with a purée of yolks to give a meaty, steak-and-eggs flavour that's complemented by just barely enough greenery in the form of red elk and blood sorrel leaves, and discs of radish.
Fashioning beetroot slices into a rose for dessert isn't Firla's idea (I think that one belongs to Coi in San Francisco, trainspotters), but his version is entirely respectful. The uncooked beet petals (softened and infused through compression with rosella syrup) are framed by raspberries fresh and freeze-dried, and leaves of pineapple sage. The chocolate finale is very nearly as arresting: a quenelle of chocolate sorbet on a dollop of mascarpone shot through with a small but effective drop of eucalyptus, the whole thing topped with a crunchy sail of fine chocolate caramel that wouldn't look at all amiss on Frank Gehry's drawing board.
All of this food and drink hits its mark. Nothing's extraneous (except maybe that edible paper), and the plates are as tight as the service. A meal at Oscillate Wildly circa 2013 slays your hunger as readily as it satisfies your curiosity. It seems unfair to keep referring to so dazzlingly competent a package in terms of simple cost, but you'd be lucky to get more bang for a C-note anywhere else in the country. And it's faith in the form restored - in a little corner of Newtown, anyway.