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Yep, 'Oscillate Wildly'. In that, and in the Spirograph-like logo, you should see that this is no corporate venture with carefully scheduled returns and thoroughly cost-to-benefit analysed salad dressings, but a personal restaurant that, while personable, isn't out to please all comers. Beyond the name, there's the music, which is contemporary and chosen not, as with most restaurants, to be a subtle background mood enhancer but an active presence in the restaurant - basically what Ross Godfrey, the owner, feels like listening to. (And yes, they do play a bit of The Smiths, the seminal British indie rock band whose only instrumental track provided the restaurant's unlikely name.)
The place isn't new, having built a following over the past three years that sees the 30-seat terrace packed to the gunwales with punters drawn to its charms and the charm of $24 mains. It's a stone's throw from the beloved Courthouse Hotel and just off the bit of Newtown's main drag where King Street forks into Enmore Road. It really is tiny, but there's a fair amount of room between the tables, and though the music is, as I say, a presence, the noise comes off more on the side of vibrant than unbearable. For all this, I've walked past the restaurant many a time on my way to pay my respects to the front bar at said Courthouse, but hadn't ever really felt moved to step inside.
Looking at menus in restaurant windows as I walk down the street is something of an obsessive compulsion for me, but as a concession to my companions, I've developed a sort of emergency triage system to gauge their potential without breaking stride. In a nutshell, it boils down to the ratio of critic-bait to strikes. The strikes being the words 'Cajun', 'chicken breast', 'panko-crusted' and more than five things in any one dish description. And the critic bait? I'm a sucker for anything involving pulses, offal and the words 'slow cooked' (though that still leaves plenty of room for the spectre of slow-cooked panko-crusted lungs and a Cajun chicken breast foam).
Incongruities, meanwhile, are like catnip to gums-for-hire, and the last few menus at Oscillate Wildly had them in spades: sweet ingredients named in the entrées and mains (passionfruit or marshmallow with a seared tuna dish; mango with rillettes); vegetables in the desserts (the vanilla parsnip cake); and things you just plain don't expect to see on the plate (iceberg cannelloni). Then there's adjectives not typically used to describe pleasant qualities in food ('soured' cream with barramundi, 'burnt' avocado with excellent rabbit crépinettes, 'charred' onion with spatchcock and radish). Or words not normally used to describe food at all. The 'chocolate soil' and 'garlic fossil' win that round, and if the latter was burnt, soured and part of a dessert, I'd stand on the table and yell bingo.
We have Daniel Puskas to thank for this new direction. Oscillate Wildly is the 24-year-old's first head-chef gig, and he has certainly come out with his whipped-cream guns blazing. Sydney-born Puskas (or Pussy, as his friends and fellow chefs would have it) trained at Tetsuya's and Marque. He won the 2006 Josephine Pignolet Best Young Chef Award and used the prize money and flights to do stages of work in the kitchens of acclaimed progressive restaurants Alinea (Chicago) and WD-50 (New York), and to eat in cutting-edge restaurants, including San Sebastian's Mugaritz. Upon his return to Sydney he joined Peter Robertson, a Bilson's-trained chef, in the kitchen at Oscillate as Robertson was leaving, and some interesting vestiges of Robertson's work carried over to some of Pussy's early menus. The new is his metier, interesting food is his catchcry.
So, taking the plunge, with bottles in hand (it's all BYO here), I plonk myself down for the three-course menu. A couple of hours later I walk out happy - all the happier, in fact, for having spent $48 on three courses. Admittedly I'm not groaning with satiety, but I hardly feel like I've been gypped either. Let's just run over that again: $48 for entrée, main and dessert. There's also the $3 per person for corkage and the six bucks for the side salad of new potatoes, so we're talking $54 a head all up. I've spent more in Sydney restaurants on single dishes.
What's more, it's also pretty damn good. I could use less work on the plate and more food, personally, but young Dan's exuberance is irrepressible, and while some flavour matches might not linger in the palate memory, neither do any shockers. The soy marshmallow accompanying seared tuna and pickled cucumber is just a new way to present soy sauce and tuna. The classical pairing of prosciutto and melon underpins the flavours presented with the meaty crépinette of rabbit (though here the melon is fashioned into ribbons and the prosciutto is a foam - a hangover, I think, of one of Robertson's dishes). Sure the iceberg cannelloni - a tube of softened lettuce filled with goat's curd sitting atop segments of pomelo and three spears of asparagus, joined on the plate by a teardrop of vanilla-scented mayo - could sneak into the desserts and leave few of us the wiser, but it still works as an entrée.
Among the mains, eggplant with roast lamb is nothing new, but throw a raisin purée into the mix and things get interesting. There's a two-dollar supplement for the venison with the 'chocolate soil'. It's a technique of Wylie Dufresne's that Puskas picked up at WD-50 - bitter chocolate is mixed with flour and things and cooked and processed to a soil-like texture. Not sold? It has to be said that with nicely rare venison and some orange beetroot, it works really rather well. Roast pigeon (the menu has it as 'baked' but that unsettles me on some level) is tender and flavour-packed, teamed with well-roasted fennel. The addition of a smear of pistachio purée is a masterstroke, pulling all the other elements on the plate into sharp focus.
Desserts are a strength. Like the savoury courses, they lean to the ephemeral side. Ephemeral, that is, if you can picture the parsnip, that most prosaic of vegetables, under the banner. It's the key ingredient in a cake that's smartly teamed with salted caramel (I don't know about you, but I can't seem to get enough of desserts playing with the salt/sweet thing. Roll on the fleur de sel Paddlepop, I say.) Puskas points out that the parsnip factor really isn't that strange, only a step removed from carrot cake, and with a sweet natural vanilla flavour all its own. When the waitress describes the device to make the smoked milk accompanying a chocolate fondant with cinnamon cream, I ask her if it looks as much like a bong as it sounds. "Absolutely," she replies. "This is Newtown." It's pleasant without being thrilling, and I wonder, not for the first time, at the effort-to-effect balance in the kitchen. Bong-free as it may be, the passionfruit millefeuille is more my cup of chai. There's nothing more innovative about it than a salad of strawberries and dates, but it's heartening to see that Puskas knows when to leave the Pacojet and marine gelling agents on the shelf.
I hate to keep coming back to the value question, but while Puskas' reach occasionally eludes his grasp, and while some diners might want more heft in their eating, it's very easy to forgive such slips (and they're hardly deal-breakers) in the face of such great prices. Getting a full-service restaurant experience, the whole box-and-dice, including very pleasant service, for this sort of cash really is rare in Sydney. Really great food, conversely, is something of a rarity in Newtown at any price point. (And while we're on the subject of that patchouli-scented burg, I should point out here that Oscillate Wildly's sense of place extends from the name and the music right down to the little painting of a samurai relieving himself on the wall of its outside toilet.) Daniel Puskas is clearly a talented chef, and he has creative energy to burn. He might cook more for himself than for his diners at times, and his global, post-fusion cuisine is sure to ruffle a few feathers, but you've gotta give it to him for sticking to his guns. Even if they are filled with foam.