Seems like you can call anything fanned out on a plate a carpaccio these days. Here's a carpaccio of sliced white bread I just made. How do you like this carpaccio of milk arrowroot bickies? But though the thought of it might have the guys at Harry's Bar in Venice spluttering into their Bellinis, the carpaccio of turnips ("Turnips!" they cry, causing tourists to look up in alarm from their $80 bean soups. "Mi dio!") they've been specialling up at Otto lately is such a head-turner that it doesn't matter. Hell, they could put it in a cocktail glass and call it a Martini and it'd still impress the pants off you. They take slices of turnips that've been poached in olive oil and vinegar and artfully scatter them with radish pods, crumbles of salty Binnorie feta, wee baby turnips, basil cress and lovage flowers. There's a smart chardonnay vinegar in the mix, to keep things from being too bucolic, but, apart from the cheese, everything else came from the farm. The farm? Yes, the farm. Otto has been owned for some years now by the Fink family - the Finks own Quay, Quay has a close working relationship with Blue Mountains farmers Nina and Richard Kalina - and so has access to everything from bijou heirloom vegetables to the darling buds of May. The other big news is that the man joining the dots, head chef Richard Ptacnik, is doing a hell of a job. Having stepped up in the kitchen following the departure of James Kidman, Ptacnik hasn't just kept the good ship Otto on an even keel, he's charted a new course for the restaurant, taking it into the kind of territory that befits an important restaurant as it sails around the cape of its 10th birthday.
Italian is a theme, a lightning rod for Ptacnik's talent, rather than a binding set of rules. You'd be hard-pressed to discern an interest in any specific region in the current Otto menus. So often this internationalist-Italianish approach, these Italian palettes, rather than Italian palates, can result in works of limited inspiration and vision, and food that is just not that interesting or fun to eat. The kitchen here rescues its menu from this terrible fate by applying rigorous technique and fresh ideas to produce of dazzling quality. (And at these prices - "hefty", "substantial", "golly" all apply - a bit of dazzle is a fair ask.) In short, they get away with taking all this licence because they make it work, making it every bit as dazzling as the Woolloomooloo wharf setting, the whip-smart service and the frankly outstanding people-watching opportunities. This is food you can get excited about.
Panna cotta is presented not as a dessert from a dariole mould but as a tomato-flavoured entrée spread in a shallow layer across the entire plate. Tangy with balsamic vinegar and bespeckled with berry-sweet semi-dried tomatoes, a rubble of dried black olive and more of those tiny basil leaves, and served with crisp, paper-thin slices of olive loaf, it's a dish where the clever-dick factor is perfectly balanced by full flavours and voluptuous textures. The pairing of zucchini blossoms and salt cod in another entrée pays similar dividends: two crisply fried flowers fat with a smooth purée of baccalà are teamed with a small panzanella of sorts, a salad entwining ribbons of roast red pepper, cheeks of black olive, native violets and capers. Acidity, texture, sweetness, crunch - it's all there.
Pasta is handled with aplomb, the chefs deftly negotiating a path between the clean lines demanded by a restaurant of this gloss and position and the rustic robustness we still want from an Italian meal. Consider, if you will, a gutsy ragù of wagyu brisket, paired with Giovanni Fabbri stracci, a wide, rippled-edged artisan-made dried noodle. As strong as this foundation is, the kitchen god is definitely in the details: crisp shallot and an ultra-fine chiffonade of bresaola - slices of air-dried beef - that vary the texture and provide little bursts of contrast as you eat.
The ravioli is another blinder. Circles of tender fresh pasta, perfect and plump with a mixture of Taleggio, ricotta and Fontina cheeses, dot the plate like a fine-dining pinball design. It's eye-rollingly enjoyable eating. All that dairy goodness is cut with subtlety by little dice of pear, shards of parmesan, slashes of pear purée, fresh walnuts and squiggles of mugolio. Mug who? Mugolio, as your waiter will tell you, is a savoury-sweet condiment made from the preserved buds of pines found in Trentino. It has a balsamic funkiness, a treacly depth a bit like chestnut honey, and, in this instance, it ties the flavours of the pear and the cheeses together elegantly.
The mugolio question neatly illustrates three of Otto 2010's strong points. One, the kitchen seeks out great raw product, whether it's deluxe animal proteins, rare-breed fruit and veg or condiments foraged from among the snowy peaks of the Dolomites; two, they integrate it seamlessly into a menu that holds as much appeal for the air-kissing wharf crowd (mercifully, Otto is probably now the least air-kissy it has been in the decade it's been open) as it does the serious eater; and three, the waiters know what they're talking about. And if they don't know, they'll ask. When the place first opened, the floor crew's attitude was a polarising force. Today, the team is still brisk and professional, but this lot spend less time trying to catch a glimpse of their own reflections and seem much less afraid to crack a smile, making for a polished service.
The secondi I've tried have been of the big-chock-of-meat-nice-garnish-not-much-else-on-the-plate school. The quality of the lamb rack is quite exceptional, but some diners will feel a bit short-changed by the accompaniment of chickpea purée, nestled with chickpeas, little drops of salsa verde and speckles of dried olive - not because there's a fault, but because there's just not very much of it. It's a similar situation with the neat block of pork belly - the salt-scattered skin is crisp, the fat has rendered nicely into the flesh, and the pairing of sweet little apricots, roast almonds and watercress is a fine one, but it amounts to little more than a garnish, so it feels a bit like the dish has no middle gears. It's a strong argument for following the superb "ravioli" of thin slices of pickled beetroot encasing goat's curd and dressed with pistachios and horseradish with, say, the lemony, properly nutty risotto topped with lardo-wrapped scampi rather than a proper main course.
I can't think of many Italian restaurants in Australia where dessert is a genuine highlight of the meal. At Otto they are good without being great. Semifreddo of peach with raspberry sorbet and white peach coulis talks a good game and certainly looks the part, but it's sweetness that dominates, not the fruit perfume. Italian meringues filled with mascarpone and raisins are prettier still, topped with tart little fraises des bois, and scattered with more of same plus sharp blackberries and marigold petals, but I can't help wondering if there could be more vita in these dolci. Perhaps it'll be the setting of future Otto/Quay dialogue.
Small beer though. Small beer in the face of an important restaurant that, through the voice of a new chef, has found a new direction and given the diners a good few lunches and dinners' worth of compelling reasons to revisit its sun-spangled waterside setting and fall in love with it all over again.