I haven't quite eaten everything at Paper Bird. Somehow the breakfast bao has eluded me. And I only really tried a quarter of a piece of the Hong Kong French toast, a pan-fried peanut buttery thing that Elvis might have eaten if he'd found himself in Kowloon during the bulging-jumpsuit years. I got my taste by trading some of my shrimp-brined fried chicken for a piece from the table next to me one morning. (Table seven, if you're reading this: I think you know you got the better end of that deal.)
But I reckon 24 out of a possible 30 ain't bad. I'd like to say it's my iron-clad journalistic integrity driving me, my total dedication to giving you, the reader, the most complete picture of the matter at hand, but really you're just my alibi. The truth is I can't stay away from the place.
Shrimp-brined fried chicken.
Avocado on rye successfully jazzed up with coriander salsa and sesame seeds for breakfast? I'm there. A rich congee made creamy with milk, crab and corn for brunch? Hello. More crab for lunch, served bibimbap-style in a bowl of rice piled high with gooey scrambled egg, swatches of nori and shreds of Brussels sprout? I'll take two. Sweet-spicy Chongqing popcorn with dried red chilli and Sichuan pepper and peanuts to chase a cocktail? Sign me up. And then I'll be back for dinner.
I wouldn't come back for the "everything" bagel, mind you (the everything collection of smoked trout, cream cheese, zuke pickles and trout floss coming off quite sweet), and the coffee situation has been decidedly variable, but I want just about everything else all over again.
Rice porridge with crab and corn.
I'm not here for the décor. In much the same way that Wyno, which we reviewed last month, took over the old 121BC space without really changing much, Paper Bird has moved holus-bolus into the former Bourke Street Bakery Potts Point digs. The new owners might've put a curved piece of steel around what used to be the pastry case, turning it into a bar of sorts, but you can still see the ghosts of the old lettering on the brass panels on the wall, a palimpsest of cakes and sourdough, pies and quiche. On any given morning, five people an hour still walk through the door asking for lamb and harissa sausage rolls. (The fact that the sign out the front still says Bourke Street Bakery weeks after the place reopened might have something to do with it.)
But it doesn't really matter. The food, service and booze at Moon Park, the Redfern restaurant that was this mob's last outing, was great, but the best thing you could say about the room was that it successfully brought together the elements of walls and floor all under the one roof. The new joint is bigger and brighter, with tables out on Crick Avenue. If you have a problem with restaurants that feel distinctly like they used to be bakeries, this might not be the place for you. I, on the other hand, welcome the rise of restaurants in Sydney that spend more time pondering produce than Pantone charts, and choose their people with greater care than their curtains.
Co-owner and wine guy Ned Brooks is a wry, informed and attentive presence - the very pink of hospitality. He sets the tone for a friendly, well-run floor, and he knows his business. Question the incidence of the Screaming Jets cover of the Boys Next Door track "Shiver" on the playlist and he'll calmly reason that the guitar solo on the original is a bit too screechy for brunch at a contemporary East-Asian restaurant in Potts Point, and will go on to recommend the (excellent) Divine Fits recording of the same song. His taste in wine is likewise considered without being élitist. At Paper Bird he covers the vinous equivalent of Melbourne art-punk, Newcastle cock-rock and international indie in a list on which highly sessionable Korean tinnies and stubbies of Melbourne Bitter sit comfortably with Sassafras fiano from Canberra, dry lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna and some sexy Burgundies and Beaujolais.
In the kitchen, co-chefs Eun Hee An and Ben Sears prove themselves to be a couple of the most consistently inventive and savvy cooks in the country. They jointly scored a GT Best New Talent nomination for their work at Moon Park, and though they've broadened the brief here to include breakfast (a chore most chefs of their calibre would regard with about as much enthusiasm as plantar fasciitis) and a geographic catchment that extends beyond Korea to China and Japan, their plates are tighter than ever.
Spanner crab bibimbap.
The pale elegance of fresh tofu set in a bowl under a limpid double-boiled chicken broth and a mop of enoki mushrooms belies the depth of its flavour, which is bolstered by black sesame oil. Cabbage, tripe and tendon hotpot sounds like the dankest of wintry stodge, but in the hands of Hee An and Sears it is remarkably light, the offal a bright play of textures in a sparkling soup, topped with a chiffonnade of crisp wombok. There's no wasted movement here.
If you've been waiting for someone to use prawn toast to make a tiny sandwich around a green-chilli slaw filling, the menbosha, which presents a bit like hot stacked dominoes of fried prawn, is going to make you very happy.
Desserts don't have quite the exuberance of the intricate constructions at Moon Park, but whether it's the steamed sponge with toasty shavings of coconut and a grapefruit sorbet or the slice of Japanese cheesecake paired simply with sour-sweet preserved cumquats, they don't want for zing.
Bite for bite, Paper Bird might have the best strike rate of any restaurant to have opened in Sydney in 2017. There's no million-dollar fit-out here, and no restaurant-behemoth working-group that can come to the rescue. There's nobody hidden away on some other floor. There's just these guys. But with a dangerously drinkable cellar, a deep bench of talent and the doors open seven days, Paper Bird makes a very convincing argument that good people with good ideas still have their place in Sydney hospitality, and make our city a better place to be.