"And this," said James Parry as he brought the dishes to the table, "is your virgin butter." Innocent, deadpan, except for the glimmer in his eyes. "We just whip it… a little bit."
If there's one thing the Noma gang will be remembered for most fondly, it probably won't be the reindeer tongues, moss and pine needles, but rather their idea of having the chefs bring much of the food to the tables themselves. At Noma you get a glimpse of the United Nations mix of the kitchen, with English men, American women and Australian dudes bearing dishes from the kitchen as often as Danes, not to mention a frisson of oh-he's-so-down-to-earth rock-star excitement when your plate-runner turns out to be René Redzepi himself. At heart, though, this idea is about pride. Pride in the workmanship, pride in the restaurant, pride in the food. And while it may make service that much trickier, it's worth it for these little moments of chef-diner camaraderie. The lewder the better, I say.
It's not a trick you'd want to attempt unless you were really confident in your product, mind you. But confidence isn't something that's in short supply at Sixpenny, and it's well founded. This is probably the most ambitious restaurant to have opened in Sydney this year. But before you run screaming in the other direction, bear with me. Sixpenny isn't a restaurant defined by chef-ego or millions spent on its construction and design. It is in large part about letting ingredients speak for themselves - albeit in new and usually interesting ways, but in their own voice nonetheless.
Consider the bio line for the Sixpenny account on Twitter: "a little restaurant in Stanmore". Stanmore is many things, but standard-bearer for restaurants, even in the inner-west, ain't one of them. "Little" is right though. The parlour-sized corner site, which was The Codfather in its last life, has been made over with more taste than raw cash, and though there's plenty of room between the tables, and it feels in no way cramped, it ain't vast. I'd be surprised if they could seat 35, private room included. Gauzy curtains screen the dining room's large windows from Percival Road's non-existent traffic. The music is thoughtfully chosen - Andrew Bird, Antony and the Johnsons, Nina Simone, and the more restaurant-friendly end of the Radiohead catalogue. There are no cloths on the timber tables, and the chairs are broad and comfortable - dégustation-friendly, in other words.
Decorations are sparse: a modest arrangement of banksia and eucalypts, some quite lovely botanical paintings by local artist Beau Scott. It's a comfortable, quietly stylish sort of place, infusing the spare aesthetics of Noma, Mugaritz and other world-beating restaurants where its principals, Parry and his fellow chef Daniel Puskas, have toiled over the years, with a strong home-grown flavour.
The plant connection is apt. One of the ambitious things about Sixpenny is that Parry and Puskas not only work the insane, stupid hours demanded by a professional kitchen, they're also committed to the insane, stupid hours it takes to work the land. The pair source a lot of their produce from a plot they maintain near Mittagong in the Southern Highlands. If you wanted to get touchy-feely about it, you might say that because they're growing the ingredients themselves, they want to honour them in their cooking. Take the white sweet potato for one striking instance: the tubers are cooked in buttermilk, the plant's leaves are sautéed, the buttermilk is then foamed into a sauce, and John Dory roe is included as a surprising contrast. The overall restraint and control of salty, creamy, crunchy effects is masterful.
Masterful, that is, but not too reverent; there's still a sense of fun in the room. It's hard not to smile at the little knuckle sandwich, a perfectly proportioned arrangement of brioche toast with an elegant pressed pork knuckle filling. It's part of a battery of snacks brought to the table when you sit down: lovely, vinegary roast potato crisps, tender duck tongues in tiny lettuce cups, and lightly pickled vegetables from the garden. Little squares of pumpernickel-like rye bread are there for the virgin butter, served in addition to house-baked sourdough that's rich, nutty and wholesome enough to be a course in itself.
Between here and dessert you've got the choice of a total of six courses at $105 and eight at $125. Either way, it's a long meal - the pace could be tighter. You're also strapped into the Sixpenny team's equally prescriptive ideas about wine. They've gone very local with the list, with the bulk of the bottles coming from within the state and the remainder all from within Australian borders. Hunter semillon features on the pairings, but so too does a nebbiolo primitivo blend from Grove Estate in Young, a fume-style sauv blanc from Orange, and a pretty chardonnay from Mount Majura in the Canberra district. I don't think the wine matches do the food justice so far, but otherwise, there's not much you can say to fault the informed, involved service.
The chardonnay is poured with what has already become one of the restaurant's most talked-about dishes, mud crab meat bound with a macadamia cream. Leavened with a note of camomile, and flecked with pieces of nut, it strikes me as that rare thing - a dish from young chefs that is marked by both brilliance and restraint. There's a similar play of flavours at work in the snapper that appears a couple of dishes later. Here poached fish with pumpkin-seed cream is paired with a pumpkin-seed powder. Some soft leeks almost overwhelm the whole thing with their sweetness - but not quite.
The wedge of lemon that separates the savoury stuff from the sweets reminds me of the sort of dessert you used to see advertised between the cassata and the tiramisù on cardboard stands at trattorias in the suburbs, a quarter of a lemon, its flesh replaced with sorbet. It's a very fine ice, though, and, between the candied Meyer lemon peel, and the lemon basil, sorrel, hyssop and other tiny leaves of citrusy herbs stuck on it, it's a perfectly successful update. Foraged (read: stolen) day lilies, simply warmed in caramel and put on a plate, are brilliant in their simplicity. You could pooh-pooh the mead sorbet with banana and a good, bitter cocoa sauce for its unadventurous play of flavours, but perhaps that would be missing the point of its sunny, sundae-like appeal. The Noma-esque arrangement of whey crisps, Jersey milk ice-cream and salvia flowers, with its table-side spooning of warm browned butter, is more ambitious, but struggles a bit under its own weight, especially the addition of frozen biscuit dough. The struggle with the small collection of petits fours that closes the meal, however, is keeping them all to yourself. Scale-perfect tiny lamingtons feature, as does a homage to Arnott's that plays brilliantly with memories of Ginger Nuts, Kingstons and Monte Carlos.
Sixpenny is a very promising step for Parry and Puskas. Anyone familiar with their bold moves at Oscillate Wildly will be doubly impressed by how much richer and more elegant their cooking has become in just a few short years. Taste, texture and ingredients now trump technique in terms of what's on show. I don't doubt that if you poked your head into the kitchen you'd find an immersion circulator and other whizz-bangery, but this isn't one of those restaurants where dishes come with instructions (groan) on how you're expected to eat them. You're here for the performance and the plot, not the special effects, and it's a more satisfying experience for it. Sixpenny is a restaurant where innovation and originality don't come at the cost of personality and texture. It marks both an impressive coming of age for its owner-chefs and a worthy new addition to the must-eat list.