Out come the snacks: bang, bang, bang. Your fingers fly to the pumpkin scallops but they're too hot to bite into straight away, so you go for the quarters of tomatillo. No salt, no cooking. Nothing except the smarts of a chef who thinks a piece of weird fruit complements all this other stuff beautifully. And he's right. Then the gougères. The teeth go through a drift of Coolea cheese, shaved fine and piled high and fluffy, and then meet choux pastry, which gives way under the incisors to reveal green tomato. Bliss. Fine tart shells - little wafery biscuits of things - bear a ricotta filling topped with broccolini blossoms, sharpened with chardonnay vinegar: crunch, crunch, crunch. Circle back for the scallops, hot pucks of pumpkin in a crisp, dark batter. Clink the Champagne glasses, wave your hands in the air and cry hallelujah, this is how it's done.
The snacks (clockwise from left): pumpkin scallops, broccolini tarts, cheese and tomato gougères and tomatillo.
Sixpenny is here to remind us that the thing that makes fine dining fine is the quality and elegance of its ideas. It's not simply a matter of inserting enough damask, crystal and foie gras into the equation. In a time of abundance, richness and excess alone do not a celebration make. Conspicuous abstention is yet to supplant conspicuous consumption (in restaurants at least), but there's more suspicion of waste than there was a decade ago, and a renewed appreciation of asceticism, however subtle. In a society where we seek to avoid calories, variety is valued over volume. It's freshness, invention and originality that mark out the greats today, and it's economy of gesture that we prize.
Economy of gesture, that is, and pieces of pumpkin deep-fried in classic chip-shop style. Call it milk-bar Zen.
Upcycling has seldom been tastier than Sixpenny's second round of bread. The first slice you're offered is today's sourdough, cut from a very fine loaf baked on site. It's perfectly excellent bread - tangy of crust, moist of crumb. But the next loaf is really something. The waiters call it yesterday's bread. The kitchen takes the leftover bread from the previous day's service, tears it into little bits - croûtons, essentially - and roasts them in the oven. They also roast some of the grounds left over from the coffee made in the restaurant. The bread is crushed to a powder, and made into a porridge with the coffee, and then it's folded into some fresh dough and baked into a new loaf - dark, nutty and clever as all get-out.
Were you to have some to hand at the right time, you could do no better than to dip it into some clam butter. Clam butter? The cooking liquor from clams, reduced, made into a butter sauce, and teamed with spanner crab and crescents of baby turnip. Spanner crab has a lovely texture to the broad flakes of its meat, but it can be almost dull in its sweetness. The brine of the clam butter, though, gives it the depth and definition it needs, an effect that chef Dan Puskas and his team supercharge with a sparkle of salmon roe. A small turnip leaf and a bit of lovage give the whole thing a vegetal edge which grounds it nicely.
Spanner crab with clam butter and lovage
On the surface Sixpenny is not an extravagant restaurant. It has a scant few tables, and there's nothing especially glam about the corner of suburban Stanmore the curtained shopfront sits on. But it's comfortable and attractively appointed, the plates earthenware, the wine poured in glasses of pleasing delicacy at tables made of lustrous timber. Anything you touch will have been selected with the same care and discretion that the staff use when they're choosing their words. It's not stiff or creaky - there's too much love for the craft on show here for that to be the case - but things are unmistakably played in the low key.
The passion Dan Sharp, Gourmet Traveller's current Sommelier of the Year, has for wine shines from every page of Sixpenny's wine list, but he's not the sort of guy who'll let his obsession with the grape railroad your conversation. If you want to know more about a wine or why, for instance, he has chosen to select only whites for the entire pairing, you'll find he knows his stuff inside out and back to front. Otherwise he's content for the appropriateness of his pours - beautifully textured Loire chenin blanc with the clam-butter crab, for instance - to speak for themselves.
A Marc Tempé Grand Cru Schoenenbourg - a very pretty, grown-up pinot gris from the Alsace - lights up Puskas's inventive take on venison with beetroot. It might be better to think of it as beetroot with venison. A finely cut tartare of the meat, topped with crumbs of toasted cream and a grating of hazelnut (Sixpenny being one of the great showcases for the wonder of the Microplane) is the complement for ribbons of beetroot. It delivers more flavour than you may expect from a venison dish in Australia. Perhaps it's because the team takes the beetroot, slices it into sheets and bakes it in a salt-crust bound with a little bit of pig's blood, cocoa and cinnamon, ginger, clove and nutmeg - the spices you might typically find flavouring a boudin noir.
These clever ideas crop up time and time again. A butter flavoured with oysters is the dressing for a course of Dutch cream potatoes. The rounds of raw button mushroom that give it its textural foil are flavoured with a powder made from kombu and the roasted scraps left over from cutting out those perfect discs of mushroom. Rather than using lemon juice or vinegar to bring the acidity to a fillet of sand whiting that has been poached in butter and enrobed in leaves of gai lan, Puskas prefers to deploy an almost tapenade-like mixture of salted cabbage. Good ideas all - and they remain in service of the produce.
When Puskas decided that he needed a jus for his roast lamb but wanted to do it without using meat stocks, he ended up making a reduction of caramelised pumpkin juice - just let that settle in for a moment: caramelised pumpkin juice - weaponising it with pumpkin-seed oil and burnt butter. The only other thing on the plate, apart from a frilly leaf, is a segment of Japanese spring onion grown by Fabrice Rolando at First Farm Organics just the other side of the Blue Mountains. It's been blanched and carpeted with toasted yeast to up the tasty factor. Put it all together, the lamb shockingly glossy under its careful coating of sauce, and you've got the apotheosis of the Sixpenny style. Flavour cut free of weight, pride in craft presented with a winning absence of ego.
These guys work hard for the money, right through to the final flourishes. Making mead, then making mead vinegar, then reducing the vinegar just to use it to flavour a custard (a process that doubtless involves a heartbreaking amount of trial and error to keep the acid in the vinegar from splitting the custard) might seem like masochism, but the result is pure pleasure, played against a spoonful of strawberry consommé and the texture of raspberries shattered into their individual drupelets after a dip in liquid nitrogen.
There's not a quenelle or a smear in sight. Not here, nor in the small bowl of white-chocolate cream capped with a crisp disc of caramelised white chocolate and a blizzard of feijoa granita. White chocolate: pariah of the pastry section no more.
Mead-vinegar custard with raspberries
The tip of the hat to things suburban made splendid that came at the beginning of the menu with the pumpkin scallops returns with the petits fours. Order a tisane, the leaves of herbs snipped into a glass pot from the garden plot in the restaurant's backyard, and out comes Sixpenny's take on the greatest hits of the Arnotts assorted: a raspberry cream-filled sandwich of biscuits you could call kin to a Monte Carlo, a choc-chip number and a chocolate and coconut arrangement that is like the Platonic ideal of a Kingston. All rendered in miniature. All perfectly brilliant.
We've seen a few key names in the pointy end of the business bow out in recent years as we've bid adieu to Marque, Rockpool, Gastro Park, and soon Sepia, and some of the more interesting cooking in town is being done in the significantly more casual environs of restaurants such as Ester and Saint Peter. But fine dining is by no means out for the count. Quay and The Bridge Room are still fighting the good fight with vigour, and the future of fine dining in Sydney is now being written by a new generation of trailblazers, Automata, Firedoor, LuMi, Oscillate Wildly, Bentley, Momofuku Seiobo, Ormeggio among them.
Sixpenny stands as tall as any of these, producing dishes that are as attuned to our times as they are to the season, and presenting them in a place that is, if not exactly buzzy, comfortable and of such quiet refinement that it can be a stage for spirited conversations and even a crucible for romance.
It is in essence the same restaurant that opened on this site in 2012 (it should be mentioned that James Parry, Puskas's talented fellow founding chef, left the business last year), but what's on the plate is if anything handled with more grace than ever. It's food that keeps the mind stimulated without failing to address the essential need to keep things properly tasty at every turn, and in this regard it seldom drops a stitch. For a taste of what makes tomorrow special, try Sixpenny today.